The Big 5-0: Big Mountain Moments in Patagonia
By KEEN Ambassador Christian Santelices
As we huddled together, shivering uncontrollably, in what my friend Nat likes to call “the puppy pile,” I wondered, “What the hell am I doing here?!”
High on a ledge above the Torre Glacier on Cerro Fitzroy, the three of us, Bill, Nat and I, had loosened our boots, put on every piece of clothing we had, laid out our ropes on an icy ledge and sat down for what we knew would be a long night. It was cold. Once we ate what food we had left over from our 18 hours on Fitzroy and steeled ourselves for suffering, I remembered the emergency space blanket sleeping bag my wife had given me for Christmas several years earlier. Draping it over us, we were instantly warmer as it cut out the Pacific wind buffeting after crossing the southern Patagonian ice cap. But not warm.
I pondered my question throughout the long night – “Why am I sitting here on this ledge freezing my ass off?”
In our family, on significant birthdays we have a tradition of seeking out experiences. When my wife Sue turned 50 we went to the Ortler region of Northern Italy to ski tour in the Alps, an experience that we will remember fondly for the rest of our lives. Several months before my 50th birthday I started to think about what special experience I wanted to have.
As I noticed more silver in my hair and nagging injuries I had not experienced before, I had begun to wonder if I could still climb big peaks like I once did.
While taking advantage of a hall pass was certainly on my mind, something else was afoot. For the past several years in my 40s, as I noticed more silver in my hair and nagging injuries I had not experienced before, I had begun to wonder if I could still climb big peaks like I once did.
Ingredient #1: The Place
Patagonia is my second home, in part because my father was raised in Chilean Patagonia and still lives there, working as a cattle and sheep rancher. For me, it is truly my adopted home. Growing up with my mom in the San Francisco Bay Area, I met my father when I was 26. Since then I have built a close relationship with him and many other family members, as well as an extremely close relationship with the place. I had not been to Patagonia in a couple of years, and I felt it viscerally. There is truly an emptiness when I am not able to make it for a year or more.
It was with all of this in mind that for my 50th I decided I wanted – needed – to try to climb Fitzroy in Argentine Patagonia. Could I still climb big mountains in Patagonia? Did I have the fitness and drive to do it? This was definitely a nagging question for me. But mostly, my main reason for wanting this particular experience was to spend time and share Patagonia with my two best friends, Nat Patridge and Bill Anderson.
Ingredient #2: The People
Nat and I were in the same 1998 “freshman class” at Exum Mountain Guides, and our wives coached volleyball together at Jackson Hole High School as well as starting a catering business together. Our families take vacations together, and our 10-year-old sons, Nico and Koven, are best buds. Bill came to Exum a few years later and quickly became one of our best guides. Bill and I have spent months together over the years working together as co-chief guides and working together with several mutual private clients around the world. Many people say that Bill and I don't need to talk with one another when we are working in the mountains together. We know what the other is thinking and our efforts together are often seamless because of this.
Ingredient #3: The Peak
Nat, Bill and I arrived in El Chaltén, Argentina, on October 28th to stellar weather. We rallied as soon as we got there to leave the following day for the mountains with the intention of climbing the Franco-Argentina route on Cerro Fitzroy. It turned out to be a true reconnaissance of the approach to the mountain as well as the route to what’s called “la Brecha de los Italianos.”
What we found out from our reconnaissance was that 1) Fitzroy is huge (duh); 2) The Franco-Argentina was not in shape (snow and ice in the cracks); and 3) We needed to change our tactics and mindset to accomplish a climb in this range. Part of that meant shedding weight, so we started jettisoning equipment that we knew we weren’t going to use.
After four days of great weather, it was starting to deteriorate. We took a couple of days off to recover and decided that our next objective should be smaller so we could dial in our systems and move more quickly. We also had a very short weather window to work with. We chose the Amy-Vidhailet on Cerro Guillamet. This turned out to be the perfect route for us to get our bearings and learn how to climb fast together. It was a fantastic climb consisting of an ice couloir to a rock ridge on perfect golden granite. We made good time and summited around 3:30pm with lenticular clouds blowing in.
Thirty minutes after leaving the summit, we were hit by 120kph winds that carried our ropes away, tied knots in them, and generally made it difficult to descend the mountain safely. Turned out to be another good lesson for our next objective!
Upon returning to our snow cave (we ditched the tent in town...less weight to make a cave!). We decided to continue down to the valley that evening rather than spend another night. Climbing down steep snow we frequently had to drop to our knees to avoid being toppled by the wind. Was good to get to the bottom and have a well-needed drink from the stream!
It turned out when we got back to town that we only had one day of rest before a five-day weather window. Psyched!
Ingredient #4: The Ascent
We made much better time to Paso Superior with packs stuffed with food. We had ditched as much gear as we thought was prudent and had a new objective - the California Route on Fitzroy. We had observed on our reconnaissance that the Southwest side of the mountain looked significantly drier than the East side of the mountain. We were hoping we were right...
After a rest day in the sun at Paso Superior, we prepped for the following day to leave before day break. The climb to the Brecha went great. Nat knew the route and gave his all to get us to the Brecha and then across a hanging glacier to the “Silla de los Americanos.” This part of the route took much longer than we had hoped as we tried to keep ourselves attached to the mountain and do pitches rather than use running belays or just walk across. This decision would prove important.
Once on the California route, we switched into high gear on the rock and climbed as quickly as we could to try to finish this portion in the light. We made it to the very last pitch when the light was failing and everyone was tired from 18 hours of movement. The forecast was for at least one more day of perfect weather, so we decided to make an open bivouac on a small ledge, sitting on one of our ropes and huddling together.
It was a long night, but we felt sure we would summit in the morning with the promise of good weather from all the models that we had looked at. Alas, we woke to building lenticular clouds and increasing winds. The rock was beginning to rime and was unclimbable so we made the sane decision to descend. It took us 14 hours to get back to our camp at Paso Superior, Bill taking the lead down, painstakingly making sure that we could pull our ropes each time we reached a new anchor. Sometimes these rappels were 10 meters long, as we knew if we went further we would risk losing our rope in the fierce wind. We made it down pretty much fried mentally and physically, but completely satisfied with the adventure we had had. We had made the most important decision of all before we left the US - choosing each other as partners. It was the best adventure any of us had ever had. We might even go back.
Ingredient #5: The Memories
A couple of weeks after our adventure, and after spending two weeks with our families in Torres del Paine National Park and Estancia Rio Verde (my father’s ranch in Chilean Patagonia), I realized how important this place has been to my life. I am a product of this land. It has been a constant in my life for the past 24 years – the aching beauty of the mountains, steppe and especially the turquoise lakes and rivers.
Most of all, though, it's the people that I have been able to share my life and adventures with.
Christian Santelices has made a career out of making big mountains his playground. As a longtime mountain guide who has focused on leadership development and conservation efforts, Christian shares his love of climbing to help others gain new skills and a new perspective on the world. You can follow his expeditions on Instagram at @cesantelices.