Three Italians recently completed an unfinished route on the east face of Patagonia’s remote Cerro Murallon (ca. 2800m) during the first week of February. They named their route after a book written by an Argentinian Air Force captain, El Valor del Miedo (M6 A2 90+ degrees, 1000m), which translates as “The Value of Fear.”
“[Mario Luis Olezza] was a pilot in the 1930s who landed his plane on the Upsala Glacier [near Cerro Murallon],” said Matteo Della Bordella, explaining the route’s namesake. “He wanted to try to land there in order to then go to Antarctica. At that time the area was largely unexplored and he was the first [to describe the] huge face of Cerro Murallon. They had a hard time landing and even more difficulties in taking off again with a big storm that was coming on them.”
The Italians got a taste of what that storm might have been like, after waiting patiently for weeks in the Refugio Pascale to climb.
The weather for Patagonia’s austral summer climbing season has not been nearly as ideal as it has in recent years. As is more typical of historic weather patterns for the area, the windows of stable conditions haven’t lasted as long and there have been fewer opportunities, as evidenced by reports on Patagonia Vertical’s Facebook page. “Maybe it was time for this place to recover some of its air of inaccessibility,” read a January 13 post.
After waiting patiently since mid-January for conditions to align, Bordella, Matteo “Berna” Bernasconi and David Bacci–all members of Italy’s exclusive Ragni di Lecco club–were able to complete a route that was attempted in 1999 by French climbers Laurence Monnoyeur and Bruno Sourzac. According to Pataclimb.com the two partners climbed more than halfway up the center of the face (M5 A2 90 degrees) before they had to retreat.
El Valor del Miedo is at least the second technical route on the mountain to be climbed in alpine style, though the Italians may not have reached the true summit. Stefan Glowacz, Robert Jasper and Klaus Fengler did the first ascent of The Lost World (5.10+ M8, 1100m) on the north face in a day in November 2008 but descended after reaching the summit ridge.
Bordella said he and his two good friends left advance base camp on the afternoon of February 3, summited on February 5 as a storm blew in and returned to their advance base camp the following day.
The men ultimately spent a total of four weeks at the Refugio Pascale, which Bordella described as a “small box made of iron and wood, located in a lovely and panoramic place among small lakes and great view of Cerro Murallon (on the rare days when it’s not in the clouds).”
“I had learned from past experiences (especially on Torre Egger) that climbing these mountains is also a matter of patience, so I was not worried and the idea of giving up never crossed my mind,” Bordella wrote in a report. “Furthermore the morale of the group was always high, we were having a good time together and keeping faith in a future change of the weather.”
The storm systems also made it hard for the team to scope potential routes.
“Since we hadn’t got the chance to see the mountain yet, we had to make a blind choice on what to attempt to climb,” Bordella wrote. “I am definitely a rock climbing lover, but all my experience and the outside conditions suggested that, after all this bad weather it was probably not the best moment to climb on the rock. The [unclimbed] east face of Cerro Murallon was an appealing option for mixed climbs, indeed, but there were many question marks around it, [such as] ‘how conditions will be? Will there be ice or just snow? Which line should we choose? How do we approach the wall? Will the face be dangerous if the good weather really comes and the face gets full sun and the temperatures rise?’ Despite all these doubts, my instinct suggested that in a year with such poor conditions for climbing on the rock, this face was the wisest thing to try if we wanted to maximize our chances to succeed.”
When their alarm sounded at 3:30 a.m. February 4 it was still foggy and the men went back to sleep in their tent on the glacier.
“At 5 a.m., like in a fairy tale, all the fog and clouds cleared up and we could see it was the dawn of an amazing day,” Bordella wrote. “We hurried up and started hiking the couloir that leads to the east face…. With the first light of the day, we had the chance to quickly study the wall and choose a possible line to climb.”
After six pitches following an ice runnel the team arrived at the shoulder below the headwall, which was now in full sun.
