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Ancient and Modern Drama, Writ Large on Cerro Torre, Patagonia

We stood utterly alone in a moonscape of tumbled gray rocks left behind by the last Patagonian glaciation, the view of the full Chalten massif stretched before us – the best view in the house.   Filling our field of view were the striking pinnacles of Cerro Torre (3102m) with its ever-present cap of rime ice[1], and its companions Torre Egger (2900m) and Cerro Standhardt (2800m).    Five kilometers to the northeast was the E-shaped chain of needles and peaks dominated by Monte Fitzroy, 3405m, flanked by its cadre of internationally named companion spires:  Guillaumet (2539m), Poincenot (2003m), Saint Exupery (2680m).  Between and beyond the peaks and spires was ice – vast expanses of ice extending valley-ward from the South Patagonian Icefield, the fourth largest in the world.  A mind-blowing sight even for one used to the tall volcanic peaks, rocky crags and glaciers of the U.S. West where I’d spent so many years of my trekking life.

The Fitzroy massif – Cerro Torre, Laguna Torre, Fitzroy

We were on Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, a little rockpile in a stunning spot at the end of a steep day trail out of the little climber’s boomtown of El Chalten on the eastern flanks of the southern Patagonian Andes.    Three days earlier our little trekking party of 4 had arrived in Chalten at the start of a rare spate of bluebird weather, and in the intervening days had backpacked the massif to the foot of Monte Fitzroy, past Cerro Torre and it’s namesake Laguna, and back to Chalten through the excellent system of trails and camps under the dramatic C-shaped Chalten massif.   In a truly miraculous gift from the Gods, we had been granted spectacular sunrises from the Miradors (lookouts) at the base of both Monte Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, the dawn glow first catching the tips of the spires in salmon pink, descending and brightening to dramatic orange, and reflecting in the waters of little glacial lakes below.




Cerro Torre (Lynne McCullough photo)









Now, from the top of the humble little Loma we turned slowly, soaking in the panorama.  Filling more than half of our field of view, from southwest to northeast, the massive ice sheet enfolding the Andean peaks and pinnacles, anchored by Cerro Torre and Monte FitzRoy.   To our southwest was the enticingly named Paseo de Viento, “Windy Pass”, offering a way to trek onto the ice sheet and all the way around the back of the massif – but beyond the limits of our itinerary (and very likely our weather luck!).   To the northwest, Cerro Torre and its companions stood sentinel over Glaciar Torre and Glaciar Grande, which flowed from the ice sheet around the granite pinnacles to dip their toes into little Laguna Torre which had reflected our sunrise early the morning before.  Due east was the dramatic fin of Fitzroy itself, the silver spot of Laguna Capri, and below them to the southeast, the wide valley of Rio de las Vueltas (translated – really! – Winding River).  On the banks of the river sat the little town of El Chalten, and to its south, vast Lago Viedma stretched far east into the steppe and west to touch the icefield through its namesake Glaciar Viedma.

Loma del Pliegue Tombado

Looking southeast over Lago Viedma

The multiple moraines that we could see from our vantage point gave us a unique perspective on the movements of  the glaciers over the period since the last glaciation, about 21,000 years ago, when ice covered most of southern Chile and Argentina.  Over the intervening years the ice has expanded and contracted dramatically, from a minimum during the last ‘great warming’ around 11,000 years ago, up to as recently as the mid 1800s when many glaciers in the region had their latest significant advance.  The story was told in successive arcs of piled talus 200 feet high below the lake.   Nature is a messy housekeeper, and her residual rockpiles told a fascinating story.






Moraines outlining successive glacial maxima and minima below Cerro Torre

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us on our perch above the massif, another more human-sized story was continuing in dramatic fashion as a pair of North American climbers were hunkered down in Chalten, besieged by local climbers and media, after a dramatic and controversial ascent of Cerro Torre  a month before our visit.

The peak was long considered an ‘unclimbable mountain’ for its remoteness, its vertical rock faces and the mushrooms of fluffy rime ice capping the summit.  And of course, climbers of all the peaks in the massif are often faced with the legendary, horrific Patagonian weather including the constant, howling wind that locals call “the Broom of God”.  While more famous peaks such as Everest and even the nearby, very difficult Monte FitzRoy were first conquered by climbers in the 1950s, the first recognized ascent of Cerro Torre wasn’t accomplished until 1974.   And while a hundred people may reach the summit of Everest in a given year, years can go by between successful ascents of Cerro Torre.  Therein lies an irresistible attraction to the adventure junkies and crag wizards of our modern age.



Cerro Torre (Lynne McCullough photo)

The controversy in the alpine climbing community surrounding Cerro Torre started back in the ‘golden age’ of mountaineering first ascents when Italian Cesare Maestri with two companions tackled the extremely difficult south face in 1959.  Maestri claimed having reached the summit, but companion Tori Egger was swept to his death by an avalanche while they were descending, taking the camera and their only evidence of the summit with him.   Inconsistencies in Maestri’s account, and the lack of any gear on the route he claims to have taken, have led the climbing community to discount his claimed first ascent.   (Another party of Italians, Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari, and Pino Negri, now claim the recognized first ascent, via a different route, 15 years after Maestri’s disputed climb.)  To further sully his reputation among alpine purists,Maestri returned in 1970 to prove he could reach the top—but did so by installing 450 bolts with a compressor-powered drill (leaving the 200 lb drill dangling from ropes where it hangs to this day, 100m below the top of the mountain).  The route Maestri followed is now known as the Compressor route, and is viewed with some degree of disdain.  (The Pataclimb blog, for example, reads:  “If you are interested in getting to the top of the mountain without climbing it, and considering that landing helicopters is illegal in all Argentine National Parks, this glorified version of a via ferrata is the route for you.”)

The controversy was reawakened on 16 January 2012, a month before our arrival in Chalten, when Norte Americanos Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk reached the top of Cerro Torre via the Compressor Route in an amazing thirteen-hour blitz, but in their case using what they defined as a “fair-means” ascent.   Their skill and speed in the ascent have been lauded by the community, but they also raised a firestorm through a spur-of-the-moment decision to cut most of Maestri’s bolts from the face during their return.   Alpinist blogs continue to buzz with posts both praising and excoriating their actions.

No evidence of the firestorm, or even a hint of the “Broom of God”, touched us on our rocky hilltop vantage point on that rare sunny afternoon, looking across at the stunning peak at the center of the debate.  One would guess that it remains unperturbed by the spectacle.

Cerro Torre (Lynne McCullough photo)

[1] Rime ice is an opaque, porous ice that forms when water droplets carried in fog freezes to the surfaces of objects.   The fog freezes to the windward side of tree branches, buildings, rocks or any other solid objects, usually with high wind velocities and air temperatures between −2 and −8 °C (28.4 and 17.6 °F).  This type of ice is anathema to climbers who cannot set firm holds in the cotton-candy textured ice.

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