Scattered Ashes

Posted on: October 1, 2006

Patagonian jewels. From left to right: Cerro Fitz Roy (3405m), Aguja Poincenot (3002m), Aguja Rafael (aka Innominata, 2482m), Aguja Saint Exupery (2558m) and Aguja de I'S (2335m). With El Chalten a six-hour hike from its base, Fitz Roy has become almost a crag destination for motivated climbers. [Photo] Rolando Garibotti

February 23, 2006

Dear Daddy,

"A few days ago, when I scattered your ashes from the base of Fitz Roy, I had no idea we'd be going for another try. Now we're standing on top after the most outrageous climb of my life. Had I known, I would have scattered you from the summit. But I guess the way the winds are in Patagonia, you probably beat us up here.

We've been going nonstop for thirty-six hours. Clouds are rolling over Cerro Torre and the winds are growing stronger every minute. It's time to get out of here, but I want to dwell a moment on the summit that I had hoped to share with you and on the climb we just completed.

I wish you and I had tried to climb Fitz Roy a couple of years earlier. Then I might have stood here with you, rather than with just your memory and a few of your ashes on the breeze. Since I couldn't try it with you, I chose to come here with the only person in the world who knows our family and who can also climb the east face of this amazing peak: Tommy Caldwell...."

Now, when I reread Topher Donahue's letter to his father, Mike, the moment he describes seems distant and surreal, as though I'm looking in a mirror and seeing someone else.

Growing up, I idolized Topher. With his cutoff jeans, big hair and slings of rainbow webbing draped across his chest, he possessed an utterly hip dirtbag style. While I was playing in the woods with his younger brother, Tobias, setting fires and burning my eyelashes off, Topher was drinking beers and talking about climbing adventures with the guides at the Colorado Mountain School. He was only fifteen, but he already seemed worldly. I dreamed of being like him someday.

His father, Mike Donahue, was also a role model to me, a kind and gentle man for whom the mountains were a church. Whenever I was in his presence, I felt at peace. When I was nine, Mike took me and Tobias on a four-day fishing trip in an uninhabited, rugged canyon. The bushwhacking was strenuous, but Mike pointed out every unusual bug and flower, making up stories about their lives. After a couple of days, I stopped whining and started to enjoy my surroundings. Even when Tobias got bit by a rattlesnake, Mike stayed calm. He just sucked out the poison, perched Tobias on his shoulders and marched us back home that night.

Topher and I didn't start climbing together until I was in my teens. I wanted to free El Cap, and Topher was willing to be my crack-climbing teacher. I watched him find hidden holds and good pro on impossible-looking climbs, setting nuts sideways, opposing weird cams. His intelligence and experience, rather than any brute strength or foolhardiness, made him a good climber.

When I first asked Topher several years ago if he'd climb Fitz Roy with me, he said he planned to do it with his dad. But then Mike developed a brain tumor; a couple of years later, he passed away. Now Topher wanted to spread his father's ashes on the peak they'd hoped to climb together.

The sterling mountain atop a brilliant glacier; the strange world of snow and ice; 4,000-foot granite faces, whose glittering surfaces reflect endless free-climbing possibilities: they were foreign to me, exciting and terrifying at the same time. Many years on El Cap had made me crave more big walls, but I wondered whether I could endure Patagonia's bad weather, long approaches and alpine terrain, or whether the notorious multiday pushes I had read about would send me back to my tent demoralized.

In the end, curiosity overcame me. I convinced myself that as long as I went with the most responsible and talented alpine climber I knew, I would be safe. Topher would be the ideal partner to introduce me to Patagonia.

We first tried a famous climb right up the center of the east face that a team of Germans decorated with a couple hundred bolts. It's called Royal Flush, but with its soaking wet corners, Toilet Flush would have been an equally fitting name. It's ironic that the first-ascent team bolted it for the masses, because the Torre gods pour water or ice across the bolts some 364 days a year....

