Thursday, January 29, 2015

Patagonia - Episode 5 - Fitz Roy Attempt

In 2008, I made a half-hearted attempt to climb Fitz Roy via the Franco-Argentine with a partner that was quite a bit better than me.  I remember feeling completely overwhelmed and intimidated by the mountain, the amount of people climbing and the culture associated with alpine climbing in the big mountains.  But another part of me was hooked on this type of climbing and wanted more of it.  So I took a step back and teamed up with a partner that was at a similar level to me and we successfully climbed Poincenot via the Whillans route.  That ascent continues to be a highlight in my climbing career and helped me realize that if you start small it is possible to dream big.  Unfortunately shortly after that climb, I had my freak accident in the Torre Valley and my life drastically and abruptly took a dramatic change.

Top of La Brecha in 2008

Racking up mid-way up Poincenot

I knew going into the trip that there would be a high likelihood that we wouldn't get the weather necessary to climb Fitz Roy and so when it looked like the weather was lining up for us to climb Fitz Roy, I was ecstatic and nervous.  What if the weather changed and we wasted all this time and money attempting this peak? What if Jonathon wasn't up for it? What if I got scared? What if I got hurt again? I couldn't imagine going through another rescue like the one I had experienced in 2008. But deep down inside, I knew I was as fit and prepared as I could have ever been.  I had been training hard all fall, had gotten the best and lightest gear out there and had done my research on our intended line. In short, there was a lot of pressure to succeed.

Hiking in on a gear caching mission

Hiking towards Paso Superior on our gear caching mission

After packing our gear and getting our food together, we checked the forecast one last time before heading into the hills.  Unfortunately, a small storm we had been watching was turning out to be a bigger storm than initially predicted.  We couldn't extend our trip any longer and so we knew we would just have to accept what the weather Gods had planned for us.  And so we began the long hike up to Paso Superior.  As predicted it started to rain on our hike to camp.  As we hiked higher, it began to transition to snow.  When we got to camp, we were soaked and cold.  Fully in survival mode, we quickly set up the tent and tried to warm up and dry out our gear.  The snow didn't seem to be letting up and our hopes of climbing that night were slowly diminishing.  Despite that, we still woke up throughout the night to check the weather and see if we could make an attempt.  Unfortunately, the mountain was not in condition for climbing that evening and we spent the next day drying out our gear and scheming about how we were going to climb this thing and make our flights.  

Hiking in for our summit attempt under grey skies

Drying out at Paso Superior

The Eastern Euros really know how to dry out

With really only a day to climb, we decided we should try the shorter but harder Franco-Argentine instead of the California Route that we had really wanted to do.  Knowing that the Franco-Argentine is often wet and icy, we were starting to feel a little skeptical about this mission.  Despite these feelings, we still rose at midnight to begin the climb.

There was no moon that night and it was pitch black.  I lead us out across the glacier to the base of the route, fully disoriented by the blackness of the night.  In the back, Jonathon expertly navigated us to the base of La Brecha, the 1000 foot ice climb approach gully.  The first obstacle was getting over the berghshrund.  In 2008, I literally just stepped over the shrund like it was no big deal.  It was not so perfect this time.  We basically wandered around in the darkness for about 2 hours trying to find a way to cross this thing.  

Recognizing that the shrund was impassable, we started to try to find the alternate left side variation to approach the climb.  We wandered up some steep snow slopes for a couple hundred feet only to be stopped by some steep rock slabs.  After down climbing and traversing, we finally started to think we were on route.  We still couldn't see anything, so we were climbing rather slowly and inefficiently.  When the sun rose, I took over the lead and led us up the final mixed pitches to the top of La Brecha.  It had taken us significantly longer than we had anticipated and we still weren't quite at the base of the route.  In 2008, I remember it took about 15 minutes to get from the top of La Brecha to the base of the route and just involved a little scrambly 4th and easy 5th class terrain.  This time it was full on mixed climbing and involved a legitimate pitch with an off-width.

