Fighting for Fitzroy


Wexler Andrew

by Andrew Wexler, IFMGA

AAI Instructor and Guide

Rising from the middle of the flat Patagonian steppe, Fitzroy and Cerro Torre are two of the most impressive granite structures on earth. Each attracts climbing expeditions from all over the world. Cerro Torre was considered "impossible to climb" until an expedition headed by Cesare Maestri made the first ascent in 1970. El Chalten is the Indian name for Fitzroy. Likening the mountain's constant cloud cover to smoke, the natives named it "Chalten" meaning "volcano" or "mountain that sends out smoke." Due to their unique shape and height the peaks may have served as navigational tools during tribal migrations.

AAI guide Andrew Wexler and his climbing partner spent some of their winter climbing these giants. Here is their story:


Views of Fitzroy dominate the approach. All photos by Andrew Wexler

Forty-eight hours after stepping off the bus in Chalten, JR and I were halfway up Cerro Torre's Compressor Route, staring at a long line of bolts that disappeared up in to the swirling mist. Today was supposed to be "the day" according to the Huber Brother's personal Austrian based team of meteorologists, but the fifty mile per hour gusts slamming my head against the granite led me to believe that something had gotten lost in translation.

"What do you think?" JR asked as I pulled in to the belay station on jugs.

I crunched the numbers. The wind was howling, visibility was minimal, we were clad in all our layers, and I'd heard reports that tomorrow's weather was going to make this look like a day in Cancun. I felt strong but...fifty - fifty? No. Sixty - forty? No.

"Seventy - thirty," I said, "In favor of down."

"Me too," said JR.

climbing cerro torre in cold conditions

So we rapped down... And a few hours later the skies cleared and it remained sunny and calm for the entire next day.

I'm not sure exactly what happened, (probably a combination of brand new boots a half size too small, coupled with firm snow and cold temps) but during the descent I began to notice some discomfort in my toes. When I finally removed my boots at camp many hours later, my feet looked they'd been through a meat grinder. Two huge, reddish-black blisters had formed on each of my big toes where the nails met the skin. This is bad I thought. Within one hour of taking off my boots, I was writhing in pain that reminded me of a wisdom-tooth extrication job gone awry. On a scale of one to ten, the pain was a healthy ten. I popped a codeine but it did nothing. I popped a second one, and it barely dented the pain. I was outgunned and there wasn't a thing I could do.

The following day, much to my surprise, I was able to hobble back to Chalten. I carried an eight-pound day pack and it took nine hours.

I spent the next week and half taking antibiotics to ward off infection, and soaking my feet in a bucket of hot salt water. There were two saving graces during this period. The first was Eduardo Monaco and the all-star staff at Hostal Del Lago. Their kindness and support were overwhelming. Every morning, when I would stumble in to their hostel, they'd offer me food and hot water and ask, "How do you feel? How are your feet? When do you climb again?" These simple words did a lot to keep my spirits above ground.

The second ingredient to getting through that time was the 1200-page Asian odyssey I was reading: Shogun. Each day, I'd sit down with my feet soaking in the bucket, and switch over in to the treacherous and delicate world of late 16th century feudal Japan where life is but a dew drop within a dew drop, and pain is nothing short of a privilege.

As the toes improved, I started hiking again so as not to become overly inertial. Once I realized that I could walk without too much pain, I slipped on my climbing shoes and tested my toes on the local boulders. They weren't perfect, but they would do.

During this time, JR had teamed up with another group, and had taken a burn on the monstrous North Pillar of Fitzroy. They did pretty well, but got turned around by the Patagonian maelstrom just below the top of the Pillar. Regardless, the seed was set and he was bug-eyed to try the route again. We still needed to retrieve our gear from our Cerro Torre camp though, so that became the priority. We returned for the stuff, and ended up climbing a three star, twelve-pitch, 5.11A route on El Mocho; the prominent flat-top tower at the base of Cerro Torre. When we returned to Chalten, JR focused his efforts on the North Pillar of Fitzroy, and I turned my sights to the less committing Franco-Argentine.

