I’m still not sure what to make of it all. A month ago, I found myself in El Chaltén, partnerless, with two full duffle bags of climbing gear, an open mind, and a blank journal. The goal? Well, I didn’t really have one. Remember what I said about an open mind? Ultimately, I was here to climb, but had no real plan and at the moment, no partner.
I arrived in El Chaltén on December 30th after a whirlwind of travel, starting in Wilson, WY to Salt Lake City, Miami, Buenos Aires, El Calafate, and finally to Chaltén. My trip almost ended before it really started when I left my passport on the photocopier at Dave’s house, only realizing the mistake on the opposite side of Teton Pass. Luckily I was able to meet my mom and sister halfway and save myself an hour of driving back to get it. Very luckily as it turned out because after hauling down to Salt Lake through Idaho, parking at Nick’s house, and catching a cab to the airport, I made my flight by less than an hour. Sometimes the universe makes things work out just right. So after the saga of travel including two overnight layovers in Miami and Buenos Aires, I stumbled into Chaltén a physical wreck and promptly slept for a day straight. Luckily the weather in the mountains sucked, so I wasn’t missing much.
And so began the whirlwind month of climbing, trying to climb, retreating from climbs, walking long distances in the mountains, eating far too much dulce de leche, and obsessively checking the weather forecast. I found myself partnered with a rag-tag cast of Montanans and Coloradans, all met down in Patagonia, but almost all only one or two degrees of separation apart back in the States. Funny how even though we’re scattered across the West, the climbing community can feel so small sometimes.
To put it simply, the weather this year sucked. Or perhaps more accurately, the weather this year was back to normal. After multiple years of monster weather windows, dry rock, and warm sunshine, the Patagonian weather gods tightened the belt this year, and we had to batten down the hatches in response. In my month in Chaltén, I had the luck to get into the mountains on five occasions, all but one for a weather window lasting 24 hours or less. Suffice to say, the weather in Patagonia is all it’s cracked up to be. And while I would have been even happier climbing warm sunny rock routes on the Fitz Roy Massif, in hindsight I’m somewhat thankful my first trip down here was so ravaged by storms. With the advent of reasonably accurate weather forecasts, readily available internet in town, and cozy hostels, there’s no reason to go up into the hills at the first sign of rising pressure, only to get hammered by a fast-moving storm halfway up a route. With forecasts down to the 3 hour model, we can pick routes prudent to the window and thus attempt to avoid getting caught by a storm way up high. In this time of dialing alpine climbing down to a science, it’s a good reminder to know that ultimately, no matter how good the forecasts get, or how light our gear is, or how waterproof our shell jackets are, the mountains still decide when to let us come play.
Despite the bad weather, and my rookie learning curve, I feel like I had an incredible run of good luck in the mountains. Maybe I was too stubborn or dumb to care about how short a window was, but between the five “major” windows we had, I was able to get out almost all of them. Climbing down here requires a high tolerance for suffering and I did my best to meet that head on. In summary, my season looked like this:
- 1/4/17: Climbed Supercanaleta on Cerro Chaltén (Fitz Roy) with Spencer in a piddly little 18-hour weather window. We climbed the couloir through the tail end of a storm, then started the rock/mixed pitches just as the weather broke and the sun came out. The route was super rimed up and the upper pitches went super slowly as we climbed all of them with boots and crampons and all but one with two ice tools. All told, we spent 20 hours on route, 17 of those on the upper 15 pitches. After topping out at dawn, we rappelled back to the glacier and our tent just as a storm came in and hammered the mountains.
- 1/12/17: Attempted Claro de Luna on Aguja St. Exupery with Spencer. After a lengthy spell of bad weather, Spencer and I hiked back in just before he had to leave to attempt Claro de Luna, reputed to be one of the best 5.10 alpine rock routes. Period. With another odd overnight weather window, we started climbing at 1830 (6:30pm) with the intention of bivying halfway up and finishing in the morning. Needless to say it was a cold night sharing a single bivy sack with no sleeping bag, but we had a stove and made a couple rounds of hot water to keep morale up. The route is all it’s hyped up to be. Amazing rock, amazing climbing, amazing views. Claro de Luna is a special climb. Unfortunately after sending the last crux pitch, the Wall of Hate came over the Torre Range earlier than anticipated and we had to beat a hasty retreat through a building snowstorm to get back to the tent at Polacos. Although we did not top out on St. Exupery, we were both stoked on the climbing we did.
