On November 1, 2013 a small group of fellow mountaineers and I set out to explore a 17,060-foot peak outside of Santiago called Cerro Bello —a very beautiful dome of a mountain and a moderate mix of slog and technical climbing. Expecting good ice and hard packed snow we were instead greeted with an unexpected snowstorm and spent the weekend doing more snow excavating than summiting in the deadly-soft champagne pow.
Santiago (my home at the time) had been a furnace the previous few weeks during the days. I am not sure I recall there being a Springtime, just a week of green hills, then all snow gone from the lower peaks adjacent my house, and all at once an infinite supply of heat waves emanating endlessly from every inch of everything. We therefore packed our bags for Cerro Bello with dry, Summer mountaineering in mind. We were aware we would be doing one long technical glacier crossing but otherwise the summit was depicted as dry and rocky. It was forecasted to be cold (around zero degrees F at night) but not snowy.
We drove the distance from Santiago in gloomy silence as the sky brewed a blizzard outside our car windows. We parked, packed, and departed in the storm with visibility limited to 100 feet as the snowfall layered the rocky terrain with two feet of fluffy snow around us. We made camp in snowpits dug neatly into the Winter Wonderland.
The following day we awoke before sunrise to clear skies.The storm had abated and cleared the way to a beautiful starry night. Normally this would be a good thing, but given the freak summer snowfall of the previous day it left us with a sense of foreboding as to what the today might have in store. By 5 a.m. we were all up and moving from our snow camp. Having misjudged the distance to the base of the mountain in the storm the night before, we quickly realized that we still had a decent slog before we began our climb.
Far off in the distance we could make out our route on the peak —a sixty degree inclined west face on rock and ice. At least, there should have been visible rock. Now, thanks to the new snow, the only semblance of the route we could make out were by the paths, carved in deep snow, made by massive avalanches that had apparently been falling all morning.
We regrouped at the base of the mountain to discuss our options. Someone mused,
We should proceed. The worst of the slides are over, we have only now to climb the thing!
It wasn’t an idea received with much confidence though, and almost immediately after followed the sound of a massive avalanche impending far above us, proceeding down the face in a large crescendo. Millions of pounds of rock and snow thundered down above us and cast needle-like spindrift into the air all around. This was it, the final straw. We silently agreed to abort our mission and head home; clearly the mountain had different plans than we did. To this day it was the largest avalanche I have ever seen in person.
Hot and heavy with our gear, we made our way down the slopes, glissading wherever we could on the remaining slush decline. It was shocking how fast the mountains were falling apart around us, every few minutes another rockslide or avalanche could be heard crashing down at a safe distance on the neighboring peaks. The frequency was similar to that of a babbling brook, yet unpleasant; it felt as if the terrain was barking at us to leave. By the time we reached the cars almost all of the snow from the previous day had melted and we were all badly sunburnt. We left by sundown.
I think that sometimes I let climbing go to my head. I mean, I think about climbing almost all the time. I spend my free time reading climbing books, I spend my breaks at work shopping climbing equipment, hell, I think ALL the people I hang out with are climbers. All that exposure to climbing constitutes a large portion of my life, whereas the actual hours that I spend on a mountain make up a relatively small percentage of my time. Time in the mountains is therefore very precious to me, so when I plan a weekend trip or start scheming about the next summit the notion grabs me completely and envelops my brainpower wholly.
When all that planning and execution simply ends in having to turn around before reaching the end goal, it is like preparing a masterpiece burrito and then not getting to eat it. The tease is so frustrating! Yet as disheartening as it is, the burrito will have a much harder time killing you than a climb where conditions turn sour.
Related: Inside the Mind of an Ice Climber
In hindsight I am positive we did the right thing by turning around.Climbing is all about judgement. If you cannot know when to give up for safety’s sake, then you should not be a climber. This weekend did not put any of our team in grave danger, but watching and hearing avalanches pop all around you on mountains towering above is a much more harrowing experience than any storyteller or GoPro footage can convey.
In the end I am sad that we did not get our summit bid especially after all that planning, but I am more glad for the lesson we learned. It was all a reminder that it is not the strength of the climber that gets him to the top as much as it is his ability to listen to what the conditions are telling him and to react accordingly. We did not bag our peak this trip, but I think the lesson we learned was far more important: Lesson 1 in the Language of the Mountains.