Words by Will Stanhope. Photos by Jesse Huey and Will Stanhope.
“Welcome to the point of anxiety,” said Jesse Huey as he snapped cams and wires to my gear loops, gates out, just the way I like them. Below us were a handful of technical 5.11+ corner pitches, all free up to this point. We were trying to free an aid line called “Via De La Mamme”, established by Italians back in 1992. Success, we hoped, hinged on deviating from the original aid line here and hopping a corner system to the right. If we could do that, maybe, just maybe we’d arrive at a system of cruiser hand cracks. And maybe, just maybe the weather would hold out and we’d score a first free ascent on the Central Tower of Paine. But first I had to bust out a 12c traverse on small crimps.
I casted a glance behind my shoulder over at the hulking, truly monstrous 1200 meter faces of Cerro Escudo and Cerro Fortaleza. Clouds were building in the distance.
Around 36 hours ago, we were in the exact same spot before the wind picked up and hastened a quick retreat. After a few rappels, and a thousand meters of scree slogging we had wandered around in a soaking wet moonscape, rain coming down in sheets, white crystals reflecting off our headlamp beams on the shiny black boulders. Disoriented and exhausted, the descent took about twice as long as it should have. We staggered back into Japanese Camp soaked as otters at 3AM, took a swig of pisco each, and fell into a deep slumber. The next morning, sipping coffee by the creek, hungover from exertion, Jesse glumly stared at the SAT phone and delivered some unfortunate news.
“It gets good again tomorrow, dude. Then shuts out.”
After a sodden repack we marched back up to the west face of the Central Tower of Paine with aching legs, for one last try. Climbing here is like being in love with a stunningly beautiful, bi-polar woman. You’d do anything for her, but she shrugs her shoulders and delivers blue skies and storms with frivolous unpredictability.
Back at the Huey-dubbed “Point of Anxiety” I chalked and rechalked my hands, mentally rehearsing the traverse sequence to come.
“Watch me dude,” I croaked, then dragged ten feet of slack out from my last piece. If my feet cut out I didn’t want the rope checking my swing. That would invalidate the free ascent. The holds felt crisp, and I powered through the moves. After constructing an elaborate belay with a handful of equalized piece, I brought up Jesse. Above, the wall reared up steeper, and presented the final obstacle before the corner system: a giant, V-shaped obelisk of granite, maybe 6 meters tall and two meters across at it’s widest, narrow at the bottom and slowly widening.
Right off the belay I put two cams in an eyebrow overlap, drooling with ice. After that I mantled up on the obelisk.
“Wonder how solid this thing is?” I thought to myself.
I rapped my knuckles on it, and pressed my ear up to the prickly orange granite. Gung, Gung, Gung. I could hear a reverberation.
As always in situations like this, the pendulum swing of internal dialogue began:
“Oh it’s fine. It’s gigantic and been here for eons,” I told myself.
“Geological time includes now,” countered the other – more cautious- side of my brain. “Nobody has ever dug their fingers into this thing and pried on it….”
Slowly I crept up the obelisk, lacing each side with passive protection mostly, therefore minimizing the expansive forces that camming devices exert on a crack. 6 years ago I had placed a small cam on a British gritstone route, delaminating a small flake the size of a laptop. I can still remember vividly thudding on the cold spring grass of the Peak District, wondering if it was all over. Since then I’ve been hyper paranoid of any expanding features.
At the top of the obelisk I eyed a poor sloper out right. If I could just commit to that hold one move separated me from an obvious belay ledge, and from there, a corner system shooting all the way to the summit. I stretched my right arm to the sloper, and then looked down at the string of pieces lacing both sides of the obelisk. I imagined the unthinkable: me skittering off the sloper, the obelisk departing from the wall and hurtling towards Jesse like an enormous saw blade. We’d both die.
“C’mon, gimme something, just anything to bite into. A little crimp. Anything but a low-percentage sloper relying completely on gravelly friction…”
After the umpteenth time pawing at the sloper, I uttered a deflated sigh.
“I just can’t justify it man.”
Leaving a piece in, not weighting it, I downclimbed to Jesse and arrived at the belay mentally fried, pumped and chalk-splattered.
“I’m sorry man.”
“It’s all good dude. Looks like Uncle Nasty’s back anyway,” said Jesse, referring to the dark clouds in the engulfing the mighty Escudo.
The wind was picking up and the tag line was already jumping around like a demented snake. Jesse and I wordlessly exchanged a knowing glance, and resigned ourselves to inevitable retreat.
Hiking out of the Paine the next day, the skies parted briefly, revealing three golden sabers piercing a cobalt blue sky. Tourists hurriedly reached for their cameras, overjoyed to have a glimpse at the Torres Del Paine. Japanese, North Americans, and local Chileans, all beaming, pointing and smiling.
I looked over at Jesse.
“Do you ever think we will get to the point in our lives when we can look at a stunning mountain vista like this and not feel kinda sad? You know, like normal people.”
We both laughed. He knew exactly what I meant, and felt the same longing to be up there.
“I sure hope so.”
We shouldered the bags and kept marching.
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