The North Face of Aguja Poincenot

Weather or Not

I have proven that it is possible to fail in Patagonia under a deep blue, windless sky.

Normal people fail in Patagonia because of bad weather. The Patagonian Andes lie squarely athwart what sailors refer to as the "Roaring Forties" and the "Furious Fifties," that region between 40 and 60 degrees south latitude. Storms spawned by the Great Southern Ocean encounter only one major obstacle as they tear around the bottom end of the globe—Patagonia.

Cold, wet masses of air are driven ashore by terrible west winds. The winds drive the air up and onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, which suddenly cools the air. Snow, rain, sleet, and ice storms careen across the ice cap and slam into the spires of the FitzRoy/Cerro Torre massif. The sudden arrival of these storms aborts most climbing attempts.

Jim Donini and I undertook the first ascent of the West Ridge of Inominata with two and a half liters of water, four Snickers bars apiece and no bivi gear. "Tiny" Inominata, wedged between the giants of Poincenot and St. Exupery, seemed like it would climb easily in a day.

Thirty-two hours, and one bitterly cold, starry bivi later, we do a short rappel from the end of our 24th pitch to the notch where the 1974 British route joins the West Ridge. Difficult mixed climbing and convoluted horizontal route finding didn't go easily, or in a day. Six pitches remain to the summit and success. We debate whether to continue. Donini takes himself off rappel and dry-heaves. His dehydration and exhaustion have worsened through the day. I have a blinding headache. Neither of us has the stomach for another bivi away from sleeping bags or to descend through darkness over unknown terrain, yet my first Patagonian "first" lies six pitches out of my grasp. Reluctantly, we retreat to camp in the remaining daylight.

The failure crushes me. If we'd brought sleeping bags, or just a stove, we would have bagged a Patagonian first ascent, a dream I've lived with for years. We journeyed all this way to the southern tip of South America, spent $3,000 apiece on travel and equipment, and amid perfect weather, stomped ourselves with stupidity.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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