After 15 days on the wall, Mayan Smith-Gobat, Ines Papert and photographer Thomas Senf topped out Riders on the Storm—a
coveted prize on Torre Central in Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia. They reached the tower’s summit on February 6, the 25th anniversary of the first ascent, and claimed the route’s fifth known ascent.
"Riders on the Storm pushed me to new limits,” says Smith-Gobat, “It took absolutely everything I had both physically and mentally.
“I felt like I had to pull together every scrap of my previous climbing experience, from bouldering to big wall and to scrape together my minimal alpine
experience, to be able to successfully climb this route.”
Wolfgang Güllich, Kurt Albert, Bernd Arnold, Peter Dittrich, and Norbert Bätz established Riders on the Storm in 1991 at 5.12d A3. They were able
to free all but a handful of pitches through a blank section of wall, and ever since, climbers from around the world have sought to claim the route’s
first free ascent, without success.
Patagonia’s relentless winds and chaotic weather have shut down even the best attempts at a complete free ascent. Two crux crack pitches near the top of
the tower frequently ice over and become impossible to free climb, and a pitch near the middle of the face requires a pendulum and bat hooking to sneak
through an entirely blank section, Smith-Gobat says.
Like other teams before, Smith-Gobat and Papert’s goal was to make the coveted first free ascent.
During their first week on the wall, with good weather, they discovered a difficult, 5-pitch variation to loop around the original lower aid section. But
to make the most of the rare, stable weather conditions they chose to put their efforts into free climbing the upper section and summiting the tower
week later, Smith-Gobat, with bleeding fingers, freed pitch 29 and pitch 31, before the upper crack “became a waterfall from ice melting above,” she
says. Nevertheless, the team pushed on and reached easier fifth-class terrain that led to the summit. At 12:48 p.m. on February 6, they stood on top.
“After living on the wall, only ever seeing one side of the landscape for weeks, it was incredible to reach the summit,” says Smith-Gobat says. Their rare
ascent was awarded with a rare cloudless and windless Patagonian day and 360-degree views of Torres del Paine National Park. “Endless peaks, stunning
untouched walls, glaciers and lakes stretched out as far as the eye could see."
That night, rock fall pummeled their portaledges.
A wave of warmer weather had thawed the ice that locked together the loose blocks above that comprised the tower’s peak above.
Rocks tore through the center of Papert and Smith-Gobat’s shared portaledge, narrowly missing them. They were unnerved by the event, but still determined
to finish what they came for. The team continued to work the lower pitches.
“The climbing is demanding and varied, from delicate face climbing with poor protection to offwidths
entirely filled with ice,” Smith-Gobat explains. On one pitch, Papert climbed with an ice boot and crampon on one foot and a rock climbing shoe on
the other, wielding two ice axes—a style they dubbed the “Papert-Technique.”
They made progress, despite the deteriorating weather, and managed to free all but two pitches of the original route, pitch 11 and pitch 23, and two of
their new variation, pitch 17 and pitch 18.
And then Patagonia fought back. A snowstorm and winds over 75 miles per hour plastered the route with snow and the team was forced to give up their bid
on a complete free ascent. They used their last days in Patagonia, during short windows when the storm slackened, to retrieve their gear.
While they were not able to free every pitch, they did claim the fifth known ascent of Riders on the Storm and, in the process, found a variation
that they believe will eventually go free.
As for now, their variation clocks in at 5.13a, A2 (38 pitches, 4,265 feet).
Papert has decided against another attempt because of the unpredictable risks inherent to the east face of Torre Central, but Smith-Gobat says that she
is psyched to give it another go next season. Stay tuned.