After our first exhausting failed effort on Punta Herron, our motivation for a second attempt was drained, none of us thought we would be returning anytime soon. This was our main objective, but the thought of repeating the twelve-pitch approach traverse beneath Standhardt only to find Punta Herron unclimbable again was a risk our sore bodies dreaded, now four weeks into the trip. But spotting the bone-dry north ridge of Punta Herron from Mermoz rejuvenated our psych, and after five days of Chalten extravagance we were rearing for a second attempt.
This time we re-vamped our strategy, going as light as possible for a 3-day blast from town, stripping away every extraneous carabiner and spare sock or glove. After an early start from town, we pinched ourselves at Laguna Torre. Bluebird, zero wind, Cerro Torre pink in the sunrise. A full day of rime-melting was ahead, we felt giddy. Could Patagonia be so kind?
Every vibe on this trip felt better than our first try two weeks early. Midnight avalanches were replaced with sunny cramponing. Desperate slabby mixed climbing above Col Standhardt that took two hours was now a dry rock climb, a twenty-minute romp. Alastair set up the tent on a pleasant flat spot a hundred metres past the Col, while Dan & Caleb fixed the ropes above camp for a speedy start the next morning.
Awake at 2AM, wind flapping the tent walls sharpened our nerves. But the wind would die off after dawn. Caleb led the simul climbing across Standhardt, where we abseiled into an ice gulley one pitch below the base of Punta Herron. It was now light enough to see the broad rock ridge, the "Arete of the Children" (as the Italian route name translates) almost bare of rime - yes.
Alastair took the rack and approached the V-notch of the Col de Suenos, the "Col of Dreams". Standing on the Col, suddenly exposed to the full force of wind ripping across the Patagonian ice-cap, this quickly became a Col of Nightmares. Fingers were numb in minutes, making it difficult to fiddle in micro-cams to protect cruxy moves off the ledge, crampons skating on blank granite, picks sunk in thin seams. Dry tooling was the only option in such cold conditions, rock shoes and crack-gloves became a dead-weight pipe dream in the bottom of our packs. That first pitch required so much of Alastair's mental stamina; the only thing he could hear above the incessant roar of the wind were a dozen internal voices screaming, "this is madness". This was the full-on Patagonian experience that we had craved. Could we stomach the reality?
Dan was a pillar of positivity despite the dire conditions, and after three taxing pitches he took over the sharp end, gunning for the base of the ice mushroom. Caleb and Alastair huddled for hours at the belays, tense bodies groaning as the wind showed no sign of relenting, at the time it felt insane to continue... "Watch me!" yelled Dan as he was forced to crimp glove-less with injured wrists, fear of a ledge fall was all that stuck him to the thin face moves. "Only one pitch to the summit!" Our spirits lifted, perhaps the summit of Punta Herron was in reach after all?
Caleb took over the reigns for the ice-cap, charging towards the mushroom, the final question mark between us and the summit. Turning the corner he found plastic blue ice leading up a natural tunnel formation, and with only a handful of ice screws was forced to run-out the last thirty metres, sinking his tools deep while being showered with falling rime. Kneeling on the summit without being blown off our feet, we felt a sliver of the mountain's mercy. Mercy that was non-existent as we inched downwards on the windy abseil descent, only twenty metres at a time, grateful for every succesful rope pull, rope ends blown horizontal in the dark.
Relief welled up on re-reaching the sheltered Col de Suenos, and the following thousand metres of abseiling did pass almost as a dream. Alastair was guilty of nodding off several times at the anchors while Dan pounded pitons below, un-satisfied with anything but the perfect metallic crescendo. With only one stint of aid-climbing to retrieve a stuck knot, we reached the glacier soon after dawn, but with a storm brewing, sleep would have to wait. We walked through the streets of El Chalten late that afternoon, wet from rain, sunburnt from sun, eyes stinging and bloodshot from thirty-six hours on the go, too numb to feel any sense of achievement. But the first round of Quilmes Stout was all that was needed to change that.
After forty hours of transit, the Fitzroy skyline finally appeared in view through the minivan windscreen at the head of Lago Viedma. We felt strangely at home – in our minds we were cruising alongside Lake Pukaki en route to Mt Cook, the cloud piercer smouldering in another northwest storm. On closer inspection, we realised this massif was a Southern Alps on steroids, and even the approaches alone would be equivalent to an ascent of Aoraki.
But we had arrived at the end of a gorgeous multi-day clearance, the famous winds were picking up and we were condemned to several days of world-class bouldering and trail running to shake off the jet-lag while hearing of the town’s latest serving of splitter cracks.
Our team was made up of Daniel Joll, Patagonian veteran, this was his eight visit, Caleb Jennings, the packhorse from Darfield, and Alastair McDowell, one of the alpine team mentees.
Soon enough a high-pressure bubble appeared on the horizon, so in advance we swagged in a week’s supplies up the Torre Valley to our basecamp in Niponino. While others waited in town for the perfect weather, we proceeded to spend the next full day tent-bound, ready to pounce as soon as the barometer spiked. Kiwi mountaineering style.
