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 The 1973/74 Central tower of Paine Expedition

 

The 1973 team and climbing gear. From left: Paul Fatti, Art McGarr, Mike Scott, Richard Smithers and Roger Fuggle. Mervin Prior , the 6 member of the team was in hospital at the time.

 

Some uncomfortable bivouacs on the wall in 1973.

 

The East Face of the Central Tower of Paine

Patagonian Andes

PAUL FATTI

 

When we turned our backs on the Central Tower of Paine in January, 1972, we wondered whether we would ever have a chance to try it again. In our time a problem such as the 1 200 m East Face of the Central Tower cannot be left too long without attracting the attention of the mountaineering world.  Early in January, 1973, I received a letter from John Arnatt, asking me for details of the East Face. He was thinking of making it the objective of his Patagonian expedition for the end of 1973. I decided to start planning another expedition to the Paine and wrote back to Arnatt, who replied that they would plan to climb the South-East face of the Fortress instead. 

Selecting a team was a difficult task, but the expedition eventually consisted of the following: Mike Scott, who was deputy leader, and his wife, Doreen; Art McGarr; Mervyn Prior; Roger Fuggle; Richard Smithers and his wife, Heather; my wife, Janet, and I. Fanie van der Merwe and Andre van der Heever came along to make documentary films of the climb. We received the support of the MCSA and through them obtained a grant from the Department of Sport and Recreation. Sponsorship of Fanie's films provided further financial support. South African Airways contributed three return tickets to Buenos Aires and Aerolineas Argentinas promised free airfreight.  Each member of the expedition had his share of the preparations.  Mike was equipment officer, Art and Merv saw to the catering and food donations, and Janet and Richard made up a medical kit. I asked Richard and Heather Smithers to make three light belay seats to make the etrier stances more bearable, and two strong haul sacks to pull equipment and bivouac gear up the face. In liaison with Richard Hoare, who was at Cambridge at the time, I handled the overseas orders, while Roger promised to bring along some of the latest in nut runners from the USA, including two 'double cam nuts' for use in wide flaring cracks. He also brought two single-point suspension hammocks for bivouacking on the vertical rock face. From previous experience we knew that fixed ropes were essential on a bigwall route in the Patagonian Andes. Mike had done research and concluded that multi-filament polyproplene rope would be best, being strong, light and abrasion-resistant. The latter property was important in view of the high winds we were to encounter. This rope's virtual inelasticity also makes it very convenient for prusiking. After trying one supplier after another, however Mike managed to get only about 300 m of it, so that we had to make do with commercial nylon rope for the other I 000 m. Fortunately we had enough polypropylene rope for the snowfields at the foot of the face, where its low moisture-absorbing properties made it less susceptible to icing-up than nylon rope. To obtain permission to enter the Paine I wrote to the Federacion de Andinismo de Chile and to the Chilean Ministry of the Exterior.

 The president of the Federacion sent a very encouraging reply, but as Allende's government was overthrown a few days after I had written I was not surprised to hear nothing from the Ministry. Less than two months before departure date Aerolineas Argentinas suddenly withdrew their offer of free airfreight, leaving us with the problem of getting almost 800 kg of equipment over to Patagonia. Fortunately a member of the MCSA managed to get us some free seafreight on a boat leaving Cape Town for Buenos Aires on November 7, and a further grant from the Department of Sport helped to cover the cost of airfreighting the items we could not send by sea.  

Merv Prior left five days before our departure date, November 26, in order to clear the freight through the harbour customs, and Roger flew across early from the USA to help him. Less than two weeks before departure one of the most essential equipment orders from overseas had not yet arrived and we learnt that it had been sent off from England by sea only on October 24. Fortunately Richard and Heather Smithers could only leave on December 5, so that they were able to bring this equipment along when they came.

On November 26, Art, Janet and I, Fanie and Andre left Jan Smuts Airport for Cape Town, where Mike and Doreen Scott joined us. Here we discovered that one of our airfreight consignments had been left behind at Jan Smuts - and the next flight to Buenos Aires was only on December 5. The official helping us at the airport assured us that they would get the freight to Buenos Aires much earlier by rerouting it through Rio de Janeiro, but we took off with mixed feelings.

 At the airport in Buenos Aires Roger and Mervyn reported that they had made little progress in clearing our consignment of seafreight through the harbour customs. We were to fly south to Rio Gallegos on the morning of November 28, but Merv and I decided to stay behind to deal with the unco-operative customs officials while the others went on to Rio Gallegos to buy the provisions we still needed for our seven weeks' stay in the mountains. Later that morning our equipment was at last released and we immediately airfreighted it to Rio Gallegos, capital of the Argentinian province of Santa Cruz. It was not until the following day, however, that our lost airfreight consignment arrived. We again had to run the gauntlet of

customs officials, but by that evening we had cleared the airfreight and the following morning Merv and I were on the flight southward. I had written to Sen. Valdes, the Chilean who had driven us to the Paine in 1971, and he was in Rio Gallegos to meet us with his truck. We were forced to wait for an extra day because of another unexpected delay in the arrival of one of the consignments sent from Buenos Aires, but on the morning of December 1 we finally left Rio Gallegos. It was getting dark by the time we reached the Chilean border. The Argentinian customs let us pass unsearched when they saw the mountainous jumble of equipment. The Chilean customs, too, gave us no trouble, and we were delighted to discover that the stipulation that travellers had to exchange 20 dollars a day at the border was no longer in force. From the border post at Cerro Castillo we turned north for the last 50 km to the Paine. The road was by now a narrow track, wet and slippery, and in the dark, a mere 10 km from our destination, the truck slipped off the tracks into a muddy ditch. After ten minutes of trying in vain to get it back on the road Sen. Valdes decided to wait for morning. The next morning was bright and breezy and with everyone pushing, pulling and shouting instructions the truck was soon on the road and we were off again. As the road came over the brow of a hill a magnificent view of the Paine unfolded before us, with the three Towers dominating the scene. Straight ahead was the Rio Ascensio valley, flanked on the left by the massive snow-covered Paine Chico and on the right by a long ridge of shaly black rock. Base camp was to be high up in this valley, a few hours' walk from the foot of the East Face of the Central Tower. Far over to the left we could just see the mouth of the Rio Frances valley, where base camp had been on our previous expedition, and beyond it the Paine Grande rose into the clouds. The two peaks we had climbed then, the Sword and the Cuerno Norte, were hidden from view. At the Estancia Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lake) we stopped to arrange transport from the bridge over the Rio Paine to the road head. The bridge was too narrow for Sen. Valdes's truck to cross, but there was still about eight kilometers of landrover track from there to the Estancia Cerro Paine, near the mouth of the Rio Ascensio valley. Sen. Valdes dropped us at the bridge and arranged to come and fetch us again on January 24, seven and a half weeks hence.

