Brette Harrington returns to Patagonia to pay tribute to Marc-André, climbing a line he once pictured...
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I first became acquainted with the Patagonian towers of El Chaltén in 2013, when my partner Marc-André Leclerc made his first climbing trip down south. Although unsuccessful, Marc-André returned with fantastic stories about mountains with rhyme-capped summits and an environment so dynamic that the conditions change right in front of your eyes. The following season I made my first climbing trip to Patagonia and have returned each year since.
Patagonian winds are so strong they are known to blow roofs off of houses and rip doors off of cars. These mountains are debatably the most beautiful in the world— the steep granite walls pierce the sky like swords demanding a broad skill set from any alpinist who wishes to climb them.
These mountains were for Marc the epitome of hard, technical alpinism. Between the years of 2015 and 2016, he became the first and only person to solo climb all of three Torres. His saga was capped off by soloing Torre Egger’s east Pillar in Winter which has been claimed as “[O]ne of the most impressive solo ascents ever, anywhere” by Patagonian climber, historian and guidebook author Rolando Garibotti.
After the climb, Marc messaged me a handful of photos, pointing out various features of the wall that he perceived to be a potential ‘new route’. His photos showed a gently arcing crack on the center of the lower East Pillar. It curved smoothly out of sight into a rounded dihedral. To reach the crack a flakey shield of rock must be climbed which looked steep and possibly run-out. Marc and I were very excited about the line and looked forward to trying it together in a future season.
October 2018 marked seven months since Marc’s tragic passing in the Alaskan mountains. I began thinking about the line on Egger and realized that I still wanted to climb it. Marc believed in me more than anyone, he trusted me as a climbing partner he and wouldn’t have asked me to join him if he didn’t believe I was capable. So, this in mind, I began thinking of who I would want to climb it with. It did not take long for my mind to jump directly to Quentin Lindfield Roberts.
Quentin and I met in Patagonia in February of 2016 at the end of the El Chaltén climbing season. He, his climbing partner Chris Willy and I traveled north to Bariloche, where we spent two weeks climbing in the sunny towers of Frey. The two weeks spent climbing around Frey bonded our friendships and we spoke of possibly climbing together in the future.
In the subsequent two years, Quentin and Chris made significant ascents in the Canadian Rockies and Patagonia, but around Christmas time 2017, I received a late-night text from Quentin saying that Chris had passed away. I immediately called Marc, and we talked for hours about the tragic passing of such a wonderful person. As the year progressed Quentin and his girlfriend Michelle frequently visited Marc and me at our home in BC. We talked about alpine climbing, Chris Willie, and our upcoming trips to Alaska and Tasmania. We could never have imagined that in the upcoming week Marc would be taken from us as well, during this trip to Alaska.
When I called Quentin to ask him if he would be interested in joining me on this project he did not hesitate to answer yes. Quentin not only looked up to Marc in climbing, but as a person, and in life. Quentin appreciated Marc’s exceptional vision for alpine lines and his soloist climbing style.
Shortly thereafter we had bought our flights and landed in El Chaltén, Argentina on the 3rd of January. Early January brought marginal weather with limited opportunities to climb. During the first two sets of high pressure, we reconnoitered the lower route, but the winds and storm prevented us from going any higher.
It wasn’t until early February that the winds finally eased and the skies cleared, but the Towers were coated in a thick layer of snow and ice. We hiked back into the Torre Valley with a group of friends and dug out our basecamp from under a few feet of fresh snow. All teams who were attempting routes on the Torre side of the Torre Valley, including ourselves, needed to wait an entire day for the mountains to clean. Just as Marc had expelled back in 2013, we watched the mountains change conditions over the course of a few hours, shedding all of the ice and snow.
With our bags packed, we set the alarm for 1:30 am, then started up the glacial approach an hour later. I climbed the first three pitches in the dark. The rock was wet, but I had the movements fresh in my memory and felt at ease.
We moved quickly and efficiently, arriving at pitch eight, the crux pitch, early in the morning. Above me was a super thin corner which gently leaned leftward. This was the crack I had seen from the photos that Marc sent me and finally, I was about to climb it. Reaching up, I placed a small offset wire. It sank deep into the slot and I knew it would hold a fall. I crimped the edge of the crack and smeared my feet on the face in front of me.
