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Patagonian Pain

Pain! Leo Houlding moments after shattering his right talus on the east face of Cerro Torre.

[Photo] Kevin Thaw/Leo Houlding collection

“Oh, shit! I have really fucked up. This is bad, and I know it. Kevin, take a photo.” My hands were rope burned almost to the bone. Far worse, my right foot blazed with pure agony. I knew that I’d seriously injured myself in the fall, and that I might never climb hard again. If this is it, I thought, I might as well document the ensuing epic.

I never imagined the picture he took would make the cover of Alpinist 0!

Minutes ago, our mission was to free climb the east to north face of Cerro Torre in a push. Now, it was to get back to El Chalten without the ability to walk. I really should’ve thought this one through before going for that desperate high-step rock-over on those tiny, wet edges way above those RPs up on that big, scary wall.

It wasn’t a huge fall, maybe sixty-five feet–fortunately the RPs held–but the violence with which I exploded off the move caused my right foot to bend up to my shin and crushed my talus bone. For ten miles or so, I crawled across the crevassed glacier and the steep, loose talus back to town. Now and then, my climbing partners carried me. I rode a horse to the medical clinic, each step jostling my foot. I’d be on crutches for six months.

At the time, I thought my climbing was over, but when I look back, the accident may well have helped keep me alive. I had it coming: I was twenty-one, bold and ambitious, and I’d been getting away with it–until then. Had we succeeded in our intended objective, who knows what I would’ve tried next? A 200-foot runout up sheer, untouched rock following an invisible line of small crystals above a marginal belay? A portaledge camp on a skyhook?

I’m glad I broke my talus and not my neck. Eventually, I regained full strength and 90 percent flexibility in my ankle. I’ve enjoyed more wild experiences: free climbing and BASE jumping from El Cap and Half Dome in a day, shivering up the shady northwest face of Mt. Asgard after skydiving in to remote Baffin Island, but I’ve never again ventured so recklessly close to my edge.

I felt a mix of pride and humiliation at making the cover– especially with Andy Cave’s article inside the magazine documenting another Patagonian misadventure earlier in the same trip. Now, more than a decade later, I think of how much I’ve enjoyed since that pivotal moment: the sublime beauty of the dawns and dusks I’ve watched from hard-to-reach, rarely visited places; the radiance of my daughter’s face among the bluebells of the Lake District in spring; the electrifying camaraderie of the obligatory high five before taking a running jump off a tall cliff, in the last burning rays of a magical alpenglow. Perhaps all these memories exist thanks to one bad decision– the immediate consequences of which are captured here.–Leo Houlding