Confused why our satellite phone could not send nor receive messages, Dan’s heart sunk when he realised it was still loaded with a Nepali sim-card. We lacked confidence to go big on our outdated forecast, but were also content with a less committing warmup – a rock climb on El Mocho at the base of Cerro Torre’s south-east ridge was the ticket.
‘Voie des Benetiers’ was a line of ten pitches of great crack climbing – the grade of 7b+ (27) didn’t put us off as this was only a short boulder problem that we aided through, the rest of the climb was the perfect level of moderate and fun, with immaculate granite.
Back at Niponino, the consensus on weather was windy, so the following morning we hiked up to Medialuna, the distinctive half-moon shaped rock feature opposite El Mocho.
The first several pitches were protected from the wind, not only while wedged deep in off-width cracks. We knew that higher up, slabs on the ridge were completely exposed to wind, but the wind abated just enough to lure us onto them, before rudely slamming us with gusts stronger than any of has had experienced on rock. In hindsight, we should have continued onwards into the sheltered top section and wait for lighter wind, but we decided to abseil off.
Inevitably, the winds all but ripped the ropes from our hands, twisted them and our efforts to pull the ropes were futile. Cutting those the new rope drew a tear from my eye. A couple of other climbers had appeared and offered to share their ropes for the remaining descent. We walked out to El Chalten with light packs, but heavy hearts - a sad end for our two brand new half ropes.
Torre Egger Attempt
After a moderate binge session in El Chalten, a promising 4-day weather window appeared on Meteoblue… we started to get excited and dream big. This was our chance to attempt the main objective, Torre Egger via the north face of Punta Herron. Another dash up the Torre glacial approach with light packs this time, thanks to all our heavy gear stashed at Niponino. We breathed relief upon reaching our stash, un-touched by the notorious fox, known to tear through even the thickest duffel bags in search of food.
At the end of a day stuck in the tent, we set out for Standhardt Col at 7pm loaded for the mission, but to our disappointment the snow did not cease to fall as forecast. Around midnight we found ourselves high on the glacier below Standhardt, postholing through deep snow, concerned about avalanche risk.
Under the incessant snowfall, there was no possibility of climbing Exocet that night as we had planned; instead we pitched camp, digging in on a relatively sheltered position. Still, avalanches shook past our tent during the night, fear coming in the way of any sleep that night. We were forced to wait an entire day before snow conditions consolidated allowing us to continue onwards early the following morning.
Magnificent weather prevailed, but poor conditions plagued us on the approach to Punta Herron, with thick rime covering tool placements on what is normally mellow rock slabs. Later, melting rime bombed us from the walls of Standhart, and forced us to aid our way up wet, low-angle slabs.
On catching our first view of Punta Herron in the late afternoon, we realised the 300m rock ridge was virtually un-climbable, a veritable waterfall about to be set in a shield of verglas as the temps plummeted. Twenty abseils later, we stumbled onto the glacier for a pre-dawn snooze at Noruegos bivvy, glad to be on the horizontal again after a long night’s retreat.
One day of fine weather remained before the close-out, we recovered as much as possible before setting off for Rafael on the Fitz massif. Three hours of scrambling up the opposite side of the valley gave us a pristine view of the Torre Massif at dawn, before enjoying fifteen pitches of moderate mixed scratching, simul-climbing and some wide cracks to top out on a spiky summit pinnacle.
Despite our fatigue from the failed attempt on Egger, we were glad to have sucked the weather window dry, as well as ourselves. Back in town, after a nerve-wracking windy walk-out, we took our calorie replacement therapy seriously. But not for long, another weather window was only two days away…
With our stash retrieved from Niponino, we were psyched for a mission on the opposite side of the range, to a peak on the Fitz Massif. The winds would abate only for an afternoon, our solution was a lightweight, sleepless push on the 600m west face of Aguja Mermoz, Fitz Roy’s nextdoor neighbour.
The eight-hour approach passed beneath the stars and we were simul-climbing up the Argentina route before even dawn had caught us. The temperatures were arctic, the granite choss, pasted in streaks of ice. Climbing in boots and thick gloves was all but compulsory to ward off numb digits. More than once we questioned what we were doing, but somehow we clung onto enough resolve to continue upwards towards the sunny summit ridge…
Once there our hardships dissolved and eight pitches of cruisy granite cracks under a hot sun along the ridge crest was our reward. The final simul block to the summit revealed excellent views of the North Pillar of Fitzroy and dozens of other climbers swarming on the peak of Guillamet behind us.
Darkness caught us for the second time on the descent, as we raced across the icy slab traverse and down the glacier to the forest river trail. Our lack of sleepl made for a dizzying final few hours alongside the river, warding off strange dreams, slapping our faces to stick with reality. When returning to benign terrain, it can be hard to keep the brain alert after so many hours of focussed concentration.
Near the roadend, we lay down for a comfortable bivvy on the plush forest floor, around 3AM. This was rudely interrupted an hour later when we awoke soaking wet, rain pouring down on our open bivvy. We threw together our wet packs and continued trudging along, into the dawn, dreaming about the prospect of El Chalten's warm comforts...