What were we doing with our lives?
Dragging your feet is no way to go to the mountains. You should be cranking up the Lady Gaga to get stoker!
There were 15 or 20 of us in Argentina’s Torre Valley at the Niponino base camp, and we were not stoker. Mikey Schaefer and I had just climbed a wet, loose, scary, horrible new route up Saint-Exupéry. The mountains were melting, there were weird politics, injuries and fatalities all over the range. Spontaneous rock fall was ripping loose with a force that just made me want to go home.
What draws me here anyway?
There is a real simplicity to my seasons in Patagonia. Every year for at least a month, I take my alpine climbing kit, my paints and my Spanish dictionary to El Chaltén hoping for weather good enough to climb. Climbing something and painting a few pictures is what I strive for. I try to paint the quiet respect I feel when standing at the base of these mountains. They loom over me, their mysteries waiting at the top. When I look up at them, I feel a little fear mixed with a lot of awe. I think we all feel that.
Maybe that is why we go.
Do you have a favorite song, book or painting, character, route or mountain? When you think of this incredibly well-crafted thing, do you wish you could create something like that? When you close your eyes and see it, can you place yourself there or pretend you made it? When I close my eyes and I see the spires of Patagonia, when I paint each corner and finger crack, I want to climb a route up it. I see a ledge and think about how good the bivy would be, how nice the view. When I sit in base camp, I wish I were on the wall in a moment of rarefied air, when the light is golden, and there is perfect rock at my fingertips.
There is the beauty here in Patagonia, and then there is the movement of the climbing. After the spectacular summit, the long rappel down and the hike to town, we take turns sharing tales with our friends by pantomiming the sequence of each pitch. This year we laughed as we watched long-limbed Hayden Kennedy tell us about smearing his climbing shoes on ice blobs, then stemming between rock and little ice rivulets. He stood in front of me on one tiptoe with his other leg extended at an obtuse angle, while pretending to reach with one ice axe and crimp the air with the other hand. Then I tried to demonstrate lay-backing an off-width and shoving my body inside of it, repeatedly scrunching up and stretching out like an inch worm. I must have looked as ridiculous as Hayden.
I love hearing about other people’s routes. It motivates me. It makes me remember my own climb: which parts I floated, which parts were a fight. No matter how tired I am when I come down, as I hike out looking over my shoulder at the perfect angles of Cerro Torre and the broad panel of Desmochata’s south flank, I just want to go back up. I want to be there, waking up on a ledge; one of the few witnesses to a sunrise that takes the dark shadow of Fitz Roy and draws it down the Torres until they are bright and glowing.
There are only a few of these moments in our lives. Most of the time is getting there, feeding yourself, missing flights and carrying bags that are too heavy. But we live for just one more route, we live to paint just one more line up a mountain and then come down to celebrate with our community. It’s an addiction.
And so we head out again.