"Enjoy the wind," Hayden Kennedy told me with a wry smile before my first trip to Argentine Patagonia three years ago. I'll never forget that knowing, just-wait-and-see look he had earned on big routes and first ascents in the range.
Today, in the Torre Valley, I think of Hayden's smile and I shake my head and laugh. A gray pall clings to the valley like a cloak. Across the glacier Cerro Torre is a pale, mysterious visage, barely brightened by the cold sunrise.
And then there's the wind ... it penetrates everything. My nylon shell thrums like a snare drum, the fabric vibrating at hyper-speed as if my arms and chest are hummingbird wings.
Aguja Saint-Exupéry rises impossibly high above. Even as we inch toward the climb, it seems too far away. Thankfully, neither Bruce nor I have any idea what this "day climb" will entail: we'll see a second sunrise before this mountain is through with us.
By mid-morning we're well off the ground, the wind our relentless companion. We climb higher and the gusts intensify, knocking us off balance. The sun is invisible behind a gray, soupy sky, while lenticular clouds hover like flying saucers in every direction.
Bruce leads a corner split by a single crack — a line of weakness up a wall of strength. I follow with wooden toes and numb fingers. I'm wearing every shred of clothing I brought.
"What do you think about the weather?" I ask Bruce, more than halfway up.
He takes a slow look around. "I think it's fine," he says. "Are you concerned?"
"Not too much," I lie.
I tuck tail between legs and lead upward in a blur of granite cracks.
Late in the day, our climb intersects the rappel route — it's now easier to go down than it has been for hours. I remind Bruce, as a weak motion to bail. My doubts only fuel his enthusiasm.
The mountains of Patagonia are a test of skill, competence and will. It's often said that if you can climb here, you can climb anywhere. Right now I'm failing the test big time.
Bruce leads with vigor and urgency, pitch after pitch into the gale until we can finally climb no higher. I join him on the summit at exactly 8 p.m. and in a matter of seconds he shouts, "Let's get the hell outta here!"
I toss the rope over the edge. It floats in midair then spins upward behind me, tangling around rocks above. "This is gonna suck," I mutter, my words lost to the wind.
Night falls and headlamps guide our plumb-line descent into unfamiliar terrain. We double-check everything as we bet our lives on every anchor. Hours pass, and the ground doesn't seem to grow closer.
I fantasize about basecamp, El Chaltén, Boulder. I catch a glimpse of myself in the unforgiving mirror of these mountains. It reflects a boy, afraid and insecure, who only wants to be safe.
I snap back to the present as I recognize where we are. We pull the rope from the last of some 20 rappels.
A single ledge system sneaks between massive cliffs to the valley floor still thousands of feet below. We search for it with dimming headlamps, hiking down and over and back up again, only to dead-end. Eventually we give up, exhausted. Daylight is just 90 minutes away. We decide to wait.
For the first time in 24 hours there's nothing to be done. I let my worries go in a wonderful, visceral release.
Looking up, I see a movie screen with a million stars glowing yellow, orange and pale blue over the Torres. In a way, detached from emotion, I understand this is the most beautiful night sky I have ever seen.
Bruce collapses in the dirt and I join him, wordless. We spoon and shiver, exposed to the wind. Dawn will come soon enough.
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org