- 1/17/17: Climbed the Fowler Route on Aguja Guillaumet with Matt and Ryan. Once again, the weather window came at night, so we decided to stick with the theme of short ice and mixed routes and hiked up to Piedra Negra, once again, in a storm. Planning on climbing through the night and then returning to camp, Matt and I didn’t bring bivy gear, just a tent and stove. After much deliberation about the weather at Paso Guillaumet, we decided to go for it and climbed through the night. I had the pleasure of leading the middle ice pitch, 60 m of pure fun up a series of chimneys, smears, and a short mixed rib. Lots of spindrift coming down, but no wind and no snow in the gully itself. We topped out just before dawn and rappelled back down the standard Amy Route descent. After pulling the all-nighter on route we packed up camp and death-marched back to the road and our waiting beers in the river.
- 1/24/17: Attempted the Anglo-Americana on Torre Innominita/Aguja Rafael Juarez. Matt’s flight left at 8am on the 25th, so we had exactly 24 hours to try and pull something off. After wet night at Niponino and a mercifully dry day, we woke up pre-dawn and slogged up the approach gully to Rafael Juarez. The storm two days earlier had left a dense coating of rime on every peak and although the day before was sunny, it wasn’t enough to fully dry the cracks. After solo-ing the initial neve pitches, we climbed three pitches of ice-choked cracks before calling it a day and humping our gear back to town just in time to get a burger, beer, and fries and a half kilo of ice cream each before Domo Blanco closed. And Matt still made his flight.
- 2/1/17: Climbed Aguja Poincenot via the Whillans-Cochrane route. Long story short, both Damian and I called an audible in our last few days before leaving town and roped up for the Whillans route. A spectacular way to end a season in Patagonia, humbled and proud.
So now I find myself back in airport purgatory, trying to sort through what feels like a lifetime of experiences packed into a single month. I return with two slightly lighter duffle bags, a full kilo of dulce de leche, a journal full of ramblings, musings, and narration to sort through, and a much longer list of friends and partners in climbing, cribbage, and cooking steaks over an open fire. Vida amigos. Vida escalando. Vida Patagonia.
Last summer, Chris Dickson and I ventured into the Tetons to attempt the Grand Traverse. Here are some thoughts I wrote:
Blasted by the wind, I jump out of the car at a rest stop on I-80, my first touchdown in Wyoming in nearly a year after a summer trudging around the Colorado mountains working for Outward Bound, carrying a pack far too heavy and hiking with students far too slowly. So this is what freedom tastes like; stale diesel fumes from the truckers blasting by at 80mph; the rank stench from rest stop urinals too long since their last cleaning; the gritty dust of the Wyoming desert etched into the creases on my face; eyes sore from squinting into the setting sun for too many miles across the plain.
Such is the seasonal work lifestyle.
Change is in the air though. Torn between two worlds, I have recently taken a full-time job teaching high school in Telluride, temporarily at least leaving behind the nomadic lifestyle of bouncing between work and a month in Indian Creek. Last year I skied 100 days and climbed just as many. The transition is going to be rough, even living in such a place as Telluride. At 23, it seems as though I am poking my nose into the increasingly challenging world of typical adult life, constantly navigating a maze of decisions; full-time job and stability, or seasonal work and flexibility? Caught in the gravitational pull between polar opposite masses, I sit in limbo, inertia zero, waiting for a nudge one way or another.
Now with only six days off between my last Outward Bound course and the start of my job, I point the wheels north and rally towards Jackson and my friend, climbing partner, and roommate Chris waiting in the Tetons.
After a day of prepping, researching, and hiding in the Jackson Library while Chris tries to resurrect his ailing computer, we join my friend Jed for dinner and pick his brain for last-minute beta on the granddaddy of all the alpine climbing in the Tetons; we’re going for The Grand Traverse. For me, it will be a harsh introduction to climbing in the range; I’ve never even touched the rock in the Tetons, let alone climbed all of them in a single push, not to mention I’ve spent the majority of the summer just walking around with a heavy pack and not climbing.
