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.



I just got the ropes stuck. Matt and Cheyne are psyched.  Cheyne Lempe photo.


Hiking back to town with Aguja Poincenot in the background.


II. Ego

In El Chalten it is pretty easy to feel small and unaccomplished.  Situated in Argentine Patagonia at the edge of Los Glaciares National Park, home of the Fitz Roy and Torre massifs, this small town attracts some of the best alpine climbers in the world.  Out of the crew that I spent most of my time with this season, a lot were solid 5.13 climbers, one had recently freed multiple routes on El Capitan, many had already climbed in Patagonia numerous times, half were sponsored athletes and most of the rest should be, given their tick lists of impressive ascents around the globe.  It seemed like every time I mentioned some hallowed destination that I dream of going to -- Alaska, Pakistan, Baffin Island -- someone would tell me a story of when they had been there and put up a mega first ascent. 


The Fitz Roy massif looming over the streets of El Chalten.

Meanwhile, I'm lucky if I make it up 5.11 without falling and this was my first major alpine climbing trip, save a relative handful of adventures in the Sierras, Rockies, and Cascades. So maybe it isn't that surprising that I often found myself thinking "Man, everyone is doing bigger and better things than I am.  All of these people are so much cooler and more badass than me."  I wondered whether the others would respect me.  I wanted them to respect me, I wanted them to like me.  Did they think I was just some gumby?  That I shouldn't even be down in Patagonia?  

I've often thought about why I worry about things like this -- why I worry about what others think of me.  At a deep level I think it's because I want to feel like I belong, to feel that I'm part of a community.  Growing up I never had any truly close friends.  I always floated between different social groups and never belonged to any one in particular.  I always felt like I was on the outside looking in at everyone else.  I wanted to be cool, to be the person that people liked and loved and admired.  

Most of that changed in college -- I moved across the country and became my own person, distinct and separate from my past.  I found some close friends and gained a new introspective view on life, myself, and the world around me.  I discovered hiking and climbing and the wild wonder of the outdoors.  Most importantly, I found the outdoors community -- a group of people just as inspired by wild places as myself, people who were psyched to wake up every day and live life to the fullest, people who weren't afraid to cast aside the traditional life-script and pursue their passions with hearts wide open.  I stopped caring about what the vast majority of people thought about me.  

Ironically, however, my relationship with climbing, the activity that took over my life and that I pour so much of my energy into, remained mired in expectations, self-doubt, and a desire for the respect of others.  I'd like to believe that I climb as a way to escape the rat-race of our ego-driven society.  It offers a way to become absorbed in a moment, to test yourself against your own fears and abilities.  But somewhere deep inside I know that that's not true, at least not completely.  Part of me definitely wants other people to think I'm a good climber, to think that I'm a badass or awesome or whatever.  When I'm out a crag I feel embarrassed if I don't send the hard routes.  I feel like I should be able to climb 5.12 comfortably, and get mad at myself when I fall far short of that expectation.  I often feel like I need to apologize for not climbing harder.  

I know how ridiculous that sounds.  I know that I shouldn't care what they think, that I shouldn't view life as a constant competition between myself and those around me.  I know that walking that path is a lonely road to disappointment and emptiness.  But that's my rational brain thinking, and my ego is anything but rational.  It is deeply, ravenously emotional.  It is greedy and envious and jealous and needy.  It thrives on compliments and congratulations, grows larger every time someone tells me I've done something impressive.  I'll openly admit that it sometimes feeds on the failures of others.  It feels good when they don't succeed.  

I hate this part of myself.  It sickens me when I feel some twinge of happiness from seeing someone else fail.  I try to push it away, out of my life, because I know that it isn't me.  It's not my rational self.  It isn't the person I want to be.  I want to feel only empathy and compassion when others don't succeed, and only joy and happiness when they do.  I know that that is the real path to lasting fulfillment.  I feel engaged in a constant struggle with myself; or rather, a struggle between myself and a part of me that feels like someone else entirely, someone who I despise.  That moment on our hike out from Fitz Roy was merely another battle in this ongoing war.  Though I won briefly, the struggle began again almost as soon as we got back to El Chalten.

Cheyne, Joel, and I slumped sweating onto chairs inside our small cement shack in the middle of town.  Matt had left to get an updated weather forecast.  It was so hot that we had to keep the front door wide open to capture what little of the breeze we could.  Unfortunately that meant that we also had a perfect view out the door toward the summits of Poincenot and Fitz Roy.  They seemed so close, taunting us.  Carsten, our landlord, had told us that the shack used to be sleeping quarters for the town police -- it certainly felt something like a jail cell now.  