Heading up the left side variation of la brecha during the early morning light

Leading up the final mixed pitch to the top of La Brecha
Feeling rather demoralized and frustrated about the difficult conditions, we started to re-evaluate our plan.  When we looked up at the Franco-Argentine and saw that it was dripping with water and knowing the cracks were likely all iced up, we knew that it was not in climbable condition for us on this day. Disappointment set it as we realized that if we only had just one more day, we likely would have been able to summit this peak (via the California Route) that I had been dreaming about for 8 years.  It wasn't because of lack of fitness, gear and mental preparation; we just were out of time and luck.  And luck is something that is rarely mentioned in alpine climbing. Sure you need lots of skill but being in the right place at the right time is definitely part of the equation.  And sometimes you are in the wrong place at the wrong time and I can speak to that when the large boulder dislodged right as I stepped by it.

Does this photo look familiar? Top of La Brecha in 2015

Jonathon and our new friends we climbed next to (Bud and Justin) checking out the icy cracks on the Franco-Argentine
We hung out at the top of La Brecha for awhile and took it all in.  The views were spectacular and I tried to spin this in the most positive way possible.  I was proud of Jonathon and I for climbing like the team I knew we were capable of.  I was grateful that I was able to make this trip happen and was able to return to this place.  But ultimately I felt like we lost this gamble.  In many ways, alpine climbing is a gamble. We gamble with time, money, weather and even our lives.  I started to question my love for this crazy sport and wondered if my time would be better spent on other things.  I wondered if this trip really was worth it.  There was so much planning and preparation that went into this trip and there was so little to show from it.  As I get older, my time and money is more finite and I am acutely aware of my lack of it.  Sometimes I still wish I was a twenty-something climbing bum and I had all the time in the world and no commitments to the outside world.

Taking it all in before rappelling of La Brecha
On our hike back to town, the weather continued to be splitter and I felt like Fitz Roy was looking down at us and taunting us with her beautiful granite walls and cloudless summit.  It was taking all my mental energy to remain positive on the slog back to town.  I knew it was highly unlikely that I will ever get a chance to give this peak a chance again and that was hard to swallow.  I wondered if we just should have gone for it and risked our jobs and missed our flights (which we actually did end up missing due to a mistake on my part).  But the what if game is a game that can go on forever.

After returning home and getting some time to think about the trip, I can wholly say it was worth it.  Despite the disappointment in not reaching our goals, these raw experiences and beauty of the mountains is something that you really can't put a price tag on.  Returning to Patagonia was a dream come true and I do feel fortunate and grateful to have had this opportunity to truly come full circle in this journey called life.  This dynamic mountain range with it's jagged granite spires and harsh weather is all so addicting in either success or failure.  Until next time....

That View...

With thanks to Patagonia, Petzl and Gregory Packs for supplying us with the best gear out there.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Patagonia - Episode 4 - Mojon Rojo

We were getting antsy in town and when a six hour window showed up on the meteogram, we were more than willing to take our chances and hike into the base camp.

We planned on climbing De La S from the east and hiked towards Laguna Sucia.  It is a relatively flat hike on the main trail for about 8 km.  After 8 km, the trail follows the Rio Blanco through a relatively well marked boulder path.  Luguna Sucia is reached after boulder-hopping for about an hour.  It is a spectacular lake that is this amazing blue color.  The Fitz Roy Massif surrounds the lake and the glaciers frequently release massive chunks of ice that fall off into the lake.  

Hiking along the Rio Blanco
There were a few stream crossings
These mountains are active!
Once at the lake the real work began and about 1500 feet of rugged terrain is passed through.  There are carins every now and then but we botched the approach a bit a probably made it more difficult than necessary.  It felt very much like a burly approach in the Cascades or SE Alasks complete with loose boulder fields, steep scree slopes and stream crossings.  With heavy packs, it was a rather strenuous hike to the bivy cave and also had me on edge as I remembered the last time I was in a boulder field in Patagonia.  And that outcome was rather poor.

