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Tuesday, March 29

Alpine Endeavors: Aguja Guillamet

It was relatively peaceful where we were at that point in time. Well, sort of. That peace was punctuated all too often by the fierce Patagonian wind buffeting our refuge in a small saddle between the Northwest Ridge of Guillamet and a small subsidiary peak of granite. But when it wasn't, yeah, it was peaceful. Here, Nick and I huddle as we prepare for what in hindsight I have determined to be the most significant undertaking in my time spent in the outdoors. The feeling inside my heart and mind isn't altogether different from the setting of the outside world in which we are immersed. Dark. Foreboding. I try my best to quell the increasing sense of anxiety that only becomes fortified with each successive blast of wind. This anxiety threatens everything that we travelled all this way to achieve. We prepare. Boots come off, Climbing shoes are donned, various pieces of rock climbing protection are placed on our harnesses. Jackets, helmets, gloves, all of these things are placed in their appropriate spots; reminiscent of soldiers preparing for battle. Wordlessly I tie into the sharp end and Nick puts me on belay. In the east the first vestiges of the coming sunrise are apparent. In a momentary lapse between wind gusts I grace the beautiful Patagonian granite with my finger tips and lift myself off the ground. Immediately the deep seated anxiety melts away like a frost in the morning sun; this is why I am here. The previous highs and lows of the last month have led to this singular moment. And so, as it were, I begin to rise into the atmosphere, buoyed by the strength of my arms, legs, mind, as well as an increasing sense of wonderment.

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Lets take a step back and see how we have come to this point. Not so far back as the birth of two brothers six years apart who were seemingly destined to gallivant around, seeking out progressively more audacious goals in the outside world. Nay, only a few days prior. This "adventure" (an oft used term that has become watered down in my humble opinion) starts with a shuttle from our temporary home in El Chalten to a river crossing and the start of a trail. From here we hoist senselessly heavy packs onto our backs and commence a five mile journey to our bivy site (rudimentary camping spot in a high alpine setting) on a path that meanders through enchanting forests, crosses idyllic streams, and occasionally rambles through open meadows. If this all sounds serene, keep in mind the fact that the last fraction of a mile gains over 3000 feet in elevation makes the sweeping mountainous vistas that lay at our backs slightly harder to appreciate. Stooped under the loads that we bare, we stumble into Piedra Negra, the aforementioned bivy. As our packs hit the ground our spirits immediately begin to soar. No longer encumbered, we look around - before us are numerous tent-sized fortifications constructed from the moraine in which the bivy sits. Above us our goal watches, seemingly ambivalent to our presence before her. I look upon the huge granite mass of Guillamet with awe. It is surreal to finally lay eyes on the beautiful golden flanks of the mountain that I have so frequently stared at in pictures both from guidebooks and online sources; I can only equate it to seeing your favorite celebrity for the first time. The beautiful weather and awe-inspiring location only lighten our hearts further. We're jovial as we prepare our home for the next 3 nights and further busy ourselves with camp duties. Nothing could quell these feelings! Oh how wrong I was. Like so many times before in my life, I fell victim to my own sense of hopeful optimism and naivete.

The approach

We weren't in the tent for a half hour after admiring the magnificent full moon and still mountain air later that night when the wind started. Unfazed - we had both become accustomed to the sounds of whipping nylon in the presence of the seemingly ever present wind - we focused on falling asleep. The more disconcerting noise that followed soon after, however, was the  pellets of snow onto the roof of our tent. Merely a passing flurry, I surmised, afterall the weather reports called for a minuscule amount of precipitation. However, the snow proved to be anything but minuscule. It didn't stop. We arose the next morning only to find that a fresh 3-4 inches of heavy wet snow blanketed our environment for as far as the eye could see. Our hearts too were blanketed, not with snow but with despair. Was this going to foil our plans to stand atop of Guillamet? How much longer was this going to last? At this moment it was still snowing, and showing no signs of breaking. A great duality began to unfold in my mind. Yesterday, under the sun and great weather, nothing could bring us down! Now, a short 12 hours later we sit not in a beautiful alpine setting, but a foreboding environment that seemed to be trying to expel us with every gust of wind. Whereas before our hearts soared they now acted as anchors on our morale. Before, our optimism lifted us on its wings letting us believe we could accomplish what we had set forth to do, while now we don't seem to possess even a modicum of that optimism. This day is spent mostly in a 25 square foot tent, reading, eating, trying to think of anything but the misery that lay outside of its walls. The day passes agonizingly slow - we don't even wait for the sun to set before seeking the reprieve that sleep offers. 

