Confronting Love and Death While Spreading Ashes on Fitz Roy
After losing her life partner, Gisely “Gi” Ferraz learned how to regain her strength as a climber and a person while spreading his ashes from his favorite summits. On Fitz Roy, she confronted death.
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Gisely “Gi” Ferraz was familiar with death in the mountains.
Not because she had narrowly escaped her own. Or because she had rappelled past blood-smeared walls and partially buried bodies that the Patagonian wilderness had claimed only hours earlier. Her familiarity with death in the mountains was more intimate than that.
In August 2019, Gi tied in with her boyfriend, Ken Anderson, for a lap on Parallel Passages (III 5.10b/c)—a long series of splitter cracks ascending over 1,000 feet to the summit of the third peak of the Chief, in Squamish, BC. Ken knew the line well—it was one of three routes on the Chief that he had successfully soloed on his 33 birthday.
That day, while leading a pitch of moderate 5.7 climbing—a pitch that he had opted not to protect—a hold broke, and Ken fell more than 80 feet. His body contorted and writhed after he rag-dolled to a rest below Gi’s belay. Gi rushed down to him. She held him in her arms for more than three hours while awaiting Search & Rescue.
There on that ledge, in her embrace, Gi felt Ken’s life slip away.
That’s where it started: not just Gi’s familiarity with death in the mountains, but also the journey that ultimately led her to face mortality in Patagonia.
In the months following Ken’s death, Gi grappled with such an intense and profound pain—a pain that felt impossible to shoulder. She received an outpouring of support from Ken’s friends. Pamela Shanti Pack invited her to climb, Loni Kauk insisted that she find gratitude for the time she was able to spend with Ken during his final moments of life, and Brette Harrington assured her that the perpetual pain would lead to renewed strength. But Gi felt isolated and insignificant. Damaged and detached.
She spent most of her days alone, sleeping and reliving Ken’s fall. Feeling his life slip away over and over again. She didn’t want to die, but she also didn’t want to live. She was numb, nothing mattered anymore. Never mind climbing, just the act of watching her friends boulder—seeing them ascend a mere 8, 10, 12 feet off the ground—sent shockwaves of fear throughout her body. When will the next accident happen?
But, she also knew that the paralysis of pain would prevent her from finding peace. Ken was dead, but their dreams didn’t have to be, nor would he want them to be. So, after several months of stillness—unsure if she was ready, but determined to turn her pain into something much more powerful—she left Squamish and the Chief and the agony of her memories behind, and made her way back to the place where it all began: Yosemite.
Yosemite is where she went when, years earlier, she decided to quit her job and commit her life to rock climbing. It’s where she met and fell in love with Ken. It’s where she spent six days supporting him on El Cap, following behind him as he sent Freerider (5.13a) from the ground up. And it’s where she spread the first bit of Ken’s ashes, on the summit of El Cap, surrounded by Ken’s closest friends.
Standing at the top of El Cap with Ken’s ashes, Gi noticed a heart-shaped rock. Ken is here, she thought, and took it as a sign that she was on the right path.
Gi slowly reintroduced herself to rock climbing, rope soloing across the Valley, repeating many of the routes she had climbed with Ken. She began rebuilding her confidence, remembering what Ken had taught her about crack climbing technique, about precision, about dreaming. She began to feel reconnected, both with rock climbing, and with Ken. She spoke to him as she climbed, and made a promise to spread his ashes on the summits that meant the most to him—and on the summits they had always dreamed of climbing together.
Her mental capacity continued to expand. She free soloed After 7, the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak, as well as the Matthes Crest Traverse. Ken is here, always her mantra, as she spotted heart-shaped rocks along the way.
Over the next two years, Gi climbed peak after peak. She spread Ken’s ashes from the summit of Half Dome, more from the summit of the Hulk, and then, one day, found herself booking a one-way flight to Argentina. She was going to Patagonia, chasing her and Ken’s dream of climbing Fitz Roy.
Patagonia is famous for long approaches and bad weather, precarious climbing and treacherous descents, immaculate alpine granite that stretches for thousands of feet up to a jagged snow-capped skyline. The mountains surrounding El Chaltén were notoriously dangerous, and Gi was reminded of this when she arrived in town to find the entire climbing community trying to recover the body of Korra Pesce. Pesce had just established a new route to the summit of Cerro Torre, but was caught in an avalanche during the descent.
But Gi was ready. She was ready to climb, to confront death, and to regain herself. Her pain gave her focus and strength, just like Harrington assured her it would.
After almost two weeks in El Chaltén, a weather window opened, and the town began to buzz. In a frenzy of nervous excitement, climbers rushed about, stocking up on food and packing gear.Just in time to take advantage of the good weather, Gi secured two partners—Pedro Cifuentes of Spain, and a local climber named Franco Zágate—to attempt Fitz Roy via Afanassieff (VI 5.10d; 5,300 feet).
