by Kelly Cordes
Nearly a mile up Cerro Torre, Colin Haley disappears into a world of white. I’d worried about this, the penultimate pitch on Patagonia’s space needle. I sit alone at an exposed perch as wind blasts and howls through natural organ pipes – otherworldly mazes of overhanging snow mushrooms, gargoyles and tunnels – making haunting, beautiful music. Everywhere I turn the world looks different, immaculate. But we can’t stay here, and this pitch has shut down better climbers than us, sent them packing down to the remote ice cap. Since we hadn’t come up from the ice-cap side, and since we have no bivy gear or contingency thoughts for this brilliant scheme, we might have a problem.
Our Cerro Torre plan sounded good. Start from camp on the comparably cozy east side, boogie on a one-way ticket up serac-threatened smears so ephemeral they’d be gone the next day, don’t get caught, hit the wild West Face where it wraps around, hope for good conditions and continue to the summit. Rap back down the east side, bam, a nice little tour. It started well enough: We made good time, suffered a little overnight huddling together without sleeping bags in a snow hole, but it was just one night. Shiver until sunrise, tie in, keep trying.
So this was it, one desperate pitch before easier ground to the summit. I buried my axe and carved out a nice little seat in the snow – textbook belay – so Colin could have all four of our pickets. He launched up a wind-carved vertical halfpipe of horrendous sugar snow, where he could chimney and grovel using every technique not found in any book – arms, elbows, shoulders, knees, back, feet, grunt, curse – that led to a perfect, fully enclosed natural tunnel 100 feet above. Gaining the tunnel would unlock the route, as the tunnels, created and hardened by intense miniature tornadoes, always had good ice. But the half-pipe didn’t, and Colin dug and dug in desperation, trying for purchase until he disappeared, burrowing horizontally into the snow mushroom.