We pitched our base tent in a sheltered glade on the banks of the Rio Paine and set about sorting out food and fuel into weekly parcels. Janet was to be sergeant-major of catering, one of her main tasks being to make sure that we did not start on a new week's supply before it was due. The following morning an  advance party consisting of Mike, Roger, Art and Doreen set off with enough food and equipment to establish Base Camp high up in the Rio Ascensio valley. Mervyn and the two photographers would make a carry to the Estancia Cerra Paine while Janet and I remained behind in case transport arrived.

A while later a small landrover drove up with two policemen and a driver. The driver was the manager of the Estancia Cerro Guido and the two policemen were from the police post on the ranch. We loaded

the landrover and drove along the bumpy track to the Estancia Cerro Paine, leaving Janet behind to strike camp and get it ready for the next load. It took a total of four journeys to get everything across; but our helpers refused to accept any form of remuneration apart from a few slabs of chocolate and the promise of some ropes at the end of the expedition.

Meanwhile the others had found the old bridge across the Rio Ascensio completely collapsed, only a few wire cables being left across the torrent. They constructed a makeshift footbridge of planks and bits of wire and this lasted very well, with occasional minor repairs. The time taken in building the bridge made it too late to continue up the valley, so they carried their loads up to a knoll on the mountainside, from where it was possible to traverse into the valley, and made a small dump camp there. By that evening most of us had made a carry or two to the dump camp.

The farmhouse at the Estancia Cerro Paine is situated in a sheltered spot next to a small hill, about 15 minutes' walk from our bridge across the Rio Ascensio. The owner, Sen. Juan Radic, was not there

at the time but he was expecting us because I had asked Sen. Valdes in one of my letters to obtain permission for us to cross and camp on  the farm. One of the gauchos allowed us to use a derelict little shed for storing what we did not need to take up the mountain initially. The next day everybody but myself set off up the valley with heavy loads to establish base camp. I was suffering from a cold and decided to stay in camp and start sorting out the mass of climbing gear, ranging from tiny rurps to four-inch bongs, as well as myriads of nuts of various shapes and sizes, from tiny 'panic buttons' to large hexcentrics. There were sky-hooks, cam-nuts, a bolt kit we hoped we would not need but which we had to have, and all the other paraphernalia of 'technocratic garbage' that the modern climber drapes around himself. We also had a complete set of snow-and-ice climbing gear for the glacier below the East Face and for the initial snowfields at its foot.

Mike, Roger and Janet knew the walk up the valley from the previous expedition and it took them only about four hours to reach a site in a glade of huge beech trees, where they decided to make Base Camp. Later that afternoon, shortly after Janet had returned from the valley, a landrover drove up and two policemen got out, both from the police post at Cerro Castillo. I was handed a note in English with the curt message that the whole expedition must pack their bags and return immediately to Puerto Natales to report to police headquarters there.

This was terrible news. To get the equipment and food out of the mountains would take two days and as everybody else, apart from Fanie and Andre, were spending the night up at the new Base Camp it would be midday the following day before the others heard the news and could start carrying out the things. I suggested to the policemen that it would be sufficient if I as leader accompanied them to Puerto Natales with copies of the letters I had written to the authorities before the military coup as well as the invitation we had received from the Federacion de Andinismo. They agreed that this would be the sensible course of action under the circumstances. We drove off, leaving an anxious Janet behind to pass on the news to the others and to tell them to stop all mountaineering activities until further notice.

