As soon as Ben Gilmore and I arrived in El Chalten, the final bus stop for climbers traveling to the Fitz Roy/Cerro Torre group, we began to hear war stories from other climbers. There had been a lot of accidents.
A climber from Spain rapped off the end of his lines and fell 30 meters, breaking the end of his femur. He was cleaning his fixed lines after an ascent of Royal Flush [Grade VI, 5.12c, 44 pitches, East Face of Fitz Roy]. Several climbers from various expeditions came together and spent a long day getting him down.
A woman was almost crushed in a snow cave at the Paso when a huge boulder fell from the cliff above. Two Argentineans dug her out. Luckily, she only suffered a broken arm. The famous German climber Bernd Arnold got blown over by the wind while he had his feet between two rocks near Lago de Los Thres and broke his ankle. A climber in the Casarotto gully was hit by some ice, which ended his trip. Additionally, the weather had been poor and everyone was in a foul mood. Ben and I tried to keep our smiles on as we got our gear up to Rio Blanco, the main Base Camp for attempts of Fitz from the east side.
As we hiked up carrying only light daypacks, I reflected on my last trip to Patagonia. Last year I had arrived at El Chalten partnerless. Three Americans took me under their wings and showed me the ropes. After watching me do double 80-pound carries one day, they took me aside and said, “Any fool can suffer, Brady.”
Ben and I got horses this time. Another huge labor savings came when we inherited a spacious snow cave at Paso Superior, the high camp for most climbs on the east side of the Fitz Roy group. We did a few carries between Rio Blanco and the Paso and were quickly installed. At this point, we got our first view of the route. The North Pillar of Fitz Roy rose up 4500 feet from its base, caked with snow and ice. It looked hopeless. Surely we were fooling ourselves thinking we had any chance of climbing it! Beginning to feel defeated by the climb before we had even started, we tried not to think about it too much. One step at a time.
Several days after we arrived, the weather deteriorated, bringing heavy snow and wind. Two French climbers went up to the Paso during that time and very nearly got swept away by an avalanche. They lost a bag of gear while riding a one-meter slab. Ben and I stayed down. The snow soon stopped and enough sun came through to stabilize the snow slopes.
The route we chose followed a huge dihedral that splits the north face of the North Pillar (between the Casarotto Route and the Polish route, “Devil’s Diedro”) which was attempted by an American team last year. We went up and fixed eight pitches from February 8-10, reaching the American high point from last year at pitch seven. After an exciting ice overhang at the bergschrund, the climbing was free and easy, but very snowy and icy, so the going was slow.
I kicked steps for 10 meters in my rockshoes on one pitch. Ugh. It snowed much of the time. Even though low on the climb the huge dihedral blocked most of the wind, belaying was a chilly chore. Ben got the first pitch above the old high point.
He started out by taking a factor-two daisy chain fall on the anchor when a cam blew out. His fall jerked me into the wall as I watched him pass me on the way down. He finished the pitch, calling it A2+, but he’s a horrible sandbagger and agreed to A3 later. We went back down to camp after that.
For some curious reason, my right hand started hurting, and over the next few days the back swelled up. My tendon squeaked audibly when I raised my index finger. I was pretty sure the trip was over for me. Ben ended up finding a partner and tried the Red Pillar on Aguja Mermoz (aka Vela y Viento) to the north of Fitz Roy, while I iced my hand and read books, pretty depressed. I went up to high camp with my stuff a day later, just to see how it would go.
After spending a day fraught with language difficulties and route finding on Aguja Mermoz, Ben was understandably in poor spirits. My hand was pretty much the same, but we organized our gear in our snow cave and decided to continue fixing rope.
The next morning I led an A3 pitch that took us over a roof and out of the dihedral. I took a short daisy chain fall early in the pitch, then an eight-meter whipper when the edge of the crack I was in blew out. I was fine, but went a little slower after that.
