When I first showed up in El Chaltén, my ambitions were simple. I remember saying, “If I can just have one small moment up high on some pristine granite, hopefully in the sun, with a view of the mountains, I’ll leave happy.” The Chaltén massif has a strong reputation, and I had been warned. I anticipated wind and rain and super cold temperatures; I anticipated struggling to summit even via the shortest routes, even given the best of conditions. I anticipated a whole lot of festering in town. These mountains intimidated me, and I felt as though I barely had a right to climb them.
I was dissuaded by some friends, and persuaded by others:
Finally I decided to go, even if it just meant checking out the town, or possibly at the most climbing Guillaumet, one of the smaller peaks in the Fitz Roy massif. But from what I had picked up, these mountains were big, and mean, and too big and mean for me. So that was the attitude with which I showed up in Chaltén. That was the attitude with which I arrived to a town abuzz with talk of a 6-day weather window on the horizon, whispers of warm, dry rock, and a message from my partner Sarah inviting me over that evening to talk plans, start packing, and advising me to be prepared to head to the hills soon.
All of a sudden, my expectations were blown out of the water. Just days after my arrival Sarah and I sped up the Brenner-Moschioni route on Aguja Guillaumet, climbing it camp-to-camp in a leisurely eight hours. I climbed every pitch in a t-shirt. A T-SHIRT. The approach was simple and straightforward, the 6b (10c) pitches felt like easy 5.9, and the descent took less than an hour.
A day later Sarah and I, along with Sarah’s wonderful friend and Patagonia veteran Dörte Pietron, climbed the Argentine route on Aguja Mermoz. It was definitely more alpine, and definitely a longer day, but super fun and smooth and safe: another no-headlamps-needed camp-to-camp climb in awesome(-ish) weather and awesome style.
I was having the time of my life! The reality of my Patagonian experience compared to my expectations made me feel like the luckiest person in the world. I was so thankful, but now the possibilities seemed endless. My eyes were getting bigger.
We passed a few stormy days in Chaltén, and when the NOAA meteogram gods brought us another stellar window, Sarah and I headed into the Torre Valley with our sights set on Chiaro di Luna, a 20-pitch 6b+ (10d) on Aguja St. Exupery. I’m a sucker for long days on alpine rock, so Chiaro di Luna has been a dream climb since I first learned of it. Sarah had never done it either, and we were psyched!
The morning we approached was clear and crisp, and we were the first party at the base, arriving just in time to turn our headlamps off. As I started to flake ropes and prepared to belay Sarah on the first pitch, she hesitated.
“I’m having second thoughts about this. Chiaro di Luna is a really committing route, and I think we need to go do something shorter and less committing so that you can continue to practice the skills that you need to climb here safely. I just don’t think you’re ready. I have to keep reminding myself that you haven’t been climbing that long, and this is your first season here. Climbing in these mountains needs to have its proper progression – you need to build up a few seasons of climbing moderate, simple routes before trying to take on harder stuff. I’m sorry I didn’t say something sooner, but I just really don’t have a good feeling about this Jenny.”
I was totally caught off guard. I was humbled, I was confused, I was ashamed; I was super let down, and super sad. I thought we were partners, and now all of a sudden I felt like a student with my mentor. I wanted to climb Chiaro di Luna so badly, but here was Sarah, my bad-ass, experienced-in-Patagonia partner who I really like and really respect, saying she wasn’t comfortable climbing it with me. And so we went down. We descended and walked up the neighboring couloir to climb the short but fun Austríaca route on Aguja de l’S. Sarah graciously let me lead the whole thing, up and down, and we had a beautiful day in the sun, despite all of the emotions swimming around within me.
Oh the swimming emotions…am I really not ready for this route? What can I learn from this? Does Sarah just have a really low comfort level for climbing with less experienced partners? Or am I legitimately ignorant to dangers and unable to keep myself safe in these mountains? Is this really so different from routes I’ve climbed in the North Cascades or the Bugaboos? Would we not have crushed that route together? Does she know something I don’t know?
I know Sarah wasn’t telling me that she didn’t think I could climb 20 pitches of 5.10 rock. I know she was referring to everything else: all of the reasons why a Yosemite climber might come to Patagonia and feel slightly out of her element. The loose rock, the route finding, the sketchy rappelling, the remoteness, the iced-up cracks, the wind: all those things for which you don’t hope but must plan. Essentially all the elements that make Patagonia what it is, essentially what has given Sarah or anyone with experience in the Chaltén range a great deal of respect for the mountains.
The winds came for a few days and the crew hung out in Chaltén watching the materializing weather window on the meteogram. Sarah had left for Canada and my boyfriend Matt had arrived in town; we had one last chance to head out before it too was our time to leave. He was decompressing from a challenging expedition in Torres del Paine, and just wanted to have a fun romp in the mountains. Supportive as always, he pushed for climbing Chiaro di Luna with me, even though he had already climbed it a few seasons ago. So when the winds calmed, we headed back up valley to St. Exupery, along with our friends Quinn and Max. It was a beautiful day, and all the stars were aligned: we were both game, the rock was dry, the air was still, the company was good, and I even busted out the t-shirt for a pitch. I lead the first block of splitter cracks, planning to hand over the lead to Matt at the halfway point. However, once at the headwall, I had so much momentum and psyche, and with a simple “You’re crushing it Bear,” Matt encouraged me to just lead the entire climb. The whole day I felt like I was flying.
Rappelling down the peak, Matt was on high alert. There was a definite tension between us, as he was edgy with caution, and I was simply basking in the glory of an amazing day in Patagonia. On his previous descent from St. Exupery, he had helped another party out of an epic, rock-chopping-rope situation, and knew the potential dangers that existed. I practiced what I had learned with Sarah, tactics I had known before but never in such an imperative way: backing up every rappel for the first person, pulling ropes slowly, tossing ropes with strategy. But it was Matt who sighed with relief every time a rope pulled cleanly, and directed me in an “I mean business” kind of way to watch where my ropes were running when I rappelled. It was Matt who carried the weight of what we were doing, and I who carefreely followed the rules, not fully aware of what might go wrong if I didn’t. That question was still nagging inside of me, “Do they know something I don’t?”
A few days of ice cream, bouldering, running, and epic empanada-partying later, Matt and I left El Chaltén and headed out on a 72 hour trek back to the U.S. And so went my first season in the Patagonian Andes: three windows, four summits, all in less than three weeks. A whole lot of fun; I loved it. But the fact that I was extremely fortunate is not lost on me, with conditions and weather and luck, and I know that in the future I might discover a more…“Patagonian”…Patagonia.
And that’s why I should make it clear that I definitely respect Sarah’s decision to not climb St. Exupery that day. She voiced what she was feeling even when she knew it would disappoint, and that’s admirable in it’s own right. The fact that I lead all of Chiaro di Luna has nothing to do with the caution that she felt that morning. She knows what can go wrong, and is rightfully cautious and vigilant. I’ve experienced very few adverse conditions in the mountains, so perhaps I’m less on guard. I know I should credit some of my safety record to my decision-making abilities, but I can also surely say that I don’t know Patagonia’s true nature, not after my mild rookie season.
Yet I know that day is coming – that day when the winds are 50mph, or that descent when the ropes get stuck, or that crack that’s just too full of ice. That day when I’m leading in a down puffy with a 20-pound pack, that day when I climb an entire route without putting on my rock shoes because of ice and snow, or that day when my headlamp actually does come in handy. I learned a lot this season, and maybe it’ll be next season when I learn why. Maybe it’ll come my sophomore year, or my junior, but for now… I’m still fresh. I guess they call ‘em freshmen for a reason.