SKAGIT ALPINISM

A Brief Visit to Patagonia, and Reflections on Hard Solo Climbing

August 25th, 2019

I’m currently beginning the long journey back from El Chaltén, concluding my shortest-yet trip to Patagonia, and by far my least productive. I have by now made a total of 16 trips to El Chaltén, and the biggest, most stable window of good weather I’ve ever seen was during the past two weeks. However, August is mid-winter in Patagonia (it’s the equivalent of February in the northern hemisphere), and as often seems to be the case with big, mid-winter systems of high-pressure, it was pretty darn cold. During this window, low temperatures in town ranged from -8C to -12C, and the summit of Chaltén is 3,000m above town, so I think it’s pretty safe to say that low temperatures up high in the mountains were easily below -20C. In addition to the cold temperatures, travel in winter is more difficult, and of course there are fewer than 12 hours of daylight. Because of these factors, I think that no big climbs were completed during this humongous window of good weather, despite at least a couple teams attempting Chaltén, and one attempting Cerro Torre.

One of the factors that resulted in me doing no climbing is that on the journey down to El Chaltén I got sick. While I was fortunately never extremely ill during the trip, I have been sick the entire time, and still am sick now while departing. This is my fourth consecutive big climbing trip that has been majorly disrupted by illness, and my top priority now is to search for answers. My suspicion is that I have some sort of chronic sinusitis.

My main goal on this trip was to make a winter, solo ascent of Chaltén via the Supercanaleta. The idea seemed exciting, and I figured that in mid winter I would surely have the route to myself, which I think makes for a more legitimate solo ascent, and something that is increasingly elusive in Chaltén during the summertime on a classic route. To my surprise, two other teams of climbers went to the Supercanaleta during the same period, and since they hired porters for the approach,* it made for actually a lot of tracks on the Glaciar Fitz Roy Norte in mid winter!

My activity was pretty minimal: Early in the window I carried a massive load to Piedra Negra, cached it, and returned to town. When I decided it was the right time to make my attempt, I spent a day traveling to Paso del Cuadrado, where I slept for the night. The following day I carried my massive pack to the base of the Supercanaleta, observed the route for one hour, decided against climbing, and carried my massive pack back out of the mountains. The main reason I decided against climbing was that the Supercanaleta was in extremely dry condition. In good conditions, the real climbing begins at the Bloque Empotrado, and up to there are just 1,000m of steep snow/névé and easy ice. However, at the moment there are several sections of couloir below the Bloque Empotrado that are completely bare – just dry basalt dyke. These sections of basalt dyke are for sure still climbable, but it would’ve added a bunch more technical climbing to the route, which I thought might be too much for the short days. Given the temperatures, and being solo, making a bivouac on the route was out of the question for me. In hindsight I shouldn’t have been surprised by the conditions, as last summer was apparently extremely hot, and then the fall was extremely dry, but nonetheless I definitely had not anticipated the lower couloir being dry in mid winter.

Being sick, having dry conditions in the couloir, and cold temperatures were definitely all factors that contributed to me not climbing, but the most significant reason, and the reason I’m departing Chaltén much earlier than originally planned, is in my head: I realized that I’m burnt out on hard soloing. Traveling from the northern hemisphere to the base of the Supercanaleta was an extremely wasteful and expensive way to realize that I’m burnt out on hard soloing, but sometimes these sorts of things can’t be felt from afar.

I have done a lot of hard alpine soloing in my life, and I have already sworn it off several times before. My relationship with soloing seems to have some parallels to my past relationship with alcohol. I was never a regular drinker, but in high school and university I definitely enjoyed getting shit-faced on the weekends sometimes. While I thought, and still think, that getting drunk is loads of fun, I came to decide that the fun of getting drunk wasn’t worth the toll that it takes on your body. However, as is classically the case with an addictive activity, even once I had decided that alcohol was a bad idea, I still would get drunk now and then – the temptation of a really fun night would lure me in, and the next morning I would regret poisoning myself and vow to never do it again… but then do it again a few weeks later. I finally swore off alcohol for good on January 1 2008, in El Chaltén, during a horrendous hangover (New Years can be a big night in Argentina!), and during the decade since I’ve had probably a total of 10 alcoholic drinks. I’ve sworn off hard soloing several times before… maybe now is the moment I’ll finally have a lasting realization that it isn’t my best path forward. The comparison to alcohol is not a very close one though – unlike any time in my life that I’ve gotten drunk, past solo ascents I’ve made are proud accomplishments of mine, and I’m very glad I had those experiences. Also, I have no intention of quitting solo climbing “cold turkey” like I did with alcohol, but majorly de-prioritizing it.

