Rarely Seen Rarely Attempted: Fitz Roy’s West Face

About a month ago, a friend shared with me Alan Arnette’s opinion piece on the standards of some of the guided commercial expeditions to Mount Everest. It pointed out what I hope are some exceptional promotions to prospective clients, like guaranteed Internet access in BC, gourmet food, and never having to lug more than a daypack up the mountain. I couldn’t help but think that a climber choosing this guide company because of these promises didn’t deserve to be there.

Regardless whether my knee-jerk thought was valid, it also reminded me of the places that are still climbed mostly independently by climbers without choosing the challenge because they picked it out of a glossy brochure. I say “mostly” because there are still competent and experienced climbers that hire guides because they help bring an competent amateur climber elevate their game and possibly climb a grade higher.

Still, there are mountains that seem to be the objectives, either for their difficulty or style of climbing, that lend themselves to independent climbers. Take big walls, like those in Yosemite, Baffin Island and Patagonia. No one can help you climb those, really. You and your teammates have to climb them on your own.

But while El Capitan, Mount Asgard, Polar Sun Spire and Torres del Paine have all been done, where do we go for the truly unusual ascent. There are certainly more obscure peaks, but what about a rarely seen face?

Fitz Roy in Patagonia is part of that iconic horizon always captured in photographs and drawings from the east. But visitors, including even some climbers, only ever see if from that angle — mostly from the roadside. It’s highly visible flanks are also the most commonly accessed ways to the top. Aside from having competent climbing skills, the weather has to remain calm long enough to allow passage. So proceeding further, to the “backside” of the spire is often to gamble with valuable time.

Fitz Roy’s West Face is bigger and more complex than its popular eastern face and north pillar. Surrounded by a glacial moat, it rises 7,834 ft./2,400 m. from the Torre Glacier. The first section, which stretches up at a low angle for about 2,297 ft./700 m. appears to be not too difficult, however this area is prone to frequent rockfall. According to Alan Kearney, it has forced many parties to skirt this portion and reach the more vertical portions by indirect routes.

The first attempt on the West Face was in 1962 but there isn’t a great deal known about it, though we know it was attempted by Jose Luis and an unnamed partner. The next attempt was made in 1977 by Alan Rouse and Rob Carrington, but lack of gear and those notorious short weather windows turned them back.

Still unclimbed in 1982, six Czech alpinists worked for two months and made four pushes to gain elevation. Difficult technical climbing high up, combined with violent weather, finally forced them to retreat.

Less than a year later, Czechs Zdenek Brabec, Robert Galfy, Michal Orolin and Vladimir Petrik returned and brought with them Milan Hoholik and Dr. Frantiseki Kele and Tibor Surka. They skirted the hazards of the initial 700-meter slope by approaching from the Fitz Roy Glacier. They climbed from mid-December thru the middle of January.

On a particularly windy day, where the wind was lifting the climbers’ gear and ropes far from the wall, a rock fell, bounced off a ledge covered with snow and smashed into Brabec’s leg, “leaving an acrid smell of pulverized rock in the air,” as Kearney wrote. The team quit their attempt and helped their partner down to their shelter nearly 3,000 meters below.

After a rest, Galfy, Orolin and Petrik started up once more, despite being driven down eight times. From their previous high point, the crux became a lengthy offwidth that Orolin tackled. At last, they stood on top on a perfectly clear and windless day.

These climbers didn’t enjoy a comfy camp, gourmet food or good connections to reach home or the latest news. They climbed to climb something worth exploring. Isn’t that what’s it’s about?

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Sources: 1) Kearney, Alan, Mountaineering in Patagonia, 1993; 2) 1984 American Alpine Journal.

Mount Fitz Roy: A Mountain Day Dream for Hikers and Climbers

Scattered among the usual errands between the condo and the new super supermarket wearing a comfortable pair of loafers with tassels, I do what I enjoy most – pretending I am getting ready for a eco adventure I don’t have the time or money to go on.  Where now?  Mount Fitz Roy (11,073 ft./3,375 m.) in Argentine Patagonia.

Patagonia is romanticized a great deal for its rugged and basic qualities.  Charles Darwin made observations there that lead up to his theory of evolution.  The weather is legendary for being capable of intense wind, intense rain and intense sun, and never when you prefer it.  The landscape is mixed forest, tundra and alpine mountains, comparable to the Dolomites in Italy or parts of the Karakorum in Pakistan.  But what makes it so beautiful is the contrast of the vertical spires of granite against crisp, lush blue skies and green landscapes.

It is a land of mountains without being exclusively or isolated among the mountains, such as in the heart of the Alaska Range or parts of the Rockies.  You can find isolation if that is what you seek, no problem, but the towns in the region, like El Chalten, can provide some amenities for those of us traveling with significant others and children that prefer to “hike” and “climb” from a rocking chair and binoculars (not that there is anything wrong with that).

Fitz Roy is so iconic for Patagonia that if you’re a climber there are few new things to do; all news about climbing Fitz Roy is about variations of routes or linkups, like the climbs Freddie Wilkinson and Dana Drummond made in February 2008.  Regardless, it has been a great day dream.  Here are some facts that I have accumulated about Fitz Roy over the years in case you decide to go:

  • Location: Parque Nacional Los Glacieres, Argentina, South America
  • Summit Elevation: 11,073 ft./3,375 m.
  • First Ascent: February 2, 1952 by the great French alpinist, Lionel Terray with Guido Magnone
  • Traditional Climbing Routes: 15 accepted “standard routes” have been established, including the Franco-Argentine route, 600 m., VI/VI+A2, and most new ascents are actually only variations of established climbs on Fitz Roy
  • Hiking Trails: Several trails can take travelers to backcountry locations with spectacular views like the Laguna de los Tres trail
  • Camping: Several campgrounds including near the village of El Chalten; a climbers-only camp is located en route to Laguna de los Tres
  • Getting There: Fly (US$3,000-6,000 airfare from North America) to El Calfate and board a bus for the ride just under four hours to El Chalten
  • Outfitting: Suppliers carry most goods, but do not depend on isobutene fuels for your stove.  Instead pack a multi-fuel stove like the Whisperlite International
  • Recommended Reading: Mountaineering in Patagonia by Alan Kearney (1993)

I hope this provides some inspiration or at least some escapism.  Now it is time for me to head for the subway and grab a latte from the café before work.  Have a good week, everyone!

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