Remote or Reckless: Stepping off the Grid in Patagonia

By Jill Macdonald. Photography by Matthew Van Biene and Paul McSorley. Via Arc’Teryx Lithographica.

The night sky isn’t what it used to be. Hanging amongst the stars now is a multitude of satellites that repeat cellular telephone signals, cable television and radio transmissions. What was once science fiction is now taken for granted. Contact is rarely difficult or far.

In the outdoor world, the loss of wool pants along the way has not been a tragedy. Heavy leather boots are not missed. But losing our comfort with being alone is a definitive setback. Along with the fear of allowing ourselves to be truly vulnerable comes the loss of accountability. There is never a good time to take a bad fall, but when the possibility of even asking for help is hours or days away, the significance of any event packs enormous and very real consequence.

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In January 2014, Will Stanhope, Paul McSorley, Marc-Andre Leclerc and Matt van Biene set off to climb in the remote reaches of northern Patagonia. Their objective was a wall that rises above Largo Mariposa, near the headwaters of one of the branches of the Río Turbio. The wall was something that Will and Paul had identified on a previous trip six years earlier as a destination worthy of return.

Basic logistics prevent most people from getting further than a coffee shop on Sunday mornings. A ton of effort goes into making remote journeys happen. Daytrips, even arduous ones, are only a partial measure in comparison, not only with regards to food and transportation, but also because the comfort zone of home remains in the mind. For both Paul and Will, the concept of turning off for a couple of weeks was welcome. No communication simplifies life. It also amplifies the seriousness of anything that goes wrong.

On most trips there is a moment when the journey truly begins. It might be at the trailhead, or the airport, or an identified landmark. From the outset, this group traveled deeper into unpopulated lands with each stage of their approach. Psychologically it was different for each person. For some crossing the first lake, Lago Puelo, marked the beginning and ultimately the end point. For others, the crossing of the second, smaller but critical Laguna de la Mariposa was the launch point into total commitment. “This is not for everybody.” Will Stanhope’s understatement of the year.

On most trips there is a moment when the journey truly begins.
On most trips there is a moment when the journey truly begins.

Back at the first stage, the group spent seven hours waiting on the shoreline with nothing to do but contemplate their situation, luck and the imminent climb. In ‘real time’ they were to meet the gauchos at 11am. In actual time, the gauchos turned up at 6pm. Did the gauchos care? No. Their pace of life does not rely on weather windows or any concept of opportunity or urgency. People in this valley do not climb mountains for leisure. They don’t climb at all. Taking people on horseback into the remote reaches of their home was strictly a business transaction and if these young men were never seen again, it would not be these villagers who would lose sleep or attempt to recover them.

Paul and Will first met these gauchos on their previous trip. Although there had been no change in the landscape (the same derelict boat was still on the beach), there was more warmth in the greeting. The Canadians had earned a little respect – for returning to the valley, not for what they were here to do. If this sounds callous, to some degree it is but the underlying truth is raw. Without taking any of the fun out of it, it’s important to admit that climbing is a luxury. It is a privilege that few will ever experience or recognize as a means of tuning in to the realities of life.

After an overnight bivy and 12 hours on horseback, they arrived at the rat infested Puesto Rappoport, a wooden refugio from where they would stage the next nine days of shuttling their gear up to the base of Cerro Mariposa and the second lake. Time was compressed and they did not take a rest day. The shuttles advanced at best one kilometer/hour and frequently involved getting lost, backtracking and constant monitoring of machete blazes through jungles of cãna colihue bamboo. It was slow, arduous and fraught with surgically sharp pointed shards of previous growth. No one traveled alone.

“The weather is a constant threat. It can make you ragged.” Paul, the most experienced of the group, found clouds that drifted across the sky or formed at the edges of their universe unsettling. Patagonia is notorious for missed opportunities, for being stuck and frustrated or having to turn back. He read oncoming storms into every formation, formations that consistently failed to materialize into weather until the lack of change began to batter his confidence. “I was on edge the whole time.” A relentless pace, new group dynamics and slow progress all contributed. And yet, it was undeniably advancing.