Eight cams, eight nuts, and eight runners. That’s Jed’s recommended rack. One 60m, 8.7mm rope. A sleeping bag and pad each. No tent, minimal rain gear, light puffies. Two days of food. It still weighs too much, but we have to suck it up and go. The alarm goes off at 4 am. Perhaps not the most alpine of alpine starts, but we’ve got a splitter weather window and are willing to push the time a bit more. We’re hiking out of the parking lot exactly at 6am, fueled by excessive amounts of coffee and a few bites of oatmeal. Above us, the skies are smudged with smoke from the conflagration of wild fires devouring the parched Pacific Northwest.
The endless switchbacks up the East Face of Teewinot crush our souls until we reach tree line and put our helmets on for the loose gullies leading up to the summit. With parties above and below us we take our time picking around the loose blocks and gravel strewn across the mountain. In two weeks a pair of climbers will fall to their deaths after getting off-route on this face, but today we stick the route-finding and scramble to the summit at 9am. Before us the ridge stretches into eternity; a maze of gendarmes and slabs littered with patches of ice.
We solo around corners and over knife-edge blocks, pull the rope out for a trio of rappels, and use our axes for the first and only time slipping our way up the East Face of Mt. Owen as we participate in every climber’s favorite activity, kicking steps in nevé wearing approach shoes. Exhausted by nearly 8 hours on the go, I take a quick nap on the summit, intentionally facing away from the intimidating North Ridge of the Grand Teton. Beyond Mt. Owen, the soloing and rappelling continues before we find ourselves racking up in Gunsight Notch, shivering and swinging our arms in the cold west wind.
The base of the North Ridge brings us to a cross-roads. It’s 5pm and nearly 1200 feet of technical climbing, plus the complex descent down the Owen-Spaulding route on the opposite side of the Grand, loom ahead of us. Continuing means doing it mostly in the dark. The easy choice means bivying where we are, climbing the North Ridge in the morning, and, in all likelihood, bailing after hiking down the O-S.
“Fuck it. Let’s go,” I say and Chris leads off into his block, bringing us to the bottom of the Italian Cracks in one long simul-climbing pitch. I take the rack and blast up the series of beautiful granite cracks. Just as I run out of gear and rope I find myself on a ledge and bring Chris up. He leads off again through a series of juggy overhangs and I find him comfortably at the top of the North Ridge blinking in the sudden sunshine of the West Face. Two more pitches of simul-climbing and we top out the Grand Teton at 7:30pm and scramble down to the O-S rappels just in time to see the last of our light disappear behind the thick blanket of smoke. As if on cue, my headlamp splutters and dies, along with the rest of my mental capacity for decision-making. Blind and bonking, I stumble down to the Lower Saddle, an apostle following the small orb of light from Chris’s headlamp five feet ahead of me and we collapse into our sleeping bags right next to another team.
Early morning light spills over the high desert of Wyoming, seeping through the layer of smoke still blurring the edge of the sky. Below us, Jackson ebbs in and out of view. Neither of us feel completely wrecked and we discuss our options over a shared cup of coffee. We are caught again, in the pull of two decisions. Bailing from the Lower Saddle would merely put us in the company of many strong climbers before us. We decide to finish what we started, and hike out of the Lower Saddle bivy at nearly 9am.
The Middle and South Teton flow by. Legs invigorated by a night of sleep carry us quickly across the talus field between the two, interrupted momentarily by a confused and psyched Chilean photographer with a backpack full of camera gear and a mouth full of questions. We pull the rope out only twice, once for the 5.7 pitch up the Ice Cream Cone and once rappelling off of Cloudveil Dome.
The West Ridge of Nez Perce is a convoluted mess of gendarmes, slabs, and scree-filled gullies that takes the last of our route-finding ability to navigate. At 3pm we straddle the narrow summit block of Nez Perce, bodies exhausted and souls refilled to bursting. During the descent we cross paths with two guided Exum parties who started the day before us on the traverse. Our water bottles long empty, we guzzle from the ice cold torrent of Garnet Creek pouring off the snowfield. We shoulder our packs for the last time and totter our way down the Garnet Canyon trail back to the car and lukewarm beers.
Katie Ives once wrote, “within this wild and uncertain life, beauty is the only certainty we can know.” As I step back into the world of schedules, deadlines, and grading tests, I wonder what wildness and uncertainty will come. An object in motion will stay in motion until acted on by an outside force. All it takes is a nudge and driven by the desire to teach, my inertia is now rolling towards the professional life. And I wonder, where will the uncertainty take me? Let the wild rumpus start.