Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Visit with The Emperor - Mt Robson, Infinite Patience

One of the great contradictions of climbing writing is that the bigger and deeper the experience the more difficult they tend to be to write about. Soloing the Emperor Face is one of those experiences that can’t be fully summarized in a few paragraphs, but it was such an awe-inspiring climb that it would also be a shame to not even try to write about it while it’s still fresh in my mind.
The Canadian Rockies are an intimidating place to climb alone; the mountains are big and remote with oftentimes loose rock of course zero infrastructure or cell reception if something were to go awry. Another characteristic of the Rockies is that in my mind the best time to climb here is in the Spring, Winter or Fall, the main reason being that in these seasons the gullies tend to be much less melted out, the rock more frozen together and the scenery to be the most spectacular in general. Many of the faces are likely easier and faster to climb with less snow, but there is always the danger of falling rock and the mountain faces often appear less healthy in their state of  dryness and summer ice recession.

My first attempt to climb alone in the Rockies was during a -35 cold snap on the Columbia Icefields in November of 2014. Being my first experience in the Canadian Rockies I had little idea of what to expect when I started up Mt Andromeda’s ‘Shooting Gallery’, and I was treated to a rather frightful concoction of downward sloping frozen cubes of choss masked beneath six inches of powder snow and a complete lack of ice in the couloir. Unable to climb down, and unable to construct an anchor in the compact rock to retreat, I was forced to continue climbing un-roped for 30 meters through what felt like a terrible nightmare. I used my tools to loosen and chop away some of the cubes of frozen rock, and use the small edges left behind to hook with my tools and stand on with my front points, the entire time wondering if I were going to skate off of the insecure holds, trembling with fear. Luckily I eventually reached a thin flaring seam into which I hammered two brass nuts that held for long enough for me to bail back down the couloir before hitching a ride to Jasper.

Since then, while building experience climbing with partners on Rockies alpine routes, I wondered to myself if I had built up the experience and technical skill to venture out again solo. Each route I did in the Rockies, even with a strong partner, felt as if it took me to my metal limits and always I was relieved to have a trustworthy and talented partner to share the difficult leads and strenuous trail breaking with.

Between March 25 and April 11 of this year I climbed four alpine routes with my Slovenian friend and climbing partner Luka Lindic, three of them first ascents in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Each time we climbed another route I could feel that my familiarity and confidence with the Rockies unique style of mixed climbing was becoming stronger. Our final route, a spectacular mixed route on the North face of Neptuak Mountain left me feeling charged with energy and mentally prepared to tackle some of my solo goals. Luka’s girlfriend was arriving on the 13th and their plan was to travel and rock climb together, leaving me a window to try my solos while feeling mentally prepared, fit and with good weather in the forecast. Sometime the stars just align.
As usual I did not have a car to get myself to the mountains, but this would present few problems thanks to public transportation and the good old tactic of sticking out the thumb on the side of the highway.

First on the list was to re-visit Andromeda to see if I was indeed better prepared to tackle the mountain solo. I took a shuttle bus going from Banff to Jasper and the driver happened to be a skier and climber who invited me up into the passenger seat where we chatted about mountains and conditions before dropping me off at the Columbia Icefields. There I set up a cozy camp in the thin trees just off the road and nicely hidden from view, in almost the exact same place I had a year and a half previous.

I did not have any sort of phone, clock or technology with me aside from an MP3 player and my headphones. I decided that I would rely on my intuition in order to wake up and start climbing at the right time. After exploring the fantastic moraines and glacial streams running from the toe of the Athabasca Glacier I went to bed early to get plenty of rest as I had only taken one full rest day since getting out from Valley of the Ten Peaks with Luka.

During the night I woke up two or three times and glance toward the eastern horizon to look for a sign of predawn. The third time I felt rested and I could see a faint hint of light about to rise over the horizon, so I had some hot tea and cereal and began the walk toward the base of the famous ‘Andromeda Strain’. I carried skis with me to make the short glacier crossing somewhat safer, and as I reached the toe of the glacier it became light enough to see the route and I could see a safe path across the small glacier to the base of the route.

I reached the bergshrund and switched into crampons and clipped a few pitons, a set of wires, and two screws to my harness before climbing several hundred feet of easy snow ice and mixed to the base of the first mixed pitch; a short corner that looked to be good fun. The pitch was not steep and I soloed it with my pack on without difficulty; soon I was cleaning snow from the typical downsloping ledges that so often are characteristic of traverses on Rockies alpine routes. This traverse deposited me at the base of a steep chimney line choked with obnoxious snow mushrooms.
At this point I traversed slightly off the easiest line to hang my backpack from a fifi hook on some fixed webbing where it would be well sheltered from the snow I would have to clean while climbing the chimney.

As I soloed up the chimney I carefully trundled snow mushrooms between my legs, taking care to cut away the mushrooms in small pieces that would not knock me off or throw me out of balance. I reached a crux move where I had to spin around and face outwards while stemming to get secure enough feet to remove my lower tool and use it to tap my upper tool more securely into place before spinning back around and pulling into a crack on the chimney’s right hand wall. Above this the climbing was easier although still sustained and exposed and always interesting and fun. I stopped once to pull up my pack on the 5mm static cord I was trailing, then I hung it once again from a fixed piton in a sheltered nook before continuing to the end of the mixed difficulties, never having to rely on any aid (aside from drytooling) or use any kind of self belay.

Upon arriving in the upper couloir it had begun to snow lightly and large amounts of spindrift were pouring down the route from above. The first wave of spindrift had me quite frightened and I braced myself waiting for the impact. To my surprise the snow was light and simply washed down over my gloves and ice tools and off to either side without threatening to knock me off, so I began to climb upwards through the river of powder enjoying the wild conditions.

