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Los Diablos

 Los Diablos

by Jonathan Copp

December 31, 2001

"Real Mountaineering is... above all a reason for struggle and for self conquest, for spiritual tempering and enjoyment in the ideal and magnificent surroundings of the mountains. The trials, the hardships, the privations with which an ascent of the peaks is always studded, become, for that very reason, valid tests which the mountaineer accepts to temper his powers and his character. In the atmosphere of struggle, of close relationship with the unforeseen difficulties and the thousand perils of the mountains, the alpinist is shown in his true colors, ruthlessly laid bare, both in his qualities and in his defects, to himself and others. That alone, in my opinion, should be sufficient to convince anyone that the mountains can be for the climber the source of the most beautiful and exalted sentiments and the supreme test which contributes to the perfecting of certain qualities which are at the root of progress". - Walter Bonatti, On the Heights.

1/15/98 (Flying to Chile, into the southern summer.) The bulbous clouds out my window strike an adventurous chord in me. These elusive, white mountains in the sky, with peaks, valleys, cliffs and inverted spiraling dragons, amaze me. I see enormous mountains and want to fly straight into them instead of studying them from above. Unfortunately, while inside, one can seldom see his own feet, much less where he is going.

Floating into Punta Arenas, I'm gasping at the multitude of islands that speckle the western flank of Chile. Green corn flakes floating on briny blue. The vast uninhabited landscape below already brings me closer to our destination as a team of friends and our destination as humans, uncharted exploritoria. Even with 500 or so pounds of gear, a feeling of lightness overcomes me. Patagonia, itís been a long dreamed about place.

1/19/98 Logistics, weather and official documents have kept us from the Torres Del Paine. Now amazing adventure and hopes of grandeur divert us once again. Robert Bodrogi the "Mad Hungarian", a random acquaintance in this small world of climbers, draws us in to un gran exploritoria. Five hours up the fjord the devils live. Three towers, locally known as Los Diablos, sit above glaciated terrain. Donini and Chounard had climbed one of the Diablos in the Eighties. The soaring south faces have yet to see an ascent. As we psyche up for the embarkation around a backyard bon fire with half cooked legs of sheep and a bowl of tomatoes, our group gets a boost of energy from the Karl brothers, impossible not to laugh when these twins are conversing, as well as from Mark Sinnot and Kevin Thaw; thumbs up. Not that anyone knows anything about the destination or the movements of the weather; the beauty lies there in the unknown.

1/20/98 We eventually work things out with the Chilean armada and have a chat with the captain of our one-way fishing vessel. Somehow wires get crossed, verbs are wrongly conjugated, forks are in the road and the butter knife is dirty; I don't know, but we were set to leave in the morning when, by some chance, we find they are embarking in an hour instead of a day.

Flustered and hunkered down with our loads we make it to the docks and our little "Eliana"; the ship is just big enough for the three sailors and ourselves: Dylan Taylor, Darrel Gschwendtner, Robert Bodrogi, Mark Slovak John Merriam and I. The nine of us set course south, weaving our way around islands and through narrow, whirlpool laced inlets. Lush greenery and gnarly, dwarfed trees grow above and through the metamorphosed granite, complimenting the rock's swirling patterns. Dolphins greet us as we enter a narrow channel. Ducks splash about madly.

At 9 PM the sun is just retreating. None of us know exactly where to go, not even the captain. Rain has been pounding us for the last few hours, so we are wet and anxious. Robert gives his best shot at navigation and communications. We are all in stitches laughing, "Quince kilometers FFT FFT." But we all sense the consequences. This boat is going out to sea for two months to harvest oysters. If we don't get dropped at the right spot, we won't get picked up.

As darkness falls, and we still don't know where we are, the fishermen decide to drop anchor for the night. Their partner ship soon catches up to us, and the floating party begins. But besides the chicken soup and cheap wine, the night on the boat is less than optimal. Dylan and I try to sleep in the storage chamber under the bow of the ship. This is where gasoline is stored on the way out to sea and oysters or fish are kept on the way back. It rains all night. The leaky deck is our roof and the offset planked floor is our bed. Sleep is an infrequent and brief occurrence in-between shuffling ourselves and everyone's packs out of drips' way.

The sun finally seeps through the wind and moisture as we all squirm from our niches. We jump to shore, sink to our ankles in moss and hesitantly bid Cesar and his crew farewell.

The hundred meters from water to hillside is bio-warfare. Twisted and intertwined greeneries subdue movement. The inclined rock, water, and long grass pass finally grants us vision of Los Diablos. We are in the right spot. On the recon mission to find this passage I take a nasty fall injuring my ankle. No worries though. The weather is so bad we hardly get out of our tents for thirteen days.

1/25/98 John, Darrell, Dylan and I now occupy a saddle in between two rock escarpments. A mile to the north Robert and Mark lie, literally. Two large bodies of water dwell on either side of this pass: one is the ocean finger we ascended from; the other is about three thousand feet higher, fresh, glacial melt. This lake reflects the Diablos, which rise from its northern end. The most intimidating of the three devils boasts about three thousand feet of mixed climbing, discontinuous crack systems, alpine ice and rime. At the west end of the lake a massive glacier terminates at a granite cliff that drops to the waters edge. Three main torrents of water find their way down the face as the hanging crevasse marked glacier feeds the lake.

