Weather permitting: Patagonian storms push a Boulder climber to test new skills

Climbers looking up at Cerro Torre from Laguna Torre.
Photo by Jonathan Byers

Christmas saw snowy weather around the Patagonian peak Fitz Roy, and Boulder residents Jonathan Byers and Joaquin Espinosa camped at its base, huddled together, wishing for better weather and wondering what would come of the summits both traveled to Patagonia to attempt.

Byers and his partner, Espinosa, an associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado, had both come to Patagonia with Fitz Roy in mind. For Espinosa, it was his third trip to Patagonia to chase summits. The two had been introduced in El Chalten, Argentina by Rolando Garibotti, who runs and is a source of wisdom on the notoriously temperamental Patagonian peaks. They’d set off when what seemed to be a three-day weather window appeared, hoping that the word they’d heard from other climbers, that the routes Supercanaleta and Afanasieff might be clean, was right, despite the snow and ice visible on the faces of Fitz Roy that could be seen from town.

An eight-hour approach delivered them to the base of the routes.

“On the first day of our supposed three-day window, it snowed all afternoon and into the night,” Espinosa says. “When we woke up on day two, the routes were in very bad condition.”

People on Supercanaleta were coming down, and Afanasieff was loaded with ice.

“We spent Christmas Eve under a boulder getting snowed on,” Byers says. “It just became obvious, by the morning, that it just wasn’t going to happen, that climbing a 4,000-, 5,000-foot rock route in the snow wasn’t going to be a good plan. … We were pretty disappointed.”

They turned back toward town, but on the way, decided to detour to Guillaumet, a smaller, neighboring peak with a summit at 2,580 meters, and waited at its base the afternoon of the second day in that weather window to see what the weather would do. It held, and at three in the morning, having picked up a third partner who had also been turned back by conditions on Fitz Roy, they started the approach.

The route they chose, Amy-Vidailhet, puts varying demands on a climber’s skills — 200 meters of ice climbing is followed by about 400 meters of moderate 5.9 rock climbing and a snow ramp to the summit.

“The dimensions of this place are pretty spectacular,” Espinosa says of climbing in Patagonia in general. The route they’d planned to complete on Fitz Roy was 40 pitches, or about 1,600 meters — almost one and a half times the height of the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite. “To me, they are the most beautiful mountains that I’ve seen. From what I’ve seen, there’s nothing like it. And they are very elusive. They have that seductive character. You can be totally set, and have the right gear and the right partner and it’s still no, you’re not allowed, not this time.”

But Guillaumet was more permissive, and they reached the summit at 11 a.m.

“We had a grand time. … It was great, it was smooth, perfect,” Espinosa says. “It’s always hard to bail from a very coveted mountain like Fitz Roy, and this is my third time down there, and I was feeling very good about getting on Fitz Roy, but in the end it was very clear we made the right decision.”

Patagonian peaks require a wide and deep skill set; climbers draw on physical fitness in addition to ice climbing, rock climbing and glacier travel skills. But that the peak was Byers’ first summit in Patagonia never seemed to show, says Espinosa, who completed the Benitiers Route on Cerro Mocho four years ago and the Ciari di Luna on Aguja Saint Exupery two years ago.

“You can tell he’s a young man with a deep love of the mountains who, despite his age, has a significant amount of alpine experience,” Espinosa says.

The two returned to El Chalten, a town that’s popped up in recent years and provides climbers with previously unheard of comforts, like a chocolateria and beds to sleep in — it’s a far cry from the snow caves climbers in Patagonia 25 years ago would spend months in waiting for weather windows.

Back in town, Byers starting hearing about a Christmas rush on Cerro Torre, a fiercely vertical spire in Argentinean Patagonia that peaks out at 10,278 feet, but is among the world’s most coveted peaks because of the difficulty of its technical climbs. Mountaineer and writer Jon Krakauer has named it among his first really difficult summits.

From left: Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Stanhardt | Photo by Jonathan Byers

While Byers and Espinosa were near the base of Fitz Roy, as many as 28 people climbed Cerro Torre via the Ragni Route on the peak’s western ridge, including 23 people on Christmas Day. Since the route’s first ascent in 1974, only about 80 people had completed the route.

“That’s totally wild,” Byers says. “Usually that’s the peak that’s really scary and nobody gets up.”

While Espinosa had to return to Boulder, Byers still had time to consider what to do with an incoming weather window.

