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.

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