Joy & Pain

It’s perhaps not a very original statement to say that Patagonia is a place of extremes, but it’s true. The place is famous for its incredible granite towers, brutally long approaches and wild weather, all of which could be quite fairly described as extreme. But spend some time in this beautiful place, get to know the fantastic people and you will soon learn that there is more to it than that. Patagonia is also a place of emotional extremes, where joy and pain are both ever present.

I first went to Patagonia with my friend Carlos, was in 2018 to try and climb Cerro Torre. Unfortunately, as is often the case the weather was not on our side that trip and we never had the opportunity to even reach the base of Cerro Torre, let alone attempt to climb it. With one day of good weather we made an ambitious fast and light attempt to climb Fitzroy via the Supercanaleta. We came tantalisingly close, but in the end were forced to retreat a with only a few pitches of hard climbing between us and the summit.

We descended and spent the remaining four weeks of our trip waiting for good weather that never came. In that time we made some great friends, eat some unreal barbecue and started to get a taste for the joy one might feel having reached one of these incredible summits. But not having done so ourselves, as we left El Chalten after a month we started to feel the the pain of the place.

In the months that followed that trip, the pain was soon forgotten and we were once again lured south by the prospect of a standing on top of one of these mighty Patagonian summits and all the joy that would bring. So we returned later that year for two months, to try and climb Cerro Torre, but this time in the harsh Patagonian winter. After eight days in the mountains and a wild adventure I will certainly never forget, we were once again denied the summit. As we returned to Europe exhausted and somewhat demoralised by yet another defeat, we could again feel the pain of this spectacular, wild and addictive place.

Fast forward to 2020 and the global pandemic shut down our ambitions to return to Patagonia. For over a year the borders were closed to foreign tourists and we were cut off from our friends in El Chalten and the mountains of our dreams. It was a difficult time and as we could start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Carlos was keen to return and headed south in late December. Unable to take a large amount of time off work to join him, I had resigned myself to the role of weather consultant and would have to offer my support remotely.

As the weeks passed by so did the relentless storms. There was hardly a single day of good weather for almost a month and little climbing to be had in the mountains. I continued to study the charts from the comfort of my ski workshop until one day I saw a glimmer of hope. With only days to go before Carlos was due to return home to Europe the situation changed, a weather window was coming and it looked like a big one. The feelings of pain at the thought of yet another trip to Patagonia for Carlos with little to show for it, soon gave way to feelings of hope at the prospect of that summit joy. Having carefully studied the forecast I decided that this was likely to be the weather window of the season and surly not something to be missed.

So I did what some say is the hardest part of climbing any mountain, I booked the ticket. In a few days I scrambled to get things at work in order, packed my bags and got on the plane. It was all very carefully choreographed such that I would arrive just in time to join Carlos and his friend (confusingly also called Carlos) to climb Fitzroy.

It had been more than three years since our last attempt together and this would his fourth attempt to climb the mountain. Carlos has a long history with Fitzroy having first tried to climb it almost 25 years ago. It was a dream for him and I could sense he was psyched and this would probably be the time he would finally make his dream come true. After our strong but ultimately unsuccessful attempt in 2018, I felt like I had become part of his journey and desperately wanted to stand on the summit with him after all those years of trying.

But in Patagonia joy and pain are ever present and things rarely go as planned. On the trip to El Chalten my baggage was lost in Chile and as a result, so was my dream to finally climb Fitzroy with Carlos. Without the necessary equipment, it wouldn’t be possible for me to go and although the weather window was long, there was no time to wait. They simply had to go without me to try and fulfil Carlos’s long held dream and they did.

Having missed my chance at Fitzroy, I was devastated. Exhausted, demoralised and alone. I flew half way around the world to climb Fitzroy and I had failed before I even arrived. I felt all the pain of Patagonia that I had ever experienced before and then some. But Patagonia is a place of joy and pain, not just pain.

So when I arrived in El Chalten, with basically nothing but the clothes on my back, I went to the house of a friend to try and salvage my trip. Alberto, a local legend and good friend offered me the exact same advice upon hearing about my lost baggage that he had previously offered me after we failed on Cerro Torre in 2019, he said ‘yes, but you are alive’. As usual, he was right. These things happen, I was alive and I can come back and try again.

Having flown paragliders for many years in the north of Argentina, before moving permanently to southern Patagonia, Alberto had recently started a group to encourage other locals to learn to paraglide, so he wouldn’t have to fly alone. He is an extremely generous guy and knowing I love to fly as well, he kindly offered to lend me a paraglider and invited me along to fly with him and his newly formed group of pilots.

