As Scotty's minibus turns the corner, I'm greeted by a stunning sight. Finally, after 8000 miles, we're here at Chiles Torres del Paine. Out of the flat pampa countless ice and rock peaks, blades and spires thrust into the sky in a climbers dream - come - true. The setting is completed by the endless deep blue lakes, in startling contrast to the barren brown of the pampa. We cross an ancient looking bridge over the Rio Paine and in a few more miles reach the Estancia Cerro Paine, our last outpost of civilization for the next few months. I am here with Dave Davies and Johnathan Gordon to attempt a new route up the unclimbed east face of the South Tower of Paine.
November 3rd dawns clear and beautiful as the estancias caretaker Bernardo attempts to load 600+ pounds of food and equipment onto two skeptical horses. After a small epic of shifting loads and stumbling horses, we manage to get everything to the base camp used by the Italians in 1963 on the Rio Ascencio. The rest of the day is spent organizing gear and showing several Chilean andinistas our odd collection of equipment. Their eyes widen in amazement when I show them my rurps, bashies, #0 copperheads and hooks. " El Gringo es muy loco " they say, and they're probably right. Why else would I be attempting to climb a new route in Torres del Paine?
Staggering up the trail again, Dave complains he has never done so much work in his life. He has climbed in the Himalayas, but here in Patagonia we're the porters. For five days we carry loads up the Rio Ascencio valley, through the linga trees, and up the giant moraine to the lake below the Towers. Condors circle overhead as rocks crash into the lake, while dust clouds swirl in the basin - a primeval scene! With the lake camp established, it's time for five more days of trudging up scree and ice. we carry everything up the glacier to the base of the South Tower and dig a snow cave. The snow cave is far preferable to the lake camp as dust storms at the lake tended to permeate everything. We even set up our dome tent inside the snow cave for comfort. Now all thats left is to start climbing.
The weather until this point has been almost perfect. There have even been unbearably hot days as we crossed the glacier. It feels more like Miami Beach than Patagonia. Where is all that terrible Patagonian weather? I shouldn't have asked! As we near the end of our first day of climbing , I find myself placing chocks on top of a 3rd class ridge so I won't be blown away in the 70 m.p.h. gale. A hasty rappel and we beat a retreat to the snow cave. Five days of snow and howling winds follow as we settle down to playing cards and reading books. It's perfect weather for learning to be a card shark or a speed reader. On the next two good days we push the route another 650 feet. A 5.10 face pitch led by Johnathon in double boots proved exciting as his knifeblade protection parted company with the rock before Dave could clean it! Once on the snow ledge 650 feet above the glacier, we traverse towards the center of the east face. From here on the climbing becomes predominantly direct aid in A2 - A3 seams, flakes and expanding cracks. More blizzards, card games and reading follow.
The weeks slide by in a blur of boredom punctuated by wild climbing. Wake up ( yes, it's snowing again ), eat, read, sleep. Some days we awake in our snow cave to find the entrance buried under four feet of drifting snow. Just great for execise - dig out the entrance and rest while you watch it re - fill! But the climbing certainly isn't boring. It reminds me of a rotten version of El Caps Zodiac. Two pitches provide the key to reaching crack systems on the vertical to overhanging wall that hopefully leads to the huge upper dihedrals. The first is a 150' aid traverse under thin expanding flakes where I use everything from hooks and knifeblades to #4 Friends. This is followed by Dave leading a triple pendulum to hooks pitch which was as crazy to clean as to lead. once the wall falls into shadow the temperature drops radically, causing the belyer to dance madly trying not to freeze - which is a great incentive to lead. You can't wait to get back on the sharp end, scare the hell out of yourself and sweat again!
Expecting the worst from the weather, I hike out to replenish our food supply for Christmas. Crossing the glacier below the Towers alone is dangerous and nerve-wracking. Dozens of crevasses seen to come and go with the storms. I fly down the trail, say " hi " to Bernardo and a short time later reach the bridge at the Rio Paine. Surprise surprise! The river has flooded to the point that it looks more like an inland sea than a river! but a little screaming and the guardaparques are on their way with a rubber raft. Going to Puerto Natales and back can be an expedition all its own. By the time I return, Dave and Johnathan have managed to climb several more pitches of A3 - A4 rock using rurps, knifeblades, hooks, copperheads and the usual Friends behind loose blocks. It now looks as if my death march to town might have been unnecessary. The weather is once again clear and warm - a rare phenomenon in Patagonia. On December 19th, Johnathan and I jumar up to finish the pitch which which dave had started the day before and fallen on. I'm always a little hesitant to finish a pitch someone else has fallen off of. But soon I'm traversing under a roof on pins, and Friends as rocks and ice blocks whoose by. One rurp and several pins later and I'm off belay. Johnathan flies up an A1 ramp, and we fix ropes and rappel.
