The howling Patagonian wind calmed to a whisper. The afternoon sun beat down and I blinked hard against a haze of exhaustion, the kind of blink where a black screen seems to linger behind your eyelids and you wonder how much time you lost.
I stared past thousands of feet of golden granite disappearing beneath me. A vertical mile below flowed the Torre Glacier, bending, cracked, cracking — growing and shrinking with the years. At its terminus, only a short way down valley, it calves into Laguna Torre and flows into rivers feeding forests and rolling pampas.
Scattered estancias dot a landscape where not long ago pumas and wild horses roamed. A giant condor soared overhead, riding the thermals. Sheep grazed on the barren grasslands that extend eastward to the Atlantic Ocean.
A hundred feet above, enormous structures of overhanging, aerated ice, vestiges of Patagonia’s brutal storms, held guard over Cerro Torre’s summit. They loomed like multi-ton sculptures pulled from a land of fairy tales, like whipped cream frozen in place, jutting wildly outward in gravity-defying, wind-forged blobs. On the opposite side of the mountain Cerro Torre faces the Hielo Continental, an Antarctic-like world comprising massive sheets of flat glacial ice that spill into the Pacific Ocean.
Just before sunrise, thirty-some hours earlier, we had started climbing. We raced up ephemeral ice beneath a sérac, then weaved through gargoyles of rime. We fell short of the summit as the sun set and the wind roared, and we shivered away the night in a snow cave in the starlit blackness of Cerro Torre’s upper crest. Come morning we struggled over the summit, and then started down the other side. Both of us carried only ten-pound backpacks, but we also carried fantasies, a dose of self-delusion, and a shred of hope. Without those, we’d have never left the ground.
I blinked again, and my gaze returned across the landscape, from the distant pampas to the beech forests surrounding Laguna Torre, to the golden granite falling away beneath my feet. And then to the rusting engine block on which I stood. The only stance on Cerro Torre’s headwall. A 150-pound, gas-powered air compressor, a goddamned jackhammer lashed to the flanks of the most beautiful mountain on earth. Above and below ran an endless string of climbing bolts — ancient two-inch pegs of metal drilled into the rock and spaced to be used like ladders — courtesy of the compressor and a man possessed, that for four decades allowed passage up this impossible tower.
The wind remained at a whisper. Exhaustion pulsed through my bones and I stared into a clear, cobalt sky, and knew that we’d been lucky. Calm around Cerro Torre never lasts.