Here are a bunch of images from the first ascent of A Fine Piece on the west pillar of Cerro Pollone that Jim Donini and I made in November, 1999.
Although A Fine Piece got just one toss-off sentence in Enduring Patagonia and wasn’t mentioned by name, I’ve always thought of it as the perfect alpine rock climb—uncomplicated approach, minimal objective hazard, excellent rock, and an astonishing setting. The climb went beautifully. We had stable weather and both of us were at the top of our games. I think it has been repeated a time or two, and although I’ve never heard from anybody who has done it, I’d guess that in the long run, A Fine Piece will become extremely popular. [*Until I made this post, now I’ve heard from several!]
Making the first ascent of such an incredible climb was a dream come true… if A Fine Piece were in Yosemite, it’d be in Steck and Roper’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and it’d be one of the most famous climbs in the world.
However, I wouldn’t have got to do its first ascent if it were in Yosemite, so I’m damn glad it’s not.
Torrecita Tito Carrasco on the left (we’d made its FA the week before), and the west pillar of Cerro Pollone dominating the center of the picture. A Fine Piece loosely follows the sun/shade divide for about 15 or 16 marvelous pitches.
I’d spotted Pollone’s west pillar and some other promising terrain in the Marconi cirque the previous June, coming down Paso Marconi after doing the winter west face of Cerro Torre with the three Swiss boys (Thomi Ulrich, David Fasel, and Stephan Siegrist). I made some inquiries with Rolo about what besides Greenpeace on Piergorgio had been climbed in the cirque. The west pillar of Pollone had been attempted by Michel Piola and Daniel Anker in 1988, but not successfully, although they’d gotten at least two-thirds of the way up the pillar. They’re responsible for the single bolts left at what Jim and I would have left as bolt-free stances.
Anyway, back in California after the winter west face trip, I broke the news to Jim that I had an eye on some good stuff up the Marconini Valley, but I refused to send him photos for fear of his inability to contain the secret. He signed up for the adventure sight unseen.
That, my friends, is the ultimate definition of trusting your partner.
And of not trusting him. Or of knowing what he can and can’t do.
We went down in November and caught a run of good early season weather.
But first, the necessities.
Here’s a self-portrait of me decanting a bottle of Breeder’s Choice whiskey for our sortie up the Marconi Valley.
My initial choice for the name of Torrecita Tito Carrasco was Torrecita de la Breeder’s Choice, in keeping with the theme Jim and I had established with The Old Smuggler’s Route, The Bourbon Bottle Route, and Shaken, Not Stirred and also because the peak was shaped just like the bottle, but I went along with Jim’s suggestion to name the tower in honor of his wife Angela’s Bolivian friend Tito Carrasco, who’d died in her arms in a climbing accident in Portero Chico. After all, Angela had gifted me the air miles for the trip south in exchange for my promise not to fall on her husband’s head. Which, in light of events on Alaska’s Thunder Mountain the previous June, was neither an idle gift nor an idle promise.
Here’s another picture showing both objectives. Tito Carrasco on the left, Pollone’s west pillar in the center background:
Bad weather came in after we climbed Tito Carrasco, and we retreated to Piedra del Fraile, then Chalten.
We spent a few days in Chaltén sleeping under a roof in real beds and taking hot showers while a strong storm lashed the Andes. One morning, Jim and I caught a ride up to the end of the road, shouldered food-stuffed packs, and walked up to the Piedra del Fraile basecamp. Operating wholly on intuition, with no visual or meteorological evidence to support our theory, we both felt like we were on the cusp of a good spell and decided not to stop at Piedra del Fraile but to continue straight through to our high camp in the Marconi Cirque. Neither of us said as much, but we both felt like the penance of the one-day walk-up would somehow earn us a good spell. Stupidly superstitious, I know, and when we covered the last of the fifteen-odd miles to high camp, both my hips were bleeding from the waist belt of my pack and my ill-fitting boots gouged into my Achilles tendons leaving them swollen and crucifyingly painful. Stupid, again, I know, but I never thought it was Patagonia unless you hung on the cross for a while.
The weather wasn’t bad in the morning, but it wasn’t good either. I would have loved a rest day, but we weren’t positioned for a launch, and we’d be caught short if we didn’t do another day of work and the weather improved. We did a quick equipment sort after breakfast and coffee and slogged the climbing gear up a long talus slope, a snowfield, and an easy glacier to the base of Pollone’s west pillar. And my God, was it ever beautiful, a massive pillar of gray-gold granite. The rock looked solid and clean, and the crack systems seemed to connect. The only problem was that ice sheeted the bottom 300 feet of the pillar. We cached the gear in a waterproof bag, tied a rope from the bag to the base of the pillar, and returned to high camp.
