Tasting the Paine: Dave Turner's 34 days alone on a Patagonia Grade VII big wall first ascent
In January 2008 in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, Black Diamond athlete Dave Turner made the world's first solo of a Grade VII route. After an astounding 34 days alone on Cerro Escudo's overhanging east face, climbing capsule-style, he finished the 1500-meter climb, Taste the Paine (VII 5.9 A4+), making it a contender for the hardest big-wall route in Patagonia and one of the most difficult climbs of 2008. Read below for Turner’s recap of his historic climb.
I arrived in Patagonia this last November 15th, after dragging five haulbags down from my home in Sacramento, California. An adventure and challenge just in itself! I was robbed in Buenos Aires, which led to a dramatic fistfight in the terminal, but I eventually made it to Puerto Natales, with all of the gear. I was bringing down the full big wall rack and alpine kit—a few hundred pounds of the best gear available. All of my gear was brand new, and I came up with some good ideas and modifications to my systems so as to be able to guard against the unbelievable strength of the constant storms down here.
The approach to the wall is 12 miles from the road's end, and I made this 11 times before starting the climb, for a round trip total of 264 miles of load carrying. Of course only half the time with weight, and some loads being lighter than others. Luckily I had a 60 GB iPod to help crank out the miles with two solar chargers. It seemed like an endless task just to get to the foot of this mega wall with all of my gear and supplies.
So my climbing plan was pretty simple; or so it seemed! I showed up with two 70 m lead lines and one double-length static haul line, and decided to climb it in alpine style and not use fixed ropes or any other steps back into the style of the past. One person, one wall, with only the summit as an acceptable outcome. Nothing was going to stop this dream from coming to fruition except for what we put in the back of our mind and don’t talk about. For being alone on such a wall with no chance of rescue, every move had to be assessed and executed as if I was just doing another hard route on El Capitan with the handy rescue helicopter on the ready. Of course it wasn’t, but I needed to be willing to go for it none the less.
So this wall already had one route on it, to the right side, put up by three Americans—Brad Jarret, Chris Breemer, and Cristian Santilices. They did make it to the top of the wall, but not the summit. But don’t let this fact throw you off. They were bad-ass for going for this wall, and much respect from me is focused their way. This ascent came 13 years ago, and I believe it took this very talented team of three something like 23 days or so to climb to the summit ridge. A few other minor attempts were logged on this wall as well, but nothing close to making a route.
As far as other Grade VIIs go, I believe Jim Beyer’s solo of the west face of Mount Thor is the closest anyone has come to soloing a grade seven wall by a new route. But he scrambled off the big ledge that splits the middle of the wall, leaving all of his stuff up there, and returned the next year, traversing back on and finishing. Again, this gets so much respect from me, as I know Jim, and it showed me that it could be done. Maybe.
After fixing the first 130-meter slab, with not so bad difficulties to 5.6R A3, I started to haul the bags up and prepared to blast, never willing along the way to fix more than two to three pitches at a time. While hauling some bags up one at a time from the ground, the sun came out on the upper wall full strength (rare!), and all hell started to break loose from the summit. Ice, rock, and snow was ripping all past me, so I went down to the pile of my bags at the base, unharnessed, and went to Camp Five minutes away for lunch to let the wall cool down before returning. When I came back a few hours later, I had a nice surprise from the wall. A basketball-size rock came down at full speed right onto my harness at the base. My aiders, daisies, mini traxion, some biners, and a locker were absolutely destroyed. And worse, the harness had its swami belt cut through about 50% and had lost two gear loops, and another was threatening to fall off! I had some extra aiders and daisys, and sewed some new gear loops on. But the Yates harnesses are so strong to start with; I just went with the cut up one for the whole climb. I did not have the extra money to replace it, and it is just about impossible to do so down here anyway.
Eventually I was able to blast after a few big storms rolled through, on December 23rd. I was knowingly going to be spending Christmas, New Years, and my birthday up there. One pitch above the large ledge, I made my first of many portaledge camps, tying down the ledge to many pitons and tensioned hooks to keep it held down. The updrafts on the wall were almost funny, as they would lift even the haulbags! Yes, I tied these down, too!
So I guess I should touch on the hardware before I continue. This first bivy anchor, as with half of all the other belays on the route, were entirely natural. I absolutely kept the drilling to a minimum on this climb for many reasons. And when I did drill belays, it was two shorty hangerless 1/4 inchers. Yes, old school style and sketchy. But they were quick to drill, lighter, and there aren’t so many. I highly recommend that the second ascent team (or soloist) take a bunch of real bolts up there and strengthen it up. But keep the natural belays just that. As for the pitches, they averaged 65 to 70 meters each, usually with between 0 to 6 holes per lead. Two pitches had 10 holes each on the lead. Not much when you think about how long, difficult, and overhanging the climb was.
I am not going to explain the details of the climb pitch by pitch, but I will say this. I have climbed a fair amount of routes over the years, and hands down this is the hardest route I have touched. Never mind the difficulty, this is the best climb I have climbed, ever. Pitch after pitch of sustained thin overhanging cracks never ended, and the climbing was on excellent rock in a stunning location. And believe me, there are a few sections where you will take some long whips and/or crush yourself on the way down. Yes, I took a few of these. And yes again, they hurt. But luckily I avoided all serious injuries, but did have a few close calls.
The crux of the route came at about one third height. A few solid pins off the belay (with a small ledge to hit of course) led into about 12 to 14 beaks, not the longest stretch of beaks on the climb, but I ripped many out testing them on the way through the pitch, and all but two I cleaned with my fingers! A few falls were logged when things went wrong, and some blood was lost, but nothing so bad I had to deal with in a desperate way.