In the Upper Couloir, Andromeda Strain

A cold north wind blew the powder back up the couloir creating an incredible story ambience while I climbed the old grey ice with joy. Soon I arrived at the famous exit pitch, and made my way easily up a loose ramp to gain the steeper ice bulge where the position become truly spectacular for the five final meters of ice before reaching the easy slopes above. I broke trail through poor quality snow and dug through a small cornice and found myself on the summit of Andromeda in near whiteout conditions. I was disappointed as I had been looking forward to the view from the summit, but nonetheless started picking my way down towards to the top of the Practice Gully.

Easy but exposed downclimbing around the huge cornice, followed by several rappels from V-Threads and two hundred more meters of downclimbing on snow brought me to the schrund where there was some conveniently exposed ice to rappel from for one last time. Soon I was skiing back down into the valley bottom, arriving at my tent at what I would guess to be around lunchtime.
I marvelled at how well the climb had gone and at how calm and comfortable I had felt soloing the route; the past three weeks of high frequency alpine climbing with Luka had really made a huge effect on my familiarity with the style of mixed climbing in the Rockies and ‘The Andromeda Strain’ had been the perfect warm up solo. I was so content that I thought about just staying on the icefields for a couple more days and calling things good, but the allure of my next objective ‘Mt Robson’s Emperor Face’ was far too strong.  After some wandering about in the gravel flats, I packed up camp and stood on the side of the Highway with my thumb out until a friendly Jasper local picked me up and dropped me off a traveler’s hostel in town.
The next day I made arrangements for a bus to Mt Robson, and completely reorganized and packed my equipment. I planned for four days; one to approach, one to climb and descend, one to relax around Berg Lake and a final day to hike back to the Highway and hitch a ride back to Jasper.

When the bus dropped me off on the side of the Highway I saw Mt Robson for the first time. The way it seemed to just tower above the road was like no other mountain I had ever seen; the summit felt incredible distant as if it were located on another planet entirely.  As I began to walk towards the trail head I reminded myself that you only ever get to visit a place for the first time once in your life; I began to immerse myself into the environment taking in all the sounds, the smells and the colours that gave the forest its atmosphere. As I walked up towards Kinney Lake I frequently peered upwards to the summit ridge, looking for clues on how I may descent if I did indeed make it that far. I was in awe.

I took a short break on the shores of Kinney Lake, hoping to take in and appreciate the scenery and to not push myself too hard on the approach, saving energy for the huge climb ahead. As I hiked deeper into the Valleys the scenery slowly changed and I passed through gravel flats, and up beyond the Valley of a Thousand Falls to the snow line where I put on my skis and began skinning. As I rounded the corner above Emperor Falls I began to see the Emperor Face for the first time. I continued through the flats and up to the edge of the small lake at the toe of the Mist Glacier where I planned to spend my first night, and I began to cook some food and observe the route above quietly.
The face was partially obscured in cloud and a huge lenticular cloud extended to the north off of the summit ridge. From the moraine far below I could hear the wind raging violently over the summit ridge more than 2000 meters above and for the first time in a long time I felt deeply intimidated by the aura of the mountain.  Was I ready for such an undertaking? Did I have the mental and physical stamina to commit to such a large and daunting face with such minimal equipment?
I lay on my sleeping pad with these thoughts running through my mind, feeling very small and very alone, until as evening approached certain calmness overtook me. I realized that I was approaching the route with a healthy amount of respect, and that the King also respected me and my ambitions in return. I was being drawn toward the mountain in a search for adventure, by a desire to explore my own limitations and to also be immersed in a world so deeply beautiful that it would forever etch itself into my memory. 

Below the Emperor Face

Despite a strong south wind I fell into a long sleep, and by the time I awoke it was calm and clear. There was still a hint of light in the sky and I could not tell if I had slept for five minutes or if it was nearly sunrise. I detected that the light was coming from the east so I made breakfast and coffee and shouldered my pack to start my journey up the Emperor Face.
By the time I reached the snowy moraine it was light enough to see without a light, and the snow was of the perfect consistency and angle that I could skin directly up it without sliding backwards. As the angle steepened I began switch-backing my way upwards until it was no longer sensible to continue using skis. Here I put on my harness, took out my ice tools and put on my crampons.

A few minutes later I was at the initial ice pillar of ‘Infinite Patience’. The pillar was in thin conditions, and I decided that I would tag up my back pack to make the vertical climbing easier. The steepness took me by surprise and I had to stop to shake out several times through the crux section before the angle slowly eased off. I pulled up my bag and continued up easier, but still not trivial terrain and gained the easy angled slopes leading up towards ‘Bubba’s Couloir’. There was quite a lot of snow on the face and the trail-breaking was somewhat arduous as I made my way to the couloirs entrance. Even in the couloir the snow as at times frustrating, but eventually became firmer and almost neve like as I reached the start of the traverse left into the upper couloir.

The initial ice pitch on Infinite Patience

Here, the rock was covered with about two feet of powder snow obscuring everything, but as I dug through and uncovered the rock beneath multitudes of thin cracks presented themselves making for good and securing climbing. I would brush away large amounts of snow until finding an ideal thin crack, then I would use my other tool to gently tap the pick into place creating a sort of self belay to hold onto while I continued to clear more snow away, slowly making my way sideways across the wall.

Berg Lake from 2/3 height on the face.

