“Want to bet on what the weather does mañana?” I ask Christian.
“I think it will be clear” he says after a moments reflection.
“Hmmm, what makes you think that? Do you have some specialize knowledge? Am i missing something?” I ask as I consider the windy, whiteout conditions and high, spectacular lenticular clouds we saw today. Why, I think to myself, is Christian, as usual, optimistic?
“Well, usually I give it 24 hours after I see the large lenticular clouds. Did we see any yesterday?”
“I think so, but not as grand as today” my voice trails off as I try to remember.
“Hmm” is Christian’s non committal and vague reply and our conversation turns to other things. Ten minutes later it comes full circle, back to the topic of bored or socially challenged folks everywhere. “What do you think it will do tomorrow?”
I pause in my writing and look up from my notebook. “It will be windy” I reply thoughtfully, hedging my bets in a safe direction. “It will be windy” I repeat, “that is for sure.”
“That it will probably be.”
People everywhere love a favorable forecast. The term “favorable” of course is different for everyone. Skiers like the big dumps, wildland firefighters like the hot dry seasons, and school children love the sloppy, icy conditions that often allow for a “snow” day. Surfers like systems elsewhere that provide good conditions at their break. Obviously climbers too, fall into the category of favorable forecast lovers. Those plying their trade in the alpine realm favor conditions that keep ice solid and snow stable. Those looking to “go big” in El Chalten like the five day windows of high pressure, low humidity and non-existent winds. Climbers everywhere benefit from the perfect friction temps in the low forties; if it is too hot, rubber doesn’t stick and we sweat to much.
Weather is always a topic of conversation. From a village restaurant where a waitress makes small talk with a traveler to phone conversations between my brother and I to the national nightly newscast, weather is always OK to discuss. Outside of those whose safety and livelihood depend on the weather, it is often a solid indicator of poor conversational skills or lack of common ground. None the less, it is also a great conversation starter. The weather is something that we share and can be commented on by all. Much like striking up a conversation while looking for smoke or a match to light the cig, it is a safe and reliable route to chit chat.
Out here in the fields though, it takes on a whole new meaning.
“What did the barometer do today?” is a commonly asked or answered question by me. Out here we note pressure changes, sundogs, wind shifts and temperature rises, falls, highs and lows. The NOLS NZ branch even encourages instructors to use the satellite phone to call for the forecast. Christian rings up the DOC office in Aoraki/Mt Cook so often the woman on the other end recognizes his voice as the guy out on the glacier with the satellite phone who can’t dial the 0800 number.
In other locales we move to a hut for the 1900 hours weather broadcast. We turn on the radio and get the daily mountain forecasts. The Canterbury High Country is always last, right after the Kaikoura Ranges. The crackly voice tells us of the coming gales: 80-90 k/h. Northwesterlies changing to southwesterlies, yada, yada, yada. Free air freezing levels dropping… We get ready to hunker.
Eastward across the vast, moist Pacific climbers of all colors and creeds gather around computer screens looking to plan their next ascent. Regardless of the fact it lies roughly 5000 miles south of the United States, NOAA’s Air Resource Laboratory still provides the most reliable and consistent weather data to those looking to scale the granite and ice of the Patagonian Andes. Red lines, wind flags, dew points and HPAs are all discussed and debated with the intensity of a talk radio host rallying against an ideological foe. Thanks to US law, its government agencies and Al Gore’s internet, what were once days spent getting thrashed by just not quite big enough windows of good weather have turned into bacchanalias of bouldering and sport climbing in the bustling tourist town of El Chalten.
So we make our plans, position ourselves and poke our noses out at 0100 or some other ungodly hour and do our weather check. We give due diligence to the objective forces of nature and go off and try to work our way up the mountains. We pay our dues, we wait. Sometimes the forecast is wrong. Maybe we see a chance and go for it. We get the chance cause we do the weather checks at 0100 regardless of the forecast. Sometimes the weather is poor and we crawl back inside, zip up our sleeping bags and live to check another morning. Other times we don’t even have to exit our sleeping bags to make that decision as the pounding wind and driving rain are obvious without needing to feel or see. Other times we look out, pull back in and say “get up, today we climb.”
“I got the alarm set for 0400” I tell Christian as I reach across the tent and hang the watch over my head. Its actual size in no way represents its actual beeping volume, in fact I am convinced that it is inversely proportional.
“Thanks” Christian replies. The wind picks up again and high grey clouds cloak the southern and western skies. Saucer shapes form over towards Tasman, white on the edges, dark grey and foreboding toward the middle. The lenticular shapes are clearly visible even against the dark clouds behind that stretch across the sky. Earlier the temperature dropped and a crust began to form on the snow. “Temperature is dropping” I had observed loudly “wonder if it is coming in from the south.”
“Hmm, I don’t remember anything about things moving in from the south” Christian muses absentmindedly.
We prepped our students for the 0400 weather check and the 0530 start and then crawled into our tent.
Elsewhere in the roaring forties, after days of watching and tentative plans, the incoming cell of 2015+ HPAs is materializing. Across town houses and campgrounds empty out as climbers flood the trails to the high camps. Niponimo, Piedra Negra and Paso Superior are overrun with climbers looking for what may be their only, or last shot, of the season.
Technology has changed climbing over the years. For a long time forecasts have allowed climbers to venture off into the hills with some degree of confidence. A lot can change in a week or a month however and for those intrepid souls out beyond the reaches of standard communication a month long forecast from two weeks ago is a great piece of paper with which to wipe. Today, it is the availability of reliable weather forecasts that give climbers a solid step up over their predecessors. The use of a satellite phone or mountain radio in New Zealand’s high country or the internet in what was once the remote Patagonian Andes has removed one more variable from the alpine equation. Three days into a gigantic weather window I am starting up Fitz Roy’s southeast flank. Above high, strung out balls of cotton make their way in from over the icefield and gusts of wind bring showers of snow melt from every direction. Even with the mares tales and wind gusts, the weather has moved from the forefront of my mind as I keep looking upward. The summit now depends on whether or not we have the skills, supplies, and endurance… because we know we have the weather.