Posted by: Walker Mackey | 2009/06/19

Patagonia Dreams

Rambos Jaw Traverse

Rambos Jaw Traverse

When I graduated college after the summer of 2008 I hit a junction point in my life. I had finish college with a degree in Outdoor Leadership and Resort Management, and was looking at future full of opportunity. I was paralyzed with excitement and fear. I was torn between two points of view. In one hand I had ultimate freedom; I could do anything I wanted. In the other I held infinite uncertainty. Climbing for me has always been a guiding beechen of light. Throughout my life when I’ve hit intersections of confusion, climbing has provided clarity, structure, and direction. Climbing gives me purpose and a sense of self identity. Ever since I picked up my first Patagonia adventure book I had dreamt of climbing massive summits in alpine style. There is a certain attitude which develops in humans because of the nature of fear. When we fear something we have a natural reaction to be in opposition to that fear, therefore develop anxieties. Climbing is a challenge in which you face fear head on. For me there was only one answer to the unknowns of the future and that answer was climbing in Patagonia. I started organizing an expedition to Torres del Paine, Chile. There was a ton to do; organize equipment, research climbing objectives, develop funds and train. I knew that if I wanted to climb in Patagonia I was going to need to be in the best shape of my life. Since I discovered climbing I’ve devoted my life to it. I worked through the summer of 2008 in crested butte living in my car and saving every penny I could. I knew that if I wanted to face the big walls of Patagonia I would need more experience. In between work I climbed the Painted Wall in the Black Canyon, The Nose on El Capitan and the Diamond in Rocky Mountain National Park. Finally in November I was ready. I felt I had the experience level and the money to survive four months in the fierce wind of Patagonia. I bought a ticket and applied for a Mountain Fellowship Grant. I was off to face the unknown. After five days of traveling on planes and busses I meet my friends Aaron Jones and Dave Turner at the Erratic Rock hostel in Puerto Natales, Chile. Erratic Rock is the base camp for anyone wanting to climb mountains in Torres del Paine. They have all the information for the region and can arrange logistics for any climbing expedition or adventure vacation.
My friends Aaron and Dave are passionate soloists. I however didn’t have much soloing experience and was a little apprehensive to commit myself to such an endeavor. Although the previous year I had been inspired to one day climb a big wall solo when I met Dave in the silence valley on his successful quest to be the first ever grade seven soloist. I decided my place was once again in the silence valley and started hiking loads. For four days I carried one pack after another until I had established a full Patagonia expedition equipment cash. From there I started getting in position to make a solo attempt at the Central Tower of Paine. I spent the first month of the expedition understudying Aaron and observing what it was to be a soloist. In that month I spent more time alone then ever in my life. I grew up with two younger brothers and we were always together. In our youth we shared every moment of our lives. So to spend time solitary and fully isolated was a unique experience. I spent hours reading, writing, comprehending landscape and weather systems and contemplate the meaning of life, death, and the space in-between. I lived a very intense life with the acceptance of extreme consequence and the inevitabilities of life. I learned about the ultimate gift of life, freedom and bliss and purpose that can be found from pushing through fear and obstacles which seem impossible. After living through a two week storm in the silence valley, in which my tent was constantly collapsing on top of me and I had to spend two hours each morning and evening securing the guidelines, the weather got decent. I concluded that to try and solo the central tower with the limited experience I had was too much. I wouldn’t be fast enough by myself. I backed off the Central, which Aaron would latter successfully solo, and directed my attention to a feature called Rambo’s Jaw. Rambo’s Jaw consists of several granite intrusions, which form a jagged band of rock on the west face of the Accencio Valley. I wanted to traverse the top of the formation from down valley. I completed all but the last tooth of the traverse on immaculate rock, but was forced to turn around because of ice on the upper portion of the traverse. It had been a great solo. I had learned a lot about myself and was satisfied in the confidence that I could be a hundred percent self sufficient.