This is what dread looks like. Our alpine wonderland was turned into a foreboding hellscape overnight
I awake at 4am and am pleasantly surprised that the wind that is buffeting our sent isn't accompanied by the  sound of snow. We rise with the sun and unlike the day before, find reason to be optimistic about our circumstances, albeit cautiously. We quickly formulate a plan, and dedicate this day as recon, to be spent scouting the hour and a half approach to the base of the climb and the 50 degree snowslope/ rock scramble that serves as a prelude to the actual climb. All of this has been weighing heavy on my conscience, and having the chance to see what it actually entails will hopefully serve to calm my nerves. Despite the white landscape that lay before us our spirits rise - afterall we are actually outside and moving, not limited to the confines of our tent!  The exploratory nature of our ramble turns my previous inhibitions to ease. The scramble proves doable, and before we knew it we were at the start of the climb, gazing longingly at the beautiful granite in front of us. As we head back to camp, we decide that tomorrow has to be the day. Our weather window will be closing and our time is running out to make an attempt at Guillamet. This knowledge spurs us into action once back at camp. We pack, cook, eat, formulate plans, discuss gear, and eat some more. We are lighthearted, the only thing I fear is that we have squandered our only good weather day.

At the top of the rock scramble/snow slope

My alarm sounds at 4am the next morning. It doesn't necessarily wake me up though; my sleep could be described as fitful at best. During the preceding hours I have been exhaustively reviewing the route in my head, scrupulously imagining every detail I can muster from my research. We move in a premeditated fashion. Clothing layers are put on, Oatmeal is eaten, pleasantries are muttered. As per usual Vinny is whipping up a storm outside. (I nicknamed the wind Vinny, as in El Viento - Spanish for wind). I openly wonder if he is going to grant us passage. The start of our climbing day got off to a rocky start - both literally and metaphorically. The exhausting approach involves an extended trek over a scree laden slope. Halfway to the snowslope that leads to the base of the climb Vinny gives us an especially furious blast that knocks my glasses from my face. I quickly pounce and retrieve them. However, in my limitless intelligence I decide to forego attaching the glasses leash I bought in town to prevent such a catastrophe. A subsequent, and even harder gust only a few minutes later, again removes my glasses from my face. This time, though, my reflexes don't serve me as well. "Nick! My glasses!" I try to hide the panic in my voice, but it it is all too evident. We are on a Scree covered slope. It's white. The wind is still blowing. My glasses are metallic. Our search is borderline hopeless, and realizing this I can't help but unleash a torrent of expletives as well as throw rocks aimed at nothing in particular. Is this it? Has it ended already? Before it even began? These thoughts rage through my mind... Nick kind of just stands back while I have this inner dialogue. "F*** it, I don't need them." I turn my energy to the slope before us with a renewed sense of vigor. The remaining approach allows my temper to cool, only to be replaced with that familiar feeling of anxiety. We arrive at the start. Vinny is of course there waiting for us. Damn him, he has already made this harder in more ways than one.
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As I continue my way upward, I clutch to the granite like a small child does to his mothers bosom, with each gust of wind - lest I be forcibly removed from the face of the mountain. The wind is an incredible force to behold, especially from such an exposed position. It seems like only a few brief moments pass and the first belay is before me. Oh yeah, THIS IS IT!! This is why you come to Patagonia! Any self respecting climber owes it to themselves to come at least once to touch the granite of these spectacular peaks, especially if you find yourself wanting to get into the alpine environment. To climbers, rock quality is EVERYTHING! Couple that with an extreme setting such as this, and you have yourself a cocktail of adventurey, epic fun. The best description I have read of these mountains is that they are reminiscent of "screams frozen in stone". It is a sheer, vertical world that we are immersing ourselves in.

