Mention solo climbing to anyone and you will inevitably get mixed reactions. Some people will immediately conjure up extreme images in their head of the most insanely epic freesolo climb they have ever heard about, before promptly calling you crazy. Others will take a more pragmatic approach in their judgement, considering the practical issues and risks associated with being completely alone, while taking part in a dangerous activity in a very remote place. Regardless of the angle of attack climbing alone is, for the majority of people, a controversial past time that is often not well understood by those that don’t take part.
The question that always seems to be asked is why, why climb alone? Why not just go with someone else? With everyone having their own motivations for how and why they climb, I certainly wouldn’t presume that I could answer this question on behalf of anyone else because it probably varies greatly from person to person. Furthermore I wouldn’t want to arrogantly assert that I am any sort of authority on the subject of soloing because that is certainly not true. I am simply a person who enjoys adventuring alone in the mountains, with my own opinions and motivations for what I do.
For me there are several reasons to climb alone. I think the most significant one is, that I just like being alone. I simply enjoy my own company and take pleasure in having the time and space to be alone with my own thoughts and ideas.
Beyond this I also find great satisfaction in solo adventures. When you are alone you make every decision and must accept every consequence. This requires an absolute confidence in your own abilities and the capability to be completely honest with yourself. Since there is no one else there to share the burden of the sometimes stressful decision making process, or to pick up the slack for your errors in judgement, you take on all the responsibility thus all the reward. When you do pull it off the success is yours and yours alone and there is a deep satisfaction that comes with this. If you share the risk with someone else you share the reward, so soloing essentially is a higher stakes game with equally or sometimes exponentially higher rewards.
Finally solo adventures offer the obvious but sometimes under-appreciated benefit of not having to find or have a partner. I have found that over the years of pursuing unique, complex and niche adventure sports finding an equally capable and similarly motivated partner can be increasingly difficult. Add to that the practicalities of life that people have commitments and aren’t always available where and when you want them to be and you start to appreciate the convenience of simply going alone.
For all the reasons above when I found myself alone with a good weather forecast in Patagonia this winter, I decided to make use of the opportunity to have a solo climbing adventure in these wild mountains.
After our unsuccessful attempt to climb Cerro Torre in August, my friend and climbing partner Carlos had to return to Spain and to get back to work. I could have paid to change my ticket and done the same, but for me the equation was different. The cost of going home early certainly outweighed the potential benefits when I started to see hints of a high pressure system coming our way on the long term forecast.
As it became clear that a long period of good weather was on the way. I was soon asked if I wanted to join some friends for a ski traverse out to the icecap. Although it was tempting, I had recently been out that way during our attempt on Cerro Torre so I declined the offer. In my head I remained most motivated to climb one of the classic granite towers that make the Chalten Massif famous, even if I had to go alone. Without Carlos I would have to scale back my ambitions and attempt something smaller of course so I settled on the idea of climbing the Coqueugniot-Guillot couloir on Aguja Guillaumet, a satellite peak of Fitzroy. We had rappelled the line after our unsuccessful attempt on a different route on the same mountain last summer so I knew it was well suited to my abilities and ambitions.
In the end with yet another long weather window and a little persuasion from Matt and Pedro, I did end up joining them for the start of their ice cap mission for an ascent of Cerro Rincon at the head of the Marconi Glacier. It turned out to be a great outing and my first summit in Patagonia, so I was very happy to have gone along but still my priority for the weather window was to solo Guillaumet. So I made sure that logistically I could make it back in time to rest and position myself for my planned attempt. This involved a rather long hike alone in the dark back along the Rio Electrico valley and in the end a 20 hour day on the go, but I remained determined so powered through.
With my climbing gear already cached in the refuge at Piedra del Fraile and a fresh supply of food and fuel, I rested for a day before setting off on my own. The following day I started the long approach up to Piedra Negra and on to Paso Guillaumet. After leaving Fraile I would not see another person for three days.
When you are alone sometimes the psychology of how you approach the mountains is different. With a partner I might have considered spending the night in Piedra Negra and making an early start the following morning up to the pass. Leaving the tent and sleeping gear behind would be a good tactic as we would be light and could move fast. But being alone and navigating loose rocky terrain in the dark is psychologically challenging and didn’t seem appealing. So I opted to make the full 1600 metre approach up to the pass in a day with all my gear, so I would wake up the following morning a short walk from the base of the route.
On the one hand you have to consider that the effort of carrying more weight higher up the mountain would certainly be more physically tiring. But your strategy also has to be balanced with the mental energy required. After all soloing is a primarily mental challenge and minimising the amount of time spent walking to the base of route was a priority for me.
It’s during this time on the final approach to the climb that doubt is most likely to seed in your mind. I knew that I would be in the best mindset if I could get up, gear up, assess conditions and get on the route as quickly as possible before any such doubt could settle in. But despite my best efforts and carefully considered plan, it did.