The unclimbed granite cracked under the pressure of my feet and they skated. With a good estimate of what I would need next, I climbed fast and slotted my tiny fingers into the next opening. The runouts were playing a mental game with me— not knowing if I was going to be able to find any gear. Finally, my arms were so pumped that both my feet came skating off the wall and I took a fall back to the belay.
I let out a breath of relief. My forearms were throbbing and pumped. Quentin gave me a few words of encouragement and I made another attempt but fell from quickly from nerves and adrenalin. It wasn’t until the third attempt that I managed to climb the pitch clean to the anchor without a fall.
Quentin took the next lead block at pitch 10. He called to me, “On Belay!” and I began up. While climbing, I looked up to see two dark objects come falling past me. My boots had detached from the haul line and were falling hundreds of meters down to the glacier! Devastation hit me immediately; this was the demise of our ascent. There was no chance to climb the summit snow mushrooms without boots.
Like me, Quentin understood exactly what this meant and we were both struck with disbelief. With a short discussion, we decided to continue up and give the climb our best effort in spite of the circumstances and climb as high as we possibly could.
We pushed on, climbing a total of 13 pitches before arriving at a small rocky ledge around 6 pm. The rocky ledge dropped steeply down at three sides making it like a skinny peninsula in the sky. A gully dropped to the north side where the route Titanic climbed and would intercept our line in the following pitch. This is where we made our bivy. That evening we squished together on the tiny, single person bivy ledge, and watched a magnificent sunset over the Fitsroy Massif.
We both awoke early the following morning with aching and sore bodies. Quentin’s hands were throbbing and swollen. Clumsily we organized our gear and started up the low 5th class terrain to reach the gigantic hanging snowfield. The Fitsroy mountains were just coming into view in the morning light.
The hard blue ice of the snowfield expanded 90 meters upward and around 150m laterally. Gently sloping like a nose, its sides dropped steeply down at around 45 degrees but the prominent ridge sloped at a gentle 25. Here, Quentin quickly and effortlessly tromped up the snowfield, but I, wearing my tiny rock shoes, faced a 90m pendulum across a slippery traverse along the perimeter of the snow pyramid. With one ice tool in my left hand, and my body facing forward, the balance was awkward and uneasy. The thin edge of rock was covered in shards of ice, making the rock as slick as sleet. This process took somewhere close to an hour before I had reached Quentin at his belay.
The sun was beating down on us and the summit mushroom of Torre Egger was melting out. The entire headwall quickly became a running waterfall. I climbed fast up slabs, wandering into new terrain. As I climbed I reached a body sized block, detached on all sides. If it released into my lap it would likely cut my rope and or cause serious injury.
I contemplated for a while, then decided to unclip all the heavy gear from my harness and lower it down to Quentin so that I felt light, like a sport climber. I stemmed over to the slab, smearing my feet on the natural undulations and managed to climb past the block. So close to the Badlands headwall now I was amazed to find a perfect crack gently leaning downwards and connecting to a ledge.
The south face was now like an open faucet, pouring water all over the mountain. I pushed on climbing up towards a large off-width. The crack was wet, gravely, and overhung. I knew I could climb it if only I had the appropriate protection, but without a #5 cam, I faced a horrible ledge fall. We were only 40m from connecting into Badlands. It was tempting but the risks were too high for such a low reward. The thought overcame me, and I down climbed. This pitch would have to wait until next time.
We started down the mountain arriving at the final rappel a few hours later. Nearing the glacier, a tiny black dot caught my eye. It was my boot! We had assumed it had fallen into one of the numerous cracks that scatter this section of the glacier, but to my luck, it was indeed my boot and the other was found close by.
With our boots on our feet and bags full of gear, we roped up and began the trek down the glacier and back to basecamp. I stopped for one last glance at our line from close up, knowing that I will return.
Thank you, Marc-André Leclerc for the Vision and inspiration. While climbing, I imagined you up there soloing this mountain in winter. For this reason, we call it MA’s Visión.
Photos: © Brette Harrington
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brette Harrington is a member of the La Sportiva Climbing Team.
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