Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Patagonia: False Summit

Karsten and I huddled on the summit of the aguja, buffeted by blasts of wind sometimes in excess of 70mph, enough to literally knock us off our feet.  We were both silently urging Kevin to climb faster so we could escape the bitter cold and intense gusts as soon as possible.

The aguja of Cerro Penitentes (courtesy of Kevin Shon).
As Karsten belayed, I looked out to the west and north from our perch atop this granitic pedestal.  Cerro San Lorenzo was completely enshrouded in a capricious cloak of cloud, spraying a tumultuous mist of graupel and blown snow from each of its three disparate summits.  An ever-changing lenticular wave crashed over the main ridge, rushing eastward, spitting pellets of icy, frozen fog outward and downward.  The increased moisture set off point avalanches in the wet snow on the opposing slopes across the valley.  My face stung with the spray of blowing sand and freezing rain from each rush of wind.

Kevin attained the summit just in time for the next wave of frigid atmosphere to wash over us, leaving us stooped together clinging to the rock for purchase.  We hurriedly prepared the ropes for rappel while I admired the fickle beauty of Patagonian weather. 

That morning after much time tent-bound, we had awoken to clear skies and relatively calm winds.  Energized by the sunshine, we left camp for a reconnaissance mission to the glacier beneath Cerro San Lorenzo, hoping to get a view of our intended climb before the weather worsened once more.  Our efforts were disappointed, though, by a shifting cloud layer ensconcing the entire east face.  We knew the mountain was there, but we could not see it.

We set our sights instead on the northmost aguja of nearby Cerro Penitentes, crossing a braided gravel bar and drainage and ascending snow slopes and a scree cone to the base of an 80-foot pillar of rock.  A short 5.7 pitch lead to the summit, a platform of rock perhaps 10 feet by 10 feet across, previously untouched by man.

A hasty retreat then led us back to our base camp with the promise of a hot drink and more time spent in the tent waiting on the weather.  Karsten dictated a cryptic satellite phone text message to me and I relayed the unfortunate news:  with only four days left to stay in the mountains before we needed to leave for our flight, we wouldn’t be getting a weather window.
The view of Cerro San Lorenzo during our Cerro Penitentes climbing window.
I sat silently for a moment as the weight of this information settled.  The tiny pillar we had just climbed would be the only climbing we would do there.  Two years of staring at photographs, researching routes, weather, and approaches, meticulous planning, grueling physical training, hungering for an attempt on a new route on this mountain--all disappeared instantly, without so much as having set foot on the glacier, let alone attempting to climb.

Hiking out during a short weather window.
Immediately after returning to the vehicle on our trek out.
We weighed our options and had only two real choices.  First, we could wait in our tents and hopefully get a small weather window large enough to try something else nearby on Cerro Penitentes.  Or, we could pack up, hike out, and head back up north to hopes of better weather and other objectives.  After some discussion, the choice seemed obvious.  We came to climb, and we likely wouldn’t be doing that sitting in a tent on a boulder field.

There was not much left to do at that point but to shift my focus and my energy to new, alternate objectives.  I walked to my tent and began packing my sleeping bag.

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