Markus Pucher and his solo ascent of the Cerro Torre Via dei Ragni
On 14/01/2013 Austrian alpinist Markus Pucher soloed the Via dei Ragni on Cerro Torre in Patagonia in a lightening fast time of 3 hours 15 minutes from his bivouac below the Colle della Speranza... Pucher's story and our interview.
14 January 2013, an unforgettable day for Markus Pucher who on that Monday just over a month ago managed to solo the famous Via dei Ragni route up Cerro Torre... in less than six hours. Or rather, starting from his bivouac 150m below Colle della Speranza the Austrian mountain guide needed a mere 3 hours and 15 minutes to reach the top, while his tour to the summit and back to his bivy lasted 5 hours and 40 minutes. "An impressive performance that leaves us speechless" is what Rolando Garibotti wrote on his website pataclimb and we can but agree, not only for the speed with which it was carried out but also for the fact that Pucher's ascent is only the second solo of this route - after that of Walter Hungerbühler in 2008 - and also the first complete free solo ascent.
There are a myriad of details about Pucher's climb worth recounting, such as the fact that it came about almost by accident, when his friend Markus Steiner fell ill at the base of what was meant to be an attempt to forge a new line up the West Face of Cerro Torre. The solo as a "fallback" therefore... and for his climb Pucher took with him just one rope, a single ice screw and three carabiners! And what's more, during the descent Pucher lent one of his axes to another alpinist who had just lost his.
For the sake of completeness and transparency, it's worth noting that Pucher had already climbed the Via dei Ragni route a year ago, so his wasn't a journey into the complete unknown. Furthermore his "race" took place during a truly stellar year for both Patagonia in general and the Via dei Ragni in particular, which during December and January witnessed a record number of ascents. So in addition to some of the route having been laid out, it's also worth noting that on the mountain, on the same route but below him, there were some other parties. But all these, if you think about it, are nothing but minor details which don't detract anything from those moments when exposure and the void are complete, and the quality of the ice on the summit mushroom leaves much to be desired...
Markus, this year the Via dei Ragni was repeated really often.
Yes, it is true, this year's the route was climbed numerous times, the weather and route conditions were often very good.
How was the route compared to when you climbed it a year ago?
I’d say that conditions were very similar.
How alone did you feel up there?
From the Col of Hope onwards I was always alone, while there were three teams behind me. So I was all alone all the way up! On the way down I passed these three parties above the Elmo. The fact that they were there didn’t give me anything nor did it bother me.
5 hours and 40 minutes is damn fast.
Yes, it’s fast but I think, well in fact I’m sure that had I been intent on climbing quickly, then I could definitely have been much faster. I climbed quickly and without pausing, hence the time of 3 hours and 15 minutes from my bivy 150 meters below the Col of Hope, and 5 hours 40 minutes in total.
How were the ice conditions?
The ice wasn’t very good, but not very bad either. There were a few hooks made by previous teams but these weren’t that great because the ice breaks easily.
Tell us more about the descent
The abseil descent went well in stints of 30m abseils, but I also did a lot of down climbing. I made some Abalakov ice threads and also used some made by others before me. In the end I had only one ice axe because I lent mine to the Canadian climber who had dropped his.
What was the most difficult thing?
Definitely a pitch on the mixed terrain, roughly M6, and the final pitch that leads to the summit, very steep, with poor ice and that traverse at the beginning..
All climbed free?
Yes, the entire route. And I never self-belayed.
So how much did you risk?
That’s a good question, how much does one risk when free soloing without any gear all the way to the top of Cerro Torre. I always felt safe and never had the feeling of having reached my limit.
VIA DEI RAGNI SOLO by Markus Pucher
It was Saturday, the 12th of January 2013, the weather was great and the forecast for the next four days was also very good. Markus and I were ascending intent on forging a new route up the West Face of Cerro Torre, laden with our 25kg rucksacks heading towards the mountain of our dreams. We hadn't' decided on a name for our new route, but things were to turn out differently.
