The WindowWednesday, September 7, 2016
Story: Andy Anderson - Photos and Video: 3 Strings Productions
The wind spackles rain drops against the windows and the leafy bushes outside dramatically contort in unison under the strong gusts.
“Have you checked the weather?”
“Yea, for sure,” Luke says.
“What do you think?” I ask, looking over his shoulder at the meteogram.
Sam, Luke and I convened in El Chaltén in early January, and after 12 days of waiting, the latest forecast shows a brief yet seemingly climbable window. Over the past two weeks, asking around for the latest weather predictions has become more habitual than brushing my teeth.
“Well, it’s definitely not rock-shoes-and-no-socks up there,” he says. “But Wednesday could be good.”
We’ve all come to Patagonia by choice, yet we’re held at the mercy of the wind and storms. Lucky for us, hanging out in the touristy hamlet of El Chaltén is decidedly more enjoyable than “tent time” on a normal expedition—we eat and drink in warm, cozy restaurants, we socialize with new and old friends, we weave through camera-toting sightseers on trail runs and clamber on the countless boulders strewn around town. As recently as ten years ago, climbers would arrive in town and immediately pack huge loads to primitive advanced camps scattered throughout the forested upper glacial valleys. These primitive outposts of wooden shacks and tents served as the primary staging points for many legendary first ascents. At the time, waiting for the weather entailed little more than sitting around until the sky turned blue and the winds subsided.
These days, the life of a Chalténese alpinist is dictated by the NOAA meteogram: multidirectional arrows and EKG-like red lines, issued four times a day at two and eight. An incomprehensible stack of graphs and charts to the uninitiated, these forecasts deal the climbing community its cards for the coming days, and happiness is defined as strings of zeros (no wind) and unwavering plateaus of high pressure indicating an impending weather window. Continued low pressure, high winds and precipitation signal more bouldering sessions and late nights swapping tall tales.
We’re not the only ones struggling with the weather. Tourists in neon ponchos stagger down the street, hunched against the down-valley gales. When it’s not storming, it’s much too windy. And when it’s not windy…well, it always seems to be windy. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a place where technical outerwear is regularly required to go out to eat.
After a string of legendary seasons, heavy storms have left the range coated in rime and snow. Most stretches of climbable weather have been so short they’ve been referred to as ventanitas—little windows. One of these ventanitas is now upon us, and our unbridled newbie optimism has us packing up in a hurry.
Getting up to the Piedra Negra basecamp involves a short cab ride out of town and a scenic ramble along the Rio Electrico, followed shortly thereafter by an ass-kicking 3000-foot vertical slog known as Polish Hill. The stiff breeze and spitting rain down in the river valley quickly turns to gale-force winds and horizontal snow as we crest the last hump into camp. I’ve been fighting a cold since my arrival in Chaltén, and the full-on winter conditions don’t bolster my hopes for a quick recovery. A dozen tents speckle the snow-drifted talus, and Luke goes to work setting up the I-Tent as Sam and I bust out ice tools and a borrowed shovel to start excavating snow blocks. We spend the better part of two hours cutting blocks and constructing fortress-style wind walls before diving into the tent, where Luke has hot soup and a bag of empanadas waiting. The storm rages outside, but we hunker down for an attempt at sleep, trusting that the forecast will prove true. Four hours later, we shoulder our packs under a star-studded sky and start kicking our way up wind-buffed neve to Paso Guillaumet.This kind of faith in the weather is a relatively new convention, and advancements in forecasting technology have been primarily responsible for changing the way climbers approach a Patagonian climbing trip. The late Bean Bowers, an American alpinist who devoted much of his climbing life to this part of the world, was one of the first to begin consulting meteorologists and learning how to interpret complex weather models for the sake of climbing here. As weather forecasting became more detailed and accessible for this part of the world, Bean and others gradually shifted the style of a Patagonian expedition from uninformed festering in advanced camps to more calculated excursions based out of El Chaltén. The effects are obvious—climbers refer to any trip into the mountains as a “mission,” and the geographical coordinates of Cerro Torre, -49.3, -73.1, the main reference point for most forecasts, are likely better known around here than a lot of people’s childhood phone numbers.
For Luke, Sam and me, the mild frustration of waiting nearly two weeks to head into the mountains instantly dissipates once we crest the pass, when the soft blue and pink hues on the mountains invigorate us all. A blanket of new snow cleanly coats the tumbling glacier that falls away to the Chaltén valley, and the azure lakes below us shimmer gold in the early-morning light. Hooting and hollering, we quickly rally past a group of stoic German climbers, toward the base of our route. After swimming our way up to the bergschrund crossing, we swing up through the ice and neve couloir, finding rock protection on the sidewalls to supplement a few mediocre ice screws. Six pitches of easy but always engaging climbing lead us to a short mixed step and the ridgeline. By late morning we’re un-roped and booting the final 100 meters to the spine-like crest of Aguja Guillaumet. With the ice cap out to the west and the endless lakes and plains of the Patagonian high desert stretching to the east, we soak up the view, all the while scanning the jagged massif for bigger and bolder climbs to tackle.
Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, Mermoz, Poincenot, Egger, St. Exupéry, Stanhardt. Many lifetimes of unclimbed and unimagined lines and enchainments. These are the plums we all came to pick, burned in our memories by the pages of magazines and animated campfire stories. Punctuated fangs of granite soaring above the Patagonian ice cap, these peaks are the stuff alpine dreams are made of—clean, aesthetic and steep, with no easy way off. While local amenities and the proliferation of route info have given the climbing a less-committing, Chamonix-esque appearance from the outside, the long approaches, complex terrain and a near-complete lack of high-angle rescue make any trip into the range a serious endeavor.
The bad weather, the waiting, the high rate of failure—these factors can be enough to deflate even the stoutest of spirits. But to the dedicated cadre of climbers who magnetically return season after season in pursuit of the next window, these are small prices to pay for what waits behind the clouds.
With swollen feet, cramped legs and enormous smiles, we stagger into town late that evening, barely stopping to drop our packs and shower before devouring a gluttonous steak dinner and more than one bottle of Argentinean red wine. Later, out on the streets in search of litros of beer, we run into a group of friends who had also been out climbing. After exchanging hyperbolic details and energetic high-fives, we all glance around, knowing what’s already on everyone’s mind. A toothy grin stretches across one friend’s sunburned face.
“Has anyone checked the forecast?”