We arrived at Cerro Castillo after dark. The following morning the policemen radioed through to Puerto Natales and then got me a lift on a truck carrying bales of wool for the last 50 km or so to Puerto Natales. Here Captain Corvalan told me that we did not have the requisite permission from the military authorities. He was very sympathetic, however, and suggested that we go and see the military governor of the province to see if he could suggest a solution. I waited anxiously for an hour until the captain appeared with the good news that the governor had telegraphed Santiago for permission on our behalf and that he was fairly sure it would be granted. Although it was about seven o'clock in the evening I immediately set off to hitch-hike back to the Paine, where I arrived at the Estancia late the following afternoon. The rest of the expedition were all there. Because of the uncertainty they had not made any further carries up to Base but had instead carried loads up to the dump camp on the knoll, to be carried further to Base at a later date. We decided to make a carry up to Base the following day but to return to the estancia that evening. Early next morning, December 8, we were woken by a shout outside our tent. There was Sen. Ulloa, manager of the Estancia Laguna Amarga, on horseback with the news that the permission had come - through from Santiago and that we could go ahead. Camp immediately broke out in jubilant, frenzied activity and a few hours later we were all trudging heavily laden up the valley. After crossing the river we had a steep pull up a grassy slope to the dump camp and from there we traversed into the valley across a steep scree slope which led to some boggy meadows along the river bank. Then the path pulled away from the river again, passing alternately through protected beech groves and open meadows sprinkled with many species of wild flowers. While I had been in Puerto Natales the others had shifted Base to a more convenient spot at the edge of a beech forest below the boulder slope leading up to the glacier at the foot of the Three Towers. This was an ideal site, protected from the prevailing winds, with a little stream running beside it. We had a magnificent view of the upper sections of the East Face from just outside Base Camp, although it was 40 minutes' walking to the viewing site on the moraine ridge from where we could see the whole of the East Face as well as the glacier leading up to it. The following day the five climbers set off with loads of food and equipment to establish an advanced camp on the glacier at the foot of the Face. We knew that the best route to follow was a narrow valley formed by the side of the Paine Chico on the left, and a moraine ridge on the right. At the head of this valley there was a steep snowfield and after kicking steps up this we could traverse over the moraine ridge onto the glacier on the other side. On the glacier the crevasses barring our way forced us to detour or jump. Many of them only became known when the leader's iceaxe suddenly went through a snowbridge, so we were thankful for our ropes. It took about an hour to cross the glacier to a point some ten minutes' walk from the snowfield at the foot of the Face, where we decided to pitch our Whillans Box. Here a thick covering of snow allowed a good hole to be dug for the Box, so that it could better withstand the fierce winds which periodically raked the surface of the glacier. Late that afternoon the advanced camp was established and then Mike, Art and I hurried back down to Base, leaving Roger and. Mervyn ensconced in the little Box below the huge rock face. They were to make a start up the face the next morning and continue for three days until the following pair took over. Back at Base Camp we discovered that Richard and Heather Smithers had arrived. They had brought the missing overseas order with them, which solved our remaining equipment problems. Those of us who had had to make do with various substitutes for some of their clothing, such as anoraks and climbing breeches, could now change over to the specialized heavy-duty waterproof anoraks and thick woollen breeches which we needed for climbing under the conditions we were to experience on the East Face. They had also brought six pairs of Jumar prusikers, which were essential items of equipment for the siege tactics we were planning to employ on the Face, as well as the two haul sacks they had made. For the next two days, while Roger and Mervyn were tackling the snowfields and rock slabs at the foot of the face, Base Camp was a hive of activity. After having wasted so much time at the beginning, Fanie and Andre were keen to do as much filming as possible, as Andre was due to fly back from Rio Gallegos on Christmas Day. We also had to carry more loads up to Base from the dump camp on the knoll as well as from the estancia, and Richard walked back to the bridge over the Rio Paine to fetch the rest of the luggage that he and Heather were not able to carry on their first walk up to Base.

On the first climbing day Roger and Mervyn made good progress, Roger first leading a hard pitch through the seracs at the foot of the snowfields and then continuing diagonally up to the right for three long pitches to where the rock starts. This brought them to a point quite far across to the right of the face, and they were planning to climb straight up from there to the base of a diagonal ramp leading back to the left across the steep rock slabs to some ledges at the base of a shattered pillar about 300 m up the face. On their last pitch up the snowfields they were not far from the path of the avalanches and rockfalls which were continually coming down from the very steep, rotten gully leading up to the col between the Central and the North Tower, and while Mervyn was following Roger up it a huge rock ricocheted across towards them from above, missing Roger by a mere six metres. This gave them both a bad fright, but fortunately this was the only section threatened by rockfall. From the top of the snowfields Mervyn led a short mechanical pitch up the rock above, and then they both abseiled down the fixed ropes to the Whillans Box. That night the weather closed in and great drifts of snow were blown against the box, burying it further in the snow and collapsing the sides, thereby reducing the volume inside considerably. At one stage during the night the wind blew so hard that, in spite of being buried in the snow, the Box was actually lifted up, and were it not for the guys securing it, it would have gone tumbling down the glacier with Roger and Mervyn inside. The next morning it was still snowing furiously, making it impossible for them to climb, so they decided instead to dig a snow cave in the snowfield below the face. They spent the whole day digging, taking it in turns to dig and to clear the snow out of the entrance, and by that evening they had dug a three-metre tunnel straight into the side of the mountain with another tunnel leading off at right angles at the end, which they had started to widen out into a sleeping and cooking chamber. The following morning the weather was still bad, but later it cleared up a little, so they climbed up the fixed ropes although it was still snowing. From their previous high-point Roger led a very hard mechanical pitch, making liberal use of rurps and micro-pegs, while Mervyn belayed him from his tiny stance below, getting colder and colder as the hours slipped by and it did not stop snowing. In the meantime Richard and I had come up from base camp with Mike and Art, who were taking over from Roger and Mervyn for the next three days. While Mike and Richard sorted out the Box and built up a snow wall above it to prevent it from being buried further under the snow, Art and I continued the work on the snow cave, so that by that evening it was almost ready for habitation. Then, while Mike and Art settled in for the night, Richard and I descended to Base, to be followed a few hours later by Roger and Mervyn, who were looking forward to a well-deserved rest. The bad weather which had moved in during Roger and Mervyn's spell in front set in thoroughly the following day, confining Art and Mike to the Box and the snow cave. They spent the time extending the cave and then moved everything across into it. On the second day they managed to get up the ropes, but when they arrived at Roger's high-point they discovered that they had left their piton hammers down below. The weather was rapidly deteriorating again, so they abseiled back down the ropes to the security of the snow cave. On Mike and Art's third day Richard and I walked up to the snow cave together with Fanie and Andre, but by the time we reached the glacier the wind was so strong that we could hardly keep on our feet. Then, as we stepped onto the glacier, a chilly blast whipped us off our feet and sent us slithering across the surface of the ice. I then realized that to continue under those conditions with Andre, who was wearing crampons for the first time, would be foolish so I suggested that he and Fanie return to base. Richard and I then continued up alone, struggling against the wind, which on several occasions bowled us over and which only subsided near the snow cave, as we came into the lee of the Three Towers. Mike and Art had managed to get up the ropes that day, but because of the poor weather they only managed to abseil down from Roger's high-point to the start of the diagonal ramp, where they left all the climbing gear in a haul sack and then descended to the snow cave. Richard and I reached the snow cave just as they were starting off down the ropes. While they were quenching their thirst and preparing to continue down to Base Mike told how some snow which had been plastered on the rock above had suddenly avalanched on him while he was on the stance at the start of the ramp, stunning him slightly and ripping his camera from his shoulder to send it flying downwards. Fortunately it missed hitting any rock on the way down and it seemed relatively undamaged when he eventually found it in the bergschrund at the foot of the Face.

