Old Patagonia: A photo tells a story

I’m awestruck by the stories of Old Patagonia. You can read them in the AAJ and other climbing periodicals, maybe hear some ‘round campfires, and you can find others in books – one of my favorites is Enduring Patagonia, by Gregory Crouch. I encountered scores of these stories during my Patagonia research; my selected bibliography contains 256 references (many more informed my thinking), and I conducted in-person interviews in seven different countries.

Yet sometimes you’re taken by something as simple as a hastily-snapped photo. This, for me, is one such picture:

Foto archive©Silvo Karo_Fitz Roy_Devil's Dihedral_ 1983(LR)

Photo © Silvo Karo

The photo belongs to the great Slovenian climber Silvo Karo, and he’s allowed me to post it here. On the left is Francek Knez, on the right is Stane Klemenc. The year was 1983, and they’re establishing a difficult and dangerous new route on Fitz Roy, which they called Hudičeva Zajeda (Devil’s Dihedral).

Take a moment. Study the hardware, the wool mittens, the fur-lined parkas. The atrocious conditions. The expression on Knez’s face, and the snow-filled helmet that he isn’t bothering to wear. Think, 1983 – no sat phone, no helicopters, no rescue crew. The town of El Chaltén didn’t even exist at the time. Much less weather forecasts. Which, as you can deduct from my last post, New Patagonia, is why they’re stuck climbing in a storm.

It isn’t that bad weather no longer happens in Patagonia – it does, and several deaths in recent seasons were related to exposure after things went wrong on a route. Rather, if all goes right, you now have the means to avoid the storms. Rolando Garibotti, the undisputed climbing expert of the area, told me, “Before, any day with any clouds was not a climbable day. We would all wait for the splitter weather, at least to start up on climbs. These days any day with lower winds is a climbable day, even if there are clouds and humidity in the air.”

One of the most astounding outings from the 2014–15 season points to how top climbers can thread the needle like never before. Here’s Rolo, discussing Colin Haley and Alex Honnold’s initial attempt at a one-day ascent of the Torre Traverse (they succeeded in 2016): “On day one it rained until 5 a.m., they started climbing anyways, knowing it would improve, they got to near the summit of Cerro Torre by 3 a.m., in 22 hrs, but the weather shut them down. Wind that was supposed to arrive at noon arrived early. This was a 20-hour window. Before forecasts, you would not have even done the approach.”

But to the historically bad weather: Has it improved in recent years?

Seems like it. But while anecdotes and uncontrolled observations suggest longer weather windows since the mid-2000s, I’m hesitant to jump to conclusions. Stories can be invaluable in shaping our understanding of different times, people, belief, and a number of things I dealt with in my book. But with this, stories aren’t enough. I want evidence.

Consider, for instance, that within the last decade exponentially more climbers have visited the Chaltén Massif, many staying the entire season. They rely on an infrastructure in town that did not previously exist, and are ready to strike at even the narrowest weather windows – even climbing in cloudy weather, so long as the winds are low and the clouds aren’t storm clouds. And then, with the advent of social media, any alpine activity today is infinitely more visible to the outside world. All of these things influence our perceptions.

Furthermore, despite our suspicions of better weather likewise arriving in the last decade, it’s important to remember that it surely isn’t black and white. Meaning, if the weather has improved, it probably didn’t jump from Old Patagonia to Palm Beach.

We shouldn’t mistake anecdotes for objective truth. Even if such assumptions prove correct from time to time, as a rule it’s a lazy way to think, one laden with traps. You don’t want to drift toward the mouthbreathers who dismiss the expert consensus on global warming because it got cold that one weekend last June. Even if it did fuck up your NASCAR lawn party.

The problem with Patagonian weather is that, far as any of us know, we don’t have good comparative data. Rolando Garibotti might be getting close, though. Rolo has some data summaries from 1977–2002 for Punta Arenas, the nearest longstanding weather station south of El Chaltén. The two places likely receive similar weather. And he rounded up some raw data from 2002–14, though they might not be comparable and we don’t know how to process it. Any weather experts out there?

Anyway, I’m getting a little off track. That photo of Silvo Karo’s, and Old vs. New Patagonia.

During my research, one evening at Silvo’s house in Slovenia our conversation drifted into an entire era. That era included the pinnacle years of Slovenian alpinism, of which Silvo was an integral player. Soon I barely spoke, just listening, completely rapt, as if I had a seat beside Moses as he recounted stories from the days of the tablets.


