Since 2012, I’ve been scratching my head on why Cerro Torre was getting away from me year after year. Patagonia is an odd place to climb. For two years I would arrive in decent weather, kicking around El Chalten watching the meteograms and quite literally watching my dreams of climbing that year’s objective blow away. I’ve never invested long periods of time there, though. It’s way better to plan on staying for awhile if you want to get something done. For most of my climbing friends, El Chalten is a place they could live most of the year, and some do.
This year was different, however. I planned a longer trip from the get go. I arrived in El Chalten the beginning of December and relaxed. Besides my lady Allison, I wouldn’t miss a damn thing back in the “real world.” The bus dropped me off at Central Alpino and I was excited to see my brother from another mother, Ben Erdmann. Ben is a suave, blonde haired bro with a culinary and yoga addiction. Not only is the guy my climbing partner, but also the lead dude at my wedding - a great partner to have. When I arrived he was doing his usual thing - cooking a feast with half the town invited. Always a good way to show up.
After a few days had passed, the travel and stress of taking care of the logistics before leaving home finally got to me and I came down with a nasty cold. What happened next? Yep, a warm weather window. We had our sights set on The Ragni route on Cerro Torre. Ben has climbed on the Fitz Roy side of the valley and has always been successful. The Torre side speaks to my heart most so we were excited to get on Cerro Torre and see what the big deal was all about.
Ben and I had decided to leave a day earlier than the rest of the climbers. We were anxious to get into the hills and beat the crowd that gets drawn toward Cerro Torre each window, and rightfully so. Plus, I was drained of energy from the cold and hopped up on meds so I wanted to take some extra time walking into the Torre valley. Since I had arrived in Patagonia and sick as a dog, Ben and I hadn't made a cash of all our heavy bullshit gear into the Torre Valley, so we didn't have to carry it in on a summit run. Needless to say, our packs were pretty big. Maybe not as much for Ben, but for this skinny guy with a cold it felt like concrete on my back.
Both Ben and I knew the way into Nipinino well. We walked up the trail and made lots of comments on how bad the trail was. It gets worse every year. Ben collected crystals at all the known spots as I gave him shit for adding weight and not getting rid of it, per usual. We got to the edge of the glacier and noticed it was raining at Nipinino. Not being in a hurry, we set up camp, conveniently next to a crystal patch nonetheless.
The next morning we woke up and I was feeling a bit better. We walked up the valley, slow and steady, to the base of Col Standhardt. We sat in the sun and eventually set up the tent, played with our cameras and fell asleep.
Ben and I woke to the sound of three or four teams passing our tent on the way up Col Standhart. After the last team went by, Ben and I got up quick as if we were late for a job interview and bolted. I was feeling much better and we swapped so I was now walking in front. We didn’t mind being behind everyone that day, but we were shocked how warm it was as we went over the Col. Shit was coming off Standhart everywhere. We went down the other side of the Col and decided to stay at the Fiola de Rosa, still on the flat glacier. The other teams went to the Col de Esperanza. This is the typical camp to summit from. It added on a couple hours to the next day but we didn't care. Ben and I were excited to hang out, drink water and pack our small packs for a run at the Torre.
Ben and I slept until around 9:00 PM and set out around 10:00 PM. We wanted to let the other teams go so we could climb freely and not get in a traffic jam. As we set out at the bottom of the glacier, we could already see the headlamps moving up above us. We could see portions of the mild climbing before the Col de Esperanza had avalanched from the high afternoon heat the day before. We hoped it would stay cool up high. Ben and I swapped leads on excellent terrain and good ice up through the mixed climbing. We dodged ice chunks all the way up before getting to the head wall.