Topher Donahue leading the first rock pitch on Royal Flush (VI 5.12b A1, 950m, Albert-Arnold-Gerschel-Richter, 1995). The route features beautiful cracks, sometimes accompanied by bolts, as seen here; they were placed by the first ascensionists in the hopes of creating a “user-friendly” free-climbing masterpiece, but snow and ice often leave the route wet, and it remains to receive either a first free ascent or an alpine-style ascent. Donahue and partner Tommy Caldwell made two attempts on the route without success. [Photo] Tommy Caldwell

I usually believe that you make your own luck, but on this expedition I think Mike was looking out for us. Royal Flush reminded me of perfect Sierra granite—placed directly under melting snow patches. Pulling on gear would have seemed more logical than sticking our cold hands and feet into wet cracks. But as water ran down the rope and off my elbows, I would look across the sparkling white glacier, at the cirque of spires, sharp ridges and giant, stacked blocks. The mountain seemed alive. I was strangely at peace, awestruck by the challenge we'd chosen.

Topher and I made two attempts on Royal Flush within a week. On the second, we bivied on slanting snow and a steep rock ledge. Ice showered around us, and the cold seeped in. Before the trip, I'd sewn together two bivy sacks; when I pulled out my heart-shaped creation, Topher dubbed it the Love Sack, but the comic relief was not equal to the miserable night that followed. By morning my head felt as if it weighed 100 pounds. Unfamiliar cramps and twinges ran up and down my back. After six more pitches we retreated, rapping through storms with wrinkled fingers and waterlogged clothing.

At a ledge on the way down, Topher pulled out a small, clear plastic vial. "I bet you didn't know a piece of my dad was with us the whole time," he said with a slight smile. I watched in silence as he gently unscrewed the lid and turned the vial over. For a moment the air filled with ashes, then the wind whisked them away and spread them across the entire range. We continued rapping without speaking.

Although we'd battled twenty pitches and freed the crux, we felt defeated. Our bodies finally stopped shivering only when we were stumbling down the glacier. As our clothes dried out and I started to think more clearly, I turned to Topher and said, "We could be bouldering on Lumpy right now, two minutes from the car, in shorts."

His tired eyes brightened. "Yeah," he laughed. "Your wife is the smart one, sitting on the couch catching up on Friends reruns."

But each memory of roaring wind, looming clouds, icefall and uncertain outcome already seemed more permanent than countless days on Yosemite's warm, familiar rock. That night I stared at Fitz Roy from the dusty streets of El Chalten. I wanted to be up there. I was starting to understand the obsession that alpine climbers have.

A few days of rest and a few pounds of Argentine steak later, we left to climb the south ridge of Aguja de l'S with Topher's wife, Vera, and her partner Erik Roed. At five foot four, Vera was much smaller than Erik, an ex-Marine. She was also much smarter: a geophysicist and a self-proclaimed nerd, she had twice the brain power as the other three of us combined.

Erik had seemed quiet when I first met him in El Calafate. After our first rainy night in Camp Rio Blanco a week into our trip, he staggered out of his tent much later than his normal 11 a.m. wake-up call, groggy, his mullet haircut going in all directions.

"My tent leaks," he said, scratching his head. "Anyone got seam sealer?"

Normally, I wouldn't laugh if a friend slept in a puddle all night long, but Erik seemed to specialize in mishaps. We all guffawed. He'd lost his only hat the day before, and now he slipped Vera's over his disheveled hair. On his head, it looked like a yarmulke.

While Topher and I were flailing on Royal Flush, Erik and Vera had only succeeded in making star patterns on the glacier as they tried to decide what to climb. Each night Erik would return to camp and lament how burly the climbing was in Patagonia. But we all had fun on Aguja de l'S, the smallest summit on the smallest peak in Patagonia. At least we had summited something.

Donahue jugging on his and Caldwell’s second attempt to free Royal Flush. Water running down the cracks made the free climbing challenging, while the steepness of the climb meant that the two spent a lot of time hanging in their harnesses—Caldwell described a bivy during their second attempt as the most uncomfortable of his life. [Photo] Tommy Caldwell

With less than a week until my scheduled departure, I figured the trip was all but over. I started to think that I wasn't the hardman that I needed to be for the free climbing here. We began to make the rounds from the chocolate shop, to the coffee shop, to the bar.

Forecasts filtered in from rangers or from climbers-turned-Internet-weathermen. Despite their inaccuracies, the reports made for a nice excuse to sit in the chocolate shop on log furniture polished by the oily hands of festering climbers and by countless spilled beers. One moment the room would be alive with enthusiasm, and the next dark and quiet. "You'd better sober up," someone would announce when a weather window appeared to be opening. "The weather's always bad here," another would answer. "The calm spells never last long enough."

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