I have to apologize to those not familiar with climbing, my vernacular for the next part of this post is going to be laced with strange lingo and "climberisms". I'll do my best to help you navigate your way through it. Nick made short work of the first pitch¹ as he followed up to the belay² station. I could tell his sense of excitement was mirroring my own. Before us the sun showed her full glory and bathed the stark landscape with her fresh, dawn light, but there is no time to sit and appreciate our setting, we must move on and up! We have at least 12 more pitches and hundreds of meters of climbing ahead of us. The second pitch falls quickly much like the first, which led us to a third, and up to this point, the most challenging. It involved a left leaning ramp³ that required various forms of finger locks⁴ and foot smearing⁵ to surmount. From here I left the third belay and got a taste of route navigation difficulties that are often associated with big alpine routes. This wasn't another straightforward climb at some dusty roadside crag⁶. I made my best guess and for the umpteenth time referenced the route topo⁷. Sensing a mistake, I quickly made a fourth belay from a nut⁸ and 2 cams⁹ and bring Nick in. I enlighten him to our situation and together we decide to continue up a snowy couloir¹⁰ that involves a few overhung tricky moves to a ledge above. Here my anxiety returns. I loath being off route. However, a few wet, cold moves put me atop the ledge 30 meters above Nick. Before my I see the following pitch, the crux¹¹. Good, back on track. Once we reconvene, I decide not to dawdle. The crux of the entire climb is a 25 meter dihedral¹² rated at 6b+¹³. It's near vertical and an order of magnitude harder than any climbing we had done hereto, or would face afterward. I launch into it making a series of hand jams¹⁴ to reach a resting position.

From whence we came.
As a climber I am always seeking that clear, calm minded - dare I say, meditative - state. The late Shane McConkey, an extreme skier and later base jumper/wingsuit pilot, best described it by referring to it as "The Zone". The zone is a state of mind where nothing but the task in front of you is of importance, a fleeting moment where everything is perfect and your mind is like a resolute machination, ready to conquer anything you set before it. I can't truly say I've ever achieved such a state of mind, but I think I've grasped at the very fringe of such, most noticeably during climbing pursuits. I can only describe it as a confidence that recognizes the objective danger that you've put yourself in, but doesn't let said danger negatively impact you and what you have set forth to accomplish. I embrace this mindset and I continue up the crux. Jam, Jam, smear, jam, place protection. Rinse, repeat. Near the top there are several pins that I clip and for a brief moment I used the quickdraw to support myself. While it is not the most "pure" of ways to climb, I am proud that I only allowed myself a mere moment of hanging onto that draw, especially considering that this is far and away the hardest trad¹⁵ lead I have ever attempted.

Leading up high

A few more difficult moves and the pitch yields. My bloody hands attest to what just happened, perhaps a bit of tape would have been wise. Again, Nick follows. While He hasn't climbed nearly as much of me, he has an undeniable talent on rock. None of his shortcomings are physical; he rises to the challenge and expediently climbs an undeniably strenuous pitch of rock. From here, we gather our wits, and make a stupendous traverse, 30 meters directly to our right. The holds are great, the exposure even more so. Below us the earth drops away and 1000 feet of air replace it. The next pitch involves a right leaning dihedral, followed by easier climbing for the next two pitches. As we rise higher and higher up this majestic mountain, the rock changes. Suddenly it becomes more rounded, sculpted by the wind into interesting shapes. From here my second navigational error leads us to the top of a subsidiary peak, which we were supposed to circumnavigate. Downclimbing the other side leads to a rappel¹⁶ anchor. This provides us a vantage of the seemingly evasive peak of Guillamet. "It doesn't look as close as I'd hoped," I say to Nick. He agrees. It's 2pm. We are at a crossroads - do we continue on and risk a sketchy descent in the dark, or do we abandon our hopes and start the descent now. We were both very fatigued. If the old adage proves true, that fresh air makes one tired, then does forcing that air upon you in the form of an incessent wind make it even more potent in its ability to fatigue you? At that point it certainly felt like it. There wasn't much debate between us. The rappel had been weighing increasingly heavy on my mind; we had heard that it took just as long to get down as it took to get up. Somewhat reluctantly we decide that it is unwise to continue up. As I write this in the safe confines of civilization, I have no regrets about our decision. I am not an experienced alpinist. I like to think I have a decent grasp on my abilities and comfort zone. The thought of descending in the dark, with increasing winds (with only one pitiful headlamp, mind you) is enough to make me shudder, even now. I have a whole new respect for the mountain environment; this trip served me up a nice slice of humble pie. That is the beauty of climbing, just when you begin to think you're becoming something, you get smacked down. But it's the manner in which you pick yourself back up that determines what kind of leather you're cut from.