Here’s the part about Patagonia, an expanded excerpt from Chapter 24:

Silvo Karo has climbed in both Old and New Patagonia. He endured vicious days while establishing difficult and dangerous new routes on the east face of Fitz Roy in 1983, the east face of Cerro Torre in 1986, and the south face of Cerro Torre in 1988; all three routes are unrepeated. By the time of his January 2005 trip, Internet weather forecasts had just arrived. He and fellow Slovene Andrej Grmovšek started at the base of a connecting formation three thousand feet of technical climbing below Cerro Torre and raced up to the Compressor Route, which they took to the summit. It was as if they were in a playground. Their linkup became known as the Slovene Sit-Start, a half-joking reference to the world of bouldering, where the emphasis is on pure difficulty on small rocks, and climbers often start seated in the dirt and pull onto the first holds.

cordes - silvo IMG_6710(crop)One night at Karo’s place in Osp, Slovenia, fall 2012, we were talking after dinner and a day of cragging. I asked about the old days in Patagonia. Karo’s hulking shoulders were slouched over his plate and wine glass, and then he leaned back to talk. He’s built like a linebacker but climbs with ballerina grace. He recounted the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Slovenian alpinists—this tiny country, then a part of Yugoslavia—set standards in commitment and difficulty that have yet to be eclipsed. Karo was a core part of the crew. It came at a cost; a staggering proportion of his friends and partners died in the mountains.

He said, “I think the thing that has changed a lot in Patagonia, the weather forecast, no? In 2005 was the first weather forecast, or one year earlier. I remember at that time, we were all down—it was so nice, the weather forecast, uff. You could just go and climb. Before? Nobody know.

“I remember, Jay Smith. He was also in Patagonia a couple of times [Smith established several new routes in Patagonia, including the first ascent of Cerro Standhardt in 1988], and one time he decide, OK, now I will start to write the details. All that change in the sky, I will just mark it. And maybe for one month he write the details: wiiiiindy from this side…clouds come from this side today, and tomorrow it is like this weather and then barometric pressure, he follow pressure and everything. But finally he didn’t find any signs to tell him, ‘OK, this-means-that-weather-will-be-good.’ Zero. And he decide, no, not possible. Not possible. Even local people living in town don’t know. But then, satellite and all these things…very precise, and then in advance they tell you.

“I remember last time in Patagonia, they have a weather forecast that will be: tomorrow start period of good weather for three days. And man, it’s just perfect. You just go to the wall at night, no problem, you sleep well, no shaking all the time with the weather, ooooooooh, it start snoooowing.” For a second his eyes drifted, like he was back on a tiny bivy ledge thousands of feet up when a storm arrived. Then he gently returned and smiled. “It’s tooootally different, no? Now to climb big climb in Patagonia it’s much, much, much more easier. And you don’t need to take anything just in case for protection, extra things, extra food. You know that next three days the weather will be good, and you will do it.”

I suggested that maybe something has been lost.

“Other things is gained, of course. You need to go with the time,” he said with a lighthearted laugh.

I agreed, while thinking of how everything changes and the future builds on the past. I mentioned that we still can appreciate the stories of old.

He nodded his head and started to speak. Then he paused, stared into an invisible distance, and didn’t say a word.

New Patagonia: The Winds of Change

By now we know well that everything changes. And still, after the mind-blowing ascents of recent Patagonia climbing seasons, I feel like we’re witnessing something special, almost like seeing leaps into the future in present tense. Perhaps I’m overstating things. Time will tell.

When researching for my book, and reflecting on history through the lens of today, I was frequently struck by the futility of predicting the future. Here is one example, from an editor’s note in the 1959 AAJ after they received word of the supposed Egger-Maestri climb:

1959 AAJ (bigger)

Armed with today’s perspective, I shouldn’t be surprised at the phenomenal recent ascents. I am, however, awed. Regardless, and with full respect to the current rate of progression and the next-level skills of today’s top climbers, I think it’s fair to say that the single biggest change in the history of Patagonian climbing occurred far from the mountains, circa 2005.

