AUTHOR: Mike Mandl
PHOTOGRAPHY: Luis Pablo Soto Junior
"IF PATAGONIA DID NOT EXIST, WE WOULD HAVE TO INVENT IT; WE HAVE TO BELIEVE IN THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM." — Chris Jones
We cannot hear it. But we can feel it quite clearly. We feel it right where everyday thinking ends and the soul starts to breathe. The scream stimulates something inside us that is far more elementary, archaic and primal than we can perceive with rational awareness. This scream of stone comes from Patagonia and echoes from the proud, perhaps even arrogant, granite monuments of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. It tells of God forsaken sand deserts, endless grass steppes, immense glaciers that carve their way roaring into the ocean and of course the winds that brutally lash the dark clouds, rain and snow before them. It was the winds that circumnavigators of Cape Horn from an earlier age feared so much. The storm winds that appear to dance wildly with the weather and the landscape.
The scream of stone defines Patagonia, a surreal land at the end of the world with an average of two inhabitants per square kilometre. In no uncertain terms does this landscape suggest it needs you, that you have a right to be there. In Patagonia, you may as well be a grain of sand being blown around in the southern tip of South America.
Despite this wildness and desolation, there is no other land that sums up untold longing like Patagonia. The scream of stone reaches your soul — that previously unmoved, wild part of you that seeks adventure and uncertainty. While the Himalayas have gradually devolved into a multimedia sports arena, with insignificant stars seeking their 15 minutes of fame and broadcasting, via every available digital channel, their dramas into the cosy living rooms of armchair climbers, Patagonia has retained its purity, intensity and authenticity. Even now. Is that the reason why I still get goose pimples when I hear the name Patagonia? Thank goodness I am not the only one.
The first time the name Tierra de los Patagones appeared on the world map was during the 16th century. Serving King Charles V, Ferdinand Magellan was looking for a new route to the spice island of the Moluccas. In 1520 Magellan spent the winter on the west coast of Patagonia and met indigenous Tehuelche Indians, who with their wild and archaic appearance reminded Magellan of the giant Patagon in the "Novela de caballerías", one of his favourite reads. This means, should this legend be true, that Patagonia is named after a fictitious giant. It remained a fictitious giant for a very long time, because for settlers and pioneers there were truly more promising countries to explore. In times however, a few European explorers turned up; then Chile and Argentina extended their agricultural fingers into the barren soil of Patagonia. Finally, very gradually, the scream of stone resounded. It was quet at first, coming from the massive tower of smoking stone and ice that the indigenous people named "El Chaltén", the "smoking mountain". The adventurers were drawn to the "smoking mountain", the peak we now call "Fitz Roy".
In 1951 a French group of climbers led by Lionel Terray arrived in Buenos Aires with two and a half tons of equipment. Their destination: FITZ ROY. One year previously, Lionel had played a major role in an expedition that managed to crack the first 8,000-metre peak ever climbed: Annapurna. In 1947, Lionel became the second person to climb the north face of the Eiger. He had also established classic routes on the north faces of many other alpine peaks as well. Lionel was a man who was comfortable both at high altitude and on the most technically difficult routes.
Fitz Roy, however, quickly put him in his place. The first attempt yielded only 20 metres of progress. There were another 700 metres to the summit. Months of nerve-wracking climbing ensued. Ultimately, on 2 February, 1952, a 48-hour push without food or water landed Lionel Terray and Guido Magnone on the summit of the 3,406-metre Fitz Roy. Some viewed this ascent as the beginning of a new direction for alpinism in which technically difficulty was more important than just the elevation of the peak itself. Now, technically demanding walls and aesthetic lines also had their place in climbing. Lionel and Guido could see Cerro Torre constantly during this expedition, but they both agreed that climbing would be impossible.
BUT THE SCREAM OF STONE WAS LOUDER THAN THE FEAR OF IMPOSSIBILITY. In 1958, Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri attempted Cerro Torre from the west side and managed to reach an impressive height. Around the same time, an expedition led by Bruno Detassis and the "Spider of the Dolomites", Cesare Maestri, approached from the east, also without reaching the summit. While Bonatti declined a second attempt the following year, Cesare Maestri returned to the Torre. Apparently, Maestri finally managed the first ascent via the east wall on 30 January 1959. Why apparently? Well, during the descent Maestri's partner Toni Egger was killed by an avalanche. The camera with the summit photo was lost. As a consequence Maestri was not able to prove that he really was on the summit.
