Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fitzroy - Attempt 2

I am sitting in our El Chalten apartment every muscle aching a day after arriving back down from our second attempt on Mt Fitzroy. It is a bit devastating to have come so close to summiting the mountain but having to retreat on what is almost definitely our last shot for the trip. We gave it our all and approached the climb tactically well except for one major flaw which is appearing to be our route choice. Two confirmed other parties managed to summit the day we didn't both climbing from the opposite side on a longer but slightly easier route (NW ridge) which was free of ice due to its exposure to the afternoon sun. When I spoke to the other parties about the route they had nothing good to say about it (a lot of loose rock) and didn't seem excited to summit. An American in one of the teams on their way down said "It was sh#t. I am only sport climbing from now on!". I laughed at this knowing that once recovered in a couple of days he would be raving about his experience as is all too common in alpine climbing.
Our attempt began one days rest after arriving down from attempt one. We saw a good weather window and decided to take our time approaching the climbing allowing an extra day for ice to melt from the cracks and so that we would be fresher when it came to the day we would push for the summit. We left El Chalten at 10am and had a leisurely stroll to Paso Superior making it in only six and a half hours. We spent the night in our snow cave where our gear was stashed and were moving again before first light across the glacier to the base of the Brecha mixed climbing. We hit a snag here as the aproach we had previously done was impassable due to the schrund widening. We descended a bit and walked a few hundred meters around to the left which is known as the French Variation for getting up to the Brecha bivvy. Here we managed to gain a snow slope above the schrund and spent an what seemed an eternity rising upwards with burning calf muscles before we could traverse over to our original line. The traverse turned to black ice and felt dodgy. We were relieved once it was over and only a bit of mixed rock and ice led to La Brecha. At this point Owen and I looked at each other and said "Were not doing that again" so we knew that this attempt was it.
Walking up the glacier.
Me on the glacier with the La Brecha gully in the background on the left.
 From La Brecha we scrambled around to the base of the mixed pitch leading up to La Silla which I led hesitantly due to a quite hard mixed boulder problem it contained. We had arrived at the La Silla bivvy mid afternoon so we dumped our bivvy gear and continued to the base of the wall were the Franco Argentine route begins. To get to the base of the wall you cross/climb an ice ridge that is like walking on glass. Even with crampons and axe you feel as though you could go sliding away at any instance. At the start we roped up and if someone slipped the other would jump over the other side. For the last steeper 50m Owen placed a couple of ice screws. The base of the wall is just steep ice connecting with a thin crack containing some fixed rope to clip into. I just hung there and took off crampons and boots careful not to drop either before putting on my rock shoes. Since I had been up the first pitch before it didn't take too long to ascend. There was less ice than before but not much less. We fixed our rope at the anchor of pitch one and use our second to get down the ice ridge and back to our bivvy.
Owen following the mixed ground up to the La Silla bivvy.
Home away from home! The La Silla bivvy.
3am in the morning and we were psyched! Despite it being ridiculously cold. We had a quick breakfast of snacks and made our way to the base of the route, jugged the first pitch and were at the top of the second before sunrise. I led the first block of seven pitches which involved more aid than climbing. I had my axe out a lot of the time chipping out spots of ice to place gear in. Luckily the ice was aerated and came out easily. At pitch seven we felt as though we were on target. Not moving fast but fast enough to make it. Owen then took over on ever increasing icy ground until pitch ten. Pitch ten it seemed everything changed. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped and the nature of the ice changed from white and aerated to hard blue ice in all the cracks and  a lot of exposed rock was covered in verglas. Owen gave it a crack but retreated and I was shivering at the belay. Our decision it seemed was made. It was frustrating as you could see the top of the cliff band above us only three pitches before the mixed ramp to the summit. An involved descent got us back to La Silla where we decided that rather than spend another cold night out we would push through and continue down to Paso Superior. We navigated the rappels down the Brecha in the dark and were back in our snow cave by midnight.
The view from the end of pitch 7.
The night time descent down the Brecha.
 The next day we rested and chatted with other climbers at the pass about their experiences and tried to eat all our food so that we didn't have to carry it down. We planned to have a crack at one of the smaller peaks the next day but when morning came we had slept through our 4am alarm and the mountains were shrouded in clouds anyway. So we packed up everything and started the day long descent with heavy packs to El Chalten.
Paso Superior. We were interviewed by the three Japanese men in the foreground who were making a documentary.
Sunrise from Paso Superior.
We have two and a half weeks left in Patagonia and the plan now is to attempt some of the smaller peaks in the range to try and stand on at least one summit! The weather is turning again though so we are not sure when the next opportunity will be. I feel we have been lucky to get the windows we have just had when I remember the stories about people who have done trips here and not gotten into the mountains for the entire season! For now its recovery and a bit of sport climbing in the valley.

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