I hooked up with an easy-going Chilean named Jose who's partner had left Patagonia, disgusted by the weather, in search of better days up North in Bariloche. We both wanted to climb the fourteen-pitch Franco-Argentine, and decided to give it a run during the next weather window.

The launching point for most routes on Fitzroy is Paso Superior, a flat, snowy col littered with snowcaves. We hauled our gear up to the camp, intending to spend a short night in the caves before heading out for the climb at 1 a.m. When the alarm went off at midnight, I didn't have to poke my head outside to hear the wind roaring like a freight train. I fell back asleep, more relieved then disappointed.

Two hours later, I was awoken again by voices and a general commotion in the cave. A couple of climbers had just returned from an ill-fated attempt on Fitzroy, and as I strained to make sense of the intermingled Basque, Spanish, and French, I learned that one of the men had fallen fifty feet when a rappel anchor failed in the Brecha (the one-thousand foot mixed approach gully leading to the base of the Franco-Argentine). The guy must've had a horseshoe hidden somewhere on his body because he appeared unscathed.

The morning dawned cold, snowy, and cloudy. Jose and I opted to leave our gear in the caves and head down. I checked the weather forecast in Chalten, and it looked like Thursday would be our day. It was now Tuesday night. We hiked back up to the Rio Blanco Camp and slept.

We awoke on Wednesday morning to clear and sunny skies. Our new plan was to have a leisurely breakfast, and leave for Paso Superior around noon. Once there, we would rest for a couple of hours, eat some food, and head off for the route at six p.m. During the entire month of February, there hadn't been a solid weather window lasting more than thirty-six hours, and it seemed like the only people getting up anything were climbing straight through night with no bivy gear. We chose to get on the program.

Six p.m came and went and so did we. The weather was perfect and I worked hard to keep my expectations in check. I tried not to think about success or failure or anything beyond taking the next step. After an hour and a half, we arrived at the Brecha. I took the lead and kept it until we reached a small notch at the top of the mixed ground. It was dark by that point, and from our perch we could see headlamps gunning for glory on Cerro Torre. We found a flat, sheltered spot and relaxed. We'd brought a tiny titanium stove with us and fired it up. The rest and hot water did big things for our motivation and energy. The night remained still and calm, and I remember thinking there was no place on earth I would've rather been than perched high on the shoulder of Fitzroy with the Southern Cross shining down from above.

We reveled in our position for a few hours before getting back on the up-track. Jose took the lead and brought us over some awkward ground to the base of the Franco-Argentine. We'd decided that we would climb the route in two blocks, with the second jugging and carrying our small pack. Jose would lead the first seven pitches, and I would lead the final seven.

The sun was just rising over the pampas and enveloped us in a soft, reddish glow. Jose donned his rock shoes and floated the first pitch, a classic, 11a, splitter finger and hand crack. The climbing mellowed for a few pitches after this until we got in to the Great Corner. Jose finished his last lead on perfect jams, and I was more than a little jealous that I didn't get to lead the pitch. We found a small perch and traded jugs for climbing shoes. The upper half of the face was steeper and slightly less aesthetic. Many of the cracks were ice choked, and we were forced to do some creative route finding. The crux for me came on the last move when, obviously off route, I committed to a desperate mantle. It worked out, but it was not pretty.

Jose jugged up to me and we shed the rope. One thousand feet of forty-five degree snow and ice was all that separated us from the summit. We soloed the easy upper slopes and arrived at the summit under perfectly still skies.

Fitzroy was a peak I had wanted to climb ever since I learned how to tie in to a rope. Eleven years and one unforgiving month in Patagonia later, I had reached the top. I know that summits aren't everything, but in Patagonia they do take on a life of their own. The weather can be so fickle and punishing, and the effort to reach the top so immense, that even the smaller peaks require great care and even better luck.

After our summit victory lap, we climbed down to the ropes and began the rappels. Jose and I bickered slightly as to the best line of descent, but I finally caved and handed over the reins. "If you're right, I'll buy the beer. If you're wrong, I'll kill you," I told him. He was right and we both lived to drink again in Chalten.

Click on the link to learn more about climbing in Patagonia with American Alpine Institute.

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