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MA's Visión - Part 2

This story was first featured in the 2020 Canadian Alpine Journal. Get your copy here:

Quentin Roberts and Brette Harrington return to the East Pillar of Torre Egger, this time with Argentinian Horiacio Gratton. Once again, they pay tribute to Marc-André Leclerc, completing a line he had envisioned on the mountain. Words by Quentin Roberts. Photos by Quentin Roberts and Brette Harrington.

Dwarfed by my 160liter haul-bag and held up by my two bulging hiking poles I stumble along a tiny spine of steep moraine below a terminal ridge of Cerro Torre. The spine provides the easiest footing, but also leaves me unprotected from the gale force gusts that regularly take me down like the unlucky target of an amusement park shooting gallery. The haul bag straps are like streamers in a tornado and I try to ignore them ripping against my face as I push my foot into the pulverized granite once more. I’ve already hiked for 20km with this damn pig-of-a-bag, and I’ve just added our Niponino cache to it as well.

Niponino is the most popular basecamp here in the Torre Valley, the name refers to the camp being neither Polacos nor Noruegos (Ni-Polacos-Ni-Noruegos). Polacos is the basecamp commonly used for routes on the West side of the Fitz Roy massif, and Noruegos – where I am heading – is a basecamp often used for routes on the East side of the Cerro Torre massif. The two mountain ranges run parallel to each other, and Niponino sits in the valley between them. I inch my way up towards Noruegos with our cache of gear, hunched over my poles, braced for the next wind-slam. At Noruegos I shove the haul-bag into a cave and watch the as sky blackens. Soon enough, driving rain blows me the 25km back to the town of El Chaltén where I stumble soaked into Brette’s cabaña ready to crash her supper of hot Argentinian stew.

Brette Harrington and I are back in Patagonia together. It has almost been three years since Brette reached out to me, asking about the potential of attempting a new route on the East Pillar of Torre Egger. A route that our late and great friend Marc-André Leclerc had seen on his solo ascent of Titanic. We tried in 2019, but were stopped short when Brette’s mountain boots detached from our haul bag and fell some 500m to the glacier below. This time we want to go to the summit. The route is important to us – it has re-oriented our lives and deepened our friendship tremendously. Brette’s eyes are distant, and I know that her mind is in the mountains. What is the best strategy for us this time around?

Horacio Gratton, a local Argentinean strongman, caught wind of our 2019 attempt and reached out to Brette asking if he could join us. I feel that it could be a good idea to climb as a team of three, because the extra muscle would help if an accident were to happen on the wall, although I am also skeptical about climbing with someone I don’t know. I first meet Horacio at the climber’s pub in El Chaltén. The passion Horacio has for mountains is instantly clear, backed up by his beaten body of bone and muscle. I study him as he speaks of the routes he’s done, and recognize an idiot resolve I know so well – the resolve required to hold rational thinking together amid the fear, cold, and pain, so common in alpinism. It’s the same idiot resolve that holds the rolled cigarette between his gnarled fingers.

Having Horacio join us will certainly be a blind date, but I like him and feel that Brette and my partnership is strong enough to handle any disagreements that might arise, so we start planning as a team of three. We’ll take a lead rope, tag line, and a burly static rope. Horacio is adamant that he wants to jug and haul the lower half of the mountain, so we plan on him jumaring on the static and hauling the bag, while Brette and I rotate through lead blocks. With our cache of gear in Noruegos, all we have to do is sit and wait for good weather to materialize. In early February, it finally does.

I hike in a day ahead of my partners to spend some time with the mountain and watch the sun strip the ice-plastered walls. The sky is clear, but it is obvious that the mountains have been ravaged by weeks of relentless storms. The only clouds are streaming from the mountain summits, forced into existence by the rapidly cooling airmass driven upwards by wind against the vertical granite. These supercooled air droplets are responsible for the rime clad summits unique to these mountains. Torre Egger, and its glowing dollop of rime ice is still over a kilometer above. Across the valley the West face of Fitz Roy has shed its icy coat, and is shining gold in the last light of the day.

I wake late the next morning to other climbers arriving. Italians Matto della Bordella, and Matteo Pasquetto are back to finish the famous British attempt on Cerro Torre, and Jorge Ackermann, Korra Pesce, and Tommy Aguilo intend to climb a new route that wraps around from Cerro Torre’s East to North face. Brette, and Horacio arrive in the late afternoon, and it feels good to have my companions join me. We quickly start organizing our gear and preparing for our climb the next morning.

Brette takes off in the dark climbing flawlessly through frozen rivulets and runout terrain while Horacio and I shiver and smoke ourselves into pre-dawn consciousness at the belays. As day breaks, I take the lead where our line branches left from the original Titanic start. A runout 11+ flake pitch that brings us into the defining corner system of the route. This is the pitch that Marc-André spotted on his solo ascent of titanic, it was the key to the unclimbed prow of the lower East pillar, and it is the fourth time I have climbed it. We keep climbing into the day, and before long I’m looking up at the 12+ crux.