Boulder Field walking - my nemisis
Finally after about 5 - 6 hours of hiking, we made it to the cave.  And it literally is a massive cave, with rock walls and everything. After resting and drying out our sweaty gear, we settled in for the night.

The bivy cave!
We woke at 3 am to clear skies and a starry night as predicted.  We continued the hike up the rocky slopes and eventually made our way onto the Rio Blanco glacier.  After a couple hours, we arrived at the base of our chosen route.  Jonathon racked up to lead and the first obstacle was getting over the berghshrund. Unfortunately the snow hadn't froze and Jonathon fell in up to his waist as he tried to navigate over to the base of the route.  He tried a couple more times and then I tried too but still we couldn't make it over the 'shrund.  

View of De La S, St. Expupery, Poincenot and Fitz Roy
Not wanting to waste our time, we started to make our way towards a Mojan Rojo, a scrambly little peak that translates to meaning Red Turd.  It was essentially a mountaineering objective and offered one 80 foot 5.6 pitch near the summit.  It was stunning views of the entire Massif and into the Torre Valley.  We could see the clouds building over the Torre Valley and we quickly began our descent back to town.  

Heading up towards Mojon Rojo

Jonathon walking up Mojon Rojo

Leading the final pitch to the summit

Jonathon descending off Mojon Rojo

As we hiked back on the trail, we got to watch the front build over the mountains or 'the wall of hate' as it is affectionally called.  The big grey clouds started traveling over the range, the winds picked up and there was intermittent but light precipitation.  And that was it; our window was over and we were safely back in town warm, showered and well fed.  

Look! Its South America in Laguna Sucia!

And now South America turned into Central America

Taking it all in

The wall of hate building over the Fitz Roy Massif

Monday, January 26, 2015

Patagonia - Episode 3 - Aguja Guillaumet Ascent

View of Aguja Guillemet with Mermoz and Fitz Roy in the background 
Our first window arrived and we excitedly packed up our gear to head into the mountains.  With over a meter and a half of new snow, we were skeptical about rock climbing conditions and concerned about avalanches.  Considering all this, we knew our options might be limited.

With alpine climbing, its important to be open-minded, adaptable and flexible as conditions can change rapidly.  I tend to like to stick to my plans and can be very goal-driven in terms of my climbing objectives.  Prior to this trip, Jonathon asked me to try to be more flexible. With that request in mind, I tried to work on not getting suckered into a single objective and be willing to deviate from our plans.   

We hiked up to Piedra Negra in a light drizzle and heavy fog.  We were hopeful that the forecast was going to be accurate and the skies would clear later that afternoon.  The hike was steep and slippery but not overly eventful.  Camp was snowy and the clouds were thick, preventing us from seeing any of our climbing objectives.  

Jonathon hiking through the fog to Piedra Negra

Setting up camp at Piedra Negra as the sun starts to warm things up

We woke at 4 am the next day and began hiking up towards to Comesana-Fonrouge, a moderate rock climbing objective described as the perfect first patagonia route.  When we got to the base of the route, we decided that the route was too icy and snowy for us.  We turned around and started heading towards Guillaumet Pass to attempt the Amy Couliour.  Many other folks had the same idea and we climbed the route with several other parties.  There was lots of ice coming down the initial steep snow/ice pitches and my hand got really bruised by falling ice.  Those pitches were pretty straightforward and they would have gone much faster if we weren't so concerned about falling ice from the parties above us.

Hiking towards the Comesana-Fonrouge before turning around

Jonathon finishing up the final snow/ice section on the Amy  Couloir

Checking out the views

Once we got on the rocky ridge that lead to the summit, we thought we were close to finishing the climb. But because of all the snow, the climbing was more challenging and took some time to keep it safe.  We climbed the remainder of the ridge in our boots, while cleaning out ice from the cracks.  It felt very alpine-esq and once on the summit we felt that we had earned our summit of this 'easy' Patagonian Peak.  The views of Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and the Patagonian ice cap were spectacular and it felt great to stand on top of a peak.

