(Author’s note: here is a piece I wrote about six years ago. I may have published this before, but… whatevs. My mind always wanders to this place, particularly this time of year when I start seeing social media posts from region. As I climb and explore the mountains, these events are rarely far from my mind. There are two separate story lines; one is written in italics to help you keep them straight. Thanks for reading…)
21 January 2012 — The 0315 alarm rips me from a deep, deep slumber. “Oh fuck,” I utter my daily greeting of the day. Matt responds with silence. I search in vain for my headlamp, my hands patting and feeling around in the darkness. I find only Matt’s. It will do. I slide out of my sleeping bag and pull on the puffy layers. In the pale glow of a dying headlamp my hands pull shoe laces tight and tie them.
“How you doin’ Don Jared?” Matt asks from the darkness.
“Great Matt, I can’t wait to go back to sleep.”
Some people feel a calling. Some have always felt it, always known it was there. Others learn to understand the message, discovering it later in life. For me it is not a sound or sign but a longing, felt in my heart and mind. Kindred spirits can be found from the Ruth Gorge to Niponinos, from the Charakusa to Chamonix. Those who heed that calling will sell off everything they own so they can pay to get on the plane. They will travel to the corners of the earth seeking that next alpine fix. They will, as Rolando Garobotti says, “fight the good fight.” They will kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight and at the end of the day hope to live to climb another day. In the mountains we do not fight to get to the summit, we fight to live another day, to come home and then do it again.
It is early. Our bags are packed and ready to go. Matt inches out of the tent, his bottom half cocooned in his Elephants Foot, a half sleeping bag. He lights up the stove, preparing his morning coffee. To the north Orion does a headstand in a star studded sky. We spread jelly and cheese on bread, mix cereal and milk and fuel our bodies. Sound bites in other languages trickle in and headlamps pierce the darkness.
8 January 2012: The rickety, three sided wood and metal structure that we call our kitchen creaks and groans with the fierce Patagonian wind. The Brazilians, Bonga and Irivan marvel at my creation of the “American Breakfast” as I fry potatoes, eggs and cheese over a Whisperlite. Daren passes the mate around and we sip the bitter herb. Chatter is light and buoyant, for even with the inclement weather, newcomer Carlyle has lightened the mood. The Brazilians talk about shuttling gear. We wonder where the heck John is and Carlyle talks about her plans. We sit at a homemade bench around a plywood table, passing the mate and watching the trees bend and whip in the wind under the hot, Patagonian sun.
We hike the moraine by headlamp, wandering silently upward, each of us in our own world, wary of loose rocks. Throughout the valley the glow of headlamps tell the tales of others out chasing The Calling. On our hike in yesterday I had felt a nervousness I hadn’t felt before. We ran into friends Mikey and Kate at a break. They were headed out, said they had lost the Calling. This morning I am silently fighting to get it back. Soon enough we catch Eva and Jake as they make their way toward the East Pillar of El Mocho. We move up and across the slabs and soon Matt and I see two different groups approaching the base of Media Luna and our intended route. “Fuck” I curse my route finding skills and slowness.
9 January 2012 — The death star bakes El Chalten’s once green grass into crispy, dry and scratchy blades. Irivan, Bonga, myself and a handful of other Brazilians attempt to get a hack going. Luckily MY lack of skills in this area is not the deciding factor. Matt and Carlyle sit on a yoga mat discussing history, philosophy and Hannibal. Tired of my lack of coordination I sit down and tune into the discussion. I sit quietly, listening and enjoying the impromptu, though not unexpected history lesson. Daren strolls up to our three some. “Hey, we are going out to dinner” he says, gesturing to Matt and himself. “You are welcome to join us” he continues, addressing Carlyle. ” We don’t have any solid plans, and we are open to suggestions.” Carlyle moves some stuff to her tent.
“You know what, it has been a while since I have had a good meal, yeah, I’ll come.”
“Jared you coming?” Daren asks.
“Yeah, I’m in” I reply, sliding into a jacket to ward off the coolness of the evening wind. We walk out the driveway to the pavement and make our way to El Muro on the north side of town.
“Looks expensive” Matt says. “They have wine glasses on the table.”
