[Photo] Gregory Crouch
And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
February 20, 2015: I lay awake in a small cave, high above the Torre Valley in Patagonia. Storms echoed across the giant arena of granite spires, hidden in the night. I listened for avalanches and rockfall, but the deep rumble of rain eclipsed all sound. A cold fog hovered over my face. The next day, I planned to free solo Chiaro di Luna on the 2475-foot spire of Aguja Saint-Exupery. I nestled into my damp sleeping bag atop a slanting layer of snow. Water dripped into a puddle somewhere near my head. I hoped the rock would dry by morning.
NAMED FOR a legendary French pilot and author, the tower seemed like part of a landscape of old stories and elusive dreams. From the 1920s to the 1930s, Antoine de Saint-Exupery had delivered mail along air routes in Africa and South America. Flying across the Sahara, he fell in love with the stars that blazed across the vast skies, and with the wind that formed shifting landscapes out of the golden sand. To him, the emptiness of deserts concealed an infinite, invisible richness, like the unmapped kingdoms of childhood. In July 1944, he disappeared during a reconnaissance flight to help the Allies liberate France from the Nazis. Much later, fishermen found a silver bracelet with his name on it, entangled in their nets, brought up from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.
When the Italian alpinists Maurizio Giordani, Rosanna Manfrini and Sergio Valentini made the first ascent of Chiaro di Luna in 1987, they named the route after their moonlit descent. In late January 2015, I glimpsed its long golden line for the first time. Carolyn Davidson and I were on our way to climb a nearby peak, and as we rounded the last few hundred meters up a gully, a flying buttress arced in soft, vertical waves. The walls of Chiaro di Luna rose abruptly from the snow, retreated back and then steepened again, almost like a giant’s stone chair. It was the kind of fantastical image that might appear in Saint-Exupery’s famous children’s book, The Little Prince. I knew in that moment that I wanted to free solo the route.
Back at the Niponino bivy, we met Colin Haley, a longtime Patagonia climber from Seattle, who told me that Chiaro had only been soloed once–in 2011 by the famous German alpinist Alexander Huber, who used a rope to make a two-day ascent. In my enthusiasm, I’d forgotten that Patagonian weather generally mandates bivy gear and emergency supplies. For a while, I put the idea of a free solo into the back of my mind. A dark storm settled overhead. Gusts shook the small houses of El Chalten for days, pummeling the walls with a horizontal curtain of rain. One evening, a large group of my friends met up at La Senyera. Amid the warm glow of the restaurant lamps, Jenny Abegg told me about her most recent climb, Chiaro di Luna. “I think it’d make for a great free solo, Brette,” she said, without any prompting. Jenny knew the kind of terrain where I felt comfortable. Other climbers eavesdropped. Some of them looked at me, disconcerted. Free soloing, I’ve long known, isn’t for everyone.
When I was a little boy, I lived in an old house, and there was a legend that a treasure was buried in it somewhere. Of course, no one was ever able to find the treasure, perhaps no one even searched. But it cast a spell over that whole house. My house hid a secret in the depths of its heart.-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
ALTHOUGH I DIDN’T start using the words free soloing until recently, I’d been climbing ropeless since I was a child. A small aspen grove grew in the backyard of my parents’ Lake Tahoe home. I loved to clamber to the top of the trees and gaze out across a meadow of wildflowers to the dark-blue glimmer of the water. I imagined that no one knew my whereabouts (though my parents could always look up to see). Over time, the secret world of branches became familiar: I knew which ones were strong and which were weak, which ones formed chairs and which were good for hanging upside down. Surrounded by a vibrant canopy of leaves, I pictured myself swinging through the vines of a dense rainforest, enjoying an endless freedom of movement across a sea of clouded green.
At sixteen, I moved to New Hampshire for boarding school, where I joined a sport-climbing team. I loved exploring the unfamiliar worlds of small crystals and shadowed overhangs, figuring out pathways up schist cliffs and granite walls. Interacting with each element of nature, I felt a particular longing open in my heart, a sensation of something luminous, fleeting, difficult to define. Eventually, I followed that yearning to the mountains of British Columbia. Scrambling in the Tantalus Range, I imagined the jagged skylines as tightropes connecting the mountain peaks through the sky. Over time, I developed an affinity for alpine soloing: the continuous flow of mind and body, uninterrupted by belays and unburdened by the weight of gear; the sense of being driven by some inner guidance. Whenever I climbed unroped with my friend Marc-Andre Leclerc, I loved to see the joy that lit up his face. Together, our energy seemed to double, whisking us along in an unconscious dance. He enticed me to Patagonia with stories of endless granite ridges and buttresses lined with golden cracks. I began to daydream about a free solo there.