“Rolando Garibotti, he was like, if you’re going to do it, now is the time to do it,” Byers says. “I’m not nearly as experienced with ice climbing and it’s an ice route, so it was a difficult decision because I knew I was going to be out of my comfort zone.”

But Cerro Torre was a peak that had figured on his horizons for years, starting as his computer desktop image during high school and, more recently, becoming the feature of many sunrise and sunset photographs taken during his time in Patagonia. The mountain had been the backdrop for so many other training excursions, running and bouldering to get in shape for more reasonable projects.

To climb the western route up Cerro Torre, the Ragni Route, climbers sink ice axes and crampons into a layer of constantly changing ice. Some years, climbers reported spending five hours digging a tunnel through some of the billowing mushrooms of unconsolidated rime ice to reach the summit. But this season, the route has shaped up with well-protected ice climbing and little rime climbing, Garibotti has reported on Rather than tunneling or praying over each swing of an ice axe into overhanging rime ice with a consistency some climbers have described as cotton candy-like, stemboxes opened up, and the typically temperamental weather was generous with another window of stable days. So Byers turned toward Cerro Torre thinking, OK, maybe this could go.

A rock climber since college, Byers is still fresh to the sport of ice climbing. He’d have preferred to have more skills and experience, he says, but once he got on the route, it seemed he had skills and experience enough.

Partnering up with fellow Colorado resident Jonathan Schaffer, who lives near Durango, the two left town on Dec. 29 and set up a tent at Niponino, below the southeast ridge. All day on Dec. 30 they sat in their tent as it rained, but clear weather meant they could cross the Col Standhardt on the 31st and arrive at the base of the route. At 2 a.m. on the first day of 2013, while other Boulderites would have been just winding down their New Year’s Eve celebrations, they set off up 2,000 feet of vertical ice, headed toward the top of Cerro Torre.

Other groups had left even earlier, and they spent the first part of the climb being pelted with golf ball- and softball-sized chunks of ice.

“The guy I was climbing with, first thing in the morning, when he showed up at one of the belays, he had a bloody nose,” Byers says. “It’s always sort of risky to look up at all in those situations.”

The routes he’d planned to try on Fitz Roy would have been much more rock climbing, something more in his skill set. A Live Your Dream grant from the American Alpine Club allowed him to take climbing rescue training courses, though, and that increased his comfort climbing and knowing that he had the skills to get back down safely, he says.

was thinking maybe I’d go spend about a year training on ice climbing
and all that stuff before going for Cerro Torre,” he says. “When I
actually went up there and we started climbing, I realized I did have
the skills.”

Jonathan Byers on the “Cumbre,” the summit of Cerro Torre | Photo by Jonathan Schaffer

The groups ahead were moving slowly, and they were able to simul-climb past some of them and catch up with friends.

wasn’t like any kind of climbing I’ve ever done before,” Byers says.
“It’s not very solid, so you have to be really careful to get ice screws
and protection in when you can. But it was a really incredibly
beautiful place up there. There was only a tiny bit of sort of mixed
rock climbing and the rest of it was pretty solid ice, which is sort of
why this year so many people have been able to go up it.”

solid half pipe had cut its way through the top section, where people
have spent hours tunneling through soft rime ice before. It leads to a
blue tunnel of ice, followed by one more belay and then a scramble to
the summit. From there, Byers says, he could look out 360 degrees,
across the Patagonian Ice Cap and to the Pacific Ocean —the source of
all those storms so prone to shutting down climbers.

week earlier I would have said, ‘Yeah, I might climb that someday, but
that’s going to be a long time away. That’s not going to happen this
year,’” Byers says. “That’s what happens in the mountains. What you
expect to happen doesn’t, but what does happen is way more than I could
have dreamed.”

Boulder Weekly first caught up with Jonathan Byers in December to talk about his work with the Alpine of the Americas Project, repeating historic photographs of glaciers to illustrate how they’ve changed over the decades. Though mountaineering has been his focus for the past few weeks of good weather, Byers says he’s been able to use the time in the mountains to identify a few locations that historic photos were taken from, and has met climbers who will be able to contribute as he continues to crowd-source images from people who have been traveling to Patagonia for decades. That may include creator Rolando Garibotti, who has been climbing in Patagonia since he was a teenager and taking photos there since the mid-’90s, and Colin Haley, an American climber who climbed Cerro Torre twice this year.

Visit for additional information on his project or to participate by repeating a historic photograph.