This is a guest blog I wrote for Chicks with Picks after my trip to Patagonia in December 2011. It can also be found in its original published form on the Chicks with Picks website.
As someone who is completely in love with climbing and mountaineering, when my partner Luke suggests a trip to Patagonia, even though I have to take out a loan to go there, I can’t turn it down. We head there with low expectations. I expect the weather to be pretty bad, so to keep disappointment at bay, I try not to imagine too many great successes. My imagination gets the best of me.
For some reason, I expect rain, but in reality what keeps people from climbing is the wind. When we first arrive in El Chalten, I walk down the street looking for a hostel as Luke waits with our enormous bags full of expedition gear. The wind is blowing so hard that I can’t walk a straight line.
In a few short days, a weather window arrives with sunny calm skies, and we eagerly head towards the hills. The approaches are long and gorgeous. The first time up there about kills me. I am seeing stars as I carry my humongous pack up the steep and rocky hike toward Lago de los Tres in hot sunshine. I look up the glacier towards Paso Superior and think I’ll never make it. We continue on. Slowly, I put one gore-texed foot in front of the other, marching my way up the glacier in steps kicked by a party before us. I stop noticing the blisters on my heels. My heavy pack melts into my shoulders. I stop noticing the pain and just move.
When we arrive at Paso there are three other parties planning on sleeping there and climbing Fitz Roy the next day. We have our sights on Poincenot. I feel confident. An Adidas sponsored Austrian gives us beta on our chosen route. He says the entrance snow ramp is tricky and scary, but “you will do it.” I like his confidence.
At 3 a.m. the next morning we realize we have made a terrible mistake and have not brought enough fuel. There is no realistic way we can climb for 20+ hours without water. We hike back down, dejected.
In El Chalten we are joined by Jason, our third, and we make plans to try Poincenot again when the weather gets better. Each time hiking up to Paso Superior feels shorter. Either my pack is getting lighter or I am getting faster. On our way up we run into some skiers who tell us in broken English that they don’t think the weather looks so good for the next day. “No Poincenot, try Guillamet.” We take their advice.
We cross the glacier in the dark, watching the sun rise. Jason takes the lead and climbs over the first schrund. We simul-climb the vertical snow pitch towards the base of the Amy Couloir as it starts snowing gently down on us. We climb excellent ice in the couloir, but when we reach the notch below the rock step, we decide not to summit because of the weather. It’s snowing harder. It has turned into a white-out and I begin to wonder how we are going to make it back across the glacier to our snow cave. We rappel back down and thankfully can still see our footprints disappearing into the whiteness beyond. Roping up, we start to cross the glacier even though we can’t see to the other side.
I squint in to the whiteness, desperately looking for a dark silhouette of rock in front of me. No matter how hard I look, nothing appears. I keep glancing over my shoulder at the wall of rock behind me that is slowly being enveloped by the whiteness. In a few moments I won’t be able to see anything at all. No landmarks, just white. We will be blind and lost in the middle of a crevasse field. I stifle my panic. To avoid the hopeless search for rock in front of me, I start scanning the snow for our earlier footprints, which have all but disappeared. Luke is on the rope in front of me, carefully scraping his ice tool back and forth in order to feel their icy outlines. I resume my squinting search for the rock face in front of us. “Hey guys, I think I see a dark outline, straight ahead.” Jason calls from behind. I let a whoosh of air out of my lungs as my eyes find the same spot in the blurry fog. We continue our roped trek across the snow, now towards hope. When we arrive, I rejoice. I never thought I’d be so happy to see a snow cave in my life.
As I lay in the snow cave that night, irrational thoughts buzz through my mind. What if the snow cave collapses on us? What if I get cold at night and can’t get warm again? What if I get wet? What if the storm doesn’t clear and we are stuck up here without food? What if it avalanches on us as we hike down the glacier? Even though I am exhausted, I lay there restlessly. I can’t come up with a single peaceful thought to latch onto to ease me into sleep. I start repeating the words warm….rest….warm….rest. Eventually I drift off. For no discernible reason I dream of a girl I knew years ago in high school and her two young children whom I have never met.
Back at the cabin I sit at the table drinking gross coffee and eating Zopft, an amazing Swiss bread made by my new roommates that I like mainly because it is mostly butter. It’s the third day since we have come down from the mountains, uneventfully thank goodness, and the weather has been bad since. It looks to be bad for a few more. Three days of sitting and doing nothing except eat has made me restless. Now I am anxious to get out in the mountains again, with all the risk and uncertainty it involves. While in the snow cave I yearned for the steamy security of the cabin, and now I yearn for the cold, high peaks. What is wrong with me? This doesn’t seem sane. Is this the conundrum of every alpinist? Or is this a problem unique to me, as I mentally tackle my personal failures and self-doubt?
After three attempts up at Paso Superior, we get one more go of good weather before we leave. This time we head into the less snowy Torre drainage, which blows me away with the might of the peaks and the strangeness of the receding glacier. Crunching over the ice and rocks, I feel like I just walked into a Planet of the Apes movie. Sheer exhaustion and some doubts about loose rock make us turn around on our last climb. No send for us in Patagonia.
The day we leave El Chalten the wind is blowing so hard I cannot stand up straight in the street.
I’m not disappointed. I took the giant leap to come to this iconic place, I gave it my physical best, and I learned a great, humbling deal.
The US Customs Officer glares at me warily as I hand him my passport. I wait for him to ask me about my travels outside the States, but they never come. He barely looks over the document as he stamps my passport with a succinct thump and gripes “Why are you smiling? I can’t handle people who are always smiling.”