The ropes finally come tight to our harnesses and we dismantle the belay, happy to be moving again. Janet works a sling over her hood-covered helmet, then looks up to the lie-back crack above us. Our topo calls it 5.9+, the “Living the Dream” pitch.
"I’m off," Janet says, flashing a grin as she starts climbing, quick and cat-like up the cold stone. I cinch the chest strap on my pack and head up below her.
By headlamp, we arrange our bivy in assembly-line style. Janet and I hand cams and ‘biners up to Kirsten, who loads a high anchor with whatever we don’t need. Our harnesses are attached to an anchor near me, the slings and cords extending from the rock like tentacles. Slowly, we settle onto the three-foot-by-two-foot ledge. Our six legs lie in a pile, our feet crammed wherever they find warmth: someone’s armpit or belly, or the space between bodies.
"Come on, Kirsten, find us a place to sleep," Janet mutters as she feeds an arm’s length of rope through her belay device. She lifts the zippered front of her parka over her chin, nodding her head forward to warm her nose. In the falling light, she looks like a turtle pulled into her shell.
Shifting in my harness, I lean toward the rock to check the stack of blue-and-yellow coils draped over Janet’s foot. "Kirsten, twenty feet!" I yell up the granite wall, cupping my hands around my mouth like a megaphone. But she can’t hear me. The wind, a constant companion in the Patagonian mountains, has picked up since Kirsten took the lead. Gusts whip up the valley unexpectedly, throwing us off balance and slapping pack straps and slings across the skin of our faces.
This is being in the mountains, I think, as my vision strays from the snaking path of the ropes. Cerro Torre stands along the ridgeline behind us, its slender summit still visible despite the clouds that have been teasing us all day. I stare across at its icy walls and wonder if anyone is up there, caught like us by the approaching night.
I close my eyes, willing myself to give way to fatigue. In the quiet, I sense my surroundings: the rough granite blocks supporting my body, the wind hissing and gusting through the tower’s flakes and cracks. We are three women tethered to a ledge the size of a coffee table, over 2,000 feet off the ground. For a moment I am hit with the feeling that we are an integral piece of the mountain universe, that climbers are somehow a necessary element of this landscape.
Then something bony jabs my side – an elbow or heel – jolting me back to attention. "Sorry girls," Kirsten’s voice pierces the darkness. "My leg is asleep."