Below is an article I’ve been meaning to post for some time. It’s similar to a piece I originally wrote for the 2014 Alpine Journal (U.K.), and is mostly a stitched-together excerpt of my chapters 17 (New Patagonia) and 24 (Demystification of a Massif). It’s about that massive change I just mentioned – the delineation between Old Patagonia and New Patagonia, and the story of how it happened.


cordes - P1000913 newpatagpost

New Patagonia: The Winds of Change

Imagine yourself weary and worn, camped in the woods of Patagonia, just back from an attempt where a sucker-window of weather had slammed shut as you were three thousand feet up your climb. It was as if the fury of the gods had suddenly descended upon you, but somehow you’d survived. Your body went numb, the wind slammed you into the wall, and you couldn’t hear your partner yelling at you from three feet away. Every second of every hour for the next twelve was laced with a primal fear. Then, you staggered back to camp and crashed out, deep into a dreamless sleep. You hadn’t slept in thirty-some hours and as the storm raged, you hoped for only one thing: that it would continue, so you wouldn’t even have to think about going back out there. But in the middle of the night you had to piss. You’d rolled over and mumbled, unzipped the tent door, and staggered outside. Through bleary eyes your gaze strayed to the gaps between the lenga trees, and you’d seen stars shining bright. Fuck.

In 1975, following one of his many Patagonian expeditions, Ben Campbell-Kelly wrote: “An expedition should be prepared to be spending a minimum of three months in the mountains, particularly if they have chosen a difficult objective.”

crouch - poles on CR GC025 LR

A Polish team racing the wind and incoming storm high on the Compressor Route in 1996 (Gregory Crouch photo).

In 1995 on Infinito Sud, an incredibly difficult new route up the center of Cerro Torre’s south face, Italians Ermanno Salvaterra, Roberto Manni, and Piergiorgio Vidi hauled a 200kg aluminum box for shelter as they went, to wait-out storms. Salvaterra, Cerro Torre’s all-time greatest climber, had been worried that regular portaledges would be destroyed by the wind.

In his 2000 book, The Big Walls, Reinhold Messner wrote: “The big problem on Cerro Torre is the storms. Every big face there should really be measured twice.”

But that was then. Old Patagonia. Before the arrival of the single biggest change in the history of Patagonian climbing, which wasn’t the bridge over the Río Fitz Roy, or the airport in El Calafate, or the paved roads, or even the evolution of modern climbing gear.

This change affected every element of Patagonian alpinism, even – or perhaps most of all – the attention paid to the area’s most infamous and bizarre route: The Compressor Route, on Cerro Torre. Over the course of two trips in 1970 (often misreported as 1971), Italian climber Cesare Maestri used a gasoline-powered air compressor to jackhammer some four hundred bolts, most of them spaced to be used as ladders, into the mountain’s southeast ridge. Maestri placed many of his bolts beside perfectly usable cracks, while elsewhere he launched up blank stone, seemingly determined to avoid natural features.

Though Maestri returned home to terrific fanfare, the greater climbing world was less impressed. Most climbers considered his tactics an affront to the spirit of alpinism and to long-held notions of fair play.

But in the ensuing decades, something curious happened: The Compressor Route became the most popular route on Cerro Torre.

Few climbers even attempted other routes on the mountain. Until the mid-2000s the Ragni Route, the next most popular route and Cerro Torre’s line of first ascent, was summited only four times.

Even as more climbers came and tried, multiple years would pass, often consecutively, without Cerro Torre seeing a single ascent. Each summit-less season, each nightmarish attempt that ended in a hellacious storm, and each rare success further embedded the Compressor Route as part of Cerro Torre’s lore. For many climbers, the moral affront of Maestri’s prolific bolt ladders became easier to overlook.

Tales of terror were omnipresent. Since storms race in from the west, if you were high on the Compressor Route, you wouldn’t know you were in trouble until it was too late. Eyelids froze shut. The wind would send ropes sailing horizontally into space before shifting and launching them back into the wall like wild, slithering snakes, twisting them irretrievably around flakes and forcing climbers to cut their ropes and make ever shorter rappels with what remained. Climbers would stagger down to the safety of the forest looking like battle-worn soldiers, their eyes fixed in thousand-yard stares.

In 1980 Kiwi climber Bill Denz made thirteen attempts to solo the route. He endured a seven-day bivouac trapped on a tiny ledge a thousand feet below the top on one attempt. Another time, his best attempt, Denz retreated only two hundred feet below the summit.

