Monday, April 7, 2014

Learning to Live on the Gran Gendarme

The Gran Gendarme of Cerro Pollone

 Joel approaching on the first attempt

 Neil belaying on the ridge

 Joel on the ridge

 Contemplating the beautiful headwall

 Looking SW towards Paso Marconi and the Hielo Continental

 Descending towards Loma Blanca

 Guillamet, Mermoz, and Cerro Chalten (fitz roy)

 Back at Basecamp
The Gran Gendarme is on the left

Joel near Lago Viedma east of El Chalten

The opposite of alpine climbing, bouldering!

Some serious firepower here!
Josh Huckaby, Whit Magro, Joel Kauffman

 Psyched for round 2!
Thanks Jane for the ride!!

 Hiking in with Mike Collins, Jonathan Schaffer, and Joel

 Fitz Roy and Cerro Electrico

Joel after crossing the Rio Pollone, always a stimulating ford!

Looking onto the Marconi Glacier

You will feel like this little dude after eating these really great alfajores!

Joel at the start of "No Entiendo" on the Gran Gendarme

Joel leading pitch 1

Joel on pitch 2, high over Lago Azul

Joel follows the last pitch
Cerro Pollone and Cerro Pier Giorgio in alpenglow

 The Fitz Massif at sunset

 Happy to make the summit!

 Planet Kauffman

 The first rappel

 Happy to be almost down

 Basecamp shared with friends!

 The massive rockfall that came off the night after our climb

 Last light over Aguja Volonqui

Joel Enrico and Marcus Garvery resting hard at BC

 Looking down the Electrico Valley on the way out

 And finally back to bouldering!!
Joel on the summit
Sam Piper starting the route

 Celebrating another season in El Chalten


It had been a great season for bouldering, which is basically the opposite of mountain climbing.
The weather plays with your mind in Patagonia. After weeks of waiting, excitement grew to a frothy head. Finally, at the end of February, two good, 4 day weather windows were gifted to hopeful climbers living in El Chalten.
Maintaining perspective in this mental environment conjures inner strength and limitless patience. Confronting the ego is the biggest game in alpine climbing. But doesn't the ego also motivate? Can you desire without feeling its force?

We set out in the first day of the window on Feb 12. With no gear cache, we carried heavy loads onto the Marconi Glacier. Base camp here on the lateral glacial moraine below the Gran Gendarme had become a familiar place over the years. But the ground was always shifting, falling apart and changing its face.

Beat down after a long heavy march, we rested on the 13th, enjoying a miraculous day lounging on giant, flat granite blocks in camp. The mountains were covered in ice after the last storm. The only peak left dry was the Gran Gendarme, an amazing spire of granite, perched high above camp.
Feeling better, we set out at first light on the 14th in a light but nagging breeze to try Carsten von Birckhahn's route "The Perfekt Day". Everything in Patagonia is bigger than it looks, and that quickly becomes apparent as you hike up the mess of boulders below these beautiful towers. 
After four hours, we roped up for a short pitch through a loose, red shale band. Another better bit of climbing through the metamorphic rock brought us to a ridge of wonderful granite. We climbed fun alpine rock in an incredible setting for a few pitches as the wind pushed us around. Then the ridge meets the talus and we hiked up to the headwall of the tower. Carsten had told us about an amazing 3" crack on the red and gold granite. From here we could see it, an incredible splitter, the stuff of dreams. By now the wind was shoving us with its force. We both knew what it would be like up there and weren't into the suffer factor that alpine climbing sometimes demands. We hiked to the highest ridge, extending to Loma Blanca, ate some food and waited in vain for it to settle down. From here, we had a direct view of the west side of Fitz Roy. The whole upper part of the mountain was plastered in rime. Wondering how our friends were doing, we wished them well.

As began our descent down the gully paralleling the ridge we climbed, two large blocks spontaneously fell off the choss slope that is Loma Blanca and tumbled down the slope, slowing in the sludgy, soft snow. Watching from a safe distance, we reminded ourselves to be fast and stay sharp. Reversing the jumble of boulders back to camp was a weary task. My legs were exhausted. So much hiking for just a bit of actual rock climbing. That's mountain climbing for ya!

We returned to El Chalten to the news of Chad Kellogg's accident on Fitz Roy. I talked to friends who shared the route with him, sharing belays all the way up. In the end, they turned left, he turned right. Jens dodged the rock, Chad couldn't. People are always searching for the meaning of death. But it's the meaning of life that matters. We're here to experience love. That is the most precious gift. Death is only a reminder that the present is the only true reality.

When the second weather window showed up, it was a tough choice to return to the mountains. The risks of mountain climbing just didn't seem worth it. We reasoned that we could stay safe by making good choices, but in the end, there are always elements beyond control.

