Scaling Patagonia's Torres del Paine
About 150 miles north of the Straits of Magellan on Chile's Patagonian ice cap soars a set of 8,000-foot pink granite teeth that are perhaps the closest Mother Nature has come to creating a scream in stone. If the prospect of scaling these spires—the Torres del Paine—isn't sufficient to inspire religious conversion, the savagery of the wind will at least leave you convinced that the Almighty is one hell of a housekeeper. Locals say la escoba de Dios, the "broom of God," sweeps this landscape—a fitting metaphor for the 100-mile-per-hour gusts that routinely lash climbers clinging to the Torres' walls. "That's the way it goes in Patagonia,"shrugs Rodrigo Mujica, director of the Jackson, Wyomingbased guiding company Aventuras Patagonicas. "Every day, you get your ass kicked."
OUTFITTER: Aventuras Patagonicas; 888-203-9354; www.patagonicas.com
DATES: November 14 December 5, 2000
*Prices throughout do not include airfare.
To summit any of these peaks on your own, you need to be a highly proficient aid climber with plenty of rock experience in rain, sleet, and snow. If you come up short on these requirements and don't have the time to acquire highly developed aid-climbing skills through a lengthy apprenticeship, then you need a guide like Mujica, a 36-year-old Chilean-American mountaineer who plans to take clients up the Central Tower, the most demanding and exposed of the tower routes, this winter.
"It takes a special kind of person to do this," admits Mujica. And for good reason. With crux moves up to 5.10c/A2, only strong climbers need apply for the privilege of attacking the 19 pitches (six to high camp, 13 more to the summit). "It can be very, very scary," adds Mujica, who also guides difficult trips in Antarctica (see Polar Exploration, page 78). And just as invigorating: "I learned I was a lot stronger than I thought," says Patrice Spencer, a 5.11 climber who hired Mujica to guide her up the neighboring North Tower in December 1999. "Up there, you can't afford to think, 'Oh my God, what am I doing here?'" And agood thing, too. He'd never hear you over the wind.
NEXT TIME, TRY:
Climbing Denali's West Rib
OUTFITTER: Mountain Trip; 907-345-6499; www.mountaintrip.com
DATES: June 7, 2000 and June 7, 2001
Yeah, yeah, we know: North America's highest, coldest, and most famous peak is so well-trodden that tackling it may strike hard-core innovators as a bit of a cliché.Last year alone, 1,183 climbers attempted Mount McKinley. But only someone who's never gaped at its 20,320-foot summit and witnessed the ferocity of its storms, which routinely reduce tents to Taco Bell style lettuce shreds, would dismiss Denali as passé. So if you're looking for that extra measure of challenge, stick with Denali, but bypass the popular West Buttress/Washburn Route and take a crack at the West Rib.
The route, Alaskan Grade 4, shoots up 8,400 feet in roughly two miles, and has technical sections of mixed rock and ice, as well as ice couloirs and an airy ridge at 16,500 feet. Last year it saw only 60 climbers—18 of whom actually summited. Because the Rib is far more exposed than the West Buttress, it can be extremely dangerous (at 17,000 feet, the route intersects a notorious chute tactlessly called The Orient Express, where eight Asian climbers have fallen to their deaths). But when the weather holds, the challenges can provide one of the most satisfying ascents in all of North America. And best of all, you'll probably have the entire thing to yourself. "It's a beautiful climb," says Alaska-based Mountain Trip guide Gary Bocarde, who's done the Rib five times. "Hopefully, you won't get blown off it."
OR, DO IT YOURSELF...
Traversing Bolivia's Mount Illimani
WHEN TO GO: August
Looming over the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, Mount Illimani is more massif than mountain. While many have climbed 21,201-foot South Peak, the highest of Illimani's five summits, only two groups have ever linked all five peaks (the lowest of which is 20,042 feet). The ten-mile traverse on an exposed ridge was hailed by Yossi Brain, the foremost authority on Bolivian climbing who was killed in an avalanche last year, as "the longest and most impressive mountaineering expedition in Bolivia." And it's easy to see why. The ridge, a beautiful blade that separates the country's arid altiplano from its steamy jungles, rarely dips below 20,000 feet, meaning a minimum of three nights of fitful sleep. La Paz is teeming with climbing agencies happy to drive your team the four hours to the trailhead and back for roughly $320. In addition to a solid four-season tent, you'll need a multi-fuel stove that fires reliably at 20,000 feet. Bring lots of non-fatty foods—although once on top, you probably won't feel like eating. At this altitude, the only thing your body wants is down.
SCALING THE TORRES DEL PAINE: HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES?
Strength/endurance: Climbers will need strong upper bodies to jug pitch after pitch, hauling heavy packs of gear up the wall. A successful summit bid can require 18 solid hours on the rock. Clients must also be fit enough to ferry equipment and foodstuffs up steep terrain to high camp before storms hit.
Mental Fitness: Be ready to come home exhausted, having given it your all for three straight weeks and possibly still not conquered the summit. Those with summit-or-bust attitudes should do themselves a favor and attack something with better odds.
Environmental Challenges: Expect to climb only a few hours a day for most days before the "freight train" winds arrive and spit you off. As an added bonus, the near-freezing to below-freezing temperatures will make your hands ache, but you won't be able to put them in your pockets because you've still got to belay Mujica. His life—and yours—depend on it.
Skills: Although Mujica leads all the pitches, clients must be solid 5.9 climbers. Familiarity with ascenders, daisy chains, atriers, and other aid-climbing equipment and techniques is a must. You've got to know how to clean protection—and how to avoid dropping it while fiddling with frozen hands.
MOUNTAINEERS' READING LIST:
For Inspiration: Annapurna, A Woman's Place, by Arlene Blum. The author chronicles her 1978 all-women expedition to place the first American, and the first woman, on the summit of the world's tenth-highest peak.
For Practical Know-How: Freedom of the Hills, edited by Don Graydon, published by The Mountaineers Books. Acomprehensive primer on all aspects of mountain travel and safety.
To Scare Yourself Silly: Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson. While climbing in the Andes in 1985, Simpson broke his leg, fell off a cliff into a crevasse, was given up for dead by his partner, climbed out, and hobbled for three days back to camp, arriving just before his friends, who had burned his gear, were about to depart. A horrific account of what can go wrong in the mountains.