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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!


  1. You two are awesome! Thank you for the great photos and impressive narrative!!!

  2. You two are awesome! Thank you for the great photos and impressive narrative!!!

    1. Thanks Cathy! It's been a fun trip and a pleasure to craft into a narrative worth sharing! :-)