The familiar beep of a cheap wristwatch alarm disrupted me from a night of fitful sleep. In the dark, Quinn Brett, Crystal Davis-Robbins, and I burst into activity. We put on layers, laced up our boots, located our pre-organized packs and gear in the dark and hurriedly wolfed down hot oatmeal.
Within 30 minutes we were out on the glacier hiking towards Paso Guillaumet. This would be our fourth venture onto the Fitz Roy Massif. For the last month and a half we’d been immersed in a lifestyle of high intensity alpine climbing on one hand and gluttonous rehabilitation on the other.
These approaches were no longer virgin terrain for me and I felt a new comfort in having a better idea of where I was going. The subtle and intricate systems that allow for fluid transition between snow, ice and rock were becoming more apparent to me, and I was grateful to rely on some of these tricks to stay somewhat warm and dry. Having layers of Red Fox fleece and down didn’t hurt either. My psyche was high but the effects of successive missions into the alpine were beginning to show. I was tired, my body wasn’t used to going for it with everything I have, resting like the dead, and then starting it all over again for days on end.
The PremiseMonths prior, Quinn told me of her aspirations to climb with Crystal. After pushing through the night together on the cryptic and gigantic walls of the Black Canyon in Gunnison, Colorado, the two became friends and were eager to climb together on bigger terrain. Crystal, had spent several seasons climbing in Patagonia completing many alpine style first ascents. She was excited about the opportunity to repeat the feat on an all female team, as was Quinn.
While they poured over photos and forecasts I cautiously began asking around town to see if anyone would partner up with me. Roping up with strangers is a delicate art on its own, but doing so in a foreign place as engaging and taxing as Patagonia felt overwhelming. I even considered the possibility of just hanging out in town, waiting for Quinn to return, but that idea kind of freaked me out.
By this point we had spent nearly every moment together for the last month and a half. We had travelled down here on a whim and pretty much cannon-balled into an action packed season of high intensity climbing in one of the most spectacular landscapes I have ever seen. I shivered with this woman on tiny ledges in howling winds. I caught her eyes as rocks whizzed past us, and rime rained down like falling clouds. We gazed out from summits silenced in awe. We rappelled off of rusty pitons and gazed into the gaping mouths of enormous bergshrunds. Inspired by these mountains I was overcome with insatiable lust for more, despite my aching body.
As the last potential window of good weather developed prior to our final departure from Patagonia, Quinn and Crystal prepared for an awesome new line, and right when I was getting ready to sit this one out, I managed to link up with one Andy Hughes.
Andy and I had shared a few beers in town and bouldered a couple of days on the hills that surround Chalten. Based on his positive attitude and epic mullet he seemed like a guy I could trust. He also happened to be interested in the same thing I was — climbing some laser-beam splitters on the 1800-foot eastern face of Mermoz.
Soon thereafter Andy, Quinn, Crystal and I were bivying at our gear cache in Piedre Negra set to fire up and over Paso Guillaumet and onto Glacier Superior before dawn. We crunched on the frozen surface of the snow, and inch-wormed over crevasses towards the base of Mermoz.
The bergshrund guarding the rock had melted out and grown considerably since our last visit five weeks ago. I had the most reliable combo of gear among us, so I led up the vertical bergshrund to the lower angle snow above. My naivety, combined with the top down view into a crevasse illuminated by headlamps and pre-dawn light, made soloing that wall of consolidated snow a pretty memorable experience. I tagged up the line, brought up rest of the crew and we simul-climbed up the remaining 60 degree snow ramp. After that, I gave Quinn a hug and we parted ways. Andy and I were poised to climb ‘Pilar Rojo’, while Quinn and Crystal headed further right along the base in search of unclimbed terrain.
SplittersvilleThe night became day and we all enjoyed splitter but hard free climbing right off the deck. I tired hard not to fall, and managed to climb a few of the hard pitches clean, but by the end of my lead block my hands were bleeding and I had to pull on gear and tape up to keep moving at a decent pace. I passed the rack to Andy and he took off onto some amazing cracks, clean with a fun mix of solid foot holds and hand jams to balance against the pull of gravity.
As we sat from hanging belays on the sheer face, Quinn and Crystal came in and out of view. From what I could see they were enjoying the same kind of splitters, but on an unclimbed corner system. Then I heard what sounded like a dam breaking above her. Indeed, a snowfield atop the wall had melted through, sending a shower of icy rain down on the pair. Within minutes, the two women were soaked. In a proud effort they continued on for another pitch, but inevitably had to turn back in the face of a constant showering. A few hours later, I saw two tiny little specs on the snow, almost 2000 feet below, disappearing towards base camp.
Andy shared another one of his candy bars with me. Pitch after pitch we climbed steep and exposed cracks with intermittent sections of crumbly, wet and exciting rock. The light faded and wispy yellow clouds rolled over where stone met sky above us. The cacophony of wet slide avalanches and rock fall subsided into silence. The air cooled and the mountains shuddered, reminding us of our position. I finished my lead block with an uncomfortable squirm behind a giant hanging block. I chicken-winged through the coarse granite while trying to ignore what it would feel like to pry this death block free from the wall with my own elbow. As Andy took the lead, I shrivelled into another hanging belay. My hands felt like hamburger-meat, my body more sore than ever before. The past six weeks had left a lasting fatigue, and I think I was reaching my limit.
As I followed the next few pitches, my arms burned with lactic acid, and I focused hard to free climb as much as I could of the unrelenting terrain. Finally we reached the top of the headwall. The top of Mermoz, like several peaks in the range, has a surprising amount of lower fifth class terrain towards the summit that can seem endless to the weary traveler. Knowing this, I began to question my ability to tag the summit with Andy and still make it back safely. Normally, an internal flame burns inside me and drives me upwards, but that flame felt more like a flicker now. I tried to relay this information to Andy as best I could, and he seemed to understand. He wanted the summit badly, and I felt grateful that he was not opposed to my suggestion to bail from our high point. We had given up on free climbing, both of our preferred disciplines. But to not reach the summit, our efforts would be rendered insignificant in the judgemental realm of alpinism. I contemplated a descent in the dark, an overnight on the glacier, with no food or water. I didn’t have it in me, and it was a hard thing to accept, as bailing often is.
ReflectionLater that night we sombered back to our tents, ate our last freeze-dried meal and drank as much water as we could, then slept like the dead, despite the building clouds in our wake. The next day, we awoke to heavy rain and quietly packed up our gear cache for the season with wobbly legs and swollen hands. Despite my complete exhaustion, I felt content. I had flown down here with my sights set very low, but I had managed to exceed my expectations for what I thought I was capable of, summit or not. The spirit of adventure and beauty within this range left a lasting impression on me, and I hope to return one day.