Kate Rutherford - The Fitz

Friday, April 15, 2011

So you want to go to Patagonia?

By Kate Rutherford

Photos By Mikey Shaefer

Here is what you need: Luck, a plane ticket to El Calafate, some pointy things, good boots, insulation, and really good wind protection. Some people even claim that you need a t-shirt for when it is so hot, you can climb Fitz Roy in your short sleeves: I have yet to see the day.

Because what you really need is good weather! This was my fourth season attempting to climb down there, and the first where the weather, stars, health and frosty mountains all conspired for real success.

After long flights, I arrived on the bus in all the sunny glory that is lusted after in El Chalten. We rolled in on the evening of January first. The other climbers and I were totally stressed, ogling the sunny peaks, knowing our partners were climbing. I had been checking the weather multiple times a day already, and knew I was totally blowing it, showing up right in the middle of a perfect window.

Lucky for us there were more glory days to come…

At 3am on the last day of my 20’s Mikey Schaefer and I brewed up, packed up and walked up the dark hill away from Nipinino, heading for St Exupery. This was my first time to the Tore Valley, and I was pleasantly surprised that all I needed were my Ganda Guides and aluminum crampons. This window, as most do, had deteriorated into a single day with temps in the single digits. But I was super motivated, I hadn’t climbed yet this season…

The chill was serious that morning, and though Cerro Tore lit up pink, I was still numbly asking how I was going to put my hand in a crack for any length of time. At 7am we were at the base of Clara de Luna (Chloro de Luna) a 700m classic rock climbing line. It heads up the long west ridge of St Exupery, and has proper steep splitters leading up the perfect alpine granite.

Luckily we were able to keep our gloves and approach shoes on through the first 10 splitter pitches. It was less efficient than we hoped, but bare hands and climbing shoes were out of the question.  Good thing we love to crack climb, because every 8 moves, we had to blow on our hands, coaxing warm blood back into them, which could deter some folks from continuing.

The sun hit us around noon, still only a third of the way up the route. Instantly we warmed, putting on climbing shoes, slurping water out of a pothole and trading blocks. I raced up easier terrain under bright sky. I was having so much fun, laughing with the perfect climbing, linking some really beautiful features, until I blew it and got stuck up on some run out slab. Oops. That slowed us down a bit.

Back on track I kicked some steps through a snow patch, and after a little overlap launched up some sketchy looking, dining room table size platters of rock all plastered against the wall. I was alarmed, but carried on. I was rewarded by one of the best ever hand cracks, which tapered, and disappeared, just as another (a big step to the left) began. That one ended in an awesome bit of lay backing and a little exposed belay on the arête.

I passed the lead back to Mikey, and he wiggled his way up a series of chimneys that were way more fun then they looked. Clouds were rolling lazily in and a chill came with the still calm evening. The summit boulder was tall and we briefly stood on top, admiring the view, already shivering. The descent into the night came with snow, the dawn came with spindrift, and I sang myself happy birthday. It was a great way to usher in my 30’s.

Though our St Exupery mission was slow and cold, we obsessively checked the weather and plotted our next climb. We were planning to fly home the first week in February, but a 4 day window started forming on the weather charts.  It looked like enough for an attempt on the Fitz. This meant many hours on the phone, trying to change plane tickets to give us 2 extra days.

After much debate of what to do, off we went to Fitz Roy. We left town February 7th, walked through Piedra Del Frile, to Piedra Negra. Without a tent, we slept a few hours there. Our down sleeping bag slowly getting wet in the light drizzle. We ditched the wet sleeping bag, borrowed 2 ice screws, and headed out at 1am the morning of the 8th. As we crested Paso Guillaumet in the dark we were disappointed to find the glacier had not frozen in the night.

That meant it was warm, but almost doubled our predicted approach time. In the dawn we arrived at La Bretcha, the gateway to Fitz Roy’s south side. It was already running with water, and spitting off loose rocks.  Finally, wet and quite behind schedule, we sat at the top of La Bretcha, drying ourselves in the sun for an hour. 

The next piece of our climb involved traversing the shady south face of Fitz. When we did it last (to go to the California route) it had been cruiser. But now, I was confounded by this 45 degree ice skating rink of blue frozen water blocking our way. I asked Mikey to dispatch with it. And I followed, terrified, in aluminum crampons about as sharp as my finger. Traversing took the rest of the day, so we found a bivi a bit past the base of our route. I looked up at the mountain ahead of us and wished we had a sleeping bag.  We woke up about 100 times shivering and in pain from lack of padding. But rest was good.

The sun hit in the morning, and I chipped ice out of the ‘Dog Leg’ crack that begins our route, until the wall steepened and a thin hands splitter allowed me to quicken my pace. Now this was what I loved. It turned quickly wide, and I struggled to efficiently climb the splitter wide crack with only one #4 cam. The next one was hands! But then a chimney with ice in the back meant scary stemming on the outside. Then was a wild pitch with a chock stone creating a roof, I pulled on a piece. 

After about 12 pitches I found a system veering right, a few more steep pitches followed, and I was exhausted.  On a big ledge with easier terrain above, I handed the lead back to Mikey. I had climbed the rock, now the real alpinist needed to take over.  Two more 5.8 pitches led to fourth class scrambling and we put crampons back on. The light was rich and warm, meaning night would come soon.  We reached the top of the snow ramp and turned our headlamps on for the last 100 meters. A few parties were headed down, and we all congratulated each other.

On the summit, we were tired, and disappointed it was dark. We named our line ‘the Washington’ route. A quick photo and a discussion about rappelling with so many people below us, led to biving on the summit. Again the lack of sleeping bag and pads was harsh- another night of teeth chattering. Chemical foot warmers, little hot water bottles, a bivi sack thinner then my rain shell all made it possible to pretend to sleep.

Aching bones in the morning were totally worth the sunrise. I looked down at a pink Cerro Tore and had never been so satisfied to be on a summit. 





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