First light fluttered from darkness, glowing on the horizon like baseline fires across the curve of the earth. We barely spoke. I racked the gear, checked my knot. Nearly a vertical mile of climbing towered overhead.
It was my first trip to the storied Chaltén Massif of southern Patagonia, where spires jut into space like parallel rows of sharpened teeth. For decades, climbing legends have risen and fallen here with the ferocious winds. For sixty-five million years, these granite spires have reached toward the sky like temples of the gods.
Our trip had started like so many others: long on ambition, short on action. Cloudbanks of fury obscured the mountains and the wind so scoured the earth that on some days even approaching the glacier was unthinkable. We’d retreat to the forest and pass time with our friends.
Just before our flights home, the skies cleared. A perfect window.
It’s funny how time passes. Two days can go slowly, without recollection. Passing normally, placidly, mundane days like any other.
So often, I recall only fleeting moments. Sometimes, when standing in line at the bank or sipping coffee or driving to the store, the molecules in my brain that hold the memories of my mind flash before me, transporting me to a dreamlike world that I know is real. On Cerro Torre I remember my heartbeat pounding in my ears as we raced up thin ice that would disappear the very next day, melted by the fierce southern sun when we were higher on the route. I remember shivering away the night without sleeping bags in a snow cave three pitches below the top, drifting between sleep and hypothermia. Waking and climbing through rime-ice mushrooms, gargoyles, and house-sized sculptures jutting outward in gravity-defying forms like images pulled from a fantasyland. And, of course, tunnels. Tunnels? Yes, tunnels. Treasure-hunt tunnels carved by the wind, allowing passage through the impossible seeming mushrooms, until we sat on the summit under perfect skies, almost unbelievingly, knowing we’d been lucky.
Exactly two days after we left, we staggered back to our tent as silhouettes of giants towered overhead. Before crawling inside and collapsing into a dreamless sleep, I remember staring once more at the stars while the wind calmed to a whisper, as if the gods themselves were pausing between breaths.
Kelly Cordes is author of The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre. For more on Kelly and his work, visit www.kellycordes.com