Spirited British attempt on Patagonian wall

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 08/03/2010
East Face of Catedral (centre). Pete Rhodes

The first of the 2010 BMC supported expeditions to leave these shores received a thorough battering by Patagonian weather, thwarting an attempt to make the first free ascent of the East Face of Cerro Catedral in the Torres del Paine.

American crack specialist Mason Earle, with Britons Pete Rhodes and George Ullrich, battled the elements while attempting to free La Escoba de Dios, one of three routes (American, Italian and Spanish) on the face, all of which feature sections of hard aid (A3+ to A4).

La Escoba de Dios was the first route to breach the sheer, 1,000m-high East Face. It climbs more or less the centre of the wall and was completed in early 1992 by Americans John Catto, Charlie Fowler, Peter Gallagher and Max Kendall. These four reached the summit after 29 pitches up to 5.10 and A4/A4+

Over two days in mid-January Earle, Rhodes and Ullrich fixed ropes on the first four pitches and then on the 29th started up the face in capsule style, spending the next 10 days on the wall.

They climbed the initial seven pitches of the original route, graded A4 on the first ascent, free except for a three-metre section on both pitches two and six. These were top roped but not led due to adverse weather conditions and felt to be around 5.13-.

During one of many falls from a hard corner, Earle was saved from crashing into the portaledge by a number 1 Birdbeak.

Having realized that the huge pendulum on the original line would not go free, they traversed left and climbed nine independent pitches up to 5.12c. On pitch 14 there was one section of arête that they were again unable to lead, but climbed it on a top rope at an estimated 5.13.

Then, on their ninth night on the face, a huge updraft broke one of the portaledges and when the three got a text message warning that the forecast for the next three days was abysmal, they decided to go down.

This proved to be a good decision, as once back on terra firma the weather continued as predicted for the following 72 hours.

The team found superb rock quality and incredible pitches of free climbing, leading to the belief that when completed, this route could be one of the world's finest, big wall free climbs, on a par with the great free routes of El Cap.

From their high point an estimated three pitches remained before the new line re-joined La Escoba de Dios. Above, the remaining pitches to the summit climb easier-angled ground at no more than 5.9.

The weather during their stay, even by Patagonian standards, was poor, with snowfall every day and maximum daytime temperatures on the wall never more than 6°C. While east faces in Paine are generally sheltered from the brunt of Patagonian winds, the configuration of surrounding peaks led to severe updrafts that gave more than one sleepless night.

An extremely powerful team of Russians, including Alexander Ruchkin and Arcady Seregin, had hoped to force a new line up the right side of the same face, but disappeared from the valley after fixing just one new pitch.

A video of this attempt, showing all the usual Patagonian pleasures, can be seen at Pete Rhodes’s website.
 



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