This is it - the weather is perfect and we're within reach of the final dihedral that leads to the top. After 9 days of climbing and 27 days of blizzards everything is set for a summit bid. December 20th proves to be another perfect day as we begin jumaring the 1500' of overhanging, wind blown and abraded ropes, hopefully for the last time. We race as fast as possible on jumars with our packs full of bivy gear. We're hoping to climb the next pitch before water begins pouring down it. It's been so warm for the last few days that water is running down the walls accompanied by the sounds of rockfalls thundering around the valley. Unfortunately we're a little late as Dave finds himself taking a leader fall in an ice water torrent. Eventually he nails, hooks and shivers himself to a belay where he emptys the ice water from his boots. Now it's my turn to jumar upstream. I've never cleaned protection in a vertical ice water river before, and the ice water in my face encourages me to move quickly. By the time I'm finished leading the next pitch back across the top of the waterfall, my hands are frozen and my enthusiasm for more ice water climbing has cooled. Instaed of an easier wet corner, I climb a dry but rotten A3 face. After a rurp, hooks and many blades we're on easy ground. Dave and I each lead another moderate free and aid pitch, then rappel back to a good bivy ledge. From the top of our ropes it looks like a couple of hundred feet of easy free and occasional aid to the summit cone. Now about 1700 vertical feet up the East Face, we're snug in our sleeping bags, gazing at the Southern Cross on a perfect night. Tommorrow, after weeks of hard work, we'll finally be on top of the South Tower of Paine.
I sense it coming in my sleep. It's like a bad dream, but it's real. Whoosh, whoosh, blam, whoose - crunch! Overwhelming, mind searing pain. The crunch I heard was a rock hitting and breaking my leg. It's pitch black and I'm hanging on a rope below the ledge. " Aaahh, oh damn, my legs broken ". A light goes on and somebody says " calm down ", as I drag myself back onto the ledge. The pain is intense. Dave and Johnathan come over to check things out. " Yep, it's broken, but don't worry, it's a common break ". It was a good thing I didn't know anything about broken legs or I might have been worried. My foot wasn't pointing in the direction it should have been. And to make matters worse, my other leg, hit by the same rock, was so sore and swollen it seems as if it too could be broken. Johnathan is also injured with a bruised rib and leg and a splitting headache he recieved when, hearing something coming in his sleep he sat up and got hit on the head by a piece of ice. Dave, fortunately, is un - injured as ice chunks landed all around him. Dave cleans the fixed ropes above us, then rappels 1700' in total darkness before dawn to get the pain pills and inflatable splint we had brought. Johnathan and I wait on the ledge. Unable to move, I sit and chain smoke my nerves to shreds, one eye looking up for more rock fall, one eye on the deteriorating weather.
The day dawns grey and misty as an exhausted Dave returns with the first aid supplies. I chew down 3 codeine pills, bite on a piece of Ensolite pad cowboy style as the splint is slid over my crooked foot, and watch as a rock narrowly misses Dave and Johnathan. Time to get the hell out of here! The splint slowly leaks air as I'm lowered on two 300' 8mm ropes. The splint must be re - inflated from time to time, but luckily most of the wall overhangs, so I don't bump my leg too often. All except for the lower angle last 600' slab, which finishes off the seat of my pants. Six hours of rappeling and lowering gets me over the bershrund and onto a goretex jacket, on which I'm dragged to the snow cave. What a day! But how am I going to get to the hospital?
I am lying alone in the snow cave surrounded by every conceivable thing I could possibly need. Food, water, stove, stereo, smokes, and the all important pain pills are all within reach. Since the warm weather and rain have made the glacier a dangerous maze of creaking crevasses and seracs, both Dave and Johnathan have descended for help. It's 2 am - exactly 24 hours since I was hit by the rock. Whoosh - boom, whoosh - boom! Tonights rock fall activity is on a gigantic scale. Some snow falls off the roof of the snow cave as rocks and snow fly over the entrance. I feel like a target in a shooting gallery. The more the rocks fall, the more codeine I eat, as much for my nerves as the pain. I listen for the one direct hit that will collapse the snow cave and crush me. Finally, the sun rises and the rockfall stops. Through my codeine and pain induced stupor, I hear something that seems out of place, mechanical. Since it goes away, I figure I must be hallucinating - too much codeine! A while later I hear it again - louder - it's a helicopter! The pilot has flown into a cloud and descended to wait for the clouds to clear which, thank goodness for me, they did! Dave runs in, blows up my splint and yells " grab your money and your passport, no time to worry about pain, we've got 2 minutes to get out of here ". Next thing I know I'm being dragged backwards down the ice towards the helicopter which is perched on the edge of the 1000' rock buttress below the South Tower. In my stupor, I notice a large crater in the snow 30' uphill from the snow cave, the result of last nights rock fall. Rocks are everywhere, embedded in the snow. The weather is temporarily perfect, allowing the brave Carabinero pilots to finish what was later described as the most dangerous helicopter rescue ever made in Torres del Paine.
And so ended my only expedition to Patagonia. My leg was set by Christmas in the regional Punta Arenas hospital. Within 2 weeks the snow cave collapsed, our ropes were torn away by rock fall and wind, and all evidence of our expedition was destroyed by the Patagonian elements. Staring out my hospital window at Tierra del Fuego and the Straits of Magellan, it's hard to get depressed, even 8000 miles from home. My room is filled with new found friends from the Club Andinista de la Universidad de Magallanes. " Don't worry " they say, " it's just Mala Pata " ( bad luck or a bad leg, in my case both! )!
A narrative of our unsuccessful 1984/85 expedition to the East Face of the South Tower of Paine, by Craig Peer.
Originally published in the American Alpine Journal, 1986. Re - written here with their permission.