Back in June this year, Jerry Gore got in touch asking me whether I’d be interested in an expedition to Patagonia to attempt the first ascent of the unclimbed south face of the South Tower of Paine. Patagonia is a place I’ve always wanted to visit and there was no way I could turn down such a great opportunity. I booked flights soon after and eagerly anticipated the date of departure.
The team for the expedition comprised of myself, Mike ‘Twid’ Turner, Jerry Gore and French camera man Raphael Jochaud. After a long journey we finally arrived in Torres del Paine national park only we were one French man short! We made the pleasant trek into the impressive Bader Valley accompanied by Mules carrying a month’s worth of cereal bars and noodles and set up base camp. The following day Raphael joined us and the team was ready to move up the valley.
Setting up advanced base camp was fairly involved in 60mph winds. After digging up some walls of snow against an overhung boulder we thought we’d created a fairly sheltered spot to put up a tent. I started putting the tent up from the inside and was soon waiting for Twid and Jerry to tie it down, when an almighty gust came, lifting the tent up, with me inside, and blowing it over into the boulder field. Now lying on my back, I hung on to a boulder with one hand and the tent for dear life with the other, until the wind abated enough to flip the tent back into its alcove. We hastily weighed the tent down with bags and rocks and were soon brewing up inside the meek fabric shelter.
After a few days of ferrying gear up to advanced base camp in exceptionally strong winds, we were ready to start climbing. I set off with Twid up the slabby apron which skirts the base of the wall. The temperatures were sub-zero and snow covered all the holds but we both knew it would be much easier and faster to free climb the lower slabs. I teetered onto a small ledge and donned tight fitting rock shoes before climbing the relatively easy but bold first pitch. As I arrived at the belay I realised that I had very little sensation left in any of my toes and when I took the rock boots off the blood rushed back in giving me some horrendous pins and needles. After another pitch we reached the ridgeline and over the other side was the impressive Central Tower of Paine towering over the glacier below.
Unfortunately the poor weather returned and progress over the following week was very slow in the cold winds and occasional wintery showers. Twid pulled out a couple of impressive leads on harder aid pitches and I ardently donned my rock boots as often as possible, although much of the time my fingertips were just too cold to grip the granite edges for long.
After days of slow progress in bad weather, through the area of the poorest quality granite, Raphael and I were finally greeted with a nice, if a little chilly day. We made good progress managing several pitches with a mixture of free and aid climbing and finally reached the intriguing black line of rock that is evident in the pictures of the face. The black rock is actually a band of diorite, or something similar, and is really loose.
At this point we had about seven days left of our expedition and we were pretty close to the summit with only a few pitches left and then a scramble to the summit. Unfortunately in Patagonia though, nothing is a foregone conclusion! We encountered a week of awful weather, with winds constantly ranging between 60 and 100mph. We tried to climb every day and quite literally inched our way up the wall. On our final day of climbing we had only two short vertical pitches left as well as perhaps 150m of scrambling and after battling poor conditions we were finally stopped by strong winds and blustery snow showers as we reached the top of the wall proper. In those conditions it felt a little unjustifiable to continue upwards and descending was difficult enough. After a very long abseil descent we finally reached the small patch of glacier below and in the short distance between the wall and the boulder field we actually walked into a white out as the weather worsened.
We’d failed to reach the summit but had a great adventure climbing the wall. During our 18 days up at ABC we had only two days of good weather and temperatures were consistently sub-zero. The route would certainly go free in better weather and as it stands our ascent had aid climbing up to around A3+ in difficulty and 6c+ in free climbing although one pitch was managed with several rests at about 7b+. Torres del Paine and in particular the Bader valley are places I’d love to go back to as the climbing potential out there is unbelievable and throughout our whole time in the area we were the only climbers in the national park! Thanks to the guys for a great trip and I’m already getting excited about heading back out to Patagonia in January with sights set on Cerro Torre…