Each previous suitor validated the next, particularly when many were renowned figures – starting with Jim Bridwell’s 1979 true first ascent of the route (Maestri, it was later learned, retreated from below the top in 1970), which effectively bestowed the blessing of climbing royalty.

salvaterra - mauro 4 tiro 3 (LR)

Mauro Giovanazzi attempting a new route on the east face of Cerro Torre in 2001 (Ermanno Salvaterra photo).

As testament to Cerro Torre’s inherent difficulty, aside from the four complete ascents of the Ragni Route, until 2005 every other climb to the summit depended upon using the bolts of the Compressor Route to get there. The three routes on the south face descended upon intersecting the southeast ridge, while the two routes on the east face finished to the summit via the Compressor Route.

By the time a nearly two-week-long stretch of clear skies hit the Chaltén Massif in late November and December 2008, the number of Compressor Route ascents had grown too many to count, but stood at well over one hundred.

That late 2008 weather window, however, was different. Not only because of its duration, but because everybody knew it was coming.

In his Chaltén Massif summary in the American Alpine Journal, Rolando Garibotti wrote: “The big news was that the Ragni di Lecco Route on the west face of Cerro Torre had six ascents (nineteen climbers), more than all previous ascents of the route combined. In contrast, the season saw only one ascent of the Compressor Route. It is as if overnight everyone stopped climbing Everest with oxygen, fixed rope, and Sherpa support. While Maestri’s hundreds of bolts remain in place, the climbing community appears to have finally given them a cold shoulder. The list of non-Compressor Route ascents of Cerro Torre has now grown to fourteen.”

Weather balloons had probably been going up around Patagonia long before anyone made forecasts, Jim Woodmencey told me. He’s a climber, skier, and former Grand Teton National Park ranger who owns a forecasting company called MountainWeather. He says each country has weather service stations, and they launch balloons that gather data at various points in the atmosphere. There are other ways to gather data as well, like surface observation stations, ocean buoys, and satellite photos of clouds at different elevations and time intervals, which indicate things like wind speed and atmospheric moisture concentration. Even though data is comparatively sparse in less-populated places like Patagonia, virtually nothing stands between the storms brewing in the Pacific Ocean and the Chaltén Massif. Thus, unlike many prominent alpine destinations, the data collected allows for incredibly precise forecasts.

Data alone means nothing, though. It’s computer models that actually analyze the data and make predictions – forecasts – and they’ve improved tremendously over the years. Data transformed into a forecast answers the key question: Is it climbing weather, or not?

In the 2004–05 season, German climber Thomas Hüber decided to see if his weather guru, Karl Gabl, could provide forecasts from afar. Forecasts for the Chaltén Massif were unprecedented. “We had no idea if it would work for Patagonia,” Thomas told me. “But it worked, so everybody was looking at me to see if I’d go or stay, because the climbers thought I knew via Innsbruck the secret about the weather. I had a great first season. Not only for Patagonia but everywhere, weather reports changed a lot in alpinism.”

As Gabl’s forecasts have shown over time, accurate mountain forecasts require specific knowledge. Even if you could teach yourself how to do it, you’d need the ability to access the information, which requires functional Internet access.

The Internet didn’t come to El Chaltén until 2003. Even then, it was scarce, and it barely worked. The first locutorio (Internet cafe) arrived in 2004; climbers would come to check the weather on NOAA, but they’d struggle because the connection was so bad.

Local resident Adriana Estol recalls, “I came here in 2006 and it was almost impossible to have Internet at the house, but some houses were lucky.” One of the lucky houses belonged to Bean Bowers.

Bowers, a tough-as-nails alpinist and full-on lifestyle climber from the U.S., was always the do-it-yourself sort. For several consecutive years, he’d lived the entire season in El Chaltén, and he’d scraped together enough money to buy a small house there. In 2011, at age thirty-eight, Bean died of cancer, but several of his friends remember how he figured out the weather. He guided in the Tetons in the summers, where, one season, Climbing Ranger Ron Johnson showed him how to read weather models. Bowers then took a course from Woodmencey on mountain weather forecasting.

Doug Chabot, an accomplished alpinist and avalanche forecaster, also helped out. “I gave Bean the weather basics on forecasting in 2004 since he was keen to learn. In fact, during his first trip there [to El Chaltén], he would call me to check on a few weather models. I was avalanche forecasting; I’m used to looking at weather models every day.” He added, “Most importantly, I had a real job and was reachable by phone.”