The reality of the situation had darkened my happy demeanor from the hike back.  I was confident we had blown one of the few spells of good weather we would see all season.  Long weather windows are extremely rare in this part of the world.  Friends who had been on previous trips to Patagonia spoke of three and four week stretches without a single day of good weather.  We had just seen three gorgeous days in a row.  How many more could there be?

Cheyne checking gear while the mountains remind us of their presence.

It was only made worse in my mind by stories of successful missions brought back by friends streaming into town.  Dozens had climbed the Ragni Route on Cerro Torre.  Word on the street was that Kate and Madeleine had climbed Fitz Roy via Mate, Porro y Todo lo Demas.  Mikey and Josh had put up a massive new traverse between Aguja CAT and Bifida.  Mikey, a fairly reserved and quiet person, laughed like a little boy as he told us about the climb.

"There were perfect hand cracks everywhere," he said with a giddy grin on his face, "I mean, everywhere.  It was some of the best climbing I've ever done down here."

I was incredibly psyched for all of my friends who had just been through amazing experiences up in the mountains.  I was genuinely happy for them.  I could feel the energy and excitement as they recounted close calls, incredible views, splitter cracks, and unbelievable summits.  But I could also feel my ego starting to twinge with envy.  

Everyone is doing bigger and better things than I am.  All of these people are so much cooler and more badass than me.

I wanted to be in their position.  wanted to be able to tell others about my success.   I wanted to be able to see the wonder and happiness on their faces as I told them of our hardship, perseverance, and heroic achievements.  I wanted them to wish they were me.  Instead, all I could do was look out the door toward Fitz Roy and Poincenot and tell them about how we had bailed.


III. Going Big -- Really Big

"Guys," Matt called out as he came through the doorway.  We all looked up.  He had a huge smile on his face.  

"It's good."

He paused.

"Really good."

He pulled up the meteorogram on his computer for us to look at.  The jumble of dashes, numbers and squiggling red and blue lines that was indecipherable to me only a few weeks before now revealed an unbelievable prediction: at least six more days of high pressure, no wind, few clouds and no precipitation.  Perfect weather.

"Yes!" I practically shouted at the screen, "We're gonna get another chance!"

We spent the next few hours talking about what we should do.  Matt wanted to try another big route.  Joel was unsure.  They talked about a new route on the west face of Guillamet that Matt had been looking at.  As our own separate team, Cheyne and I briefly discussed a few options.  The North Pillar of Fitz Roy?  The west face of Poincenot?  Maybe something in the Torre Valley?  Nothing jumped out at us.  


Thinking and planning.  Matt Van Biene photo.

That evening we strolled through the dusty streets of El Chalten to find some dinner.  

"Dude," Cheyne said as he walked next to me, "I think we need to go big.  Really big.  This is probably going to be the window of the season."  

Now, when Cheyne says he wants to "go big" it probably means something different than what you and I think of as "big."  At the tender age of 22 he's already climbed El Cap more than 20 times, many of them solo.  He recently soloed The Nose in 19 hours.  The previous season in Patagonia, his first, he established a new 6,000ft linkup on Mermoz and Fitz Roy.  Quite simply, he devours big walls for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  So I was curious, and little worried, as I asked him what he thought we should do.

"I think we should go for the Care Bear."

The Care Bear Traverse is about as big as it gets in the Fitz Roy area -- an obvious skyline traverse beginning on the north ridge of Aguja Guillamet, continuing up and over Aguja Mermoz, sidestepping the smaller Aguja Val Biois, and finally surmounting the imposing Goretta Pillar of Fitz Roy.  All told it contains about 6400ft of climbing, more than twice as much as Yosemite's fabled El Capitan and longer by far than any technical route I had ever attempted.  


The Care Bear Traverse.  Rolo Garibotti photo.

I don't remember when I first heard about the Care Bear, but I distinctly remember thinking two things about it: 1) that it sounded like one of the coolest climbs I had ever heard of, and 2) that it was way beyond me.  I mean Freddie Wilkinson and Dana "Mad Dog" Drummond, the first ascentionists, are two hardcore-bad-ass-alpine-motherfuckers.  Who was I to think I could step up to one of their lines? 

That was a couple years ago, and while I knew I'd improved a lot as a climber since then it still seemed pretty out there.  Hell, before this trip I thought just climbing the Goretta Pillar would be all-time, and now we were talking about climbing a couple thousand feet just to get to the Pillar.

