Mayan Smith-Gobat and Ines Papert came close to completing a free ascent of Riders on the Storm (VI 5.12d/5.13 A3, 1300m) in January 2016 on the Torre Central (Central Tower) of the Torres del Paine, which Smith-Gobat wrote about in a story titled “Stillness and Storms” in Alpinist 55. This year, determined to return and free the entire route, Smith-Gobat recruited Brette Harrington, a young and accomplished big-wall free climber who was the first to free solo Chiaro di Luna (5.11a, 750m) on Aguja Saint-Exupery in Patagonia, in 2015. This year’s austral summer season in Patagonia saw some of the most challenging conditions and weather patterns that climbers have experienced in the last several years. Here Smith-Gobat recalls the futility she felt upon her arrival and how she was compelled to attempt the goal she had worked so hard to return to in spite of the suffering it guaranteed.–Ed.
Ice rained down in a constant stream. I had long since grown accustomed to it, simply accepting the bombardment as a necessary part of our slow upward progress. Actually gaining some height, however little it might be, was thrilling. As I heard the next onslaught whooshing down the vertical wall, I ducked my head lower. Thwack.
“Ow! Fuck!” I cursed as a large chunk collided with my elbow.
“Come on Brette!” I yelled. The ice briefly stopped raining down. The momentary silence was unnerving. I remembered climbing this pitch the previous year. It was an awkward offwidth, but not too difficult when it was not filled with ice and snow. Brette was laboring her way up the unconsolidated pitch in her mountain boots, digging out the snow to place protection when possible, or resorting to hammering in a piton for aid when nothing else was possible.
Our hopes to free this incredible wall had been consistently foiled by storms. Each time we looked at the forecast, Brette and I believed that windows of reasonable weather would arrive. Nearly everyday we woke at 3 a.m. in freezing conditions, hearing gusts of wind ripping down the valley. It was doubtful that there was any point in trying to climb. Yet we dragged ourselves out of our tents, bundled in every layer of down we owned. We forced some breakfast down and silently shouldered our bags. Trudging up the steep rocky slope we sweated and then instantly froze in the icy wind. Slipping into our own thoughts, Brette and I watched as the sky slowly brightened, desperately praying for a ray of sunshine. We climbed higher, however grim the sky looked, and we still held steadfastly onto the hope that miraculously our wall would be climbable. Holding my breath, I rounded the point on the rough moraine where I knew we would get the first full view of the tower. My eyes were glued to the ridgeline. I didn’t need to look down: my feet knew the rocky path intrinsically.
Almost a month into our trip, this procedure had become a routine. Most days we were disappointed. The windows of fine weather that we saw on the forecasts kept vaporizing before they arrived. But the few occasions when we were able to at least get on the wall fueled our motivation, and we kept coming back, though our days mostly ended in a hasty, cold and wet retreat. Now, more than halfway through our trip, we were still stuck below a hard slab pitch for days. Our patience was nearing a snapping point. As we crested the last steep rise in the moraine, the east face of Torre Central finally popped into view and my heart fell. It was white. Entirely covered in rime ice, snow and verglas. I wanted to cry, to sink to the ground and give up.
I glanced at Brette. Shadows fell over her ever-smiling face. Her grim look said a thousand words, and I knew she felt the same way as I did. Downcast, we kept on hiking. Boulders shifted underfoot, balanced precariously atop one another. Scree crunched, uncommonly hard, frozen solid.
Maybe this afternoon, I thought. I knew that it was highly unlikely, but I desperately clung to this scrap of hope.
On the ridge, an hour of steep scrambling later, we neared our bivouac rock, and the temperature dropped drastically. Despite the early rays of sunshine, the brisk wind pierced our clothing, biting into our bodies and chilling us as soon as we stopped moving. We pulled on every layer of clothing and crawled into the narrow opening of the cave, seeking shelter. Yet even here the wind funneled through the small holes with surprising force. Brette pulled her hood tighter around her face and started the stove as I rummaged through our supplies seeking something to lighten our mood. My eyes lighted on a bottle filled with a suspect yellowish liquid.
“Is it too early for whisky?” I mused.
Not waiting for an answer, I poured a heavy dose into each coffee. We enjoyed the warmth and light-headedness as the alcohol moved through our blood stream. Still, the air hung heavy with frustration until we could ignore it no longer and debated our options. A thin runout slab prevented us from progressing up the wall. I had visions of fighting my way up this pitch a year before. Even when dry, it was extremely delicate with barely a ripple in the smooth granite and few opportunities to place protection. Now, it was wet and covered in verglas. The risk of taking a bad fall in this remote place was not worth it. To see the sun shining and still not be able to climb, however, was almost too much for Brette and me to bear.
“If we could somehow get past the slabs, this weather would be OK to work on the crux pitches,” I said.