Following easy terrain low on the rocky ridge of the Amy Coulior

Jonathon leading up the first part of the rocky ridge on the Amy Coulior

Leading out up high on the Amy Coulior

Jonathon following an icy crack up high on the Amy Coulior

My happy place
After we took a couple summit shots, we started to make our way down the summit snowfield.  We ran into our German friends who told us to be careful because the summit sloped had slid and avalanched.  This was especially eerie because prior to heading up the slope, Jonathon was very concerned that it was going to avalanche as there was lots of new snow and the heat had been on it for a bit.  Fortunately no one was hurt and it was just an abrupt reminder that the mountains are the boss.


The rappels were straight forward and before we knew it we were back at camp resting our legs and eating dehydrated dinners.

Rappelling off the upper ridge

Patagonia style rappel anchor

Hiking back to camp off Guillaumet Pass
We rested in camp the next day and made plans to check out the Argentina route on Memoz the following day.  However, we were defeated by the snow covered slabs that lead to the base of the climb.  Worried that these slabs would slide out similar to a pocket glacier once the sun hit, made us concerned about the descent.  And with a deteriorating forecast and no knowledge about the alternate descent, we decided to turn around and head back to camp. 

And that was it for this weather window.  And so we packed up camp, hiked down the big hill and headed back to town.
Jonathon taking one last look as we hike back to town

Jonathon hiking through the wildflowers

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Patagonia - Episode 2 - First couple days

Finally after several days of travel, we made it to El Chalten.  While  El Chalten has become quite the trekking and climbing hub, it is still incredibly far away.  

Arriving in the town has been a bit of surreal experience for me.  I spent 3 weeks here in 2008 climbing and experiencing absolute freedom.  In fact, if I do dare to say it, it was one of the best time periods of my life where responsibilities were minimal and concerns were basics.  That all changed when I broke my leg in an accident on the Torre Valley when a massive boulder dislodged just above me when I was hiking to the base of a climb.  It was an involved rescue and I ended up spending 1 week on bedrest in the tiny El Calafate hospital prior to flying home solo with a cast from my hip to my foot.  I ended up with an open fracture to my tibia and fibula which required three surgeries and multiple months of rehab to fully recover.  I am forever indebted to the people, most of whom I did not know, who dropped everything to help me.  It was a life changing event and so much in my world has changed since 2008.  

Topping out on Poincenot in 2008 after climbing the Whillans Route
Attempting to crab-walk down the Torre Valley after I broke my leg.  My dear friend Anna Pfaff is helping me.
My first ride out of the Torre Valley on a home-made rope hammock 
Not many people have such a pivotal and life-changing experience that totally changes their world view and direction in life.  It is a rather unique experience and while very challenging and scary, I think it has ultimately shaped my outlook on life and made me a better person for it all.    I obtained a second degree and have a legitimate career.  I own a home and I got married.  Through all the changes, though, I still really wanted to return to this place that impacted me so much.

Not only has so much changed in my world since 2008, this place has changed too.  The roads are mainly all paved, some campgrounds have disappeared, there are trendy restaurants, some swanky hotels, and there is a bus station.  All evidence that El Chalten has become a popular tourist destination.  Things are a bit more expensive and lodging is hard to find.  What has not changed is the beauty of the mountains and the desire of the climbers to challenge themselves on these iconic peaks.

View of El Chalten and the Fitz Roy Massif from the crags in town

Patagonia - Episode 1 - A stop over in Buenos Aires

Just a couple days ago, I was struggling to keep my eyes open through the dark night as I monitored my patient's blood pressure and heart rate.  I treated their pain and nausea and comforted them as they re-hashed the details of their own life changing events that had lead to this hospital stay.  When morning came and the shift ended, I quickly gave report as my mind drifted towards the next adventure.  