So I couldn't help but be more than a little nervous as Cheyne and I settled into our bivy at the base of Guillamet the next evening, looking up at what would be the first of many pitches to come.  Matt and Joel had decided to attempt the traverse as well and sat cooking dinner nearby.

Heading up to camp at Paso Guillamet
Hanging out at Paso Guillamet, getting ready to blast in the morning. Cheyne Lempe photo.
The night sky above our Paso Guillamet bivy.  Cheyne Lempe photo.

A million thoughts raced through my mind.  I am so psyched.  This is going to be awesome.  Did we bring enough food?  Should I have brought a warmer jacket? What would we do if our stove broke or if one of us dropped our shoes?  Who should take the first block?  Would the weather hold?  Would I be able to keep up with Cheyne?  Would I slow us down? 

As I watched the first stars begin to twinkle in the sky above us I found myself thinking how cool it would be if we did the whole thing, how impressed people back in town and back home would be.  We'd be only the 5th or 6th team to ever climb the route, and certainly the youngest.  That would be so cool.  I tried to push the thoughts aside.  I knew I shouldn't be thinking like that.  I didn't want to be thinking like that.  I didn't want to worry about what others would think.  I became mad at myself -- here I was in one of the most beautiful places in the world, at the base of the biggest route I'd ever tried, and all I could think about was what everyone else would think if we succeeded.  As I fell asleep I wondered if I'd ever be able to shake my ego. 

Fortunately, for the next four days these thoughts disappeared from my mind as the route consumed every ounce of energy I had.  From the beginning I never quite expected us to succeed.  I mean, I knew we had the potential to climb the Care Bear -- we had the strength, the skills, the experience, the weather -- but I also knew we would have to push ourselves hard, move quickly and efficiently.  Go too fast and we'd risk making a mistake.  Go too slow and we might never make it to Fitz Roy.  We'd have to walk a fine line.  


IV. Walking the Line

In the end, walking that line demanded much of us.

It demanded concentration.  In the first half of the traverse we routinely free soloed 4th and low-5th class terrain.  I watched Cheyne scramble nimbly up and down cracks in his sticky-rubber approach shoes and scolded myself for trying to save weight by bringing my lightweight trail runners instead.  With a 1,500 foot fall to the glacier waiting for us if we made a mistake, even "easy" moves required focus and care.  Later, high on the Goretta Pillar, I weaved up steep cracks that became increasingly wetter and choked with ice.  Multiple times I found myself high above my last piece of gear and realized that I could not let myself fall, yet the wet and icy rock made it just possible that I might.  I examined each foothold with heightened awareness, felt the individual quartz crystals as I jammed, and rapped my knuckles against flakes in search of loose rock.  We kept moving.  


The first of many jams. Into the maze we go.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
A nice steeper pitch on the Brenner Ridge of Guillamet.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
Cheyne and I between Guillamet and Mermoz.  Matt Van Biene photo.
Crack climbing is harder when the cracks are filled with ice.  Cheyne Lempe photo.

It demanded fear and our ability to control it.  The first day, as I followed Cheyne across a snow traverse, the sun-baked crystals suddenly collapsed under one of my feet.  To save weight we hadn't brought snow protection and the rope arced cleanly to my left for more than 50 feet before snaking out of view.  Cheyne had our only ice axe, and as I felt my footing give way and my body tip over backward I clawed at the slope in front of me with bare hands, desperate to avoid the massive fall that I was about to take.  Somehow I caught myself and stood motionless trying to catch my breath.  I coaxed my heart back down into my chest.  A sharp tug on the rope reminded me we had to keep moving.  

A few hours later I found myself traversing another icy snowfield.  It hadn't looked serious from above and so I left my crampons and our ice axe with Cheyne 70 feet to my right.  Bad decision.  The slope steepened and my trail runners slipped around in the small footsteps I could kick.  Only 15 feet to my left lay a small stance big enough to belay from, but I was more concerned about the fact that I had no gear between myself and a small cam nestled into a crack 30 feet to my right.  Below me the wall dropped away precipitously.  I felt like I'd slip off if I moved at all, so I stood frozen.  You can do this.  You know how to do this.  I breathed deeply, kicked as hard as I could with my trail runners, and dug my bare hands deep into the snow.  A couple balanced moves later I was standing on bare rock.  I built a belay and noticed my fingertips were bleeding -- I had shoved my hands into the icy snow so hard that my fingernails had separated from the beds on seven of my fingers.  Still, we kept moving.


