In El Chalten, Argentina, life for climbers revolves around the meteogram, or weather forecast. The first topic of conversation at any time of day is the weather. Climbers download the chart to their phones daily and decipher it with the thought and care of a neurosurgeon. Will there be a window for climbing? When? For how long?
[Mate. Required when waiting for a weather window. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]
This was my third trip climbing in the Argentine Patagonia. In the first two visits, over a combined time of about 11 weeks I’d climbed for about 8 days, picking off several of the sub-peaks of Fitzroy. From afar they create a breathtaking skyline, and up close, those sub-peaks exist in a shadow beneath Fitzroy’s greatness. Climbing those other peaks, I realized, felt like some kind of flirtatious dance, like I kept seeing her, locking steps with her, but could never really touch her. And when I thought of it that way I became obsessed. I wanted to climb Fitzroy and only Fitzroy. The obsession became so engrained in my psyche that all my internet passwords included some form of her name by the time we left for this trip.
[The one and only Fitz Roy Massif. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]
I tell everyone I go to Patagonia for the amazing splitter granite, and it’s true, it is unmatched. This year we arrived just in time for Summer Solstice, trading photos over Instagram with our friends up North who were praising the return of light and lamenting the long darkness and cold, while we snapped shots of lupine in bloom and green, green grass. I think those long, energizing days account for as much of the reasoning that draws me back again and again. Sure, the place has changed since my first trip in 2005. There are infinitely more climbers and trekkers around, the roads are paved and there’s a bus station, (uber slow) wireless internet has arrived and established its attention-sucking influence, and there are even landscaping services and nannies! But that splitter rock and the capacity to ‘find summer’ in a plane flight remain, and will likely make it only more popular as an alpine rock climbing destination over time.
[El Chalten rest days. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]
As nice as long days were for our psychological wellbeing, the weather this year just did not cooperate. We’d wake up and look up the forecast with hope, and then our shoulders would slump and our moods would sour as we saw more of the same: cold, wind and precipitation, day after day after day. Eventually the ‘meteo’ just became relative, and the best of the bad started looking good. So we’d pack our gear and head up and try to climb.
[Weather slogging. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]
At one point we even deployed our own new tactic: Tortuga Style. With conditions so cold and snow so deep and cracks so icey and wind so maddening, we thought that if we intentionally brought extra clothes and food and an especially posh bivy set up (read: a two-man tent and two sleeping bags for the three of us, plus extra fuel for the stove), and if we purposely paced ourselves more slowly, it might increase our chances of getting a big summit despite the bad conditions. It seemed brilliant and fool proof – perhaps in the same way that a somewhat less terrible forecast seemed manageable while looking at a meteogram on a computer screen from the comfort of our cabana.
[Janet Wilkinson and Liv Sansoz climb Tortuga style. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]
So, in the end, although we got a couple good attempts on her flanks, we didn’t get to climb Fitzroy. We did soak up plenty of summer sunshine, logged hundreds of miles of walking and some nice pitches of climbing too, enjoyed some intoxicatingly beautiful bivy spots, and had lots of laughs with each other and with friends old and new. Although I realize that I now should probably change my Internet passwords, the obsession remains.
To be continued…
[One of the many beautiful bivies. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]