Conditions on the crux are icy, but we haven’t fallen yet, so I go for it with everything I’ve got. The granite screams when my nail splits from its bed, but I force my fingertips deeper into the seam. Pushing my feet into the exfoliating rock, I reach for the next pod, but it’s full of ice. I reach higher – it’s not better. Locked-off, I fiddle a micro-wire in, just as I explode off the wall. I stare up in dismay, 2000 more feet of climbing to go and the ice doesn’t seem to stop!

The ice plastered rock is sabotaging our goal of free climbing to the summit. Brette and I free climbed these pitches in 2019, but we had dry conditions. Its disappointing, but this route is what we’ve travelled here to climb, what we’ve trained for, and what we’ve waited out the storms for. So we decide to keep going without the glory of a continuous free ascent. Instead we make the summit our goal.

Still hanging on the rope, I look down to see an unperturbed Horacio bringing up the firepower, racking his jumars up the rope like shot gun charges. The bag he is hauling has our bivy gear, and three alpine packs in it. I’m baffled that this Chaltenean animal wants to use his 5.14 biceps to haul our 130L bag up the entire lower half of Egger, but he is adamant that he wants to. Brette encourages me from the belay, and Horacio is still focused on his jumars and the giant cobweb of static rope tangling itself in the updrafts. I clip a sling to the wire I’m hanging on and stand high for an aid piece – no dice! Ah crap, I’m going to have to climb past the damn ice anyway!

We’re getting close to the corner system that gave us access to the bivy ledge on our last attempt, but a very runout 11+ pitch on discontinuous flakes guards access to the corner, and this year it is plastered with ice. Rather than re-live a more intense version of what I’d already experienced in 2019, I veer right and stretch the rope up flakes and cracks into new terrain on the headwall of the lower pillar. It’s also very runout, but its dry, and it feels so good to be free climbing again!

I stop below a steep corner-flake and Brette takes the lead. Horacio is still set on bringing up the rear, and I don’t argue for long. He gets to the belay and shoves another hand-rolled dart in my mouth. We smoke away while Brette finishes off the steeps of the lower pillar deftly navigating the unknown climbing. At this point I force Horacio to take over the lead on the lower angled slabs, that I know will take us to our bivy platform. His hauling job was hard work! I soon become a tourette consumed animal raging the giant bag up the velcro-like slab and get to the others a sweaty mess of hyperventilated curses. It turns out they dropped our bivy sack while chopping out the ledge, but If you’ve got to drop something at least it’s the sack and not the boots!

The next morning, we wake to a blanket of fresh snow on our sleeping bags and zero visibility. Horacio wants to go down, and Brette wants the opposite - to continue on our envisioned line despite the conditions. We wait it out. Once the weather clears, we decide to strike a balance. We will continue, but will compromise and join into the upper portion of Titanic instead. Titanic is the ‘trade route’ on the east side of the mountain which gives us a much higher chance of success. We spend the rest of the day climbing a few pitches higher to a better bivy spot and Horacio cuts a more comfortable ledge while Brette fixes the first pitch for the next day.

We’re back in alpine climbing mode on Titanic, and make our way to the summit rime quickly. I climb an unusual and fun mixed pitch of ice, rime, and rock, to the base of the summit tunnel of overhanging rime, which Brette tackles confidently. Before long we are standing on the summit of Egger. Huge ice gargoyles shelter us from the wind and we bask in the sun - the summit is a frozen ice dollop of bliss. It is hard to believe that three years have come to this moment standing on our little island in the sky. We stay on the summit for an entire hour before rappelling into the all-to-familiar windy shade. The descent takes an eternity, but the summit smiles never leave our faces. I feel Marc’s grin through my own cheeks and see it my partners smiles too. He would be so stoked on this one.

We get down in the morning of the following day, and the weather is still supposed to be good for another twenty-four hours. All of the climbers in the Torre valley start leaving, content with their experiences in this beautiful window of warm weather, but I just can’t bring myself to leave with them. This is one of the most magical places on earth when the weather is good, and there is still one night of good weather left. I stay and rest for the remainder of the day and start back up the glacier at 7pm to climb Cerro Standhardt via Exocet overnight. I climb the whole thing in my little headlamp orb and watch as the storm clouds roll in the following morning. I howl at the wind, so thankful for this mad experience. I’m the first to arrive, and the last to leave this valley. Once again, I let the driving rain blow me the 25km back to El Chalten.

MA’s Visión climbs 500m (400m new) of terrain to the hanging snowfield on the East Face of Torre Egger, where the route rejoins Titanic to the summit. The name MA’s Visión (Marc-André’s Vision) plays on words, also meaning ‘More Vision‘ in Spanish. My solo of Exocet, was the second free-solo of the route. Marc-André Leclerc was the first to free-solo it in 2016.

Difficulty: 5.12b/c (A0), 90deg

Length: 950m

Date: February 6th-9th, 2020


Second Free Solo of Exocet

Difficulty: 5.9 WI5

Length: 500m

Date: February 9th-10th, 2020

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