Die another day
It’s 8 o’clock in the evening and the sun is still shining quite high on the Hielo Continental, the temperature is unusually warm for the place and the position where we are, no clouds, no wind and blue sky, everything seems now to be perfect, everything is going in the way we hoped for months , I see Col Lux 20 meters above me on the left, in front of me a semi-blind corner; I’m totally psyched to climb this last pitch and quite confident of reaching the summit of Torre Egger the following day. While belaying my mate “Berna” which is having quite a hard time in cleaning the 5 meters Horizontal roof I’ve just climbed, I can hear he’s yelling against me cause he’s not able to pull out his yellow C3, but who cares in the end, we’re about to finish our route, we can also leave there a cam; and in the meanwhile my mind is already thinking to a perfect bivy at Col Lux, with thousands of stars so bright above our heads, and then I think to the next day, I think on how I will feel at the summit of Torre Egger and finally I think to the never ending descent that is waiting for us. I’m still totally absorbed by these thoughts when Berna suddenly joins me at the belay. Probably the worst belay station of the whole route: a blind corner quite narrow, with no room for two people at the same time, just above a big roof, with almost 1000 meters of empty space under our feet. Berna tries to find the best accommodation he can on the belay…It’s not easy at all! We’ve also two big haul bags in the way with all the ice gear, the belay is really messy. It’s already late in the day, but the arête is there, just about thirty meters and we’re out from these hideous overhangs, we see the salvation up there, at col Lux. Thus we take the decision to go on and finish it up today. I took quite a few time to build this belay, all the rock is so hard and stiff here and since our hand-drill is out of work, I did my best to place some safe gear: in the end I put a medium knifeblade high up, which singed well when I hammered it in and looked solid, I also put a 0.75 cam, a gray alien, a nut and finally lower down a 0.3 cam.
Berna gives me back all the gear I placed in the previous pitch, everything is ready. The belay looks rich and solid, therefore I take out the gray alien, since I see a good spot for it just above the peg. I move on. I pull myself up to the highest point of the belay, the knifeblade, and look for the gray alien. I take the gray alien and try to come closer to the peg to have a longer reach. I don’t even have the time to realize what is going on, just hear “ting” and realize I’m falling down, after a fraction of second another “ting” and I suddenly pass over Berna’s head and start screaming loud. Then, just close to the border of the roof, I stop. All the empty space is under me, all my body starts shaking. I immediately fell a strong sensation of cold. But apart the huge scare I’m unharmed. I ask Berna how is he feeling and he says that he is ok. After some time, I realize I have to pull myself up again. I’m hanging in the void and ask Berna for a jumar. Berna looks for the jumar and in the meanwhile he checks the condition of the belay. “We’re all on just one cam” he says. All the belay had popped out but the last 0.3 cam. Our two bodies and the two haul bags are all hanging on a 2cm piece of metal somehow hanged on the wall. My world stops for some moments. If after falling I was scared now I’m totally terrified and unable to do anything. I say to Berna “ok, keep calm and try to put something else in there”. I don’t think he was very lucid in that situation, but still he managed to put another #3 cam, working reverse and put the nut back in, at least to try to distribute the weight on some other points. I’m just unable to help him, so I have complete trust on what he is doing (in the end Berna since the beginning of our route showed a great ability in making safe belays). I can’t think of anything, but of putting my feet on some piece of horizontal rock and stop to hang in the void. Luckily we left a trail line going from the border to the roof to the previous belay and Berna lowers me down. When he also comes down I’m starting to feel a little better, but still I feel a deep cold and my body is sometimes shaking.
The night is cold and long, I wrap myself into the bivy bag, and try to find some rest, sat on a narrow and awkward ledge. Berna takes place 10 meters under me on another thin, leaning ledge. For the whole night I can’t close my eyes, the cold and the great quantity of adrenaline which still flows in my body keep me awake. I spend the time thinking on how to fix our hand-drill, but no good solutions come to my mind. I struggle within myself whether I should try to go up again, without hand drill or not. After deep thoughts I come to the final decision: I’m too frightened to try to go up there again without a bolt. It’s so hard to accept it for my ego, but I realize that what happened it’s just too much for me, I don’t want to put myself anymore in this game, I’m too afraid to lose!