Maestri returned home a hero, but his contradictory accounts caused the climbing community to question his achievement, quietly at first. But increasingly vocal doubts were raised over the years. Despite the criticism and the fact that his lost equipment was never found, Maestri maintained that he and Toni Egger were the first people to stand on top of Cerro Torre. By 1968, however, Cerro Torre was considered still unclimbed — an "IMPOSSIBLE MOUNTAIN". Enough was enough for Maestri. He went about proving the opposite.
In 1969 Maestri returned to Cerro Torre and committed one of the greatest atrocities in the history of alpine climbing. With the help of a 180-kilogramme compressor and more than 300 bolts, he started to drill his way up the southeast ridge of the mountain. The Patagonian winter forced Maestri to take a break, but on 2 December 1970 he and two comrades finally reached the end of the wall below the summit, but decided not to climb the imposing snow mushroom atop Cerro Torre, which they did not regard as the summit: "IT WILL BE BLOWN AWAY ONE DAY ANYWAY," was his justification. Maestri reckoned that the mountain had been climbed and that his integrity had been restored as a result.
What remains of this hack job? An ice mushroom that refuses to be blown off the summit, a compressor that is still hanging on the wall as well as the trauma of Maestri's vandalism of the route. This was a trauma that the alpine world had to go through again in 2009. The cause of this was none other than the upcoming climbing star of the day, David Lama, who had managed to transfer his technical ability to big alpine walls. He regarded a free climb of Maestri's "Compressor" route to be an ultimate test of his ability, one that should be well-documented for posterity. However, the film team that accompanied him drilled into open wounds when they drilled even more bolts into the rock on Cerro Torre, which observers reckoned had already suffered enough damage. The public was outraged. David Lama — the public's darling up until that point — suddenly stood in a crossfire of criticism with the climbing community congregating in major online forums and agreeing that he had committed blasphemy.
This took place at a time when Everest had long succumbed to big business. Reports from the world's highest point were being filmed in high quality; high-paying tourists were being carted up to the summit on fixed ropes with all-inclusive hospitality. Over lunch they could check in via satellite phone with their loved ones at home. Chomolungma, "Mother of the Universe", had been debased, sold-out, humiliated. This was a fate suffered silently by many proud mountains, especially in the Himalayas. It was ironic that all these self-appointed guardians of the climbing's Holy Grail were publicly dragging down one of the best, one of their own. WHY?
It must have been Maestri who started it. But Maestri was not the only one who subdued a mountain with his stubbornness and all the equipment at his disposal. Naturally, his method crossed a certain line in terms of style and alpine ethics, but that is an ugly part of mountain sports — not a particularly elegant part, admittedly, but along the same lines as a cyclist taking delight at a star athlete's doping scandals. Today, peaks are claimed to have been climbed skyrunning style, with — as Messner has said — routes prepared to make summits more accessible. Plus, David Lama was not alone in attempting a major film project on a challenging wall. So what is with the indignation and outrage when it comes to Patagonia?
I have never been to Patagonia. But Patagonia is somehow in me. In image form, at least. As well as feelings for these images. Dreams consist of these feelings and these images. Why? How can a country be so fascinating even if, like me, you have little or no direct relationship to it? And why is it not just me, but so many other people, who feel this way? What is the cause of this tangible fascination? Could it be, that for us Patagonia represents an archaic island, a stronghold, an unblemished rock of serenity in the mad, loud, high-speed chaos of the 21st century? Maybe political turbulence, economic crises, environmental disasters and permanent digital networking simply lose their power in Patagonia's barren wilderness. Perhaps this desolate land represents a necessary antipode to our modern world of excessive stress and consumerism. After all, where can we find the last place of freedom?
WHAT INTERESTING AREAS OF THE WORLD HAVE WE STILL TO DECLARE AS PLAYGROUND OR MARKETPLACE?
