After what seems like a slow blink, I open my eyes. Maybe it has actually been two hours, since I had closed my eyes in the frozen dark of predawn, but now the wall above us glows with the orange light of morning. It’s still cold.
Cheyne and I had lain down at our cramped bivy a few short hours before, sharing one sleeping bag as a blanket and huddling on a pile of ropes, packs, and cut-up squares of foam pad. Only 300m of Cerro Fitz Roy remain above us from our perch atop the North Pillar, but our route stretches 1700m below us, and a year into the past.
Coming back to Patagonia for my second season, I had one major objective in mind: Cerro Fitz Roy. Obviously the biggest mountain hereabouts, the King Fitz dominates all the satellite peaks around it, any of which would be showpiece mountains in most of the world. So while climbing on Agujas Guillamet, Mermoz, and others is a very fun experience on beautiful rock, no alpinist can help but dream of touching the true summit.
Last year, my good friend Blake Herrington and I enjoyed fantastic weather and very good luck, pulling off what was then the biggest and most difficult climb of my life: Cerro Pollone. Located to the west of the Fitz Roy massif, the summit of Pollone affords unrivaled views of the Fitz. Even before our trip, Blake had tossed around the idea of linking up the Northwest Ridge of Mermoz with the North Pillar of Fitz Roy, but before seeing it with my own eyes it just seemed like one more potential variation to the already amazing routes in the area. From our perspective, though, atop Pollone, the line jumps out as the obvious “line of strength”, and the longest possible rock route up the massif. I became convinced that this line was actually the one to climb, perhaps the last remaining unclimbed major line up Fitz Roy.
Once the idea had been planted, and carried back home to the States, it grew slowly throughout the year. Many spare moments were spent daydreaming and visualizing, planning out our gear and supplies, our timing and our strategy. I say “our”, though, but I actually had no idea with whom I’d climb. Blake would not be joining me this season, and I was certainly afraid to attempt something so big with anyone besides the climber who’d basically taught me how to mountain climb.
Throughout the year, I tried to solicit partners for the objective. One after another, friends would express interest, but for various reasons would be unable to commit. That’s when I starting talking to Cheyne. Just 20 years old, I’d been there when Cheyne attempted his crack climbing leads a few years ago in Indian Creek. The kid emanates stoke and positivity, and clearly had the right attitude. He’d never climbed, though, in the “big mountains”, and had no experience with new routing. So much of climbing, especially in this style, relies on hard won instincts and intuition: “mountain sense”. Would Cheyne be able to make the thousands of instant decisions every day on the route, quickly and safely? Would I? Truly, I had not much more experience, and I was in the same position last year, climbing with Blake. Everyone has to start somewhere.
So plans began to take shape, and Cheyne and I both found our way down to Chalten in mid-January. Immediately a weather window beckoned, and we took advantage to hike our gear up to Piedras Negras base camp, a quick hitchhike and pleasant 3 hour walk from town. On a perfectly clear and windless day, we hiked over to the West Face of Guillamet and started up a new route, enjoying pitch after pitch of steep clean handcracks. It was a fantastic warmup, and Cheyne climbed with confidence, so my nervousness about his inexperience abated and we fully went into planning mode for the big mission.
Back in town, all of our talk revolved around calories and grams. We agonized and obsessed over every item we’d bring, since we would have to carry everything we’d need to survive and climb for four days. We carefully pre-mixed instant mashed potatoes with parmesan cheese, garlic, and milk powder. We packed energy bars and freeze dried meals that we’d brought from the States, and supplemented with local nuts and dried fruit. Our climbing gear presented challenges as well: how heavy should we go on the ice kit? We knew that it would primarily be a rock climb; our warmup climb on Guillamet had given us great views of the ridge and we could see that it was ice free. The final 300m of Fitz Roy, the headwall above the North Pillar, is notoriously tricky, though. We caught glimpses of ice runnels streaking down from the summit snowfields, and I had visions of climbing the entire ridge just to be shut down there, unprepared.
We opted to compromise and bring one full set of ice gear (boots, steel crampons, a pair of real tools), as well as a light pair of aluminum crampons. For the initial glacier approach we could manage with one tool apiece and one climber in Tennies and strap-on ‘pons, and we’d save a ton of weight over bringing two sets of ice kit. Since we were bringing tools, we might as well bring an ice screw as well, so we borrowed the stubbiest one we could find. Light, but would it be sufficient?
As Cheyne and I slowly got our blood flowing again after the cold bivy, we craned our necks to scope the headwall above. Sure enough, blue ice choked the chimney above, providing both a potential passage, and a potential obstacle, to the summit.
