Sunday, October 16, 2011

A millisecond before the popping sound, I condescendingly scoffed at the status quo American world. While they were stuck in cubicles or traffic or a job with potential for upward expansion, I was in the middle of the granite behemoth of Cerro Arcoiris in Valle Cochamó. I was a wise sage who had beaten the oppressive societal rat maze; a climber in harmony with the natural world and the real experience of climbing; a world traveler who understood what life was really all about. I was The Goddamned Man, for that millisecond before the popping sound.

And then, “Pop.”

I was an impotent, sad excuse for a human being; a quivering runt, most likely abused as a puppy; a slug recently prodded at with a salty index finger. I was a weak child curled into the fetal position, trying to mouth the word “ma-ma” while sucking my flaccid thumb into a fleshy raisin.

The fetal position was the result of the sharp groin pain that had almost synchronously accompanied the sound of the Black Diamond talon ripping off of a tiny granite nubbin. I had managed to pass one foot to one side of my rope and the other foot to the opposite side. The rope stayed cradled horizontally to two quickdraws hanging from the last two bolts I had placed by hand. The result was a fifteen foot whipper stopped almost statically by my crotch. It was enough to humble me back to the reality that I was not The Man. Predicting irreparable damage to my most prized possessions, I was barely even sure if I qualified as being a man at that point.

Vishal, who had been belaying me for the last two hours, yelled up at the withered ball I had become.

“You alright?”

I eeked out a “Nah, man, I’m not. I landed straight onto my balls.”

“Yeah. I saw. That sucks, man.”

Vish’s response to the event, though apropos, didn’t comfort me.

“So what do ya wanna do?” Vishal asked.

I hesitated, but knew my response. It was inevitable. I had known it the day before when it took three hours to hand drill three bolts while leading the glassy corner we were trying to free. I knew it even before the popping sound, even while I basked in the delusions of being some sort of an accomplished adventurer. A climber’s self confidence is fickle, and in the presence of real challenge, the kind I couldn’t pull off, there was only one response that made sense:

“Let’s bail.”

Bailing was becoming my modus operandi in Cochamó. By that point, just beginning a second season in the valley, I was well versed in the art of leaving gear (slings, nuts, that brand new grey C3). I could equalize small wires with the most minute bit of tat available. I knew which kinds of shrubs, roots, and reinforced tufts of grass would just support my weight as I set up rappel after rappel of demoralizing abandonment of roof cracks, blank slabs and, in the aforementioned case, closed corners. I had bailed with a Mexican guy, two gringos, and an ex-pat. My bailing experience, if not considered elite, was surely highly advanced. And though I write about my failures with apparent arrogance, it was a reality I didn’t much enjoy. I asked myself if my constant failure was because I wasn’t good enough? Inexperienced? The weather? To all questions, the answer was a resounding yes.

Woe is the climber who dreams of grandeur in Patagonian playgrounds. Years before I had ever walked into Cochamó I dreamt of myself sitting on top of one of its peaks, declaring some magnanimously humble name to my conquest. Cerro Cocinero. Cerro Yeshua. But reality is unforgiving. My second season in, obviously still inexperienced, ignorant, testicularly agonized, I gave into the realization that I was not meant to put up first ascents in Patagonia.


Nate Conroy had been living in Argentina for a year. Finished with the romance of his hostel scone baking job in Bariloche and equipped with fluent Argentine Spanish, Nate went to Cochamó, dreaming of the first free ascent for the area.

Upon arrival to the central valley of La Junta, Nate started building a trail all the way to the infamous 3,500 foot nightmare of granite perfection, El Monstruo. His goal was to climb directly up the west face, a line that could possibly be 40 pitches, free. Two months of bamboo hacking, loose gulley ascending, river fjording and working in weeks of unending rain landed him at the high pass of Valle Trinidad. From there Nate looked straight at El Monstruo and realized that not only was it one of the most formidable walls in the southern hemisphere, but it was sopping wet from the few acres of snow that capped its headwall. El Monstruo wouldn’t be climbed that year.

