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Making Patagonia History: The First Cerro Torre Climb and Fly

While four people have already paraglided off the summit of Cerro Torre, these flights all required being dropped off at the top. The Pinn brothers climbed the legendary Ragni Route in 1988 with the intent to take off from the summit, but the wind chose not to cooperate, forcing them to rappel. For Fabian Buhl, the climb-and-fly challenge has always been one of the ways he wanted to make his mark on Cerro Torre history.

April 9 2020

Mountaineering

© 2020 - PETZL Distribution -  Sean Villaneuva

A Challenging New Year’s Resolution

On New Year’s Eve, Colin Haley and I met in Buenos Aires to travel together down to El Chaltén, in Argentinian Patagonia. Although we had high hopes of climbing something extraordinary, the weather chose not to cooperate. The seasonal forecast called for higher than average precipitation, with poor climbing conditions up to this point. In spite of the situation, we decided stick around anyway to make an attempt, since Patagonia is notorious for its unpredictable weather; sometimes the only way to pull off something big is to show up, stay optimistic, and seize any and all opportunities when they arise.

The daily routine in El Chaltén proved tediously frustrating as we obsessively checked the weather forecast every 5 minutes in the hopes of at least one website indicating an upcoming window of good weather. We tried to remain patient and relaxed, but before we knew it our time to climb together came to an end. Other than a few single-day outings, we barely put on our harnesses over the month-long period.

Right before I was scheduled to return home to Europe, the weather finally shaped up, with a cold but clear window in the forecast. The amount of recent snowfall meant less than ideal rock climbing conditions, so after considering several options, I set my sights on a challenge that would make for an unforgettable experience: climbing the Ragni route and paragliding off the summit of Cerro Torre. Among Cerro Torre’s routes, the Ragni is a legendary line. The rime that forms is simply uncanny. Depending on the year, conditions range from perfect to a truly formidable challenge. This year the route had yet to be climbed, so I did not know what to expect.

© 2020 - PETZL Distribution - Laura Tiefenthaler - Raphaela Haug

Rime and Reason

To embark on this unique adventure in a truly extraordinary setting, and to be part of the first team to climb the route this season, a motivated crew of top-notch climbers quickly rallied together: Christophe Ogier, JB Tapie, Mathieu Perrussel, Raphaela Haug, and Laura Tiefenthaler. We split into two rope teams and arrived early at the base. As the first to attempt the route this season, we had to clean out a lot of rime. The route's beauty really made in impression on me, as did the excessive amounts of rime we cleaned. Usually a pitch of ice, the twenty centimeters of rime covering the headwall required a hefty amount of work.

Weighed down by our gear, we proceeded slowly but surely. Upon reaching the base of the final summit mushroom, fierce winds pounded our position, making it impossible to fly. I decided to stay dry and let the others on our team continue climbing. My sole objective was to paraglide from the summit. I would have a much better chance the next day. Early morning, with the sun relatively low, there would be little thermal activity. A few people on the team did not bring bivy gear, so we settled in for a cold night. The next morning, using my SWIFT headlamp to guide us, we climbed the summit mushroom before sunrise and enjoyed the breathtaking view once on top. Having carefully studied several photos with Rolo Garibotti, I had a good idea of where to take off.

© 2020 - PETZL Distribution - Laura Tiefenthaler - Fabi Buhl

An Exhilarating Flight

To my surprise, there were still gusts of wind on top and blowing in the wrong direction. I decided to set up just a few meters below the summit, protected from the wind so that I could take off on the leeward side. I really had to concentrate to ensure that I made the right decisions. I waited for a break in the wind to inflate my wing. It rose a bit sideways, so I had to brake and adjust, which shortened the time I had to accelerate. After three steps the terrain steepened and I hopped into my seat to fully load the wing, and then I dropped—skimming the 60° snowfield before gliding over the cliff. All of a sudden I had a comfortable 1500m of air beneath my feet.

My adrenaline spiked after this not-so-perfect takeoff. The landscapes were breathtaking as I flew between the Fitz and Cerro Torre ranges with the sun slowly rising. It was one of the most magical moments I have experienced during my short paragliding career. After 17 minutes of pure joy, I landed smoothly on the glacier below and started my way back to El Chaltén. I took it easy on the hike out, and was happy to be back in town sipping coffee before noon. My mind drifted to thoughts of my friends who still had a long day of rappelling and hiking ahead of them.

Flying off the top of peaks like Cerro Torre is only possible when everything goes smoothly and, with a little luck, the wind decides to cooperate. I am so grateful to have had the chance to experience the awe of climbing a legendary route and the exhilaration of such an incredible flight.

© 2020 - PETZL Distribution - Laura Tiefenthaler - Fabi Buhl

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