Friday, February 1, 2013

Climbing the West Face of Cerro Torre - The Ascent

J and I left camp around 1:30 AM on January 18th.. We crossed the bergschrund and moved together up the fifty degree ice slope for 500 feet to the Col of Hope. From the col we turned left and ventured onto Cerro Torre itself for the first time. Each of us alternated leading blocks of several rope lengths. I took the first block with a plan to lead to the top of a formation called the Helmet. We would climb my block in the dark to make sure we would be in the shade on the upper Headwall pitches. We wanted to avoid climbing this section in the sun which causes the vertical rime ice to melt and fall.

The climbing above the Col gradually steepened and we quit climbing together and started to belay individual pitches. In places I found melted out footsteps and old rappel slings in the ice from previous parties. But I still found it difficult to find the route around all the fantastic rime formations by the light of my headlamp. I made a route finding error at the Helmet by traversing left and following some old pitons into the base of a mostly rock corner. Only later did I discover that I missed the normal route that wound its way up through some ice runnels to the top of the Helmet. It was now J's turn to lead as the sky started to light up in the east

J Leading the difficult corner pitch
J did an amazing job of leading this loose icy rock pitch with our minimal rock protection rack. It ended up being the most difficult pitch of the climb, mostly because it was run out with minimal protection in places where it was everything I could do to make the moves and retrieve the cams, nuts and pitons. It was a very good piece of work that got us back onto the established route.

J leading mixed climbing onto the West Face

J led up easy ground to one of the most unique and enjoyable pitches of the climb. The route worked its way over blocky terrain into a wind scooped tunnel of ice that wound up inside the rime. It felt surreal to be surrounded by these sculpted formations – like something out of a psychedelic dream. I emerged from the tunnel into an ice chimney to find J wedged into an icy nook securely anchored to a pair of ice screws.

Me coming out of the ice tunnel  (J Mills photo)
J led the last pitch of his block up the chimney that was capped by a chockstone that was difficult to surmount. The chimney was a tight squeeze for me to follow with the pack, and I didn't have room to rotate my body to pull around the chockstone. With a bit of cursing I grovelled my way up to the belay where it was now my turn to lead the next block. It was my job to get the ropes up the infamous Headwall pitches that were immediately above us..

J leading up the ice chimney
There was nothing magical or different about the steep ice climbing on the Headwall. This is the kind of terrain that I'm accustomed to from the frozen waterfall climbing I do near my winter residence in Canmore Alberta.

Me leading first Headwall pitch (J Mills photo)

J at the belay on the first Headwall pitch
The most important thing was for me to control the fatigue in my forearms by periodically hanging on with one ice axe and lowering the other arm and shaking fresh blood into it. I repeat this with each arm as I climb, always maintaining a reserve of strength so I never let go . I placed ice screws for running belays about every 20 feet in case I did fall..

Me leading the second Headwall pitch (J Mills photo)
The two steep Headwall pitches took us onto lower angle terrain in the upper rime formations. The rime was unconsolidated with no opportunities to place anchors for running belays. To be safe, I had to pick a circuitous route that provided the greatest security. This placed us on a snow and ice platform where we could see the final summit pitch. It consisted of a spectacular vertical half pipe that wound up through a snow and ice tunnel at the top. Fortunately the route had seen several ascents in recent weeks and had been cleared of loose snow. The pitch was also peppered with holes for ice axe pick placements and footholds which also made it easier than normal. J volunteered to lead and he traversed thirty feet from our perch to the base of the half pipe. The first thirty feet were gently overhanging snow that took ice axe placements well, but was too soft for placing ice screws for running belays. The pitch soon turned into ice where J could place ice screws and he could stem on each side with his legs to relieve the strain on his arms.

J leading the summit half pipe
I led an easy pitch up through the rime to the top of Cerro Torre.

Me leading up through the easy rime to the summit (J Mills photo)
It was a windless and cloudless day and we were both very happy to be there. We had the route all to ourselves and enjoyed our 360 degree view.

Steve and J on the summit (J Mills photo)
To the east we had spectacular views of the Fitzroy group. To the south we could see the huge Laguna Viedma. To the west was the vast southern icecap and to the north we could see our walk out over the Marconi Pass and down the Electrico valley back to El Chalten.

Fitzroy group from the summit of Cerro Torre
I was a bit concerned about our descent down the West Face which would be subject to falling ice now that it was in the sun. After several quick rappels from the summit, we got down onto the West Face that was running with water in places and peppering us with small dime and quarter sized pieces of ice. Just as we finished the last rappel exposed to falling ice, one of our ropes got jammed in a crack 50 feet above us. It took an hour to retrieve it, and we got away unscathed except for numerous small bruises from being pelted by the small pieces of ice.

Steve standing on the top of the Helmet on the descent ( J Mills photo )
We had to reset all the existing rappel stations we found because they had melted out of the ice. As the sun started to set we arrived at the Col of Hope.

Rappelling to the Col of Hope
In the heat of the day the final slope back to camp was subject to rockfall. These slopes had now gone into the shade so the danger was now diminished. We rappelled as quickly as we could, but near the bottom, a volley of stones came whizzing by and damaged the sheath on one of our ropes. To get out of there quickly we abandoned an ice screw for a quick anchor and soon were out of harms way and back at camp.

Returning to our camp below the pinnacle


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