Little by little when I convince my mind that I wouldn’t go up there again tomorrow, also my body starts to take some rest and I start thinking back to the path that led us up here to this situation. I remember all the emotion of magnitude and steepness which I felt the first time I saw the West face of Torre Egger, about one year ago. It was the first experience for me in Patagonia and I had been immediately stroke by this mountain and by all the environment. Last year, after an initial attempt on the wall, the infamous patagonic weather came, and we spent 14 consecutive days waiting in a cave in the snow, down the wall on the Hielo Continental. No internet and no music, not even the space for standing up: just the two of us lying in a tent for two weeks waiting for the good weather for trying to tackle our challenge, open a new route on the unclimbed West face of Torre Egger. In the end, last year the window of good weather never came, but nevertheless all the time waiting in the snow cave didn’t switch off our motivation. After all, many people say that Patagonia is a place which either you love or hate and if Berna already knew he was loving this place from previous expeditions, this for me was a pleasant discovery.
Therefore, this year, we’re once again, there, standing after two days of walk and ski on the Hielo Continental, staring at what in our minds is “our wall”. Differently from last year, this year I know better what I could expect and I’m definitely mentally and physically more prepared to face this kind of ascent, nevertheless, Berna is also psyched: climbing an unclimbed wall like this is just all what he dreamt for years.
On Christmas is our real first attempt. We climb up to the point previously reached last year, but damn, here we have the first nasty surprise: the section of wall we’re supposed to climb next is very exposed to ice falling from the summit ridge. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon and the sun just hit the face about a hour ago. Also during the morning we noticed some ice blocks falling down in other sections of the wall, but now this rain of ice has intensified and it’s just above our heads. Not all the ice blocks are big: their dimension spans from ping pong ball, to a soccer ball, to a fridge and in some rare cases they’re even bigger. Since we consider the situation too dangerous we decide to wait till the next day.
We bivy on an uncomfortable but quite sheltered ledge, and early in the morning we start to go on with our ascent. However the ice fall hasn’t completely stopped, it has decreased since the previous afternoon but still, I’m far from considering this place safe. We consensually take this risk and move on, with some aid and free climbing following a wide corner till it gets much and much steeper. At this point, is my turn in leading, and I see 20 meters left some terrain which looks much easier and I system of cracks that could lead us very high up. The problem is just to climb those 20 meters of blank wall to get to the cracks… After some inspections I climb 3 meters left and place my first hand drill bolt of the route (Berna had previously placed just another one). Still traversing left looks hard. I try to swing again and again, but the angle of the wall is just too bad to reach the easy terrain with a swing. Meanwhile the sun is hitting the face and the ice is falling more and more intensively. Luckily the most dangerous part of the route where all the ice is crashing is just behind us, we’re on the line of the final overhang, nor totally repaired, neither totally exposed. Finally I find the solution for this traverse: the is rope always tight, feet in friction on the small edges and Berna giving me slack slowly and according to my commands. An “assisted pendulum”, where a good ability of the leader must be supported by an accurate belayer. When I equip the belay station time is running out, we know the following day the weather will probably turn bad, thus we decide to go down. We’ve previously placed fixed ropes on the whole route except the initial and annoying snow field.
After 9 boring days of waiting in the snow cave it looked like the good weather was coming again, with a short window of one or two days. Enough to keep us psyched to go back on the wall. We start from our tent at 11pm, not really a usual time to wake up, but the plan is to climb up the fixed ropes in the night and then exploit all the daylight for going on with the route. But, before the new day comes, we have to experience our second nasty surprise: after 9 days of bad weather and high temperatures, with plenty of rain on the glacier, our approach is just unrecognizable, the conditions of the glacier have completely changed and the crevasses which were just half meter wide have incredibly opened up and in some cases have become around 5 meters wide and I don’t know how deep…After a few minutes trying to find our way through the crevasses we realize the gravity of the situation: there’s no way to pass and suddenly I fall with my full body in the snow…My legs are moving into the void, luckily the 140lt haul bag goes horizontal and keeps me from falling down and Berna, which is keeping the rope tight is now pulling to allow myself to come out. We go in a safe spot and we sit down for a while, I’m just discouraged and Berna is even more desperate than me: we can’t see a way to overcome those crevasses. And even though we would be able to overcome them now, how could we come back? The decision we take is though and bitter, now the plan is: try to find a way to go up on the wall, take all the gear and come back down. Among all the equipment we’ve a double rack of cams and a portaledge up there after the snow field and we can’t come back in Italy without them. Little by little and equipping fixed belays on our way we manage in more than five hours to overcome this labyrinth of ice and get to the base of the wall. Last time we took one hour and a half from the tent. Meanwhile the weather is getting worse, windy and colder, the forecasted window of good weather is already disappearing; but this, in the end, isn’t too bad for us: at least we don’t burn any good chance and the cold keeps the snow stiff for all the way down.
