Man Spooning – Verb , two men locked in the spoon position during an alpine bivy. Depending on the participants, usually a function of age and or temperature, man spooning may take several seconds, minutes or even hours to begin. Once both parties have accepted the terms on their situation, man spooning usually continues until it’s time to start climbing. It is not common to hear the expression “Lets manspoon” this is usually a silent agreement.
Scroll to the bottom of this story for a video from this and other previous attempts on the Ragni Route
Both Kim Ladiges and myself have had enough alpine bivy’s that man spooning basically begins the instant we lie down in the tent. As I lay in my hard shells inside our single skin tent, rain pouring outside and inside the tent walls, man spooned close to Kim at camp Nipinino in the Torre Valley I was not overly optimistic for our chances of success on Cerro Torre. We had decided to spend our first few hours sleep without sleeping bag due to the amount of water both inside and outside the tent. Opting to keep our down quilt dry for the next nights bivy below Col Esperanza on the West Face of Cerro Torre. We would need to wait here for around 30 hours of bad weather. Most of which turned out to be pouring rain.
The 2017 summer alpine climbing season in Patagonia had been quite poor. Gone were the mega weather windows of the last two seasons and back was the wind, rain, snow and short spells of good weather. Arriving early Feb it felt fairly familiar to me though as due to poor timing of my last three trips I had managed to miss all the mega weather windows from the previous few seasons. Going for routes in marginal weather or conditions is really what makes climbing in Patagonia special. While perfect weather and easy snow mushrooms are great, the experience is always a bit more rewarding when you have to work for it.
For this particular weather window we had a forecast of good weather for one day on Friday. Friday would be our climbing day. 12am -3pm with the next storm rolling in from early afternoon , evening. We left town on Tuesday morning with rain forecast for Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday and Saturday morning. We knew this was going to mean quite a bit of alpine suffering and general wetness if we were going to achieve our object of climbing the Ragni Route on Cerro Torre. This is because to reach the base of the Ragni route from El Chalten you have to do allot of walking, climbing over alpine cols and glacier travel. Round trip approx. 60km of alpine travel. Other factors not in our favour were that no one had summited Cerro Torre this year. The final mushroom was said to be in hard condition and had turned back all teams who tried. We therefore were prepared for a full battle, carrying bivy kit for the route, snow shovel to help dig the mushroom out, wings, snow stakes etc. We had heard the summit mushroom could take up to 10 hours to dig if you are the team opening the route. With our weather window not forecast to last long, we knew this meant we would need to climb fast in order to put us in a position near the summit with enough time to commit fully to the final pitch. This was not to be a fast and light push from town though, rather a multi day test of strategy and patience. We needed to time our approaches to avoid the rain, the mid day heat, avalances and rock fall and ensure that we could keep our cloths and boots dry enough to climb if and when the good weather arrived. Getting the timing right and dealing with the weather on the approach and return would be the keys to a safe and enjoyable climb.
”It’s like we are on the moon.”
Kim’s explanation of our position completely alone on the summit of Cerro Torre as an approaching storm set in. We climbed roped up one at a time to reach the summit to ensure we didn’t get blown off the top. There would be no summit selfie together today. For better or worse we had a sat phone at our bivy and knew when we set out that approx. 17 hours after starting a major storm was due to hit around 7pm. We choose not to take it with us on the climb due to weight and firm in the knowledge that there was no one who could help us anyway if we got into trouble. For this ascent and descent we were completely alone. From 7pm winds over 100kmph, rain and freezing temps would make summiting or descending Cerro Torre impossible. As I sat and belayed Kim on the final pitch watching the storm approach over the Patagonian Ice Cap my stress levels began to rise. After seven seasons climbing in Patagonia I have a fair idea of how far I can push it in bad weather. I had also been on Cerro Torre 3 other times all of them during some form of storm or poor conditions. I had never though been on the summit or near the summit when one of those storms rolled in.
