Colin and I reach the Standhardt col and, ignoring the wind and the clouds overhead, we continue up. On that first day of climbing, we fight on in bad weather, constantly skirting rime-covered rock and climbing several unconsolidated ice mushrooms. Despite the difficulties, we climb farther and faster than expected. On the second day, the weather warms dangerously and several ice avalanches whiz by, forcing us to stop early to avoid being hit. We spend a total of three days climbing to the base of Cerro Torre’s mushroom which, in a stroke of genius, Colin tunnels through to the summit in the morning of our fourth day.
All of a sudden, at the top of Cerro Torre, when the traverse I have spent so much time and energy on is almost complete, the adrenaline and drive that have carried me thus far vanish, leaving me naked and vulnerable. I feel as if I have become my grandfather, my father, my mother – and their fear for my safety crushes down on me.
This is the second summer season I have devoted to attempting the Torre Traverse, a link-up that climbs the skyline comprised by Aguja Standhardt, Punta Herron, Torre Egger and Cerro Torre, with approximately 2,200 meters of vertical gain. Last summer I spent three months waiting for the right weather and conditions, until a back injury forced me to give up.
Colin Haley, at 23 one of the most talented and active alpinists in North America, is my fourth partner this summer in as many months. Bruce Miller offered me five weeks, Hans Johnstone three, Bean Bowers another three. Often my choices of partners have been marriages of convenience, but this time I had decided I would come with friends, people whose families I love as much as my own.
In November, Hans and I managed to climb three-quarters of the traverse before a humongous snow mushroom stopped our progress. Over the following few weeks I replayed the point of retreat over and over again in my head. I am doomed, I thought.
I had sacrificed family relationships for this obsession, seeing my wife for only 10 days in five months, ignoring my nephews and nieces for as long. I was starting to wonder about my greediness. Who was this monster I had become? What was I chasing? Torn between mountains and family, I found no answer to my dilemma, and so I went up again and again to the gear stash at the base of the climb.
On the other hand, for the first time in the 22 years I have been visiting this area, I felt more at home in Chaltén, where the local friends and neighbors – a surrogate family of sorts – helped me keep my sanity.
Back at the top of Cerro Torre, I think of Nadina, my niece, of seeing her grow up, and wonder if the rewards of this quest justify the risk of not seeing her smile again. After so much recklessness, after so much effort, after so much time, I feel a crushing responsibility to get myself down safely.
Every rappel feels like a possible death sentence. I check and doublecheck my knots, my safety prusik, as we slowly lose elevation. We tiptoe our way down this minefield that is Cerro Torre, that is alpinism, carefully extricating ourselves from it. In the very last section I slide on my butt as fast as I possibly can past a big overhanging serac and its trail of avalanche debris. Escape is so close I’m transformed into a kid with a new sled, sliding to safety, to a Christmas that is just down this last slope.