Adventures of the Irresponsible
In this excerpt from the 2013 book ‘Climbing Fitz Roy, 1968: Reflections on the Lost Photos of the Third Ascent,’ the late cofounder of the North Face, Doug Tompkins, reflects on his pivotal journey to Patagonia as a young dirtbag
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It challenges the mind to recall with accuracy—nearly forty-five years later—the now “legendary,” 1968 Funhogs-go-to-Patagonia trip. So much legend has been woven into the tale, so many blurry edges of memory, so many recountings and embellishments of anecdotes, that the real story has evolved into a kind of epic adventure. Perhaps to recount what may have really happened would disappoint the reader.
This is, of course, disenchanting, like rain on a picnic, but surely we could not have been the swashbuckling adventurers we thought we were. We weren’t Shackleton at the South Pole or Burton discovering the Nile. It was a long overland trek through Latin America in a beat-up van by five dirtbag climbers—with surfboards, skis, and climbing gear—avoiding proper and serious work, leaving their wives or girlfriends to fend for themselves, and searching for god knows what. It was, in short, a way to avoid coming to grips with entering the industrial work force, and a way to continue the long steady inflow of adrenaline and peak experience action that we had all become addicted to.
We were just another small group of mountain and ocean yahoos off for a long On The Road, Kerouac-type adventure, with all kinds of spurious excuses that this was what life was really about. I admit it, we were drunk on our own self-righteous justifications for doing something significant, when in truth it was really about skirting doing anything that had some social or environmental worth. We did have one supportably righteous thing about us: we were all against the war in Vietnam.
So in the middle of 1968, I kissed my wife, Susie, and our young daughters goodbye and off I went with the lads. The first part of the trip went along the same lines as my earlier Mexican surfing trips as we surfed in familiar places until we finally pushed out of Mexico and hit new territory.
Suddenly all the agonies of the ice caves, the cold hands and feet, the discomfort and poor or little food, the uncertainty in the final weeks as to whether we would get enough good weather to do the climb, all vanished.
An episode that sticks in my mind occurred while camping in Guatemala. If I remember correctly, we were brought out of our dreams by the sound of automatic weapons being cocked in the predawn light. I opened one eye to see what was up, only to have my sleeping bag pulled up around my head, leaving only my eyes in the opening. A teenage soldier pointing his automatic rifle at us was shouting something in Spanish that wasn’t at all clear to my rough understanding of Spanish in those days. I noticed the point of his gun shaking as he spoke. Then Lito, the best Spanish speaker among us—and the one given to speaking more than any of us anyway—sat up with his hands over his head, speaking at 90 mph.
According to the soldier in charge of this small unit, they had shot an infiltrator, a rebel of sorts, the night before and, though wounded, he had escaped. We were ordered to get out of our sleeping bags and show we had no wounds. Lito, still talking at 90 mph, explained we were merely sport-adventure tourists—our California license plate as evidence—just on a vacation to their wonderful country. If we saw anyone suspicious we would report that to the police or to the army. It was over fairly quickly—they bought Lito’s explanation and left us to gather our stuff and get back on the road.
On we went through Central America, mostly without incident, hitting good surf spots in Panama where we had heard there were good breaks, although the swell was moderate. We crossed the Caribbean by Spanish freighter, which proved a bit of an adventure in itself.
On through the winding roads of Colombia and down into the lowlands of Ecuador. We found more beaches and good surfing north of Guayaquil, with no other surfers and breaks that had perhaps never been surfed until then. After that we passed into northern Peru and surfed down the coast with various small adventures, as we met surfing friends and had close calls in big water, rocky shores and off surfing piers, even breaking a board in 15-foot waves. We did some sand-skiing with some Peruvian-thrillcraft types in dune buggies and had good meals and pisco sours for the drinkers among us. Finally, we pushed south into Chile.
One night along the north Chilean coast, we had parked on some high bluffs above the ocean; several of the lads were sleeping on the ground and I was on the sleeping platform in the van. With neither warning, nor provocation, the van slipped out of gear and began to roll forward towards the boys sleeping on the ground, and to the cliff and certain death. Instinctively, and by great luck, I managed to dive over the seat, plunged to the front floorboards, and put on the brakes with my hands, just managing to stop the van before it ran over the fellows and the cliff beyond. It did prove that the mind, even in sleep, can still be alert. In searching my memory that is how it seemed to have happened, although my fellow Fun Hogs might have even a totally different story!