That afternoon, we watched from below as the wind stopped, the clouds parted, and the sun shone on the pillar far above. The day eased into a beautiful Patagonian evening.
The last light shimmered on the west face of Piergorgio
We hoped, as always, for two consecutive days of good weather, and in those days before internet weather forecasts, we had no idea whether or not we’d get them. I’d experienced a huge internal change on that trip, and I reveled in it that night, for unlike in years past, it didn’t seem like my fate hinged on the climbing I might do the next day. I’d done lots of great alpine climbing in the Alaska and Patagonia in the previous five years, and hope and desire weren’t the tortures they’d been in the past. I was finally able to live the Latin expression, adveniat, “whatever comes.”
I slept soundly.
[However, I’d done two expeditions to Patagonia already that year, in February and June/July, in addition to an August climbing trip to Iran, so maybe philosophy didn’t have much to do with it—maybe I was just tired.]
We got after it the next day.
Wanting the last of the ice to melt, we got a late start.
Here’s Jim at a belay low on the route.
Almost from the minute we started climbing we could see over the row of peaks to the west onto the ice cap. The climbing was superb, on near-perfect rock, and I was climbing really well. All I cared about was the climbing, doing it right, and doing it right now.
I wish I could summon such existential perfection in my quotidian existence. Sometimes I get it in surfing, sometimes I get it in writing, sometimes in a few other things… But never often enough, and never like I got it in alpine first ascending.
I’m a little unsure what order all these photos happen in, so please forgive any errors.
Jim, getting a dose low on the route:
Getting my share on day one:
We bivied at the end of pitch 7, on a wide, flat ledge. (Doing the whole climb in a day would be a better modern option.)
Jim and I made dinner while the sinking sun set fire to the west. Some bands of cloud glowed orange while others stayed black and still others tinted pink and purple and red. We spooned up noodles and tuna in mute wonder.
The same view a few minutes later. Or maybe it was the other way around.
The climbing the next day was absolutely stunning…. I can’t remember precisely what order all this stuff happened in, but I’ll do my best. The rock was as close to perfect as I ever hope to encounter on an alpine climb.
And getting us around a flake.
Me leading some stellar cracks.
(If memory serves, I felt like I wasn’t so solid in this section, so I said, “watch me, Jim,” and then made the mistake of looking down at him. He had both hands on his camera, none on the belay, and a big loop of slack in his lap. “Damn, Jim, watch me!” I said, and he’s like “What? It’s a good picture. You haven’t fallen in five years.”)
Jim getting after it.
And then higher up the same pitch…
Strange weather floated over the range both afternoons. No wind disturbed us on the pillar, but a mesh of clouds marched in from the Pacific each afternoon, hung still in the sky, and then reversed direction and moved slowly back out to sea. From my belays I watched cobweb shadows cast down through the clouds undulate on the white and gray surface of the ice cap.
Jim leading off a stance as the clouds moved in.
Jim up high, leading off another stance
Cerro Torre popped into view and we hit a nice ledge
Jim chilling on the ledge, when we knew we had it in the bag…
Here’s me on that same ledge, absorbing Patagonia. (This might have been on the way down — I can’t envision myself looking that relaxed on the way up.)
For once, I got the glory pitch…
and first gander at the most spectacular summit view I have ever seen in my life.
We looked down into the Torre Valley from our lookout above its head and could see all the way out beyond Lago Viedma. The western aspect of Fitzroy looked close enough to touch and we could see the north face of Aguja Poincenot, where we’d had such an adventure three years before. Inominata’s west ridge and the west face of Aguja Saint Exupery, the scene of two others, lined up next to Poincenot and across the valley from them rose the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre—the Compressor Route—in profile like a cathedral’s flying buttress. From our aerie, we could make out the features of the west face above the headwall. I could see the little shelf where the Swiss boys and I had spent our last night on the Torre during the winter ascent. Jim pointed out the spot where he, Stefan Hiermaier, and I had made our emergency bivouac during our stormy retreat from atop the compressor, and he eyed the summit of Torre Egger, whose first ascent he’d made with John Bragg and Jay Wilson in the mid-1970s. We looked down into the horseshoe of the Marconi Glacier and onto the summit of Torrecita Tito Carasco, the spire we’d christened the week before. And out to the west, running north and south to the uttermost extremes of vision, lay the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, one of the least knowable landscapes on earth.