From our high point. Our quarry is so close, yet so far.
All things considered, our rappel went fairly smoothly. I say this despite cursing rabidly at times at the snarled mess of rope that Vinny created on more than one occasion. As we stumbled back to camp, the both of us were already reflecting on what we had just experienced. We both knew immediately that this was a signature moment in not just our climbing "careers", but in our lives as a whole. As I reflect on our feat, I can't help but think of my favorite quote from good 'ol Teddy Roosevelt. "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in that gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

Beginning the descent
Whether I accomplish the goals I set out to achieve in the mountains or not is besides the point. I think there is something to be said by excising yourself from the comforts of routine and modern society and thrusting yourelf into uncertainty. For it is only when we are exposed to things out of our control that we are able to transcend the barriers that we ourselves have implemented in our minds. Get out there, get uncomfortable, you may even become enlightened in doing so. But at the very least you will be stronger for it - if not physically - then certainly mentally. It doesn't necessarily have to be a mountain, just a form of extrication. When you do return back to the routine and comfort of daily life, not only will you be able to recall such times with a certain nostalgia that only the trials of the past can impart, but you can draw upon it as a source of strength for the inevitable tribulations that lie ahead in the funny game we play called life.

Or to put it more sagely: “No hay mal que por bien no venga." An old Latin proverb that translates to: "There is no bad from which good does not come."

High up on the Comensana-Fonrouge Route of Guillamet

¹ a given section of climbable rock with a maximum length of one rope length, but generally shorter
² a point at which one person will stay and feed out rope to the leading climber, arresting their fall if necessary
³ a lower angle section of ramp angling either left or right
⁴ a method of placing fingers in a crack and turning them to gain a secure (sometimes) purchase
⁵ placing a foot on a blank section of rock and using friction to keep it there
⁶ a climbing area/ cliff
⁷ a drawn picture describing a given route and including landmarks to help keep the climber on track
⁸ a chunk of metal placed in a constriction of a crack to protect a falling lead climber
⁹ short for spring loaded camming device. another form of rock protection placed in cracks, but these have an extended size range that they work for
¹⁰ a steep walled cleft in the side of a mountain that can be climbed within, generally snow filled
¹¹ signifies the single hardest move of a pitch, or the single hardest pitch of a multi-pitch climb
¹² a rock formation that resembles an open book. Can be right or left facing.
¹³ a form of rock climbing grading, this particular version is the French grading system which goes from 1 to 9, with letters a,b,c and +'s to further delineate difficulties
¹⁴ a climbing technique that involves placing your entire hand into a crack and expanding it to gain a purchase
¹⁵ a type of climbing that involves protecting with nuts, cams, etc
¹⁶ a method of descent. Involves building or using pre-existing anchors to thread your rope through and use a rappel device to lower oneself. Think SWAT or Special Forces lowering out of helicopters.

Post Climb whiskey and chocolate, and of course a trip to La Wafflaria for some calorie replenishment

Tuesday, March 22

Patagonia: Are you down?

Guillaumet is viewers right
In t-minus 1 hour we will be leaving the Rancho Grande in pursuit of our climatic goal: Aguja Guillaumet. A 2580m (8,510') mountain within the Fitz Roy Massif.
In less than a week we will be on a plane returning from whence we came. Home. A delightful place filled with routine and all those friendly faces we have missed over the past three weeks. The question begs, what is it exactly that we came to accomplish in this far away land called Patagonia? Escape? Adventure? Vacation? A foreign experience? I suppose throughout the trip we tangled with all of those aspects. For me, climbing mountains allows me to come face to face with who I really am. The stress involked focus forces me to reliquish anything burning in the back of my mind and deal with the absolute present.

We have done much preparation for this moment. Since we arrived we've climbed nearly 30 pitches of rock, hiked/walked close to 80 miles, explored our surroundings, and fine-tuned our rope skills. All while having fun (whether type 1 or 2).
Ethan leading
Nick leading
Celebrating the climb
Getting down
Our final goal for the trip is to hike roughly 6 miles to our base camp and then when our weather window appears: climb through 40-50 degree snow, 13 pitches of moderate rock climbing, and a final 30 degree snow slope to the summit of Guillaumet.

We have 5 days worth of food in order to give us the best chance of catching the wind at its lowest. Our suspecting window is forecasted to arrive between Wednesday morning and Friday morning. Being the first day of fall here in the southern hemisphere, it is hard telling.

Here goes!