With fully loaded packs, we set out on the morning of January 19th, leaving our tent and excess gear stashed at our Piedras Negras base camp, and now only carrying the bare essentials. The previous day had been windy and rainy, but now we praised the NOAA computer models for correctly predicting today’s splitter skies. The forecast called for at least five days of stable, dry conditions; a massive and rare window in a region known for its hostile Antarctic weather patterns. We found our way over Paso Cuadrado, an easy snow slog, and down to the Fitz Norte glacier and the start of our route. Up close, the ridge hid it’s true size, with many towers and gendarmes foreshortened into one dense line of rock. Finally stepping from the snow to the rock at the base of the ridge was a welcome relief, and know we just had to climb!
And so we did. I started up a major weakness, weaving my way in and out of a small waterfall that kept the low angled rock interesting. While it was clear that we needed to gain the ridge crest, I wandered attempting to find a passage. I led up deceptively challenging, leaning corners, and had to make a few tension traverses and move of aid.
We did finally hit the crest, though, and Cheyne took over an amazing lead block of easy ridge traversing mixed with short steep gendarmes. Late in the day, we were eager to reach the top of one tower, only to find that it dead-ended and the true ridge had continued to our right. 100m of rappelling later, we were back on the line, bathing in the golden sunset. A huge ledge system above promised a comfortable bivy, and after some hasty construction work, we had made a nice flat bivy with little walls to block the wind.
Our second day dawned clear, which would become a theme for the climb. The ridge crest steepened above us, and didn’t seem to sport any climbable features, so we poked out heads around to the left and found passage up leaning cracks on the north side of the ridge.
Here, we started to encounter some old fixed gear, pins and ropes, that had been left by a Slovenian team. They had climbed this ridge back in 2001, at one point using fixed lines to retreat to the glacier to the north to wait out a storm. They returned and continued to the ridge below the summit of Mermoz, but had turned back there for lack of weather and climbable systems. I happily bootied a perfectly good #2 camalot, and once we’d replaced the sling with some cord, our rack became a bit beefier. Thanks Slovenes!
Now high on the ridge, we encountered one more steep step, split by a single laser cut crack. The crack leaned hard to the right, and then petered out after maybe 25 m, but luckily a parallel crack started to the left and look as if it continued to the top of the tower. Cheyne made a stellar lead up the crack, using a mix of aid and free climbing, and made the transition into the left crack smoothly. One more easy pitch brought us to the junction of our ridge with the main ridge of the Fitz Roy massif. Here, we briefly turned attention to the north at Mermoz, thinking it would be nice to tag its summit before attempting Fitz. As the Slovenes had found, though, a huge steep tower blocked the path and no obvious passages presented themselves. We were tired, at this point, of what Cheyne called “tricky ridge bullshit” so we quickly decided to move it along and skip Mermoz.
Going south now, we were of course not done with the trickery, but we were now following the path of the Care Bear Traverse. First climbed by the ultra-humble crusher Dana “Mad Dog” Drummond and his partner Freddie Wilkinson back in 2008, it has been repeated a few times since, and every ascensionist has returned raving about its quality. We were stoked to find a few fixed rappel slings along the convoluted line, and this helped us to find a quick and easy path to Aguja Val Bois, the biggest of the little serrations in the sector. We bypassed Val Bois on it’s steep West face, finding an improbable line of cracks and mini-sidewalk-style ledges. As priomised by our friend Hayden, who’d covered this terrain last year while attempting the Care Bear, we found a fantastic bivy site on the south side of the peak.
Settling down to our second night on the mountain, we again flattened out our site and built little wind-blocking walls to ensure plenty of rest. Another theme of the climb, we knew that such a protracted effort would require maximum attention to recovery. Pushing super hard for a day, or even two, is possible on pure adrenaline and stoke. But I know that, for me, four days of climbing will require a more considered “gentlemanly” approach of eating and sleeping well. Here’s our menu for night two:
-One half a chorizo and a handful of cashews for appetizer.
-Chicken Risotto (a freeze dried meal) and mashed potatoes for the main course, both supplemented with olive oil, parm cheese, and milk powder.
-One third of a bar of dark chocolate with ginger for dessert.
Well over 1k calories per person!!
As day three began, we were rewarded for our fantastic east-facing bivy spot with the earliest of warming morning rays. A breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, and fizzy fruit drink helped us limber up, and soon we were back in the groove. A short rappel brought us to the Bloque Empotrado, a giant chockstone that marks the beginning of the North Pillar of Fitz. From there, the pillar stretched skywards, leaning ever so slightly back, but steepening as it rises. A bevy of parallel crack systems scratch down the pillar, promising plentiful options. We had decided to attempt the Kearny-Knight route, established in 1984 by an American team as a variation to the original Italian North Pillar route, the Cassarotto. Lacking a topo and working off vague memories, I simply followed my nose most of the way, though, traversing back and forth on the wide face.
