The Real Deal: an ascent of the Cassarotto Pillar on Fitz Roy
In January 2008, Black Diamond grassroots athlete Jesse Huey partnered with Toby Grohne to make an ascent of the famed Cassarotto Pillar on Patagonia’s Fitz Roy. Near midway on the climb, Huey and Grohne got off route and unknowingly climbed a six-pitch variation to the Pillar, and humorously dubbed their variant Gringos Perdidos (Lost Gringos). Huey scored near-perfect weather during his two-month stay in Patagonia and managed to pull of a host of ascents including, the Whillans Route on Aguja Poincenot (with Dylan Johnson) and a first ascent of Last Gringos Standing on Aguja St. Exupery (with Grohne). Below is Grohne’s report of their adventure on the Cassarotto Pillar.
I’ve been in Chalten for 12 hours, but I’m packed and ready to head out. After an excruciating three days of travel, I arrive to find a note from Jesse that the weather window was finally coming, and that I should hurry to join him at Paso Superior. I’m immediately taken in by a group of Poles that have become friends with Jesse, and they offer that we should approach together since they want to try the Franco-Argentine on Fitz Roy. With no map or topos—or even the time to glance at one—I shoulder my pack loaded with personal gear and five days of food and blindly follow my new Polish friends through town to the trailhead.
Five hours and 10 miles later, we’re at a crossroads. Voytek and I have gotten separated from his partners, and we don’t know whether they’re ahead or behind. It’s getting late and they have Voytek’s bivy gear, so he has to find them. He is confident that they have fallen behind us, so he decides that he must descend an hour or so back to Rio Blanco to find them. The glacier ahead is wet and softened by the late day sun, so I’m not excited about the idea of negotiating the remaining three hours to find Jesse at the caves of Paso, likely after dark. Luckily, as we stand around deliberating, I see a lone maniac running solo, knee-deep through the icefall, heading our direction. It takes me 10 seconds to recognize the pace of Jesse from a mile away, and we wait for him to arrive. Typical of Jesse, the first words out of his mouth are: “38 minutes.”
After descending to spend that night back in the gorgeous bolsas of Rio Blanco, and another day to arrive and organize at Paso Superior, we’re off towards the Casarotto Pillar of Fitz Roy, more than 5000 feet of unbelievable mixed snow, ice and rock climbing. We wake up early to blowing snow, but, after sleeping in for awhile, decide to take off anyway, counting on the window opening as we go. However, barely out of camp it dawns on us that we feel like a mobile junk show heading into the storm, so we head back to spend the day trying again to shed every ounce we can, and get to where we feel organized and properly prepped.
The following morning we again depart our snow cave at 4:30 a.m., this time 10 pounds lighter and slightly recovered from my travel mayhem. We have decided not to carry bivy gear, even though we intend to spend the night out, which are well below freezing at the time. Instead we carry only our DAS parkas, micropuff pants, and aluminum space blankets. We carry the Jetboil stove, deciding to stop to brew a few times rather than carry more water weight. We also feel a margin of safety from the stove, especially without sleeping bags. We have only 10 Powerbars, 44 GUs, a fistful of Emergen-C and two small sausages.
We cross the ‘schrund at about 5:00 a.m., and I take off on the first of three large blocks. I short fix the 1000-foot mixed gully, with Jesse jugging behind with Porky the pack. The mixed climbing is much more difficult than we expected, and it ends up taking five to six hours to complete. When we arrive at the chockstone at the base of the pillar, we stop to brew up, dry clothes, and trade mixed gear for the free rack. After a leisurely hour brewing in the sun, I take off again leading up the pillar, following the original relics of Casarotto’s 1979 ascent. Looking up the pillar, we are so stoked by the most spectacular chunk of free-climbable stone we’ve ever seen. Splitter systems slice through the El Cap-sized chunk of granite, leading our eyes to the terrifying view of the rimed-up upper systems that lead to the summit. We pass cool relics of Casarotto’s time: wooden pegs pounded into cracks… a leather and canvas backpack frozen to a ledge.
