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Six Years Seven Summits

Kate Rutherford  /  April 7, 2020  /  3 Min Read  /  Climbing

Kate Rutherford Remembers the North Pillar of Fitz Roy

Kate Rutherford wishing it was warm enough to wear climbing shoes, not mountain boots, on Fitz Roy’s California Route, 2011. Photo credit: Mikey Schaefer (en-gb translation)

In 2013, Madaleine Sorkin and I approached the North Pillar of Fitz Roy—3,000 feet of golden granite soaring above the glacier. As climbing partners, we had plenty of experience together including the women’s first free ascents on the Freerider on El Capitan and Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park. But I was the only one with experience in Patagonia and its intricate valleys and temperamental weather patterns.

I’d first been drawn to Patagonia in 2006. That year, Mikey Schaefer, Dana Drummond and I came within 150 feet of summiting Fitz Roy before we had to retreat in a blinding whiteout with an unforgettable feeling of desperation and deprivation. In 2011, Mikey and I returned to Fitzroy and established the Washington Route. We summited in the dark, slept there, and were rewarded with a delirious pink dawn. In 2013, Madaleine and I were finally able to climb in Patagonia together. It was my sixth season there, and her first. I felt a deep sense of responsibility to keep her safe.

The two days of climbing on Mate, Porro y Todo lo Demás (on the North Pillar) were hard and beautiful, and when we reached the summit of Fitz Roy, the Southern ice cap and Torres glittered with the clean bright light of austral summer. Madaleine was inspired to bivi there, but I described the fear I was feeling about how far from safety we were. I knew that the weather could change in an instant in Patagonia, and I didn’t want to be caught in the whiteout again.

We rappelled into the night for 10 pitches. I navigated until I knew we were on the right track, then at 3 am, both too tired for more, we stopped for several hours and sat side by side on a rock ledge no bigger than our butts. We woke up in a whiteout. We rapped four more hours to the glacier, wallowed miles across unconsolidated snow and finally boot-skied the final slope. The moment we stepped foot on the dry talus, I cried, overwhelmed by relief, joy and pride to have pulled off this ascent, which made us the first female team to climb the North Pillar of Fitzroy.

I used to be afraid to climb huge objectives because I know how much effort and pure pain is involved. My coping mechanism now, is to just start starting. To set the alarm and eat breakfast, unzip the tent and put my shoes on, start walking, and compartmentalize each task so that I don’t get overwhelmed. With each step I now know it’s okay to reevaluate or turn back. Having learned so much with my mentors about fear, and joy, navigation, speed, trusting your gut, and love for your partner, I was truly honored to finally be one.

With just three days of rest Madaleine, our friend Lisa Bedient and I set out to climb the Red Pillar on Aguja Mermoz. We laughed and danced with the condors on the summit, it was the culmination of my 6-year dream to stand atop each pointy beautiful peak of the classic seven ascribed to the Fitz Roy massif. These climbs brought together all the things I’d learned from my mentors in the vertical landscape, I am grateful to have been part of such a powerful skyline.

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