Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Patience and The Dragon Fitz Roy

Patience is a difficult skill to practice.  Going to Patagonia made me realize there are many different types of patience in life.  The most difficult type of patience seems to be the one you use while waiting for something bigger.  Waiting for a moment in the future, one you aren't sure will come but that you hope for and have no control over. 

This is the patience that climbing in Patagonia requires.  You wait in town, a town that has grown substantially over the last several years and no doubt offers far more amenities than it use to.  But you wait none the less.  The winds howl through the streets making it hard to walk and you sport climb or boulder in the wind.  You watch it rain, guessing how that translates to the snow in the mountains.  

Patagonia is a lesson in patience.  It had been over two weeks since we had a real weather window.  There had been a single day, February 7th, my birthday, with enough good weather for a jaunt to Aguja Guillamet.  Of course, you talk with those friends who have been around for several seasons and they tell you of years where months came and went full of rain and wind, without the mountains or the climbing in town.  And you use this to help find a greater acceptance, a greater patience, for your current situation.  One that is, no doubt, better than the tales of wind and rain. 

In February the weather proved to be less than ideal for climbing in the mountains.  First we were denied entrance because of high winds, despite lovely blue skies, but we stayed positive knowing that the dry conditions were likely good for the massive east face of the Fitz Roy that we hoped to climb.  We hiked in to Paso Superior, stashed our gear, headed back to town and waited.  The days blurred by.  We were patient: waiting and wondering as we distracted ourselves in town.

Then the rain came, not too much, but just enough to coat the mountains in a healthy layer of snow.  Finally the weather forecast gave us what we had been waiting for: a window.  We packed and headed into the mountains.  It had been snowing and raining in town and we were apprehensive  about the unknown: unknown conditions, unknown routes, unknown outcome.  The time for patience was over and the time for climbing was now.

Two days later as the sun rose, casting its golden purply light onto the 4500 foot east face of Fitz Roy, we started to climb.  We were no longer nervous or apprehensive about what were here to do.  We were excited and relaxed.  We were confident and rested.  We had been patient and now we had to act.  This is what we had waited for.

After about Nineteen hours we had finished the Royal Flush and were now on The Corazon.  We stopped at a snowy ledge to boil some water and I took off leading again, pushing upwards into the darkness.  We didn't stopped to sleep, we had planned to push through the night, climbing straight through in a single push until the summit.  We had done this many times in Yosemite, we had prepared for this.  The breaking point of exhaustion came just before sunrise, it wasn't a bonk, nor was it hitting the wall, because we had bonked long before and continued to function at our prime in the depleted state.  

We moved nonstop, our short fixing working better than we had expected.  Despite moving fast the final pitches had become increasingly more confusing, we were lost in a maze of walls and terraces, massive ice formations loomed overhead, and features that look minuscule in photos defied reality with their actual size.

Twenty Seven hours later we were still climbing.  While Cheyne moved upwards, I looked to the east.  There was a change in the air, the clouds were beginning to form close to the ground and move towards us rapidly.  The beautiful Cerro San Lorenzo, 100 miles off on the horizon suddenly became enshrouded by dark grey cumulus clouds with a massive lenticular over the top.  The clouds smashed into the bottom of Fitz Roy, Mermoz and Guillamet and pushed up in the strong upward thermal currents.  As I watched, the voice in my head began to shout.  

We were painfully close to the summit, we knew it, we could feel it, but we couldn't see it.  We were over 4000 feet up the east face, with nearly 40 rappels to return to the ground and although we were tricking ourselves into feeling good in the fresh morning light, we both knew that we were deep in embrace of exhaustion.  We suspect the summit was less than a few hundred feet off, but the time was now.

Cheyne and I discussed the options, I expressed my concerns with the weather, three days ago the mediogram had shown rain in the forecast for that night, the clouds did not help to disprove that forecast.  Cheyne wanted to push on, I understood why, but I feared being caught in a storm more than I desired the summit at that point.  I was intimidated by the descent, and the early morning hours had showed us that our bodies were not thermoregulating like they should; we had sat in the sun, not feeling cold, yet shivering while we boiled snow and drank water.  A wet cold storm would not be good for either of us.  

