Fantasyland - A deranged trip up Cerro Torre

A deranged trip up Cerro Torre

In 2007, Kelly Cordes and Colin Haley linked two monster routes to climb Cerro Torre base-to-summit in 32 hours. And you know what? It's all good, brah. ...

The kid wouldn't let up. First, an email. Not just one email, either. Then phone calls.

"C'mon duder, you've got nothing better to do," Colin Haley said into the phone. I took another swig off my margarita, looked out my window at another splitter October day in Estes Park, and then threatened to call his parents.

Colin's always psyched for climbing. Only 23, he has the skills and alpine résumé to humble most crusty old veterans. When Colin was 10, his father took him up mountaineering routes in the Cascades. In high school, to harden himself for bivies, Colin slept on plywood — until he started getting laid, anyway. He recently had one of the finest yearlong alpine sending sprees (10 months, actually) ever, starting with his and Jed Brown's tremendous new route on the 7,600-vertical-foot north face of Mount Moffit (13,020 feet), in Alaska's remote Hayes Range. I'm 16 years older than Colin, and I envy his enthusiasm in a wistful, longing way. It makes me smile. I also knew it could only help me if we partnered up.

Alex Lowe once said that there are two kinds of climbers: those who climb because their heart sings when they're in the mountains, and all the rest. I'd like to fancy myself the former, though sometimes I wonder. Sometimes on alpine trips, my inner coward goes crazy, and just waiting around until I get to go home sounds best. Yet over the years, I've beat those thoughts out of myself, and at a specific point everything changes. We cross the 'schrund and I feel like I'm flying, in a different universe, a fantasy world that shapes my life from that moment onward. (Assuming, of course, I've gotten up off the couch.)

"Yeah, Colin, good point," I said, sighing and scanning my list of excuses: piano lessons, not quite done with this bag of chips, forgot my crampons.

     "You keep talking about going to Patagonia," Colin said, noting the obvious. Ouch.

I was broke, just returned from Pakistan, and didn't feel like getting serious about my climbing. Once I commit, my pride gets in the way — I'd have to start training. Hard. Now. Another swig off the marg.

"I have a life, man," I lied. The big Ultimate Fighting match between Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell was December 30, and Hooters always shows the pay-per-view fights for free. I don't think they have Hooters in El Chalten. (At least, not the ones with TVs.) Besides, I'd never been to Patagonia and I hate to break with tradition.

And I have a "hippie" problem. Now don't get me wrong, I'm a peace-loving guy, but something about bongo drums and slacklines makes me want to break things. And Patagonia, I'd heard, has the worst kind of hippies: the fake ones. You know, the faux-hippie-football-jock-frat-boy-combo hippies: the über-annoying bro-brah-braus. Rumor had it they infest El Chalten, where the notorious Patagonian weather means they can just smoke weed, spray, and do nothing. After festering for seven weeks in Pakistan just a couple months earlier — complete with retreat heartbreakingly short of Shingu Charpa's summit after three days and 45 pitches — maybe my brah-chi was off. So festering with a caravan of twirling goldbrickers sounded about as fun as a gutful of pinworms.

     I thought for a moment, developing my defense. "You shouldn't be going either!" I replied. Touché. Colin kept taking months off from the University of Washington to climb. But this time, he insisted, he'd only miss a week of classes — the maximum allowed before the U automatically dropped him. (When you're on the 10-year plan, apparently you know these things.) So that, along with his three-week winter break, meant Patagonia, four weeks door-to-door.

"We'll be going early, while it's still cold," Colin said. Hmmmm. Good point. Hippies hate cold, even in their llama-wool ponchos and Spin Doctors-by-way-of-putumayo faux-Peruvian toques. "You're building this up in your head — it's not that bad," Colin continued. "C'mon, man, I know you've been wanting to go to Patagonia."

"Yeah, well, but —"

" —So you can keep talking about it your whole life, or you can step up and make it happen."

Bastard.

 

El Chalten, mid-December: we plopped down in the yard of Albergue del Lago, our launching point for basecamp in the mountains. The mass of clouds known as the "Wall of Hate" so obscured the peaks I started to wonder if Cerro Torre even existed. It was starting to look like another expensive camping trip. I took a nap.

