60 Years of Climbing
60 Years of Climbing
Media: Climbing

60 Years of Climbing

Fascination in Patagonia


AUTHOR: Reinhold Messner

At the end of WWII the climbing community also went through a phase of renewal. The most successful alpinists from between the wars — Riccardo Cassin and Anderl Heckmair — are still active, but it is young climbers who assume leadership in mountaineering: in Italy Walter Bonatti and Cesare Maestri; in England Joe Brown and Don Whillans; in Austria Hermann Buhl and Toni Egger; in France Jean Couzy and Gaston Rébuffat, and especially the duo Louis Lachenal and Lionel Terray.

The French climbers, many of them having developed daring skills in the Resistance, are now shaping the future of alpinism. Under the leadership of Maurice Herzog they manage not only the initial ascent of an eight-thousander for the first time — Annapurna in the central Himalayas — but also they better the achievements of their predecessors in the Alps and the Andes.

Lionel Terray, who with Louis Lachenal managed the second ascent of the north face of the Eiger in 1947 and achieved world fame with the initial ascent of Makalu in the Himalayas, later had this to say about Fitz Roy in Patagonia: "There is not one single route in the Alps that presented us with as many difficulties as Fitz Roy." Terray almost lost his life on Fitz Roy in 1952. This "Matterhorn of the southern hemisphere", a unique granite peak, is only 3,450 m high, but is a seductive goal. That's because the difficulties on Fitz Roy are heightened by the climate in Patagonia: poor weather conditions, cold, ice-covered rock faces, sudden and unprecedented buffeting storms. All that adds up to make Fitz Roy one of the most difficult mountains in the world.

Fitz Roy has become a challenge for Terray. There is nothing like it in the Alps or the Himalayas. From the beginning, snowfall and storms impede their progress. For three weeks Terray and his colleagues fight against the most adverse weather conditions: they dig caves into the glacier; the track that connects them to base camp has to be opened up again every day. These are despicable conditions and the climbers have to carry everything themselves. There are no Sherpas in Patagonia. However, in 20 days they have set up three camps that are all supplied with food. The route from camp II to camp III stretches over 300 m of elevation and is secured with fixed ropes and rope ladders. Lionel Terray and Guido Magnone, a climber bursting with energy from Paris, sit out the storm for five days. The methylated spirits for the cooker almost runs out. When the weather clears for a moment, they manage to escape back to base camp.

As the weather improves the two top climbers make their way to camp III. The sky is clear, the weather is glorious. The next day at dawn the sky is grey again; the cold is biting.

Nevertheless they risk an attempt: the climb is extremely difficult from the start; they set some bolts and free climb 120 m of the 750 m high rock face. In the evening they return to camp. In the morning the wind is completely still and there is not a cloud in the sky. Now let's go for it! Terray and Magnone climb fast and leave many bolts behind them. They take turns to lead as they climb higher. From each belay Terray can see down onto Cerro Fitz Roy's smaller neighbor, Cerro Torre, which looks even more difficult than their mountain, impossible, perhaps? Like Fitz Roy maybe? By the time it gets dark they have almost half the wall behind them. They bivouac overnight and the next day don crampons to try and climb the ice adhering to the rock face.

Their supply of bolts has run out; they are going to have to use some tricks from now on. They reach the summit at four o'clock in the afternoon: they have to cope with wind, fog and low visibility. It starts to snow. The descent becomes an act of desperation. The storm brings fear, icy rocks, snow slides. Even so they dare to continue into the abyss. In the end it is the fixed ropes that save Magnone and Terray's escape. Until they are in the arms of their friends.

Following the initial ascent of Fitz Roy their achievement is acknowledged by the Argentine government and gains worldwide recognition. The question is also raised whether anybody will ever be able to climb Fitz Roy's smaller neighbor, Cerro Torre. As a result Cerro Torre is regarded at the time as the most difficult unconquered mountain in the world.

For a long time the "Torre", just five kilometers southwest of Fitz Roy, was a taboo subject. An impossible mountain. Until it became the goal of the world's best climbers. The initial ascent was in 1974 by the Ragni di Lecco (Lecco Spiders) under the leadership of Casimiro Ferrari; David Lama free climbed the "Compressor route" this January.

"We saw Cerro Torre — an almost unreal freestanding giant column," Lionel Terray writes in his report on the Fitz Roy expedition in 1952. He also writes about wild rivers on the approach, torrential rain and snow meters deep. He describes the huge effort that would be needed just to reach the foot of the mountain. He writes about icy storms that make it impossible to set up tents so that you have to stay in snow caves. "One thing we know for certain," Terray writes, "if a group of climbers gets caught in a Patagonian storm in the middle of the wall, they are goners."

Since then the incredible approach and initial ascent of this column have been achieved and many more dreams buried. In Patagonia you need a great deal of luck, endurance and skill to reach success.


Reinhold Messner

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