Sunday, March 20

Patagonia: 4 days of trekking and a much needed L'Chaim

On Sunday (3/13) Ethan and I left on a 4 day trek through the Patagonia wilderness. However less harrowing than our last adventure we still encountered many obstacles, impressive views, and a small army of Israelis.

Our route consisted of a 37 mile loop that encircled Cerro Huemel in the southern portion of Los Glaciares National Park. A spectacular way to experience much of what this area of Patagonia has to offer: Grassy rolling fields, wind, forests, wind, mountains, glaciers, wind, lakes, an enormous icefield, and windswept passes. If wind hasn't become a theme here than please let me enlighten you, it was WINDY. Well, most of the time anyway.
Our route
Where the green grass grows
Day 1 (5 hours - 10.5 miles) - We departed El Chalten around noon and headed towards our camping destination for the evening, Laguna Toro. The 10.5 mile stretch of mostly easy grassy and forested landscape seemed to 'breeze' by. With our packs being at their heaviest (around 40lbs) we still managed to complete the day in 5 hours. Along the way we met a trio composed of Swiss, Belgian, and Holland nationalities. We were also able to gain a new perspective of Cerro Solo.
Cerro Solo and company
Day 2 (6.5 hours - 7 miles) - I began the day with a scratchy throat. All the previous excitement, mediocre sleep, smattering of hostel germs dragged me into a state of sickness. As unfortunate as this was, I was happy to be hacking it in the wilderness rather than wasting away in a stuffy hostel. Plus, just think of all the tissues (ie toilet paper) I saved by being able to rocket out that excess fluid...

Within a mile from our campsite we prepared for our 2nd tyrolean traverse of the trip. This time over a gushing glacial river cut deep into a rock gorge. 
The disclaimer
Elated to suspend ourselves from the high wire, we prepared our rigging for the occasion. 

Enter Israelis. A group of Israelis who were camped out at Toro last night arrived at the traverse soon after us. Unknown at the time, we would be crossing-paths for the entire rest of our trek. The company out on the trek would be very welcomed as our endeavor wasn't as popular as one might expect. Frankly put, we were the only seven completing the trek within the same itinerary. 

Fred (for lack of my familiarity with Hebrew names and an overall propensity to forget even the easiest of them...) approached me, "Will you help us across?" I respond emphatically, "absolutely." 

Ethan crosses and I prepare the bags to be hulled across (This time there is a rope to get the pulley back and forth!). After, we assist the Israelis in getting hooked up and familiar with the rigging. Three cross the traverse while two others decide to wade their way through the river at a mellower point below the gorge. Upon safely crossing, our newly befriended Israeli brothers rewarded our efforts with a handful of chocolate covered peanuts (bueno!).
A collage of the traverse in play
Capturing the moments

The trail ahead, being just as advertised, lacked consistent markings. In general, we knew where we were heading, referencing the map occasionally. The trick was knowing the easiest way...We definitely didn't know this, with or without said map. The result? Struggle. Trying to avoid extended scree sections and class 5 rock, proved difficult. However, as they say, with great sacrifice comes great reward. The views on top Paso Del Viento (literally- Windy Pass) were incredible!

One of the many glaciers along the trek

Atop Paso Del Viento
In the foreground is massive icefield - one of the largest in the world

Our original intention was to walk out onto the icefield to gain the full experience...Ambitious as it were, we ditched this idea (along with the our trailrunning intentions). I guess I would attribute this change in itinerary mostly due to feeling terrible (sickness), and then probably due to the weight of our packs. Heavy travel over difficult terrain is arduous which is why I generally like to travel light. Unfortunately, that meant that we weren't going to need any of this glacier travel gear that is weighing us down...Oy

Preparing the evening's meal at the Paso Del Viento Refugio
Battening down the hatches
Good night Patagonia
I'll be the first to confirm that the winds in Patagonia are no joke. Luckily, Justin and Jenna spared their tent for the cause so we weren't the least threatened by the wind's wrath...Our neighboring Israelis didn't fair quite so well. Sometime throughout the night they had to perform an emergency measure to save one of their tents from full collapse.  The ol' trekking pole structural reinforcement maneuver.