I reached an exposed prow heavily covered in snow where I had to dig an exposed trench further left before making my way onto the crest where I carefully maneuvered around cornices and snow mushrooms. This brought me to the upper snowlopes where I found better conditions and less tiresome trail breaking and could make my way relatively quickly towards the upper mixed runnels that ‘Infinite Patience’ is famous for. As I neared the runnels I could see two possible options, and both were blocked by large snow mushrooms making it impossible to see if there was any ice beneath or which would be the best route. The right hand option did look to be less vertical I so decided to explore it first. I soon found myself scraping up a sketchy groove while digging a tunnel though the snow mushroom; taking care not to dislodge the entire thing on top of myself. I could not help but dislodge snow into my jacket and was soon soaked all the way down to my base layer. I became concerned that if I topped out the face soaking wet and into the wind that I would become hypothermic.  I forced my tunnel through the mushroom slowly, grovelling upwards through this unexpected crux, and soon I exited the groove into easier angled climbing above. Here I found better neve and exceptionally fun mixed climbing in grooves high on the face in a fantastic position.

Upper ice runnel on Infinite Patience

 Shortly before reaching the Emperor Ridge I traversed left onto a ledge in the sun where I allowed my clothes to dry and also brewed up four litres of water, afraid that once I reached the Emperor Ridge that the wind would make it impossible for me to use my stove. Once I was sufficiently dry and had plenty of water, I drank half and saved the other two litres for the remainder of the climb. After traversing back onto the route more easy ice and two excellent mixed chimney pitches brought me to the Emperor Ridge.  

The last pitch before the Emperor Ridge

The views were phenomenal as I scrambled upwards to eventually reach the long traverse across the west face that is used to avoid the Gargoyles of the upper Emperor Ridge. This 800 meter traverse can be the physical and mental crux of the route, and although it is not technical, traversing steep and exposed snow for such a distance is a tedious affair.
I kicked steps and planted my tools for what felt like an eternity, my gloves becoming wet and freezing solid in the cold wind. I watched the sun slowly making its way towards the horizon while traversing towards the Wishbone Arete which never appeared to get any closer.

Traversing toward the summit.

 Eventually I broke upwards through moderate mixed terrain, now having to stop quite often to catch my breath and shake out my feet which were starting to become incredible sore from the hours of front pointing. I entered a blue ice groove in between the spectacular and enormous upper Gargoyles which were very reminiscent of the famous rime mushrooms of The Torres. I tried to remind myself to enjoy the spectacular climbing, but at this point my feet were in agony and I was beginning to suffer my way upwards towards the summit, now mere meters away.
I stumbled onto the summit of Robson at sunset and was rewarded to a breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountains. Snow and ice extended as far as the eye could see in all directions. Robson seemed to be so much taller than any of the surrounding peaks, like a platform in the sky looking down on the rest of the world. I was elated to have made it to the summit, but my feet were in such pain that I knew I couldn’t begin down-climbing the west bowl immediately. I peered over the edge of the south face, but I did not want to take any chances walking alone on the glacier or traversing the infamous ledges beneath the south glacier seracs.

On the summit at sunset

I decided that my best option was to dig a trench in the rime of the summit plateau and open bivouac until I felt rested enough to begin the descent. This would also allow the snow of the west bowl to freeze making for safer conditions the following morning. I had a light emergency bivy sack, essentially a garbage bag with a reflective liner, and I used my light cord and backpack as insulation to lay down on. I took off my outer boots to give my feet a break and I began snacking on my remaining food hoping that the calories would help me stay warmer through the cold windy night. I shivered inside my flimsy bivy sack and pondered my position, alone in an ice coffin on the summit of the Rockies highest peak at night. Despite the discomfort it was undeniable that the situation was quite stupendous.
At one point the wind died down slightly and I used to stove to make a hot water bottle that I placed under my hip, where I was losing most of my heat to the cold ground below. This allowed me some comfort for a short time but soon I began to shiver uncontrollably again. The wind was too strong to light my stove, so I attempted to use the stove inside of the small bivy sack. I managed to get the stove lit and was re-heating the water when in the darkness the water over-boiled and filled my bivy with water and drenched my clothes.

I yelled an obscenity and realized that my situation was becoming too desperate now to stay on the summit any longer, so I climbed out of the bivy sack and began to organize my equipment for the descent. My headlamp batteries were dead, and it took my several minutes with frozen fingers to replace the batteries with fresh ones. Rime was growing all over my gear, my outer boots and my bivy sack. I forced my frozen outer boots back on, and with numb hands and feet I climbed back over the edge of the summit plateau and into the upper west face.

Once I reached ice I became pleasantly distracted in the familiar rhythm of drilling v-threads and making my 25 meter rappels. I sometimes had to down-climb moderate mixed ground and neve to find suitable anchors and I left two nuts and piton in place to rappel short rock bands. I reached the long traverse ledge exactly as morning began to dawn. I was now slightly out of the worst of the wind and I dug a ledge into a sheltered zone between two sharp rock pinnacles to try to brew more water. Sitting on my ledge spindrift poured down just to my left and also to my right as I filled the Jetboil with snow and re-lit the stove each time the wind blew it out.
I was putting my lighter back in my pocket and removing it to light the stove so often that I kept the pocket unzipped for quick access. As I sat melting snow I noticed a small pebble tumbling down the face and over the edge of the cliff bands below. Suddenly, with a heart sinking feeling, I realized that the falling pebble was not a pebble at all, but in fact my lighter. Just then the stove blew out again.

I opened the lid and saw 500ml of water inside, so I added all of my remaining electrolyte tablets and accepted that this was to be my last water for a while. The main problem was that all of my food at the base of the route needed to be cooked in the stove and I was now worried that I would be unable to refuel after the climb.
I continued down-climbing steep frozen snow for several thousand vertical feet as chips of falling ice fell on and around me, released from above by the morning sun. I looked over my shoulder and could suddenly see the shadow of the mountain extending forever into the horizon against a red sky. I tried to take a photo by my camera battery had died from the cold and I was well beyond being motivated to replace it with a new one. I accepted that this moment I would have to be just my own for the rest of my life; it was powerful.