We were in a world of absolute alpine perfection.
Here’s a slide of Fitzroy, de la Silla, Desmochada, Poincenot, Inominata, Saint Exupery, de la S, and Lago Viedma from the summit of Pollone’s west pillar.
And the incredible fin of Piergorgio, in perfect profile, with the southern Patagonian icecap in the background, which was the view that named the route…
… because Jim, up near the top of Pollone’s west pillar and seeing that view of Piergorgio’s west face and the route Greenpeace in perfect profile, blurted out something to the effect of, “What a wall, and God damn that looks like a wild ass climb, but who’n the f*#k names a route after an environmental movement? F*#kin’ whales. Greenpeace my ass… this route is… A Fine Piece.”
The weather continued weird, but it felt stable, and the ledge where we’d left the sleeping gear was so good that we did a bonus bivy on the way down, and Patagonia treated us to another outrageous spectacle.
We were down in high camp about midday, in plenty of time to enjoy that decanted whiskey. We’d earned it.
And some coffee.
And some chow
Reflections on the climb, one of the best I’ve ever done…
I’d never been on a high-quality virgin summit before that trip, and then I got two in about a week.
I still can’t quite believe that I got to do the first ascent of such a beautiful climb.
A Fine Piece indeed.
ODDS & ENDS:
If anybody got hot and strapped on A Fine Piece, I’d love to have a ‘biner or some other piece we left behind for the mantle shelf… [I’m looking at you, Kauffman brothers!]
Here’s my recent post of photos of Jim climbing in Patagonia and Alaska from the Enduring Patagonia years. I’d love to get Enduring Patagonia in front of another generation of climbers, and for it to be the book climbers use to crack open our world for friends and family who might not appreciate and understand the passions that drive us.
I’ve got another run of slides coming from the first ascent of Shaken, Not Stirred that Jim and I did on the south face of the Mooses Tooth — another classic. (And they’re coming soon.)
[UPDATE!] Just had brought to my attention the recent ascent of A Fine Piece made by brothers Joel and Neil Kauffman and David Allfrey. Is theirs the second ascent? Here’s their story, with their own killer photos. Can’t believe how psyched I am to read about their climb and to hear that they enjoyed their ride up the route. Well done, boys!
Really neat to see their pictures in some of the same sections as I’ve posted above — like the “getting my share low on the route” pic.
Surfing the web, I think that the Kauffmans and Allfrey were probably the third ascent, although possibly the second ascent of the whole route, because Blake Herrington and Scott Bennett did a 4-pitch variation to A Fine Piece at the start of their excellent 2011 traverse of Pollone—an excellent adventure! Here’s their AAJ report. (Although where A2 crept into our rating of the route, I don’t know. I’d have called it 5.10, A1, and I’d expected it to go free at about 5.11a, if that.) Here’s another report from Herrington.
Allfrey did A Fine Piece within three days of arriving in Patagonia on his first trip EVER, bus to summit. That floors me. Here’s his photoblog.
One of the Kauffmans told me that the route had received at least one other ascent this season. Does anybody know the details? Of that or any other ascents? If not, it has had three and possibly four ascents to date. Please keep me posted with any subsequent developments and/or future ascents.
As far as I understand it, here’s the history of the route:
- 1988: Michel Piola and Daniel Anker attempt.
- 1999: Crouch and Donini climb and christen A Fine Piece
- 2011: Blake Herrington and Scott Bennett. 4-pitch variation to the start of A Fine Piece as part of their Pollone traverse.
- 2013: Joel and Neil Kauffman and David Allfrey
- Any others? Let me know and I’ll update.
[UPDATE #2] This past week, I’ve been having a hard time making sense of the fact that there’s no way I could do such a thing as A Fine Piece any more. If you’d have asked me in 2000, in the aftermath of that climb, I’d have said there was nothing in the world that could cut me off from that sort of climbing. I was spectacularly wrong, and I’d spend most of the next decade committed to raising my son, Ryan, surfing, and to writing China’s Wings.
[UPDATE #3] I got an email a few days ago from a guy in a Chalten bar fishing for route beta. Apparently there was a window of good weather on the way and he wondered if I could give him any last minute info… I still can’t get my head wrapped around knowing when you’re going to go climbing in Patagonia. Gosh, the not knowing was the whole point, the cornerstone of Patagonian chaos. I’m glad I got to do it without meteorologic foreknowledge, and that I was able to meet that not knowing and glean some small measure of success.