And yet we have all known flights when of a sudden… it seemed to us that we have crossed the border of the world of reality…when there has come a premonition of an incursion into a forbidden world whence it was going to be infinitely difficult to return.-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars
FEBRUARY 15: The alpine air rose from deep within the icy funnels of the massif’s couloirs and the ever-churning glaciers. Pure and ancient currents seemed to filter through me, cleansing and awakening my senses. Marc lay at my side under the sparkling night sky, outside the bivy cave of Aguja Saint-Exupery. The next day we’d climb Chiaro di Luna together, so I could familiarize myself with the route and the descent before I returned alone. This way, I could be certain of my decision.
At 3 a.m., we wove through the darkness by headlamp, following the lights of another team ahead of us. Gradually the day brightened, and we matched the features on paper to the buttress that leaned into the bright-blue sky. Flakes pleated the stone like armor. Chimneys carved through the upmost reaches of the north face, leading to a small ledge that wound around the east face to the top.
By 9:30 a.m., we made the last few steps across the snow-covered rock to the summit. “Plenty of time for another route!” Marc joked. Relaxing on a sunny perch, I tried to imagine what it would be like to climb the final crux–an insecure lieback flake–without the rope we’d used. I decided to wait until the next weather window before returning for a free-solo ascent. When we returned to El Chalten, Alex Honnold lent me a 6mm static tagline, the lightest rope I could find, to rappel the route. A few days later, Marc and I set out for the Torre Valley again. After spending the night at the Niponino bivy, we ran into Alex and Colin, who were on their way to attempt the Torre Traverse. Marc planned to solo the Corkscrew on Cerro Torre. He waved good-bye as he left for a high bivy on the Col of Patience. I split off from the others toward the Fitz Roy massif. Looking back across the valley, I watched as three small black dots disappeared into the ice.
[Photo] Marc-Andre Leclerc
In the afternoon, a serac fell from the east face of Torre Egger and exploded on the glacier. The burst of snow nearly engulfed Colin and Alex’s high camp. But it was just a powder cloud, so I knew they were safe. As water dripped from the eaves of my cave that night, I imagined standing at the base of the dihedrals on Chiaro, at the awakening moment, when the steep corner boxes off under a roof. I fast-forwarded to my memory of the second crux, where the walls plunged off a sharp arete, exposing thousands of feet of air. As I peered around to the west face, I felt a rush of exhilaration. Seamed shut, the zipper of a crack slowly opened to fit the size of my fingers.
Outside the cave, the pounding of the rain became more urgent, pulling me back into reality. The route must be horribly wet. Earlier that evening, I’d spotted a climber moving steadily upward. Where was he now? I buried my head in my sleeping bag, and I envisioned myself at the final crux, a tiny speck amid enormous golden planes. Hands and feet jammed into a cleaved fissure, I analyzed the flake above: thirty feet long, vertical, with no rests. My heart rate quickened. It would be a sprint. I’d need to keep moving.
He knows that once men are caught up in an event they cease to be afraid. Only the unknown frightens men. But once a man has faced the unknown, that terror becomes the known.-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars
THE NIGHT’S STORM saturated the air with fog. At 8 a.m. one look into the mist was enough–the rock would still be drenched. I awoke again at 10:30 a.m. to patches of blue sky. Backlit by the eastern sun, the summit of Saint-Exupery was outlined with a fiery glow. On this cold, soggy morning, the rock on the Torre side of the valley must be covered in ice. I wondered whether my friends had changed their plans.
A figure emerged from the clouds and staggered down the mountain. It was the man from the evening before. I waved him over. His damp clothes drooped as he sloshed toward my bivy. I recognized his Brazilian accent. Marc and I had met him in the same spot a week ago. His party of three had been too slow to reach the summit, so they’d bailed from the middle of the route. In Spanish, he said that he’d returned to rope solo Chiaro, but darkness caught him about a third of the way up. When the rain hit, he huddled under a small boulder. His gear became soaked. Once dawn came, he rappelled down the wet stone. I decided to wait for the sun to hit the buttress.
“Is that the only rope you’re bringing?” the Brazilian asked. He pointed at the static line next to me; then he realized I was planning to free solo. His eyes widened, and he smiled.
I set out at 12:30 p.m. under dissolving clouds. By now, the upper half of the route was in full sun. I wore a harness and helmet, and I carried a few nuts and cams in case I needed to bail, along with some energy bars stuffed in my pockets. On the first few pitches, I avoided the stream that trickled through an exfoliating dike. The icy air chilled my body. I stopped to catch a small patch of light and warm my feet, taking the time to evaluate the conditions of the route and the clarity of my mind. To continue, I needed to feel right in my heart, motivated solely by a curiosity for adventure and a desire to explore. How would my perception change when I was completely solo? Only action could answer that question. An inner quiet soothed my spirit, as if I were emerging from a long winter’s hibernation. I balanced against the rock while the sun shone like a spotlight around me. My body felt light and agile, my mind relaxed.
Cold shadows fell over the first crux as I crammed my body under the boxy roof. A three-foot-wide gap stretched between the two sides of the corner, exposing a mud-streaked snow gully a few hundred feet below. I noted the drop with a sense of detachment. Then I pushed off the right-hand wall to ease myself over to a flake. Shafts of sun dazzled across a ledge. There was an almost sacred stillness. Each movement seemed to stir the air in the distant valley, sending ripples through the ether. I was utterly alone.