Compared to the Whillans Box the snow cave was luxurious. There was now adequate sleeping and cooking space for two people inside, with storage space for rucksacks at the other side of the entrance tunnel. Thin closed-cell foam mattresses spread over the sleeping area insulated us from the cold as we snuggled down in our sleeping bags, and as the snow tunnel tended to absorb all sounds we seemed completely cut off from the elements outside. Surprisingly we did not have any condensation problems, as the moisture from our breathing froze immediately as it touched the domed roof, glazing it with a thin layer of ice, and the steam from our cooking simply blew out of the entrance tunnel. The next day dawned beautifully. We waited a little for the sun to melt the ice off the fixed ropes and then prusiked up to the start of the ramp. There was a lot of snow about from the bad weather of the previous few days, and to start off I had to traverse across a steep patch of snow which seemed just to be stuck to the rock face and likely to avalanche off any moment. The first pitch up the ramp gave relatively straightforward climbing although the snow on all the ledges slowed up my progress and I had to stop every now and then to thaw out my frozen fingers. I led out a full rope length and then fixed one for Richard to prusik up while I pulled up the haul sack on the other. This technique of climbing sped up the progress considerably. The next pitch was a lot steeper and Richard had to do a few mechanical moves followed by some delicate climbing of'F2' standard before he reached easier ground, which he followed until the rope ran out. I then prusiked up to him and continued up a short easy pitch to the ledges at the base of the shattered pillar. These ledges marked the end of the rock slabs, and above us the Tower rose almost vertically. From our attempt two years previously we knew that the best way from here was up to the top of the 100 m high shattered pillar and then back to the left to a series of cracks and grooves leading up to the huge system of dihedrals that cut straight up the East Face. These dihedrals were the key of our proposed route, and if we could get into them they should lead us up the next 700 m or so to the final 200-m summit cone. One of the biggest problems that we envisage at this stage was how to get from the lower right-hand dihedral into the base of the large central dihedral. At this stage this problem was still far above us, so I concentrated my efforts on leading the first pitch up the shattered pillar. I had led this same pitch on our previous attempt and was thus prepared for the difficulties that lay ahead, which consisted of a long section of delicate free climbing up to 'F3' standard, followed by some mechanical climbing on dubious pegs and finally onto a small ledge where I made an uncomfortable stance. By now it was getting late, so I abseiled down the pitch again, removing the pegs en route. We had to straighten out the line of fixed ropes on the descent to make prusiking easier, so Richard went down first, untied the rope from the piton at the start of our first pitch at the base of the diagonal ramp and let it swing across to the centre of the face. I then abseiled straight down securing the rope to a piton every 50 m or so, while Richard continued down using the double climbing rope. We eventually arrived back at the snow cave after midnight, with the result that we had a late start the following morning. It was another lovely day, and Richard and I were in short-sleeves as we prusiked up the ropes to resume the climbing. Fanie and Andre were on the glacier, having come up the previous day and spent the night in the Whillans Box, and were filming our progress from down below, using a powerful telescopic lens. Richard led the next pitch, which consisted of some steep 'F2' grade free climbing up the edge of the shattered pillar, and made a stance near the top of it. Above this point the wall stretched up smooth and featureless and it was clear that we would not be able to make much progress in that direction. The only alternative was a crack system, across to our left, which seemed to lead diagonally left towards the base of the lower dihedral, but between us and the crack system was a blank section of about 10m. The only way we could see to get across was by means of a pendulum or 'king swing' , so after getting a piton in as far across to the left as possible, I clipped one of the climbing ropes into it and lowered myself down the rock face, while Richard gave me tension from the stance. Then I ran backwards and forwards across the vertical face until I developed sufficient swing to get me across to the crack system. On my first attempt I did not get a good enough hold in the crack with the result that I popped out of it again like a cork from a bottle and went careering back across the face. The next time I managed to stay in the crack, and after a few tense moments while I desperately sorted through my selection of nuts I found one that fitted and gratefully clipped myself into it. All this took some time, and by the time I reached a stance it was getting late, so we hurried back down again to our snug little snow cave. The two days were beginning to tell on us. Our fingers were cracked and painful from the cold, rough granite, so that we almost wished for bad weather. The following day it was again clear, however, and although the wind was banging against the tops of other peaks as it came screaming in from the west it was still relatively calm on our side of the mountain. Once again we made our way up the fixed ropes. I led a splendid pitch of delicate free climbing which took me to a snowy ledge at the base of the crack system which leads up into the lower dihedral. As we discovered later, this was to be the last free pitch for the next 700 m. Then Richard set off up the next pitch, heavily laden with ironmongery. It was a long mechanical pitch, much of which was slightly overhanging, and by the time both of us got up to the tiny ledge at the top of it, it was time to start thinking of going down again. I was by now starting to feel the effects of our long exposure to the rock face and was feeling a strong need to get back to the world of the horizontal. We had now reached the high-point of our previous attempt, and although we were just over a third of the way up it was clear that most of the difficulties still lay ahead. Furthermore, our logistic problems would increase enormously as we got into the higher sections. Roger and Art, who had come up earlier in the day to do some filming with Fanie and Andre on the glacier, were ensconced in the snow cave and had a brew ready for us when we got down. After a few brief words we hurried on into the impending gloom, as we were not keen to get caught on the glacier in the dark.

