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Review: 'Climbing Fitz Roy 1968'

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Patagonia Books, September 2013

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

In 1968, four climbers drove south from Ventura, Calif. through Mexico and Central America, surfing and skiing as they went.

The men were Yvon Chouinard, who later founded the clothing company Patagonia; writer and ski racer Dick Dorworth; climbing historian Chris Jones; Lito Tejada-Flores, who later made an award-winning film of the trip; and Doug Tompkins, who went on to found The North Face and Esprit. In Peru, they picked up Chris Jones, a friend who’d recently completed a first ascent in the Cordillera Huayhuash.

“We were just another small group of mountain and ocean yahoos off for a long On The Road, Kerouac-type adventure, with all kinds of spurious excuses that this was what life was really about,” wrote Tompkins, in the new book co-authored by the five, Climbing Fitz Roy, 1968.

This was an important time in American history: 1968 was the height of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; the civil rights and feminist movements came to a head; and the astronauts on Apollo 8 captured the first ever photograph of Earth in its entirety.

But the “funhogs,” as they called themselves, were on their own journey.

“I admit it, we were drunk on our own self-righteous justifications for doing something significant, when in truth it was really about skirting doing anything that had some social or environmental worth,” Tompkins wrote.

The crew bought supplies in Bariloche, Argentina, and after 16,500 miles and 3 ½ months on the road, they finally saw the Fitz Roy Range jutting some 8,000 feet from the Patagonian steppe, silhouetted by the setting sun. In a trip report for the 1969 American Alpine Journal, Tompkins described how he felt at that moment:

“Had we somehow made a mistake? We hadn’t known it would be like this! So big! So beautiful! So scary! … To the south of the range, at the end of Lago Viedma, spilling into this lake, more than sixty miles long, was a Himalayan-sized glacier! Those first few minutes were perhaps the most mentally debilitating of the whole trip.”

The men spent 60 days climbing Fitz Roy – 31 of those waiting out the weather in snow caves high on the mountain. Their route, The California Route, was the third up the iconic granite peak and was one of the most important climbs of that year.

The trip had a profound affect on each of them, says Dorworth, who lives part-time in Bozeman. “That climb kind of structured my life … . I climbed and became a guide for the next 30-some years because of [it].”

Now 45 years later, the book offers insight into a moment in mountaineering history, and a turning point in the outdoor industry. Published by Patagonia Books – an offshoot of the clothing company – the 144-page linen-bound hardcover includes writing from Dorworth, Jones, Tompkins and Tejada-Flores, and captions from Jones and Chouinard.

True to form, however, it’s mostly photos – Jones took them all, but lost them in a house fire in 1996. When Dorworth produced duplicates several years later, the book was born.

Although the men spent so much time in close quarters, Dorworth now recalls that each of them had different experiences.

“[It’s perhaps] true in any group of people who climb, that they’re doing different climbs because they’re coming from different places.”

Perhaps this is true not only for climbing, but for life.


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