Day 3 (6 hours - 8.5 miles) - After a fitful night of sleep (thanks wind), we emerged from the tent to discover we're right were we started the night before. With much relief we cook some breakfast, ready our bags, and hit the trail. Today's obstacle is Huemel pass. We were fortunate enough to be endeavoring on a much more emblazoned trail replete with all the wind and more from the day before...My guesstimate had the wind clocked at about 35-45 mph upon our crossing of the pass. 
Selfie video in Huemel wind tunnel
Hold on tight!
The other side? Peaceful.
Icebergs departing their mother glacier on their final journey to liquid H2O
Day 4 (5.5 hours, 11 miles) - Dawn begins to crack. I don the camera and head for the nearest hill. The climate and our lax schedule hasn't afforded us a prime sunrise quite like this mornings. The clouds were expansive and filled with every shade of orange, red, and yellow. The light changes with every moment that passes, endlessly morphing the sky scape. Additionally, this is one of the calmest periods of time we have experienced since leaving El Chalten 4 days prior. Ahhh. Peace...
Sunrise in front
Sunrise in back
Amusing cloud formations
Without much ado, our Israeli-American group readies our gear and step off. It has been great traveling with these chaps. They add comedic relief, good conversation, and Nutella (oh heck yea!) to the collective experience. I learned that every Israeli citizen, once completing secondary school, has to complete an obligatory 3 years of military service in the Israeli army. Once finished most of these will then travel the world for a year with their savings from the army. Hence our five backpacking amigos.
Making our way, as a pack
Composing the perfect photo
The trail on the remaining miles was much similar to the first day; flat and easy going. The one obstacle was our third Tyrolean traverse. The setup was, again, slightly different from the last two. This time we had a pulley leash that allowed us to draw the pulley back to the side we were crossing from. The pitch to the cable was flatter than the one two days prior. 

So we begin, one by one. This time trying to finagle the packs along with the traverser as it was prohibitive to send the packs by themselves given the setup. Five Israelis, one American and five packs successfully cross without much tribulation. 

It is at this point that I decided to relearn a lesson hard learned from the first traverse near Cerro Solo; never, ever, EVER cross with a heavy backpack on your shoulders. Ugh! My observation was that everyone was able to kick themselves 3/4 of the way across and then pull somewhat effortlessly to the other side. Me? Naw! I kick off, reach halfway and...stop. Ok, I guess I'll start pulling. Much to my chagrin it wasn't gravity that stopped me but rather it was the LEASH! Half way again back to the start, I began rescinding, arduously. Upon reaching the tangled mess, I struggle to keep my body at least parallel to the cable (fighting the weight of my backpack). After a minute or two of fighting my way out of this 'paperbag' I regretfully placed myself within, I continue pulling myself to the other side. At this point my arms are pumped and nearly useless due to the struggle with the leash and fight to keep my bag from overturning me. Once within a few arms length from the other side I am extended a trekking pole to bring me safely to shore. Sigh. Lesson learned. Again.
And on. We arrived to the glacier tour boat launch site just as a swarm of tourists were departing from their cruise boat. Our timing couldn't have been better. We managed to hire one of the van drivers to transport us the ~4 miles (as the crow flies) back to Chalten. Nice chap. He was thankful for the generous tip we gave him and the pictures of the glacier we shared, our gratitude was equal if not greater. The journey was finished!

In the end, we probably should have carried more food. We calculated our caloric intake to lie somewhere around the average of 1,500 Calories per day. According to Becca's math we should have been closer to double that. Oops! Our appetites reflect the latter. We stopped by 'La Waffleria' to recharge our stores. Two large Omelets and two plates of chocolate soaked waffles (mine with bananas, Ethan's with vanilla ice cream...Ice cream was a better choice...) later and we are...still HUNGRY!

Caloric restorationLater on we tackled lunch three/dinner one and a jug of wine with the Israelis. L'Chaim!
L'Chaim! (to life) - 'V' for Viento
We are now fine tuning our multi-pitch rope skills to embark on our final adventure for the trip. More on that soon...

Sunday, March 13

Patagonia: Chop Chop

Admittedly, I tend to use the word adventure like it's another vowel. There isn't much that I enjoy doing that doesn't involve a healthy dose of adventure. But there is one word I secretly reserve for that rare breed of adventure, the EPIC adventures if you will. To me, an epic is an adventure that hides itself in the folds of moments that contain it, occurring when what you imagined and what reality is are two slightly (but profoundly) different things. But instead of failure or defeat you sharpen your focus and pull out some grit to overcome.