Roger and Art's tracks of that morning had been melted by the warm wind which heralded the arrival of a bad weather front, with the result that we got lost in a maze of crevasses. While we were trying to extricate ourselves from it a snow bridge suddenly collapsed under me, leaving me dangling from my shoulders above a gaping chasm. It took me a few minutes to heave myself and my rucksack back over the edge of the crevasse while Richard gave me an ice-axe belay, before we could continue on our precarious way down the glacier. The rock slabs at the foot of the glacier were rushing with water that had melted from it, forcing us to run the gauntlet of a few wobbly boulders which were slowly being pushed down by the torrent, and it was with immense relief that we eventually crossed over the moraine ridge and onto the snowfield at the head of the narrow valley leading down to base. During Richard's and my spell on the mountain the expedition had received an addition to its ranks in the form of Sergeant Exequiel Munoz, who was in the Chilean army's Andean troops and had been sent by the military authorities to join us as liaison officer. He turned out to be a very enthusiastic individual, always keen to join in the activities and chores around Base Camp. One of his first tasks after joining us was to arrange transport back to Rio Gallegos for Fanie and Andre, who had by now finished their filming. The strong winds that Richard and I had encountered on our last day of climbing had indeed been the forerunner of another bad spell, although Art and Roger managed to snatch a day's climbing before the weather broke. Art led a steep pitch of mechanical climbing with a few free moves on it, and then Roger took over the lead up the next section. He had some hard climbing to get up to the next stance, including a few precarious moves on 'skyhooks' to overcome a short section where the cracks petered out. That night and the following morning it snowed solidly, and although it cleared up a little towards afternoon the face was too plastered with snow to climb. On their third day the weather was still bad, but they were determined to try and make some more progress so they started up the ropes in spite of it. Their jumars kept slipping on the iced-up ropes, and when both Roger's jumars suddenly lost their grip, sending him sliding down for about three metres before they bit into the rope again, they decided that it was too dangerous to continue and returned to base. The bad weather continued. Mike and Mervyn, who were now up in front, spent the first day digging a second chamber in the snow cave to accommodate two more people, as a strong gale a few nights earlier had torn the guys off the Whillans Box and had blown it away, never to be seen again. On their second day the weather cleared up beautifully, and everybody down at Base had high hopes that progress could at last be resumed. The ropes were still frozen to the rock face, however, and after an abortive attempt to get up them they returned to their troglodytic existence in the snow cave. To our delight the next day dawned clear and sunny and the depressing wait was over. While Mike and Mervyn resumed progress on the rock face, Richard and I walked up the glacier and started preparing for the following two days' climbing. Because of the time it now required to prusik up the ropes in the morning and abseil down again in the evening, we were planning to bivouac on the face the following night and only return to the snow cave the evening of the second day. Therefore, in addition to the normal climbing gear, we had to take sleeping bags, cooking gear and food up the face with us. Mike and Mervyn got off the face quite late that evening, and after the usual brief conversation, in which they told of their progress and reported which types of piton were running short, they hurried on down to Base. We woke up at 4.30 a.m. the following morning but it was after 6.30 a.m. before we eventually got going up the ropes. It was Christmas Day, and the good weather seemed to be holding. It took us four weary hours to prusik up the ropes to Mike and Mervyn's highpoint, and this strengthened our decision to bivouac on the face that night. After the usual delay to get the equipment organized I set off up the smooth V-groove above, split in the middle by a single crack ranging in width from one to two centimeters. This was real 'Yosemite' type climbing, and after an erratic start I got into the slow rhythm of knocking in a piton, clipping in an etrier, bouncing in it to test it and then stepping up as high as possible to repeat the process. Higher up the crack started narrowing down and becoming a bit rotten, and after a piton suddenly moved as I was stepping up on it, sending me scurrying back down to the previous piton, which also moved as my weight suddenly came onto it, I leant around the corner and found, to my immense relief, another crack leading up behind a flake. Although the flake expanded as I knocked in a piton, tending to widen the crack and loosen any pitons lower down, it was preferable to the one I had just left, so I swung around carefully and continued up it. The afternoon was drawing on by the time I reached a ledge that was big enough to stand on, and by the time Richard got up to me we realised that we would not be able to reach any other ledge before nightfall. The sky was filled with ominous clouds, and earlier on a few flakes of snow had fallen, but the thought of the long prusik the following morning if we did abseil decided us to risk a bivouac. We took a long time to rig up our hammocks on the rock face, mine above the ledge and Richard's below it, and almost as long to take off our boots and get into them. It was a battle to get into our sleeping bags in the narrow confines of the hammocks. Try as I may, I just could not manage to get mine over my shoulders, so I spent the night with them covered only by the clothes I was wearing, cursing the fact that I had left my duvet behind in the snow cave. At the scheduled time we switched on our walkie-talkie radio and almost immediately heard a faint voice coming through from Base. They were celebrating Christmas in good style down there, and their joyful greetings only served to emphasize our desolate situation. We woke up next morning after an uncomfortable night of fitful sleep to discover that the sky had cleared up again and that the sun would soon be hitting us. We were both shivering with cold and so spent longer in our hammocks than we probably should have, soaking up the warm rays of the morning sun. Breakfast was a drawn-out affair, as we had to melt snow on our little gas cooker which had to be tied on, together with the billy, to prevent it from toppling over the edge and vanishing for ever into the void below. We were also a bit reluctant to get going again, as the climbing ahead of us looked hard. Richard first tried the traverse out to the left along the ledge in the hope that it would lead across into the base of the central dihedral, but after a few metres he looked around the corner to find a blank wall in front of him. The only other possibility seemed a huge undercut flake fifteen metres above us, stretching out to the left across the blank section between the two dihedrals. We could not see what happened around the corner, or indeed how far it was from the end of the flake to the central dihedral, but to continue further up the right-hand dihedral seemed hopeless as it was barred by a series of huge overhangs, seemingly without any cracks in them. Straightforward pegging led up to the level of the bottom of the flake and then Richard started moving gingerly across. As he knocked in the first piton the flake started expanding outwards, confirming what we had suspected. He continued on, using nuts whenever possible and knocking in the pitons just as deep as absolutely necessary so as not to loosen the piton or nut that he was standing on. When he reached the end of the flake he continued up its left hand side, always, searching the wall to the left for any possible crack line. Try as he may, the next two metres to his left were totally blank, so eventually he called to me to pass up the bolt kit which we had with us in the haul sack. Richard had never placed an expansion bolt before. While I shouted up instructions from below, he leaned across as far left as the precarious piton he was standing on would allow and started drilling a hole into the smooth granite. It took him more than 40 minutes to place the bolt, and then, with great relief, he stepped onto his first secure point since the start of the traverse. From here a few more peg moves across the exposed vertical wall brought him to a point from where a mere four metres of smooth rock separated him from a sloping ledge at the base of the central dihedral. Fortunately a vertical knife-blade crack allowed him to place a high piton which he used as suspension point for a 'king swing' onto the sloping ledge. It was a magnificent pitch, probably meriting an 'A4' grading. While de-pegging the pitch I discovered one of his pitons hanging loose on the rope, which meant that the subsequent pitons must have expanded the flake so far that this one just dropped out. By the time I reached him on his stance the long shadows of the Towers were stretching across beyond the glacier, so after putting all the climbing gear into the haul sack for the next pair, we set off back down the ropes. The traverse into the central dihedral proved to be the key to our route. Although we were not yet quite half-way up the East Face, we were now pretty confident that, given the weather, we stood a good chance of getting up. But it was clear that the weather was not going to let us off lightly. Over the next two days, in spite of deteriorating conditions, Roger and Art managed to make good progress up the huge dihedral, the walls of which measured more than 30 m across on both sides at its largest point. It was an intimidating feeling to climb up the crack system at the back of the dihedral, with the smooth granite walls stretching vertically across into space on either side. As there were no ledges at all in the lower section of the dihedral, they had to hang in etriers on all their stances. They decided to bivouac on a somewhat larger ledge lower down than where Richard and I had spent Christmas night, but a snowstorm which lasted most of the night prevented them from getting much sleep. Down at Base the rest of us eagerly followed their progress through binoculars as they continued up on their second day. The rock was plastered with snow from the previous night's storm, which made conditions bitterly cold in the dihedral, forcing the leader to stop and put on woollen mittens every few minutes to prevent frostbite in his finger tips. That evening Art reached the bottom of what seemed to be a good ledge halfway up the dihedral, but a continual shower of spindrift being blown off it onto him prevented him from climbing further. When he got down he reported that the ledge, although it sloped a bit, was 'large enough for a Boeing to land on'. This was good news, as it meant that we could use this as a permanent bivouac site from which to tackle the upper sections of the face. We had decided to change climbing partners, so it was Mike and Richard who took the next turn out in front. The weather had closed in again, and during their three-day spell in front they only managed to get up onto the ledge and start rigging up the bivouac site. They had disappointing news to tell us when they got down. The ledge turned out to be sloping at an angle of about 45 degrees, which was far too steep to be of much use to us. Still, there was quite a lot of snow and ice on it, which allowed them to kick a small platform for standing on, and there was a horizontal block in the corner just big enough for one person to sit on and cook. For some peculiar reason I always seemed to be blessed with good weather, and it seemed to be the case again as Mervyn and I started prusiking up the ropes. It took us six weary hours to get up to the 'Boeing Ledge', and as we had had to wait for the ropes to thaw out before starting up that morning, it was too late to do any climbing when we eventually arrived there. Instead we set about trying to make the site as habitable as possible. Because of the paucity of cracks I had to place a bolt from which to suspend one of the hammocks, but we eventually managed to get things tolerably comfortable, with a network of ropes criss-crossing the rock immediately above us, which allowed us to move about in the confined space of the ledge without ever untying ourselves.

