When we arrived in Patagonia two and a half months ago, Dean and I vowed enthusiastically that we wouldn’t leave until we had summited Fitzroy, the jewel of the Fitzroy range. We remained ruthlessly optimistic for months, crossing the glacier in full whiteouts and climbing even in storms, knowing we wouldn’t summit but getting tougher. We dug in our heels as all the other climbers bailed out of this unbelievably worthless Patagonia season. The weather responded by continuously growing so bad that eventually we couldn’t even get farther than our snow cave at Paso Superior, high at the edge of the glacier on the east side of Fitzroy.
We are on the edge of insanity. We have managed not to kill each other, but just barely. We hole up in the snow cave for one last-ditch siege, knowing that when we run out of food and fuel we will cede defeat to this ultimately crappy year.
The food is nearly gone when the weather suddenly breaks. We almost can’t comprehend sun and blue sky. The granite peaks are in clear view at last, completely encrusted with ice. Dazed and panicked, we snap into action and decide to climb a rock route on Mermoz while Fitzroy melts off. But after postholing across the glacier in snowshoes and wallowing up a snowfield, we find the cracks choked with snow and ice. Of course they are; they’ve been bombarded for the last three months.
We trudge back to the snow cave, with the sinking knowledge that the good weather could end at any moment, but everything is far too out of condition to climb. We take stock of our meager food supplies and decide that our only hope is the Supercanaleta, on the northwest side of Fitzroy, almost directly opposite where we are on this side of the range. The route is mostly snow, so there’s a chance that we could climb it in these conditions. It’s true that we’re on the wrong side of the mountain, and we don’t know anything about the route. If the Supercanaleta isn’t climbable tomorrow, we will have wasted all our remaining food and a lot of energy trying to get there, and maybe the weather window as well. But the other choice is to stay at the snow cave and wonder if it could have worked. We decide to take the gamble, to find our way around the mountains, postholing across the high glacier in snowshoes under heavy packs.
As we circumnavigate the peaks, passing around Mermoz and Guillaumet, I start to enjoy this movement into unfamiliar territory under clear skies. We make a lucky guess at which pass to use on the north and drop down steep snowfields for thousands of feet to the glacier on Fitzroy’s northeast side. We’re moving fast, trying to finish this journey before dark, when I fall into a crevasse up to my armpits. I writhe like a beetle under my pack, desperately flailing until I can crawl away from the cracked edges. Rattled and panting, I lie on the ice for a few seconds. Dean waits impatiently as I struggle back to my feet, the rope tugging insistently between us. In the fading light, we can see the end of the glacier, barren and desolate, with no hope of shelter.
Snow starts to fall lightly. We huddle beside a small boulder on the ice and struggle into the single bivy sack. As the snow and wind intensify, we endure a wet, freezing night. I spend the hours trying to wiggle my toes inside my boots, but my legs are crushed against Dean’s in the narrow one-person sack. Snow blows into the top of the bivy and melts down our faces, soaking the wafer-thin sleeping bag that we are also crammed into. We are both wondering if we are going to get slammed by a massive storm way out here alone, with almost no food or shelter. The night drags on forever as I try to ignore the pain in my cramped legs, shivering and yearning for the snow cave.
By morning the storm dribbles out into the fresh hope of another clear day. Gratefully, we extract our aching limbs from the torture sack and trudge up to the base of Fitzroy. I am beaten down, but I know I have the drive to climb this huge mountain, if we can just get the chance. Since we have no information, we are pleasantly surprised to see the route is dead obvious. A huge snow gully starts right off the glacier, indeed a Super Couloir. We stand before it and look up. Unbelievably, the Supercanaleta is totally out of condition too. The entire upper portion of rock, thousands of feet, is coated in rime. We could climb the lower portion of the route on snow, but there would be no chance of making it to the summit. We’ve had enough of that game already.
Almost completely out of food, we’ve run ourselves ragged. The gamble didn’t pay off, which pretty much sums up this entire season.
It takes hours to retrace our circuit around the mountains, back up to the snow cave on the east glacier. Hungry and drained, we try to figure out some way to salvage this miserable trip. Dean spots a dihedral high on Poincenot that appears to have melted out in the last two days, with a long couloir leading up to the rock. The weather still seems good. It’s not Fitzroy, and in fact the last peak we climbed together last season was Poincenot, but at this point we have to get up something. We have six Clif Bars left and a little bit of dehydrated soup. Beyond exhaustion, we try to nourish our haggard bodies with the soup and we zip the precious Clif Bars in the pack.
As darkness falls, we are out on snowshoes again, trudging toward Poincenot. Dean and I simulclimb snow and ice all night, moving more quickly in tandem than if we were stopping to belay each other. We reach the col as dawn breaks. Unbelievably, the rock above is dry, and it has good crack systems. As we climb, we find no anchors and suspect a new route. We are both praying the line doesn’t suddenly fade out, forcing a retreat from an insurmountable blank face. Retreat would be awful, leaving all of our gear for anchors and having to downclimb all the ice we climbed up through the night. We packed as light as we could, bringing almost no clothing, and we are incredibly cold and almost out of reserves, but we won’t stop until we are standing on a summit.
The hours slip by, and we finally reach the summit. But it’s just a brief moment of relief, and then we’re rappeling off the other side of Poincenot. Night catches us as we touch the glacier. We are so relieved to have climbed something, anything, and we are truly exhausted.
Back down in El Chalten, we eat frantically and tell the locals of our climb. They tell us we have done a first ascent. It’s hard to get too excited about it, when all we wanted to climb was Fitzroy. We summited Poincenot already last year, on the Whillans Route, so despite the cachet of the new route our climb actually seems like a cruel joke after these three brutal months here. This is my fourth trip to Patagonia and my second time here with Dean. We are no strangers to rough living, maddening weather, and the irritability that comes with them. Even when we are not in the mountains, we have lived nomadically in vehicles, tents, and caves for the last five years and have always been a tempestuous pair. But after this relentless season, it feels like something has been irreparably damaged. It’s too much. We don’t even like each other anymore. We fly back to the States, to separate vehicles, and drive off in different directions.
Excerpted from High Infatuation: A Climber's Guide to Love and Gravity, April 2007, The Mountaineers Books.