I laugh and we walk in, take a seat and peruse the menu. Our orders taken, the talk turns serious. “So I always ask this question” Matt demands, addressing the lone Canadian at the table. “If you could see any band, at any time, at any place, who would it be and where and when would it be?” Daren smiles and I chuckle.
Without missing a beat Carlyle comes back with the Wu-Tang Clan in the mid 90s in Washington D.C. The conversation swirls around music for a while; Daren and I add our two cents. The dinners come, bife de chorizo, pollo, verdurous y papa fritas. We sample off each others plates and talk about the Creek, the Sacred Cow and Subarus. After postres we walk back to camp in the late evening light and prepare for tomorrow’s hike.
The rising sun turns Cerro Torre and her cohorts a brilliant orange and pink against a light purple sky. We stop and take stock, acutely aware of the danger of falling rocks. We eye El Mocho and the Salvatera-Cavallero. We alter our plans, donning crampons and zig zagging across the bare ice, end running around small but gaping cravasses; eventually though, we run out of options. We turn around, retrace our tracks and drop around the toe of the glacier then back up the ice at the base of El Mocho’s north face. As we near the beautiful, pink, soaring corner system we hear voices. Then we see Jake and Eva roping up at the base. “Damn it, strike two.” I mutter. “What now?” still cognizant of the danger of falling rocks and unprotected belays. We decide against climbing under our friends. My watch reads 0700. We have been on the move for three hours now and have not even touched rock. We decide to go back and check Media Luna and see if the parties are higher, or belays more protected.
15 January 2012 — From somewhere above the sound of trekking poles scraping rock filters down, telling of climbers on the approach. Matt and I move up the approach gully with the speed and confidence of seasoned climbers. Indeed this is our fourth time up the gully, having multiple times fought the good fight on the peaks above. Despite our light packs it takes a moment to catch the party in front of us. I offer up the usual “buenos dias” and then “¿a donde vas?“
Pausing in the growing light of dawn we hear a female voice “Last Gringo Standing.” We turn and face each other. “Oh hi” Carlyle says. “We got a little lost on the moraine.”
“Yeah, we did too” I respond sheepishly. I point out some approach beta to Carlyle and her partner as the dawn light becomes usable, gesturing upwards toward a red rock gully. Matt and I continue on. I run into them once again a little higher at the base of St. Exupery as they make their way up the steep ramp and to the base of their route. “Suerte” I offer down.
“Have fun” she replies as her partner fills his water and she trudges onward.
We pick our way down through the broken glacier, stemming, frontpointing and down climbing the cracked up ice. Back on the slabs we bee line it toward the base of the diminutive torre, crossing a soft snow slope and dropping into a moat. We peer up, then scramble around a boulder choked corner, finding, much to our chagrin that there is not a pack or a person in sight. The parties we had seen were en route to Cerro Torre. Our psych returns and we rack up under blue skies and white Patagonian granite. For me though, it is half hearted, only force of habit. The calling is gone, I need it back.
Matt and I tie in and start upwards. We pick our way up choss filled cracks, delicately stemming, smearing and cautiously positioning the rope. We climb verglas covered rock, jam snow filled cracks, but mostly we wrestle with choss. We work our way to the top, looking up and getting it done, not to pretty and not too proud. We top out into the waning evening light; we are not the last though, there is another party summiting from the west face. We team up. Five of us rappelling, two Americans, two Brazilians, one Italian and three different languages. A rope is stuck, then cut and abandoned. Using only three ropes we rappel through the night, slowly making our way down. Broken English, inadequate Spanish and sign language have us touching down at the base of the Kearney-Harrington about 0730. Matt and I have been on the go for about twenty eight hours. We rest, then pick our way down a slabby, chossy and icy gully. We make our way cautiously back to the gear cache, some food, Daren and John. It is still another hour to our camp.
Media Luna’s initial pitches are basked in the sun and the white, crystalline, Patagonian granite is worlds better than anything we touched on St. Exupery. The sky is blue and remains still. Matt thrutches his way up the initial off-width then belays me up. I follow quickly up the crack. We move up. Cracks, face, choss and splitter stone. The pitches inch by. I alpine free, tension and then free climb up a thin corner and around an arete with a blind reach to a tips crack. The crack widens and soon I am jamming splitter hands. I cautiously stem over loose blocks, acutely aware of Matt forty meters below. I build an anchor in a small alcove. Matt follows, then transitions into Choss Wrangler Hartman for the next pitch.