Wishing I had my crampons right about now. Cheyne Lempe photo.
My fingers later the next day.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
Cheyne leading on the North Face of Mermoz
Myself following the same terrain. Cheyne Lempe photo.

It demanded pain and discomfort.  Our first night, after climbing for more than 15 hours and drinking less than two liters of water, I felt a lightning hot pain sear up the inside of my thigh.  The cramp was so bad that even after standing up and straightening my leg it wouldn't go away.  I was seriously scared that I was going to tear a muscle thousands of feet above the glaciers below.  Finally, after a few agonizing minutes I was able to massage it away.  A couple of days later my abs cramped so badly that I writhed in awkward motions across a ledge.  My separated fingernails worsened with each day and each pitch.  Every night after Cheyne fell asleep I lay awake in my sleeping bag and squeezed my throbbing fingers into fists until the pain became too much, all so that I could bathe in the brief wave of relief that flooded over me as I uncurled them.


The Goretta Pillar of Fitz Roy from the summit of Mermoz
Matt and Joel enjoying some true "Care Bear" weather up in the clouds.  Cheyne Lempe photo.

It demanded trust.  Every time I ran it out above my gear I had to believe in my ability to remain in control and execute the necessary moves.  I had to trust that Cheyne would catch me if I whipped big.  He had to do the same for me.  I had to trust my instincts when I felt we were going the wrong way.  I had to trust Cheyne when he told me that I should lead most of the Goretta Pillar, even when I didn't want to.  I had to trust that the sketchy rappel anchors would hold us.  Thankfully, they did.    


One of the less awesome rap anchors.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
Which crack to choose?  Cheyne Lempe photo.

It demanded frustration, with ourselves and with each other.  On one sideways rappel my prusik became so tight that I couldn't move down the rope and I grew increasingly exasperated and frantic, practically yelling at myself until Cheyne calmly showed me a trick to get it loose.  High on Fitz Roy our food, water, and energy ran low and impatience began to run high.  I wondered why he was taking so long on his leads.  He couldn't understand why I was so slow jugging behind him.  Our conversations were curt.  Luckily we've both climbed enough to know that everything seems to take forever when you're not the one doing the work.  We each knew that the other was trying as hard as he could.  


Following near the summit of Fitz.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
Awesome climbing, awesome weather, and awesome views.  It doesn't get any better. Cheyne Lempe photo.

It demanded flesh and blood.  With each day and each pitch the number of cuts and scrapes on my knuckles, shins, and knees grew larger.  My fingernails continued to bleed and seemed to catch and tear on every possible protuberance.  On our second day, as I jugged behind Cheyne, my foot unexpectedly caught the underside of a loose flake and snapped it in half.  I shot my hand out and grabbed it but I couldn't stop a second lemon-sized chunk that plummeted toward Matt and Joel 30 feet below.  "Rock!  ROCK!"  

I watched in horror as it slammed directly into Matt's hand, smashing two of his fingers against a small ledge.  I could see the blood from where I hung.  My heart sank -- at worst I had just amputated two of my friend's fingers, at best they'd have to immediately bail off the coolest climb of their lives.  

After a few minutes they called up to let me know that it wasn't too bad and that they'd be able to continue.  I breathed a sigh of relief and kept jugging.


Matt leading on the Pillar shortly before I dropped the rock.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
Traversing toward the summit of Mermoz.  Cheyne Lempe photo.


Matt and Joel rapping into our first bivy site
So tired.  Cheyne Lempe photo.

It demanded exhaustion.  We climbed for more than 12 hours every single day, often closer to 14 or 15.  Each night I arrived at our bivy dead tired, not wanting to move another step.  I had to dig deep to motivate myself to help with the little tasks -- melting snow, cooking dinner, organizing our gear.  Cheyne kept me moving and psyched, and I was thankful for his experience and focus.  Many times I would sit down for a few minutes and turn around to find him offering me a hot drink.  

But even at its most demanding, the experience offered so much in return.

It offered beauty.  From our perch high on the endless ridgeline we continually looked down at the maze of granite spires, massive walls, and snaking glaciers that spread out all around us.  There are few sights in this life like looking out over the Southern Ice Cap at sunset.  The entire vast expanse of white turns a brilliant pink for just a moment, and then quickly dissolves to a soft blue as the sun drops away to the west.  To be part of that landscape for a brief moment in time is an incredible thing to witness, feel and behold.  

