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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

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