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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Relearning the ABCs while Attempting Cerro Bello

Last weekend marked turning points in both the changing seasons and in my developing mountaineering career.  A small group of Club Wechupun members and I set out to explore a 17,060 ft peak about four hours outside of Santiago called Cerro Bello.  Expecting hard packed snow and late Spring conditions we were instead greeted with an unexpected snowstorm and spent the weekend doing more swimming than summiting in the soft champagne pow. It was not a successful weekend in that we did not reach the top, but we all learned a valuable lesson in the basics of this dangerous sport:  Always Be Conscious.

Santiago has been a boiling hell these last few weeks during the days.  I'm not sure I recall there being a Springtime, just a week of green hills, then all snow gone from the lower peaks adjacent my house, and all at once an infinite supply of jagged heat waves emanating from every inch of everything.  Summer has arrived, and hot as hell. 

We therefore packed our bags for Cerro Bello with dry mountains in mind.  Sure, internet photos informed of a few kilometers of glacier crossing the first day, but otherwise the summit was depicted as dry and rocky.  It was predicted to be cold (around zero F at night), and the temperature mixed with the high altitude would be sure to sap the moisture from our bodies, but the conditions and strain of the climb were nothing to worry about.

Inclement weather the first day limited visibility to 100 feet and layered the rocky terrain with two feet of fresh snow.  The scene would normally have been a barren wasteland of loose rock canyons tucked between high peaks.  Instead, we found ourselves in the middle on the most beautiful winter wonderland.  Not a single stone visible through the snow, not a single patch of blue sky visible through the storm, not a single sound possible through the dampening snow, we were in a world of white surrounded by tons and tons of snow and ice.  It would have been nice if this pillowy landscape lasted just a bit longer.

Inclement weather broke trail for the hot and sunny weather we had originally expected, and on the second day we all awoke, moved out, and watched the sun rise into blue sky with a feeling of uneasiness.  It felt as if the mountain was trying to give us bad news.  From early to mid morning the sun rose along with the temperature.  I started out the day like the kid from A Christmas Story, all layered in every warm piece of clothing I had and by midday had stripped down to my shirt and sweatpants, and the temperature continued to increase!  

This whole while we had been approaching the base of Cerro Bello, ready to tackle the sixty degree inclined West face.  It was clear, along with the rise in temperature, that the mountain had changed drastically since the previous day.  Whereas we had originally been surrounded by nothing but white littered with a few brave black rocks, in the course of just 12 hours the landscape had seemingly reversed, showing nothing but spots of white amongst a sea of black.  This bode poorly for our summit attempt too, seeing, as we slowly approached the face, that bits of the mountain where breaking off and coming down as avalanches and rock slides just about everywhere. We regrouped as a team and talked.  Avalanches would surely be unavoidable if we attempted to tackle to face and make a summit bid.  There were simply no routes we had access to which were completely protected.  The disappointed yet resounding consensus was that it was imperative we turn back.   The mountain was making it too clear that today wasn't our day to see the top.

We made it as far as the base of the mountain before turning back to Camp 1.  The sun, by then unbearably hot, was now entirely unavoidable.  Every square centimeter of exposed skin (regardless of the copious amounts of the useless SPF 30 we lathered ourselves with) could be felt turning slightly crispier by the hour.  I wrapped my balaclava around my face for protection, but the sun didn't seem to notice.

We arrived back to Camp 1 exhausted, grabbed a snack, packed everything up, and made our way for base camp and the cars.  No summit bids would be made this weekend.  Hot and heavy, we made our way down the slopes, glissading wherever we could on the remaining slush slopes to jump into the hotsprings as fast as possible.  We left just after sundown.

I think that sometimes I let climbing go to my head.  I mean, I think about climbing almost all the time.  I spend my free time reading climbing books, I spend my time after work shopping climbing equipment, hell, I think ALL the people I hang out with are climbers.  All that exposure to climbing constitutes a large portion of my life, whereas the actual hours that I spend on a mountain make up a relatively small percentage of my time.  Time in the mountains is precious to me, so when I plan a weekend trip or start scheming about the next summit, the notion grabs me completely and envelops my brainpower wholly.  When all that planning and execution simply ends in having to turn around before the end, it's like preparing a masterpiece burrito and then not getting to eat it.  Or maybe it's like saving up all your money for a car, finally buying the car, and then leaving it waxed and unused in your garage all the time.  Yet going ahead and eating the burrito when you shouldn't won't ever kill you...

Climbing is all about judgement.  If you cannot know when to give up for safety's sake, then you should not be a climber.  This weekend didn't put any of our team in grave danger, but watching and hearing avalanches pop all around you on mountains towering above you is a much more harrowing experience than a Youtube video of the same anomaly could ever be.  In the end, I am sad that we didn't get our summit bid, but I was more so glad for the lesson.  It was all a reminder that it's not the strength of the climber that gets him to the top as much as it is his ability to listen to what the conditions are telling him and to react accordingly.  

A few more photos...

Powder hour:  Drop anything in the snow the first day and it would immediately sink a foot or two.  Beautiful yet surreal moonscape from day one.

 Waypoint Blue Pyramid:  The objects we set our sights on while trying to hike in a straight line through the fresh snow were anything from a distinct rock to a inflection on the horizon.  This serac caught our attention from about a mile away, and we were not disappointed when we reached it along our way to the base of Bello.
Camp 1:  After a day of post-holing and battling the cold, we pitched our tents in the protection of a small rock outcropping shielded from the wind.

A-Team: A reunion of Americans, both South and North.  From left to right: Samuel Gutierrez, Gustavo Rojas, Isabelle Kraus, Myles Wittman (me), and not pictured are Carlos Muñoz and Leonardo Perez.

Bella Vista de Cerro Bello:  Isabelle turns to check the progress of the team on the approach to the mountain.  Cerro Bello is the middle peak of the three humps pictured in this photo.

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