     Patagonia seems like the ideal place if you want to talk the talk. Sure this happens everywhere, but in Patagonia it sounds exotic. And with conditions not even a Slovenian would climb in, you can leave empty-handed and no one will fault you for dragging out that time-honored chestnut: "Awww, yeah, we got shut down by the weather, dude. We really wanted it, ya know [make steely-eyed "I really am a hardman" look here], really wanted it, but man, what can you do, ya know? Live to climb another day, bro."

Maybe my biggest fear of Patagonia was to come home with nothing to show but that damned excuse and some webbing-shaped calluses on my feet. I'm the king of goofing off, so I can handle some weather. Still, even if I fail — and I fail a lot — I don't want to be like that. There's a difference between being smart and making excuses, and it has nothing to do with the level you climb at, what your best send is, or any of that bullshit. If you love it, at a certain point the cartwheels stop and you go up.

 

If fantasies garnish any peak, they make Cerro Torre. It attracts not only the obsessed, but also the crazies. Or maybe it takes normal people and possesses them. Maybe its otherworldly beauty and inhospitable nature clashes with a hubristic inability to accept that there are some things we just can't have.

Nothing so illustrates the need to "possess" Cerro Torre as the Italian climber Cesare Maestri's legendary 1970 siege up the Southeast Ridge, now known as the Compressor Route, absurdly done to "prove" his bizarre 1959 Cerro Torre first-ascent claim. (Despite absolutely zero proof against overwhelmingly contradictory evidence, Maestri claimed a futuristic alpine-style ascent of the daunting north face in 1959, with Toni Egger. On the attempt, Egger fell to his death with the team's only camera.) The obsessed Maestri commandeered a large team for two seasons, fixing thousands of feet of rope and drilling more than 400 bolts with a gas-powered compressor. He littered bolts near perfectly good cracks and used them deliberately to avoid natural features via extensive bolt ladders. It wasn't a case of "different standards in a different era," for the assault was globally decried (Maestri's climb was largely the impetus behind Messner's classic diatribe "The Murder of the Impossible"). And for all his efforts on that 1970 route, Maestri retreated just below the top.

     Not that this is unusual on Cerro Torre. Before our trip, we studied the peak's history: of 11 "routes," six didn't summit, and three of them simply end in the middle of

nowhere. No summit, no somewhat accepted modern definition of intersecting an existing route or stopping at a distinctly defined landmark. I can think of no other peak where this is so readily accepted. Maybe it's just a dumbing-down to fit us into a challenge we can't meet on its own terms.

Most impressively, consider this: exclude routes that rely on Maestri's manmade path to finish, and only two routes had summited Cerro Torre. I love that. El Arca de los Vientos (Beltrami-Garibotti-Salvaterra; 2005) climbs spectacular and historically significant terrain up the north and northwest faces, covering much of the ground Maestri claimed in his 1959 charade. And then you have the 1974 Ragni di Lecco route up the West Face, rightfully known to all but true believers as the first-ascent route on the world's most beautiful alpine spire. (Maestri's fairytale would make for good fun, but it's not "all good," because he robbed his rival countrymen Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari, and Pino Negri of their rightful place in history.)

Perhaps Cerro Torre — along with the bro-brah-brau, of course — best represents the fantasy of Patagonia. And in some sordid sense, perhaps Maestri does, too. Then again, maybe the wind just drove him crazy.

 

Like our hula-hooping brethren, we'd had an ambitious plan. The longstanding project — a new link-up on Cerro Torre — had shut down better climbers than us, but conditions and timing are everything. According to our big talk, we'd pack ridiculously light — daypacks plus a stove — and punch it.

The lower "route" has a French name I can't pronounce, but back in 1994 Francois Marsigny and Andy Parkin started from the southeast side and climbed a serac-threatened, ephemeral ice and mixed couloir for 800 vertical meters to the Col of Hope, intersecting where the 1974 West Face route (which starts on the remote icecap side) wraps around. The plan and the prize had been obvious: continue up the remaining 600 meters to the Torre's summit. Hit the summit and you can go over, zip down the Compressor Route, and stroll on back to your bivy, sin problema. Right. Marsigny and Parkin got battered back by storms some 300 meters below the summit and retreated down to the icecap, their to-hell-and-back epic lasting nine long days.