At the second crux, the stone plummeted smoothly, without interruption, to the couloir between Aguja de l’S and Saint-Exupery. Time felt frozen as I entrusted my life to square centimeters of fingertip skin. White light reflected through the ice-filled valley in a brilliant haze. I stopped on a little ledge and laughed. There was nobody around to witness this moment, and the solitude made it even more treasured. I felt as if I were back in my aspen grove, swinging from tree to tree with a child’s abandon.
I scanned the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre, hoping to glimpse Marc’s tiny moving dot. But the scale was beyond imagination. Thousands of feet below my dangling toes, the massive Torre Glacier ran through the valley, extending into the pearl-green waters of Laguna Torre just out of view. Westward, beyond the Torres, there was nothing but ice. I, too, was part of this endless landscape. For all I knew, I was the only person on the Fitz Roy side of the valley that day.
As the bowl steepened, a gentle breeze blew across my back. In Patagonia, any air movement might portend incoming weather: cold westerly winds bring storms that can last for weeks. I pulled back around to the north. Below the headwall, I weaved through a three-dimensional maze of giant flakes. Just six days earlier, Marc and I simul-soloed here, a lead cord lashed to my back. We gave each other high fives as we climbed. “Brette, take a picture of me!” Marc called over to me, joking. He locked his knee under a flake and leaned back with a wide smile.
Now, at the point where Marc and I stopped to belay the upper crux, I concentrated on the grains of rock I’d smear on, the controlled way I’d need to breathe. Will Stanhope once told me, “Fear is a lack of focus.” Ropeless, I bent mind and body to each task. A light charge of energy seemed to lift me with a vibrant spark. My feet twisted against the flake as I liebacked off its edge, my hands cusping the lip. I tensed my grip, applying an exact amount of pressure into each fine muscle-just enough to hold on. Again and again, for thirty feet. Every detail was crystal clear, as if I were looking though a microscope. This was a gift the climb gave me: to evaporate the chatter of daily life and to unveil a present reality. The wildness of the grand valley expanded at my back. I had nowhere to hide.
Ice lined the cracks ahead, a remnant of the previous night’s storm. The chimneys were shaped like funnels, just deep enough for a person to fit. Warm rays of sun sparkled. For hundreds of feet, I moved carefully, suspended over the void by just a few points of contact. At the exit, I reached up to a hold on a glassy overhang and pulled around to a ledge. I stepped through the soft layer of new snow on the summit shoulder, wiping the black soles of my shoes dry on my pants.
Alone on the apex, I gave a quick cheer of excitement. Late afternoon sun lit the air with a musty yellow glow. A breeze blew from the west. To the east, tiny colored houses flecked the hillside. The turquoise waters of Lago Viedma shimmered into the vast Patagonian desert. To the west, Cerro Torre, Egger and Standhardt formed a ragged backbone against the immense Continental Icefield. The sky turned gold. Soon all these landscapes would be hidden, once more, by a blanket of night. It was time to begin the long rappels.
I was back at my bivy cave by 8 p.m. as a sea of blue dusk flooded the valley. Specks of light shone from the walls of Cerro Torre: the headlamps of climbers descending. I spotted a tiny glow near the Col of Patience. Peace washed over me. I knew that it was Marc and that we’d be together again soon, sharing our stories.
In a flash, the very instant he had risen clear, the pilot found a peace that passed his understanding…. Below him still the storm was fashioning another world… with squalls and cloudbursts and lightnings, but turning to the stars a face of crystal snow.-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Night Flight
[Photo] Brette Harrington
THE NEXT DAY, at Niponino, I learned that Marc had completed the first solo ascent of Corkscrew. Colin and Alex had rappelled off the west face of Cerro Torre in high winds, a mere two pitches short of a single-push climb of the Torre Traverse. Christina Huber and Caroline North had descended through the same gusts, after making the first all-female free ascent of Cerro Torre via the Ragni Route. They trekked back to El Chalten in the midst of the storm. As for me, I stayed in the valley for a few extra days with Marc to experience the true power of the Patagonian winds.
For decades, climbers have gazed in awe as patterns of light flickered across the morning sky and ignited these icy peaks in a fiery dance. Midday, the colors fade into the white haze of stillness. Then the golden aura of sunset sweeps the summits again, before they vanish in the dark. Yet the mountains remain unchanged. To glimpse the truth of something is to see past our shifting perceptions. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, it is the invisible that unveils reality. We all hold secrets within our hearts, hidden from our eyes. It’s a process worth experimenting with–to find the outer limits of this inner world and to learn how well we can prepare to face them.
From time to time, eyes closed, I picture myself back in my bivy cave. I feel the moisture in the air as the breeze rises, once more, from the west. I look up at Saint-Exupery in all its wildness, standing strong against the bellowing gusts that scour its ancient armor, winds that will continue to rage long after we all are gone.