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.
“Lookin’ good, man, you got this!” I cheer, though I can’t see him and the rope hasn’t moved in a long time. Translation: Dude, if we get shut down here, we’re gonna run out of food and water bumbling for days out on the ice cap trying to circumnavigate the massif back to our camp, miss our flights home, and have the mother of all epics.
“C’mon, Colin! Wooohoooo! You’re doing great!”
The surrounding view, terrifying or magnificent, relieves my anxiety. To the east rises the massive Fitz Roy group, obscuring the comforts of town so near – sort of – and continuing into the barren and timeless landscape that, just south, then breaks into fjords that become the Pacific Ocean – or, here at the southern tip of the hemisphere, is it the Atlantic? Immediately below and north, Torre Egger’s summit looks like whipped cream and somehow it makes me chuckle. Then I turn westward and gaze in awe at the mind-blowing ice cap, a different planet altogether from where infinite molecules of supercooled moist air from the Pacific smash into the Torres, carried uninterrupted across the ice by a wind so ferocious, so violent, that locals call it La Escoba de Dios – The Broom of God.
The rope moves a little and I look up, cocking my head in curiosity toward the mushroom where I last saw Colin. Nothing. Just overhanging rime-snow-ice-sugar-junk, the consistency of aerated salt, held together in overhanging formation.
Suddenly, something flies from the mushroom overhead and instinctively I duck. In that split second I’m confused, afraid the mushroom is collapsing or Colin is falling out, but like a door opening wide it’s a chunk of rime ice that sheds off above where Colin disappeared. The chunk hovers for a moment and then sails horizontally, wind outdoing gravity, whoosh, gone. Colin’s axe flails through the opening and his bomber-goggled head pokes out from his homemade wormhole, just below the key upper tunnel. He looks around, then down at me. I let out a whoop ’cause now I know we’re in there, but my voice quickly dissolves into nothingness and everything, blending into the universe, carried away by the Broom of God.