An Expedition to Patagonia
A story by Jason Kruk
I tossed and turned, my mind racing, a knot twisting itself tighter in my stomach. I was shifting back and forth trying to get comfortable on the hard granite boulder, disturbing the rest of Hayden, the body shivering beside me in our specially made, two person bivy sack.
My sleep was being disturbed by one singular fear - the fear of failure. We were bivied below the Supercanaleta route (WI4- 5.10 M5, 1600m) on the mighty Cerro Fitz Roy. A little less than a week prior, Hayden and I spent a stressful twelve hours rappelling and reversing the route through the night just a few pitches shy of the end of the technical climbing and the summit ridge. Still fresh in my memory was my experience on this very mountain two seasons prior: Will Stanhope and I spent a frigid, sleepless night bivied on the North Pillar. I spent the long night sick, throwing up beside Will. At dawn we bailed.
My expedition to Patagonia this year wasn’t exactly going to plan. I had already put time into this range, establishing one new route and two first free ascents during the 2008 season with Will. This year I was hoping to build on that success and establish another long rock freeclimb. I brought along the two best team mates I could think of for the job - the talented Americans Jon Gleason and Matt Segal. I was confident, given a decent weather window, we could achieve our goal. The problem was it had been snowing continually for the past month and a half we were here and the mountains were coated in snow and rime ice. Wearing rock shoes up there was certainly out of the question. Matt went home and Jon wanted nothing to do with the ice and mixed routes that were now in condition.
Luckily, 19-year-old Hayden Kennedy from Carbondale, Colorado was keen to salvage the end of this poor season with me. We chose the biggest route we thought was possible in current conditions, the Supercanaleta on the famous Fitz. Hayden is an extremely motivated and talented climber, having redpointed 5.14+ sport climbs as well as hard freeclimbs in Yosemite. Although a relatively new ice climber, he was a natural, climbing technical mixed terrain efficiently and simulclimbing confidently on our first attempt. Despite the large amount of rime ice coating the rock and making for tricky conditions, we climbed very quickly to near the end of the route. This is where things started to fall apart. Lost in the rime, I tried to do battle with a particularly gnarly mushroom of overhanging snow on the ridgetop. With no way to get through and no options presenting themselves to us, we reversed the pitch, searching desperately for the line amongst the rime ice. We spent about 6 hours climbing up and down, left and right, trying every conceivable variation to no avail. With no food or water left, we had no choice but to bail.
Now we were back, Hayden extended his plane ticket to give the route one last try. The alarm was set to go off at 2:00am, only minutes away, and I hadn’t slept at all. I was scared, but not of the climbing. I was scared of failing. Again. What if we still couldn’t force a way through the rime? Rarely do I let myself get worked up about a climb, but I couldn’t help feeling cursed by this mountain. A beautiful and iconic peak in the world of alpinism, a mountain I had dreamt of climbing since I was ten years old. I hadn’t realized before now how haunted by failure I’d let myself become. More, ‘what ifs’ raced through my mind. This go around we decided to leave behind our second rope, intent on summiting and rappelling down the shorter Franco-Argentine route on the other side of the mountain. Climbing a big mountain route with only one rope would be super committing, and rappelling back down the Supercanaleta if we failed again would be a total nightmare.
The alarm rang. We wriggled out of our bivy sack, stiff from the cold. We brewed up mostly in silence and I nervously packed my bag. Everything was coming up and over the mountain with us as we would be hiking out the opposite valley - hopefully.
The first 1000 meters of the route climbs the couloir proper up to grade AI3. The ice seemed never ending as Hayden and I soloed one behind the other with our headlamps illuminating our own little world alone on Fitz Roy. Climbing this section in daylight would surely be harder, you kick and swing with a little more gusto when you can actually see the sobering amount of exposure between your legs.
We arrived at start of the 22 pitches of mixed climbing before dawn and wasted no time tying in and racking up. I led up the first pitch, a steep corner, by headlamp as it slowly became light around us. Now fully aware how deep into Fitz Roy we were, nervous excitement quickened my pace. Before long I was drytooling across the vertical righthand wall to connect with a thin smear of ice that led to the top of the pitch.
Above this pitch we started simulclimbing. I took the lead and swung into the waterfall pitch at high speed. The ice soon became less steep and I started running in a rythmic swing-kick. Instantly, I was breathing hard. Hypoxic and gasping for breath, I came upon Frank, the body of a dead climber frozen into the ice. I slowed my pace slightly, having been confronted face-to-face with the outcome of a mistake in this situation. The route traverses right, up amazing ice runnels and mixed grooves, and here Hayden took over the lead. Still simulclimbing, slower now on thinner technical climbing. I worked to get perfect tool-sticks and torqued my crampons into the cracks hard, trying to be absolutely bomber following behind Hayden without a belay. The upper pitches along the ridge were still rimed-up, but crack systems appeared that we hadn’t seen before, easing the difficulty significantly.
Before long we were at our previous highpoint. Looking up, we spotted the line instantly. Warming temperatures had melted the overhanging snow and the way through was clear. Hayden grunted up the ‘5.10 off-width pitch’ in crampons, using his tools to excavate through the remaining rime near the top. The last two pitches were amazing granite mixed climbing and soon we were on the summit ridge. My excitement thinking we had it ‘in the bag’ was cut short by the realization that the fun part was now over, and we still had to get down. The summit of Fitz Roy is an intimidating place to be with only one rope.
On top, Hayden and I hugged and screamed into the wind. We had just sent the route in 11 hours ‘schrund to summit! We lingered for a couple minutes and then started to descend. We had very little margin for error on this notoriously tricky descent, but with key beta from our friends Neil and Joel, we nailed every one of the 30-plus rappels. Five or six hours later I rapped over the bergschrund just as it was getting dark. Touching down on the glacier I dug my headamp out of my pack and waited for Hayden. We were elated to climb up and over the mountain in the light of day. Our stove and bivy gear unused.
Back in town the next day, sipping a Qulimes alone in quiet reflection, I felt relieved. We put so much pressure on ourselves in this sport. In failure, it is easy to fall apart - or worse. For longevity, one must approach the mountains with a sense of detachment. I am reminded of advice from a good friend and mentor, Squamish guide Colin Moorhead: You gotta care, but not care... Of course, at the time he was giving us advice on women, but I think it applies well to the alpine game.
For more photos and accounts of other routes we did during the season, visit jasonkruk.net/blog