With this, I feel that nobody chooses to have an 'epic' day, but rather the epic days choose us, blossoming out of the conditions that we subject ourselves to. They happen when the situation presses us to our limits when all we have is the moment we are in and all that we can feel is alive...Without further ado, I share an epic day in the mountains of Patagonia.

It's 4:30AM. The alarm sounds sooner than expected. I cancel mine and within a minute my brother's echos our premeditated start to the day...I lie awake recounting our preparation from the night before and the somewhat unknown adventure we are about to depart on...Wakefulness transitions into movement and finally into breakfast (dehydrated granola and blueberries - 280 Calories/Kirk). 

We hit the trail with gumption. My brother sets pace for the route we embark upon, a mile of which we had explored the evening before. Within 20 minutes we are hanging inverted from our harnesses completing the first of the days obstacles, a tyrolean traverse across Rio Fitz Roy.
Tyrolean Traverse - is a method of crossing through
free space between two high points
on a rope without a hanging cart (googled it for ya).
We scouted out the traverse the day before.
As we near the first of our ascents we pass two camps; one whose inhabitants have already started out for the day (a group of three) and another preparing for their departure (a group of four). Today, Cerro (Mount) Solo will be visited by our collective company and not a soul more.

The day before, during our hike into camp, we were graced with the presence of a lad named Boyd from Montana. He had much to share during our 6 mile journey into Laguna Torre. As a professional photographer he happily enlightened (pun intended) us on the topic. To summarize, the most important aspects of taking a good photo were lighting, composition, and the right moment. Here goes Boyd! :-) 
Hiking and learning with Boyd
Cerro Solo is a 2221m (7287ft) mountain lying about 7 miles from El Chalten. It caught my eye as a 'warm-up' objective pretty soon after we arrived. It is set off by itself (hence the name) and is glaciated from the summit down a few thousand feet. According to the guidebook it is considered a moderate mountaineering climb.
Cerro Solo (framework compliments of nature)
Kirks (left), Solo (right) - photo cred: Boyd
Co. Solo profile (this is the side we'll ascend)
Once we arrive at the designated campsite we begin preparations for tomorrow's climb. The mantra is 'light and fast'. Without old man altitude slowing us down we will be able to move at a 'normal' pace for this type of terrain. Each Kirk will be carrying 4 cliff bars (250 cal/ea), random snacks in the form of cheese, crackers, olives, and cookies (mas o menos ~1,000 cal), 2 liters of water. From our ultra running experiences we are privy to the fact that you can get by with far fewer calories than you might expect for such an endeavor. Replenishment, not replacement is generally the idea. In addition to this fuel we'll have harnesses, glacier travel gear, one ice axe each, and layers for the lack of degrees or wind we may encounter. Oh, and many devices for capturing them rascally moments. :-)
Alright, enough fluff, so we were on this mountain in Patagonia, right? When we came across this cascading waterfall just beyond the second group of climbers...

'This is it' Ethan said. 
Nick, following somewhat blindly, agreed, 'OK'. 

We take a hard left and begin the ascent up alongside the waterfall. Our headlamps are the window into where we are and where we are going, straight up, or that's what it feels like if you asked any one of our four legs. We spot the twinkles from the groups above and below us.  
Getting our scramble on
Sunup came between 7-7:30. Boyd's words rang in our minds as we took the opportunity to capture several light sculpting shots of the surrounding peaks.
Cerro Torre (left), Fitz Roy (right)
The scrambling was mostly 4th class (ie a rope is optional). Our route entered a narrow shoot where there were two or three 5-8' sections of 5.2-5.3 rock. 
The playground.
The shoot plopped us out right on top of our first ascent, onto a short ridge where our second ascent began in full force. At this point we had passed the group of three that was in front of us. I glanced down to see everyone's whereabouts and noticed that they had crossed over into the shoot we just ascended.

Nick: "Looks like they are taking our route."
Ethan: "Hah! They're following the clueless."
Nick: *giggles*

The second stretch was more of the same with the exception of two 8-10' 5.5-5.6 sections 
Second ascent
Backpacks make climbing more interesting
Fascinating rock formations
(note: this photo was actually from our descent)
11AM: Upon completing the second ascent within 2 miles from our campsite (think steep!) we break for some nourishment and to switch modes of travel. From here we will be traveling as a rope team in glacier travel mode. The purpose of roping up on a glacier is to ensure that if one person on the team falls in an unsuspecting void the other can arrest the fall and provide assistance in recovery from the fall.
Future framed photo for the loft?
I take the lead on this section
After a short section of glacier travel we embark on our third and final ascent. This time we will be on rope in simul-climbing mode. Simul-climbing is generally performed on easier climbs where protection is minimal and speed is desired. We decided on this mode of travel over pitched climbing (where one person climbs at a time and the other belays) for precisely the reason that this was supposed to be relatively 'easy' and because the protection (placement of screws or snow anchors) was going to be difficult due to the slope and conditions (the guidebook described the slope as 50 degrees).