I meet Sebastian Munoz (Colombian) in Japanese Camp in the silence valley. We spent some time in camp cooking and sharing our perspectives on why climbing was such a powerful experience and what it meant to us. I soon recognized that Sebastian had very similar feelings about the freedom and intensity of climbing as me. There are a small number of people in existence who desire to face fear and accept death as an inevitability. Sebastian is one of these people. When looking up at the South Tower of Paine you get a feeling of euphoria. Time becomes irrelevant and space becomes infinite. You feel your true existence. You feel infinitely small while at the same time feeling infinitely big. You transcend into a different mind space. The presence of the South Tower of Paine is magnificent and being an alpinist at heart I was deeply driven to climb it. I knew that Sebastian had been coming to Patagonia for several seasons and made accents of the North and Central Tower’s. He had one tower left to complete the trifecta, so I knew he would be as driven as me to make the summit. We got word that a weather window was coming and moved into position. On our first attempt Sebastian and I made it to the shoulder of the south tower before we were stopped by icy cracks. We waited a short while hoping that the sun would come out and melt the ice, but didn’t want to stay exposed for too long and decided to go down. On the way down the sun came out. What would have allowed passage on the way up now became extremely dangerous. During the duration of the rappels we were bombarded with falling ice, loose rock, and cascades of water. At one point I was walking across a ledge and Sebastian called for me to return to the anchor. I turned around and started walking back to him. Not a second latter down came a huge cluster of mountain erosion precisely in the place I had been standing. I had escaped catastrophe by inches. We finished our decent and retired for the night in the safety of the tent. The next morning we rose to climbing weather. Patagonia has some of the worst weather in the world. The mountains in Patagonia are so hard to climb because it takes dedication and time. To learn when a mountain is climbable you have to study it. You have to put all your attention and time into the mountain watching its movement. The mountain is alive. Anyone who has spent time near them has heard the constant rumble of rock and ice. I had dedicated enough time to the silence valley that I knew that this day could be our only chance of climbing the South Tower this season. We left from our camp on the Moraine at nine am to start the approach. We climbed fast and light carrying even less equipment then we had the day before. It being our second attempt we had the approach dialed. We arrived at the shoulder at noon and were looking at the summit ridge. All the ice from the day before had melted and the beautiful cracks of the upper portion of the south tower were exposed. We climbed in simultaneous fashion for most of the ridge, pitching it out for three separate sections of five ten. We reached the summit of the South Tower at five thirty proper on January twelfth, to a view, which was more unique then anything I have ever seen. Every mountain in the park stood beneath us, except Paine Grande, which with its luminous summit mushrooms stood proud on the horizon. I scanned the valley in disbelief at the shape of things and the formation of the land beneath us. Soon Sebastian joined me on the summit and we shared a short celebration before our eyes feel down to the Silence Valley were we could see our tent. From the summit of the South Tower, we could see a storm developing in the distance. When we saw the tent bellow and the approaching storm the celebration was over. We both knew that the most dangerous part of the climb was still ahead, the decent. Most climbing accidents happen during the decent and we both knew that. We started our decent moving through a series of down climbs and rappels. At each rappel station we would look at the anchor and make an assessment of the condition of that anchor and whether it was to be trusted or not. Some anchors required new webbing and others we concluded were still in shape from the previous season. We misjudged one of the anchors. It was an orange peace of tubular webbing with lots of color. During the rappel one side of the anchor broke. For five seconds of my life we were hanging from one piton and a piece of webbing, which had already failed me once. Our karma must have been positive. This was by far the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me. This was a true near death experience. We rappelled quickly and smoothly another five feet to a small ledge and built a new anchor. The relief of building my own anchor and clipping into it was like nothing I’ve ever felt. We finished the rest of the decent without incident and reached our camp before dark at ten pm. We had fulfilled our dream of climbing the South Tower in thirteen hours round trip from the moraine in full commitment alpine style.

