Alpinist-Writer Tells Tales of "Enduring Patagonia"

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 8, 2002
Gregory Crouch talked about his experiences in an event that is part
of the Quest for Adventure lecture series at the National
Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. His talk, on Tuesday, October
15, 2002 was broadcast live via real-time Web cast at href="">National

Patagonia, the windswept region of barren plateaus and sprawling ice fields at the bottom of South America, is one of the world's truly wild places. The strip of land juts like a dagger into the ocean, separating the Atlantic and Pacific. Towering between the two oceans are the rocky walls of the Patagonian Andes—peaks that exert an irresistible pull on climbers seeking to explore Earth's lofty peaks.

"These are the mountains out of a fairy tale," said Gregory Crouch, a veteran climber. "You see huge spikes of granite towering thousands of feet above the huge ice cap and glaciers. It would be hard to design a more ideal mountain than that."

Crouch has climbed those fairy-tale mountains seven times—and counting. Along the way, he's penned yarns of summits reached, opportunities lost, laughs shared, and snowbound days up high. His new book, Enduring Patagonia, provides a window to cutting-edge alpinism in a remote corner of the world.

Crouch's own Patagonian odyssey, however, didn't begin with mountaineering.

"I didn't go with the ambition of doing a lot of serious climbing," said Crouch. "I went because I had an interest in South America, so I was in living in Ecuador learning Spanish. I also didn't initially intend to go back to Patagonia for seven of the next ten years, but I just couldn't get the place out of my mind."

World's Worst Weather

The mountains are spectacular, but Crouch feels the brutal, famously stormy weather in the Patagonian Andes is the major factor in many Patagonian climbing epics.

"The weather is so bad," said the former U.S. Army Ranger, "that it's almost one of the main attractions of Patagonia. It's definitely among the worst weather areas in the world; others may rival it, but none are really much worse."

The vicious climate is the result of the mountains' unique location. They extend into the stormy Circumpolar Sea, what some call the Southern Ocean, at latitudes known to sailors as the "roaring forties" and "furious fifties." Storms, winds, and waves circle the globe at these latitudes, building in force until they slam into the only land mass in the way—Patagonia.

Sudden storms can be deadly if climbers are caught high up the mountains. They can also mean boredom; long days huddled in the cramped shelter of expedition tents or huts, waiting for a break in the weather. Over the years, time spent in this way has really added up.

"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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