The sun is shining brightly. The snow exposed to the sun's rays is soft and slightly packy.

Kick, kick. Step up. Swing, pull. Repeat.

The terrain is varied enough to keep the movements from being monotonous. I continuously adjust my grip on the ice axe as I move from low slope snow to rock to higher angled snow slopes. The pitch remains sustained at nearly 45-50 degrees interspersed with outcroppings of rock and the occasional section of ice where the melt from off the rocks has refrozen. As the movement takes us higher the risk takes resemblance. To increase purchase for my spare hand and feet I begin to chop holds with the Adze of my ice tool. 

The grandfathers of mountaineering know this type of travel well. Before the existence of the more modern style front-pointed cramp-ons, Alpinists had only their ice tool and boots with primitive traction devices attached. It was with this ice tool that they were able to carve out steps of which to gain their objective, the summit.

After about 200' of climbing we got to the head wall of almost vertical ice/snow. We consulted on our situation. Going down carried the inherent risk of slipping on the unprotectable slope as downclimbing is often much more precarious than climbing. Our prevailing decision was to continue climbers right across a section of softer snow to a bulge where we could then continue up. The traverse again involved chopping depressions for added security as we were now entering a no fall zone.
Once across I belayed Ethan in with the Prussik on our glacier travel setup. Graciously he offered me his water and a clif bar. My nerves being a little tense considering the exposure and the gravity of our situation wouldn't allow me to obtain mine from my pack.

Now, we go up. The surface: gritty ice with a light coating of mushy snow. The slope: 60-70 degrees. My nerves: TENSE. I began chopping a step for each foot and one for my left hand, took one step and chopped another for that same side. The adrenaline was like blood running through my body. The soaked gloves, continuous swinging of my axe, tense legs, burning calves - almost imperceptible. The degree of focus on getting to the summit safely was unlike what I've ever experienced.

Ethan: "Dude, you're a hero!"
Nick: *mumble* - (thinking, 'I'm a dumbass')

There was a moment when the seriousness of our endeavors started to well my eyes with tears, I quickly refocused my energy on the next step, the next hold. The fear of falling made the risk feel as though life and death were existing in the same moment...After 2+ hours of ascending, the slope begins to shallow.

Ethan: "It might be easier to standup and walk from here."
Nick: (Still in the zone) "I'm not sure I would feel comfortable standing up."
Ethan: "Well you could turn around and look at me for encouragement."
Nick: Turns, looks, *smiles* - emphatically (still unable to speak)

From here, thankfully, Ethan takes the lead to the summit.
Heading for the summit (apparently my phone thought this would be better in Sepia)
You couldn't have asked for better weather, fairly warm and partly sunny for all 13 hours of daylight, 6.5 hours of which we had to hedge our descent.

Nick: "I feel like our adventure is just beginning."
Ethan: "Yup, getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory."

After a quick respite, a few photos, and a change of my shorts we head down.
We decided to scout out a different route down, one with less sustained pitch and potential for rappelling. Towards the south East edge of the glacier we find a slope covered in softer snow. We were able to view photos of this section from Ethan's phone from the hike a few days prior. It appeared that this was our ticket out of here the only question was if there were any drops further down that we couldn't see...
Again, kicking steps for better purchase
After a rope and a halfs length of downclimbing the surface becomes hard and precipitous. Without much choice Ethan stops and builds an anchor out of the two ice screws we have. Ethan rappels first and determines that there is a drop in the glacier of about 15'. I pull one of the screws and bail off the second. All told the mountain captured one screw and a carabiner.
Our descent
Our ascent r
4,900' - 7 miles - 15.5 hours
Needless to say we are both thankful to be alive! And were especially happy to step foot back into town to engorge on pizza and beer the following day. What adventure doesn't end with pizza and beer? :-)

Up next? 5 days of trekking, camping, and trailrunning, oh my!