As I lost elevation I began traversing to the west, eventually rounding the mountain and making my way down moderate terrain near the edge of the Emperor Ridge.  As the angle decreased I realized that I was home free and that there was little chance of having an accident or mishap now. I had made it!
I stumbled along the shale bands and across snow ledges, making a couple more rappels over rock steps before eventually reaching my skis mid morning. With tired legs I skied back down the moraines and picked up the food and equipment I had left at my first bivi site. I skied to the edge of the Robson River where I lay in the sun drinking water and eating the food that did not need to be cooked.
Pondering my options, I decided to ski to the Hargreaves shelter at Berg Lake to see if there was a lighter inside. Two long kilometres later I found the shelter, and much to my relief a lighter inside! I spent a long while rehydrating meals and eating my fill before eventually falling asleep on the floor of the shelter peacefully. When I awoke, I found in my pocket, much to my dismay a backup lighter that had been there the whole time! The stress has been all for nothing.

At the shelter , Berg Lake

Regardless of the lighter situation I was deeply happy and in an incredible state of mind. It was now my fourth day alone in the mountains and my thoughts had reached a depth and clarity that I had never before experienced. The magic was real.
 I thought to myself that the essence of alpinism lies in true adventure. I was deeply content that I had not carried a watch with me to keep time, as the obsession with time and speed is in fact one of the greatest detractors from the alpine experience. I was happy that my entire experience had been onsight, on my first visit to the mountain, and that the route had been in completely virgin condition. One of the greatest challenges of mountaineering is in dealing with the natural obstacles the mountain provides. So often in modern alpinism, routes will be fearsomely difficult for the first party of the season, and then once the obstacles have been cleared, a track established or the ‘tunnels’ dug it becomes easy for those who follow.
Climbing routes that have been cleared, with an established track,simply in order to attain the summit, or keeping time in order to set records is in fact reducing the adventure of alpinism more to that of a sport climb, and strips the route of its full challenge making it more of a ‘playing field’ of a team sports athlete or like a barbell at an indoor gym where a jock tries to lift his personal best.

As a young climber it is undeniable that I have been manipulated by the media and popular culture and that some of my own climbs have been subconsciously shaped through what the world perceives to be important in terms of sport. Through time spent in the mountains, away from the crowds, away from the stopwatch and the grades and all the lists of records I’ve been slowly able to pick apart what is important to me and discard things that are not.
Of course the journey of learning never ends but I’ve come to believe that the natural world is the greatest teacher of all, and that listening in silence to the universe around you is perhaps the most productive ways of learning. Perhaps it is not much of a surprise, but so often people are afraid of their own thoughts, resorting to drowning them out with constant noise and distraction. Is it a fear of leaning who we actually are that causes this? Perhaps so many of us are afraid to confront our own personalities that we go on living in a world of falseness, filling the void of true contentment by being actors striving to be perceived by the world around us as something that we ‘supposed to be’ rather than living as who we are.
Already I have been asked how fast I was, but I honestly cannot tell you how many hours the Emperor Face took me to climb. I began when I felt ready and I reached the top at sundown.
I also don’t know how long the hike back to the road took me as well, but I do know that descending through the changing ecosystems back into the world of green lushness and deep blue lakes I felt more peace than I would have had I been counting my rate of kilometers per hour.

I’m happy to say that my visit with the Emperor was a truly special experience. At first I was intimidated by his strong aura but in the end we became friends and the King generously shared his wealth leaving me a much richer person indeed. Thank you.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 - The Highlights

2015 was an incredible year. The list of great climbs is pretty thorough, but here I have selected just a few that stand out to me as being particularly special. Here is the short list for my best climbs of 2015!

La Travesia Del Oso Buda (Reverse Traverse of the Torres) – This ascent was more of my partner, Colin Haley’s, doing than my own. It was my big introduction to climbing in the Torres and initially everything felt foreign, particularly climbing in the rime mushrooms. Topping out our final peak was a relief and but even close to the end of the journey. The climb certainly set the pace for the rest of 2015.

Directa de la Mentira (First Integral Ascent of Cerro Torre’s North Face) – Only a week or so after the Traverse, Colin and I were back on the Torre. This time many small problems threatened to shut us down; a faulty fuel canister, falling ice, running water, more falling ice, strong winds… Each of these problems we were systematically able to work through as a team and topped out at sunset the second day on the route. Another all night rappel ended one of my favorite adventure climbs in my personal memory bank.

The Corkscrew, Cerro Torre (First Solo Ascent) – The Corkscrew was undoubtedly the hardest ascent of the year. Snuck in during a dauntingly short weather window between rain showers and a biblical windstorm; the climb began with free soloing in the dark on wet and iced up rock and ended with a sprint for the summit in a race against the impending storm. As a child I had always dreamed of being an explorer, or a scientist making new revolutionary discoveries. Soloing the Corkscrew felt like a brief ‘step into the future’ so to speak, in a sense bringing to life that dream.

Northeast Buttress, Slesse Mountain (First Solo Winter Ascent) – This was the route that had inspired me to work hard and learn the skills I would need to climb in the mountains at the age of 14. Returning again to this route to attempt the second winter ascent and first free winter ascent alone, was the opportunity to take the things I had learned in other places to and apply them to raise standards in my home area. To top things off, the quality of the route in winter was well beyond any route I had ever climbed in the North Cascades. Beautiful ice streaked grooves, perfect styrofoam and a daunting mixed headwall led me to the summit overlooking the Fraser Valley I had grown up in.
Slesse in winter, the route directly in the center. John Scurlock Photo.

