Words by Marc-Andre Leclerc | Photos by Colin Haley
When the weather is good in Patagonia it is time to ‘drop the clutch’, so to speak, because good weather surely means that bad weather is on the way. Arriving in Chalten late in the evening of January 15th I was surprised to hear that a four day weather window was just setting in and there would be no time to ease into things whatsoever. Colin Haley and I had agreed to partner up for the next three weeks and we had big objectives on our minds, all centered around the famous Torre group.
We hiked in to our basecamp in the Torre valley and spent an evening organizing equipment, then left early the morning of the 18th to attempt the ‘reverse traverse’ of the Torre group, an objective that had been conceptualized by the late Bjorn Eivind-Artun. The first day was spent hiking around the mountain to the Col de la Esperanza from where we would begin the traverse. Unfortunately, I was still recovering from a bad stomach infection I contracted on Aconcagua and struggled to keep pace with Colin as we climbed isothermal snow slopes in the beating sun with our heavy packs. As my overall endurance had taken a terrible beating due to the sickness, I hoped that by sleeping well at our bivouacs and by eating well during the traverse that my energy would rebuild itself each day.
We began climbing the Ragni Route on the West Face of Cerro Torre around 4am the next morning and were able to move relatively quickly despite our large packs. Because it was my first time climbing the unique rime formations, which is very unlike climbing typical waterfall ice, Colin led most of the steepest pitches to save time while I familiarized myself with the unusual nature of the climbing with the safety of the rope from above. We summited before noon and rappelled to a mushroom overlooking the North Face and spent the next several hours waiting for the sun to leave the face and for the icefall to slow down before descending.
Once the temperatures were cool enough we buried a stuff sack in the rime and rappelled off of the mushroom onto Cerro Torre’s wild North Face. Several rappels in an outrageous position brought us to the col between Cerro Torre and Torre Egger, where we pitched our tent and brewed up. During the night the wind picked up and shook the tent continuously while small ice chunks bounced off the thin material making for an uneasy night. Despite the wind and threat of falling ice we somehow slept through the alarm and did not start up the South Face of Torre Egger until about 7am the next morning. We climbed five pitches up the wild and unrepeated ‘Venas Azules’ which provided some of the most exceptional ice and mixed terrain I have ever encountered in the mountains. I felt much more familiar with the unique rime ice climbing than I had the day before and took the lead in the middle section of the route, climbing perfect blue ice grooves and tunneling like a rodent through sections of rime to link them together.
On pitch six we encountered a section of rime tunneling that would require several hours of digging, and despite our hopes to make the second ascent of ‘Venas Azules’ we decided to make a rappel into the easier American route and topped out Torre Egger via the upper section of that route. Our route finding blunder and late start resulted in us topping out shortly before sunset so we pitched the tent right on the summit mushroom of Egger and settled in for the night. As darkness settled in, I was able to see the lights of Chalten in the valley and felt very distanced from it. I had nearly run out of food, having only four energy gels left to complete the traverse with, and as I looked at the lights of Chalten I imagined eating empanadas by the dozen with a liter of beer in my hand.
We began our descent off of Egger the next morning at first light, making a wild rappel from a carbon fiber stick buried in the rime. The descent went smoothly and we climbed the moderate ‘Punta Herron’ quickly before rappelling down through more mushrooms and down to the col between Herron and Cerro Stanhardt. The south face of Stanhardt, the final obstacle of our traverse had not yet been climbed from the col and we expected this to be the overall crux of the route.
We had only brought one pair of rock shoes with us to save weight and pack space, and had elected to bring mine as hybrid free-aid climbing on rock seems to be a specialty of mine. I took off up the south face of Stanhardt and quickly found myself in my element, linking together sections of wet and icy free climbing with tenous thin aid moves. The position was fantastic and the climbing always fun and engaging. Soon we joined Colin’s route, ‘El Caracol’, the only route to climb Stanhardt from the south and we finally knew that we had a good shot at pulling off our traverse.