It’s the day after, while chatting in the tent, that I have a genial intuition: a stair. We could have taken an aluminum stair on the glacier in order to overcome the crevasses. Himalayan style, but a sort of “preview” in Patagonia.
Back in Chalten, we purchase an aluminum stair, refresh our minds and bodies for a few days and get ready to go back and crush! The forecast is just incredibly promising, with a long window of good weather just coming, everybody is psyched for climbing and we know that this is going to be our great chance. Sunday, 15th of January, the first day of good weather which is also Berna 30th birthday, we tackle the 13 hours walk and ski approach.
The West Face of Torre Egger usually gets quite dirty and covered with ice and snow after bad weather, thus we’re glad the temperature is high enough to clean the wall. The day after, we’re off for going on with our ascent. The stair works well on the glacier, however it is somehow scary to cross with a tiny stair as a bridge the bottomless crevasses. Unfortunately the face is still quite dirty with ice and snow, especially at the top and we get to the most exposed section of the wall at midday, the temperature is very warm. Ice blocks of various dimension keep on falling on where we are supposed to go up, it’s like a “Russian roulette”, we don’t want to take this risk and decide to stop and wait for the night. We set up a bivy spot with just the portaledge tent and wait sit in there watching the beautiful sunset. It’s just ridiculously warm for Patagonia, too warm! And we notice big ice blocks collapsing everywhere all around us. We realize we’ve been wise in deciding to wait. The night comes fast and at 3 a.m. we get ready to move on, sky is clear and full of stars, but….half an hour later, just the time to have breakfast and start packing the gear, big clouds come in an instant and after a few minutes it starts blowing a freezing wind and snowing. Something totally unexpected. The forecast was supposed to be good for at least 4 days. Ok, it’s probably something temporary, we think, we put our Gore-Tex on and start waiting. After a couple of hours, at dawn, the light starts coming and the weather seems to get worse. But we don’t want to give up, we set up our “portalege camp, without a portaledge” again, sit in there and wait. Towards midday, it starts snowing quite heavily, but still, we’re ok for the moment, the portaledge tent is keeping us repaired from the snow and despite the uncomfortable position we’re not cold. The situation gets worse and worse in the evening when the snow starts coming down heavily and our sleeping bags and clothes start to get wet. The next day we wake up and the wall is totally covered with a blank white sheet, we’re totally wet and we realized that in any case it would be impossible or too dangerous for us to go on. In the snow storm, we somehow pack all the gear and start a rough retreat. For the first hundred meters the ropes are totally frozen and we’re having a hard time to clip our ATCs in and go down, but then the situation gets better since the snow becomes rain. At noon we’re back to our tent, completely soaked, but glad to be safe and in a dry place.
The day after I wake up quite early, thinking the weather is still bad, but incredibly, it is just perfect: clear sky and no wind. We’re happy anyway to be here and not in the wall, everything up there is white and I don’t want to imagine what kind of blocks are going to fall down in a few hours. Quickly we stash all our gear to dry on the rocks and phone “Deza” our meteo-man. With our great surprise, Deza says “from now on, at least 4 days of good weather!”. We honestly don’t trust his words very much, since already a few times he forecasted good weather and then we got a storm 😉 But, well, anyway, we’re psyched to have the chance for another go, despite we’re already a bit tired.
This time, we opt for the tactic “fast and light”: no sleeping bag, no portaledge tent, no mattresses…basically no bivy gear, just food to survive for 5 days. Some kind of feeling is telling us that this is our chance, something is telling us that this time we’re all in.
We start the approach, with our faithful stair, early in the night, and thanks to the fact the we’re now fit and know exactly how to move, we’re fast as never before. Before midday, we’re at the higher point already reached and Berna starts exploring the new terrain. After a 8 meters traverse left he gets to a black stripe of poor rock, full of loose blocks. Despite his moderate complaints he has no other option than climbing up there, in the black rock, with delicate and accurate moves, little by little he gains terrain, being all the time very careful to pull each loose block in the right direction. But only after a few moments I would realized Berna’s ability on that section; in fact, when the worst part of the pitched seems to be behind him, suddenly a pile of blocks as big as a motorbike falls down, exactly in the place where Berna had just climbed (luckily he’s now 10 meters higher up). The belay where I’m standing is 8 meters right, therefore I can just enjoy the show, while Berna, all absorbed in his climbing, can’t properly realize what’s going on. But after a few seconds I realize that one rope has been completely cut, and trying not to frighten Berna, I shout him “You’d better just clip the yellow rope from now on”. After a few meters Berna makes a belay; by fortune we had another half rope left from last year and we can keep on climbing with two ropes…But it’s the first time in my life that I see a rope cut while I’m climbing. I thought these things just happen in the movies or in the old heroic alpinism tales…
Looks like I’m more lucky than Berna with the rock, since after the rope cut, I get to open probably the two best pitches of the whole route; moreover the wall starts to be a little overhanging now and we’re repaired from the ice falling behind us. I feel good and, open quite fast two straight and long pitches of crack climbing: hand, thin hand, fingers and a couple of short chimneys, there’s basically everything, from vertical to overhang terrain. Unfortunately I’m too heavy and tired to open them onsight and I do a few restings per pitch.