So we made the choice to retreat back down the route.  The rappels were easy and went smooth.  It was an incredible and never-ending rewinding of the route, passing back by the pitches that we had visited just hours before, but felt like ancient, old memories.  We had a small speaker and iPod with us, we turned it on blasted the music while rappelling to keep our moral high despite the ever increasing fatigue.  

We stepped back into camp just before sunset, mixed emotions of success and failure swirling in our minds, but smiles on our faces none the less.  We boiled water and ate food, recounting events to our friend Kyle who was at camp.  As we climbed into the tent, delirious with exhaustion we heard the familiar pitter-patter of rain on the fabric.  We made it back just in time, the rain started and it rained hard through the night.  

Back in town it is always easy to kick yourself, rehashing the should have's, could have's and would have's.  It is not as easy to be happy with the decisions you made, to look at missing the summit as a success, and to be happy with the full effort that was invested, despite the outcome.  Cheyne and I discussed all the details time and again.  We recounted the decisions and what we could have or would have done.  And in the end, we agreed, we made the right choice.  Because of our decision to turn around we learned so much, and made it back safely.  We found acceptance with the choices we made, we got down smoothly and safely.  We had successes, even if we didn't put our boots on the true summit.

Time for crampons and a drink. (Photo: Kyle Berkompas) 
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The beast that awaits us giving off a massive breath of clouds as we approach.
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 Heading towards Paso Superior.
 The last steep hill to gain respite at Paso Superior. (Photo: Cheyne Lempe)
The East Face of Cerro Fitz Roy.  Royal Flush takes a right-of-center line past a large roof, meets the highest portion of snowy terrace and then continues straight up towards the ridge and summit.  (Photo: Cheyne Lempe)
In the beginning…pitch one, starring up across the ocean, hoping to see land.
(Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

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Somewhere around the 4th or 5th pitch where the ground really falls away and the horizon takes shape.

A roof that looked little from the ground at the end of a pitch that would never end left me with 2 cams that fit and an anchor on the far side.  (Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

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Cheyne takes the lead around pitch 15 and heads towards a wall so steep it was hard to understand what we were looking at.

Cheyne conveniently convinces me to swing through for the wide pitches.
(Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

Somewhere around pitch 24, I remember looking up, feeling shocked at how much granite
disappeared overhead and thinking, "I have to free climb this?!." 
(Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

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The never ending stem box with the 'less-than-halfway terrace' far below us.

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As the sun set we found some rime ice for the first time, I quickly turned the lead over to Cheyne.

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'The Impasse' Pitch.  I started up this chimney squeeze monster in the dark, with no pro and was turned around and spent an hour looking for another way around.  As we debated defeat, Cheyne boiled water while staring at it, I nodded off between pots of water, and finally he spoke up and wanted to give it a go in the light.

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Quickly the weather changed and the voice in my head started to warn me.

Painfully close to the summit, less than 100m, we started the long return to the glacier below.
(Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

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Team effort.

Beat up and broke down.
(Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

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The weather reveals itself.  Eight to ten more rappels, a long walk across a scary
glacier, and we arrived in camp soon followed by pouring rain.

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Off the glacier, down from Paso, boots off, crampons packed.  We are done.  We gave it hell and had success and failure. We spent 19.5 hours on all but the last few hundred meters, we spent a few hours boiling water as the sun came up, pushed a few more pitches, but missed the summit still.  In a non-stop push we moved for 36 hours nearly to the summit and back.

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Wet, a little cold, real tired, and ready for food, we walk from here.


  1. Thank you for sharing - really. Amazing story. I'm curious as to how you handle the waiting? On a tactical level - how do you keep boredom from driving you crazy? And then once the moment arrives how do you channel and handle your excitement?

  2. Nice post, really liked it. You definitly made the right choice, no regrets of anything, Patagonia is that hard.

    I hope someday I can also see and climb that amazing granite of the Fitz Roy

  3. Sweet line, really steep and wild - that wyde over the roof looks awesome! I hope to get some of that east face one day.

  4. Hi David, was wondering if we might be able to interview you and re-publish your blog on Patagon Journal's website ( Get in touch with me at contact at Thanks!