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Viento - A Patagonia TR

 Viento - A Patagonia TR

by Jonathan Copp

February 26, 2004

Bad things had been happening to me in groups of three. The Second and most deflating in a group that had found me just as Josh Wharton and I were departing for Patagonia was losing my wallet somewhere between the Buenos Aires airport and town proper, a half hour drive. We quickly threw our bloated bags into a hostel in the middle of the sprawling capital, and I ran out to a street, flagged a cab and called for the aeropuerto. Thirty minutes and forty kilometers later the Third had found me. I had no idea of the name or location of the hostel where Josh was sitting atop the bulging bags, probably drinking a soda and staring dumbfounded at Argentinean soap operas.

Though my wallet was never recovered, our luck did change, and by the week’s end, the day after we had hauled our final loads from the village of El Chalten to base camp and stashed gear in the snow cave at advanced base, an obvious weather window was creeping in. The shift in atmospheric conditions took days instead of the few hours I had witnessed in the past. First the wind lost its wings, and then, days later, the clouds began to recede. And what was left was one of the longest weather windows in Patagonian history, approximately 13 days.

On the 2nd of February, which happened to be the anniversary of the first ascent of Fitzroy (1952) as well as Josh’s birthday, we clawed our way to the summit of Fitzroy via a particularly out-of-shape French route. Every pitch, which ‘should’ have been moderate free or aid climbing, became a battle with ice choked cracks and verglass encrusted dihedrals. We had left Rio Blanco base camp at 1 in the morning, and by 6pm we were 8,000 vertical feet higher and staring wide-eyed at the blown ice feathers encasing the summit gendarmes. There was not a cloud on the horizon, so, being tired and on the summit of a big scary mountain, we did what any peace loving human would do: plan for another objective immediately in case, God forbid, the window lasted another few days.

Two days later we cowered beneath the rotten and collapsing bergschrund that guarded entrance to the south prow of St. Exupery. A crack led up to vertical slush and then into a rock system so lacking substance I was swinging ice tools directly into what appeared to be solid granite. Nerves were shredded a bit from lack of gear and the sculpting and subsequent mantling of a thawing mud cake stuck to a blank slab. (Future ascent parties would be wise to consider climbing the rock buttress to the south of the ‘rotten system from hell’.)

By 9am we reached the col and the start of the Austrian route. The rock was of good quality, and, even in counting the several aid pitches marked on a topo, we were able to free climb the entire route at 5.11. This time the summit was sun baked and balmy, and our Polish friends, Wawrzynifc Zakrzewski and Filip Zagorski, met us there after having climbed the well traveled Italian route up the East Ridge, completing the first Polish ascent of St. Exupery. We rappelled together into the night, squinting to get our last bird’s eye view of the heavily crevassed Piedras Blancas glacier and leaning back, once again, into starry skies.

The next day some clouds were sneaking in, but it was still stable! So what do ya do? You look up at Fitzroy and see the approach again and then the mile of steep granite. And yes, the route you want climb is deicing, drying and coming into perfect shape. “So we gear up again and go! Um…ok?”

And then, the First of another group of three malodorous events caught us napping. An Argentinean had run down hollering that his friends had fallen hundreds of feet and were dying at the base of the mountain. The base camp crew rounded up some first aid supplies, gave it to Josh and me, for some reason, and said, “suerte!” When we arrived the fallen climbers were critical. Their anchor had failed, and had the helicopter not come by the end of the day, there may have been a fatality.

Moisture and wind started building finally, so, finally, the vodka was uncapped and our Polish friends felt at home. When the bottle was dry, we all donned headlamps and commenced running askew for Chalten, seven miles away, in hopes of a beer or…something. The Second found Josh just as we rounded a rocky embankment, and he dropped in agony onto the dusty path. His ankle was done for the trip, swelled up like a grapefruit. And the three days that followed were perfect, windless days. And those days were/are true agony.

The Third? I don’t want to talk about it right now.

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