Learn how Ambassador Quinn Brett and partners put up a 1st ascent in Patagonia
It’s day three of our adventure, and we’re close to finishing a new rock climbing route straight up the 550m headwall in between two existing routes on the South Face of Cerro Fitz Roy, Patagonia. The sun shines, as Quinn Brett and I munch on Snickers Bars and dried mango. We gaze down at the endless glaciers, towering granite spires, our last camp at Paso Superior and the snow cornices hanging off of Aguja de La Silla. The town of Chalten where we are based looks small in the distance, 20 miles and 7000 feet down in elevation. All of a sudden, we hear, POP, and Mike is airborne. I grab at Quinn as she launches up into the belay; we need to avoid putting any upward stress on our anchor. And then it’s over. Quinn’s bicep is bruised, and Mike is upside down after falling 35+ feet. Shaken, he builds a belay, brings us up and passes the lead to Quinn.
First ascents of rock walls and mountains connect an old pioneer mentality with more tangible discoveries that can still be attained even in our heavily mapped and travelled world. But what does it take to go where others have never gone before? The frequency of opportunity appears very small and can be discouraging, and the dangers are real. Mike could have broken an arm, a leg or worse when he fell. And though relatively well-traveled, a rescue thousands of feet off the ground and miles from the nearest town would still be difficult.
Most new routes are done in very remote, difficult to reach regions of the world, where the logistical difficulties of approaching keep all but the very committed and persistent away. In a sense, people who go to those wild places are some of the last pioneers. But, any aspiring climber can relate to the feeling of gazing over a rock face with naïve eyes, connecting existing features with one’s imagination, and ultimately tracing a desired path up a wall. Much like the artist’s paint stroke, establishing a new route is a climber’s way of leaving their impression, a demonstration of their style, and often times, insight into their very character. I wanted to trace my line up Fitz Roy, one of the most storied rock walls in the world.
We cross the Glacier Superior at night. Warm conditions this year make glacial travel difficult, as crevasses widen and the snow bridges between them become dangerously narrow. And knowing that we have an exposed steep snow ramp that we have to climb to reach the base of an existing route called La Brecha de los Italianos, we want to wait until first light to catch the hanging snowfield in optimal conditions. Eventually we post-hole into position, melt water, crawl into Mike’s light two-person tent and shiver for a short night’s sleep.
At 3:30a.m. we are up. Wet and cold, we pack up our gear and head for the roughly 700-foot, right-leaning, 60-degree hanging snowfield that leads to la Brecha. With aluminum crampons and a single ice axe each, we team solo (without ropes) to the col as the sun rises behind us. My heart drops as my fogged up sunglasses slide off my face and down the mountain. Eventually we make it to La Brecha, and warm our bodies in the morning sun. We’re ahead of schedule, and thankfully have the whole day to rest and scope out our line.
We lounge about, eat snacks and siphon water out of snowmelt running down the walls. Thankfully, we have the luxury of watching the light change on our desired objective throughout the day, revealing weaknesses in the vertical headwall. We can eye from afar a beautiful crack split an otherwise featureless headwall for at least a few hundred feet. But it’s capped by a huge roof, and we’re unclear about how we will get over it. We’re also unclear about how we will get to the headwall. It could involve a large face traverse connecting two crack systems. Doubts come and go, and we talk about the line in a distant manner; it still seems a bit out of reach. However, with plenty of rest, food and water, we feel healthy enough to at least give it a try the following morning.
At 2:30a.m. we are all awake. We brew coffee and oatmeal in the dark, put on our harnesses and simul-climb up to La Silla to join a boot pack that leads to the Californian Route. As we hug the base of the headwall, we stop periodically looking at a potential entry into the crack systems above. Eventually we find one that will at least get us started far off looker’s left in a band of dark grey rock. From a little perch on the snow, I lace up my climbing shoes and start up a corner in the cold morning light.
I first saw the potential for a new route on Fitz Roy while flying from Miami to Buenos Aires. With nine hours ahead of me, I paged through “Patagonia Vertical,” an impressive guidebook to the range, complete with color photos, topos and route lines scattered across a carefully mapped landscape. I found myself repeatedly squinting at an apparently small, unclimbed portion of the wall, connecting visible features from afar with optimistic imagination. What I did not know at the time, was that with the help of Quinn Brett and Michael Lukens, this farfetched dream would snowball into reality only a few days later, and we too would be leaving our paint stroke on the South Face of Fitz Roy.
After climbing for some time, I build a belay and bring Mike and Quinn up. The next pitch is unreal—a 200-foot hand crack splits the perfect granite like a lightning bolt. I have very little gear to protect most of this pitch, but I feel warmed up and casually run it out up and over a little roof to a belay. From this point, our intended crack system is about a roped length off to the right, with no clear passage between them. As the rest of the team jugs up behind me, I lean back in my harness peering onto the face between the two-crack system and try to imagine a traverse that will connect the two systems.