My second camp on the wall saw an enormous storm, just pounding. Two and a half days of continuous wind and snow left my 80 cm wide belay ledge (the only ledge of size on the route) with three meters of snow on it. I wouldn’t believe it if I wasn’t there! The ropes were trapped in three inches of ice, which I learned that jugging on is quite hard and really sucks. At this point it was only about day 8 of 34. The pattern of bad weather continued more or less for the first three weeks of the route, which was the first half of the route. The second half of the route fell in only two more weeks, as I received better weather, even though it was steeper and more sustained climbing. I have a few pics where I am rapping down to clean the pitch I just led, and I am an honest 20 to 30 feet from the wall.
The steepness of the route was quite impressive to me, and it gave me a false sense of security. I thought that everything that fell, or most of it, would fall out from me. Sure, lots of the time this was the case, but not always. I would hear it coming and stop what I was doing and watch it come for me. I would stay quite still and calm, loosen my daisy chain, and then shift to the left or right in my aiders to let it go past. Jokingly I was referring to it as "dancing"! But my portaledge didn’t dance, and it took many hits. The worst was when a fist-sized rock went through my customized double wall, triple pole, rainfly system; through my puffy jacket as well, and came to a rest in the pile of sleeping bags inside. Luckily I was outside climbing the pitch above the ledge, as it landed where my head is when I sleep. More repair work ensued, a constant job task on a wall as pissed off as this one.
Eventually I started to get closer and closer to the top, with stacked pitches of A3+ to A4+ continuously lined up beneath me. Once I was three pitches from the top I knew I would be going for the summit soon. I had one last hard aid pitch, two easier pitches up the right trending ramp, and then I would be on the ridge. The virgin ridge. I had no idea what to expect up there, as you can’t see it from anywhere, at least you know one thing—it is shit rock up there. It changes from bomber granite to a nasty black shale, which in itself is solid, but quite shattered.
On day 33 I decided to push up the last aid pitch to the ramp. Before this, I had planned it out perfectly. I had an alpine pack packed with tech tools, crampons, puffy pants and jacket, bivy sack, goggles, gaiters, food and water, and all of the alpine goodies that go with the game. I didn’t take it with me on that day as I was planning only on fixing my rope up to the ramp and going for it the next day. But I made the ramp by 11 am, and decided to go up it to have a look at the ridge. The two pitches up the ramp went quickly enough, but from the summit ridge notch I made it to I couldn’t see the upper ridge, as a tower was in the way of my view. So I climbed this section out of the notch, the hardest part of the ridge, and was up on the summit ridge proper by 1 pm. I had nothing with me. No food or water, pack, or anything. Just a headlamp and my lead gear. A quick smile broke out on my face and I just went for it. Weather was warm and clear enough, but a bit windy. I made the summit notch proper, tagged the top, and went back into the notch for pics and to suck the water from a trickle in the back of a crack. Within a few minutes I was free soloing back down the way I came, rapping back down to the portaledge on the wall proper, making it back by 10 or 11 pm or so.
My dream had come true. No, I made it come true. I am not even going to try to relate how I felt actually doing what I had dreamt of for so long, but I am sure you have an idea. The next day saw one of my proudest pushes ever, rapping the whole wall in 18 hours in desperately windy conditions. On the second of many raps I lost some of my only good rope, having to cut it loose from behind a flake. So, about the ropes—I had my three cords, and just before I left the ground a fourth 60 m rope was donated to me by the Americans. It was not so useful on the way up, as most of the pitches were 70 meters, but it came in handy on the way down.
It went like this. I would tie all of my ropes together ends to ends. Then I would rap, down swing and aid, and do lots of tricks, connecting as many belays together as the length of my ropes let me. Then I would jug back up, and then bring down all of the bags at once, with a special rappel braking system I came up with. Then I would go back up the ropes again, and then pull them one by one as I made my way back down, again. I repeated this process, jugging the length of El Cap one and a half times that day, until I was on the last rappel to the ground. Another note—all of my ropes were completely screwed up by this point. Core shots like you wouldn’t believe. As the last rope on the last rappel was being abused for the last time, it broke. A sick crack is what I heard, and I then I dropped. Luckily after six feet of terror, the belay device stopped me. I looked up to see 2 meters of exposed core looking me in the face. Then I smelled it. The overheated ATC was burning the core strands through one by one; as they can't take the heat like the sheath can. They started to go. I desperately looked for my knife to cut the load loose, but couldn’t locate it fast enough on the back of my harness because of all the shit on my harness. So I did all I could do, and started to let the atc strip its way down the core, bunching the sheath up under it as it went. By doing this, the burning of the core was distributed, and eventually it wasn’t burning any more. But none of the bunched up sheath would pass through the device, so I cut off my belay loop, and continued down on just the Grigri.
I made the ground a few minutes later, thinking light thoughts on the way down with the ridicously heavy load on my system, and let out a big monkey call when my boots made contact with the glacier. Oh my god, I did it, and lived through it!
Unfortunately I had to leave this rope on the route with all of the booty of the belay and a new dragonfly stove sitting next to the belay. I have been beating myself up since about this, as I really despise leaving this junk rope on the mountain. All of my friends here convinced me not to go up it to clean it off, but I am very sad that this perfect ascent left behind a rope on the wall. It is not on the line of ascent and I can't climb back up to it. I hope the winter storms sweep it off the slab, and I owe you some beers if you repeat the route and can remove it.
A big thanks goes out to the American Alpine Club for their help on this climb through a Lyman Spitzer climbing grant, and to Black Diamond, Patagonia clothing, BlueWater ropes, Yates, and Cascade Designs/MSR for their help to make this fantasy of mine into reality.
— Dave Turner