As the 2008 Patagonia summer season came to a close, I couldn’t help myself. Colin Haley and I had just completed a longtime dream, the Torre Traverse, only a few weeks earlier. But when the weather cleared, we returned to these mountains that had drawn me back for more than two decades. We hoped to repeat the Care Bear Traverse that Freddie Wilkinson and Dana Drummond had established a month earlier, which involved climbing the three northern-most peaks of the Cerro Fitz Roy skyline: Agujas Guillaumet, Mermoz and Cerro Fitz Roy itself. As we reached the base of the first peak, Colin felt under the weather, so without even setting up camp we hiked back out. In the 20 years since my first visit to Patagonia in 1987, this was only the second time I’d skipped a good weather window.
After succeeding on the Torre Traverse, part of me wanted to slow down. The intensity with which I experienced this area had started to feel crushing. I was 38, and it seemed to be about time. But I feared losing myself in the void that would follow and I would miss not having clear goals and objectives. It’s not uncommon for those who dedicate themselves to a singular pursuit to equate loss of sport with loss of self. But some opportunities are hard to pass up.
The following December, with ideal conditions, Colin and I set off again to the northern end of the Fitz Roy skyline, this time with hopes of continuing on, linking the four peaks to the south of Cerro Fitz Roy too: Agujas Poincenot, Rafael, Saint-Exupéry and De l’S—the complete Cerro Fitz Roy skyline traverse. We chose our gear carefully, emphasizing lightness, but in doing so we took a rope that was too light. On the first day the sheath broke, exposing the core. We used athletic tape to “patch it,” but since ropes lose much of their strength with a damaged sheath, we were forced to retreat after climbing Cerro Fitz Roy.
Through that season and the following one, I organized a volunteer trail restoration project that required 5,000 hours of work. With the help of the Grand Teton National Park trail crew, we built water bars, steps, bridges and more in hopes of ensuring the long-term sustainability of some of the most popular trails. Day after day we moved rocks and logs in all kinds of weather, sinking deep into our sleeping pads every night, bodies heavy and sore, but still smiling.
In early 2010, Colin and I made another attempt at the skyline traverse. Once again we went too light. We took a thicker, burlier rope, but our bivy kit consisted of only a single 600-gram sleeping bag for both of us, with no tent or bivy sack. The conditions were much worse than the previous year. We moved slower and endured three frigid bivies. For a second time, we quit after climbing Cerro Fitz Roy.
This time, our renunciation weighed on me. I was well aware that my fitness was declining, and when it came to moving fast on alpine terrain, my best years were behind me. Ten years earlier I had been diagnosed with hip arthritis resulting from dysplasia that I was born with, and the chronic pain was slashing my motivation. Also lurking in the margins of my mind was a multiple sclerosis diagnosis that I had managed, with much dedication and a good deal of luck, to keep from interfering with my mountaineering pursuits (and a secret from friends).
Two years later when Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk did the first fair-means ascent of the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre, their tactics and speed surprised me. It became evident that the bold vision of this younger generation was now well beyond my reach. Taking a step to the side had been a long, drawn-out battle, but I finally seemed to be able to do so, happily.
Returning to the northern hemisphere, I devoted the following nine months to completing a decade-long project to publish the first climbing guidebook for the area, which made it into bookstores by late 2012. Sitting in front of a computer for days on end was not as gratifying as restoring trails, but seeing the 400-page finished product was as close as I will ever get to parenthood.
But nothing is ever linear. In early 2014 after a hip replacement, I felt younger and convinced Colin to try the skyline traverse with me one more time. Although I had been able to regain much of my fitness, we only made it partway up Guillaumet before I realized I could not take the beating that carrying such heavy packs involved. Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell were climbing just behind us, gunning for the same objective. Alex’s crampons did not fit his approach shoes, so at Colin’s suggestion I passed him mine as they climbed past.
It was inspiring to watch them, simul climbing with approach shoes and heavy packs on 5.10 terrain. Over the following five days they would go on to complete the first ascent of the Cerro Fitz Roy skyline traverse.
The day after they returned to town, Alex and Tommy stopped by to recount their ascent. It was a joy to listen and to be genuinely happy for them. The distance I had hoped to achieve from the sport was clearly there.
I miss my younger body, devoid of kinks and aches and with the ability to steamroll ahead at full speed. And there are occasions when I think back at those two key, faulty gear choices that helped the dream of the Cerro Fitz Roy skyline traverse slip away. But I would be hard-pressed to trade my younger self for the peace and introspection that these years in Patagonia have brought me.