16 January 2012 — Matt and I rest and chat with Daren and John at the gear cache. They feed us some pasta, then we pack our bags and start making our way down the moraine and gullies. As per usual I find myself out front. I make good time down the gully, despite my depleted condition, knowing that Matt, Daren and John will do fine. The twenty nine hours of constant movement has worn me down though and I descend on wrote memorization. Somewhere below I catch up to Carlyle’s partner. I fill water at the creek and drink greedily. He sits on a rock 150′ below sucking on a Gu packet. Lower down he pauses to let me pass on the loose, scree trail. “How was Last Gringo Standing?” I ask. He moves in behind me, moving as clumsily as I. I can tell that he, like I, has been at it all night.
“It was great, ’till last night.”
“Oh, y’all just getting down?” I ask in return.
“Yeah, I rapped all night” he says, as we continue walking. My gut reaction is to say what about Carlyle. He is tired, monotone, not talkative; I bite my tongue. I still admonish myself.
“Is Carlyle just a bit behind you?” I don’t ask. Instead I reply “yeah, we rapped all night too. Just getting down.”
“Really?” he responds, a slight inflection noticeable in his voice. After a parting parlay, I continue on wondering if I should stop and wait up for Matt and hike down with him and Carlyle, whom is likely back up the hill with Matt. I keep moving though, knowing that I need the momentum. Occasionally I spot him above me as I work down toward the Niponino camp, then loose sight of him altogether. I don’t see him for four more days.
I stem the chimney, moving around a giantchockstone and am greeted by a soaring hand and fist crack. I silently wish I had taped my hands. I am following though and soon enough I am dogging the slightly overhanging wide hands corner. “Take” I yell up to Matt. I hang for a moment and regain my composure. Without pride, I transition into a lieback, make a few moves and grab the sling of a large Camalot. I wonder how much I should tip the waiter for being served so well.
“Hey Matt, did you see Carlyle on the way down?” I ask, later at the tent.
“No I didn’t but I had a weird interaction with her partner” he says, sitting and removing his boots.
“Hmm, me too, I guess. Well it wasn’t weird, in fact it was rather normal for having been going for thirty hours…” my voice trails off, my mind starts to swirl. We talk about our various interactions this morning.
“It is weird that someone was thinking the same thing I was” Matt says, shaking his head. We turn to silence and sleep.
Somewhere in the distance I hear a helicopter and I am quickly out of my bag and peering out the door of the tent. There are no helicopters around here, not for miles and miles or hours and hours. I spot the dot, moving high across the cold, grey sky. I check my watch; it is 2030. Then I remember Lincoln and the Red Bull Team and the documentary being made. Oh yeah, I think to myself and fall back into an uneasy sleep.
“Nice work Matt” I congratulate him on getting up the wide crack. Below numerous ropes are stuck and jammed in the crack. “Guess we don’t want to rap this way eh?” I ask.
“Yeah, man, I had a TON of rope drag. Sorry for all the cursing, couldn’t pull up the rope to save my life. Not sure which crack to go up for here, but…” he trails off.
I hang the small pack on the anchor and reach for the remaining gear. I sort the rack onto my harness. “On belay.” I start up the splitter crack above, shoving my now well bloodied hands into the slowly widening finger crack. At a ledge I venture right and give it a look see. I move back left, then continue up the now wide hands crack to a roof. I move left under the roof. I reach out and grab the arete to my left and then swing my feet on to it.
“Sweet.” I look up and see a few more feet of easy climbing to a crest like summit. I scramble up, and build an anchor. “Belay off Matt” I yell down. I look around, Cerro Torre rises high above to the west while the Torre Glacier snakes around below Fitz Roy to my east. I pull up the rope and put Matt on belay.
