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Lessons From 30 Days Spent Stuck in a Snow Cave

During the storied 1968 ascent of Cerro Chaltén, five climbers spent 30 days sheltered in two different 10' by 10' ice caves on the mountain.

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In 1968 I was one of a group of climber friends who drove a 1965 Ford Econoline van from California to Patagonia where we made the third ascent of Cerro Chaltén (Fitz Roy), an 11,171-foot granite, snow-blasted peak. The trip and the route are relatively well known in the climbing world because of the films Fitz Roy and Mountain of Storms, the book Climbing Fitz Roy 1968, and of course, the subsequent resumes of my mates on the journey: Yvon Chouinard, Doug Tompkins, Lito Tejada-Flores, and Chris Jones.

The trip took nearly six months, two of them on Cerro Chaltén. For 30 of those days the five of us lived in two different ice caves on the mountain, each approximately 10’ by 10’ in size. We spent 15 consecutive days living in the highest one. The weather, particularly the infamous Patagonian winds, made movement impossible. Most days we were unable to leave the cave. It was a life changing trip and significant climb filled with memories and lessons for each of us, many of them from the cave.

I gave talks about the trip for several years and, of course, mentioned the 15 days we spent confined to that second cave. After one event in the mid-’70s, a woman from the audience came up to me and introduced herself as a facilitator of encounter group therapy sessions. She asked if I knew about them. My impression was that people in the group let out their repressed hostilities and overcame social politeness to express their truest feelings and thoughts, uninhibited by how those might be taken by others. You let it all out on whoever was there, and they’d let it out on you. It was said to be therapeutic. The theory was that such discourteous venting produced a healthier psychology than did respectful etiquette. She said that I was more or less right.

She said that our 15 days in the cave had to have been “the all-time encounter group therapy session.” I thought about it a moment and told her, truthfully, that it wasn’t. So far as I could remember, there was never an unkind word between any of us during those 15 days, though there was abundant good-natured, uninhibited ribbing of the smelly fart and body odor variety, especially during the once-a-day “shit call” when a hole was dug in the floor of the cave, and we took turns relieving ourselves into it.

She didn’t believe me.

She thought I was either repressing or not remembering the true events. This woman’s genuine, if erroneous, belief that the five of us could not have spent that much time in such conditions without conflict—because that is what humans do and that is how humans are—has intrigued me since then and lead me to ruminate on that time in the cave. Encounter group therapy turned out to be more of an exploratory branch of the human potential movement than a root of the tree of human psychological healing, but more than 40 years later that woman’s misjudgment about our personal dynamics in the cave has stayed with me.

Five of us—each opinionated, strong minded, not reluctant to speak up, sometimes abrasive, and always right—did exist for two weeks in a cramped, damp, cold snow cave, not only without conflict, but with a great deal of camaraderie, good cheer, cooperation, consideration, re-told stories, bad odors, and worse jokes. We survived, completed the climb, and have remained good friends for nearly 50 years (Doug died in December 2015). I have participated in and know of many, many other climbing expeditions that were filled with conflict, hostility, and demeaning behavior. Some climbers learn and move on from those dynamics, and some do not. Climbers are human and expeditions are microcosms of the human condition. There are lessons to be learned from them.

Some of those lessons from the cave on Fitz Roy have been worth contemplating, yet I would have never considered them had that woman had not appeared after a slideshow to offer her assurance that conflict is the natural way of humanity and that encountering it is the path to psychological healing and good health.

Au contraire. I think conflict and good health—psychological or physical—are antithetical. By the time our little group arrived at the second cave, we had spent a few months together in a small van driving the length of South America—sleeping on the ground and in the van, surfing, skiing, cooking, eating, and cleaning together. We learned the strengths and weakness, follies and genius, social and other skills and their absence, philosophies and prejudices, histories and dreams of ourselves and each other. Yes, there were a few conflicts which we worked through and learned from. The more we learned, the better we worked together as a team, a unit, an expedition, an interdependent band of humans on the same path up a mountain. That path included time in the cave which I’ve come to think of as a microcosm of human life on Earth. Despite the opinion of the well-intentioned encounter group therapy leader, our cave time was marked by cooperation, encouragement, and interdependent care, a good model, it seems to me.

We were in the cave together; there was nowhere else to go. The cave was our world. We didn’t have phones, or GPS, or anything. A few people knew we were on the mountain, but if the cave had collapsed into the crevasse beneath its floor (always a possibility in the backs of our minds) or if we had been asphyxiated (also a possibility) those few would have had no idea of how to even search for us. We were acutely aware that we were on our own and that our mutual dependency was a great gift paid for with respect. The challenges and discomforts of the cave were shared. When food supplies ran low, rations were distributed equally. Our team dynamic wasn’t so much a conscious choice as a necessity guided by instinctive intelligence and gratitude for the present moment. Think of that: With nowhere else to go, survival is dependent on equal sharing of, rather than competing for, available resources in a spirit of cooperation, companionship, and compassion. Just like all of life on Earth.

This article was originally published in 2018.