This time, we hiked into the Marconi Valley with our friends Mike Collins and Jonathan Schaffer. Joel Enrico and Adam Ferro had hiked in the day before and we joined them at base camp. It was really fun to share the mountains, so often alpine climbing is an anti-social activity.

We set off, back to the Gran Gendarme, this time going to the South face to try Carsten's route "No Entiendo". After 5 hours, we had reached the start of the climbing. At the col there was still heavy wind, but the route stayed protected. This is often the case in Patagonia, where aspect determines conditions. Receiving little sunlight, this side of the mountain was pretty snowy. We brought only rock shoes, and using one small ice tool, cleaned snow from cracks. The climbing was slow and classically alpine. Joel started, leading two pitches of good climbing. At one point, I down climbed a snow runnel, kicking steps and slipping around in rock shoes. I led a hard fingers corner with stemming, accessed by traversing across an ice dagger. Trying to free the next pitch took me to the limit. A thin seam split the clean granite, offering little confidence to try hard moves. I made a belay and brought Joel up. This was the pivotal moment in our ascent. Joel set off and completed a long aid lead to overcome the passage. I barely freed it going second, making desperate slab moves and crimping the occasional pocket in the seam. On the next pitch I led an exposed ridge with fun climbing to the summit block. We unroped and bouldered the final meter in the fierce orange alpenglow. To the east, the spires of granite glowed against the whiteness of the Ice Cap. We were on the very edge of the granite, the last spire in the pluton. It was a windless, beautiful summit, and we spent some time relaxing and taking it in. Thinking about Chad, I could feel his spirit, resting in the wildest mountains on Earth.

When we returned to camp early the next morning, Marcus, our Australian friend and long-time Patagonian character had found us to boost morale. In the early morning hours, Joel and I jumped from the tent, startled by the sound of a massive rockfall. Looking toward the roar, we saw a giant block rip off the face of the Gran Gendarme and sweep down the hill. It was a sharp reminder of the forces that cannot be controlled. We spent the next day enjoying the scenery and sharing stories with Enrico and Adam, who climbed a new route on Torrecito Tito Corrasco. Hiking off the glacier in the rain and back to El Chalten, I was ready to go sport climbing. The mountains always offer such an intense experience. That is part of the beauty of visiting them, and this experience of fully living in the moment creates lasting memories. And in the end, that's what we have, a little story book of our lives written by the memories we make. Chad's book is an excellent read.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Super Domo

The holiday season in El Chalten is a remarkable fiesta, flowing from Christmas Eve though to the new year. It peaks around 4 in the morning on the 1st when the local band, Siete Venas, takes the stage and rocks until sunrise. Thankfully, the weather in the mountains was poor and I made it to the Christmas Eve feast, a thirty person pot-luck style dinner not to be missed. When Mikey Schaefer told me he had a climbing idea for the New Year, I once again resigned myself to missing the legendary fiesta. I couldn't have known what we were getting into...

So, after sleeping all night and a good part of the day, Mikey, Joel, and I hiked into Nipo Nino camp in the Torre Valley on the New Year. Conditions were not optimal. It was snowing horizontally when we crossed onto the glacier, but abated by the time we reached Nipo. Settling in before the climb is always tricky, the mind runs over the possibly events. I got little sleep, and we set out at 5AM in the gathering dawn.

Donning crampons, we made good speed and roped up onto the upper glacier a few hours later. The setting was incredible. Fitz Roy and its satellite pinnacles towered over one side of the valley, the Torres dominated the other, basking in alpenglow. The views of our new route only got better and our spirits were high. The snow got deeper as we reached the bergschrund, a few waist high spots. The 'schrund threatened to swallow us as we balanced on a steep snow slope and Mikey led off.

The first two leads stretched our 60 meter rope to it's limit, and we simul-climbed beautiful alpine ice to reach nice ledges. Joel took over and crossed a steep snow gully to the next section of ice. Another stretcher pitch of amazing alpine ice, a theme materialized and the route was taking shape. Mikey and I climbed near each other smiling and pretty struck by what was happening at the moment.

From below, we couldn't see the next part of the climb. Now, the big black dike stared us down, piercing the granite, feeding the ice. Joel put together an impressive line, taking a half meter runnel of ice to the right of the dike. The runnel took a turn right, then terminated at a snow ledge. After down-climbing a bit of steep snow, splitter granite cracks branched out. The climbing was stunning! Hooking with tools, a hand jam here, high stepping into rock pods, then pulling onto an exposed belay stance. The next pitch traversed dead left on steep mixed ground for 10 meters. With sparse protection, the little runnel appeared again to comfort us. I barely followed this bit clean, and asked Joel just how he did it when I reached the anchor. He was in the zone! Finishing the middle section of the climb, we relaxed on the little col before traversing into the final ice flow. We could now see the last pitches up close, smiles cracked our faces.
"You still psyched man?" Mikey asked Joel.
"Ohhh yeah!" 
The ice master was in full form.

After another long moderate ice pitch, Joel made a belay under the steepness. He set off and after 60 meters, we began climbing. I was glad when Joel found an anchor and put us on belay. Sustained water ice burned my calves, I kicked my foot sideways to rest whenever possible. I've never seen waterfall ice form like that in Patagonia. I felt like I was back in the South Fork of Cody, Wyoming. A glance over my shoulder at Fitz Roy brought me back to the present. The ice entered a chimney, and the last few meters to the belay was strange climbing, right foot stemmed onto the main flow, left foot and both tools deep in the ice runnel. The belay was semi-haning and incredibly uncomfortable. Locking my ankles, my feet braced the ice flow, while my butt melted the cold snowy mini-ledge. Climbing with three has its advantages, and now Mikey and I could suffer together.

Joel left the little cave launching onto vertical ice immediately. He moved up and right to more featured ice, climbing steadily and resting to place screws. It was an impressive lead, and toward the top, the rope snaked out of my hands quickly.
"He must be getting close" Mikey hoped.
"OFF BELAY!" The words floated down to us.
We could start moving, warming up and getting ready for this monster pitch.
The ice was harder, denser with less air. It was no longer one-swing hero conditions. I tried to hook as much as I could, but falling onto the 8.5mm cord was not a happy thought. I had to swing more and more and my arms were failing. Breathing deep and resting straight-armed on good picks got me through it. The ice rolled over and I got my feet under me. Magically here the ice improved and I raced the final stretch to the belay, totally spent.

That was the last hard climbing. We ate some food, and continued to the summit a few hundred meters above on compact, wind-blow snow. The route had been pretty protected from the wind, but now we experienced its full force. The Continental Ice Cap laid below us, The Torres stretched their icy fingers. Fitz Roy glowed in the setting sun, beyond it Lago Viedma, and the pampas. It was 9PM. Taking in the view, we snapped a summit shot and got out of there.

As darkness came, we flicked on headlamps, added clothing and rappelled. Mikey is a true Jedi when it comes to getting off mountains. Joel and I watched him work, taking in the little tricks he's honed over years of climbing. I would go last, pulling the anchor backups. Being alone on the mountain was a strange feeling. I shut off my light and took in the darkness, embracing the vulnerability. Exhaustion raked my body. I reminded myself to "keep it tight!" and double-checked the safety system. 

Finally, the last rappel took us over the bergschrund. We pulled the ropes and wallowed back down to flat ground. Seeing lights on Exocet, we imagined our friends Blake and Troutman were sending. We brewed hot water and ate the last of our food before stumbling back to camp as the sun lit the skies. I had just  a wink of sleep before packing up and heading back to town. A huge feast and 12 hours of sleep revived me, somewhat. My legs were completely worked from all the crampon time, but my mind was at ease at full of joy.

A few days later, we threw a huge party at La Lucinda with all our friends. The local ice cream shop is stuff of legend in El Chalten. Domo Blanco; it's named after the mountain we climbed. When Mikey asked me near the end of the route if I knew all the flavors, I recited a few that came to mind.
"There's Nochialatto, Dulce Coco, Frutas del Bosque, and Super Domo!"
We celebrated with 5 kilos of Super Domo to commemorate this amazing climb, it wasn't hard to finish it all!

"Super Domo"
FA on Cerro Domo Blanco
Grade V 600m WI5 M6
Mikey Schaefer, Joel and Neil Kauffman

Mikey and Joel hiking in the forest

Dawn below Fitz Roy

Bifida and the Torres

Cerro Stanhardt

 Getting closer!
Domo Blanco is the peak on the left, Super Domo slashes across the face
The final ice pitches can be seen in the upper right of the face

Big blocks on the glacier below Cerro Pollone

Getting psyched to start climbing!

Mikey crossing the 'schrund

Mikey tackles the first pitch

The 'schrund belay

Joel taking off

Mikey leading pitch 2

Taking in the full moment

Mikey finding the little runnel near the black dike

Climbing through the first mixed bit

Good vibes!

Mikey on the mixed traverse

The final ice flow!

Joel in the thick of it

Wind-blown snow near the top

The Torre Group from the summit of Domo Blanco

Heading down around 9PM

The shadow of Cerro Torre on Fitz Roy

Monkeys and mountains

Back at Nipo Nino


Celebrating with Scott Bennett during the Super Domo Party

HAPPY 2014!
Make it special!