Friday, February 1, 2013

Climbing the West Face of Cerro Torre - Getting There


Cerro Torre is a very technical granite spire located on the Argentina-Chile border on the edge of the southern Patagonian ice cap. This area is characterized by frequent violent storms that produce hurricane force winds. With little to stop them in the southern ocean, these storms blow from the west over this tiny wedge of South America. Temperatures are moderated by the maritime influence. But the storms are full of moisture that build an icy rime in fantastic formations on the westernmost peaks in the range, including Cerro Torre.

East Face of Cerro Torre (J Mills poto)

In the post WWII era many of the worlds great mountains were being climbed for the first time. Fitzroy, Cerro Torre's larger neighbor across the valley to its east, was climbed in 1952 and stretched the technical limits of what was possible at that time. But Cerro Torre repulsed numerous attempts due to its difficulty and horrendous weather. Many accomplished climbers of the 1950's and 60's considered it an impossible mountain. But by the late 1960's and early 1970's, mountain climbing was experiencing a new wave of innovation in equipment and attitudes. Climbers were now attempting mountains by steep difficult new lines, and not just by their easiest routes. The first ascent of Cerro Torre came to represent the goals and aspirations of this new generation of climbers.

I first started climbing in 1968, and I was inspired these young technical climbers. I was greatly influenced by their aspirations and Cerro Torre became one of a handful of iconic mountains that I wanted to climb. But life and other mountaineering projects would get in the way, and it took forty five years for that ambition to be realized.

Chalten Massif - Cerro Torre is the spire on the left

In 2009 I finally made my way to Patagonia for the first time. For years my previous climbing had been focused on mountains in South Asia. The climbing scene had changed dramatically over the years and climbers were now living in the new town of El Chalten rather than shacks in the woods. Internet weather forecasts had made it easier to time your ascents, especially on the big multi-day objectives.

The Town of El Chalten

Cerro Torre was high on my list and I made my first attempt that year with Bill Serantoni. Our plan was to climb the steep ice on the rime coated West Face. To get there, our plan was to hike up the Torre Valley and cross over to the west side of the range by climbing up to the pass between Mts Standhardt and Bifida and rappelling down the other side. This was a committing venture because once we rappelled onto the other side we could not go back the way we came – it was a two day walk out over the ice cap and over the Marconi Pass and down the Rio Electrico valley back to El Chalten.

Bill Serantoni rappelling from the Standhardt Col in 2009

It was our first time in the range and we made the mistake of attempting the route in mid-February which is late summer in the southern hemisphere. By then the glaciers were badly broken up and full of crevasses and the snowy approach up to the route on the other side was melted back to slabby rock that would be time consuming to climb. With only a couple of good weather days in the forecast we decided we didn't have enough time to climb the route and walk out the icecap before getting hit by a severe storm..

After returning from Antarctica to Punta Arenas, I rode on buses for two days to El Chalten to meet up with a friend from Canmore, J Mills. J had arrived in El Chalten two days earlier and he emailed to get there as soon as possible because a long good weather window was forecast. I arrived the evening of January 13th and we left the next morning for Niponino, a camp on the Torre Glacier. I was hoping that my previous knowledge of the approach would help, and that this time we would reach the summit of Cerro Torre.

Crossing the rope bridge (J Mills photo)

There is a good trail up the Torre valley to Laguna Torre. But from there the route to Niponino becomes more difficult. It starts with a Tyrolean traverse on fixed ropes over the Rio Fitzroy.


J overlooking the Torre Glacier

After crossing the river the trail climbs steeply up the hillside with great views of all the peaks in the Torre valley before descending to the Torre Glacier. The approach to the West Face of Cerro Torre from Niponino is a climb itself. There is a moderately difficult glacier climb with delicate ice bridges over deep crevasses that leads to a steep snow and ice gully up to the Standhardt – Bifida pass.

Glacier approach to Standhardt Col

J on the approach to Standhardt Col

Rappelling down the other side of the pass committed us to a long walk out the ice cap regardless of whether we climb Cerro Torre or not. It was a lot of work to get to this climb and back to town and I had already done it once before. This time I hoped we would be rewarded with a successful climb.

Me rappelling the west side of Standhardt Col (J Mills photo)

Once J and I descended the glacier on the icecap side of the Torres, we could see our way over to the slopes that led up to the Col of Hope and the real start of our route on Cerro Torre. But it was now around 10:30 AM and the sun was starting to hit these slopes. We would soon encounter our biggest obstacle on this climb – the heat. We decided that climbing up to the Col of Hope in the sun would be unsafe and debilitating. So we spent an extra day camped in the rocks waiting until the next morning when we could climb to the Col of Hope in the shade. The weather forecast predicted we had enough good weather to wait this extra day. The main issue is we would have to stretch our meager food supply for another day which would make for a hungry walk out. But we wouldn't mind if it meant we could climb the mountain safely.

Route up to the Col of Hope

The approach to the Col of Hope was blocked by 300 feet of granite slabs and a short wall. Earlier in the season the slabs would have been covered with snow and easier and quicker to climb. But four rope lengths later we put this behind us and reached the easy snow slopes leading to a good campsite just below the Col of Hope.

Me following the first rock pitch approaching the Col of Hope (J Mills photo)

Me climbing the slopes to our camp below the Col of Hope (J Mills photo)


Camp just below the Col of Hope (J Mills photo)

Looking up to the Col of Hope and the summit of Cerro Torre

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