Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Patagonia: Lessons in Ego and Caring

I. Down

I couldn't believe it.  Climbing conditions were perfect -- there was hardly a cloud in the sky, the sun shone bright and warm on my face, the air hung still, a rarity in windswept Patagonia -- and yet we were going down.  Away from the summit. Bailing.  

The previous day Cheyne Lempe, Matt Van Biene, Joel Enrico and I had hiked up to Laguna de Los Tres with our sights set on climbing the classic Californian Route on the south face of Cerro Fitz Roy.  Heavy winds on the approach subsided as we cooked dinner in camp, and after a few hours of sleep and rushed pre-dawn preparations our crampons crunched confidently across the glacier.  

Watching the weather, getting psyched for the next morning. Cheyne Lempe photo.

First light beneath the east face of Fitz Roy. Cheyne Lempe photo.
First light on the approach to Fitz Roy

Matt nearing the mixed climbing on the approach to La Silla. Cheyne Lempe photo.

By the time we finished the approach climbing up to La Silla, a snowy shoulder partway up the south side of Fitz Roy, I was suddenly less confident.  The Californian appeared covered in rime and ice, and the entire route was already in the shade.  We had planned for a quick one-day ascent and hadn't brought any cold weather clothing or bivy gear.  We are also weak children compared to the likes of Salvaterra, Garibotti, Karo, Donini, and other Patagonian hardmen who probably wouldn't have given the icy conditions a second thought.  

After some brief discussion we opted instead to try the neighboring Franco-Argentine route.  The crack systems in the upper half of the route looked pretty icy as well, but at least it was in the sun.  Unfortunately the ice started lower than we had thought; most of the second pitch was completely covered in a huge slab of rime and ice, and it didn't look like conditions would improve as we got higher.  So after only one pitch, in perfect weather with nary a cloud in the sky, down we went.  

Joel starting up the splitter first pitch of the Franco-Argentine.

Half-joking, half-not, Cheyne lets Fitz know his feelings.

Hiking back to town the next day we rested next to the dusty trail and berated ourselves for turning back.  

"We should have just gone for it."

"I can't believe we went all the way up there just to climb one pitch."  

"Everybody else is sending right now."

I looked up at the sunlight floating through the swaying branches of the lenga trees overhead.  Why was I so concerned about what everyone else was doing?  Didn't I come down to Patagonia for myself?  For my own hopes and dreams and desires?  And why was I so unhappy without our decision to bail?  Hadn't we just enjoyed two days of amazing weather while moving through an incredible landscape of ice and stone, surrounded on all sides by breathtaking views that only a relative handful of people will ever see?

"Guys," I said, "Every reason that I can think of for being unsatisfied with what just happened is coming from my ego -- some deep desire for others to respect me and think I'm cool, and a subsequent worry that they'll judge me for bailing off 'the easiest route on Fitz Roy' and not respect me because of it."

A silence fell over our conversation as my words sunk in.  The other guys nodded in agreement.  Soon we were all smiling and joking, our spirits lifted.  Recognizing my looming ego and it's attempt to control my attitude allowed me to appreciate how amazing the previous few days had been, even if we hadn't reached the summit.  I finished the hike back to town with a deep gratitude for the sun on my face and the air flowing in and out of my lungs.  

But I should have known escaping my ego couldn't be that easy.  It never has been.