Alpinist-Writer Tells Tales of "Enduring Patagonia"

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"I kill time better than anybody on earth," Crouch said. "I like to read; that's my basic fallback, and also just sitting around talking." He credits Uncle Sam with developing his patience. "I was in the army for seven years," he laughed, "so I've forgotten more about killing time that most people will ever know."

Climbing Cerro Torre

The temperamental weather conditions compound the climbing challenge on peaks that, while technically demanding, are not as high as those in other ranges. Cerro Torre, for example, stands at only 10,177 feet (3,100 meters)—not much more than one-third the height of Mount Everest.

Although climbers aren't dealing with the problems of extreme high altitude when climbing the Patagonian Andes, the climb can be as long. A mountain that starts at sea level and rises to 10,000 feet presents the same amount of vertical climb as a mountain that starts at 10,000 and rises to 20,000 feet.

"There's a lot more to this than people think," he said. "It's not like Mount Everest where you see a lot of people sort of slogging up a mountain. When non-climbers see these photos, they are really surprised."

During the winter, savage cold and as little as eight hours of daylight mean the place is practically devoid of people.

That was a major attraction for Crouch and his fellow climbers when they achieved a first-ever winter ascent of the demanding west face of Cerro Torre, a needle-like spire that Crouch considers the world's perfect mountain. (The other expedition members were Thomas Ulrich, Stefan Siegrist, and David Fasel. For coverage of the climb, see National Geographic Magazine, March 2000.)

"We had the whole range to ourselves; we didn't see another party for 30 days," Crouch said. "These aren't like the Asian mountains, where there are thriving native cultures all around. Once you get on the ice cap, well, we were the only people out there in an area maybe 200 miles (320 kilometers) long and 60 miles (96 kilometers) wide."

The area's remoteness adds to the dangers of an expedition. In winter, there is no local help, no possibility of a helicopter rescue should anything go wrong. But that same isolation promotes an exhilarating sense of natural beauty and self reliance.

"From up on the west face you don't see another sign of civilization," Crouch said. "Nothing at all. You just see the mountains, the ice cap, and on out to the ocean."

Perhaps that feeling is what keeps drawing him back, despite other mountains that beckon from around the globe.

"I'd rather know one place really well, than many places only on the surface."

The Quest for Adventure lecture series is sponsored by Nature Valley.

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