The warm temps had melted much of the ice in the cracks, sending long water streaks out of nearly every system, looking shiny and multi-colored in my polarized glasses. The wetness, combined with a few grainy and flared pitches, slowed us a bit, but we were halfway up the pillar early in the day, and I handed off the lead to Cheyne. He led up and left on ramps, which I thought was the correct route, but it quickly dead-ended on a ledge. We made a diagonal rappel to the left to join a bigger system, which invitingly sported a long chimney and offwidth, of course a bit wet. This did not bother the Yosemite-honed Cheyne, though, and he worked up the wide crack to my encouraging cries of “Steady Steady!!”
Again with a mix of free and aid, we continued to the high left skyline of the Pillar. Another massive wet chimney system provided an obvious path, but obviously unprotectable and dangerous. We chose instead to investigate around the arete to the left, and found enjoyable cracks and corners, still wet but at least protectable. We had now gained so mush elevation that ice predominated more than running water, and as the sun set I took back over the lead with an ice tool hanging off my harness. It seemed as if the top of the pillar most be close, but now in the dark the long 50-60m pitches just kept adding up. Finally, sometime after midnight, a leftwards traversing lead over icy ledges brought us to the top of the Pillar. Two awkward diagonal rappels dropped us into the col below the final headwall, where were made the most of a poor ledge and constructed our least comfortable bivy yet.
So now, as the wall above glows orange, we’ve put ourselves in position for success. 1700m of climbing below us, a year of planning and dreaming, and here we are within striking distance of the summit.
Above us, though, the icy headwall looms intimidatingly. Cheyne, having more experience with the tricky business of mixed ice and rock climbing, straps on the boots and crampons, grabs our tools, and starts up. We’ve been given the prudent advice by our friend Joel, and so started this pitch as early as possible to avoid the icefall that inevitably starts once the sun really gets going. So we’re climbing by 7am, and Cheyne makes steady progress up into the maw. He kicks into the brittle ice, sending showers down onto my belay. A few moments of hesitation preceed each move, making sure to find solid pick placements in the poor ice. He soon finds passage to the right, off the ice and onto rock, and we’re in business!
I jumar up the icy lead before donning rock shoes and returning to my preferred element. Two long leads wander up the final headwall before we gain the lower-angled summit slopes, which still provide sufficient challenge with snow, ice, and running waterfalls.
Finally, we unrope and scramble up the last bits of scree and rock to the summit!!!
The weather could not be better, with barley a cloud visible and no wind at all, a true rarity atop the biggest mountain in Patagonia!! An hour is spent on the cumbre, as we polish off nearly all our remaining food and brew up our last coffee packet. Our elation, expressed spontaneously by monkey calls and raised arms, is tempered though, since we’re now a very long way from home.
Again attaching crampons, we wander down the southeast aspect of the mountain, carefully crossing treacherous ice and snow and trying to sniff out the descent. We plan to rappel the Franco-Argentine, but have only the vaguest grasp on it’s location. I find a few rappel slings, but choose to hold out for what certainly will be the obvious and well used station. After maybe an hour of wandering, we do find a clear path, and being the long rappel descent. Coming down the chossy Franco-Argentine route, we’re constantly on edge for rock fall and stuck ropes. Luck prevails, though, and rap after rap go smoothly. We drop onto La Silla, the icy snowfield at the base of the Franco, by late evening, and manage to find the rappel path down la Breccia, the final steep obstacle, just as darkness takes over.
Rapping la Brecchia is not enjoyable, all loose rock and ledgy terrain, but again we manage no stuck ropes or rocks to the noggin. A final 60m rap swings us down across the bergshrund onto the glacier below, and I soon as we pull our cords, I shout for joy!! We’ve done it, come up and down, and sent Cerro Fitz Roy!!!
The Northwest Ridge of Mermoz-North Pillar of Fitz Roy linkup. Climbed from Thursday the 19th of January to Sunday the 22nd by Cheyne Lempe and Scott Bennett. Free climbed up to 5.11, with numerous points of aid, pendulums, and rappels. Net elevation gain ~2km, gross vertical gain maybe 300m more (due to rappels and downclimbing). We summited many subtowers and gendarmes, but avoided the actual summits of Aguja Mermoz and Aguja Val Bois. Summited Fitz Roy mid day on the 22nd, then descended the Franco-Argentine route, returning to El Chalten the following morning after one final bivy at Lago de los Tres.