My introduction to climbing unroped was not actually solo climbing, but simul-soloing in the Cascades with many of my mentors. We would often go out in big groups (well, at least, what I would call a “big” group – up to 4 climbers), and romp up easy classics unroped. This to me is a totally different activity from hard solo climbing, and I have no intention of quitting simul-soloing. In fact, I think it’s one of the most fun versions of climbing that exists.

My introduction to actual hard soloing was when I was 17 years old. I’m not sure what inspired me at that time, but over a couple weekends in the spring I made a couple “hard” (relative to my experience and abilities at the time) solo ascents: the North Face of Graybeard Peak**, and the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart in mixed conditions. I still vividly remember the psychological intensity, especially on Graybeard, of being scared and stressed, and wondering why I had gotten myself into this position. The psychological stress of hard alpine soloing, followed by the elation of coming out unscathed, followed by swearing it off, followed by getting tempted again, is a cycle I know so well at this point. The chorus of one of my favorite songs (“Would,” by Alice in Chains), always reminds me of it. I think these lyrics are about another form of addiction: heroin:
Into the flood again, same old trip it was back then.
So I made a big mistake, try to see it was my way.

After my stint in 2002 at 17 years old, soloing took a back-seat for 7 years of my life. I was in fact doing plenty of soloing during this period, but never hard enough to be very stressful, and all my main climbing goals during this period were with partners. Soloing was mostly something I did on routes that were technically very easy for me (easy enough that you don’t merely feel safe climbing unroped, but actually at ease), and it was mostly something I did when one of my good climbing partners wasn’t available. That is the healthy relationship with soloing that I think I should re-kindle now.

My first trip “into the flood again” of hard, stressful soloing was in January 2009. I was in El Chaltén, and my excellent climbing partner, Rolando Garibotti, had to depart a few weeks before I did. During an extremely mediocre weather window right before I had to fly home, I soloed Chaltén by the Supercanaleta. At the time I wrote in my climbing notes: “Hardest day of my life. I’ve never been more tired than after this, either mentally or physically.” I only finally surpassed that day in terms of psychological and physical intensity in 2016, during my epic solo descent of Sultana in a storm. Since my reintroduction to hard soloing on the Supercanaleta, I have done, and attempted, a lot of hard soloing in the past decade. I can say with confidence that at this point in my life, easily more than half of my most difficult climbing achievements have been solo ascents.

There are a number of things that attract me to hard soloing, but I think the most significant reasons stem from my perfectionist personality and detail-oriented mind. Some climbers manage to get up hard climbs by just throwing some stuff in a backpack, heading out, and figuring it out as they go along, in a sort of “whatever, it’s all good” mentality. Or, at the very least, they present it that way. By contrast, my climbing involves a lot of thinking, analyzing every little detail to maximize efficiency and safety. My favorite climbing partners, and the ones with whom I’ve done the best climbing, are all people who similarly think through every aspect of the climb in detail. With those partners I’m never puzzled by their choices or decisions. In a decision-making scenario they always seem to make the same decision I would’ve made, or if they do something differently it’s usually something that makes me think, “Interesting. That’s a good idea.” But those are my best partners. With other partners I sometimes find myself thinking, “What the hell is he/she doing? That makes no sense!” This can be with really minor things, like seeing my climbing partner put his/her bottle of warm water down directly on the snow (where it loses heat really quickly) instead of on his/her backpack or parka (where it is much better insulated), or it can be with pretty serious things, like people making belays which don’t seem certain to be safe. There are lots of people I know who are very good climbers but who I am hesitant to climb with because I don’t trust them to always make solid anchors, to always put in enough good protection when simul-climbing, or to always give me a safe belay. Of course, with my best partners we don’t always do everything in the safest possible manner, but all short-cuts of safety are done for calculated reasons that gain efficiency in other aspects of the climb, not just because of laziness, or inattentiveness, or lack of thinking. The beauty of solo climbing is that the control-freak perfectionist in me is in complete control of the equipment choices, the route finding, the anchors, and the strategy, able to decide all in a manner that I think is as efficient and safe as possible.