Nate would have to come to terms with the reality that Cochamó has a tendency to make you compromise your vision. The valley beckons you to begin a dialogue in your head about failure. But Nate’s stubborn conviction to achieve the goal he set out for made him reconsider his plan. From the pass, he looked out into the valley he had just spent the last two months slowly breaking through. It was a bowl of peak after peak of virgin, Patagonian granite. Only one team had ever climbed there before, Austrians, who put up one route on a wall that rose out of a small lake. The rest of the peaks, a lifetime’s worth of rock, were untouched.

When Nate started to recruit Vishal and I to join him in Valle Trinidad, we were already planning on leaving Cochamó. We were eager to escape the month of failure that we were wrapping up, in hopes of finding success with Argentinean girls further south. But Nate was a hard man to say no to, either because of his perpetual positive energy, or because of the hint of insanity lurking behind his wide eyes. Both characteristics made Nate’s arguments convincing.

“C’mon guys. There’s gotta be at least eight five star lines that I’ve spotted within a twenty minute walk from base camp.”

Vishal and I pondered the idea.

“Well,” Vish spoke for us, “We’ll go check it out. If it’s everything you say it is, if there’s tons of amazing lines, and first ascents free for the picking on incredible rock, in some sort of a paradise, then we’ll stay another month.”

Both Vishal and I hardly believed such a place could exist. But, to humor Nate, we went up to the valley, gazed around, and nodded at each other in mutual agreement. It was worth staying another month.


Click, click, click. Turn. Click, click, click. Turn. Click, click, fwoo.


“What happened Josh?”

“The hammer head just flew off the damn hammer.”

It fell from three pitches up, arching through the air, bouncing off the wall and finally cratering into the forested talus below. Vishal, Nate and I were stuck on a fairly good ledge, attempting to rappel down the tower we had dubbed Cerro Pata de Pato, Duck’s Foot peak. It was cold and it looked as if weather might be moving in. We still had three rappels to go.

I had drilled enough of a hole to fit my bolt before the hammer head flew off but we needed the hammer to get the bolt into the hole.

“Are there any loose stones on the ledge?” I asked, hopeful to find a quick solution.

There had been numerous stones when we first got there, too many. In a zealous effort to clean the route we had tossed all of them off. Watching the stones explode at the base, ripping off tree branches and leaves like human appendages are dismembered in a bombing. We cleaned more than was necessary for the pure pleasure of watching the boulders sail through the air and ricochet off the wall with deafening cracks that echoed through the valley. Some of the stones that we pulled from the wall were, to our surprise, the capstones to vertical anthills. The uprooting of the ants’ roof sent them into a vengeful fury and they charged up our legs and hands as we tried to climb past the ledge. Now the ants were getting their revenge because we were stuck and couldn’t place our bolt in order to rap off the ledge. If we died there, the ants would thoroughly enjoy feasting on our carcasses.

“Wait, I’ve got one.”

Nate’s nickname is Thor, and he embodied every celestial image of the thunder god the moment he ripped a twenty pound stone from the ledge and held it into the air.

“Use this.”

I took it, ashamed that I didn’t find it quite as wieldable in my non-Norse god chiseled arms. I went to work, slowly tapping the bolt into the hole. A process that usually took ten seconds took five minutes because the boulder, though huge, kept chipping away at the end that was bludgeoning the steel bolt. We were cold, exhausted and eager to get down to camp for our fifteenth dinner of lentils with salami.

After the last pound of the bolt and final twist of the nut to tighten the hanger, we began to rappel.

In freezing temperatures and with a drizzle settling into the valley, I was curious of why we were so bad at the process of putting up a first ascent. In all my attempts to do an FA in Cochamó I had had to bail every time. Cerro Pata de Pato, what was measuring up to be a mere four pitch climb, had just as many problems as all the others. The hammer head was just one of the dozens of problems encountered. On pitch one Nate had to be rescued forty feet up because he was in a bad position to drill and had only gotten one RP in up to that point. Pitch two was ridiculously dirty and we spent two days cleaning it before it was somewhat climbable. Pitch three stumped us completely because after climbing an obvious dihedral and ledge system, we were faced with a blank slab for sixty feet. When we tried to bolt it with Nate’s Hilti, the battery died within twenty seconds and we had to once again drill by hammering the Hilti bit that we wrapped with a duct tape handle.

