Spaniards Jonathan Trango and Antonio Urbaneja climbed the North, Central and South towers of Paine in Patagonia, Chile nearly all free from late January to early February 2008. In this photo, Urbaneja is visible on the summit of the North Tower; to climb the South Tower the pair devised a strategy that would allow Trango, immobilized because of a sudden knee injury, to ascend. [Photo] Jonathan Trango
Spaniards Jonathan Trango and Antonio Urbaneja had plans to climb the North, Central and South towers of Paine in Chilean Patagonia over a couple weeks in January and February 2008. The three towers have been climbed in one season–and even in one push–via their normal routes, but only one team has completed the trifecta all free. Trango and Urbaneja came close, taking two falls on the Central Tower and encountering icy sections on the South Tower that forced them to French free. More fantastic, however, was that they completed the task at all: after climbing the North and Central towers, Trango’s right meniscus inexplicably and rapidly deteriorated. The next morning, he could not walk; even after a week of rest, he could not bend his leg without excruciating pain. After some thought the pair developed a new strategy to free climb the South Tower and complete their quest.
When Trango and Urbaneja arrived in Punta Arenas airport on January 24, they met Steve Schneider (author of Issue 18’s Mountain Profile on the Central Tower of Paine and the first to enchain all three towers in a single push; that solo mission took him 51 hours in 2002). Schneider urged them to rush to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine: “Go as quickly as you can to the Park,” he said. “The weather is good.” They took a bus that night, acquired their permits, and arrived at the Japanese Camp by the evening of the 25th.
Urbaneja on the summit of the Central Tower of Paine with the Andalusian flag. The South Tower, which he climbed with the injured Trango about ten days later, is visible in the background. [Photo] Jonathan Trango
Trango and Urbaneja woke up the next morning to battle some strong winds but made quick work freeing the North Tower, climbing up to Col Bich (1800m) then simuling the standard Monzino Route (D+: 5.10b/c, 300m) in eleven hours camp-to-camp.
They rested on the 27th and headed for the Central Tower the next morning at 2 a.m. They found themselves behind a slow team on the Bonnington-Whillans (V 5.11 A2, 700m), but since Trango and Urbaneja had forgotten their topo at base camp, they decided to follow the others, taking siestas at each belay ledge. They climbed the route onsight except for a variation left of the standard crux pitch. Trango climbed through at 5.11d obligatory but took two big whippers before solving the difficulties the third time. (He did not lower to redpoint.) “That pitch is very good,” Trango said of the crux. “It’s the most serious, and it has straining and delicate moves right at the end.”
They returned to Col Bich by 8 p.m. and reached camp very late that night. “That’s when my meniscus started to hurt very badly,” Trango said. “The next day I couldn’t even walk. I didn’t know the problem, just that it hurt very bad. We rested for seven days. We did not even leave base camp, but the pain did not go away.” Adamant on reaching the summits of all three peaks despite the injury, they began an attempt on the South Tower.
After approaching for one hour, Trango’s uncooperative knee–likely a ruptured meniscus–forced him to turn back. “That’s when we thought it must be serious. I cried on the moraine, and that night I wrote ‘The game is over’ in my journal.” But on February 6 they devised a new strategy: Urbaneja would ferry all equipment to the base of the climb, minimizing impact on Trango’s knee. On the morning of February 7 Urbaneja helped his partner walk straight-legged on the long, upward approach that brought them to their gear.
They quickly onsighted through the first section of rotten, overhanging 5.11 rock on the standard, but infrequently traveled, Aste Route (VI A1 or 5.11c, 800m). A couple 5.6 moves “had surprising ice,” forcing the pair to French free those sections. That afternoon they tagged the true summit, usually ignored because of the lengthy ridge that requires numerous rappels. After more than three hours of descent, they were at the base, but it took another five hours for Trango to hobble back to base camp.
Urbaneja (left) and Trango on the summit of the South Tower of Paine. [Photo] Jonathan Trango
Returning to camp, Trango walked backward to cross the glacier and moraine, “because it was less painful that way,” he said. “I also have to thank the Irish climbers who gave me their strong painkillers at base camp one day before our [South Tower] climb.”