Snapshots: Cerro Torre

Preface: I keep meaning to post, have ideas and drafts, but too often time escapes me. I don’t typically get attached to dates: my birthday, holidays, anniversaries of climbs, none of them matter much. I rang in the new year sipping a drink and reading a book. Exciting man I am. But today, for whatever reason, I noticed the date. Right now in 2007 Colin Haley and I were climbing Cerro Torre. I wrote the below for a digital publication called Explore. I called it “Snapshots,” which also happens to be the title of my last entry. Anyway, today seems as good as any to repost it here. 

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Snapshots

First light fluttered from darkness, glowing on the horizon like baseline fires across the curve of the earth. We barely spoke. I racked the gear, checked my knot. Nearly a vertical mile of climbing towered overhead.

Deep breath.

It was my first trip to the storied Chaltén Massif of southern Patagonia, where spires jut into space like parallel rows of sharpened teeth. For decades, climbing legends have risen and fallen here with the ferocious winds. For sixty-five million years, these granite spires have reached toward the sky like temples of the gods.

Our trip had started like so many others: long on ambition, short on action. Cloudbanks of fury obscured the mountains and the wind so scoured the earth that on some days even approaching the glacier was unthinkable. We’d retreat to the forest and pass time with our friends.

Just before our flights home, the skies cleared. A perfect window.

It’s funny how time passes. Two days can go slowly, without recollection. Passing normally, placidly, mundane days like any other.

So often, I recall only fleeting moments. Sometimes, when standing in line at the bank or sipping coffee or driving to the store, the molecules in my brain that hold the memories of my mind flash before me, transporting me to a dreamlike world that I know is real. On Cerro Torre I remember my heartbeat pounding in my ears as we raced up thin ice that would disappear the very next day, melted by the fierce southern sun when we were higher on the route. I remember shivering away the night without sleeping bags in a snow cave three pitches below the top, drifting between sleep and hypothermia. Waking and climbing through rime-ice mushrooms, gargoyles, and house-sized sculptures jutting outward in gravity-defying forms like images pulled from a fantasyland. And, of course, tunnels. Tunnels? Yes, tunnels. Treasure-hunt tunnels carved by the wind, allowing passage through the impossible seeming mushrooms, until we sat on the summit under perfect skies, almost unbelievingly, knowing we’d been lucky.

Exactly two days after we left, we staggered back to our tent as silhouettes of giants towered overhead. Before crawling inside and collapsing into a dreamless sleep, I remember staring once more at the stars while the wind calmed to a whisper, as if the gods themselves were pausing between breaths.

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3 thoughts on “Snapshots: Cerro Torre

  1. Hi Kelly !

    Nice to have news from you ! These pictures of El Chalten area are really nice ! And story also ! Here in the french Alps, no snow up to now this winter, very special. Will you come back in France ?

    I wish you a very happy new year, happiness and health !

    All the best Kelly

    Henry

  2. Kelly,

    Thanks for sharing your “perfect moment” (Spalding Gray in Swimming to Cambodia describes it well) although it was actually one that lasted 2 days. Beautifully written and evocative not just of the moment itself but of the memory of it, which is often a very different thing and sometimes more powerful. I’m not a climber (beyond some sport climbing and bouldering in my past) but I enjoy reading your (and others) accounts of alpine experiences, which seem to stand out in bas-relief against the normality of daily life and which can be incredibly detailed and profoundly confessional of both the physical and emotional experiences.

    I, too, have similar memories that are physical as well as emotional but relating more to my past in semi-pro bicycle road racing in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Sometimes very clear and specific memories of an exact moment from a race will transport me back and I will recall and re-experience the centrifugal force of rounding a turn on a bicycle at high speed while the peloton is lined out in front and behind me. Or I will have that feeling once again of tension and fullness in my legs while attacking a climb. The races, especially the 100+ mi road races, had that strange experience of being both fleeting and stretched out. A few moments after the finish line it felt as if we had just started although 4 hours would have passed. At the same time those 4 hours would be replete with sensations and living far beyond what would be expected for such a time period. And later my body humming with fatigue from the effort expended. I can only imagine that alpine climbing bestows and rewards a similar experience of time amongst climbers.

    Of course, there were days filled with dread, when fatigue had seeped deep into my legs and I knew I would be at the mercy of others, of which there would be none. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge of others racing on more than “bread and water”, I can better understand why some of those performances were so impressive and place things in context that at time seemed incredible.

    Thanks again and looking forward to reading more from you, including your book. Just as soon as I get done bowling, “driving around” and the occasional acid flash back.

    Dave

    • Thanks much, Dave. I really enjoyed reading your comment, and it wasn’t hard to envision the feelings you describe on the bike. Cool to be transported to that world through your words. And indeed the memory of such moments tends to stand out in such contrast to that daily life normality. They’re special times, and I’m glad we have them, if not as often in the moment now as back then, then at least in our minds. I miss experiencing those moments as often as I used to, but so it goes — ever thus to deadbeats.

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