It seemed that my lucky streak had at last come to an end: it started snowing as we were cooking supper and continued right through the night and into the following morning. Mervyn and I spent the morning sitting disconsolately squeezed on to the tiny cooking block under our bivy tent. But as the day drew on it started clearing up. That afternoon Mervyn led one pitch up the thin crack splitting the smooth left-hand wall of the dihedral above the 'Boeing Ledge'. The next day was beautifully clear, so I continued upwards while Mervyn belayed me from his etrier stance on the vertical rock face. Just above his stance the crack widened out and became too large even for our widest bongs, and although I contemplated the possibility of climbing it free, the steepness of the rock and the blue ice at the back of it put me off, so instead I swung right into the corner of the dihedral and continued pegging up the thin crack at the back of it. For some reason my nerves were bad that day and the terrific exposure of our situation did nothing to help matters. My progress was slow and I tended to hammer the pitons in deeper than was necessary and take too long before I trusted my weight on them. I was absolutely terrified when, on a few occasions, a piton moved as I put my weight on it. By the time I had completed the pitch and Mervyn had got up to me on my etrier stance it was starting to get late. Roger and Art had arrived at the 'Boeing Ledge' and were preparing for their bivouac. It took us less than two hours to abseil down the 700 m or so to the snow cave, slowed down only by the heating up of our figure-of-eight descenders, which forced us to stop every now and then and wait for them to cool down. My depression at having made such poor progress was soon dispelled when we woke up next morning to a blue sky and saw Roger and Art forging ahead up the dihedral. The long good spell that we had been waiting forever since our arrival in the Paine seemed to have come at last, and Roger and Art made good use of it during their two days up in front. On their first day Art broke through the large overhang that blocked the dihedral about 10 m above Mervyn's and my high-point, and then he continued up the steep cracks above to another stance in etriers. It was only on their second morning that they eventually reached the first ledge since the Boeing Ledge, and by that evening they had reached another ledge about 25 m below the overhangs barring the top of the central dihedral. It was late by the time they started their descent and after midnight before they got down to the snow cave.The good weather continued. Spurred on by the lure of the summit, Mike and Richard made magnificent progress during the next two days. Mike led a pitch up to a cramped stance below the overhangs, and then Richard continued up a diagonal recess cutting through them and leading up to the left into the base of the upper dihedral. From below, this dihedral seemed to lead up to the final summit cone. They had some trouble getting up the lower section of the dihedral, as the crack at the back of it was too wide for any of our bongs and too overhanging and iced-up for free climbing. They finally managed to overcome this by climbing a steep crack on the left-hand wall which led up to a ledge above the overhanging section. The climbing above this was less sustained, and even contained some short sections of free climbing, so their progress sped up. By the end of their second day they had climbed well over 100 m up the upper dihedral and had reached a point less than 50 m below what seemed to be the end of the difficulties. On the walk up for our next turn infront, Mervyn and I studied the upper sections of the Tower very carefully through binoculars, trying to pick out the best way up the final 200-m summit cone to the top. The good spell was starting to show signs of breaking, but we were determined to make the top while it lasted. Our hopes were boosted by the news that Mike and Richard gave of their progress as they passed us on the Boeing Ledge on their way down. Our optimism was dashed when we woke up next morning to find it snowing heavily on the tops of our hammocks. On the morning radio call Richard reported that the barometer had dropped overnight, so we cooked breakfast and then sat in our hammocks, cursing the weather. By midday we were so fed up and uncomfortable that we decided to prusik up the ropes in spite of the snowstorm, which was showing no signs of abating. I was miserable and cold when we set off, but the prusiking soon warmed me up and I started to cheer up again. On the diagonal prusik from the top of the central dihedral into the upper dihedral the rope tended to chafe over a sharp corner, so Mike and Richard had placed a second rope there as a safety line, which was very comforting as we were now almost 900 m in vertical height above the glacier.