Colin took over the lead and after a couple of easy mixed pitches he hacked his way through a long section of rime while aiding an overhanging thin crack while I froze at the belay. Soon we were both standing on the summit ridge and the only thing between us and the final summit of the traverse was a moderate grade 3 ice tunnel. I crawled out of the tunnel and stumbled onto the summit in a daze, blown away to have climbed all three Torres in a single push for my first major route in Patagonia. We congratulated each other but the adventure was far from over as we still had to rappel through the night to reach the glacier far below.
The wind picked up during our final rappels and by the time we were stumbling down the glacier in the early morning light the gusts battered us around like rag dolls in our tired states. We trudged back into base camp around 5am, exhausted but content.
When we arrived back in town the weather was forecasted to remain stable, so there was to be very little recovery time before attempting our next objective. We decided to try the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre by fair means, without the bolt ladders drilled by Cesare Maestri in 1970. We made it to within four pitches of the summit in a single push from the Torre glacier, but our attempt was thwarted by wet and icy conditions in the most difficult section of the route. We descended back to the tent and slept for a few hours before hiking back out to town to discover yet another weather window in the forecast. With only one day of rest we hiked back in to the mountains, this time to attempt to climb Cerro Torre from the north via the approximate route that Maestri falsely claimed to have climbed in 1959. We camped below the east face of Cerro Torre, using the same tent platform we had stamped out just a few days previous when we attempted the Southeast Ridge. With a 5am start the next morning we climbed the lower East Face to the col between Egger and Cerro Torre where we had pitched our tent during the Traverse. The climbing was never very hard but we battled with less than ideal conditions throughout the day. Ice fell on us continuously, bruising our knuckles as we climbed and threatening to knock me off of several pitches of very runout face climbing. During one of Colin’s lead blocks, we had to climb directly through a raging torrent of water that froze our hands and ran over our boots as we climbed through it. Despite the conditions, we continued climbing and reached the col around 6 or 7pm.
During the night the wind picked up again and as we prepared to climb into new terrain early the next morning we briefly discussed the option of retreating, but decided to continue on. The wind was bitterly cold and I began my lead block rock climbing with insulated gloves on resorting to aid moves where I would have preferred to free climb simply because the cold was too intense to remove my gloves. I reached an awkward leaning groove with a strip of ice in the back and had to make progress by aid climbing off of my ice tools while wearing rock shoes. In the Torres anything goes!
After the initial difficult pitch I was able to remove my gloves and climb several pitches of perfect splitter cracks and flakes linked together by excellent face climbing. It was an amazing feeling to be pioneering new and superbly enjoyable terrain on the North Face of Cerro Torre, a truly wild place. Colin took over the lead again, where our line joined ‘El Arca de los Vientos’, the only established route to climb Cerro Torre from the North. A few more pitches of face climbing, and some time consuming digging through rime to aid to cracks beneath led us to the West Ridge and the junction with the Ragni Route.
I took the lead and led through the mushrooms to the summit, now feeling comfortable and familiar with this style of climbing and by sunset we were on the summit of the Torre once again. However this time the summit was far from peaceful, in fact we were now in a violent Patagonian wind storm and getting down in the dark was going to be somewhat of an ordeal. The wind was whipping small chunks of ice which stung badly when they hit us and descending back down the north face in these conditions was fairly intense. Once we reached the col however and descended onto the East face the wind was blocked and the descent, although tiring and long, went smoothly.
We reached the glacier at 8am the following morning after rappelling all through the night and were greeted by Italian climbers living in a snow cave while working a route on the East Face. They invited us in and gave us hot chocolate and coffee, a fantastic gift in our tired and hungry states.
Now back in town, the weather is forecasted to storm in the mountains for at least a few days so finally we can rest and reflect on these amazing routes. I hope that we get another string of weather windows again soon though as already we are all feeling hungry for more.