How I Climbed a Mountain in Patagonia and Named It
Day Fifty Two of Eighty:
I found a leaf in my belly button. There is dirt and twigs embedded in my scalp. I have been wearing the same shirt, pants and pair of underwear for nearly 2 months. It is the middle of the night, but I don’t know the time, day, or date. No watch, no phone, no electronics besides this headlamp for nearly 2 months. I’m wide awake and don’t know why. This seems to happen every night out here: it’s when my mind is most clear, free from any distractions and able to go off into obscure thoughts of life.
My hands are filthy with scabs and cuts, my feet swollen from constant moisture, my muscles ache and my joints throb, my body is skinny, my tummy empty and my face burnt and hairy. I am nestled in a tent of a home: Annie and Liz to my left, Adam to my right. I’m buried under my sleeping bag on top of my deflating sleeping pad and my drying socks. A ratty sweatshirt is my pillow cover and my dad’s old puffy jacket is the stuffing. I can hear the river to my east and glaciers crackling to the north. We lie among house sized boulders, between the glacier covered mountains and the fall colored valleys. In far off Patagonia, southern Chile, I breathe deeply and think randomly.
It has been 52 days since I’ve showered, used a toilet, or communicated with the outside world. We have kayaked over 150 miles, past icebergs and glaciers, trekked over 150 miles through untouched wilderness, and summited peaks that no man had climbed.
This is the story of day 52:
As leaders of the day, Adam and I woke up at 8am and picked the peak we wanted to climb. This was not just any peak though, this was a wild peak amongst thousands of untouched mountains in one of the last known wildernesses in the world.
We were determined to get up that mountain, so we picked our dream team. Our team of 8 geared up and set out for the base of the glacier. Upon arrival, we firmly strapped our crampons onto our hard plastic boots. We checked each other’s gear, went through a last minute mental checklist, then climbed up onto the glacial ledge. It was snow and ice from here on up. After days of scrambling up boulders and scuffling through loose rock fall, we were now faced with slick ice faces and thick snow.
Bottomless crevasses ripped across the glacier, a hesitant look into one of these holes sent my heart racing. I might as well have just looked directly into Earth’s soul. Let’s keep moving before one of us gets sucked in.
We kept moving upward in single file. One step at a time. Focused. Each footstep must land precisely on the footprint before it. One wrong step and Earth might open it’s gaping mouth and swallow you whole.
We continued winding our way through the maze of crevasses for 2 hours, until finally we came upon a snow covered plateau. At first glance we were thrilled, no crevasses for as far as the eye could see. Smooth sailing from here on up, right?
Wrong. There were, in fact, still crevasses, only now they were covered by a thin layer of snow.
Adam and I stepped aside with our instructors and weighed our options. Accept defeat, or continue? Was it even possible to continue?
Mountaineering is a game of maximizing thrill, while minimizing risk. It is a mix of adrenaline rush and logical thinking. With each change in route, terrain, or weather, one must analyze on the fly, because time is almost always crucial. You must assess the situation at hand, analyze options and accept the decision. You must put your ego aside. This is very important, even if you’re 100 feet from the summit, you must be willing to be humbled by mother nature. In the end, the cliche wins, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”
We decided to rope up and continue. We split the group into 2 rope teams of 4 and began tying ourselves together with the knots we’d been taught. This is common practice when crossing terrain like this. The idea is that if someone were to suddenly fall into a hidden crevasse they would be anchored to the rest of the team, thus preventing a deep plunge towards earth’s core.
For camaraderie’s sake we decided on a team name. At the time we were all pretty proud of our facial hair, which we’d been working on for nearly 2 months, so, team ’Stache was born.
After a quick snack and sip of water we were reenergized. Let’s go! I looked up and saw that the peak which seemed days away when we started, was now directly above us. It was a gnarly sight, there were three rock spires which pierced the snow capped peak in front of us; again, my heart began to race. We might actually make it to the top!
As we slowly and carefully made it across the plateau of sudden death, the incline became increasingly steep. Soon we were faced with our next obstacle, a sheer wall of snow.
At this point I could clearly see those spires, and what I saw made my heart sink. It was one crumbly rock on top of another crumbly rock, all of which were stacked on top of, yes, another crumbly rock. It looked like a disaster waiting to happen. A sudden fear crept over me and I was certain at that moment, we weren’t going to make it. I think the sun was scared too since it disappeared, time was quickly passing and I could feel it retreating behind me.
I took a deep breath and refocused. I was leader of the day, my team was relying on me to make decisions. There wasn’t any space for negative thoughts or fear, only logic. There was no time to think of the future, or the past, only the present. There was only our current situation and the decision of whether to continue forward, or turn around and follow our footsteps back.
We can do this, we are team ’Stache! Again we reverted to our training and took out our deadmen pickets – a type of anchor used to secure climbers to the side of snowy mountains. A 2 ft. x 2 in. piece of metal which, when placed under the snow and roped into a climber, can save them from a potentially tragic fall.