It took us about three hours to get up to the top of the fixed ropes, and by this time it had started clearing up again. Straightforward mechanical climbing led up to an overhang capping the top of the dihedral, and then I pegged out and over the lip onto a snowy platform above. Suddenly the view around me had changed. Instead of the vertical walls to which I had become accustomed over the last month, I was faced with easier-angled rock slopes and snowfields. There was a six-metre vertical section above the platform, but after that the going seemed fairly straightforward. It was getting late by now, so in the gathering darkness we slid back down the ropes to the Boeing Ledge.

The sun rose next morning to a beautiful day. We were busy with breakfast when, to our immense surprise, Roger's head popped over the lip of the Boeing Ledge, followed by Art a short while later. They had followed our progress the previous evening and had realized that, given the weather, we would be making a push for the summit that day, so they had woken up at 2.30 a.m. that morning and started prusiking at 4.00 a.m., making it to the Boeing Ledge in the record time of three and a half hours, to join us in the summit bid. After having some coffee and biscuits with us, they set off up the ropes with Mervyn and me close behind. Roger led the short wall above my high-point and then Art continued up over the easier-angled rock above. Progress was much faster now, although the iced-up sections gave some trouble as we had no ice axes or crampons with us and he had to cut steps with, his piton hammer. The sky, which had been beautifully clear that morning, was starting to cloud over, first with thin, high layers of cirrus, followed by rows of lenticular clouds - classic signs of an approaching bad front. Pitch followed pitch as we hurried to make the top before the weather broke. In Patagonia, however, weather fronts can move at fantastic speeds. While Mervyn was leading a short mechanical section on the penultimate pitch it suddenly started snowing. We carried on regardless, and when I got up to Mervyn's stance I grabbed some equipment from him and raced up the last easy-looking groove to the top. There were some iced-up sections in the groove which slowed me down a bit, but eventually, at 7 o'clock, I stepped up onto the summit ridge. The rock dropped away beneath my feet and far below me, through the swirling mists, I caught a glimpse of the huge moraine at the foot of the West Face. Everything else was obscured by the driving snow, so instead of trying to search for the non-existent view I started looking around for a belay point. Then suddenly I saw a rock pillar ahead of me on the ridge, its summit about 20 m higher than the point I was standing on. I started moving towards it, but then noticed that in between there was a narrow knife-edge section of ridge, its flanks dropping away steeply on either side. I brought Roger up to where I was and together we decided that, whether we tried to traverse along this ridge or abseiled down to an easier-angled ramp leading to the foot of the pillar, it would take a fair amount of climbing to get to the top of it, and even then we weren't sure that it would be the true summit. While Art was coming up to join us, Roger recalled what Don Whillans had told him in Rio Gallegos: 'Don't be deceived; when you think you have got to the summit, you still have a few more hours to go.' Even while we were standing there the snowfall was getting harder and it soon became clear to us that we had no chance of making the summit that evening. To risk bivouacking high up under these conditions would be folly. It was a big disappointment, and to cheer us up we tried to convince ourselves that we had achieved what we had set out to do - to climb the East face of the Central Tower - and that it was not important for us to get to the summit itself. So, after taking a few photographs, we set off on the long abseil down the mountain. On the third abseil the accident happened. Roger had just gone down the fixed rope. Mervyn had started following him down when the nut securing the rope to the rock came out, sending him plummeting downwards. The rope was also tied to the one above, but we had left a fair amount of slack in the upper rope so as not to dislodge the nut when abseiling down to it. He therefore fell a fair distance before his rope pulled taut again. By this time, however, he had let go of his descender, so he continued falling uncontrollably until he was stopped short by his descender at the next fixed point below. Roger, watching horror-struck from below, saw him crash down onto the steep ice field next to the fixed point and lie there, unconscious, with his head pointing downwards. By the time Roger had climbed back up to him Mervyn was starting to come round, so he immediately set about turning him upright and getting him into a more comfortable position. Mervyn was badly shocked and in considerable pain, and a brief examination showed that he had hurt his back and had probably broken a few ribs in his 30-m fall. He also had a badly sprained ankle and a deep gash in his helmet showed that it had most probably saved his life. He was in too confused a state to continue abseiling unaided, so Roger first went down the rope to the next fixed point and then I put Mervyn into the abseil and sent him down to Roger, giving him a belay with one of the climbing ropes. In the meantime Roger had clipped in a pair of etriers into the fixed piton, so when Mervyn reached him he clipped him into the piton and made him as comfortable as possible in the etriers before setting off down the next rope, while I abseiled down to Mervyn to repeat the process on the next section. It was about ten o'clock before we got going, and as it was still snowing continuously we were bitterly cold. When it got dark we switched on our head-torches and continued downwards, their yellow beams lighting the grey verticality around us, giving us a strange sense of security. The pin-pricks of light from Roger's torch down below me and from Art's high up above were wonderfully reassuring and gave me a strong feeling of comradeship which helped me overcome my feelings of loneliness and fear on that vast rock wall. Most of the fixed points consisted of a single piton knocked into the vertical rock face, and although I tried my best not to hurt Mervyn while clipping him into his next abseil, I invariably bumped him as I struggled with the ropes while standing in the same etriers as he was, making him wince with pain. In spite of this, and the cold which froze us to the bone, Mervyn's spirits slowly returned as the effects of shock wore off and he started realizing his chances of getting off the mountain alive. Our descent was slow and it was already light by the time we reached the Boeing Ledge. On Mervyn's last abseil onto the ledge I suddenly felt him swing onto the belay rope and looking down I realised that his descendeur had somehow unclipped from his harness so that all his weight came onto me while the descendeur remained behind on the abseil rope. Mervyn went pale as he realized the implications of it, and on inspecting the karabiner we discovered that it had been damaged in the impact at the end of his fall and that the descendeur had forced its gate to open outwards on this last abseil. We first helped Mervyn into his hammock, where he dozed off immediately, and then I set about melting some snow on the gas cooker. It was still snowing and we were damp, cold and utterly exhausted. It took hours to melt enough snow to quench our thirsts with cooldrink and coffee, and then to cook a meal, but with something warm in our stomachs we cheered up considerably. Eventually, at about eleven o'clock, it stopped snowing, so we set off down the ropes again.  