Once we arrived at base camp, also called Niponino, we made ourselves comfortable and prepared for our first bivouac. Of course we had everything one needs, and even what is superfluous. The alarm clock rang at three, without this we would never have woken up - it felt so nice and warm snuggled up in our sleeping bags... But there was no two ways about it: we packed up and set off! We stumbled behind the beams of our head torches and soon we reached the glacier that leads to Colle Standhart - it gradually began to dawn. Today was Sunday, a wonderful Sunday! The sun rose and before us lay Cerro Torre, so fiery red it took our breath away!
The terrain up to the Standhart Col is fairly steep and with numerous crevasses difficult to negotiate, but to get to the West face you have to ascend 1100 metres from here and descend 700 metres down the other side. Which is where we were now, below the West Face, in no man's land! We glanced upwards: 1000 metres of steep glacier terrain led to Colle della Speranza, the saddle of Good Hope. Out of the blue Markus suddenly exclaimed: "I don't think I can continue, I feel sick, something's not right." I pretended not to have heard anything, looked up to the summit where the ice mushroom twinkled in the sun. A strange feeling, a mixture of disappointment, anger, fear but also understanding overcame me when I looked at Markus. He's my best friend, no words were needed. We just sat there, in utter silence.
After about half an hour we decided: I'd climb alone up Cerro Torre and Markus would wait until I got back. I quickly grabbed what the essentials and made my way up to Col de la Esperanza, 1000 metres trudging up through soft snow beneath the blazing sun. After about 100 metres I looked back at Markus and shouted "Hey Steiner, I'll be back at this time tomorrow, don't shit your pants and in the meantime go and look for some stone." Markus is passionate about crystals, he simply grinned and shouted back "You take care you don't shit your pants, you crazy freak!"
On the way up to the Col I caught up with two Canadian climbers we had met at El Chalten ago - David and Carl - very nice guys, Carl in particular is one of those with whom you can fool around all day, unbelievable. At approximately 16.00 I reached the next bivy, circa 150 metres below the Col. The sun beat down mercilessly on me, of course I had forgotten my sunscreen but Carl was kind and helped me out. In return I had to bear the brunt of his jokes but, who cares.
Some time later some alpinists descended from the Col, they had set off the day before us and amongst them were two friends of mine - Isidor and Vito from the East Tyrol. They had reached the summit and were very happy. I explained why I was climbing along and asked about the route conditions. They wished me luck and we agreed we'd all drink a beer together back at El Chalten. The route I wanted to climb the next day is the Ferrari Ragni route, 600 metres from the Colle delle Speranza to the summit, past 95° ice and mixed terrain up to M5.
So there I sat in the bivouac, all alone - I wasn't really alone, Carl and David were there, as were two other parties, but nevertheless I felt alone. It was a strange kind of feeling: one climber asked the other what time they should set off, he then asked the same question to the next and so forth... this continued for quite a while and was pretty unnerving. No one asked me anything... Perhaps they'd seen how much gear I'd clipped to my harness! In the end they agreed on 2am, a good time, that's what I would have chosen. I quickly ate my soup, had a drink, went to the toilet and dug into my sleeping bag. Ipod on, eyes shut.
"... Everything I do, yesterday, tomorrow, and here, is nothing but a detour on my way to you..."
...Damn, had I overslept? Lights were on everywhere, it was noisy and stressful, I quickly glanced at my watch, thank God, only 1am... the parties evidently wanted to outsmart each other and set off an hour early. I didn't care, I got up and slowly ate my muesli, yes, I really had muesli with me, and I ate it calmly as I watched the lights slowly disappear into the darkness.
Stay calm, keep calm, I felt strong that January 14 morning, very strong!