Séance Tenante, Gorges du Verdon – It is so surprise that a trip to the birthplace of modern sport climbing brought me to likely the finest sport route I have yet climbed. Perfect streaked limestone, twin tufas, and an overhung prow set above the scenic Verdon Gorge; Séance Tenante is a true masterpiece of the 80’s.
Seance Tenante, 8a

The Raven, Squamish B.C (First Free Ascent) – Soloing the Raven, in big wall style, was a crash course in hard aid climbing. Eventually free climbing the white pillar on pitches 3 and 4, via rappel access from Astro Ledge took several trips over the course of the following two summers. Atypical for Squamish climbing in its steepness and the bold athleticism involved with the crux pitch, the all gear protected finally also provides uniqueness with its razor thin layback flake protected with micro cams high above the dark North Gully.

Pipeline, Squamish B.C (Free Solo) – Pipeline was my personal crash course in offwidth climbing early in the year, with a rope of course. At the time I was dumbfounded by the fact that the route was free soloed onsight in 1979 by Greg Cameron. By July my offwidth technique had come a long way, and although I had not revisited the route in the months in between I felt ready to return for the ropeless ascent. I rode my mountain bike to the trailhead in the early hours of the morning, and was surprised to spot on owl lurking in a tree branch along the way.
At the base of the offwidth I felt the intimidation, but once I began to climb it all evaporated and I enjoyed every inch of the climb. At the crux I pulled into a layback simply to enjoy the exposure of the pitch, and from a stem at the apex of the overhang I bouldered back into the crack and shimmeyed my way to the top of the wall with a smile that I could not wipe for the rest of the day.
The Pipeline, Squamish' best wide crack.

The Venturi Effect + Solar Flare, The Incredible Hulk (Onsight Ascents) – California is a dreamy place for those who love clean granite cracks and everything from boulders to big walls. With Brette Harrington I made two lovely trips to attempt these routes, both established by one of my personal heroes, the legendary Peter Croft. To not fall off either of the routes was a pleasant surprise. Flawless granite, technical climbing and a beautiful atmosphere set these climbs high on the quality pedestal. The camping in the valley beneath was as lovely as the climbs themselves with plentiful bouldering and scrambling opportunities, vibrant green grass and a deep blue lake.

In the chimney of Exocet
Tomahawk/Exocet Link-Up, Aguja Standhardt (Onsight Free Solo) – In September I returned to Patagonia hoping to solo Aguja Standhardt in winter. When the weather Gods provided me with a six day window beginning the day that winter ended I happily accepted that I would instead be climbing in Spring and headed into the mountains. The highlight of course was climbing my main objective, the incredible Tomahawk/Exocet Link. I carried some gear in case I needed to belay, but conditions were ideal and I never had to make use of it during the climb. I found myself on the summit 12 hours after leaving basecamp and was back on the glacier before darkness set in. With the whole Torre Valley to myself, this was a deeply satisfying adventure experience.

The Shaft/Free Muir, El Capitan – Free climbing El Capitan was my girlfriend Brette’s idea, and when we selected the Muir Wall as our route of choice I had little anticipation of sending the thing. Fate would have it that two other friends would accompany us on the route, and as none of us really knew how to climb big walls it began as quite the shit show. There were problems with teamwork, and several frustrating episodes throughout the ascent, but topping out with 33 pitches of mostly hard climbing beneath us was an amazing feeling. More than anything the quality of the climbing was incredible, and Brette and I had never had to work so hard to pull off so many pitches of technical rock before. We can’t wait to return to the captain to free climb another route, likely as a team of two.

A 13a traverse on the Muir, Austin Siadak Photo
Nightmare on Wolf Street, Stanley Headwall – Surprisingly, before this climb I had never in my life clipped bolts while mixed climbing, nor had I climbed a hanging dagger of ice. Having the opportunity to enjoy this amazing route with Brette, and both ski out by moonlight afterwards was the perfect way to end the 2015 climbing season. Lets see now what 2016 brings, I feel it will be good. The psyche is high.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Back in Patagonia - An Amazing Six Day Weather Window

I arrived in a quiet El Chalten on the 11th of September, for the final week of winter and first couple weeks of spring.  A quick look at the forecast in the El Calafate airport showed a possible window coming in about a week’s time, so I had no time to spare. After two months spent in the urban-esque mountains of Europe and another in the growing outdoor recreation metropolis of Squamish, I was seeking solitude and adventure. Thus, I threw together a mental plan to solo Aguja Standhardt, the smallest of the three Torres in winter, but in reality felt that I would be lucky if I managed to climb anything in the area, having only been in summer and expecting very difficult conditions.

Travel was horrendous this time around,with airport delays, long layovers and my own personal errors such as going to the wrong airport ect ect.  By the time I reached El Chalten, three days after departing, I just wanted to be in the mountains. Although I arrived late at my hostel, I stayed up until midnight preparing a load of equipment to shuttle into the Torre Valley, and at 7:30 the following morning I was off.

Not knowing how much snow to expect, having both arrived and then departed in darkness, I wore my boots right out the door of my hostel. After an hour and a half on the trail, with no snow yet in sight I realized my error. Although the temperature were cold in the shade, and there was some snow on the ground I was surprised that conditions on the trail to Laguna Torre were not more 'wintery'. Then again I had not known quite what to expect, but my boots felt rather unnecessary for the first several kilometers of the approach..

The classic view of the Torres from the lake.

The descent to the Torre Glacier was in much worse shape than I had ever seen it. A section had collapsed, taking with it the old fixed rope usually used to navigate the steep descent. As I downclimbed fourth class rubble where the rope used to be, the winds grabbed at the skis strapped to my backpack and threatened to throw me off balance. After reaching the glacier, the winds abated somewhat, allowing me to cross easily and make good time to the base of the Torres. But once I reached Niponino, the popular base camp used by climber, clouds closed in and the scenery took on a whole different character. A cold wind whipped the fresh snow into drifts all over the glacier, and my hands quickly froze as I piled my equipment into the 100L drybag I had carried in with me to leave behind as a cache.