The food and rest had done Mervyn a lot of good and after a while he was able to dispense with our help on the abseils, although I still gave him the extra belay until the final rock slabs. Mike and Richard were waiting for us at the snow cave and they kept on supplying us with food and hot drinks as each of us told his version of our story. Then, as the late afternoon shadows started stretching out across the glacier, we set off on our last leg down to Base. The girls were very relieved to see us back, and while Janet put Mervyn to bed, Doreen and Heather gave us supper. By the time we got into bed, Roger and Art had been awake for nearly 46 hours and Mervyn and I four hours less. Our sleep that night was long and deep. The storm that hit us on the summit ridge herald the start of a bad spell which lasted eight days. after a day at Base Mike and Richard returned to the snow cave to try and make the summit as soon as the weather cleared. Although we had almost convinced ourselves that we had achieved our objective of climbing the East Face, we all agreed that it would be much better if we could reach the actual summit of the Central Tower. We had left a lot of valuable equipment on the rock face and none of us was too happy to leave it up there. We had hoped to bring a lot of it down when we descended from the summit ridge, leaving just sufficient for Mike and Richard's summit bid, but Mervyn's accident had put paid to those plans. After spending a few days at base Mervyn walked down to the estancia and from there Exequiel drove him to Puerto Natales, where he was admitted to hospital. In addition to a number of broken ribs they discovered that he had crushed one of his vertebrae, which must have caused him considerable pain on the whole descent. We had arranged for Sen. Valdes to come and fetch us on the morning of January 24, and as the days passed with no sign of the weather improving we became more and more anxious. After three days in the snow cave Mike and Richard returned to Base Camp; they were starting to run out of food and the face was completely plastered with snow. Two days later the weather started showing signs of improving, so they trudged back up to the snow cave with fresh supplies. The face remained out of condition until eventually, on January 20, they managed to get up to the Boeing Ledge after a long battle up the iced ropes. It snowed for most of that night, making it too cold for them to get much sleep, but the next morning dawned bright and clear. Roger, Art, Exequiel and I had spent the night in the snow cave, and while Mike and Richard were making for the summit Art prusiked about 1 000 m up the ropes to fetch the haul sack which we had left high up in the upper dihedral. The final section from our high-point on the summit ridge to the true summit involved four climbing pitches, one of which was mechanical, as well two abseils, which took them a total of three hours to complete. At 4.30 p.m. on January 21, six weeks after we had started climbing, Mike and Richard stood on the summit of the Central Tower. It was a perfect day and they could see for miles across the white expanse of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, stretching westwards towards the Pacific Ocean. All around them the peaks of the Cordilleira del Paine, some of them climbed but others still virgin, thrust up into the blue sky, and they had a clear view of the Cuerno Norte, on whose summit we had stood two years earlier, although the Sword was hidden from view by the huge mass of the South Tower. Because time was short they decided not to remove the fixed ropes from the face, so Mike abseiled down from the summit ridge to the Boeing Ledge in two long 300-m abseils, tying the successive sections of rope together as he descended and removing the intermediate pitons. At the bottom of each of the two abseils he cut the ropes free so that they could flap around in the breeze and hopefully perish in time. There was far too much for them to carry down from the Boeing Ledge, so they threw all the non-essential items, including all the ropes, down the face in haul sacks. Roger and I were waiting for them a little lower down and we took over clearing the face while they hurried down to the snow cave. Roger and I finished clearing the ropes from the bottom slabs the following day and then set off down the glacier for the last time. We arrived at Base to find the camp already dismantled and carried down to the estancia, and Janet and Art waiting there for us with the last few bits and pieces that still had to go down. During the last few days, while all the climbers had been on the mountain, the girls had been doing a sterling bit of work, carrying heavy loads down to the estancia, and it was quite a surprise to see the campsite so empty. Sen. Radic invited us all into his house and toasted us on our success, and the Ulloa family from Laguna Amarga gave us some gifts of home craft as we left in Sen. Valdes' truck. Exequiel had in the meantime radioed the news of our success to Puerto Natales, and when we arrived there to fetch Mervyn, who was by now out of hospital and recovering well, the Governor was there to meet us and congratulate us personally. Perhaps the saddest moment of all was when we said farewell to Exequiel and to his wife and two daughters, who had been camping at the estancia during the latter half of the expedition and who had treated us to the delights of Chilean cooking whenever we went down there for a carry. The East Face of the Central Tower of Paine is most probably one of the highest vertical rock faces in the world that has been climbed to date. Although I am obviously biased, I also think that our route up it must be one of the finest rock climbs in the world, following, as it does, such a direct an

 

 

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