This last Saturday Austrian alpinist Markus Pucher free-soloed the Via dei Ragni on the west face of Cerro Torre for the second time. He had free-soloed this route back in early 2013, when he blazed up it in a mere 3:15hs. What was unique about his last ascent is that it was carried out during a raging storm. No other ascent was done that day in the entire massif. Most climbers stayed safely inside the warmth of their hostels.
Markus started from Filo Rosso at around 6AM. There was much fresh snow on the way to the Col de la Esperanza so breaking trail was heavy work. The mountain was completely enshrouded in clouds and therefore visibility was very limited. At the col he stopped to have a cigarette and noticed two climbers below and to the right. They were on their way down, having judged the conditions too severe to continue. At the base of the Elmo he found a small cave that offered shelter. Here he smoked his second cigarette of the day. He explained that smoking a cigarette from time to time gave him a sense of normalcy, bringing him back to the mundane and out of the wild energy that surrounded him.
Past the Elmo the mixed pitches were entirely snow covered so it took much effort to find the way. He went too far to the left and had to negotiate some stiff M6 climbing. The headwall was also covered by a veil of snow and the ice below was very hard, so as the ground got steeper and stepper he had to fight off a growing pump. Visibility was so poor and the terrain so severely snow covered that he failed to notice the end of the headwall and kept climbing up on the vertical ground to the right. After correcting his mistake he tackled the first mushroom, where a vertical step led to a tunnel. At the end of the tunnel he found a sheltered alcove and had his third cigarette of the day.
Upon reaching the last pitch he was unsure where to go. He tried to go straight up but desisted after five meters, realizing that the unconsolidated rime could give way any minute. His goggles were completely iced up, as were his gloves and his face. He could hardly see. He considered retreating but then decided that the unknown above held more sway that the certainties that lay below. By now he noticed that there was a half-pipe further right, so he down-climbed and traversed to it. The half-pipe led to the start of a tunnel. Here the wind picked up and ice crystals blew upwards hitting his face and making it virtually impossible to see. The tunnel was too narrow for his wide chest, so he clenched his teeth tightly and pushed on, muscling his way upward. Now he was in full on survival mode. He was in the wolf’s mouth and the only way out was up.
It was 7PM when he reached the summit. It had taken him 7 hours from the plateau below the Col de la Esperanza. In the middle of a raging storm the summit of Cerro Torre felt like the center of the universe. But the adventure had barely started. To descend he had only brought a 60m 7mm rope and three ice-screws. He knew he had to hurry because the night would be upon him soon. Of all the anchors that usually can be found on the route, he was only able to find two of them, so it took much creativity to get down, including a lot of down-climbing.
At the Elmo he rappelled and then continued down-climbing slightly to the south. The ground got steeper, vertical and then suddenly his feet slipped and his ice-axes started sliding. He fell in slow motion, hitting a slopping ledge after five meters, where he was flipped backwards. Now he was sliding head first towards the abyss. Here came what he described as his “Vertical Limit” moment, a reference to a notoriously dramatic Hollywood climbing film. He pressed the bottom of the axes firmly against the slope and barely two meters from the edge of the 1300 meter tall south face, he stopped. His bear like force and fast acting had saved the day.
Visibility was still very poor and he was unsure where the Col de la Esperanza was. He down-climbed too far to the north, finding himself again on vertical ground. When his feet hit rock below he realized he was in the wrong place. As he started climbing back up another “Vertical Limit” moment happened, when the ice he was climbing cracked horizontally, barely below his axes. The talisman that his daughter had given him was working.
Finally he found the Col de la Esperanza and continued down the easy ground below. By now it was 11PM and it was completely dark. Half an hour later his headlamp gave out. Once again things were serious. When his foot punched through a crevasse, he built an dead-man above it and dropped inside it. Here he found a small cave that provided shelter. It was midnight. He had no stove, no water and no food. The first 20 minutes he felt warm but afterwards a deep biting cold set in. He spent the following five hours punching the air, doing squats, jumping, doing anything he could to stay warm.
As soon as it was light outside he carried on. Past the mixed climbing he found himself in a steep snow slope that was loaded with a meter of fresh snow. An avalanche could take him any minute, but he had no option but to continue down.
He reached his camp at Filo Rosso at 7AM, after 25 hours on the go. This had been one the the most harrowing ascents in Patagonian climbing history. He made soup, ate some and then decided that he should better get out of there. The 12-hour walk back to Chalten was peaceful and effortless. He had just lived the most intense experience of his life. Nothing was in the way anymore. He thought of his two daughters, reflected on past behavior and felt content, at peace. After 25 hours balancing on a knife edge, here was a much richer man.
Postscript: Last week we published a long rant on risk management. This week we celebrate risk taking. We are well aware of the apparent contradiction this implies. We hope you can grasp the difference between one and the other. What you just read is an account of one of the most impressive ascents in patagonian climbing history, carried out by one of the fittest and most capable men around. This is an alpinist in his prime, taking serious, albeit calculated risks, fully aware of his predicament, even if at times not fully in control of the situation.
[Tried to post this in Facebook, but the internet connection is so bad in Chalten that Facebook barely works. One of the features that does not work is the formating of the notes, hence why we deleted it, as it was virtually unreadable]