Mount Fitz Roy: Surmounting a dream

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By Michael Sanchez
Translation by Abigail Nobes
 
Editors Note: The following is from Issue 13.
 
Unbearable are the nights spent waiting for the chance to be there again. I had already tried to go before, without success, and now I looked for a new opportunity. My first attempt to climb Mount Fitz Roy was during the winter season. Unfortunately, one of my closest climbing friends, and others, suffered severe frostbite, which caused us to turn away from the summit. The next summer, poor weather conditions made us give up again, further still transforming Fitz Roy into the mountain of my dreams. 
 
Now, a few years later, and after more than a decade of climbing in Patagonia, here was a unique and rare opportunity. Would this be my chance to surmount Chalten, the name given to this legendary peak by the native Tehueleche Indians?
 
After a jam-packed climbing season, Max Didier, Cristóbal “Tola” Señoret and I traveled to El Chalten, a small town bordered on either side by Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. Nothing in Patagonia can compare to the mysticism and history that these mountains carry; their splendid slopes of pure granite are an adventure from start to finish, where you can never be certain of what you will encounter along the way. For their aesthetic beauty and technical difficulties, these summits have become true icons for mountaineers the world over.
 
We decided to make our ascent using the historical “Tehuelche” route. This route would bring us to the summit of Fitz Roy by way of its northern face, similar to the journey Gino Casassa took in 1980, the first Chilean to climb this mountain. We chose this route because we yearned for a challenge that would really take us to the limit both physically, mentally and emotionally. It includes a 1300 meter (4265 foot) climb with a steep gradient of 6b+ that would bring us to a vertical stretch of rock. We were anxious to test our abilities and have an experience that went beyond what one can find on the Afanasieff or Supercanaleta routes.
 
Climbing the Mountain
In near total darkness, only interrupted by the light of our headlamps, at 4 a.m.  we hiked until the break of dawn for a trip that would mark the rest of our lives. We climbed uphill, downhill, on stretches of flat ground and trekked all the way to Piedra Negra. There, we rested while contemplating the terrain, which was overwhelmingly dominated by snow, ice and granite.
 
 
 
 
From the Paso del Cuadrado, we descended toward Chalten. Once at the base of the massif, we prepared the gear we would use until the 14th pitch. With crampons, boots, pickaxes and ropes we approached the start of the wall, walking through the snow and scaling ice sheets for an hour and a half until arriving at the Tehuelche route.
 
There, in front of the wall, a series of sensations started to arise inside of me. Fear of the unknown, but also anxiousness and a certain amount of nervousness. I battled these feelings with the confidence that I have developed physically and mentally over the years from confronting similar challenges. Eventually, these feelings passed slowly into the back of my mind.
 
We looked quickly at the map, transforming ourselves from mountaineers into climbers. Our strategy would be simple: a leader would scale the rock until they tired, and then the next person would follow.
 
At 9 p.m., amid the last rays of sunlight, we concluded the first day. We were tired, but in good spirits because our first bivouac would be in the “Great Hotel” after the long, 18-hour day.
 
We enjoyed the night and the sublime panoramic views, at about 500 meters (1640 feet) above ground, and we felt privileged by the simple fact that we were there, in a place very few had been before. Our exhaustion mixed with some satisfaction, but also the inevitable thoughts that we had only just begun. We still had two days of climbing left.
 
The next morning, we got ready to start the 600 meter (1968 foot) climb to the legendary Diedro di Marco, the same area where Marco Sterni climbed in 1986 at the age of 21, becoming the first person to climb it off width. Then, Sterni made a hole in the rock, in which he managed to place a bolt that remains to this day. I imagine it in my mind, passing through the place and ensuring that my rope is connected with this important bolt. Rolando Garibotti, the veteran Argentine mountain climber and expert on Fitz Roy, told us before our climb that it was no longer here, so it surprised us to discover this stoic bolt does in fact remain despite the passage of time.
 
I put all my energy into leading the most beautiful pitches of my life via a fracture that divides the mountain in two, a magical place that seemed made to be climbed. It's a fissure, no more than 40 cm wide, where you are embedding your body on the ascent and where the protection is never as you would like, which forces one at times to risk a solo free climb.
 
 
 
 
At a certain point, as night approached we had become mesmerized by the incredible views on the mountain. We also feared making a bivouc for the night in an uncomfortable place, but then we heard voices and shouts above us. We looked up at the sky and saw three Chilean climbing friends who encouraged us to keep going to the second bivouac point. Once there, we dined with Cerro Torre and countless stars in the horizon.
 
On the third day, we continued our ascent, climbing both mixed and easy sections for 250 meters (820 feet) until at midday we stepped onto the foggy summit of Fitz Roy. The peak had already been visited by another group of climbers whom greeted us with open arms. Soon, the emotion and excitement of a dream come true was celebrated with hugs, smiles and photos. It was an unforgettable moment as we took in the breathtaking landscape that surrounded this giant of Patagonia.
 
After a couple hours at the top, we began the return trip, rappelling down the Franco-Argentine route. Some incidents obliged us to stay attentive, reminding us that we had only completed about half of our expedition and that we shouldn’t lower our guard just yet. When we returned to solid ground, we gave a celebratory shout, almost in unison, to celebrate our return.
 
Advancing through the night, we arrived to Paso Superior just before dawn. While making camp, we heard news about the death of Iñaki Courssirat, an Argentinean climber, who was hit by falling rocks while ascending the east face of Fitz Roy. For a moment, we thought about looking for the body of our friend, but the crude reality was we were in no condition to do it and the sad, but heroic task, would have to be left to others.
 
In the end, we thus returned to civilization with mixed feelings. The ecstasy of surmounting a longtime goal together with sorrow and frustration on an expedition that we will remember for the rest of our lives. 
 
 

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