The game had begun: I attached my headlamp, put on my helmet, jacket and harness and checked my gear: 1 ice screw, 3 cords, 3 carabiners and my descender. I tightened my crampons, checked they were properly seated, tied the 60-metre half rope to my back, clipped the water bottle to my harness, picked up my ice axes and set off! I felt almost weightless, could truly sense my freedom!
I quickly caught up with the first party, then the second and finally the third. About 80 metres above the Col I was alone again... alone with Cerro Torre and with the night... it was very quiet, only the wind whispered something in my ear, it was marvellous! I felt like I was in good hands up there and knew that that is where I belonged. I climbed quickly and after an hour I reached the mixed pitches above El Elmo.
I climbed a little too far to the right and the M5 quickly transformed into an M6 or even more, but I didn't want to go back and search for the route elsewhere... Keep your eyes open and climb on through! Steep terrain, at times broken by thin slivers of ice, led me directly to the headwall. This is a vertical sheet of ice that becomes steeper the higher you get. I didn't stop to hesitate and immediately continued. steeper. This section is extremely exposed and for the first time I noticed that there's such a thing as gravity.
OK, I thought... concentrate... breathe calmly... shake out once again... climb smoothly... and whatever you do, don't drop your axes, you haven’t got leashes, keep cool... and up you go. Of course these things make you reflect, but I just thought that I could do it, yes, I can do it, so I'll do it - now! Later, on easier terrain shortly after the headwall I knew that if I'd succeeded in climbing up to here, then I'd also manage to do the rest!
But this rest was pretty serious stuff, the sting in the tail right at the end: the final pitch that leads to the summit, a vertical and slightly overhanging wall of ice, 50m high. But before climbing this you need to traverse right for 15 metres - and this really was really unpleasant because below the traverse there was a 1000 metre drop and the ice was brittle and poor. I took everything I didn't need off my harness and clipped my water bottle to a thread made by another team before me and set off.
Dawn slowly began to break and the void beneath me got bigger and deeper. The ice on Cerro Torre is unlike all other ice one usually encounters when ice climbing, its a strange mix of snow and air and this makes it all rather unstable. Probably everyone can easily imagine what it's like to climb up there, with no protection, with frozen fingers, climbing one metre after the next towards the summit. And yes, I know exactly why I do this... it allows me to feel and experience and absolute sense of freedom and being alive.
It is Monday, the 14th of January 2013, it's 5:15 am, I'm on the summit of Cerro Torre, the sun slowly rises, the wind whips my face and I'm happy.
I'd done it, I'd managed to free solo this immense mountain, the mountain of my dreams! Unbelievable, but this really was the case, it definitely wasn't a dream. I stood in silence for a few minutes and thanked Cerro Torre, and then descended as quickly as possible back down to Markus, he'd certainly been thinking about me and was waiting for my return. On the way down I met up with Carl and David once again, they were dealing with the mixed terrain above El Elmo (this, by the way, is the huge ice mushroom you need to breach along the route) and David asked me: "Markus, could you please lend me one of your ice axes?" About 10 minutes beforehand he'd dropped one of his. I quickly thought about whether I'd need mine for the descent but then decided I'd somehow manage without... David beamed with joy as I instructed him to bring my "baby" back home, to El Chalten. He laughed and hugged me.
I reached my bivy below the Colle della Speranza at 7:30 am, that was really fast, far faster than I had expected. In total I'd been out and about for 5 hours and 40 minutes. I saw Markus from afar, sitting comfortably where he'd spent the night. "What are you doing here?" he exclaimed "It's only 10:00am, so you didn't reach the summit after all, changed your mind did you?" I simply grinned and replied "Greeting from Cerro Torre, the mountain will wait for your visit!" He could hardly believe it. "You really were up there? ... Unbelievable..."
I followed in Markus' footsteps and a short while later I first looked at him, then turned around and looked at Cerro Torre. Stopped and shut my eyes. I now knew the name of our new route, should we ever climb it. "Friends in freedom" that's what it should be called!