Patagonia in Winter: A Rare Success on Cerro Torre
Stephan Siegrist, Thomas Senf and Ralf Weber have successfully climbed Cerro Stanhardt, the northermost summit of Patagonia’s Cerro Torre group, in winter and in alpine style via the classic Exocet route.´
After an initial attempt abandoned due to blustery winds, the trio set off on 30 July to reach the Bridwell Camp from where they continued the next day to the Niponino Camp and on to Col Standhart where the Exocet route begins.
Deep snow and hard ice covered the rock face and cracks making progress far slower and far more arduos than planned, and after another bivy and another strenuous climbing day with temperatures down to -20°C they reached the 2730m high summit in the dying hours of the day. Siegrist commented “As the sun set the full moon appears, what a sight!” The Swiss climbers bivied just below the summit mushroom in the “most beautiful bivouac ever” and then abseiled back down to the glacier on 2 August.
Siegrist is no newcomer to winter ascents in the Cerro Torre mountain chain: in July 1999 he made the first winter ascent of the West Face of Cerro Torre via the Ferrari route together with Thomas Ulrich, David Fasel and Greg Couch, while in August 2010 Siegrist made the first winter ascent of Torre Egger by climbing the route Titanic along with Dani Arnold and Thomas Senf. As such he is the first to have climbed these three outstanding main peaks in winter.
Cerro Standhardt’s Exocet route was first in climbed 1988 by the Americans Jim Bridwell, Greg Smith and Jay Smith. Two years later it received its first winter ascent at the hands of the Austrians Tommy Bonapace and Toni Ponholzer, while the first solo was carried out in 2010 by American alpinist Colin Haley.
Monday July 30, we hiked up to Bridwell Camp with uncertain weather still looming. Our decision to start was based on weather information from Karl Gabl. Patagonia has changed a lot in recent years in this regard. Today, climbers can get weather information that allows them to take advantage of shorter windows of good weather for an ascent. In the early morning hours of Tuesday July 31, we started head out in the direction of Nipo Nino camp at the foot of El Mocho.
We had already deposited some climbing material there a few days beforehand. On that day, our attempt had been pushed back by a storm, forcing us to return into the valley before we had reached the base of the wall. Loaded with even more material, we continued with skis to the first steep step towards Cerro Standhardt. The weather was still far from good, further up we battled knee-deep in snow trying to break in tracks. The previous days of bad weather had brought a lot of fresh snow, which the wind now transported in uncomfortable gusts. In the Col Standhardt we had to secure some pitches due to the high avalanche hazard. Ultimately we needed much more time than in summer or in good conditions. Luckily all three of us we familiar with our planned route, the Exocet, from previous ascents we’d made.
We finally arrived at the first pitch in rock, however, the wall was completely iced over, so Ralf was already fully challenged. We reach a good bivouac site we planned for on the ramp one pitch later, an hour before going to sleep (At this time of year, you only have about 9 hours of daylight in Patagonia).
On Wednesday August 1, we crawled out of our sleeping bags after a windy night. The following, otherwise very easy pitches up to the entrance to the ice tube of our route were unfortunately anything but comfortable. Unconsolidated “semolina snow” on smooth granite slabs, partly blown in and again highly avalanche-prone. We were forced to belay every pitch here as well. We needed much more time than planned, but at least now we were at the start of the heart of the route.
The almost vertical ice tube winds in six pitches to just below the summit. The last very warm and dry summer had made many ice routes in Patagonia bare. Since we couldn’t see this part of the route from below, we didn’t know if there would be any ice in the channel at all. I started with the first pitch. At the top we were happy; the ice channel continued all the way to the top!
The next pitch was led by Thomas, then Ralf’s turn again. What could be better than being in the mountains with your two best friends? Thomas as well as Ralf are two excellent mountaineers. Thomas now earns his living as a mountain photographer. Ralf earns his as a professional mountain guide. The ice was not only very thin and brittle, but also extremely hard from the low temperatures, making it challenging to climb.
With a mixture of mixed and rock climbing Ralf leads these 30 meters sovereign. A hundred meters of easy terrain follow before we stand under the summit mushroom. I take on these last meters in the evening light. With the last rays of sunlight we arrived at the summit at 18:30. At the same time the full moon appeared on the other side. An incredible sight!
Again on August 1, two years to the day after Thomas and I stood on the summit of Torres Eggers. We enjoyed the moment even more, because the day was much more demanding than we had expected. We had dragged food as well as technical material with us for another day on the Standhardt. In good conditions we had hoped to make an attempt at climbing the not so well known Punta Herron since we were already so closeby. Ralf and I had already climbed it once in the summer. But no one had ever stood on its summit in winter.
We could see the north face over which the climb to the Herron runs, but from the last storm the rock climbing was full of glued unsupported rimeice. It was evident that under these conditions the Herron summit would not possible. So we roped down the summit mushroom and hacked a bivouac spot in the ice a few meters below.
The work of digging out a bivi kept us warm and shortened the long night. It would turn out to be the most impressive bivouac night any of us had ever had. On the body-wide ledge, we lay lengthwise lined up. Below us the abyss with a view of the glacier in the valley, the whole panorama illuminated by an unreal full moon. The wind blew strongly already in the early hours of the following morning despite it being meant to be the best day of the predicted weather window. We were reassured about our decision not to make an attempt on Herron; with the wind we would hardly have been able to move on the exposed north edge. What was left of our ascent was the long abseil and the even longer march back to Bridwell Camp. Tired but happy and heavily loaded, we reach civilization on August 3.