However, while soloing is in some ways a nice fit for a perfectionist like me, it has all sorts of downsides as well. One downside is that for the bigger, harder objectives, you almost always end up carrying a much heavier backpack into the mountains than you would with a partner. Another downside is that if it’s hard enough to self-belay, it becomes very slow and cumbersome compared to climbing with a partner. Not only is the climbing itself drastically more psychologically stressful, but for the more far-flung, expedition-style solo objectives, there is a lot of time before and after the actual ascent, hanging out by oneself, which is simply kinda boring and lonely! Of course the most significant downside of hard soloing is the increased risk. Like any kind of climbing, how risky it is really depends on the manner in which it’s done, and realistically no one can evaluate very accurately how much risk a solo climber is taking except for the climber himself/herself. I am proud to say that I think the hard solo ascents I’ve done I have undertaken with a much higher safety margin than many people who have done similar hard alpine soloing. Nonetheless, even if I solo more safely than others, there is no doubt that unroped climbing involves increased risk. Even if one is extremely careful and the climbing is far below one’s abilities, there is always the chance of being hit by falling rock or ice. Also, injuries that would be relatively non-life-threatening with a partner, like a broken tibia and fibula, could be disastrous if by oneself in a vast alpine wilderness. I have had so many friends who have died climbing, and I am more conscious than I’ve ever been before of how badly I want to avoid that outcome.

I am not vowing to never try major solo ascents again. I’m sure there will still be objectives now and then that are particularly inspiring ones to try solo, and I’m sure I’ll still do plenty of the mellow, easy, un-stressful type of soloing or simul-soloing that is truly fun. I’m vowing to majorly de-prioritize hard soloing. During the past decade I have become increasingly focused on solo objectives. I have found myself daydreaming about solo climbs more than about climbs with partners, and turning down opportunities to climb with good partners to pursue these solo objectives. That is the big mistake, and that is what I want to stop. I am very proud of the soloing I’ve done, but I’m sure that it has also held me back to a large degree. There have been many good weather windows in Patagonia during which I accomplished nothing because I was out soloing, but surely would have done something cool if I were out with a good partner (because hard soloing is so much riskier and more intimidating than climbing with a partner, I tend to bail whenever things aren’t totally perfect). If I had spent more time climbing with partners I would have surely done a lot more hard climbing as well. It is funny how hardcore and psychologically intense hard solo climbing is, yet the same route for the same climber with a partner would feel pretty chill and easy. Perhaps most importantly, if I had spent more time climbing with partners, I would have enjoyed myself more – it’s simply more fun with a friendly companion! The perfectionist, control-freak aspect of my personality gets frustrated with partners who don’t do everything in a thoughtful, competent manner, but the wiser, more zen aspect of my personality (buried somewhere deep inside! 😉 ) recognizes that even climbing with a partner who makes mistakes is usually drastically more safe, more fun, and more confidence-inspiring than climbing with no partner at all! Also, taking the time to foster good climbing partnerships would probably turn some of the OK climbing partnerships into really good ones.

My mom has been begging me for years to stop soloing. I’m not exactly doing that, but perhaps this will be a real step in that direction. A bit older, a bit wiser…

Here’s a nod of appreciation to the best climbing partners that I’ve had: Mark Bunker, Jed Brown, Rolo Garibotti, and Alex Honnold. I have, in fact, had lots of really great climbing partners who I really appreciate climbing with, but those aforementioned four are probably the ones I was most “in sync” with.

And here is a synopsis of my best solo ascents – the top few, and a list of others that are pretty good too. Listing these here may make me seem like a braggart, and I’ll certainly admit that I’m proud of this list, but the process of making it and looking over it is also a reminder to myself that I’ve accomplished enough in this niche of climbing to feel content, and hopefully happy shifting my focus in other directions:

THE TOP FEW:

1) Sultana (Central Alaska Range), The Infinite Spur, first solo ascent of the route, and speed record, (12:29 bergschrund-to-summit), 2016-06

2) Torre Egger and Punta Herron (Chaltén Massif), Spigolo dei Bimbi and Espejo del Viento, first solo ascents of both peaks, 2016-01

3) Begguya (Central Alaska Range) The North Buttress, first solo ascent of the north side of Begguya, and speed record (7:46 bergschrund-to-summit), 2017-05

4) Aguja Standhardt (Chaltén Massif), Exocet, first solo ascent of the peak, 2010-11

5) Mount Waddington AKA Mystery Mountain (BC Coast Range, Flavelle-Lane Route, first solo ascent of the peak, 2012-08

6) Denali (Central Alaska Range), Cassin Ridge, speed solo ascent (8:07 bergschrund-to-summit), 2018-06

7) Chaltén (Chaltén Massif), Supercanaleta, second solo ascent of the route, 2009-01

8) Chaltén (Chaltén Massif), California Route, fourth or fifth solo ascent of the route, 2015-12

OTHER GOOD ONES:

Patagonia
Aguja Poincenot, Whillans Route, solo ascent, 2009-12
Aguja Guillaumet, Amy Route, solo ascents, 2009-12 and 2018-02
Aguja Mermoz, Argentine Route, solo ascent, 2010-03
Cerro Pollone, South Face, solo attempt to 2m below summit, 2011-11
Aguja Rafael, Anglo-American Route, second solo ascent of the route, 2011-12
Aguja St. Exupery, Kearney-Harrington Route, second solo ascent of the route, 2011-12
Aguja de l’S, North Ridge, solo ascent, 2011-12
Adela Sur, Central, and Norte, El Ñato, El Doblado, and Cerro Grande, solo traverse of 6 peaks, 2013-03
Cerro Domo Blanco, North Ridge, first solo ascent of the peak and first winter ascent of the peak, 2013-09
Cerro Electrico NE, South Face, solo, first ascent of the peak, 2013-09
Aguja Guillaumet, Begger-Jennings Route, first solo ascent of the route, 2:06 bergschrund-to-summit, 2013-11
Cerro Solo, El Dragòn, solo, first ascent of the route, 2016-01
Filo del Hombre Sendtado, solo ascents of both summits, I suspect perhaps the first ascent of one or both summits, 2018-02

Canada
Blackhorn Mtn, Northwest Couloir
, solo, first ascent of the route, 2003-09
Mt Robson, North Face, solo ascent, my first alpine climb in the Canadian Rockies, 2004-08
Mt. Combatant, Mt. Tiedemann, Mt. Asperity, first solo ascent of each peak, 2012-08

Cascades
Chair Peak, North Face
, speed solo ascent after school (2:33 car-to-car), 2002-03
Graybeard Peak, North Face, first solo ascent of the route, second ascent of the route, 2002-05
Mount Shuksan, North Face, speed solo ascent (5:48 car-to-car), but without summit pyramid, 2002-05
Eldorado Peak, Northwest Couloir, first solo ascent of the route (I’m pretty sure), 9:15 car-to-car, 2002-11
Dragontail Peak, Gerber-Sink 1971 and Triple Couloirs, solo enchainment, both routes in 5:45 lake-to-lake, 2003-04
The Chopping Block, Southeast Route, solo, first winter ascent of the peak, 2004-02
Mount Terror, North Buttress Stoddard Route, solo ascent, 2004-06

Elsewhere
Drifika
(Karakoram), South Face to East Ridge, solo attempt to 10m below summit, 2005-09
Les Droites (Mont Blanc Massif), Le Ginat, solo ascent to Col des Droites, 2009-04
Mont Blanc du Tacul (Mont Bland Massif), Supercouloir with Gervasutti Pillar start, solo ascent to summit, 2010-04

*I learned on this trip that a bunch of teams winter climbing in Chaltén are hiring porters for the approach, including the most recent attempt to solo the Supercanaleta in winter. It is easy to understand why, as the mid-winter temperatures and snowpack require leaving the trailhead with way more weight on your back than one would in summertime. I don’t think there is anything wrong with hiring porters for the approach (although it is cost prohibitive for me!), as I think there is a clear distinction between approaching and climbing, but I never really thought of it as a “thing” in Chaltén, even though it is so standard in the Himalaya and Karakoram.

**My ascent of the North Face of Graybeard was the first solo ascent, and in fact only the second ascent of the face. Near the middle of the face I made a “back-loop” off a couple of pitons before climbing the crux. Above the crux, when I tried to retrieve my rope, it got horribly stuck below. I had no way to make an anchor above the crux, so my only option was to cut my rope and continue up the upper face with about 20 meters of 6mm cord, which felt pretty committing. Several years later the route was climbed by my friends Andreas Schmidt, Chad Kellogg, and Roger Strong, and my piton anchor and mess of cord was still there. This past year the route was finally soloed for a second time, by Seth Keena-Levin, and my mess of cord was unfortunately still there hanging off my piton anchor!

Hola Patagonia!

Hola Patagonia!

About to hike a very heavy load up to Piedra Negra.

About to hike a very heavy load up to Piedra Negra.

Looking towards Paso Marconi, on the way up to Piedra Negra.

Looking towards Paso Marconi, on the way up to Piedra Negra.

No crowds at Piedra Negra this time!

No crowds at Piedra Negra this time!

Heading down in the morning after a chilly night at Piedra Negra.

Heading down in the morning after a chilly night at Piedra Negra.

Dry but chilly around town.

Dry but chilly around town.

Camping just below Paso del Cuadrado

Camping just below Paso del Cuadrado

Last Light on Cerro Electrico NE and Laguna Azul, from Paso del Cuadrado.

Last Light on Cerro Electrico NE and Laguna Azul, from Paso del Cuadrado.