South Tower of Paine from the south east. Photo taken by Sebastain Munoz from the summit of El Cuchillo.
Sebastian had told me about a virgin peak that he had been trying to climb in the French Valley of Torres del Paine earlier in the season. He said that when he was up there that the conditions weren’t exactly right, but know that some time had passed he believed that it would be possible to climb in alpine style, one push in a single day. I told him that I would carry all the things we needed for a first accent from the Silence Valley to the French Valley and meet him there in two days. Sebastian was going to go back to town for food. I spent a few days in Japanese organizing my equipment and packing the biggest backpack I have ever carried. It was twenty two kilometers from Japanese to the French Valley. I was very selective on what I brought with me, but we were climbing an unclimbed route on a virgin mountain, which meant I couldn’t just leave certain essentials behind. It took me eight hours of grueling load carrying, but I finally reach my destination. Climbing in Patagonia is all about being fast. You need to get into position and be in position at the right time if you want to climb. I knew that there was another weather window coming and if Sebastian and I wanted to put up this new route I would need to get the equipment there that night. The next day the weather improved and we moved all the gear and food to a cave high on the moraine just below the formation. We spent one night in the cave and arose to beautiful Patagonia weather. To get to the base of the climb, we needed to scramble up four hundred meters of slab that went at up to five eight at the top. Once at the base we eyed out a line that looked possible and started climbing. We swapped leads the whole way navigating through crack systems unseen until we reached the summit. It was a perfect day. No wind! The rappels went fine and we reached the bivi cave before dark, with a virgin summit climbed in alpine style added to our resume.
It had been both Sebastian and I’s dream to one day climb Cerro Torre. Up until know though I wasn’t sure If I had the ability or the right partner, to pull off such a summit. After climbing a virgin summit and the South Tower I was confident that we could at least give that Compressor Route a try. Maybe the opportunity wouldn’t develop, but at least we would have gained some knowledge. Sebastian organized logistics for transportation, while I organized gear. Calafate is an amazing place. The Torre glacier is by far the most beautiful place I have ever been. When we showed up in Glacier National Park, Cerro Torre was covered in ice. Most teams that had been there all season were moving out and going home. We spent two days carrying loads, during which the weather was improving. Each day we observed the mountain slowly melting. On the second day while we were carrying loads, a team of climbers one American, John, and an Argentinean, Agustin, had gone up to make an attempt. The route wasn’t in condition yet, and on the decent Agustin lost his footing and fell down into a crevasse. He was badly injured and needed a rescue. I was amazed at the man power that showed up to help Agustin (Argentine) out. It took two days to rescue him back to town, and a team of fifty, but he was good to go. Me and Sebastian were left with good weather and knew that if we didn’t make an attempt we would be wasting it. We hustled back up to camp reaching it at one am on February third. The following morning we packed our bags and set off to climb the mountain of dreams. We scrambled up a wall directly north of El Mocho and after a full day of climbing reached a Burnstrum just below the Col of Conquest. We had gotten totally of route not even going far enough up the glacier to reach the five hundred meters of mixed climbing leading to the Col of Conquest. We spent the night on a little ice ledge, which we had chipped out from the Burnstrum. In the middle of the night it started to snow and we decided to rappel. We spent the next day rappelling and arrived at camp exhausted.
Sebastian and I had shared a great season together and were both in conclusion that it was time to end our endeavors. The weather was degrading and we both were happy with what we had accomplished. I had learned a lot and knew that Cerro Torre was going no ware. There is always a next time. And next time I would be armed with knowledge and new strategy.
As an alpinist you feel that you have the best chance of survival on your quest to the summit by experiencing the mountain. The more you expose yourself to cold weather and the alpine environment the more confidence you gain in those conditions. Confidence is important. To face an endeavor which is life threatening, like climbing a mountain in Patagonia, you need confidence. You have to be bold and confident that you have the ability to survive the mountain without incident. Your life is not your own. Climbing is an act of selfishness. You isolate yourself from your friends and family and dedicate yourself to the summit. The selfishness behind the act of climbing is that you take risks inherent to climbing that could potentially injure or kill you. This affects everyone. You didn’t want to die or get hurt, but you committed yourself when you made the commitment to partake in the activity. When you climb in alpine style you accept the possibility of injury or death. You can do everything right and something can still happen to you, that is the nature of alpinism. This experience has forced me to look inside myself.
I love climbing. I am a hundred percent convinced that it makes me a better person. It gives me purpose and bliss in a world that at times can seem so grim and has taught me more about who I am and what life is more than any other aspect of my life. I am going to continue to climb for the rest of my life. There is a fine line between life and death and the key to walking that line is inner balance. I love climbing because it is a way for me to express ultimate freedom. When climbing I am isolated. I am in my own domain. I make the law. In my climbing realm climbers make all the decisions; we decide what our future is. There is no greater feeling and act of rebellion then climbing. It defies all standards. I refuse to fall into a system I don’t believe in. When I climb I am living at the individual level. Surviving as a climber is simple all you need is to eat, drink and sleep. When in the mountains you don’t buy or sell, you just live. In living this way you are limiting exploitation. Exploitation, unfortunately, is a natural fact of life. Just by living we are in natural competition, which leads to exploitation of one another and the earth. Globalization has brought this exploitation to a worldwide scale. We have a population problem. We are using up the worlds resources. The balance of the earth is off. As a climber you learn to accept inevitabilities. You become an animal at the most basic level living as part of the mountain. When living as an alpinist you are surviving. It is impossible to maintain your life in an alpine environment for extended periods of time. You are walking the line between life and death, the line of a survivor.
Through this experience I learned about contradiction and balance. Life is full of contradictions. In climbing you are constantly fighting an inner battle of contradiction. You want to go up while at the same time wanting to go down. You don’t want to die while at the same time you’re willing to risk your life. Life is the same. I don’t want to exploit the earth or take advantage of others, but I have a need to survive. The solution is to find some middle ground, a balance between the two contradictions. Without taking risk you will never achieve anything, but if you take too much risk you sacrifice everything. This year in Patagonia, thanks to a Mountain Fellowship Grant by the American Alpine Club, I have pushed my limits. I have learned what my boundaries are. Life is a gift and the point is to live it. I am excited to see were my life takes me next. I will continue to search for the perfect balance.
Walker Mackey


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