This story was first featured in the 2019 Canadian Alpine Journal. Get your copy here:
Brette Harrington pushes into new terrain on Torre Egger. Photo: Quentin Roberts
ITS EARLY EVENING at the Fresco Bar in El Chaltén, and the mountain hype is already starting to commandeer my better senses. I’m surrounded by mutant crushers from around the globe, and words like “first-gnarr-link-up-solo-new-route” are bouncing off the walls and into my brain. The crescendo of ambition appears to be directly proportional to the quantity of beer the bartender Leandro has sold, but how can you blame us? Its been bad weather for ages, and we’re excited about this ‘splitter’ weather that seems to be appearing at the end of the forecast!
Outside a faint glimmer of evening sun caresses the clouds streaming off the summit of Fitz Roy. The Torres are invisible behind a black inferno of wind and water that is pouring in from the ice cap. I watch this ‘wall of hate’ move east, soon also slamming into the hulking Fitz Roy Massif like a tidal wave of fury. This storm is forecast to be the wildest one of the trip so far, with summit winds exceeding 180km/h.
At its latitude of 49 degrees south, Patagonia is the only significant landmass in the entire circumference of the earth. The winds we’re experiencing have surfed the oceans unobstructed, building both speed and moisture along the way. Now they’re ploughing headlong into the southern continent with brutal force. The Torres are a few kilometers west of the Chaltén massif and slightly closer to the ocean, so they take the brunt of the weather. It makes climbing in the Torres far more complex, but that’s what I’m here to do.
Brette Harrington and I have nearly been here for a month. We want to free climb a new route on Torre Egger, the middle of the three Torres. We have already been into the mountains twice, during short windows of high pressure. Both times to reconnoiter the route in preparation for the moment when the weather might allow for an attempt. Brette has extended her ticket for the good weather on the horizon, but the end of January is fast approaching and this window might be our last and only chance. We’ve got all of our eggs in a very fragile basket!
Quentin Roberts seconds a 5.11+ corner on pitch six of MA's Vision. Photo: Brette Harrington
I FIRST MET Brette in El Chaltén during the 2015/2016 climbing season. Brette was in Patagonia climbing and working on an upcoming Reel Rock film for Sender. The year before, while on a trip with her partner Marc-André Leclerc, Brette had free soloed Chiaro di Luna on Aguja Saint-Exupery and that is what they were here to film.
The same day that Brette soloed Chiaro di Luna, Marc-André soloed the Corkscrew on Cerro Torre. Marc went on to solo all three of the Torres over the following seasons, including Torre Egger. I loved spending time with the two of them, because their energy was contagious and their love palpable. Even when they climbed apart, they still provided each other with unwavering confidence. It was something truly special, and I hold on to the memory.
Marc passed away with Ryan Johnson in Alaska last year. This shook me, and the entire climbing community to the core. I can’t fathom how Brette’s world would have collapsed. Over the ensuing months she somehow managed to hold on, clinging to the love and inspiration that he gave her. When he died Brette drove straight to the Rockies, seeking out cold-weather alpinism with despair fuelled ferocity. She somehow found peace in the quiet chaos of the mountains.
It was 8 months since Marc’s passing and three months before our trip that Brette messaged me asking whether or not I was interested in trying to climb the east pillar of Torre Egger with her. Marc had noticed the potential for a striking new route when he climbed Titanic in 2016. Brette and Marc had been making plans to go to Patagonia and try it together.
Marc envisioned that one could face climb on run-out flakes in order to connect to an obvious, but discontinuous corner system splitting the prow of the lower buttress. The route would climb the steepest part of the wall. I knew that If it was possible it would be an absolutely spectacular line, and I was instantly excited to try it. Brette and I started making concrete plans.
Brette Harrington watches the evening sun set behind Fitz Roy and Poincenot. Photo: Quentin Roberts
BACK IN EL CHALTEN, the forecast has managed to withstand the Fresco Bar hype, and actually materialized. Four days of high pressure accompanied by a huge spike in temperature. Brette and I are at basecamp in ‘Noruegos’ sipping electrolyte tea, and arranging our gear for the next morning. The rime capped summits of the Torres tower a thousand meters above, and Cerro Chalten dominates the other side of the valley fiery in the evening sun.
Over the past two days, we have watched the Torres transform from ice-plastered sentinels into kilometer high waterfalls. Their east faces covered in running water streaks like black tiger stripes on golden granite. There are several teams at basecamp, and we’ve all waited an extra day in the hope that it would allow the faces to clean themselves of enough snow and ice to climb them. Although everything is wet, we’ve luckily chosen the driest objective of the crew, and we go to bed psyched.
Bob Marley heralds the morning, singing to us from my phone’s speaker at 1:30 am after a surprisingly good few hours of rest. I go through the automated motions of coffee brewing and breakfast prep, while Brette takes down camp and secures our things.
We navigate the glacier by headlamp, following behind our friends on their way to attempt a different route. We veer right toward Egger, and holler a final monkey cry to our compañeros as we approach the bergschrund. We’ve climbed the initial pitches before, so we aren’t so affected by the running water and the dark.
Brette frees the first four pitches of Titanic confidently, her headlamp like a rocket in the dark. I take over at first light, where our route veers left on new terrain. Its an incredible 60-meter pitch of run-out vision questing on flakes. I look around the corner and up at 100 meters of perfect hand cracks that take us into the crux corner system.