The morning had come and gone and the heat was starting to take its toll on the thin ice fins that towered above us. The geometry of the Ragni route is unreal. Its shape and unusual features look like something from a science project gone bad. During the mixed climbing we had seen quite a traffic jam on the headwall, so we took our time to avoid it. I led the head wall with no problem and was surprised to see the first summit team rapping down. They must have started super early. By this time the snow was getting noticeably sloppy and my tools were not getting the job done. Taking the wrong way by a few feet, I climbed some overhanging snow, scared out of my mind. Being around 4:00 PM at this point, the rime ice was now snow and I had to dig and scrape for something with any consistency. I made it up finally, taking longer than expected.
Ben and I had two pitches left. We waited as we watched the last of the teams rappel by us. We were now by ourselves and I was glad. My favorite type of climbing is first ascents - no one around, figuring out all the problems ourselves. Being on a huge line with all these people was annoying to me, and I’m sure Ben would agree. The one thing we had kept hearing as the teams went by was that the last pitch was difficult. They would stop and tell us about it and how warm it was, as though they were nervous for us to climb it in the heat of the day. I didn't care what they said. I figured that if they could do it in good styrofoam ice then I can do it in rotten snow.
Ben and I climbed through the tunnel pitch and both agreed that it was worth all this work just to experience that tunnel alone. I felt like a rat in a maze looking for the cheese - the cheese being the last pitch and the highlight of the route. Up until the last pitch it was fantastic climbing. This was all terrain that was right up my ally. I took a look at the last full pitch and knew if I didn't just buck up and get on it, we may not get up this thing at all. All the teams had mentioned that there was no pro for 60 feet or so. I was going to try and do this 60-foot run-out, stemming full width on rotten snow. I had a picket on my side and stabbed it in the shit snow a couple feet up the half tunnel I was spread across, mainly just to get the cumbersome bastard off my harness. I hate pickets, jingling and jangling like spurs off my harness. I kept hearing Ben yelling up to me with encouraging words, saying he was with me, as I made small stemming moves up the half tunnel. He was! I always feel better with Ben around. He is the best partner I could ask for. As I reached about 60 feet without any pro, I knew Ben was there for me mentally, but I also knew that physically if one of these soft mashed potato hand or foot holds broke out from under me, I was going to go 120 feet down and break my damn legs - if not rip us both off the mountain. Either way, if I fell I don't think I would have made it. A rescue was not in the cards at that point.
I put in a screw and completely forgot I was cruxing out at this point. At the top of the pitch I squeezed through a tiny tunnel and to a belay just a few feet from the top of Cerro Torre, absolutely exhausted!! I tried to catch a badass picture of Ben squeezing his big German shoulders through the summit tunnel, but my camera was out of batteries. Fumbling with the damn thing I lost my lens cap down the tunnel. I usually would have immediately been pissed, but I was too tired and excited to give a damn. As I brought Ben up I was delighted that somehow the lens cap slid into his face and he had it in his mouth. Unreal.
Ben kept going and brought us up on the summit. That was it! We couldn't have been happier. We took a few shots and started down. Our weather window was about to shut down. I was exhausted and happy to let my bro take the lead down. Through the night we only got our ropes stuck once. When Ben and I reached our tent the next morning we could see Cerro Torre being swallowed by the high winds. Thankful for our window, we packed up, ate the last of our food and started for Paso Marconi. I’m not quite sure the exact distance from Cerro Torre to Paso Marconi, but it doesn’t matter - it takes forever!!! The walk out is a gradual uphill for hours. On one side is a sea of white glacier as far as the eye can see, and on the other side are mountains that seem to move with you as if you’re not getting anywhere. I’d pinpoint certain features such as a ridge, estimate how long I thought it would take to get there and end up being wrong each time. After what felt like days, we reached better and better trails and made our way back to El Chalten.
I’m thankful for my climbing partner, Ben Erdmann. We make a great partnership, both in and out of the mountains. We climb and make decisions well together. Another trip to remember with my brother.
Thank you to Adidas Outdoor for all the support and awesome threads they send us. Even if Ben and I just went out in the mountains and got lost on the glacier, at least we’d look damn good in our gear! ;)