After burying my cache beneath a pile of stones I was quick in exiting the valley, the wind now in my back. A arrived back at my hostel just before darkness set in, sore from having walked a long ways in my boots.
After two days of rest I made my second carry into the valley. After two trips to the area, I had decided that making several carries is a more advantageous strategy over making only one trip with a crippling load. Fitness gains can be made this way, rather than inflicting damage on the body by carrying all the equipment at once.
This time, there was fresh snow covering the trail before reaching the Laguna. I carried my boots in my pack, and before navigating the descent to glacier I made the change to heavier footwear. Once on the glacier, my skis would have proved handy had I not left them stashed three kilometers further at Niponino. Fresh snow made the typically straightforward glacier more hazardous, and in some areas I had to probe for crevasses while breaking trail.
I deposited my second load of equipment at Niponino and made quick time skiing back down the glacier, stashing my skis where the glacier meet the moraine before walking back to town. On the walk back to town however, a pain in my left leg slowly began to grow, eventually making simply walking a painful affair. Never having had this issue in the past, I tried to remain positive that the situation would sort itself out and I would not spend the remainder of my trip hobbling around El Chalten on crutches.
The following morning some research led me to deduce that I had an inflamed IT band, likely from walking long distances so suddenly, through snow with heavy boots. I spent the next several days stretching, massaging, and took some  anti-inflammatories hoping that I would still be able to make use of a promising window in the forecast.
The window appeared to be best from the 20th of September onwards, with an unusually large high pressure system settling over the area for nearly a week. The 20th would be the last day of winter, and thus my hopes of making ‘winter ascents’ were unlikely to be realized. In Patagonia it is important to strategize in the most logical manner for a successful climb, and to not go too early simply based on how high the stoke is. For me this can be a crux. I decided that a couple extra days of rest would be good for my leg as well, and readjusted my mental itinerary to suit the dates of the weather window.

On Sunday, the 20th of September I set of from Chalten with a light pack and hopes the my knee would not become inflamed again. I felt for any twinges of pain but none came, so I picked up my skis and made my way across the glacier under blue skies. There was no wind as I leisurely set up my camp at Niponino, temperatures in the sun were rather accommodating as I lay about camp sharpening my tools, melting snow for water and organizing my equipment for the following day.
My plan for the next day was to ski and climb to El Boquete, a pass at the head of the Torre Valley, separating the Fitz group from the Piergiorgio and Torre groups. From El Boquete I would be able to see conditions on Cerro Chalten’s ‘Supercanaleta’, another line that I was interested in climbing during the long weather window.

Camp in the Torre Valley, Cerro Chalten and Desmochada catching the evening light.

I left camp early in the morning, knowing that if conditions looked good in the Supercanaleta I would want to climb the first 1000 meters and spend the night at the start of the technical difficulties. I skied up the glacier to the base of the icefall guarding ‘El Boquete’, where I swapped skis for crampons and began climbing. Much of the climbing was simply 45 degree snow, but at the top there was one pitch of 90 degree ice to navigate in order to reach the pass.It looked too steep to climb with my pack on, I built a V-thread and hung my pack from a fifi hook, so that I could retrieve it after soloing the pitch. I climbed well to the left of my pack, so as not to dislodge it with the ice that fell as I swung my tools. The quality of the ice was awful, some of the worst I have climbed and enormous chunks splintered from the serac as I climbed. I had to take great care not to be knocked off by the enormous dinner plates that continually fell as I climbed, but after twenty meters of steep terrain I reached easy ground and hauled up my pack.

On the walk up to 'El Boquete' Torre Group in the background.

At the pass I coiled my rope and inspected conditions in the Supercanaleta. The couloir looked rather thin, with discontinuous sections even below the start of the mixed terrain. Cerro Pollone however, had a large flow of neve pouring down its South Face and looked highly appealing. A few months had passed since I had really spent time in the mountains, and soloing a dry Supercanaleta did not look like the best way to start things off. The South Face of Pollone looked like a smaller objective, and it also looked to be in excellent condition.  I elected to spend the remainder of the day skiing around the pass and to climb Pollone the following morning. The afternoon was spent in a leisurely manner, skiing laps down the long undulating slope to the base of the Supercanaleta and skinning back up. I am not an expert skier, especially in climbing boots, so this was a perfect and enjoyable place for me to practice making turns in a spectacular setting. Despite the mellow angle of the hill, I still wiped out in ways that surely would have made good entertainment had others been around to watch.

 skiing with Cerro Chalten in the background.

 I spent the night under the stars without a tent in a comfortable windstopper sleeping bag and it was quite a treat.  Stars were out in full force, and although a gust of cold wind would come every now and then in the night, it never penetrated the fabric of my sleeping bag and I felt well rested when I awoke in the early hours of the morning to approach the south face of Pollone.