Ben led another pitch and we found a fantastic bivy site. A huge flake, separated from the wall, was filled in behind, providing a level surface surrounded by rock walls on all sides. My hand felt okay, so we went down and returned the next afternoon with bivy gear and food for three nights.
We spent a night on top of our lines, and then on February 19, blasted upward. We ran into the old Casarotto line after two more pitches, which was a little bit of a bummer, but it was the best line to take, so we took it. We found that the Casarotto Route has a lot of wide cracks. Ben did a great job on a poorly protected 5.10 off-width flare. Yuck!
We wondered at Casarotto’s feat, as he had soloed the route in 1979, long before camming devices had become “mandatory” gear for off-width cracks. We also wondered at all the junk he left on the route.
Seconding on jugs with a huge pack sucked, but it was a great day. Many pitches included stunning hand cracks. The sun shined all day; there was no wind. We drank meltwater through our blow tube at belays and laughed at our good fortune.
Climbing until midnight, we finally reached the top of the North Pillar. We chopped ledges in some ice bulges for our bivy. Full moon, still no wind. Gazing out over the moonlit landscape, I knew we were in the midst of a fair weather spell that Patagonia climbers dream about.
The next morning we rapped into the notch and looked up at the final headwall. It wasn’t too hard to see why some parties turn back. The face looked terribly steep, with rime ice bulges and hanging ice falls and generally scary looking gnarliness everywhere.
The sun was out in force, so the ice was beginning to fall. Our closest call came on the first pitch out of the notch, when the crack system we had been on just 10 minutes before got hammered by ice fall. Whew.
We followed wide yet relatively moderate cracks for four pitches, then wandered over ice, snow, rock, and rushing waterfalls to the top. We summited at 6pm. After a short food and photo break, we descended the Franco-Argentine Route, partly so we could claim a traverse of the peak, but mostly because I knew the route from last year and rapping the North Pillar would have been a nightmare.
We found the first anchor by following tracks left in the snow by another party. Even though I’d rappelled the same route the year before, it would have been very difficult to find without the tracks. The southern slope of the summit is a sea of snow, ice, and rock devoid of any defining feature. After a relatively pleasant evening of rappelling, we spent a night at the notch on the south side (the bretcha) and finished rappelling the next morning.
My hand was puffed up pretty bad by then, the knuckles turned to dimples. Ben pulled the ropes on the rappels while I watched, idly nursing my hand.
We went to our base camp and crashed hard. The next morning at 9am a French climber we’d met several days before woke us up, saying his partner had broken his ankle while coming down the headwall just below the Paso (our high camp, about three to four hours above us). Seems he neglected to put on his crampons for the icy descent.
We gathered our gear and headed up the rescue, which took all day. After that we were exhausted, but even more gratified to have had the luck to complete such an outstanding route and return unscathed.
Our route is a new variation to the Casarotto Route, and we made the fifth ascent of Fitz Roy via the North Pillar. We named our route the “Diedro Directo” variation to the Casarotto (5.10, A3, 32 pitches), opening 12 new pitches of climbing, up to 5.9 and A3.
We weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the spell of good weather. During the same period, Kevin Thaw and partner made the first all-free, alpine-style ascent of the Czech route on the west side of Fitz Roy. Americans Nate Martin and Tim O’Neill summitted Cerro Torre (with the summit rime ice mushroom) via the Compressor Route. They also did an alpine-style, all-free first ascent on the northwest face of Cerro Stanhardt, 19 pitches, 5.11 WI5 M4, in only 12 hours. Que fuerte!
Mick Pointon and Leigh Mcginely of Great Britain climbed the Ferrari Route on Cerro Torre from the ice cap. Leigh went snow blind in the descent, thinking he had lost his sunglasses, when in fact they were still in his pack! This year, February was the month to be in Patagonia.
— Brady Robinson, MountainZone.com Correspondent
Originally posted on MountainZone.com, archive at https://web.archive.org/web/20010418172929/http://climb.mountainzone.com/2000/fitzroy/html/index.html