Shangri-La is a fictitious location somewhere in the Himalayas. Then again, maybe not. The cloister where residents retreat from the temptations, toil and turmoil of civilisation to lead their lives in harmony and peace has never been found. As a myth, Shangri-La stood as a modern form of paradise. Apart from a few camera flashes, the Himalayas have lost their radiance. As a sounding board for our longings they have gradually lost their appeal. Paradise lost. Not vice versa. Where can we find a paradise today? In today's modern civilisation we have certainly created a paradise: we are prospering, more than ever before, but every coin has two faces and the other side of our consumerist paradise is the one that suppresses and chokes us with its omnipresent abundance. We have created a prosperity that no longer works for us. It might be better to say that we work for prosperity. We spend most of our time maintaining, multiplying and defending it. We are modern slaves in our own modern world. Inside it we are not only losing sight of the big picture, but also of ourselves.
That is why our modern paradise should promise us less, rather than more. Less abundance, more substance. Less noise, more quiet. Less choice, more orientation. Less pressure, more space. Less artificiality, more authenticity. Less supervision, more life. Patagonia, with all its legends, appears to fulfil all of these demands. "IN PATAGONIA EVERY ACT, EVERY CHOICE IS SIGNIFICANT," says Patagonia expert Gwen Cameron. Meanwhile, are we not living in and with structures that we can no longer really understand or appreciate? An unpaid mortgage in the United States can put jobs in jeopardy in Germany. A storm in India can destabilise the euro. An overambitious banker can put the global economy at risk. Patagonia, by contrast, promises transparency. There are few rules in this land. In the mountains there are even fewer rules. Orientation is easier. Follow them and you will survive. Ignore them and you will suffer the direct consequences. Every choice is significant. It might sound tough, perhaps. But at least it is honest and direct.
Could it be that Patagonia reminds us of a time in which our life, though archaic, was both comprehensible and self-determined? Does the scream of stone echo in our genes rather than in our heads? Would our genes prefer a pure life to a complex one? Is it that we have less yearning for Patagonia and more for ourselves, for the intensity of being? Are we happier wrapping these yearnings in thoughts that we can deposit at the end of the world in the hope that they will blossom better in the raw climate of Patagonia than in over-air-conditioned or overheated working and living units? Does the myth of Patagonia contain the ingredients for Paradise 2.0, for a Shangri-La of the digital age? Is that precisely the reason why Cesare Maestri's and David Lama's actions created such tidal waves?
BECAUSE THEIR DRILLED BOLTS ATTACHED NOT MERELY A WALL, BUT OUR WHOLE CONCEPTION OF THE LAST POSSIBLE WILDERNESS PARADISE?
Anyway, what is it going to be like when I eventually visit Patagonia? Will the land give me what it had promised me in images and myth? Do I even want to go to Patagonia? It may be that I am even frightened of having to face up to possible changes. Changes such as those described by Alberto del Castillo, the founder of "Fitz Roy Expediciones": "El Chaltén is, as the temporary visitor would like to believe, unfortunately not a tiny island of the blessed, but a microcosm of society." Of course, the times are changing. The inhabitants of Patagonia want to have their cut from the profits of tourism as well. Investors locate potential. Tourists arrive. And there is one thing they always bring with them: themselves. Unfortunately that is precisely the company they were hoping to take a break from in the emptiness.
Is Patagonia strong enough to retain its authenticity? I am not sure. I am leaning towards a platonic relationship, because in the future I will need a sounding board too. Perhaps I do not want to know the truth in such detail. I need Patagonia in my head so that I can continue to dream. I have these dreams and I need these dreams. Although in actual fact I am not dreaming about Patagonia. I dream of being as free as a condor in harmony with its surroundings, soaring to new heights. Is that the message of the scream of stone? Is it that what Patagonia pioneer Chris Jones — who in 1968 managed the 3rd ascent of Fitz Roy — meant: "We have to believe in the impossible dream. Tomorrow's adventurers will need to seek their own Patagonias!" Over the next few pages we ask the adventurers who have already fulfiled their dreams and found their Patagonias.
Although I can still say: "I HAVE A DREAM."