Quinn arrives at the belay first and puts me on belay. I go up a blocky corner for about another 30 feet, place a camming device high and step out onto the face. By some stroke of luck and with a little bit of excitement I am able to piece together crimps and edges, with decent gear in the occasional pods for another 200 feet. Eventually, I flag my foot for balance, reach far out to the right and grab the outside of a corner, effectively finding a passage between the two systems. I let out a battle cry, unable to believe that I have managed to connect the two features. From here, that next few pitches are clear at least—a traverse into a corner, a wobbly block roughly the size of a coffee table, a snowy, thin crack system and more. I arrive to a stunning headwall, on one of the most fantastic cracks I have seen in my life. But it’s time to give up the lead to Mike, as he and Quinn are eager to play their part in this first ascent effort.
At first glance, logistical difficulties can often be the first stopping point when attempting a first ascent. How am I supposed to afford the many travel expenses of getting across the globe? How am I going to get enough time off from my busy life to be able to go to a place I know very little about? What if I go there and my plans completely fall through? But that’s what makes trying to climb mountains so alluring. While you don’t really know if it’s going to work out, the process of believing in something almost intangible, and then fully committing to that idea until it is realized, is embedded in the spirit of adventure.
Mike sets off, quickly finding out that he has minimal gear to protect an entire pitch of 200 feet. Further up, he curses…
“What’s up man?” I shout up.
“My knee’s locked up. I can’t straighten my leg.” He replies. Cramps. Dehydration. Any number of things can contribute to this phenomenon that often afflicts climbers.
After about ten minutes his knee pops, and he sighs relief as he takes off into another slightly steeper handcrack. Tensions settle, and Quinn and I begin to chat again at the belay. I take photos, not really comprehending our position or the quality of rock we are on. Mike is out nearly a rope length when he suddenly falls 35+ feet. Mike, shaken, turns the lead over to Quinn.
Though unsure of what the roof above entails, Quinn focuses and pulls through a tight hands and ring lock splitter (i.e. a narrow crack in which only small hands might fit). She connects this roof with a beautiful, left-facing corner that we can’t see from below. As Mike and I pull up to meet her on top of the headwall, the idea that we might have just pulled off a first ascent on one of the most well-known rock walls in the world creeps into our minds, even though we are all unable to speak of it yet. We change into our mountain boots perhaps prematurely, and grovel our way up three more wandering pitches to gain the route, Supercanaleta, towards the summit slopes of Fitz Roy. We march up mixed terrain and scrambled to reach the summit, where we let out battle cries.
We did it! We can’t believe it’s real. I know we still have a long way down, but at this moment the heavens seem to open. How lucky we are to be right here at this moment. To the east, the shadow of Chalten Massif lies etched onto the landscape, and in the biggest, darkest pyramid of that shadow lies Fitz Roy’s massive wake. To the west, the Sun sets on the Ice Cap, a vast expense that marks the border to Chile, with the Torres disrupting the arid landscape, sharp and otherworldly.
After a memorable bivy on the summit, we awake and immediately start our descent in rising winds. As we rappel the Argentina route, our ropes get stuck three times, I set off a point release avalanche that tears over a cliff onto the glacier below, and we contend with a slushy but a well-travelled boot pack that saves our tired legs from having to posthole down over Paso Superior. By nightfall we make it to Lago Dos Tres and decide to bivy once more before returning to Chalten. As we make the last steps into town the next day, we buy beer and relax in a patch of grass as the reality of what we have just done settles in.
It’s not very often that one gets an opportunity to do a first ascent in Patagonia, due to the simple fact that in our current age, countless climbers before us have gazed upon the same walls for years. Of these, an inspiring few have paved the way by establishing routes. They’ve made the mountains appear to be climbed out, except for those peaks that are still protected by arduous approaches. How did we succeed in putting up a new route on the often-climbed South Face of Fitz Roy? Ultimately we had great climbing conditions, a fantastic partnership, and a collective few decades of experience in mountain travel and knowledge of the right, lightweight gear we would need. And, we were willing to give it a shot. All this came together seamlessly over five days, and we successfully climbed one of the most beautiful climbs of my life—“The Colorado Route” (6c+).
Our Gear List:
3 pairs of mountain boots
3 pairs of Aluminum crampons
1 ice axe each
3 ice screws
2 70-meter ropes
Double rack to number 3 Camelot, one 4, one 5
1 set of jumars
1 set of pocket aiders
1 cam hook
3 pocket Cameras
2 water bottles
2 sleeping bags
3 sleeping pads
1 three-man bivy sac
1 two-man tent
5 days worth of food each
3 pairs long johns
3 soft shell pants
3 R1 layer
3 synthetic puffy
3 down puffy
3 waterproof jacket
3 pair sunglasses
3 pairs tape gloves
2 pairs of wool socks (each)