Its still morning when we arrive at the crux pitch. It looks hard. A shallow left leaning corner, with a laser thin crack in the back. Perfect for Brette’s little hands! The crack peters out higher up, and it looks like it might be hard to protect. We session the crack as though we’re cragging in Squamish.
The unclimbed granite cracks under Brette’s fingers and toes as she contorts into the corner. She runs it out slightly, striking the perfect balance between pump and protection and sends it on her third go. I’ve only tried it once at this point, but manage climb it cleanly on second, pulling through with an assortment of small cams and wires piled up at my belay loop. We high five and continue up the wall.
The day is going well. A few pitches higher I’ve just topped out the mental crux, a long pitch that starts as an off-width and transitions into steep 11+ face climbing with large run-outs between fiddly gear. The terrain above looks far easier, and we’re only a few pitches from our bivy.
Quentin Roberts coming up to meet Brette Harrington at the belay. Photo: Brette Harrington
SUDDENLY PANIC IN Brette’s voice gets my attention while she’s climbing up to me. She’s saying something about her boots detaching from the haul bag. I curse under my breath and finish hauling the bags to see what’s going on. There’s definitely no boots, only a frayed nylon tab flapping in the wind.
A distinct gloom hangs over us when Brette gets to the belay. We pull out the camera and complain to it. The two of us struggle to concede our plans for the summit, but realize that there’s no way that Brette will be able to climb through the upper ice pitches in rock shoes. The pitches are traversing, so she won’t be able to jug them either, never-mind the likelihood of freezing her toes. Even the glacier at the base might present a huge challenge.
It seems absurd that something so stupid could sabotage our attempt, but at least we’re not injured. I feel deflated, like all of the energy and psyche I’ve poured into this route has vanished. I fully expect Brette to want to go down, so I let her know that its ok, but she refuses. Instead she takes the rack and starts climbing, determined to make the most of the good weather. I chuckle to myself, impressed with her tenacity and excited to keep exploring the beautiful terrain above.
After a few more pitches, we re-connect with Titanic. Because we’ve given up on the summit, there’s suddenly less pressure on our timeline. We slow down and take the time to fully embrace the experience.
We choose a small pedestal of rock for our bivy ledge. It juts out of the wall and drops off on all sides. The ledge is still in the sun when we get there, the only part on the whole east face that is. I stomp out the ledge with my boots, while Brette rappels to fetch water. By the time everything is ready, the sun is setting and the spires of the Chalten massif lick the sky like flames in the evening sun.
We allow ourselves the luxury of sleep, and wake up with the warmth of first light. Going up the snowfield proves to be both challenging and risky without boots, but Brette sticks it with a giant 100m pendulum belay. We start questing on the upper wall, climbing each new pitch out of the excitement of discovery, gathering crucial information for our next attempt.
Eventually we get turned around by a soaking offwidth that we can’t protect. The runout is above a ledge, and without a chance at the summit, we decide that it isn’t worth it. Instead we get an early start on the descent.
We choose to rappel titanic for the sake of speed, but the mountains are still vertical rivers of meltwater, and we get soaked in the chimney system. Brette recognizes Marc-André's rappel cord on the way down, melted out v-threads in puddles of water. His cord is still new, shiny compared to the weathered cord from years past. He is so present here.
This time when we get down, we hike all of our gear out of the valley.
Brette harrington approaches MA's Vision on Torre Egger with Cerro Torre (left) and Cerro Standhart (right). Photo: Quentin Roberts
RAIN THUMPS ON the tin roof of our Patagonian home, Hostel Hem Herhu. The summer climbing season is coming to an end. The one functional coffee pot has been in perpetual motion for the past four hours, and there are at least half a dozen laptop screens open in the common area. There aren’t many climbers left in town and my own departure is fast approaching. Despite this, I’m still robotically checking every weather update.
Out of my three trips here, this was the first ‘normal’ season I had spent in Patagonia. In the past, the weather was so good that I struggled to find enough time to rest. This one was very different. I watch the water lash at the windows and think about how wonderful my time here was. Sometimes there are factors out of one’s control that we must accept, but that doesn’t mean that you have to give up. Let’s see where this dogged tenacity takes us. Hasta la próxima Torre Egger!
AS IT STANDS, MA’s Visión climbs 500m (400m new) of terrain to the hanging snowfield on the East Face of Torre Egger, where the route rejoins Titanic. It then branches off again and continues for several pitches on the upper east pillar. The name MA’s Visión plays on words, also meaning ‘More Vision’ in Spanish. Some would call this a new route, or at least a new variation to Titanic, but Quentin and Brette consider their route incomplete without the summit. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this story, they’re going back!
Date: February 4th, 2019
Quentin Roberts has recently moved to Canmore from the Okanagan. Two of his favourite moments include: Barry Blanchard once telling him he looked “Solid”, and keeping his toes after a scary two weeks in hospital from frostbite. Quentin considers himself a jack of all trades and master of none, yet he aspires to be a master of all. He currently climbs for Arc’teryx, Petzl, and La Sportiva.
This story was featured in the 2019 Canadian Alpine Journal. Get your copy here: