It’s 5 a.m., and rain is slathering lo de Guille, our hostel in El Chaltén, Argentina, drumming on the roof and hammering the cement outside the window.
We woke at 4, already packed for the all-day hike to Paso Superior where we plan to camp before attempting the Whillans route on Poincenot tomorrow. Coffee and breakfast downed, I’m brewing with excitement, nervousness and lack of sleep.
As I type, my fingertips are raw, reminding me that the last weather window, known as a brecha, was only a few days ago over Christmas. The next one starts on New Years Eve and peters out Jan. 2. With data from a weather buoy off the Chilean coast, it’s possible to predict brechas, and this little mountain town buzzes during the days prior.
During the Christmas window Gilbert and I spent two days on Chiaro di Luna, a 19-pitch rock climb on Aguja Saint-Exupéry. Named for the French WWII pilot who wrote The Little Prince, the tower is one of the smaller peaks in the iconic Fitz Roy massif. However, the 2,200-foot route is on par with the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. Big.
The cache of gear we’d banked on finding after hiking eight hours into the Torre Valley had been raided, leaving us up a creek at the Niponino bivy with one thin rope, one 30-degree sleeping bag, and Whit’s old sleeping bag, sopping wet.
Luckily some Canadian climbers sent us over to Colin Haley, who I’d met in Yosemite several years ago. He climbs in Patagonia every year and is dialed. He lent us two old ropes, we dried out the wet sleeping bag, and spent the next four nights spooning to stay warm.
Snow and ice on Saint-Exupéry made for slow going, but after a cold start we climbed out of the clouds and into the sun. The combination of ultra-splitter cracks, wild exposure and some of the world’s greatest peaks surrounding us is something I will forever keep in the treasure chest.
An Argentine team above us rappelled early the first afternoon, and we made it to the flat spot atop pitch 11 in time to fix one more pitch before dark. The bivy site was loaded with snow and ice, so I spent three hours digging out a jagged alley between sharp rocks that would have been uncomfortable for even one person. We squashed ourselves into the 30-degree sleeping bag, which took some 5.9+ squeeze chimneying, zipped it up (at least 5.11), and slept like little girls.
Morning brought pink alpenglow on Poincenot and the peaks of the Cerro Torre group. Another slow, cold start. The sun caught us on pitch 14, lighting the golden rock and amazing 6b crack. An Austrian party of three appeared below us while we were on it, moving quickly, shouting to us in accented English about the ice on pitch 12.
We made it to pitch 15, just below the chimneys, and then it was time to go down. Weather was moving in, and summitting would have put us out for another night.
I’ll post photos once we leave Chaltén, which has Stone Age speed Internet.