On south to Santiago, where we did an on-the-street overhaul of our engine, which needed new pistons. Farther south, we skied down the Llaima Volcano near Temuco and put our arms in the smoke billowing out of the crater. Here Dick Dorworth, the best skier among us, showed his talents. We had a great time skiing and filming in the beauty of the Chilean Lake District: this was Araucaria country, characterized by the beautiful monkey-puzzle trees of south Chile.
At the end of the road in Puerto Montt, Chile, we crossed the lakes into Argentina and Bariloche, and spent some weeks rock climbing and got ready to launch ourselves into Patagonia for the last push south.
The trip from Bariloche was beautiful. We drove farther south through the rural towns of El Bolsón, with only horses tied to the hitching posts outside the bars, and Epuyén, and Esquel south of the beautiful Los Alerces National Park. Those were the days to have been there, even prior to the hippie invasion of the mid-1970s. (Although that invasion did exert a positive and greener influence on the region, finally putting pressure on mining, bad forestry, and even protesting the idea of a nuclear waste dump in Patagonia. Today’s environmental movement in Argentina has many of its roots in this cultural shift.)
On we drove, feeling the very sparse population and the wide-open spaces reminiscent of some parts of the western United States, but without any pavement. Practically all we saw were sheep stations and the small towns where stores supplied the staples for the sheep estancias and provided some small social life for those living in the Patagonian outback. We traveled for days, with many flat tires, a million potholes, and 900-plus miles of washboard road. Then, from out on the steppe, we finally saw the Fitz Roy massif from a great distance. We stopped—that I remember well—and stretched our bodies and stared out to the west, thinking that finally, there she was, the Fitz Roy, mythical peak of Patagonia, named by the equally mythical, Argentine equivalent of John Muir, Francisco “Perito” Moreno, for Robert FitzRoy, the captain of Charles Darwin’s ship the Beagle.
Could we see the line we wanted to climb from there? We all debated it, but we knew very little of what we were going to find. I had only seen a few photos of the mountain and those were on the cover and in the book about Lionel Terray and Guido Magnone, the French alpinists who had led the first ascent. I had also seen some of the photos shot from the west side by Jose Luis Fonrouge and Carlos Comesaña, the Argentine andinistas who had done a new route up the Super Couloir in 1965. Fonrouge had been living at our house in California for some months the year before so we had talked extensively about climbing in Patagonia. The mountain was bigger than life in my imagination. And now we had seen it—although from far, far away—and we were getting psyched. The conversations back in the van were accelerating significantly as we continued on some sixty miles across the grassy steppe.
We arrived in the valley of the Río de las Vueltas. There were only a few sheep and no buildings whatsoever where the town of El Chaltén is located today—not one single structure! It is tough to accept that the implacable “March of Progress” has so altered a place as to be unrecognizable today, that you could be in a place without a structure and, in half a lifetime, an entire town has materialized in that spot. It is scary to realize how rapidly civilization advances and the ugliness and the poor development that pour in to take advantage of the spectacular scenery in the background, while despoiling the foreground so brutally. Development is wildly out of control, hurtling culture towards a dystopian nightmare, one that we are more accustomed to in big cities, but that is more startling and unnerving in the once wild southern Patagonia.
We should be careful not to make more of things than what they are. Yet, it seems fair to look back and see what it was that pointed me where I have actually been these last forty-five years.
The climb was remarkable for us. It was a time in climbing history that was much more innocent; we were not as fast as today’s climbers, not as technically skilled either. Our minds were locked and restricted into the standards of the day, which set our boundaries only slightly ahead of what had already been done. Speed and solo ascents were not the norm at that time, so we had no pretensions of any such thing. And we were trying to make a film of it all, to naively express ourselves and our values.
I look back at those times now, amazed by how naive and uninformed we were, yet I suppose that is how almost everyone sees their inexperienced youth. We were ambitious for our time, ready for anything and eager to put the cherry on the cake of this long and adventurous trip. We had at least reached the final goal and we were sure we would make a great climb of it.