I crossed the schrund under the cover of darkness; I had to make a long exposed traverse above the lip of the schrund in order to reach the aesthetic smear of ice that I hoped to climb. I could sense that I had not been on exposed steep snow in some time, and whenever a patch of ice made itself present on the wall above I found comfort in the secure placement of my tools.
I soon reached the long smear of white ice that stretched the whole vertical length of the face, and was delighted to find that the neve was of excellent quality. One swing stick hero Styrofoam at an angle of about 70 degrees for hundreds of meters!
As I swung and kicked and ascended the feature with a steady rhythm the sun began to rise over the sharp fangs of the Chalten Massif illuminating the sky in red. I stopped several times to take in the beauty of my surroundings, and to appreciate my luck with such weather and perfect conditions. High up on the face the ice thinned and I had to make a series of mixed traverses to reach a parallel ice smear; the perfect quality of the ice, even when only two or three centimeters thick allowed my easy passage and soon I was at a shelf bisecting the face into two parts.
Above, a one meter wide strip of ice led for another few pitches to the summit ridge. The climbing was easy, never harder than AI3, but of excellent quaity., As I climbed higher the face became plastered in rime, obscuring everything, and the ice became harder to follow until I reached the summit ridge.  Unfortunately, my attempts to traverse to the east summit of the mountain were thwarted by the heavily rimed up stoned. I tried several different options, but each time found my tools and frontpoints bouncing off the rock beneath; unable to make a belay I returned to a small saddle in the crest which I straddled as I made my first rappel anchor. A few rappels, some downclimbing, and a few more rappels down a narrow ice choked gully brought me back to my skis at the base of the route.

Straddling the summit ridge of Pollone. The south face is the shady bit on the right.

After picking up my equipment at El Boquete I made a few rappels back to Torre Glacier and skied my way back to my tent in Niponino. A glance at my watch after reaching camp revealed that it was only 4pm, and I scorned myself for not doing another route, or attempting Piergiorgio with so much time left in the day. However I still opted to rest for the remainder of the day, and the following day to leave myself prepared to go big in two days’ time.
Taking a rest day in the Torre Valley under perfect weather, and with excellent conditions, was for me likely the mental crux of my whole venture! I desperately wished to grab my tools and solo one of the many frozen waterfalls pouring from the couloirs beneath the Chalten Massif but I continued to tell myself that I would need that energy on the following day.
During my Pollone ventures, it has appeared from the glacier that ‘Tomahawk’, the route that I wished to take on Standhardt was unformed. The other option was to climb only ‘Exocet’, a shorter route that, although still aesthetic, involves more approaching and less climbing.

How the rest day generally started, sharpening tools and organizing gear.

I walked out onto the Torre glacier to get a view of ‘Los Tiempos Perdidos’ on the south side of Cerro Torre as one of my alternate plans had been to climb ‘Los Tiempos’ and continue with a North to South traverse of the Adelas. The route looked to be in good shape, and I went to bed thinking I would start early and climb ‘Los Tiempos’ instead of Standhardt. However the objective hazard associated with the route left me feeling slightly uneasy.

What the rest day generally regressed to. A few hours later.

At 3:30 AM an avalanche in the vicinity of ‘Los Tiempos’ woke me from my dreams and I promptly changed my mind and decided to go for ‘Exocet’ instead, preferring to enjoy the day rather than await my possible impending fate at the hands of an avalanche.  I repacked my bag, adding a few cams and extra slings to the rack and at 4:30 AM began the approach towards the base of Aguja Standhardt.
Crossing glaciers without a rope, rightly known to be a harzardous activity, is the one aspect of alpine soloing that I fear the most and enjoy the least. Luckily the snow conditions were iron hard and my crampons barely left scratches in the surface. After ascending a few hundred meters by the light of my headlamp I found myself in an icefall that I did not remember from my two previous times on this glacier. I tried several different options, but found my way barred by gaping crevasses or towering seracs each time. Eventually I sat down in a relatively safe zone and waited for the first early morning light to orient myself. I ate some food, drank some water and admired the stars for about an hour until the light was sufficient to see where I needed to be.

I retraced my steps back down the glacier for about 200 meters and then took the correct route leading to Standhardt, crossing one crevasse on my knees before reaching the base of the wall. From this vantage I could suddenly see a faint strip of ice in the crux pitch of Tomahawk, and although it was hard to make out, it looked as though it may be continuous.
‘I might as well try to do what I came here for’, I thought to myself, and traversed over to the start of the first pitch; listed as M5 C1 on the topo I had in my pocket. Although more technically difficult, the steep climbing on ‘Tomahawk’ looked much more appealing to me than walking up a crevassed glacier without a belay, even in good snow conditions.
Never having climb any of the terrain on which I was about to embark I had few expectations. I carried a few cams, pins and wires as well as two ice screws so that I could build belays if necessary. I placed a shoulder length sling around a horn of rock and hung my pack from it using a fifi hook, I girth hitched another sling to the bag and clipped it to the first sling in order to retrieve everything when I pulled up the bag.

The East Faces of the Torre Group from the valley floor, taken on my way to El Boquete.

As I started up vertical but blocky mixed terrain, I removed my gloves for a better sense of contact with the rock and my tools. I entered a short offwidth section, heel toe camming to the best of my ability with crampons on and using my right tool to stick a narrow ice vein in the back of the feature. After mantling over the top of the block, a series of awkward shimmy’s across snowed up flakes brought me to a large wide corner feature. After some more offwidth climbing, facilitated by good holds on the outside edge of the crack, I was able to make a 180 degree spin and exit onto the left hand wall via a series of gritty ice filled cracks, using both my hands and dry tooling techniques. As I swung my tool into the more continuous ice at the top of the pitch I was both pleased and surprised to have not needed to belay or aid climb at all. I placed a pin and a small TCU and used the temporary anchor to haul up my pack on the microtraction before continuing.

On the crux pitch of Tomahawk.

An easy pitch led to the base of ‘Tomahawk’s main feature, 60+ meters of vertical ice in a narrow and highly aesthetic chimney. I did not want to leave a sling at the base of the pitch as I did not expect to be descending the same way, and thus chose to solo the pitch with my pack on, dragging my rope behind me. The ice was somewhat sun baked, and I had to work for solid tool placements, but the availability of the side walls prevented the climbing from ever becoming too strenuous. I used a combination of chimney and stemming techniques to ascend the pitch. At times I found myself palming the left hand wall and walking my feet up the ice on the opposite side of the chimney, using only my right tool in the ice. Drop knees and stemming between holds on the chimney’s side walls also came in handy; a technical and highly enjoyable pitch!