It was snowing hard on the drive home and it seemed like it was that sort of Wasatch storm that skiers dream about.  Instead of getting my ski gear together or collapsing in bed after a twelve hour shift, I quickly gathered the last of my gear and helped load our four large duffels in my friend's car as we made our way to the airport.  After months of planning, training and buying specific gear, I was finally leaving to travel to another hemisphere to climb in a mountain range that had truly impacted my life almost eight years ago. But this time I was bringing along my husband Jonathon.

The flights to buenos aires were a blurr.  We made our way to our hostel that was the scene of many twenty-somethings congregating and chatting about the next party or the next stop on their travels.  With our bleary eyes and four large duffels, we surely stood out.  Our only task in Buenos Aires, was to exchange our dollars into Argentine Pesos.

Due to an extensive history of financial and economic turmoil, Argentina has two exchange rates; an official rate and an unofficial rate.  My sister, Johanna, had recently spent a lot of time in Argentina and gave us the beta about where and how to exchange our money.  Essentially she told us to go to Avenida Florida and look for the guys saying cambio, cambio, cambio. The woman running the hostel echoed this but told us to go to a specific address.  After navigating the subway, we made our way to this address and in my broken Spanish I explained that we wanted to exchange our dollars to pesos through the microphone on the outside of the building.  Unfortunately, I did not understand the man's reply and when I asked again, I did understand that this man was getting angry.  We quickly left that area and started wondering towards Avenida Florida.

No sooner had we started walking, a man approached us, asking cambio?  We responded yes and he said the rate was $1 to 12.7 Pesos.  We new that was a good rate and so we followed him across the street to a small quiosk type shop.  From the outside, it looked like a magazine stand.  He ushered us in the small door and then quickly closed the door.   Jonathon and I were crammed inside this small building, where we met a petite woman standing behind a glass-protected window with a legitimate looking money counter.  Thinking that this was starting to look more official we exchanged the majority of our money. 

As we walked away, we quietly giggled about the absurdity of that entire situation. We eventually made it to Avenida Florida where we exchanged the rest of our money.  Exactly as my sister had described, there were many men yelling out cambio, cambio, cambio.  There were police patrolling the area and they seemed to ignore the interactions or just looked the other day.  I started to recognize this area from my brief visit to Buenos Aires in 2008.  I don't recall this sort of underground exchange rate and the city looked a little dirtier than I had remembered.  Regardless, the people were friendly and the food was tasty.  

With our one and only task complete, we knew our stop over in Buenos Aires had been successful.  

Jonathon navigating the streets of Avenida Florida

Petzl Spirit Screw-Lock Review & the Perfect Anchor/Belay System

Within the last year, Petzl introduced the Spirit screw-lock carabiner based on the well-received non-locking Spirit carabiner. At 45 g, it is one of the lightest locking carabiners on the market.  To achieve this impressive strength to weight ratio, it is designed with an H cross section and made out of aluminum, while still rated to 23 kN on it's major axis. It also has the key-lock feature to help with clipping and minimize rope snagging. Finally, the carabiner is easy to lock and unlock with just a slight flick of the finger. In fact this is my only issue with the carabiner as it seems like it will occasionally unlock itself.  Fortunately there is a bright red indicator that reminds the user when it is unlocked.

The carabiner is very compact and small, but not so small that it is difficult to maneuver. In fact, Petzl designed it to be used at belay stations as it's small size helps keep anchors tidy and neat. I have been using it as one of my anchor and belay station carabiners and really like the addition of this piece of equipment to my system.

I've tested the Spirit screw-lock out while sport climbing, trad climbing and on snow and ice. I've had no issues with it icing up or getting frozen. With gloves on, I have found it a little challenging to get my clove hitch on it and so sometimes I will substitute an Attache for my clipping point and I will use the Spirit screw-lock to clip my reverso to the anchor in auto-lock mode. Finally, I use the Am-D carabiner as my other locker in auto-lock mode as the carabiner is designed on a rounded frame so as to minimize friction and reduce the work associated with belaying the second climber. This is the best anchor/belay system I have ever used and it minimizes weight while also maintaining dexterity and reducing friction.