Vishal had an excuse, he had only been climbing a year but had managed to catch up to the pitiful mass of knowledge I had acquired after eleven. This was Nate’s first year in Cochamó, so a learning curve was expected. By it was my second and I had clearly learned nothing, absolutely nothing.

At dinner that night, thoughts of bailing swam through my head.

“Man, the route’s harder than I thought it was going to be,” I hinted to the team. “I mean the climbing is reasonable, but all the cleaning, bolting, re-cleaning…it’s exhausting.”

The others nodded in agreement, their faces and mangled, dirty hands enough evidence to the fact that they had to be thinking the same. Then Nate spoke up, “Yeah, but isn’t it awesome? I mean here we are, all by ourselves in a new valley in Patagonia, putting up a new route. We even get to name the peak! That’s sweet man.”

Vishal assented, “Yeah. This place is pretty spectacular. And we’re close now on the Pata. Just a few more days of work and we should be on top.”

Even if the guys had the same thoughts of bailing, as a team, none of us wanted to admit to it. We hadn’t been shut down completely, not yet anyway, so bailing wasn’t quite an option.

When we returned to the ledge a day later, the ants were gone, the bolt anchors were set and the day was all azure skies. Nate and Vish settled in to watch me climb up the fourth pitch. Routine had taught us that an ascent up a new pitch could mean hours of weed pulling, boulder tossing, and mud scraping. The thought alone exhausted me and drained on my psyche.

The first few moves were on loose rock and were harder than I anticipated. The pro wasn’t great and it seemed that I was heading straight for a bush. But five feet before the bush, an escape left revealed itself and I took it with fervent pleasure. From there the pitch opened to horizontal breaks that were clean and relatively easy to move past. I was actually climbing, not stopping to clean, or toss boulders, or scrape mud. I was linking moves, mantling small shelves and making upward progress with relative ease. And then suddenly, I was at the top.

I built an anchor and looked over the edge. “Off belay!”

Shouts of congratulations came from the ledge below.

Within an hour Vishal, Nate and I sat atop Cerro Pata del Pato. We had completed the first ascent of ‘Goosebumps’, the first line up the tower, our first successful first ascent in Cochamó.

At camp that night, we celebrated with a bag of Doritos Nate had been keeping secret since we had arrived. We were all tired. But we had done it. Amid our usual fireside banter, mostly inappropriate remarks about women or about our morning constitutions, we examined what brought forth success in the end. Did we become some sort of super men overnight, like Caldwell on El Cap, or Favresse in Torres? Was our first ascent a sign that we had figured out the tricks to sending in Cochamó, and that now first ascents would be a breeze? Hardly. There was no easy formula to putting up fas. First ascents on an expedition is work, where failure lurks behind every turn, and you come out wondering how you were lucky enough to pluck such a good line. We thought that those other guys, the ones you hear about in magazines, merely march up to some unknown, remote location and fly up big walls like it’s a 5.6 sport climb. That isn’t the case. Misfortune is rampant in the experience. Hammer heads fly off, rain bogs you down, insects attack, cracks are cleared until nut tools are dull, and testicles are crushed. The difference between failure and success is simply that in order to achieve the latter you have to see the damn thing all the way through to the end. That’s how first ascents happen in Patagonia: with more work than you want and with just enough luck that you need. Everything else is suffering and patience.

“Hey, pass me those Doritos.”

“Sorry Robot, all gone” Thor responds with an unapologetic grin. “Vish’s got some lentils ready for you though.”

“Alright, I’ll go for the lentils.”

Vishal chimes in, “So what are we doin’ tomorrow?”

Nate’s got that look in his eyes again. “Oh man, you know that wall that looks like a dog? I saw a sweet line shooting right up it. I’ve already got a name for the peak. We could call it Cerro Perro!”

Vishal and I imagine starting the first ascent process all over again. Vishal is the first to speak up, “Cool. So what time do we wake up?”

Nate looks at me for confirmation.

I look at Nate and ask, “Okay, what time do we wake up?”