Canadian Marc-Andre Leclerc and Austrian Markus Pucher have been getting after it in Patagonia’s austral winter in recent days, on solo objectives on Torre Egger (2850m), and Cerro Torre (3100m) and Cerro Pollone (ca. 2600m), respectively.
On September 17, Leclerc reached the top of Torre Egger in a 21-hour push using a variation of the Winter Link-Up on the southeast face. According to Pataclimb.com, the Winter Link-Up was first climbed by Dani Arnold, Thomas Senf and Stefan Siegrist in August 2010 for the first winter ascent of the peak. Their three-day climb went up the Italian route and traversed into Titanic (6a A2 90 degrees 950m) at a snowfield halfway up. Leclerc’s variation took him up a gully of WI3 below enormous serac to the right of the east face, followed by a mixed pitch of M5 A1, and then a section of 5.10 to reach the base of the headwall. “This is the first and only time I have ever climbed below a serac,” he wrote on Patagonia Vertical.
Leclerc is the first person to summit the peak alone in winter; his climb is the second winter ascent ever, and the second solo ascent ever. Leclerc has now soloed all three main peaks of the Cerro Torre group–Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Aguja Standhardt (2700m). The latter peak he onsight freesoloed via the Tomahawk to Exocet link-up (5.8 M6 WI6 900m) on September 24, 2015, just one day after the Vernal Equinox. On Cerro Torre he soloed the Corkscrew (5.10 AI6 A1 1200m), the hardest route ever soloed on that peak.
Earlier on this trip, Leclerc came close to summiting Torre Egger on September 12, when bad conditions forced him down.
“Conditions were quite OK [the second time],” he wrote in an email. “I used a variation start directly up an ice couloir that avoided the snow-covered rock that slowed me down on my first attempt. Higher up on the steepest section of the headwall, the rock was quite dry and conditions were ideal for free soloing. Where the angle of the ramp kicked back again, there was more snow and I had to clean and climb with crampons.”
Regarding what might be considered the route’s crux, Leclerc wrote: “High on the route I had to pass a heavily rimed overhang by aiding from my ice tools with my protection too far below to protect me from a bad fall. This was probably the most ‘full on’ section of the climb. But mentally, just having the gusto to stay up there and give it my best effort on that initial attempt was a challenge. Since I needed two ropes and a real rack for the route, I could not carry a warm enough sleeping bag to be even slightly comfortable at night. I spent a total of six nights out between the two attempts in temperatures of around 5 degrees Fahrenheit with a worn-out 32-degree sleeping bag. The climbing itself I generally did not find difficult from a technical perspective, it was more of a mental toughness exercise.”
Leclerc said he got the idea to visit in winter after his 2015 ascent of Cerro Torre’s Corkscrew Route (5.10d A1 90 degrees, 1219m).
“I soloed Cerro Torre in February, so it was in summer, but I was drawn to the range in winter because of the quietness of town at this time and the more reliable ice conditions,” he wrote. “After Standhardt last September, I set my sights on the east face of Torre Egger and actually approached it in October to attempt a spring ascent, but my crampon broke on the approach, and I had to abandon the objective until this recent trip.”
Leclerc made a point to do a lot of solitary, cold climbing to prepare for the climb.
“I spent my winter in Canada climbing a lot of steep ice and mixed climbs in the Canadian Rockies, to gain experience and mileage in winter climbing,” he said. “I think I was already quite practiced in this style, but there is always room for improvement. I practiced solo dry tooling on multipitch routes to get more accustomed to the feeling, and in spring I put this to the test soloing The Andromeda Strain and Infinite Patience on Mt Robson’s Emperor Face. After that, I felt well prepared for Egger in winter.”
When it comes to soloing, Leclerc wrote: “I like the creativity that goes into it, the freedom of moving quickly through exposed terrain and the mental challenge of it all. The two types of climbing that get me really motivated are doing new routes, or interesting solos. I like applying cool soloing tricks and systems to these big mountains, it’s a bit of a tech-nerd thing I guess. I am not so motivated by grades or records, but more by big adventures and being immersed in wild places. Being alone really intensifies this.”
The twenty-three-year-old is content to give his nerves a break for now, though.
“I would like to do some harder climbing and new routes down here with a partner,” he said. “I feel no need to do any more big solos at the moment. In October I am headed to Yosemite to free climb with my girlfriend Brette Harrington, which I am really looking forward to!”
Harrington made the first free solo of Chiaro di Luna (5.11a, 750m) on Aguja Saint-Exupery on the Fitz Roy massif in February 2015, and wrote a story for Alpinist here.
Pucher close on Ragni Route
Pucher came within a ropelength of Cerro Torre’s summit on the Ragni route (M4 90 degrees 600m) September 3, when poor conditions turned him around.
“I was very close to the summit, but in the last stretch there was too much loose rime on the face to continue climbing,” he said. “I decided to go back, but it was a really hard choice.”
It would have been the forty-year-old’s third time summiting the Ragni alone. He free soloed the route in 2013, and did it again in horrific whiteout conditions on December 27, 2014. “Last time when I climbed in the whiteout conditions, it was quite a bit harder, but it was not a winter ascent, so I want to make an official winter solo ascent,” Pucher said. “That’s why I came again. And I will try next winter.”
On the latest attempt, he carried an eighty-meter half rope with four ice screws and some slings while free soloing most of the route.
“On the headwall I belayed myself with one ice screw in the middle, but this was only for my conscience, because before I left home I swore to my little daughter, Mia, that I would belay myself. So I was thinking in the headwall, ‘Now is a good moment for this.’ The ice was super hard and my crampons always slipped out.”
What made Pucher’s near-summit extra challenging is that he is recovering from a knee injury that happened while working as a rigger.
“For me it was a big adventure and a personal success, because four months ago I dislocated my knee, breaking some cartilage and bands, when I slipped on a steep hillside,” he wrote in an email. “It was not possible to walk! Two months ago, I started walking with my dog Zora and my little girls. Before I flew to Patagonia I was on the same level as my daughters. That’s why I am so happy to accomplish what I did!”
The injury also led him to give up smoking. After his 2014 ascent of Cerro Torre, Pucher recalled smoking three cigarettes at different stages of the climb, enjoying them for their calming effect. When asked how many cigarettes it took him to reach his recent high point, he laughed.
“[After the accident], I thought, ‘OK, my knee is fucked, and in combination with smoking I will not arrive at the Col de la Esperanza.'” he said. “So I stopped. The hardest challenge in this expedition is my knee–it’s a horror with the heavy bag.”
In total, Pucher spent five days on the go, leaving El Chalten on September 1. He set up a tent below the climb September 2. On September 3 he climbed from 5 a.m. to his turnaround point at 9 p.m., and reached his tent at the base by 10 p.m. He walked back into El Chalten on September 5.
Pucher’s trip was far from over, however. He first made an attempt to solo Cerro Fitz Roy, reaching a point 300 meters below the summit via the Supercanaleta (5.9 90 degrees 1500m). On September 17, his knee feeling sore, he shifted his sights to Cerro Pollone (ca. 2600m), which he summited via Cara Sur (4 65 degrees 400m) with a variation at the start. He used a self-belay to stand on the true summit, the last few meters of which have rebuffed numerous alpinists in the past. According to Patagonia Vertical, this is the first solo and first winter ascent of the peak.