Finally at the end of their approach, their objective in sight, they were ready to cross the second lake and begin their climb. Cerro Mariposa towered ahead, a huge wall with a sizeable chunk of glacier hanging over it. Tortured would describe this zone. Ice calved off the glacier into the lake, while mixes of rock and ice avalanched in from the massive walls that impounded it. “I was intimidated.” Will elaborates; “It was not your best case scenario.”

Pedro Lüthi, the Swiss godfather of climbers in Argentina, spent many years in the area and had constructed a small hut. When they found the dilapidated, run down structure, a collective sense of well-being infused the four men with history and the companionship of an absent yet present mentor. It was a mustering place and a reminder that one man at least had often sat there alone, without fear, without contact and in peace.

There were testaments in writing from other climbers about epic waits, storms, the invasion of phantom fears born of idleness and anticipation. Anxious to move on and as the good weather continued, the group loaded their rafts and punched through the gates of the psychological crux. There was no route around Laguna de la Mariposa; it was an impossible entry except by water, guarded by massive headwalls and the stories of strong climbers who had previously been refused. Without mercy, intense wind pushed them back unless they maintained a constant pace. This was uncertainty at its best. Eyes open or eyes closed, the only way out was through.

Objective hazards are physical impediments; subjective hazards are ones we give to ourselves.
Objective hazards are physical impediments; subjective hazards are ones we give to ourselves.

A new route necessarily means a certain lack of information. As they stood at the base of a massive bergschrund, there was some doubt. The first pitch climbed out amidst unstable house-sized boulders and dripping overhanging snow. Marc negotiated the team through this passage in what Paul describes as an X-rated lead. Reckless? No. Serious – definitely and perhaps risky, but the capacity to find a safe route and climb it capably was within each person. It was simply a matter of the moment where weather, timing, confidence and solid decision making joined in a confluence. They could have turned back, many times. Each member contributed to the group’s overall morale, their safety and grip on the rational by relying on skills, assessments and attention to each small detail.

As far as unknown route finding goes, the middle of the climb went relatively smoothly. The rock and their line proved to be of high quality. One small wrong turn set them back but on the upside, they had a moment with high flying condors that circled and cast shadows of what felt like luck. Mountains speak their own language however, and Matt endured its rope-cutting eloquence.

At the top they encountered another crux which Marc again led them through. The final 500m was a snow slope of 45 degrees that they navigated roped together in glacier travel style. La Vuelta de los Condores (5.11 A2) was sent.

It’s interesting to note that at no time did anyone feel that they had discovered a surrogate home, in either Pedro’s hut or in the suspension of context that happens when focus rests exclusively on the task at hand. With an uncertain number of days’ travel left to get out and the constant threat of weather, reaching the summit was only half the journey. There was every bit as much need to be careful and diligent still ahead.

The wilds of Argentina have different smells and sounds. From the simplest grass to the constant crash of rock fall to multiple scalpels of broken bamboo, there was never an opportunity for a mental break. Down climbing, the group chose to leave behind expensive gear in the interest of safety and efficiency. Their thoughts didn’t run to dreams of cell phones or the internet for weather reports, they were very much in the moment and very aware of not having an incident. Paul: “It’s never really in the bag until the beers go ‘clink.'”

Communication is not about being in touch 24/7. That both Will and Paul looked forward to being completely off the grid underlines the simplicity of being entirely responsible for their actions – the opposite of reckless. What we owe to each other is answering honestly, not being bound to answering constantly.

Objective hazards are physical impediments; subjective hazards are ones we give to ourselves. Uncertainty makes us richer. It makes us pay attention, to our surroundings, to our internal selves and to each other.

Reblogged from Arc’Teryx Lithographica.