Wednesday, February 4, 2009
This post is now coming from the other great southern land through a haze of strong, prescription only pain killers. The route that we thought we'd rapped off and left behind 14 days ago is continuing to live on. It is mercilessly continuing to inflict pain and keep forcing us to find that happy place in our minds who's once vivid vision is starting to fade into a distant memory. The effect that 2 weeks of continuous vague coldness followed by 5 days of heavy load carrying had on our feet is one we certainly didn't expect.
On the summit ridge we ate what we thought must have been our 100th block of Mantecol, this Argentinean concoction consisting of ground peanuts, sugar and chocolate. For it's weight it must be the best big wall snack food ever, so rich with so much sugar and a fair whack of fat it leaves you feeling pretty damn satisfied. After that we started to descend and it didn't take long before we were back at the portaledge packing up
After a handful of big raps, we arrived at the pendulum. I tried for what seemed like an age at reversing the pendulum. Jake was finding it nauseating watching me running nearly 50 meters back and fourth with a heavy bag hanging off my crotch, at the end of the line, 80 meters below him with more than 600m of air still beneath me. This was clearly not happening, the closest I got to reversing the pendulum was about halfway where I could at least clip into a single bolt. This allowed for Jake to make his way down to a belay anchor that was between us. Sparing you all the details of the ensuing hour of vertical logistics that would only really serve as a How-NOT-to-Descend-a-Bigwall, I'll simply say we were lucky not to lose 100m of rope to the wind and that Jake only needed to rap and jug 70 meters to free it.
We were then back at the big ledge 16 pitch's down, 13 to go. It was 9pm and we were clearly going to be rapping into the night, there was no harm in chilling here for a bit, melting some snow and taking it easy.
A little refreshed but no less eager to be harness free and experiencing the pleasure of a horizontal world, we reversed the shuttle across the terraces then began to suffer the anxiety associated with rapping down loose, low angled terrain with a wrecking ball attached to your harness.
After 3 more pitch's it was pissing with rain and pitch black, a thought flashed through my mind of a different scenario, we could have set-up the portaledge a couple of pitch's ago on the big ledge and now been quite comfortably asleep having made the summit and been well on the way to the ground, however after 15 days on the side of a cliff the idea of strolling along the ground was all too powerful.
A few more pitch's of dodging falling rocks and freeing stuck ropes left us at a point where we were faced with a decision. To either reverse the route which would involve a large pendulum to the right followed by a couple of short raps then another pendulum back to the left or to go for broke and go straight down avoiding the pendulums.
On the way up 12 days ago I'd seen a bit of tat about 30m below the belay that we were now dangling on. At the time, not faced with having to make the call over which way to go I convinced myself that it must be a nice direct rap route that saves you doing the pendulums. Now though, choosing whether to commit to heading straight down to a piece of faded nylon that might dead end us a few hundred meters off the deck or reversing a series of pitch's who's belay we were familiar with was not an easy decision to make.
Being a fairly full-time optimist and a 'she'll be right' sort of guy I suggested we go straight down. I found the tat and what was keeping it on the wall wasn't even too disappointing, a bolt and a piton. We replaced the tat that had clearly had too many years in the elements then I headed off to find the next. Again after about 40m out of the water glazed blackness appeared another anchor, this time a strangely arranged piece of cord, stretched 2m horizontally between an array of nuts and pitons. Equalizing the gear was clearly not on the agenda of whoever left it there. This got me wondering, it was not a well thought out anchor it looked more like the result of some forced improvisation, not to worry they had clearly continued down as well, so off I went once again sliding slowly down the rope searching in every direction for a something to anchor to. With the wall completely saturated the light from my head torch was easily reflected away, very few features reflected the light back toward me, seeing anything was a struggle. At about 10m below the anchor I was rapping off I'd passed a single bolt, there were no other recorded routes on this section of wall and I assumed it was another improvised rap anchor from yet another party. Not keen on wasting time doing a 10m rap I kept sliding down searching until I found the next anchor, it looked good, 15m below me and 5m below the end of my rope, Damn it!
The slab I was standing on seemed blank and slick, excessively so in the downpour and with the extra 60 odd kilos hanging off me the rope continued to ooze through the ATC toward its end. It was nearly 1am, we'd been on the go now for nearly 21 hours, we were again sopping wet and with a minimal rack on hand and a blank slab I had some problem solving to do.
Where I was there was nothing to clip into and no gear to place, I kept moving down in the hope something would appear, holding the last foot of rope in my hand, it did. A single knifeblade piton, I knew what had to be done, by this time on the second morning since I'd last slept and after some 23 rappels, any fear was long gone. I put a draw on it, gave it a wobble, it didn't so I clipped in, all 130kg of man and haulbag. Keeping attached, albeit loosely, to one side of the rope I filled Jake in on what he needed to do, he was to rap to the single bolt 10m beneath him, then pull the rope and we'd be in reach of the belay just beneath me.
Great only a few pitch's to go. A simple rap down one of the pitch's then we had to once again diverge from the arcing line of the route, bound by gravity to take the direct line straight down. We reached yet another anchor this time it was courtesy of team 3. We had started to deduce that this descent had had input from 3 different descensionists who had all taken a slightly different line and been leaving different styles of anchors and colours of tat. The FA's had a descent that was altogether different that we were advised against, apparently you had to do the odd single bolt rappel.... Team 1 had the shiney single fixed hangers, 60m apart that we were out of synch with. Team 2 were the dodgyest with an unequalized mix of bad nuts and pitons. Team 3 had 6mm orange cord on good pitons.
This anchor took us to within 20m of the glacier but with no anchor in sight, it was the cruelest joke yet, I tried to wiggle in something that I didn't mind leaving behind but nothing worked. In the end we settled for a few cam placements and fixed the rope, concluding that we'd have to come back and jug up with a more appropriate sized nut that we could leave behind.
Touching down on the glacier it felt like we'd just arrived on Mars, the base of the route and the whole glacier had changed so much in the time we'd been on the route. The idea of navigating our way off it seemed like too much to deal with in the dark and in the state we were in. We decided instead to spend the few hours until the sun came up bivying in the portaledge fly on the glacier.
Walking just far enough to be out of the firing line of any rockfall we threw the fly on the ground and climbed in. The pleasure of lying down was unbelievable, to be able to finally stop after 23 hours of nearly constant action allowed us, for 2 hours anyway, to sleep in what was actually a pretty damn miserable situation. For a while I tried to ignore the cold puddle I was lying in and the condensation laden fly that was pressing against my face until Jake cracked and it was time to move. The sun was up now, somewhere behind kilometers of saturating rain clouds but there was enough light to see our way off the glacier. We were both a sorry sight, walking along in the rain, wet from head to toe each of us clutching a stuff sac that contained a few pieces of wet clothing. The picture I have in my head of Jake miserably plodding along the glacier at 5am in the rain with a sodden sleeping bag over his shoulders and a headtorch slowly falling off his head will be etched in my memory forever.
In keeping with the tone of the trip so far, our normal 40 min stroll to base camp was interrupted by a raging torrent. What was normally a gentle trickle bubbling out from the bottom of the Torres Glacier had become something that was impossible to cross, despite this we wasted some time hopping across boulders attempting to find a way, trying to avoid the inevitable walk back up onto the glacier and above the point where the river was now coming from.
Sometime later we arrived at the bivi cave, the route was over, no more hauling or rapping, no more wet clothes or rations. We got stuck into our snacks, drank tea and warmed our feet with the stove.
at 5:48 PM