     We wanted to climb Cerro Torre, and the Compressor Route didn't inspire us. Rappel it, though? Sure. Everyone draws his line in the sand, and we didn't care if we rappelled over ours. If we succeeded, neither of us had any intention of renaming anything or even naming our link-up. Every fart, sit start, and variation doesn't need a name. If we could climb Cerro Torre by fair means, that would be enough.

That was our fantasy, anyway.

 

Wind shook buildings in El Chalten. In the woods at Campo De Agostini, several times I scurried out of my tent, terrified that a tree might blow over and squash me. The Wall of Hate dominated, swallowing the peaks despite usually decent weather (wind notwithstanding) in town and even at basecamp. Perfect for hanging out talking about climbing and for not climbing. Inside the black clouds of the Wall, hurricane-force winds made even walking up-glacier nearly impossible. But my idée fixe about the climbers in Patagonia proved most baffling of all: I liked everyone, damnit. No brahs, slacklines, or hula-hoops in sight — just friendly locals and a handful of normal climber folks. We must've been too early.

Day after day we slept late, walked to town to chow pizza and chug beer, raced back to stay fit, and ruined ourselves on nine-peso (about three dollars) fifths of Doble V Argentine whiskey near our friend Freddie's tent. The Doble V sessions always started innocently enough, but then progressed with spot-on predictability. Someone would start ranting about something, and though I can't remember any of the topics, I'm sure they were all very important.

Then, no shit, it finally happened: Freddie bludgeoned-to-death the mouse that had been raiding his food box and hung it from a tree, a sacrificial offering to the weather gods. In early January, just before our flights home, the skies cleared from Patagonia to Siberia.

 

We walk up the glacier. I take my time, inspired by the dirty old parable about the young bull and the old bull. Colin races eagerly ahead. When I join him, he's sitting on a glacial erratic, staring through binoculars. I think the lower route, the Marsigny-Parkin, looks like snow-plastered rock. Discontinuous white streaks angle from left to right beneath a serac big enough to take out half a neighborhood. Debris from other seracs litters the approach. Our line appears reasonable, though, and after 1,500 feet in the serac's barrel, a rightward traverse leads to a non-threatened couloir for another 1,000 feet to the Col of Hope. From there, we'll join the outrageous rime formations of the upper West Face. It all seems reasonable — not "safe" like tennis or the couch, but reasonable — if only the route looked good.

     Grinning, Colin hands me the binoculars. Still looks like snow-plastered rock to me.

Colin picks up the glasses again, studies, and turns to me: "I don't think we'll ever have another chance for this route like we have now."

I contemplate my laziness. It'd only be about a three-hour approach from our bivy, pre-dawn when everything's frozen. If it's no good, we'd be tired but could still try something else. Or at least we could say we tried, head back to basecamp, and learn to play the didgeridoo.

"Well?" Colin asks.

 

Surrounded by a circle of bros, I'm swaying back and forth, playing a bongo drum while squinting toward the bright-blue sky. A brau throws me a pair of devil sticks; I bongo with my feet and say, "I'm soooo ready to send the sickness once the weather clears."

"Whooooaaa, so, like, how do you do it AlphaBrah?" one chick says. She's so furry I think she has Buckwheat in a headlock, but it's all good. Maybe she and I can hook it up later.

I flip my hair and reply, "Look, when I get up in the afternoon I put my pants on one leg at a time, just like anybody."

"That's what I'm talkin' about," another bro says.

"Namaste, brau," squeals another, trying to hold his bong hit.

"It's just that when I do," I continue, "I blast the Enormodome in one hour, twenty-three minutes, and seventeen-point-eight-three seconds. That's just how I roll." I strip down.

"Ohhh, it's on! It's on!" they cheer, tweaking with bro-mantic adulation.

"It's on like Donkey Kong," I say.

"Let's do this!" another yells.

"Here, hold my shirt," I say coolly, looking away and tossing it into the circle. "I'm gonna go slack some line."

 

My eyes snap open in horror and I sit bolt upright. Suddenly, I realize I'm not inside a comfy drum circle, but languishing in a bivy tent on the Torre Glacier. Morning sun beats down. Through bleary eyes, I look at Colin, three feet away. Cuts lace his swollen face; he looks horrible. I mumble a few words and try to shake the cobwebs.

"Dude, I'm a dirty hippie, so smelly people don't usually bother me," Colin says. "But you stink." Is this any way to talk to an AlphaBrah? I feel like asking, but my gummy mouth hangs open.

