Monday, 20 January 2014

Plan B

Sunrise on the glacier below the Mermoz. Whatever happens today, it’s going to be a good one.

We are recovering after our second venture into the mountains in Patagonia. Everyone in El Chalten seems to be talking about which bits of their tired bodies are hurting the most and how many hours they spent on the go yesterday. The weather, for one day, was pretty good. But still not enough for rock climbing.

We had our eyes set on a rock climbing objective on the Aguja Poincenot and packed our rock rack, shoes and chalk bags. We still took pairs of ice tools, just in case, and trekked in to a high loch to camp for the night. We were unable to make it up to our intended bivi spot at Paso Superior since some climbers coming down had triggered a small slide with the snow softened by the afternoon sun. We weren't about to go up and risk doing the same for the sake of a longer walk in the morning. So we got into our sleeping bags around 6pm and failed to sleep.

Fitzroy bathed in the early morning sun.

At 3am we put on our crampons and slogged up onto the glacier, with sweat dripping from my helmet. We were rewarded with a stellar sunrise, bathing the Fitzroy range in lovely morning sunlight. There were some clouds blowing in though, and it was freezing as soon as you stopped moving. A quick discussion established the obvious; we would have no chance of having enough hours of warm sunshine in the day to free climb a hard 16 pitch rock route. Plan B? Get the ice tools out. 

I had already spied a stunning looking new mixed line to attempt on the nearby Mermoz, a huge steep groove feature with thin runnels of ice that looked no more than a foot or so wide in places, flanked by blank vertical granite on each side. So we headed for that, even though I must admit I thought it looked far too hard for us to actually succeed on. But that’s new routing - you just have to go and try. Lots of folk say they would rather go for routes they think they can do, and I understand this; it’s nice to get to the top of things, at least once in a while. As a personal choice I’ve always erred on the side of trying a harder line, and never been too bothered about having poor or very poor odds of success. I’d rather fail on a hard route than succeed on an easier one, or to use a bit of aid to ensure success (as some of the routes here have done). We could have been certain of success on one of the easier lines on the day. But I would only have been walking down, wandering if that groove which had caught my eye would have been possible, or not.

Steinpull moves and thin ice on the hard pitch.

After a pleasant first pitch on ice, I belayed below a desperate looking corner containing an ice choked off-width crack. In my mind I thought we would be abseiling off shortly. Calum led through and had a go. He took a short fall after 20 feet and came down saying he thought it was too hard. I had a go and grunted my way up it. The pitch was about VIII,9 and took a lot of energy. So I was happy to soak up the morning sun on my belay and try not to fall asleep hanging in my harness!

Calum sets off up another amazing runnel of steep ice.

The next three pitches were amazing. They were all primarily on steep, narrow ice runnels with hard cruxes getting over bulges or dealing with cruddy ice. On one pitch I swung my tool, breaking a large chunk of dense ice off the runnel. I was in too much of a precarious position to get out of the way and it hit me square in the jaw. Once I was happy I still had all my teeth in my head, and that the bleeding both outside and inside my mouth was only minor, I carried on. 

About to break a big blob of ice off, which nearly got me back by trying to break my teeth off. This was an amazing pitch. The granite on either side was totally smooth. My whole world was a foot wide sliver of ice for about 30 minutes.

On the 6th pitch I climbed through a hard and precarious bulge back onto an ice runnel with an improbable looking overhanging corner above, which was dripping with thin blobs of ice. Until then, the route had been quite well protected, so we had both been happy to push hard with the climbing. But here, there was no rock gear to be had. Everything was verglassed. Because another mixed route was strictly our backup, we hadn’t taken any spectres or ice screws, which would have been the only protection for the next 60 feet or so. It was pretty frustrating. I could see it looked about tech 9 and would probably go. But there was no way I could justify trying with my last good protection already 40 feet below. So I made the only decision available; to go down. Even though there was no way I was going to risk my neck to carry on, it’s still a tough choice to reverse from a route in such a special place.

Setting off into overhangingness, only to retreat from 60 feet higher.

After the abseils off, walking back to camp and then El Chalten was ankle hell. Today I’m barely able to walk at all. But I’d love to go back to the route for another go with the right gear, if the weather gives us a chance before we leave. After studying my photos of the face, it looks like only another 60 to 80 feet of hard climbing before the wall leans back and starts to become more featured again. 

I’m also learning a lot about the logistics here, and in the process making a few mistakes. We carried a little too much gear, and should have walked in from Chalten earlier in the day so the snow was in better condition to get to our intended bivi spot. There wasn’t much we could do about having the wrong gear for the mixed route, since that wasn’t our planned objective. I was amazed that we got as far as we did. Unfinished business is unfinished business. It's not in my nature to completely forget about that. However, in this case, the climbing to our highpoint was just so good that my mind was filled with the great moments we had up to there, and how nice it was going to be to finally take off my boots after walking and climbing for 30 out of the last 37 hours.

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