There was beauty in smaller things too -- a band of quartz swirling through a granite face, clouds enveloping the ridge and casting us into a ghostly landscape of smoke and stone, massive condors soaring around us on all sides, the smile on Cheyne's face when I pulled out a packet of hot chocolate I had secretly brought along.  


Matt and Joel settling in for the night on the Goretta Pillar of Fitz Roy
Not a bad view.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
Cheyne lost in the clouds between Guillamet and Mermoz
Cheyne rapping with the Pollone and Piergiogio massifs in the background.

It offered moments of relaxation.  Sitting on a spacious belay ledge in the sun, finishing my lead block and turning it over to Cheyne, sitting in our sleeping bags eating a dehydrated meal, chatting with Cheyne about subjects completely unrelated to climbing while we brewed more hot drinks.


Cheyne and I resting on the Goretta Pillar.  The next morning we climbed the righthand side of the dihedral above us. Matt Van Biene photo.

It offered reminders of the simple pleasures in life.  Sliding into my sleeping bag at night, putting on a puffy when the wind picked up, the warmth of the sun on my skin, finding a flat spot to bivy, a hot drink at night, a cool sip of water from depressions in the rock, discovering a half-eaten bar deep in my pocket.   Food, drink, warmth, rest -- so simple, yet so profoundly satisfying. 


Watching the sunrise from our first bivy.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
Cheyne pondering the next pitch on the Goretta Pillar.
It offered fun.  The sun was shining, the rock was dry, and the smiles on our faces were about as wide as the traverse itself.  We joked and laughed our way along the skyline.  It seemed like there were cracks everywhere and it felt like we were in a landscape made for climbing.  At times it was so good that I started hooting and hollering uncontrollably.  There was no place else on Earth that I wanted to be except right there, right then.  

It offered joy.  Deep, profound joy.  Near the top of the Goretta Pillar I led through a wild corner system that, while not terribly difficult, required every technique I have learned in my four years of climbing.  At one point, in a single 30 foot section I finger-jammed, hand-jammed, stemmed, chimneyed, pulled hard on an icy fist jam, made some techy face moves and aided/pendulumed off a suspect green Camalot.  Each pitch had its own character and as I moved higher I fell into a classic "flow state," unlocking each puzzle as it came and delivering us through the vertical maze.  I was fully absorbed by the movement and the moment, my mind focused on nothing but the next few moves.  

Waiting for Cheyne at a belay it all hit me at once:

I am climbing in Patagonia.

We are perched high on Fitz Roy.

All my years of climbing have prepared me for this.


We are SENDING.

This is a dream turning into my life.

I won't lie, I felt my eyes start to tear up.  But right then Cheyne popped into view below me and hollered up with a monkey call.  I looked down, saw the huge smile on his face and started laughing myself.  Turning around I looked up at the 1,000 feet that still remained between us and the summit.  I wiped my eyes and pulled slack through my device.  Onward and upward.  


Beginning the upper pitches of the Pillar. Cheyne Lempe photo.
Weaving through the wet and icy maze.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
Some fun OW on this pitch.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
Silhouette of the Fitz Roy massif as we neared the summit.  Cheyne Lempe photo.

Finally, just after 10:30pm on our third day, I kicked a few more tired steps up an ice slope, transitioned unsteadily in my crampons onto bare rock and joined Cheyne on the summit ridge at the top of Fitz Roy.  I raised both arms above my head and a weary smile spread across my face.

"Dude, we did it," I said to Cheyne.  "I can't believe it." 


Myself just after reaching the summit.  Cumbre!  Cheyne Lempe photo.

We went to high-five each other, but I think we both realized that it wouldn't do the moment justice, so we hugged instead.  In the fading light we dug out a bivy-site and said hi to some friends who had just climbed the Afanasieff route and were also spending the night on top -- all in all, 11 people slept on the summit that night, which is probably some sort of record.  

Lying in my sleeping bag, clenching my aching fists over and over, I shivered and wished I had brought a warmer jacket.  I snuggled closer to Cheyne to share some of his body heat.  Staring at the stars overhead I suddenly realized why I was so cold -- I had been so absorbed by getting to the summit, making a bivy spot and cooking dinner that I hadn't noticed the light breeze that was now blowing against the fabric of our sleeping bags.  