She didn’t tell her partners about her plan to spread Ken’s ashes from the summit of Fitz Roy until they were well underway on their eight-hour approach via Paso del Cuadrado. The simple act of verbalizing this goal made it real, and gave her strength as she trekked up loose talus fields and across glaciers. Her partners understood the significance of this goal, and the intensity behind it. Gi had their full support.
Standing at the base of Fitz Roy was overwhelming, but—like Ken had taught her—Gi broke the climb down into sections, and it suddenly felt manageable. She and her partners each brought a unique talent to the team, and the combination of those talents would set them up for success. Gi was comfortable leading any of the rock pitches, while Cifuentes was comfortable leading the ice and mixed pitches, and Zágate could climb with a heavier pack, alleviating the leader from the burden of carrying too much weight.
The moment her fingers touched the crisp alpine granite, Gi felt energized. She began jamming and laybacking her way up the 5,000-foot wall, all while a symphony of rock fall and avalanches played in the distance. The mountains were moving, but so was she. After two days and two nights on the wall, she and her team reached the summit of Fitz Roy.
Clutching Ken’s ashes close to her chest, Gi could feel his presence and protection. Ken is here. She could see his smile, she could feel his spirit. Losing Ken was the most devastating experience of her life, but there she was, on the summit of Fitz Roy. She was overcoming her grief, and in the process doing what Ken had always taught her to do: Trust herself. Her confidence didn’t come from knowing that she could follow Ken, or that Ken would keep her safe, but rather from trusting her own capacity and aptitude as a climber.
She released his ashes from the summit of Fitz Roy, and felt the pain of her loss give way to the power of perseverance, strength, determination, and—above all—love. She would never fully recover from losing Ken, but she was finally ready to truly live again.
As Ken’s ashes swirled away, a massive cloud swirled in. Gi and her partners knew it was time to get off the mountain and down to safety. But they got lost finding the proper rappel line. After a few rappels, they ended up at the Supercanaleta, where they were lucky enough to be able to radio down to some friends in El Chaltén. They were told to climb back to the summit of Fitz Roy, but to be careful—there had already been two accidents on the rappel line that day, and one alpinist was confirmed dead.
The weather conditions were changing fast. The warm sun they had experienced earlier that morning had given way to intense winds, snowflakes that struck their skin and eyes like daggers, and poor visibility. Their expedition had, in a matter of minutes, become quite serious.
Climbing once again, Gi refused to look over the edge, where fear and death awaited. She concentrated on making it back to the summit, staying laser-focused on her technique, and asking Ken for protection. Conditions on the summit were perilous, and Gi and her partners enclosed themselves in a tarp, once again radioing down to their friends for a weather update.
The worst of the storm was still 24 hours away. They had time, but not much. Their friends made it clear: they needed to get down fast, but they needed to wait until nightfall to give the snow and ice below—specifically the final rappel, La Brecha de los Italianos—some time to refreeze after baking in the sun all day.
They left their makeshift bivy at 10p.m., and—after 20 minutes of searching—found their rappel station covered in a fresh coating of ice and snow. After three rappels, they were out of the clouds and under a moonlit night sky. Gi felt a glimmer of hope. Ken is here.
The rappels are incredibly technical, traversing the entire time, pitch after pitch. It was airy and exposed, and they were overtired and dehydrated. They finally reached the La Silla pitch, an ominous loose gully that reeked of death. They could see buried body parts—a foot and a crampon under snow, and another body under a pile of rocks. They knew the next few rappels would be the most critical.
They formulated a plan and decided to rappel the final eight crucial pitches one at a time, with each climber waiting to descend until the climber before them was standing safely on the glacier below. It was a slower system, but much safer.
La Brecha de los Italianos—the final rappel—had claimed the life of an American alpinist, John Bolte, just hours earlier, and Gi was excruciatingly aware of this during every second of her descent. She was going—slowly, slowly—when she heard the grim sound of rock fall. Tumbling all around her, Gi ducked for cover, anchored under a small roof.
It was the same roof that Bolte had tried—but failed—to safely anchor into earlier that day.
She knew because his blood was everywhere.
Gi flashed back to that sunny day on the Chief, when the mountains took Ken’s life. She had been through so much worse, and today, no, she was not going to die. Once the rock fall stopped, she focused on moving quickly and getting down to the glacier safely, where the Commission de Auxiolio Chaltén—a volunteer-based climber rescue group from El Chaltén—welcomed her with warm food and tea. This group of volunteers, which included the accomplished German mountaineer, Thomas Huber, had been ready to jump into action in the event of a catastrophe during the final rappel.
Her and her team survived the rappel and made it back to town safely, elated by their accomplishment, but aggrieved by the fact that so many other climbers did not have their same luck.
The mountains give, and the mountains take. What they took from Gi was her true love, her life partner. But what they have given her is the opportunity to build her own strength to overcome adversity, and the acumen to take on future challenges, without fear.
Since returning from Fitz Roy, Gi has, alongside Pamela Shanti Pack, established more than 26 new routes in Indian Creek. She is also projecting Freerider, appreciating the route’s connection to Ken, but also making the project her own. Because, yes, Ken is here…but so is Gi.