It’s been several days now since Carlos and I stumbled back into El Chalten after eight exhausting days alone in the cold Patagonian winter. We stretched our supplies of food and gas to the limit so by the time we made it back to town we were completely destroyed both physically and mentally.
Since getting back to town it has taken me some time to reflect on the journey and the nature of success and failure in alpine climbing. When we first got back we were so preoccupied by the scramble to eat, drink and recover there was little mental capacity to consider the successes and failures of our adventure. We were just happy to be back in one piece.
In a simple sense we came to Patagonia to climb the west face of Cerro Torre in winter, we tried and we failed. Despite the good fortune of having a long period of stable weather our timing was less than perfect and after a long approach we were forced to spend three days in Circo de Los Altares waiting for the winds on the summit to drop. Those days spent in the cold cramped tent with minimal food and water probably cost us the power we needed to climb the final hard pitches to the summit. When we finally made our attempt we climbed 1300m to the Elmo, but upon arriving there it was clear neither of us had the strength to continue.
The summit of my dreams felt so tantalisingly close but in reality it was still a long ways away. The final 300m of the Ragni Route involves the most demanding climbing and despite having worked so hard and invested so much in the project, climbing higher simply couldn’t be justified.
This decision was heartbreaking but it is also perhaps where we have succeeded. As a team of two, completely alone in the vast expanse of the southern ice field, any hope for a rescue should something have gone wrong would have been pure fantasy.
At the end of the day we pushed ourselves to the limit of risk that can be reasonably justified and this unfortunately did not involve standing on the summit. It did involve getting back to town alive though, which I suppose must be viewed as a success in itself despite the overwhelming sense disappointment we felt in the days that followed.
After our incredible 10 days of stable weather in August and the expected deterioration that followed yet another weather window came our way the following week in El Chalten. It’s hard to believe so much good weather is even possible in Patagonia, a place renowned for its furious storms that can last weeks or months at a time. I guess you have to get lucky sometimes and it seems like this winter was the time.
With Carlos having returned to Spain for work, a second attempt on the Torre was not really on the cards. Honestly I wouldn’t have had the strength to go back yet even if he was here, so instead I happily I spent six days in the mountains with some new friends and by myself for a solo adventure, but more on that later…
Another weather window did however attract two more strong teams to the west face of Cerro Torre this winter. I had the privilege of catching up with some members of the Chilean team of six over a beer to see how they got on. They put in a strong attempt and should be extremely proud of their effort. They made it to the top of the headwall where they found deteriorating conditions and lots of rime. After fighting their way up one more pitch through a tunnel they effectively joined forces with a very strong team of three from the Czech Republic.
Despite having a combined group of nine alpinists determined to get to the top, Cerro Torre’s infamous summit mushroom deterred yet another winter attempt. Too much rime, not enough time and the bitterly cold wind sent all nine climbers back to El Chalten empty handed.
It seems this year winter conditions on the upper pitches of Ragni Route were anything but easy. Upon reflection it seems our light and fast approach could never have succeeded given that such a strong and large team were still unable to reach the summit.
At the end of the day there is often no way to know these what the conditions are like until you go and try for yourself. So for now all we can do is get stronger, revise our tactics and try again. Maybe one year this mighty mountain will allow us to stand on its illusive summit, but until then we will have to keep dreaming and keep trying…