AAC Member and Mountain Fellowship recipient Walker Mackey reports on his alpine-style ascent of the Kearney-Knight Route (850m, 5.10 A3) on the Central Tower of Paine in February 2010, possibly only the second ascent of this route. Mackey has now climbed all three of the Torres del Paine.
I had reached the point where I no longer cared about climbing the Central Tower. My motivation was gone, and I was thinking I would change my ticket and head back to Yosemite, where I could actually climb instead of just carrying heavy backpacks up rocky talus slopes and wading through snowfields up to my chest.
The season had been brutal. I was exhausted mentally, and physically my body hurt more than ever before. My left knee had taken some serious abuse and felt like it was going to give out at any moment, and my back was destroyed. Sebastian Muñoz and I decided we were going to go down to town. We carried out everything except the summit kit. It had been a long two and a half months, and I was 100 percent convinced that we were done.
Patagonia is a strange place—it forces you to dig deep inside yourself and discover what you are really made of. It exposes all your weaknesses. While in town we checked the weather and discovered that on February 15 and 16 there was going to be a weather window, the first of the season. I shuddered at the thought of hiking back up the Valle del Silencio. But Patagonia does not wait for you to be psyched. When a weather window comes, it is time to go, whether you are ready or not. Sebastian is a unique individual, very driven and motivated for the mountains. He told me, “We have one last chance, let’s make this dream come true.” I knew he was right. If we were going to climb this mountain, now was the time.
On the 13th of February, we dug out a snow cave high in the Valley of Silence. We had brought only three days of food, bivy sacs, one small stove, and the climbing gear. On February 14 we woke at 3 a.m. and started packing for the wall. We arrived at the base of the route at 7 a.m. in freezing temperatures.
At the col, to our surprise, we found Nico Gutierrez and Antonio Haselbauer, two Chilean climbers from Santiago. They had planned to climb the South Tower, but after assessing the conditions they realized that too much ice and snow had accumulated on the first half of the route. They asked Sebastian and I if it would be cool if they climbed the Kearney-Knight with us. The morning was beautiful. The night had been filled with stars, and you could see that the sky was clear to the southwest, with no storms approaching. If ever there was a day to push the south face of the Central Tower, this was it. The mountains are about freedom and unity, and for us it was a no-brainer question. Of course they could join the adventure. More bodies meant more warmth and a greater chance of survival.
We started up the mountain in two separate teams until we reached the slower A2 sections of climbing. That first morning was really cold. The Kearney-Knight Route does not get any sun. We were climbing in rock shoes with frozen toes and fingers. Every once in a while, the leader would have to stop and shake the circulation back into his extremities. From the belay you could hear the screams of pain in the silence of the early morning.
Finally, at 9 p.m., we reached the sun on the upper ridge. Antonio and I had been swapping leads, and on the last hard pitch he yelled up to me to “fix the rope and keep climbing.” I knew there was only a little light left. I quickly unroped and free-soloed the rest of the route to the summit, from which you could see the vast expanse of the Patagonian ice cap on one side and the wild Patagonian plains on the other. After a quick look at the horizon, I returned to the team, down-climbing the last 600 feet of the south face. When I reached them, it was almost dark. We had a quick discussion and decided that we were going traverse over the top of the tower and then rappel the Bonington Route on the north ridge. This was going to be faster and safer, because the rappel anchors were already established.
I took the lead again, and we all reached the top at 11 p.m. It was an icy cold, pitch-black night, and we knew it was going to be a long one. We traversed the top of the Central Tower and found the rappel anchors on the other side. It was impossible to see anything. At one point, Sebastian rappelled over the east face toward the wrong valley and ended up hanging from the end of the line, spinning in space. He jugged back up the rope, and we reestablished our position on the rappel route. All through the night we rappelled and huddled together at stances in a dog pile. We were all shivering and convulsing violently. Finally the sun came up and the first rays instantly warmed my spirit. I will never forget the feeling of relief that overcame me when we hit a two-bolt anchor in the sun and I could see down to Col Bich. On the other side of the col I could see my friends Tadao and Timmy working their way up the Monzino Route on the North Tower. Our escape was near. We had done it.