Torre Lessons

Words: Will Stanhope

Photos: Will Stanhope and Jesse Huey

Jesse Huey and I laid down our sleeping bags where the talus met the glacier in early February 2019.  With the granite behemoths of Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt holding court above us, I cracked off half a sleeping pill to get some shut eye – a little chemical crutch I’ve become accustomed to before a big day in the hills.  When the hazy sleepy buzz kicked in I forgot about the massive physical undertaking that was surely to follow.

Well before dawn we were weaving our way around crevasses, intent on getting to the Standhardt col before the sun kissed the peaks.  In this complex landscape of rock and ice, timing is everything.  Some years before, Jesse had sipped two coffees instead of one in camp, arrived to this place a few minutes late, and had to cower under a small rock overhang while the mountains fell apart.

Watching him aggressively charge towards the col as the blackness turned to muted grey, I thought to myself how lucky I was to have found him as a partner and a friend.  A true climbing omnivore, Huey eats whatever’s been put in front of him: crispy rock, steep ice, isothermic snow. Jesse was a top-level rower in college, and it shows. The fierce winning spirit resides deep within him.

At the Standhardt col we swapped out boots for rock shoes and gained the vague north ridge of Standhardt, a route dubbed ‘Festerville’ by Timmy ONeil and Nathan Martin in 2000.  After crack climbing for a few hours we started to get intermittently bombed by baseball chunks of rime, a sign we were about to arrive at the rime mushrooms, a place I’d dreamed of for years.  It is truly an unreal place. Huge dollops of rime plastered to those massive soaking fangs of granite.  One gets the impression that humans aren’t meant to be here.

Near the top of the peak, as Jesse geared up to tackle the summit ‘shroom, I spied two Chileans (Sebastian Rojas Schmidt and Rodolfo Torrens) corkscrewing around the summit of Egger, doggedly trying to find a way to the summit. With the weather window coming to an end, and an imminent tempest incoming, we felt an instant kinship with these guys and hollered at each other across the void between the peaks.

Of all the things to experience in this infinitely complex and fascinating world, we keep coming back to climbing. And in watching the Chileans battle to the summit mushroom of Egger, there appeared one of the reasons why: to see firsthand that indomitable, gritty perseverance of the human spirit.

After gaining the slender, sharks-fin like summit of the peak we readied ourselves for what was proving to be a full-value descent. Our choice to descend was a route called Exocet, a classic ice chimney, ordinarily straight-forward. Now, it appeared that it was pissing ice water. With daylight dwindling we pendulumed around, hoping to find some rock anchors outside of the chimney. No such luck. Grimly, without another option, Huey set to leading the raps through the soaking wet terrain trap. Without saying it, we both had the same thought:  this is how people die in the mountains. 

We got quite wet descending Excocet, but luckily the V-threads held strong, and the cascade didn’t dump any rockfall or ice onto us. Around midnight, when the way ahead became unclear, I suggested we sit it out and wait for morning so we could see the way ahead.  Therein lied a dilemma: wait it out, risk hypothermia, and wait for the warming temps of morning to dislodge more ice? Or continue questing down traversing, unknown terrain in the dark that neither of us had ever traveled before? We opted for the shiver-bivy.

After rocking back and forth for some hours sitting on our packs, rubbing each -others legs for warmth, the outline of the Fitzroy peaks started to come into vague view. Huey opted to start rapping and walked stiff-legged a few meters to a station, then retreated, shivering uncontrollably. We went back to sitting on the packs and furiously rubbing each-others legs again.

When the sun came up in earnest we began rappelling in earnest. Almost instantly the face became a series of miniature waterfalls. A few raps in Jesse and I heard a loud boom from above. On rappel, I flattened myself as tight as I could to the rock, but still got clubbed with a sizable chunk of ice on the calf. Wincing, I pogo hopped the rest of the rap.  Stiff, with a giant bruise developing on my leg, I was just relieved the icefall hadn’t broken any bones.

One stuck, abandoned rope and many raps later we reached the glacier. A storm that had been flirting with the peaks for hours broke out as we picked our way across crevasses and headed down to the valley floor. Back in the Torre Valley we struggled to stand up, buffeted by gusts of wind.  Cerro Torre and her sisters were engulfed in swirling clouds of precipitation. We picked our way across the dry glacier, hop-scotching over little rivers, bracing ourselves as every violent gust threatened to knock us over. Old treasures of past battles dotted the ice. We found a handful of rusty old pins, an old, frayed hank of rope. Little relics of obsession, I thought to myself, as we staggered back to civilization.