I had initially planned to free solo the 200 metre snow and ice couloir at start of the route. This would involve greater risk but with the benefit of increased efficiency. If conditions were good I could make quick work of this section bringing me to the notch where we had retreated last summer. From there two hard pitches lead to the summit snowfield and an easy walk to success. In dry summer conditions with rock shoes these pitches would be easy, but in winter with crampons and boots they would be a different challenge altogether. Knowing this came prepared to use a rope and aid climb through the difficult dihedral if necessary. This would be a slow fight but it would work and hopefully I would have enough time if I moved fast enough from the start.
But as I walked the short distance across the glacier from the tent and up to the bergshrund I began to doubt myself. I couldn’t see much ice in the couloir. I was tempted to bail but I decided to climb over the bergshrund and have a closer look. Sometimes in these situations you have to take things one step at a time keeping an open mind and constantly reminding yourself if it’s not right you can retreat.
Crossing the gaping bergshrund alone and unroped proved more difficult and potentially hazardous than expected, which did little to boost my confidence. Eventually I found a seemingly solid snow bridge that allowed me to cross and climb up to the start of the route. The couloir looked thin with mostly aerated snowy looking ice. It wasn’t quite the conditions I had hoped for which would allow me to comfortably cruise up to the notch without a rope. Doubt began to grow in my mind.
With no one to offer a second opinion on the conditions or encouragement to go for it I was faced with the decision, to bail or not to bail. That is the question.
After taking a minute to consider the options I decided that I had come all this way and carried all the necessary hardware to rope solo the crux dihedral above the notch. Given that, rather than bail I decided I might as well use the rope and attempt to climb the couloir. It would cost me time but offer me enough security to carry on and success might thus still be a possibility. So I built an anchor and began to climb the couloir.
Rope soloing is a little know niche within the already niche world of solo climbing. When executed well it’s offers increased security but at the expense of speed and greatly increased complexity. Free soloing is simple. Just climb, don’t place any protection or use ropes and simply don’t fall. Rope soloing requires covering the ground three times. First you lead the pitch while self belaying and carefully managing the rope and backup systems. Then you build an anchor and rappel the pitch cleaning any gear you have placed before re-climbing the pitch using the rope now fixed in place. You then re-stack your ropes and repeat the process. It’s a time consuming endeavour that requires utmost attention to detail, a high level of technical understanding and offers little time to rest or recover as you have to keep moving to make any real progress.
Despite all this, it is somehow an extremely rewarding process for the technically minded climber who enjoys such complicated systems. Furthermore the feeling of independence and exposure one gets is immense and a very rewarding sensation. As you look down your ropes into space where you would normally see your belayer holding the ropes securely and offering you encouragement to carry on, all you see is your pack hanging from the anchor. A lifeless rope bag feeding out line to you. You are completely alone and if something goes wrong you’re the only one who can fix it. It’s a feeling that’s as equally terrifying as it is empowering.
Pitch after pitch I carried on up the couloir. Leading, rappelling, ascending and stacking ropes. I could sense time was passing by and I was making steady but slow upward progress. I could feel doubt sneaking back into my mind. When I first got out the rope and started climbing all the doubt I had felt on the approach and crossing the bergshrund seemed to vanish. I felt safe and was making upward progress, but now the passage of time made that doubt reappear and thoughts of bailing started to circulate in my mind.
At the next belay I looked at the time on my GPS. It was only one o’ clock. It was not as late as I expected! My sense of time had been skewed by the all consuming process of rope soloing. I felt a second wind of motivation come across me. It seemed the summit was still within reach and I powered on and climbed two more pitches.
As I neared the notch where we retreated last summer my second wind of motivation began to fade. It’s amazing how fickle the mental energy for solo climbing can be. I looked up and saw large mushroom-like cornices of soft looking snow blocking the way to the comfortable ledge of the notch.
A few days before when discussing my plan with Alberto, a Chalten local and legend who has been living and climbing in the area since before I was born, he told me this pitch might involve some “snow fighting”. As usual he was right. Thoughts of struggling through soft vertical snow with limited protection began to fill my mind. Above the notch two hard and time consuming pitches still remained before the summit snowfield. If that was the summit I probably would have carried in the fight. But as it was not it seemed the equation no longer added up. Even if I could fight through the soft snow, I would not have time to climb the remaining hard pitches, make it to the summit and get down before nightfall.
I was alone in Patagonia in winter, high on the mountain with no extra clothing or insulation. As soon as the sun went down it would become bitterly cold and a fight for survival. I was at least six rappels from the glacier and the safety of the tent. I needed to go down.
So this solo adventure in Patagonia would end like so many before and I’m sure so many adventures yet to come. I didn’t make it to the summit and once again I had to rappel and escape to safety. Each time I pulled the ropes I held my breath hoping they didn’t get stuck, leaving me in a nightmare situation stranded alone on the wall at night in winter.
But this time it was different. As I methodically descended I experienced no stuck ropes and to my surprise no feeling of disappointment or failure. Even though I didn’t make it to the summit yet again, I enjoyed the process and the adventure so much it didn’t seem important to me. It was the first climb I have done in Patagonia that I really didn’t care about the outcome. Making it to the summit would have been great, but really all I wanted was to be alone in these incredible mountains on a beautiful winter day, do some enjoyable climbing and have a wild adventure, and that’s exactly what I did.