I bolted upright and looked to the west.  The sky was still and clear, but I was scared.  Patagonian winds are legendary in their ferocity, known to knock full grown men to the ground and blow teams up dihedrals.  I was convinced that our luck had run out, that the window was closing.  I saw in my mind a vision of us being blown sideways across the walls on our descent.  I wondered whether we should pack our stuff and go down immediately -- even a few hours head start could mean the different between safety and peril -- but the thought of descending without any rest was almost unthinkable. I just prayed that I was wrong and laid back down next to Cheyne.  Sleep did not come easily.


V. Down, Again

The next morning the wind blew harder, but thankfully not too strong.  We watched the sun rise against Cerro Torre's massive east flank, snapped some summit photos, and took video of ourselves yelling "cumbre!" at the top of our lungs.  I couldn't stop looking around, the view intoxicating in its grandeur, stillness and beauty.  But I also knew we had to get down.  In the Fitz Roy massif there's no such thing as a walk-off, and we had 4,000ft of rappelling between us and the glacier far below.  


Our spacious bivy on the summit.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
Jon Gleason and Ben Ditto enjoying breakfast after a cold night.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
The Torres at sunrise.  

We decided to descend the Goretta Pillar with Ben Ditto and Jon Gleason, two friends who we unexpectedly ran into on the Pillar the day before.   As we finished our first rappel Ben quipped, "Well, that's number one."  By the time we got past number twenty I think we all stopped counting.

The day disappeared in a blur of downward motion -- countless rappels, good anchors, bad anchors, hanging anchors, huge exposure, scary blocks, stuck ropes, good jokes, terrible jokes, thirst, hunger, freezing cold in the shade, burning hot in the sun.  At one point I think the ropes got caught on 9 or 10 rappels in row and multiples times we had to climb back up to free them.  Near the bottom of the Pillar, after the ropes caught yet again, we all pulled as hard as we could but couldn't get them to budge.  The wall leading up to the stuck rope was steep and imposing, and none of us wanted to climb back up.  Frankly we just didn't care anymore.  So we left the entire rope behind, an offering to the mountain.  


Psyche was high in the early rappels.  Not so much later on.
Jon rappeling about halfway down the Goretta Pillar
Ben trying to MacGyver some water off the rock.  Cheyne Lempe photo.

By 9pm we reached the Bloque Empotreado at the base of the Goretta Pillar and dropped into the steep gully on the east side of the massif.  Jon had rappelled this same terrain a few years earlier while attempting the Care Bear and assured us that there were bomber anchors the whole way, that we'd be at the base in a couple of hours.  But as he hung at the end of the ropes on our second rappel and traversed back and forth across the gully I knew something wasn't right.

"What's going on Jon?" Ben yelled down.

"It's totally different down here.  There's no snow or ice at all.  I don't see any anchors anywhere."

"Well, what do you think we should do?" shouted Ben.

"I don't know.  There's massive death blocks everywhere.  This thing's gonna rip the second one of us touches it," Jon said, pointing toward a coffin-sized chunk of stone with his foot.

I stared wide-eyed at Cheyne.  I remembered every single time I had read or heard the oft-quoted climbing dictum: most people die on the descent.  

"How are you doing?" Cheyne asked me.

"I don't know man.  I'm honestly pretty scared right now.  I feel like we might be walking into a trap."

A tense conversation followed as we debated whether or not to continue down the gully or climb back up and over to the west side.  My body just wanted to go down, to get to the glacier and to get back to town as quickly as possible.  But in my head I knew we needed to think carefully and find the safest way down, even if that meant retracing our steps.  Despite the seriousness of the situation, I couldn't get R. Kelly's lyrics out of my head -- "My mind's telling me no, but my body, my boooody's telling me yeeeessss..." 

We eventually decided to take our chances with the death gully.  By then it was dark.  We gingerly lowered further into the blackness below, careful not to dislodge any of the blocks precariously perched all around us.  The hours continued to pass and I grew more and more exhausted.  I'd finished the last of my food at breakfast, and though Ben had given me a couple of bars during the descent I'd probably eaten less than 500 calories all day.  I knew I had to stay alert, that our safety depended on it, but it was just so hard.  I started to fall asleep standing up at the belays.  


Ben rapping into the abyss.  Cheyne Lempe photo.

Through the exhaustion, slowly, quietly, my ego crept up on me once again.  What are Cheyne and Jon and Ben thinking about me?  Do they think I'm weak or a pussy for not pulling my weight when it matters most?  Does Cheyne wish he had climbed with someone else?  Do they feel as tired as I do?  How do they seem so alert and focused?