It’s already evening when I make an awkward but sheltered belay station under a little roof. Berna starts for the next pitch, he traverses left of the roof, when suddenly a block of ice of the dimension of a soccer ball, hits him on the shoulder. Ok, he didn’t get hurt seriously, but we take this as a warning: the next section is once again exposed and it is better to climb it in the morning.
The bivy is cold this time with just light equipment, but the morale is high: we’ve reached a high point on our route and Col Lux, doesn’t look so far. However the big question mark is still above us: a great overhang or roof stands in our way, just 40 meters under Col Lux.
The following day, we move out of the last belay I did and traverse 20 meters left. In this position we can clearly see what’s in front of us. After a careful analysis, the situation doesn’t look good at all: the weakest part of the overhang, the only line which doesn’t look blank, looks very dangerous indeed, since a huge snow patch, attached on the steep wall, is pending just above the logical exit line, like a Damocle’s word, pending now also above our heads. Just to give and idea, the snow patch is maybe as big as a bus. The rest of the overhang seems blank. After a careful analysis I foresee a tiny line just under the steepest part of the overhang, where it is basically a horizontal roof. Berna is not really convinced of that line, from our position it looks so subtle and hard to see. But, since we considered the logical exit, with the snow patch above, too dangerous and consensually agree we don’t want to stand down there any longer, our other possibilities become either to go down or to try that crazy roof. We fight our way back on the traverse and after we settle in the belay I slowly start to explore new terrain on the right. I have a hard time on this pitch, with a mix of cracks, slabs and blocks. Also making a good belay is not e
asy, thus I climb the last 15 meters with a few gear and some runouts to reach a good ledge where Berna can come up as well.
Now we can see well the big roof standing 25 meters above our heads, and I was right: there’s a little seam, crossing it all the way!! I can’t wait for climbing up there. I get to the roof very quickly and start hanging on the etriers. I place a good C3 at the beginning of the roof and I manage to go forward quickly, the roof is easier than expected to aid climb, I put some micro-nuts and finally a bomber-proof red C3 and a medium size nut just at the border. However, after the roof, the seam, which allowed me to an impressive but safe progression up to now, is dying into a blind corner. Damn! I’m too psyched to stop my progression and I start struggling my way up on very short knifeblades and a couple of hammered micro-nuts. After maybe 7-8 meters on what for me is bad or doubtful gear I reach a better position where I can put a 0.3 cam. I can now see Col lux up there, 20 meters higher on the left and since I’m running out of gear I make an uncomfy hanging belay. With my mind I’m already up there, up at col Lux for a superb bivy under the stars…in front of me a corner, partly with a crack and partly blind, but the greatest difficulties seem to be overcome, I’m totally sure I’ll climb it without big problems.
Berna comes up to the belay and then…you can read how it ended up at the beginning of my story!
Being here with this perfect weather has been all what I dreamt for two years, it was just the kind of experience I was looking for. So why Torre Egger bounced us when we were so close? From a point of view all this story is like a joke. It’s like if in a marathon you are first, you see the finish line and suddenly you fall and twist your ankle, but all this adventure made me learn a lot. I realized more than ever that somehow our lives are just hanged to a line and in our case it has just been the reality and not only a dictum. I learned that climbing the mountains means also to be able to renounce, and this specific renounce it has surely been one of the hardest of my whole life, I discovered what my limits are, because after the fall I didn’t want to go again up there again without a bolt and this is just a personal limit. Finally I shared all this adventure with Berna and learned not to think just for myself but for both of us, in all the climb we were just one single entity, I couldn’t go anywhere without him and I couldn’t do anything without me. And the thing which makes me happier than everything else is that I’m back alive and safe and I’m telling you our story, because as many other alpinists claim, beyond the mountains there are just men…
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