“Do you think we should pull the ropes?” Brette. Her voice sounded reluctant. “Maybe in Chalten we could use these small windows for some more alpine goals.”
All I wanted to do was leave and never come back. It felt as if we were forcing something that was not meant to be–like swimming against a strong current. I was exhausted, but we had invested so much into this route already, and deep down I knew that leaving would mean never returning to Riders on the Storm. In this moment I hated the place. Hated that it was forcing me to face the one thing that had always terrified me about climbing in Patagonia–to sit still in a tent and wait with nothing to do for weeks on end; to sit and watch all that hard-earned strength waste away, and to what end? Finally when that small clearing comes, how do you remain motivated and give every ounce of effort, knowing that it is far too late to achieve the goal?
“Let’s wait out today, and give it one last shot tomorrow,” I said.
My reasoning was that if we could somehow get through the slabs we would still have a chance to climb the two crux pitches, or at least get a good feel for whether they were possible for Brette and me. I knew that this could make the trip worthwhile for me, whereas leaving would simply be running away. The suffering and frustration would then have a purpose, and either we would know that my dreams from the previous year were far fetched, or we would be motivated to return again. Fighting her strong desire simply to do something, Brette agreed, and I saw my emotions mirrored in her. She had come to the same conclusion moments before I voiced my thoughts. Thankfulness washed through my being that I had listened to my gut feeling about inviting her to join me, and that without knowing me she had agreed to come. Even in our deepest lows we pulled each other through, still laughing at the sheer ludicrous ambition of a trip like this.
The following day we rose before daylight, determined not to give up without a real fight. It was slightly warmer, and instead of verglas the slabs were running with water, but clouds soon masked the sun’s warmth and the wind picked up, blasting around the corner. Gusts whipped with eerie cracking sounds as they funneled through the small gap between the towers. The forceful blasts would hit me seconds later, swinging me around as I braced against the slab, nervously watching Brette work her way up the precarious moves. Ice encrusted every edge or crack, covering handholds and gear placements as she balanced on hooks from tiny edges, far above her last pro–an equalized pecker and two offset micronuts. At one point she frantically searched through the cluster of gear on her harness.
Ting, ting, ting… Tong.
I heard hammering drifting down between the gusts as she carefully bashed in a piton using an ice axe. Even from far below, I could see Brette’s small bundled frame relax momentarily as she clipped this piece of relative safety, and then began cleaning snow from the holds above, preparing to move off again. I shivered uncontrollably at the belay stance, ecstatic despite the discomfort–we were finally making progress again! Using every small chance, we’d taken more than a month to climb what should have taken two days.
Two weeks later, in the last few days of our time on Torre Central, I gathered my strength for one last attempt, knowing this was my one chance for the year. I blocked out the pain as the sharp edge of the crack bit into my skin, soft from five weeks of constant wet and cold. The sun was setting. There was no chance of freeing this pitch, no chance of reaching the summit this year, but I pasted my numb feet onto the blank stone and strained every muscle to the brink of snapping. The effort was welcome after weeks of patience. Hope slipped back into our minds, even though we only had a few days left.
Maybe, just maybe, I thought. Brette was close to finishing the top pitch. I figured with one more day she could succeed.
Clouds covered the sun the next morning, and snow coated the upper part of the dominant tower. We jugged the seemingly endless string of fixed ropes in silence–lone figures dangling in space, lost on the huge wall. Our high hopes fell away like the snowflakes swirling past us on the wind as we ascended. Deep inside myself I knew it was over, but my conscious mind still hoped that somehow we would be able to climb, despite the snow and frozen rock. Brette bashed away at the ice coating both sides of a corner, her frustrated curses muffled by gusts of wind.
“I think we should pull the ropes and get out of here,” she finally yelled down.
These words hit me like a slap, even though I knew this was going to happen and whole-heartedly agreed. We were leaving after six weeks in this stunning place after only two days of attempting the pitches we really wanted to climb. Tears streamed down my face, mixing with the melting snowflakes as we slowly stripped our ropes off the wall.
Once again this mountain had become a part of me and despite the constant frustration I still wanted desperately to stay. Slowly, as I coiled the endless meters of frozen ropes, my anger shifted into determination to return yet again.
The brutality of the storms sweeping the raw landscape made the few moments of stillness stark and beautiful. The intensity often rendered us speechless. I found myself embracing the madness in order to stay sane. Attuning to the subtle changes of sunlight and weather slowly created a deep peace within me.
As Brette and I walked out along the crowded tourist trail, bent double under our heavy loads and staggering against the forceful winds, we laughed, already making plans to return before we had even left the Torres del Paine. We were both drawn to the uncontrollable elements–the austere beauty and overwhelming power of nature–that left no other option than to appreciate the simple joy of being alive.