In general, paragliding and high winds are not compatible at all. So a place famous around the world for its crazy wind and furious storms, would logically be the last place you would ever consider going to fly paragliders. But the locals in El Chalten are by necessity both patient and very determined. Furthermore, I had also traveled to El Chalten specifically to climb during this rare window of incredibly good weather. So after the great misfortune of having lost my baggage, I had somehow stumbled into what was ultimately a very special opportunity, four days of good flyable weather in Patagonia.

In those four days we made some very special flights and after all that pain, I finally got to experience the intense joy of Patagonia for myself. I have done a lot of flying over the last few years, but these flights were undoubtedly special. Not the longest or necessarily best in terms of pure distance, but aesthetically extremely unique. Sharing strong thermals with huge condors and looking across at the golden granite spires of Fitzroy and Cerro Torre was mind blowing.

Some members of Alberto’s newly formed flying group make some truly historic XC flights around Fitzroy and into the Torre valley. These bold flights would have been previously been considered impossible and will no doubt put El Chalten on the map as a unique and wild place to fly, if only during rare moments of good weather. So in the end it was an absolute pleasure to be a part of it, to share the sky and the joy with such talented and motivated pilots.

On Wednesday after the best flying day, the paragliding group of which I had become a part had firmly planted ourselves at Fresco to celebrate the epic flying day with a cold beer. Not long after we arrived we were joined by Mario, Roger and Pablo. That morning they had successfully climbed Cerro Torre and become the second party to fly paragliders from the summit. A mere three hours after summiting, they had arrived back in town, showered and joined us at the bar. The return journey on foot from the west face of Cerro Torre usually takes at least two days! Upon arriving at Fresco they enthusiastically announced a new rule, ‘when you fly off Cerro Torre, you buy everyone beer!’. We were all more than happy to uphold this new regulation and certainly will continue to do so in the future.

On Friday, after a few outstanding days of flying and catching up with friends I eagerly awaited the return of Carlos and Carlos. It was my birthday and all I wanted for my birthday was for them to make it down safely to El Chalten, so we could celebrate with a barbecue and share in the joy of their success.

After 25 years he finally did it! Carlos climbed Fitzroy, as I knew he would and made it down safely. Although I was still deeply disappointed at having missed the chance to climb it with him, I couldn’t help but be happy. I felt the extreme joy of his long awaited success and I had absolutely no regrets about traveling all the way there, if only for that moment, despite my own misfortune with my luggage.

That night we partied hard and the following day said goodbye to our friends, before starting the long journey home. When I finally made it home I was happy. One week had felt like a lifetime and although things did not go as planned I did have a fantastic trip. But Patagonia is a place of joy and pain, where both are ever present and even after you leave, these intense emotions seem to have a way of following you, no matter how far away you are.

After revelling in the joy of Carlos’s success and my own week of spectacular paragliding it seemed somewhat inevitable that some pain would no doubt follow. When I arrived home I tested positive for Covid-19 and would have to isolate for the next 8 days. Strangely I wasn’t even stressed about it. I felt as if my capacity to be disappointed had been completely exhausted by the events of the previous week and I just thought about the wise words of Alberto, ‘yes, but you are alive’.

As I patiently waited out my self-isolation, with the feeling that it was a fair enough price to pay for the fantastic adventure I had just enjoyed, I received word from El Chalten that there had been a tragic accident. Our friend Tommy and his climbing partner Korra, having successfully climbed a spectacular new route on the north face of Cerro Torre, which they had been working on for several years, were hit by an avalanche of ice and rocks on the descent. They are both professional mountain guides and without exaggeration two of the finest alpinists in the world, but unfortunately they were not immune to bad luck. Both were injured and while Tommy was miraculously able to descend and narrowly escape with his life, Korra who had suffered more serious injuries will forever remain on Cerro Torre.

In Patagonia joy and pain are ever present and often extreme. On this trip I experienced both, the joy Carlos’s success and my incredible flights, the pain of my lost baggage and a missed opportunity to climb Fitzroy. But now as I reflect on those intense emotions I experienced, in the context of the accident that followed and the tragic death of Korra, they seem almost irrelevant. In a single day Tommy and Korra experienced both the greatest joy and greatest pain I can possibly even imagine. My thoughts now are with Tommy and Korra’s family, and I honestly struggle to even contemplate the pain they must feel.

In the end, joy and pain are simply an intrinsic part of life in Patagonia and only now as I have come to understand this better, do I fully appreciate the true wisdom of Alberto’s kind words when I have felt the pain of Patagonia, ‘yes, but you are alive’.

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