I've imagined myself in situations like this before, when I read epic stories in climbing magazines or books about all-night descents and precarious moments.  I always figured I'd find the strength to focus my mind and take control when I found myself in that position.  But in that moment, as the shit inched closer and closer to the fan, I realized that I just didn't have it in me.  I wanted to be able to take the lead.  I wanted to pull my weight.  I didn't want to look like a gumby in front of such accomplished people.  I wanted them to like me and respect me.  But I was just so tired.  

Disappointed in myself, I took on the easiest role, going third on each rappel as we descended further toward the glacier.  At each belay I waited for the unmistakeable sound of a huge block tearing loose above us.  

When my feet finally touched down onto the snow of the glacier I felt incredibly grateful for flat ground.  I post-holed down the debris-strewn snow cone, away from the danger above and toward the tiny circle of light coming from Ben's headlamp.  Soon the others joined us and we pulled out our stoves to melt some water -- none of us had drunk anything in hours.  

"Man," said Ben in a serious tone, "There were a couple moments up there where I was fondling my wedding ring, wondering whether I'd see my wife again."

We nodded in understanding.  All of us had been scared.  A few days later some friends would tell us that they had seen huge blocks ripping down the gully all day.  Why none fell as we rappelled is something I'll never know.

As we slurped down hot Emergen-C I realized I had lost all sense of time.

Gleason pulled out his watch.

"It's 2:30 in the morning."

We had been on the go since at least 8am the previous day, eighteen and a half hours ago.  But despite my desire to curl up right there and sleep on the glacier, there would be no stopping tonight.  We had no more food and hardly any gas left.  We had to keep going.  Growing cold, I set off in front of the others.  I fell into a mindless gait and plodded alone across the glacier.  One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other.  I was thankful for the unknown climbers that had left a highway of tracks to follow so that I could avoid the gaping crevasses that lurked in the darkness beyond the light of my headlamp.  

By the time I reached Paso Superior I was so exhausted that I questioned my ability to safely negotiate the steep snow slopes below.  I had stumbled a couple of times on the glacier simply because I stopped looking at where I put my feet.  Doing the same on one of those slopes could easily mean a death fall.  I took off my pack, sprawled out on a flat rock in the middle of the trail, and promptly passed out.  


Catching a few winks before the march continued.  Cheyne Lempe photo.

Twenty minutes later the others woke me as they stepped over my outstretched body.  I was so incredibly tired that I considered sleeping there for a few more hours.  Cheyne's offer to leave me both of our sleeping bags made the idea that much more tempting.  But the soft snow would only get worse once the sun rose, so I trudged onward as the first faint wisps of red and orange appeared on the horizon.

Finally we reached the end of the snow and stopped at Laguna de Los Tres to rest and fill up on water.  Gleason took a nap on the far side of the laguna.  Cheyne and Ben decided to push on, hungry for the empanadas waiting in town.  I was out of food and just as hungry as them, but I knew I had one last Starbucks Via packet in my bag and I needed that caffeine to get me through the final push back to El Chalten.


Descending the final snow slope to the laguna.  Cheyne Lempe photo.
Ben looking very tired but also very happy as the sun rises on a new day.  Cheyne Lempe photo.

I watched the others disappear out of view and soon I was alone.  I closed my eyes and listened to the hiss of the Jetboil and the rush of water flowing down the rocks next to me.  I ran my hands over the smooth, cool stone beneath my legs and felt a light breeze blow across my face.  The first rays of sunlight fell upon my back and I took off my shirt to soak in their warmth.  I opened my eyes and looked up to see the entire east face of Fitz Roy glowing pink before me.  

I started laughing.  A low chuckle at first that soon morphed into a full-on laugh-out-loud howl.  If anyone had come across me at that moment, shirtless, sweaty, laughing, they would have certainly thought I was crazy.  But I couldn't help it, it was just so improbable -- that such a mountain could even exist, that I was there to see it, that we had just stood on that faraway summit, that we had climbed the Care Bear, that we had made it down sore as hell but safe and unscathed.  

More than anything I could not believe how absolutely, wondrously, indescribably beautiful the mountain was at that moment.  

And not just the mountain but really how beautiful that entire moment was in life.  

And not just that moment but really how beautiful all of life surrounding me was and is.  