My body throbs with exhaustion. My swollen hands won't close. Freaky nerve zingers zap down my arms. I think I'm following Colin's words, but I need confirmation, because I can't believe I'm so damned lucky. Colin tells me he's wanted to climb Cerro Torre since he was 12. Huh? We've climbed Cerro-F —king-Torre? Come again?

I blink hard, shake my head, and stare into my sleeping bag. Dreamlike images flash before me, visions of fantastic ice sheets, falling debris, and the unforgettable grandeur of the icecap. Of rime-ice towers and snow mushrooms rising in gravity-defying, fairytale-like shapes. Of treasure hunts, seeking wind-carved tunnels that yield passage into the desperate mushrooms, and a landscape so surreal I expect goblins and hobbits to streak past. Exhaustion, hallucination, staggering in the dark on the rubble-strewn Torre Glacier.

 

I've been here before, strung-out worlds from my couch between dreams and reality, and still I can't understand it. Closing my eyes, I envision Cerro Torre's otherworldly beauty and inhospitable nature, and I can't believe it's something I could know, even for a fleeting moment. Maybe someone mickey'ed my water bottle with peyote.

     I poke my head outside and look for bro-brah-braus, but see only a disheveled heap of climbing gear and a handful of real-deal climbers. I shake my head again, in case I still have cobwebs, and then crane my neck upward at Cerro Torre. Incomprehensible. No way. Silently, I thank Colin and laugh at my laziness, my old-guy-crustiness, and my hesitation. When have I ever regretted going? Funny how that works, but they say the wind does things to people.

Kelly Cordes, of Estes Park, Colorado, still doesn't slackline, and he sure as shit don't bongo drum.

 

One Way to the Top of Cerro Torre

Base-to-summit, the link-up gained 4,600 vertical feet. From the summit, we descended the Compressor Route, as indicated by the arrow, then down the ridge facing the camera, and finally out of sight to the right, down to the Torre Glacier. We returned to our bivy camp exactly two days after leaving.

1) January 5, 2007: Start up the M-P at dawn with no real bivy gear, just belay jackets, water, a stove, and about a day's worth of food. The second carried a 5.5mm tagline. We divided the route into two huge leader blocks: I led to the Col of Hope, and then Colin took over to the summit.

2) Mixed traverse left into a couloir funneling from the serac, which looked the size of a parking garage and seemed stable. (No debris, no recent activity.) This past October, however, it ripped — twice — while four Spanish climbers tried to repeat the route. They escaped unharmed.

3) The sun released little barrages of ice and rock, spooking me. I tried to boogie but screwed-up the route-finding (typical...) and went too high before traversing back right again. The traverse took us out from beneath the serac.

4) The upper couloir (mostly hidden) led us to the Col of Hope, five long simul-climbing pitches and eight hours after crossing the 'schrund. The Marsigny-Parkin wasn't terribly hard, but featured super-sustained ice, frontpointing the whole way. Note: this photo distorts the relative heights of the route's lower and upper portions.

5) The Col of Hope, where the 1974 Ragni di Lecco West Face route wraps around from the ice-cap side. Mind-blowing views — west to the icecap, east to rolling pampas and ranchlands, south to enormous lakes, and above us, Cerro Torre. We rested and brewed for three hours, and then Colin took the lead through the wild rime.

6) "The Helmet" section, which Colin masterfully navigated by traversing far right, over flutings and up vertical, unprotectable sugar snow.

7) A little mixed climbing alongside relics (old fixed ropes and pins) from the 1974 Ragni di Lecco first ascent of Cerro Torre.

8) Top of the famed "headwall" pitch, which we finished at dark. Below the complex upper towers, we dug a tiny snow hole, crawled in, shivered, and spooned through the night. I made Colin wear the wig.

9) The upper towers, where we found several fantastic, wind-carvel tunnels with good ice. When we couldn't find tunnels, the climbing proved desperate — vertical and overhanging sugar snow with the route's technical crux (AI6-ish), plus a couple overhanging aid moves off horrible snow pickets. Gravity works against us — why not the same for the sugar snow?

10) Final snow mushroom was easy this year — some years it completely shuts climbers down. Thirty-two hours after crossing the 'schrund, we chilled on the summit for an hour without a breath of wind before beginning our descent.

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