I had no doubts that we would climb Fitz Roy, yet we had our work cut out for us; it would take us a long time, much more than we had bargained for. We would become, as Terray had said, “conquistadors of the useless,” an existential metaphor that appealed to me then, and perhaps even more now, with what little wisdom—or better sense of irony—that I may have accumulated over the years.
I will not go into the details of the climb and the trials and tribulations we had with the weather: the twenty or thirty days in a snow cave, the drowsy semi-sleep of day in and day out, the interminable hours waiting out storms, and the dreamtime storytelling to keep us semi-occupied as we wiled away the time waiting for better weather. We got on well for the most part, although expeditions in tight quarters often cause friction, and some of us were undoubtedly less patient than others. If, indeed, we had grumbles, they disappeared as we pulled our last steps onto the summit and raised our little flag with broad smiles.
We were on the top of the world at that moment—masters, in our own minds, of all we surveyed. Suddenly all the agonies of the ice caves, the cold hands and feet, the discomfort and poor or little food, the uncertainty in the final weeks as to whether we would get enough good weather to do the climb, all vanished. The great weight of wondering if we would get to the top was off our shoulders. That surge of satisfaction all climbers feel when they have reached their goal was gushing from all five of us.
Now we turned our attention to what is often the most dangerous part of climbing, the descent, where the relaxation of one's vigil to be safe and prudent can lead to trouble. We reminded each other of this, and set off down the mountain in the building wind. After what seemed like (and may well have been) an endless night with ropes blowing straight up, we stumbled into the ice cave, tired but delighted, congratulating each other on a marvelous adventure and the deed that we finally accomplished. Reaching the summit was the proper cap to the long trek from California and the thread of adventures along the way.
What took place in the subsequent days, I cannot really remember, although we had to do some filming for Lito to help him piece the film together coherently. After that we had ice cream on our minds, and probably within a week we were, in fact, eating ice cream on a street corner in Comodoro Rivadavia.
How does a major trip like this from California to Patagonia, when roads were far less developed than what they are today, in a secondhand van we bought cheap in San Francisco, shape one's personal trajectory in life? Many people have asked me this. It is hard to say. We should be careful not to make more of things than what they are. Yet, this was a formative experience, and now that the majority of my days are behind me, it seems fair to look back and see what it was that pointed me where I have actually been these last forty-five years.
Certainly, my now intimate connection with Argentina and Chile grew out of these experiences. In the early 1990s, Yvon and I, along with our good friend Rick Ridgeway, walked in to take a look at the most formidable face in the Patagonian Andes: the south face of San Lorenzo. That walk resulted in the conservation purchase of the estancia in the valley leading up to the peak, and soon we will donate this property to enlarge the Perito Moreno National Park, which shares its boundary.
The years of skiing, kayaking and climbing, in both Chile and Argentina, left me with great experiences, great knowledge of the mountains and rivers, and a great group of friends in both countries. I became, after so many visits year in and year out, as familiar with the Southern Cone perhaps as anyone, especially south of the 40th parallel. Now, as the years pass and with four round-trips in a single-engine plane back and forth from California to Patagonia (some down as far as Cape Horn), I am certainly settled in my life in the Southern Cone.
Finally, in 1990, I moved permanently to Chile and became seriously involved in land conservation. Best of all though, it was my good fortune to have met back up with Kris McDivitt, a friend and business partner of Yvon and Malinda Chouinard, when Kris came down to southern Argentina for a Patagonia company meeting. As all good romance novels go, we fell in love, got married, and have been living happily ever after, working on environmental and conservation projects now for over twenty years in Chile and Argentina. All of that has been, in some ways, the mark of my destiny when we got in that van in 1968. I would be fooling myself to say that that fateful adventure did not influence—and influence heavily—the direction life took me in.
So, I give thanks, as I look back, that fate played its mysterious hand guiding me along a wonderful path, in a life with never a single moment of regret. If I could play it over, I would let it go just as it has, with all the minor bumps that came with it. Just like those bumps along the last 900 miles from Bariloche to the Fitz Roy valley—sometimes a bit uncomfortable, but still very enjoyable all the way.