Maybe it was the coffee, or maybe it was the sun bringing new energy to the day, but despite five days on the go and only 20 minutes of sleep in the previous 24 hours I felt vibrant and alive and deeply happy.  And I realized that I couldn't care less about what anyone else thought about me right then, whether they liked me or respected me or loved me or hated me.  Their thoughts couldn't do anything to how I felt at that moment -- content with myself and with life.  

A few minutes later I finished my coffee, turned my back on Fitz Roy, and with a smile on my face started toward town, into the light of the rising sun.

Downing some much needed empanadas in town after the climb.  Matt Van Biene photo.



VI. Return

By the end of my trip I had the fantastic luck of standing on five summits in the Fitz Roy massif.  Since returning from Patagonia I've had numerous friends and acquaintances congratulate me on my season down there.  They say things like, "Dude! You climbed the Care Bear!  That's so fucking rad!" or "God I am so jealous of your life right now!"  or "Dude that is bad ass!" 

Part of me -- that greedy, needy, desirous ego -- can't help but enjoy soaking in these compliments.  It feels pretty damn good to have others think that you're cool or a badass.  But an even bigger part of me can't help but think that many of these congratulations are based on the wrong reasons -- the same false reasoning that makes me think others are better or cooler than I am simply because of the routes they have climbed.  Many of my friends showered me with their compliments after I mentioned only which climbs I'd done -- not how long we took, not what style we climbed in, not how deep we'd had to dig, not whether it had been easy or hard, not what the experience had been like for us.  All they knew was that I had climbed a couple big routes in Patagonia, and that was enough to warrant their congratulations.  

We're taught to think that the longer and more difficult and more remote the route, the more respected it should be.  This belief is reinforced by "newsflashes," blogs and magazine articles that celebrate the "hardest" ascents or "biggest" climbs, citing mere numbers as the important information we need to know and care about.  

But I am convinced that the "worth" of a climb, if there even is such a thing, lies not in its size or its difficulty or its reputation.  It lies in the experience of the climber -- the fear and joy and exultation felt as you move higher up a wall, the concentration required to unlock a difficult sequence, the overwhelming tiredness that envelopes your body at the end of a massive day, the smile that creeps across your face as you look out over a magical landscape, the joy of pushing through exhaustion and discovering that you're capable of more than you ever thought possible. 

Perhaps most importantly, it lies in what you take away from the experience -- what you learn about climbing, about yourself, and about life.  It lies in the new thoughts and beliefs you bring down from the mountains to influence your daily life back home.  Because, honestly, if you succeed in climbing a massive, fabled route in some distant land and yet it doesn't change how you act at home, or in some way make you a better person, is it really worth celebrating or caring about? 



VII. Who Cares?

On a windy day near the end of my trip I hung out in El Chalten with the usual crew of gringos.  My friend Colin and I sat discussing the scene at our local climbing gym, the Seattle Bouldering Project, and the large numbers of cute college-age girls that climb there.  

"Dude, wanna know what sucks?" Colin said to me.  "You're gonna get back home and go to the Bouldering Project and none of those girls is even going to know what Fitz Roy is, let alone care that you climbed it.  They only care if you climb V10 or not."  

I laughed.  Even though he was joking, he was probably right.   

But you know what?  I don't care.  

I don't care, because care.  Me. Myself. I.  

I care that I climbed Fitz Roy.  I care that I climbed Guillamet and Mermoz and St. Exupery.  I care that I climbed big routes in Patagonia.  I care not because I hope that people will think I'm badass, but because of what I experienced on those climbs and what I learned.  I care because of what the whole experience of climbing in Patagonia this year represents to me -- taking on challenges with outcomes unknown, overcoming fears and self-doubts, and confronting my ego head-on.  It represents discovering deep reserves that I've always hoped I had, but hadn't been pushed hard enough to find before -- as well as finding out that these reserves aren't quite as deep as I had hoped.  It represents the raw excitement and electric elation I felt as I moved up and down those granite giants.  It represents both the joy and disappointment of seeing how I react in trying situations, of seeing both how strong and how frail I can be in these moments.  It represents newfound confidence in myself and newfound respect for the power and danger of the mountains.  And above and beyond everything else, it represents a moment in my life when I took my dreams, acted on them, and turned them into reality.  A moment when I showed myself just how possible this is.  

And that, I believe, is something truly worth caring about.


Hasta luego.  I'll be back.

4 comments:

danieL said...

this EXCELLENT writing. soo inspired

climbski said...

Rudyard Kipling
If

If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!

Peter Haan said...

Terrific experience and trip. You should take this work to Alpinist Magazine. I have to think they would be interested in publishing your tale.

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