“The temperatures had dramatically risen and when we looked up we could see many of the ice runnels that were melting and snow and debris falling down from the wall,” Bordella wrote. “Finding a safe and fast line in that ocean of rock and ice was not that easy anymore and we took a break and discussed the situation. David and Berna proposed to wait for the shade, but I knew that losing four hours of time might have been crucial for an ascent like this. So, despite the less than ideal conditions, I proposed to take the lead and try to climb straight up, in the portion of wall that looked the most sheltered from potential falls of rock and ice.”
Several mixed and ice pitches followed. It was getting late and the route finding became more difficult so the men dug out a bivy spot below the final headwall that was approximately 200 meters tall.
“Unfortunately, once we had dinner and set up for the night, an unexpected little avalanche [came down] on us, leaving us with a thick layer of fresh snow and breaking Berna’s inflatable mattress,” Bordella said.
When asked if the route was riskier than they predicted because of the melting conditions, Bordellla said: “For sure the route would be better in colder weather. February is normally not the ideal time of the year for this kind of climb, but this year it was a bit special. I think our line was quite logical and relatively safe, we took some risks but always tried to minimize them. I think for sure in colder conditions there are many other options for new routes (both on the right and on the left), which when we were there we thought were too dangerous with high temperatures.”
The next day the 200 meter headwall proved to be the crux of the route, with vertical rock and ice.
Bordella’s report reads: The weather started to get worse and worse and we found ourselves at the base of the final 40-meter wall before the final cornice. David took the situation in his hands and gave it all, to climb it efficiently and fast: he fought his way up with delicate dry tooling and aid moves, with Berna and I shouting and cheering at him, while the wind was getting stronger and stronger.
At 1 p.m. we all reached the end of the wall; it started snowing and the visibility was [fading]. We had with us only two ropes, four pegs, [a] rack and a half of cams and one [set] of nuts. While we were walking on the plateau to the summit we had to take a hard decision: rappel 1000 meters [down] the wall we just climbed with the little gear we have and the increasing wind or attempt a descent towards the unknown west side?
Given the fact that we read on [Pataclimb.com] that the [west side of the mountain was a walk-up/off] we opted for the latter option. After a couple of summit [photos], we started to run down the snow plateau, but we quickly realized that…finding the right route was really, really tricky in these conditions. Everything looked white and, like always in Patagonia, the distances are much bigger than what you expect: a point that looked 100 meters far already took 20 minutes to be reached and we had no precise idea of where to go.
As a rule of thumb, we thought that losing altitude was…something good since we had to descend, but we soon found ourselves wandering around giant seracs…. We were starting to worry and considering the option of a poor, shivering bivy in a hole in the snow waiting for better weather, but then we saw Glaciar Cono lower down on our left, which didn’t look too far [away]…. What we thought [would be] about three or four rappels turned out to be 10, but a few hours later we found ourselves on the superior plateau of Glaciar Cono!
The adventure was not over since once again we had a hard time finding the correct route for exiting another terrible labyrinth of crevasses. Eventually at 10:30 p.m., exhausted, wet and with almost no food left, we found two huge blocks in the middle of the glacier: one of them was overhanging on the sheltered side and offered a perfect respite from the wind and the storm…. It was the best gift we could imagine!
On February 6, we woke up and started a long day of hiking down Glaciar Cono (the worst and most crevassed glacier I had ever seen in my life), up Glaciar Upsala and finally up Glaciar Murallon until, 13 hours after our start, we reached the tent!
It is uncertain if the men reached the true summit of Cerro Murallon.
“I don’t think we reached the true summit, in the sense of highest point of the mountain,” Bordella said. “After exiting the wall we reached a summit at the end of the arete, (I believe this is also the summit point reached by Ragni di Lecco in 1984). It is definitely a summit, but if you look west there is a valley and some 500 meters [farther there is] another summit that looked to be higher.”
[This story has been updated to reflect that Laurence Monnoyeur is a woman.–Ed.]