The team leader dug his crampons into the side of the mountain and began creating steps for us. We followed one by one, each of us kicking further into the steps already formed. Once we made it far enough up (to where if we fell we might die), the leader began digging a trench to place the first deadman. Once it was secured he continued climbing, tightly pulling the rope with him, which fed through the deadman and continued down through each one of our harnesses. Every step the leader took, we also took a step, making sure the rope remained taut. Once the last climber reached the last deadman, he signaled the leader, who then began placing a new one at the top. Then the last climber was tasked with removing the last deadman before we could continue up.
This process continued for about an hour. Finally, the pitch gradually rolled over the top of the snowy mountain and we were free!
The sun hit my face, which brought great relief. It, in fact, did not retreat behind the mountain, it was just waiting for us at the top. We looked back and shook our heads, we looked forward and could finally see our basecamp way down below. We unroped from each other, laughed hysterically and hugged. We were in complete disbelief at what we had just accomplished. Was this real life, or just a dream?
I glanced up at the rocky spire beside us. It pierced the snowcapped peak and continued rising beyond what seemed naturally possible. It must have been 150 feet tall and 20 feet wide, yet at the top it narrowed to 8 feet. Chills ran up my spine.
I wanted to stand on top of it so badly. I wanted to climb that spire. If only there was a way, but it was getting late and we still had to get back down to basecamp. Next time, next time.
We began packing up our rope and preparing for the treacherous trek down. One of our instructors pulled Adam and I aside for what I thought was a quick plan of attack for getting down the mountain. Instead he whispered, “We can probably make that last pitch if you guys want to do it, you in?” We both laughed, surely he was joking. How was that even possible? “If you want to get up there we have 45 minutes, the sun is going to set soon. I can free climb to the top, set an anchor and you can climb up the rope behind me, but we have to go now and we have to be fast.” I already knew Adam was in, so the two of us made the decision to climb, and we presented the option to the group.
“Hey guys, we are going to climb this spire, but we have to be fast. If you don’t want to, no problem, you can wait for us here.” By the time we turned around our instructor was already on his way up. We scrambled up behind him to the base of the spire, waiting for a rope to come swinging down for us.
Five minutes later we heard a yell from the top. We could barely see his head leaning over the side, let alone understand what he was saying. It didn’t matter because moments later a rope came hurling down. I volunteered to go first. My muscles were weak and aching but at this point nothing was going to stop me. I had come this far, how could I turn back now? Adrenaline kicked in and I pulled my body up, inch by inch.
The jagged rocks were slick, causing me to lose my footing. Fist sized rocks came loose and tumbled down below, my weight pulling me back down. Breathe. Focus. Inch by inch. I threw my leg over the top and pulled with all my strength propelling myself over the last ledge. I immediately rolled over and sat up, first seeing what this rope was anchored to – a 150 pound boulder tipping and nearly rolling off of the spire. It seemed like one slight kick would have sent this boulder tumbling 800 feet off the backside. The rope, which was the only thing preventing my impending death was tied around this boulder and tossed in the opposite direction from which it clung. I quickly pushed that thought from my mind.
I stood up, looked around and couldn’t believe what I saw. For hundreds of miles in every direction there was nothing but wilderness. Sharp glaciated peaks shot up in all directions, moraine flowed off the sides into the dense forest below. Lush green forest wound through the depths of the valleys. In the distance were bright blue lakes giving birth to snaking rivers and misting waterfalls. The landscape surrounded me and I hoped it would never end. My whole face burst out in smile and a rush of pride came over me.
I happily waited for the rest of the crew to emerge. After a few minutes Adam’s head popped over the ledge. We hugged and then sat in silence, partially from exhaustion, but mostly because we were in awe of what we had just accomplished. One by one they made it up; only a few who were too tired stayed behind – they had reached their summit and that was all that mattered.
We basked in this moment. This was what we came for, to learn, to explore, and to have an adventure so real that it could never be replicated. This was our moment. This was our mountain. We assumed that no one had ever attempted this peak, and thus as first ascenders we named it Mount ’Stache.
The sun was setting and we still had to get down. Quickly, we belayed down the cliff’s edge and began the long journey back to basecamp. By the time we reached the glacial field there was nothing but darkness. We turned our headlamps on and began navigating the maze, trying our best to follow our footsteps back. After some time we could see the lights of basecamp below and even heard a few shouts from the onlookers – we still had hours to go.
When we finally made it we were greeted by our fellow comrades who were waiting up for us with a warm meal. This team had also attempted a nearby peak but were forced to turn back due to its difficulty. After a quick bite to eat, I crawled into my tent and nestled into my sleeping bag. I laid on my deflating sleeping pad in my dirty clothes. I once again heard the river to my east and glaciers crackling to the north, sounds that had become both familiar and comforting.
I fell asleep smiling, happy to be back in my home, knowing that in a few hours I would once again be wide awake, thinking of the Patagonian wilderness surrounding me. Void of all distractions. Breathing deeply, allowing my mind to drift randomly.