[Photo] Cheyne Lempe
Patience is a difficult skill to practice. The most difficult type of patience is the one you use while waiting for something bigger to happen. Climbing in Patagonia requires this type of patience. You wait in El Chalten, a mountain town that has grown substantially since its 1985 founding. You wait in town to climb. The wind howls through the dusty streets, making it hard to walk, and you go sport climbing and bouldering in the ever-present wind. You watch it rain, guessing how that translates to the snow on the mountains.
I talked with friends who had been through several Patagonian seasons and they told me about years where months came and went full of rain and wind, when you couldn’t climb in the mountains, much less around town. I used this advice to find greater acceptance and greater patience for my current state of limbo. A state that was, undoubtedly, better than the tales of wind and rain.
In February, poor weather kept us from climbing in the high mountains. First we were denied entrance because of high winds, despite lovely blue skies, but we knew that the dry conditions were likely good for climbing the massive East Face of Fitz Roy (3405m). We stayed positive. We hiked to Paso Superior, stashed our gear, headed back to town and waited some more. The days blurred by. We were patient, waiting and wondering as we distracted ourselves in town with endless talk of rock climbing, girls and liters of beer.
[Photo] Cheyne Lempe
Then the rain came, just enough to transform the clean-cut silver spires into icicles that stretched toward the sky. The grey granite turned dark against fresh ice rime that clung to its surface. Finally, the weather forecast gave us what we had waited for–una ventana, a window of opportunity. We packed our gear and headed out.
Cheyne Lempe and I had climbed together only once before, back in Yosemite, on El Capitan. Teamed with another friend we had climbed The Shortest Straw in just under twelve and a half hours, setting a new speed record on the route and fueling the fire for our bigger ideas. But here, with snow and rain falling in town, we were apprehensive about the unknown conditions, routes and outcome. The plan was to climb in an El Cap-style push on the tallest wall in the range. Finally, when the weather was right, we attempted the 4,500-foot East Face of Fitz Roy. We took only what we needed: a Gore-Tex jacket each, dozens of bars, and a stove.
After climbing for nineteen straight hours, we finished the Royal Flush, 30 pitches of incredible silver- and gold-colored granite that follows two 1,500-foot dihedrals. We joined El Corazon at the top of the East Face and climbed fourteen more pitches over false summits. We stopped at a snowy ledge to boil water, then I led again, climbing upward in darkness.
The exposure disappeared with the darkness as we moved in the small bubble of light cast by our headlamps. The stars shone brightly above in the unfamiliar constellations of the southern hemisphere and below the lights of El Chalten seemed so close.
The breaking point of exhaustion came just before sunrise. We became lost in a maze of walls and terraces, with massive ice formations looming overhead. Hanging columns of ice clung to the golden rock. Dihedrals that looked minuscule from the ground stretched sixty feet in all directions.
After 27 hours of climbing, clouds began to form close to the ground and then rapidly moved towards us. Cerro San Lorenzo’s peaks, on the horizon 100 miles away, became enshrouded by grey cumulus clouds with a lenticular cloud pushed over the top. The torrent of clouds smashed into the bottom of Fitz Roy, Mermoz and Guillamet, pushed by strong upward thermal currents.
We were painfully close to Fitz Roy’s summit. We had climbed over 4,000 feet up the East Face and, although we felt good in the early morning light, we both knew that we were exhausted. We figured the summit was less than a few hundred feet above but doubt set in.
[Photo] Cheyne Lempe
Cheyne and I discussed our options. He wanted to push on. I feared being caught in the approaching storm. We went down.
The retreat was an incredible rewinding of the route, descending pitches that we had visited just hours before. Now, on rappel, they felt like ancient memories. Our hands were slow to respond, swollen and bloody. We untied knots with club-like sore fingers. We descended through thick, wet clouds, hoping to beat the rain and we arrived at the base just in time.
We stepped back into base camp before sunset. As we nestled into the tent, delirious with exhaustion, we heard rain on the fabric.
Back in El Chalten, Cheyne and I discussed details of the climb and the decision to go down and accepted the choices we made on the mountain. We agreed the attempt was not a failure. We had enjoyed success, even if we didn’t reach the summit. We had practiced patience and when the window opened, we moved quickly.