Red Fox Athlete Quinn Brett and Max Barlerin have climbed up a storm in Patagonia over the last few weeks, summitting the Goretta Pillar on Cerro Fitz Roy, and Aguja Saint-Exupery. Stay tuned for more stories and photos by this dynamic duo. This is Part II of their summit attempt of Fitz Roy and their achievement on the North Pillar (aka the Goretta Pillar) on that peak.
Day 1As Quinn, Phil and I wrung the water from our ropes for what would be the first of many times over the next few days, we decided to attempt a route on just the North Pillar of Fitz Roy (aka the Goretta Pillar), no longer having enough time to complete the link-up we had hoped for.
By three in the morning, we were at it again, this time hiking over Paso Cordrado in complete darkness, navigating once more through glacial terrain until finally reaching the steep snow slopes that guard the start of Mate, Porro Y Todo Lo Demas. Later on that day, an apartment-sized serac would fall from the west face of Mermoz and leave a football field sized path of debris right in our tracks. The mountains of Patagonia are so dynamic that the range literally changes before your eyes like some cacophonous theatre of the gods. The vastness of it all is easy to underestimate because the familiar aspects that we use to judge distances and landscape (like the size of trees relative to a cliff face) are absent. Staring up at Fitz Roy provides a perfect example of this phenomenon, and it is only until one gets the opportunity to locate a climbing party on one of its many faces, dotting the wall like a speck of finely ground black pepper, that its scale is recognized with awe.
Since one is able to see the summit of the North Pillar from the snow slopes below, it’s easy to underestimate the scale and grandeur of this formation as well. Intending to free climb the whole thing, Phil navigated two pitches of snow and rock and I led the first pitch of ‘technical rock climbing, bringing us to the base of the wall. As I stood at the first belay, satisfied with my clean but slow climbing, Quinn arrived soon after and hit me with the reality of our goal; we had to move as fast as we could, or we would not reach the top. Reluctant at first, I spent the rest of my lead block attempting to find the streamline transition between aid and free climbing, an art that she has perfected. I fought, I bled, I tore my clothes, but I managed to learn a thing or two and play my part.
About halfway through the day, as we rose above the surrounding peaks, it was Quinn’s turn to lead. Phil and I sat at the belay as she blasted off into the unknown, motoring up a hand crack placed directly underneath a waterfall. In the pitches that followed, Quinn led us around corners, up beautiful splitters, and through airy belays, all in good humor and with stylish grace. As the sun finally set across the largest continental ice cap in the world, marking the border between Chile and Argentina, Phil took over and aided through some tough, wet, route finding in search of a good bivy ledge. Four hours later, with no ledge in sight, we arrived at each subsequent belay trying not to get our hopes up, but still a little shattered upon finding no flat ground.
With darkness fully on us now, I took the reigns once more in one last-ditch effort to find us a place for our single two-man-and-a-woman bivy sac. As I put on the rack and Quinn and Phil tried to get a grasp of where we were on the wall, the lazy boy in me couldn’t resist the temptation to peek around one more block that guarded the void of darkness, to the left of our intended line. Sure enough, by some stroke of luck, there was a ledge big enough to have an asado on!
Day 2We hunkered down, melted snow, ate like birds, and nestled into our bivy, sleeping until light the next day, quite nearly forgetting our position on the wall. The next morning, I led us up where we left off, to a much bigger but more undulating ledge, where we caught up with our friends Mark Westman and Ben Eardman as they started off the imposing overhanging corners that guarded the summit pitches of the Pillar. As I shared a belay with Ben and distracted him from my farts with a bit of a Snickers bar, the sun swung around to the west and we were blessed with another day of beautiful weather. As the day progressed, however, that same welcoming sun would melt the rime ice on the summit and reign hell fire down on us as we ascended the Pillar’s final pitches. At one point a diner plate whizzed by Phil’s head. At another, Quinn, while leading, placed a cam and hung an open water bottle under a dripping overhang, effectively filling our water bottle to the brim for the only time in three days. Then in another moment I was run out on an easier arête, as a huge chunk of snow landed a few feet above me and blasted me quite nearly off the wall. The din of other climbing parties, falling snow and rock, and wandery loose rock was a little taxing mentally, and I’ll admit that I felt a little bewildered by the time I finally pulled over the lip onto the summit of the North Pillar. As I gazed up at the headwall of Fitz Roy (another 7-10 pitches away) with quizzical uncertainty, my desire to keep pushing upwards from our sub-summit, disappeared like dust in the wind.
By this time the wind had picked up, and we decided to hack out a platform into the summit rime and shiver a night on the summit of the Pillar. We would make no more decisions until morning. Quinn swears I snored up there, but I do not remember sleeping at all, and the next morning as the wind steadied, we took one more look at the intimidating and sloppy conditions of the Fitz Roy headwall and made our decision to descend. More that 20 rappels, a few core shot ropes and a couple of near misses later, we were down on the glacier, post-holing our way back to camp. We trod back to our tent as the sun set, content with our adventure.
As we hitchhiked back to El Chalten in the back of a Toyota Helux and drank litros of Palermo like water our six-week stay in Patagonia was just beginning.