17 January 2012 0900 — Daren and John are gone, left the night before. Matt and I pack our bags, getting ready for the six hour trudge out. I amble to Jake and Eva’s camp, plopping myself down next to a rock and share some mate. Eva mentions that there is a rescue underway, searching for a hurt Canadian climber… I stand up and call over to Matt. We sit and word trickles in through he Red Bull team that there is a woman injured on St. Exupery. The clouds gather around the Cerro Torre massif and the winds begin to push a little harder. The beautiful weather of yesterday is being edged out. Sat phone calls are made, the weather checked and plans are discussed. A chopper comes into the valley, looking like a dragonfly in the backyard, dwarfed by the massif to the west, giving a haunting perspective to the objective. Organization. Matt and five others shuttle gear 2500′ up to the col about several hundred meters below her ledge.
The fierce wind drives the light rain in sideways and we sit and wait. 2100 hours and the climbers are four pitches up, in the heart of the maelstrom. Darkness descends and her chances drop with the barometer.
0700 hours 18 January — An open bivy at the col, verglass coated rock, wind, rain and snow and three rescuers are still high on the spire. Then the radio call comes in “we are calling it off and heading down.” Lincoln turns to me to see if I heard the report and ashamed, I look away. Once more I am in the rocky gully, descending. “Where is Carlyle,” I ask once more, though only in my mind, wanting desperately to change if not the past, at least my memory…
My eyes know the nuances of the peak and I trace the backlit skyline of dark rock protruding jaggedly in to the steely sky. “Man, you look tired and worn, do you need food or water? Where’s Carlyle?” I ask again, the moment replaying itself over and over and over in my mind. Fuck, a simple question…that i didn’t fucking ask.
We hike out that day, leaving Carlyle on the mountain, presumed dead or maybe just given up on. My stomach twists into a knot, knowing that better climbers than I have tried and failed and I wonder, what can I do? The clouds drop, enshrouding St. Exupery and her occupant in a cold, wet mist. We walk with the wind pushing us down the glacier and the mountains watching us with a cold indifference.
It is 1700 hours and Matt rigs the first of six rappels. Two hundred and ten feet lower we pull the ropes and watch our 7mm tagline get tangled and snagged as it drops towards us. Matt ties in, climbs up and retrieves the spaghetti like cord. We repeat this process two more times as the sun descends behind Cerro Torre and we make our way down. We pull, we hold our breath, we curse, we tie in, climb up and retrieve our line. We joke about handing it off to Daren and John when we go to try Fitz Roy. Dusk is settling in as we pull the ropes for the last time. We hold our breath and watch it drop 220 feet to the ground.
“Nice work, Matt”
“You too, Don Jared.”
20 January 2012 — El Chalten offers no solace, no comfort. So we pack up and return seeking out that cruel mistress with her bittersweet fairness, once again, looking for comfort in her arms. We walk the trail in silence each lost in our own world and I catch a glimpse of St Exupery on the skyline. The sadness inches further outward and my sense of failure grows. I picture her, sitting, frozen, on a ledge and wonder why. The cliched reason that she was heeding the Calling offers little comfort. My anger has receded; it does no good. Choices were made back in that gully, then picturing her house and her friends, my heart goes out to her partner. I feel lucky that I didn’t know her well. I feel unlucky that I didn’t really know her that well.
We return to what we know and engage in the good fight. I look at Matt and know that he can bring me back from the edge. I silently wonder if I can do the same for him.
We stand on the smooth granite slab coiling the ropes in the waning daylight. I drop the pack and shove in the coiled tagline. I search around and pull out our remaining food. “Can you toast with a Fantoche?” I ask, splitting the Triple Blanco Alfajore in half, handing part to Matt.
“Sure, I guess.”
“Here is to having known Carlyle, even if just for a little bit” I offer.
Instinctively Matt raises his treat toward St Exupery. Our eyes follow it upward and we watch as the alpenglow paints purple hues across the cold, gray stone.
NOTE: On January 21st (6 days after the initial accident) Carlyle Norman’s body was found on the glacier below the east face of St Exupery, where it will remain (see the accident report here.) The author would like to thank all of the climbers who gave selflessly in the effort to bring Carlyle to safety as well as offering thanks to the Red Bull climbing team for their unflinching support.)
Featured Image: The Torre Massif from Valle Torre, with El Mocho on the left and Media Luna below the skyline right of Cerro Torre, January 2012.