Scott Bennett, a professional climber, spent the last three months living and climbing in Southern Argentina. Upon arriving home, the only question he heard was “How was it?” But he has always had trouble answering the question, as the trips are too varied to be captured in a short response. Instead, he defines the low and high of his season here and lets you decide.
I tried to shut out the overwhelming roar in my ears to focus on the next crimp, the next foothold. I knew that this pitch shouldn’t be hard, but as I clung to the top of the granite spire with insane wind raging around me, I was terrified. As I tried to balance on the next nubbin, the gust changed direction in an instant and sent my body slamming into the wall on my left. I stepped down and attempted to compose myself.
My friend Tad and I were one pitch from the top of Aguja Rafael Juarez, a small spire by Patagonian standards, having spent all day climbing amazing handcracks under blue skies. We didn’t know which route we were on – or even if it was an existing route – but had simply followed our noses up pristine white stone. Towards the end of the day, we couldn’t help but notice that the west side of the valley, the iconic Cerro Torre group, was being consumed by thick clouds streaming off the icecap.
The weather window was slamming shut, and we knew it. Did we have enough time to race up the final pitches and tag the summit?
Trying again to step up on that little nubbin, the gusts shifted again violently, this time sending white specks across my field of vision. The snow had arrived; we needed to head down.
As we descended, the snow shifted to rain, and the next six hours were an interminable haze. Frigid water spouted from my belay device as I rappelled; all of my layers soaked through; my hands and feet became useless lumps. It was a cold night.
Two weeks later, I was in the same Torre Valley, this time with my friends Coleman and John. I was on lead, near the summit, and again I had a decision to make. We had just climbed through the night on Exocet chimney, an amazingly steep route up Cerro Standhardt that features four consecutive rope-stretching pitches of WI5+ ice. Finishing the ice chimney, my lead had brought me to a steep rock headwall that guarded the summit ridge. Or at least it was a rock headwall. A recent storm had coated the entire face in a foot of beautiful, white feathery rime. With no options for protection, I stared up at the white wall with fear and confusion. How can I climb this?
Part of me wanted to simply build a belay, bring up my friends, and show them this ridiculous obstacle. But with nothing but loose snow and vertical rime, I had no hope of building an anchor, so I resolved to move upwards.
The first swing into the white wall was promising, and my pick found a thin layer of ice below the rime. I yanked hard on the tool and it seemed solid, so I pulled up and swung again – another mysteriously sturdy stick! The next was not as lucky, though, as my pick bounced off granite. Shoot, I thought. This is going to be scary.
I inched slowly up the wall, swinging blindly through the pillows of rime, hoping to strike precious ice beneath. My forearms throbbed with pain as I over-gripped my tools, all too aware of my lack of protection. My crampons scratched wildly below me, praying for solid footing and a brief rest.
After 40 feet, and what seemed like two or three lifetimes, the angle began to ease and I found a rest spot. I scraped around with my picks, looking for a crack below the rime. I managed to excavate a tiny crevice, pound in a piton, and allow my mind to finally relax.
Summiting a few hours later doesn’t stand out as special or rewarding. It simply marked the transition from climbing to descending, both activities being equally demanding. No, the moments that are truly vivid in my memory are the doubts, the hesitations – the questions on whether to continue in the face of a storm, to swing into unknown and unprotected terrain. Those are the memories that define a season.