The top of Cerro Torre is steep, exposed and frankly a frightening place to be in any form of bad weather. With no other teams on the mountain chances of rescue are zero. Any mistake, a fall, an injury, a stuck rope, dropped v thread tool or glove was going to have serious consequence for us today. This is what makes alpine climbing rewarding. Decision making in a high consequence environment. Neither of us had expected to be alone on the Ragni this year. However for some reason no other teams decided to follow us over Col Standhardt and we were grateful to be able to experience the mountain and the weather alone, completely self reliant. Since the removal of the Compressor Route, the Ragni is now the preferred “easy” option to summit Cerro Torre. You therefore expect on any good day where conditions allow some other teams from town would be attempting the route. Perhaps the stories of a final pitch that was impassable had put them all off, or maybe we had read the weather completely wrong. What ever the reason the opportunity to experience the Western aspect of the mountain completely alone was an amazing experience.
Back at the base of the final mushroom after summiting the wind was beginning to rage. We start to pull our ropes and all of a sudden our main line slips between our fingers (we are climbing with a single rope and a 6mm tag line). Out into the wind it flys. We both look at each other in mild terror. No blame is assigned, neither of us could tell who let the rope go, time is of the essence. We need that rope to get down and it’s now caught on some rime out on the side of the summit mushroom. I quickly tie into the end of our tag line and climb out towards the rope. Fortunately it doesn’t take long to reach it and I bring the precious rope back to our belay. This was the wake up call we needed. Both of us are now fully aware of our position and the need for no fuck ups. We begin to absail the head wall with a new sense of focus and urgency. The first 200m of descent does not follow the line we have climbed. Instead of trying to reverse the final few mushroom pitches we rap straight down the steep Southern Head Wall into the top of the mixed pitches. This is intimidating terrain, reclimbing it solo or with our tag line would be hard and we fight to maintain focus and safety as we v thread our way down the ice wall. The wind is whipping us, a sling blows out of my hand as I try to unknot it. Crap this is too much, I cant drop the v threader. We don’t have enough screws to rap without it, there can be no more items slipping through my fingers. The seriousness of our situation helps focus and a degree of calm returns. As Kim took the job of the final pitch a solid 3-4 hour lead it was my responsibility to lead the descent and make sure we got back to our tent safely. I have to fight my general fatigue from several days out in the mountains, wet cold and sleep deprived to keep a sharp focus on the task at hand. We continue down making 30m absails as the wind blows us and our ropes around the mountain. The risk of loosing one or both ropes is now to high to do double rope rappels. We are both doing everything we can to reach the top of the Elmo where we know the pressure is reduced by the fact we can easily solo down should we be unlucky enough to loose one or both of our ropes in the wind. As we pass El Elmo and move down from Col Esperanza the wind begins to blow us up the mountain in the strongest gusts. Fortunately by now though our descent system is well dialled. We both know our roles and what to do, no talking is necessary and we continue our descent back to our tent.
Rain has been falling for a couple of hours by the time we reach the tent. Once again we settle into our wet damp environment. Man spooning ensues. During the night I feel my leg is quite wet. I spoon closer into Kim. As morning arrives I bail 10L of water from under my feet. No wonder I was feeling a bit wet during the night. Our spirits are high though and we wait for the storm to finish and the glacier to refreeze before starting our journey back over col Standhardt. The changes to the glacier from all the rain and storms are amazing. Huge avalanches have ripped down the approach to the route. Large sections of the glacier have changed completely. Big crevasses now cris cross the route. Col Standhardt on the Western side is washed mostly dry. Lots of loose rock and poor ice. We pass over this section with care. As we descend down the Eastern slopes of the Col we say goodbye to the Westerly wind. Now sheltered in the morning sun we begin to relax. Two stuck ropes as we rappel down the col wake us back up and after retrieving them we make the most of the morning freeze to descend quickly down to Nipinino in the Torre Valley. From here its 5-8 hours walking back to town depending on your pack size and general levels of fatigue. We were poked and decided to camp on the glaciers edge in the forest 2 hours from town. Opting for no tent we embarked on our final session of man spooning for the trip under our down quilt with wind twisted Beech Trees covering our heads. Views of Cerro Torre in the evening sunset poke through the forest. We are content, happy and tired. This will be the best nights sleep of the climb. Safe, close to town and the job is done.