Chilling in the chimney on the crux pitch of Tomahawk.

I topped out this pitch and found myself staring up the more moderate snow ramps and ice steps leading to the junction with Exocet. The east face was now in the full sun and, as per usual, chunks of snow and ice were raining from the walls and running down the gullies. The face had been receiving full sun for the previous four day, and I did not expect anything too huge to come down so I continued climbing, sticking to either sides of the runnels that much of the debris were channeled into.

There were a few steps of grade 3 and grade 4 ice in the ramps, and soon I was on the main ramp that bisects the face diagonally beneath the upper headwall. Here the snow was soft and heavy, warmed by the sun, and kicking steps was heavy work due to the snow balling in my crampons making me feet rather heavy.

Looking back down to the Torre Valley. My pack hanging at a rappel anchor.

After a short while I finally reached the base of the Exocet chimney proper where I had a snack and prepared myself for the steep climbing above. As I started into the chimney I found the ice to be of generally good quality, as the sun being further to the north than in summer, did not reach the back and affect the ice.

Looking up the radical chimney pitches on Exocet

For the next several pitches, I hung my pack from in situ anchors, or from slings girth hitched through v-threads that I had made. I would solo until near the end of my 80 meter rope, then place another screw and tag up my pack. I found the climbing steep and sustained, but not overly difficult and I never felt the need to stop and belay. I slithered my back along the left hand wall, using the chimney position much of the time to progress without taxing my arms.

Climbing the ice chimney on Exocet

 After four 80 meter pitches found myself at the top of the chimney staring up at a mixed slab guarding the summit ridge. I expected to need a belay at some point, as from the base the slab looked quite thin, but as I started upwards I was able to find adequate edges to stand on and free soloed the pitch finding it much more straightforward than it had appeared from below.

Looking down the mixed slab pitch above the ice chimneys.

I topped out onto the summit slopes and was rewarded with an incredible view out over the icecap, a view that melts my mind each and every time I see it! A light wind sweeping over the ridge and some clouds in the sky prompted me to move quickly in case the weather was about to change, and I scampered over to the base of the beautiful rime mushroom that forms the summit. Here I saw that a small tunnel through the rime would provide passage onto the summit, but the tunnel was so narrow that my shoulders barely fit inside. I found myself unable to swing my tools or kick with my boots, so I resorted to some kind of ‘rodent’ technique. Similar to a squeeze chimney in rock, but distinctively more ‘rat like’ with plenty of snow and rime falling in my face to complete the cartoon like image.

Looking up the summit mushroom to the exit tunnel.

After three or four difficult meters I arrived onto the summit of Aguja Standhardt, somewhat surprised to be there after having started the climb hours before with zero expectation of what I may encounter. I checked the time, 4:30PM, exactly 12 hours after leaving Niponino. I ate some food, enjoyed the views and let the moment sink in for a short while before digging down to solid ice and building my first v-thread to rappel from.

On the summit of Aguja Standhardt. Hielo Continental in the background.

Rappelling back through the tunnel was a strange sensation, I had to make my body straight as a pencil to slide back through.. I quickly kicked steps back across the summit slopes, rappelled the mixed slab and threaded my rope directly through V-threads in the chimney below, retrieving my slings along the way and leaving nothing behind aside from holes in the ice.
The descent for Exocet is relatively straightforward, but as I had only a single 80m rope as opposed to the usual double 60m ropes, I did have to stop and make my own anchors at times.

Rappeling Aguja Standhardt.

The only frightening moment of the whole climb came during the descent. After a 40m rappel, I reached the ends of my ropes only a meter above an in-situ anchor consisting of an old bolt stud lashed with a wire, and a fixed nut. I used my crampon to snag the master point and lift it up towards my waist so that I could clip in with my daisy chain. I then slithered off one end of my rope, keeping the other end securely in my hand and tried to softly ease my weight onto the anchor. As my weight came onto the anchor the fixed nut suddenly began to remove itself from the crack, leaving me scratching at features in the rock in order to un-weight the anchor before half of popped out! With my weight off the anchor, I replaced the nut in the crack and hammered it home with the pick of my ice too. Again happy with my rappel anchor, I continued downwards towards the glacier.

I reached the glacier just before dark, around 8pm, and could see that I had one major crevasse to navigate before rejoining the track I had left in the morning. Above the crevasse I was able to dig with my tool and find substantial ice to make an anchor and belay my crossing. Below the crevasse I picked up my track and made good time back down the glacier, arriving at Niponino around 10pm where I melted snow for water and at some well-deserved snacks!
Despite being tired from my long day, I had a hard time falling asleep. I replayed the days’ events again and again in my mind, and marvelled at my luck with weather, conditions and timing. The route was undoubtedly one of the highest quality ice outings I had ever climbed, and it had been such a cool experience to climb it onsight-free solo with the entire Torre Valley to myself.

Before breaking camp and hiking back to El Chalten. The south face of Cerro Pollone in the far background.

The next morning I lay in my tent until the first sun rays illuminated the ground outside my tent, and then I dried out my equipment and re cached it in the rocks before beginning the long walk back to town.

I was exhausted while retracing my steps back towards El Chalten, but deeply content with the adventure that had passed. It had been all that I was looking for and more; with all the elements of a special and soulful venture in the mountains. Back in town, I could not wipe the smile from my face as I continued to marvel at my luck. It is often unbelievable when a idea conceived in my mind becomes a reality and a memory. Cheers to the mountains of Patagonia.

The Piergiorgio group from Aguja Standhardt. Domo Blanco, Piergiorgio and Cerro Pollone.