Climber Josh Wharton remembers well the first season of forecasts, as he and the late Jonny Copp were climbing together in the massif. Many climbers expressed gratitude to Hüber for sharing his forecasts that season, and soon the gratitude would shift to Bowers. “Bean was reading the navy maps a friend had showed him, but he was still pretty new to it, so it wasn’t always that spot-on. Thomas Hüber was using a satellite phone to call his Austrian meteorologist, and between the two I remember growing increasingly confident throughout the trip. In fact, when Jonny and I started down Poincenot [the final tower in their fifty-two-hour linkup of Agujas Saint-Exupéry, Rafael, and Poincenot], the wind came up harshly right on queue, almost to the hour Thomas’s guy had predicted three days earlier. It was an ‘ah-ha!’ moment!”

cordes - weather forecast

As he was learning, Bowers kept his dirtbag forecasting knowledge close to his chest, mostly sharing it with friends. In 2006 he taught it to Rolando Garibotti, and soon climbers were knocking on their doors asking for forecasts and how-to instructions. After all, knowing the weather in Patagonia was like having a golden ticket – and it was especially good because it was free.

Climbers literally lined up at Garibotti’s house wanting to learn, so he typed up a how-to email (now he has a weather forecasting section on his pataclimb.com website). Before long, everyone could get a spot forecast for the massif. Just follow the steps, punch in the data on the right websites – the location coordinates for Cerro Torre, by the way, are -49.3° and -73.1° – and you get frighteningly accurate projections for precipitation, temperature, and, most importantly, wind speed.

It was as if the walls shrunk.

5.0.2cordes - el chalten IMG_7970(LR)





Left: El Chaltén in January 1986, less than one year old, with the red roof of the town’s only building faintly visible (Sebastián Letemendia photo). Right: El Chaltén, January 2013 (KC).

Within a few years of that 2004–05 season, the forecasts had become so accurate that climbers could confidently leave behind most of the storm gear they used to carry, making for lighter loads and faster climbing. Around the same time, interest in the Compressor Route rapidly subsided. Maybe it took the clarity of blue skies to bring to the fore what most climbers objectively knew: The Compressor Route was so compromised that it was hard to consider it a valid climbing route. Detractors of the route had long argued that having the entirety of difficult climbing covered in bolt ladders removed too much of climbing’s innate natural challenge. When doing it in perfect weather, they were right.

Yet it’s an interesting interaction, because weather and conditions are integral to alpine climbing. Climbing the Compressor Route in Old Patagonia meant something different than getting up it in New Patagonia. Remove the crippling fear of being caught in one of those legendary storms, and the change in Patagonian climbing is impossible to overstate.

Nowadays in El Chaltén (nobody camps in the woods anymore), between bouldering sessions climbers can be heard saying things like, “Yeah, looks like sixes and eights tomorrow, then dropping to twos on Wednesday.” They are talking knots of wind speed at the lower, forecast elevation, which translates into nay or yay for climbing at the higher mountain elevations.

In early 2007, I remember staring over Bean Bowers’s shoulder as he pulled up the weather map on his computer: The mother of all high-pressure systems was coming our way. The skies were clearing from there to Australia for four days, and so Colin Haley and I headed for Cerro Torre, where we completed an oft-attempted link up of François Marsigny and Andy Parkin’s 1994 route Los Tiempos Perdidos to the summit via the Ragni Route. Despite the exposure to the ice cap, and the harrowing story of Marsigny and Parkin’s epic retreat from high on the route, Colin and I climbed with ten-pound backpacks. Our only concern was whether or not we could climb the route; we didn’t worry about storms (someday a forecast will be deadly wrong and trap climbers like us). While it was one of the best climbs of my life, I also realize that we were playing an entirely different game than the climbers of Old Patagonia.

I was again struck by the difference, the evolution, when I visited El Chaltén in 2013. A friend had been monitoring the forecasts from the U.S. and saw a window coming. He took advantage of today’s increased accessibility, hopped a plane and a few days later climbed the Ragni Route. Around the same time, a pair of strong young Slovenians arrived, dropped their bags at their hostel – the forecast was perfect – and, without sleep, ran up the trail to Fitz Roy and established a hard new route. Afterward, in town over dinner and at the bars, while storm clouds thundered through the peaks, in comfort we all swapped stories of our ascents.

Practically overnight, climbers could avoid the most horrifying and brutal component of Patagonia climbing while resting and bouldering in the shadow of the mountains, ready to strike when the weather clears.

The place would never be the same.