Already we have to ration food. We now wait, read, mend, trundle rocks when the weather permits, drink coffee and watch our calluses fall off.

Club armed primates rove the moonscape high atop the cliffs. Mist and fog accentuate our confused purpose. A quest, not for power or greatness, only for the feeling of the surrounding chaos drives us. A mass of granite the size of a 48 inch color TV with built in VCR is going, going, gone, off the edge the world, into the void to be crushed to smithereens. That dense hunk of granite that's been together since before man, that mass of atoms bonded tightly in crystalline structure explodes. We apes laugh and hoot and howl. The hanging glacier behind us creaks with its ominous voice of impending release. The condor screams and purposefully plays on currents of air. We apes gawk and squawk and trundle some more, minutely accelerating the erosion process of this seldom seen place.

The mist and fog paint calm ambiguity into the scene. The characters are ancient. The Greeks would laugh at the simplicity. Plato would scorn its natural science, he being a man of mentality not matter. The Hindu would scream to Shiva (the destroyer). The monk would shudder at the action, or maybe a slight smile would meander across a face.

1/28/98 We dream of climbing, but more than that we dream of simple exploration outside our nylon cells. We prepare for the wind seconds before it hits. It lets out such a furious rumbling as it approaches we think a tsunami is about to strike.

A gust gives us a violent beating this morning breaking one of our tent poles and ripping a huge hole in the rain-fly. Taking finger-numbing turns we sew it into semi-use and duct tape the pole to a spare piece of aluminum. All in all, the job is not going to keep us completely dry.

We haven't seen or heard from Robert or Mark for about three days now. We can no longer see their tent and hope that it was relocated under their own control.

1/30/98 Intent is usually what people are judged on, or is it action? For us it has been in a tent, judgment being a far off, abstract and somewhat useless concept. It's a lesson as valuable as the mountains can teach, learning an introspective way of being whilst holding that outward motivation on active reserve, keeping it with your shoes by the door. This is not condemnation. It's praise to one of those places that lie in our dreams even when we are there.

1/31/98 During a horrendous bit of weather, as John, Dylan, Darrel and I physically hold down our forts, I hear voices. I could swear hallucination. Alas, it's Robert and Mark, drenched, loaded with packs, and heading for the shoreline. One of their tents has been destroyed and they are out of food. They want a boat.

Dylan and Darrel jump on the caravan. John and I hesitate. We know no boats will be around for some time. We also dread breaking down camp in the heinous weather. Fate decides for us. Darrel and Dylan have the only working stove, and, as we debate, another of our tent poles snaps under the weight of a furious gust.

Water logged and whipped, we stumble down, out of the tundra, through the fringing rain forest and into this shallow cove where we spend six hungry, cold days looking for a boat and eating mussels and seaweed.

2/2/98 I take yesterday's main boat lookout shift. Pulling on the cold clammy Gore-tex starts my morning out with a shiver; wet wool socks and shoes are next. After an hour of running up and down the beach some blood is actually flowing. A seal navigates and harvests our bay as the rain relentlessly falls. My white, wrinkled hands finally start that stove, on it's way to being the mussel meister. Glorious steam, dripping nose, handouts to tented bodies, wind! No boats. By two or three PM. a shiver drives me back into the nylon cell. "Who's up?"

Despite the many horrors of waiting-epitomized in Markís howling "I'm going crazy"-the beauty of our location is undeniable. Stark contrast comes to mind. But soon the mussels and seaweed lose their novel "hor díoeuvriness", and the pristine wildness is only a menacing reminder of the absence of humanity.

2/5/98 We can wait no longer. John and Darrel set out with overnight gear, discounting food of course, enroute for a waterway more frequented by vessels. We can see it from our little beach, a few miles of rugged coastline away. Within the first hundred yards of their journey they are already scraped and bruised from the barnacle covered rocks and dense vegetation. After a short distance they disappear into the bio-scape. Whichever party finds a boat is to round up the other.

Murphy's law is upheld. About three hours after they leave, our saviors appear. The fishing boat rounds the point and chugs up to our beach in a barrage of whistles and hollers, the glassy water broken by the wonderful wake. It's Hernan, a Chilean friend who had helped us get out to the Diablos, accompanied by a few fishermen.

By the time we pack up, throw our gear aboard and find John and Darrel, the fisherman have some water boiling for sweet coffee. They throw a bag of bread rolls on deck and we attack with ravenous coffee dripping bites. Mark eats spoonfuls of sugar.

The evening is calm, the best weather the fishermen have seen in months. Itís a summit day and we are just happy to get some sugar. The wake parts the channel and waves good-bye to the Diablos that pierce the distant skyline. Los Diablos grin back at us, their sinister faces glowing with the alpine light.

Sea lions bark at us as we pass their island lounge. The diesel chugs, pushing us back up the channel towards Puerto Natales. The stars are out in the crisp crystalline heavens. The cold air enlivens the Southern Cross and the coal bag and the other countless formations that bless the southern skies.

One of the fisherman (Pescadero), a nineteen-year-old man, sits on deck with us, smokes his cigarettes and shares some disco music from his transistor radio. We chat as much as language permits then stare into the wind, into the future.

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