After three more pitches I pass the lead to Jesse, and he powers up perfect crack systems, linking things together by aesthetic choice. When I arrived in Patagonia, Jesse had hurried me up to Paso with claims that he had “everything” up there. That “everything” ended up being a combination of his boundless pent up psyche, a rack with about six cams that didn’t work, ONE Clif bar and a Euro topo that was absolutely worthless. The one-page topo was merely a single straight line up a drawn image of the pillar that didn’t indicate features whatsoever, such as corners, roofs, etc. The topo gave us the impression that the Kearney/Knight variation climbed on the right side of the pillar, to the right of the obvious proboscis, so that is the way we trended, simply following the nicest line. As it turns out both the original line and the Kearney/Knight climb to the left side of the pillar, so we ended up putting in a new 500-meter variation to the right of Chimmichurri and Tortas Fritas. We followed beautiful hand and finger cracks to a broken ledge system that wraps around to the west, allowing access to the massive gully of the Polish Route. Here we decided to stop for a few hours before dark, to allow ourselves time to create as good a bivy as possible with our lack of gear.
After a cold night, requiring my first ever man-spoon, Jesse launched up gorgeous splitter corners, leading free in 25-degree temps in his DAS parka with hood cinched while suffering several episodes of the screaming barfies. The northwest edge of the pillar forms an arête-like ridge with awesome exposure, which we followed in six or seven more pitches to reach the top of the pillar itself. The technical crux of the route came in this section in the form of a gorgeous right-facing corner, wildly exposed on the ridge, requiring steep fists and hand/fist stacks that Jesse styled in his DAS with the Speed pack on!
Deciding to rappel into the notch was the most far out and committed either of us had ever felt. At this point, 3500 feet off the deck, we had two core shots in our lead line and had only a five-mil tech line in the pack for rappelling. Since we had been on new ground, we had not seen a fixed anchor in a couple thousand feet, and we certainly didn’t want to start leaving our rack on the first attempt of a two-month trip. However, the “blue-sky storm” was on us, with sustained 30- to 40-mph winds, with gusts probably exceeding 60. Even more intimidating was the rime that now covered everything, some roofs holding beards of rime five or six feet long. The most terrifying moment for me came as I realized that Jesse had both the rack and the lead line as he rapped off a single stand of five-mil fixed on something unknown under the ice. Leaning back to counterweight Jesse’s rappel into the notch, I became very aware of how impossibly far away the glacier was now and how much it would suck to sit here and starve for a week if the five-mil failed.
Reaching the notch, we both verbalized that we felt like we were realizing the “real deal” for the first times in our careers. All the days on El Cap, Canadian Rockies ice climbing, even routes in Alaska or Peru, suddenly felt like light training days. As I left the belay in 50-mph gusts, rock shoes on my feet and ice tools in hand, I got my turn with the screaming barfies. As the sun set, we continued on towards darkness, linking deceptive but high-quality features, often having to excavate icy cracks with ice tools before free climbing. After about five more pitches of short fixing, I traded rock shoes for boots and crampons, and we shortly switched over to simul-climbing. The final 300 meters went quickly in the dark, and suddenly we were sitting on the summit of Fitz Roy at 1 a.m.
For the last half-day, we were racing the predicted storm that everyone was interpreting from the web forecasts. Now on the summit, in the middle of the night, things don’t look so bad. We decide to sprawl out directly on the summit to bivy until daylight in order to facilitate our descent. We endure by cuddling Nalgene’s of near boiling water held close to our stomachs. The descent is a heinous sting in the tail, greatly complicated by the fact that we have six inches of core open in a couple places on our lead line and a five-mil tag line. The ropes get stuck several times on the descent, one time actually requiring Jesse to jug the damaged line up a severe overhang to retrieve. This is the closest we have come to angry argument in our partnership, with me refusing to be the jugging bitch after being just that over the 1500 feet of perfect 5.10 cracks Jesse got to lead on the pillar. Two pitches later we’re buds again, and 1500 feet later we step over the massive ‘schrund into waist-deep wet snow. Five days after arriving in Chalten, I arrive back at Paso Superior, completely soaking wet but proud as hell.