I chose to camp here specifically because it would get sun relatively early in the morning.

I chose to camp here specifically because it would get sun relatively early in the morning.

Some sections of dry dyke on the Superccanaleta.

Some sections of dry dyke on the Superccanaleta.

Looking towards Aguja Pollone on the way back to town.

Looking towards Aguja Pollone on the way back to town.

Ciao for now, Patagonia. I'll come back with a partner next time!

Ciao for now, Patagonia. I’ll come back with a partner next time!

At the start of the harder climbing on the North Face of Graybeard Peak. May 2002, when I was 17 years old.

At the start of the harder climbing on the North Face of Graybeard Peak. May 2002, when I was 17 years old.

Above the crux on the North Face of Graybeard Peak.

Above the crux on the North Face of Graybeard Peak.

Looking across the upper North Face of Graybeard Peak. The camera tilt was not intentional!

Looking across the upper North Face of Graybeard Peak. The camera tilt was not intentional!

Looking back up at the North Face of Graybeard Peak after my first experience of hard-enough-to-be-stressful soloing.

Looking back up at the North Face of Graybeard Peak after my first experience of hard-enough-to-be-stressful soloing.

Looking back along the upper Emperor Ridge of Mt. Robson, August 2004.

Looking back along the upper Emperor Ridge of Mt. Robson, August 2004.

Bivy at 6,500m during a solo attempt of the Schell Route on Nanga Parbat. I turned 21 a few days earlier. September, 2005. Unintentional camera tilt!

Bivy at 6,500m during a solo attempt of the Schell Route on Nanga Parbat. I turned 21 a few days earlier. September, 2005. Unintentional camera tilt!

Looking down the upper ridge of Drifika during a solo attempt. September, 2005.

Looking down the upper ridge of Drifika during a solo attempt. September, 2005.

Self portrait 10m below (and 50m away from) the summit of Drifika. September, 2005.

Self portrait 10m below (and 50m away from) the summit of Drifika. September, 2005.

Aid-soloing during the second solo ascent of the Supercanaleta. September, 2005.

Aid-soloing during the second solo ascent of the Supercanaleta. September, 2005.

Free-soloing the first hard ice pitch of Exocet, during the first solo ascent of Aguja Standhardt. November, 2010. Photo by Jon Griffith.

Free-soloing the first hard ice pitch of Exocet, during the first solo ascent of Aguja Standhardt. November, 2010. Photo by Jon Griffith.

Taking a break during the second solo ascent of the Kearney-Harrington Route on Aguja St. Exupery. December, 2011.

Taking a break during the second solo ascent of the Kearney-Harrington Route on Aguja St. Exupery. December, 2011.

Turning around 100m below the summit of Begguya, during a solo attempt via the North Buttress. May, 2012. I came back and finished this project in 2017.

Turning around 100m below the summit of Begguya, during a solo attempt via the North Buttress. May, 2012. I came back and finished this project in 2017.

Soloing the Flavelle-Lane route, on the north face of Mt. Waddington. August, 2012.

Soloing the Flavelle-Lane route, on the north face of Mt. Waddington. August, 2012.

Soloing the summit tower of Mt. Waddington. August, 2012.

Soloing the summit tower of Mt. Waddington. August, 2012.

Solo, winter attempt on Cerro Torre. September, 2013.

Solo, winter attempt on Cerro Torre. September, 2013.

Solo attempt on the Emperor Ridge of Mt. Robson. September, 2014.

Solo attempt on the Emperor Ridge of Mt. Robson. September, 2014.

Rope-soloing on Spigolo dei Bimbi, during the first solo ascent of Punta Herron. January, 2016.

Rope-soloing on Spigolo dei Bimbi, during the first solo ascent of Punta Herron. January, 2016.

Soloing the summit mushrooms of Punta Herron during the first solo ascent of the peak. January, 2016.

Soloing the summit mushrooms of Punta Herron during the first solo ascent of the peak. January, 2016.

Soloing on the north face of Torre Egger, during the first solo ascent of the peak. January, 2016.

Soloing on the north face of Torre Egger, during the first solo ascent of the peak. January, 2016.

On the summit of Torre Egger after the first solo ascent. January, 2016. Photo by Korra Pesce.

On the summit of Torre Egger after the first solo ascent. January, 2016. Photo by Korra Pesce.

Climbing in the Black Band during the first solo ascent of the Infinite Spur. June, 2016.

Climbing in the Black Band during the first solo ascent of the Infinite Spur. June, 2016.

On the North Buttress of Begguya during the first solo ascent. May, 2017.

On the North Buttress of Begguya during the first solo ascent. May, 2017.