Hayden Kennedy’s season in PatagoniaWednesday, September 7, 2016
Aaron Jones and I had just driven 1500 miles from the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, to Boulder, Colorado, and all we could think about was our upcoming trip to Patagonia. I had just spent two months sport climbing and shooting guns in the Red River Gorge and was hungry for some alpine climbing.
We arrived in Boulder on December 1st and decided to climb the classic Naked Edge in Eldorado Canyon. Freezing cold wind and scattered snow showers gave us a brief glimpse of what climbing in Patagonia would be like. The next thing I knew I was sitting in a bus heading to the Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile. The adventure began.
Aaron and I spent two days hiking loads to our basecamp at Campamento Torres in the Paine. It was my first trip to Patagonia and Aaron's second. Our main objective in the Paine was to make a light-fast alpine style ascent of the South African Route (VI 5.10 A3, 1200m) on the East Face of the Central Tower, but icy conditions shut us down. We shifted our sights and tried to climb the South Tower via the Aste Ridge (VI 5.10 C2, 850m) and were denied again. Our spirits were low. Climbing in Patagonia has got to be one of the hardest things I have ever done. The weather and the conditions have to line up just perfectly with your skill and experience, and you have to be ready the blast at any moment.
On January 3 we started hiking from our base camp at 1am very psyched. We hoped to climb Via delle Mamme (VI 5.11 A3, 750m) on the west face of the Central Tower. The line had seen only one repeat since its first ascent in 1992. As the route came into view we were crushed to see a huge rime buildup on the first 200 meters.
We decided to go for it anyway and started the mixed climbing approach. After a few icy pitches we reached a huge ledge at the base of Via delle Mamme — all we could see was verglas over rock. I started up the first 5.10 pitch with both tools and my approach shoes, in full battle mode. I soon found that climbing in these conditions was nearly impossible and very scary. I scraped up the first 70-meter pitch with only four pieces of gear due to the ice in the cracks. The next pitch was a steep 5.10+ fist crack filled with ice; again it was my lead as we were leading in blocks. Very physical mixed climbing and cold hands made the pitch much more difficult than normal.
Finally after a few more pitches we realized it is too risky to keep going. Back at the base of the towers we decided that there is still enough time to climb something, so we dropped everything and went for the West Ridge on the North Tower via the Monzino Route (V 5.10 WI2, 500m), which Aaron had soloed last year. We climbed the route in just under an hour from the col and celebrated on top with chocolate and cheese!
Our first Patagonia summit of the trip started out with a defeat on the Central Tower and ended with a great day on the North Tower. I was quickly learning that that is the way Patagonia works—you just have to roll with what you can get.
We then decided to go to Argentina to check out the Fitz Roy massif and the Torre Valley. We packed up and hiked out of the Torres Del Paine with a new understanding of the area. I look forward to going back.
As we started our travel to El Chalten we looked over topos and route photos. We really wanted to climb the North Pillar of Fitz Roy via the Casarotto Route (VI 5.10 A1, 1200m). Arriving in El Chalten was like a fresh breath of mountain air, with new mountains to drool over and lots of friends to hang with. Within two days a weather window opened, so Aaron and I hiked in to the Fitz Roy Glacier. We spent a very uncomfortable night in one bivy sack at the base of the 450-meter mixed start to the North Pillar. At about midnight a huge storm rolled in and we woke up to see Fitz Roy completely covered in rime ice and snow. The North Pillar was out so we headed back to town.
The weather the next week was some of the worst I've ever seen. We bouldered in town, ate and obsessed over the weather. In Patagonia it is very important to understand that the weather is just part of the experience—and when you do climb it makes it that much better. If it were easy everyone would do it.
Aaron had been having some trouble with a hernia and carrying a heavy pack had become very painful. He was out of the game so I started looking for other partners. Jason Kruk from Vancouver, Canada, asked me if I would be interested in climbing the Exocet Chimney (WI5) on Cerro Standhardt. I was more than psyched to jump on that mission.
We hiked into the Torre Valley and established base camp and sharpened our tools. The next morning we woke up to the lyrics of The Notorious B.I.G at 3am. We started the approach for the Exocet in less-than-ideal conditions. The wind was blowing so hard that little pieces of gravel were hitting us like bullets. We reached the bergschrund at about 6am and the weather was still bad but we carried on. The climbing started with easy snow ramps to some very good mixed climbing. We then did a short rappel to another snow ramp that led to the base of the chimney. The snow was very unstable and we both agreed that it was unsafe to keep going. The mountains are very powerful and you have to listen to what they are saying.
We hiked back to camp and ate a huge pasta dinner and discussed our options. At that point our friends Josh Wharton and Whit Margo had arrived at high camp with hopes to climb San Rafael. They gave us the idea to climb the Supercanaleta (VI WI3+ M5, 1600m) from the Torre Valley using the Sitting Man Ridge approach. "Lets go full ballistic on this!" Jason yelled. We racked up and started hiking at 1am. Sitting Man Ridge took us about three hours and then we were at the base of the amazing West Face of Fitz Roy. We took a quick chocolate and tea break and started up.
We went ropeless for the first 1000 meters of moderate ice and then roped up for the crux mixed pitches, thin ice smears on the right wall. We swung leads for about four pitches and then started simul-climbing. We reached the ridge and started swinging leads again. The ridge was covered in rime ice and made for some very challenging mixed climbing. Gear was hard to find and so was the route.
It was noon when we reached the final part of the ridge. We were within spitting distance of the summit. A huge rime mushroom blocked our way, and we spent the next seven hours trying to find a way around it. It was getting late and we had run out of food and water. The thought of rappelling 1600 meters made us sick to our stomachs, but we had no other choice. We started rappelling at 7pm and we stopped at 8am—what a night! Absolutely exhausted and totally out of food and water we started the hike back to camp after 35 hours on the move. I remember falling into our tent and thinking to myself, "I will never do that again, alpine climbing is stupid! I could be sitting on a beach in Thailand drinking beer and watching hot girls swim!" What were we doing?!
It was February 16 and I was supposed to fly home on February 19. It seemed that the Supercanaleta was the last hurrah. Back in town climbers were all telling stories of successes or defeat, the way I look at the defeats are much more interesting than the successes. I was getting packed up to head back to the States when Jason showed me the weather forecast: it was the best I had seen since mid-December. I had no choice but to extend my ticket and go full ballistic on Fitz Roy one more time!
Within two days Jason and I were back at the base of the Supercanaleta—redemption time. We climbed quickly and efficiently, and before we knew it we were standing on the top! Surrounded by the most amazing mountains I had ever seen, I thought to myself, "This is what it's all about." We rapped the Franco-Argentinean route with one rope and hiked back to town. All said and done, we had climbed Fitz Roy in a 40-hour town-to-town single push, by far one of the best experiences of my life.
Jason had to leave but I still had another five days in Patagonia and the weather was holding. Ben Ditto and I rallied up to the Torre Valley and climbed Rafael via the Corallo Route (V 5.11+ A1, 600m). The route had only one pitch that had not been free climbed so our main goal was the first free ascent. We both ended up freeing climbing the Corallo Route at 5.12a. The next day we romped up El Mocho—a fun and satisfying end to the trip.
Patagonia is a truly amazing place and I look forward to going back.
— Hayden Kennedy