this dearth of rock prompted the Marmillods to settle in a
three-story house built of stone. They practiced climbing
the outside walls and rappelling out of the attic. Once when
Dorly and the family were locked out, she nimbly climbed to
the third floor and let herself in.
three to four year intervals the Marmillods returned to Switzerland
during the Argentine summer (Swiss winter). During the summers
spent in Argentina they climbed in the Andes for several weeks.
This meant reacclimatizing to altitude from sea level every
year. To keep fit, Dorly and Frédy swam and played
tennis year round, and they gained a fair proficiency in these
sports. When they had a few days free, they drove down to
the Sierra de la Ventana for rock climbing. Occasionally they
went to the outskirts of the capital and climbed a large chimney
that was part of an abandoned factory. The site was popular
among members of the local climbers club, the Centro Andino
Marmillods were now in their mid to late thirties but the
years had not diminished their climbing enthusiasm. The first
evidence came with their expedition to Aconcagua in February
years after our first climb in the Andes, my wife and I finally
succumbed to the attraction of the 'monarch'. We went to try
out luck on Aconcagua accompanied by our friends Konrad Brunner
and Otto Pfenniger.
reigned at Plaza de Mulas (4250 m), the standard base camp
beneath the colossus. A Mexican expedition with its Argentine
escort had occupied the site for several days. While most
of the group attacked the summit, others stayed behind in
camp fiddling with a radio transmitter. The next day and throughout
the entire night, the andinistas wandered down, alone or in
small groups, much the worse for the cold and winds higher
up. Six out of the fourteen participants had reached the summit,
and two had serious frostbite. When the batteries in the radio
ran down, the voice of the speaker was replaced by the racket
of the recharging generator. To orient the stragglers, the
soldiers fired flares and set off explosive charges…
Twenty-four hours later the greater part of the expedition
had returned to Puente del Inca, and tranquility reigned once
again upon the moraines and nearby glacier. After this tragicomic
episode, so typically 'Aconcaguaesque', we drew up our own
plans." [F. Marmillod, Les Alpes, 1952, p. 83]
first plan was to climb Cerro Cuerno (5462 m). Previously
the peak had been climbed by the ridge linking it with Aconcagua.
The Marmillods and friends established a new, direct line
on the Upper Horcones Glacier, laboriously forcing a path
through interminable fields of nieves penitents before reaching
the rock, and soon, the summit (first ascent by a woman).
Night was near and an unplanned, teeth-chattering bivouac
friend Brunner, a new arrival in America, found this baptism
in the Cordillera a bit harsh, and we had to admit that the
training climb had exceeded our expectations." [Ibid,
a good rest at Plaza de Mulas, the group climbed to the summit
of Aconcagua (6960 m) in two days. Altitude took its tool
as it does on all who make the ascent.
"My body felt like lead. Each step brings you to the
edge of asphyxiation and requires a compensatory pause. If
you lose your balance, the effort made to regain it forces
you to halt a few minutes while the storm that is your breathing
calms down. When we reached the summit ridge, we could not
have said how many hours had elapsed since the start of the
final couloir. Three, according to our watches. On the summit
we squeezed hands. I wanted to say something but was unable
to make a sound. More than anything I wanted to shout in admiration
for my wife, who had accomplished the ascent with apparent
ease and who was there, smiling, on this summit where one
feels removed from the earth and mankind." [Ibid, p.
women had preceded Dorly to the top of Aconcagua, Adriana
Bance Link in 1940 and 1944, and Maria Canals in 1947. Both
died on the mountain, and Dorly and her companions came close
to a similar fate.
clamped down on the summit and it began to snow, quickly covering
the return path. The group hurried to descend but soon lost
the route. They went down as far as daylight would allow,
stumbling upon the remains of an old camp beneath an overhanging
rock. Here they found a blanket and the tattered remains of
a tent. These miraculous discoveries and the cessation of
the snowstorm probably saved their lives. When daylight returned,
they found themselves not more than a twenty-minute walk from
their camp at the Plantamura Hut (later the site of the Berlin
is a horrible pile of scree, the ascent is disheartening,
endless, devoid of difficulty and interest… and yet
we experienced something magnificent which will always stand
out in our memories like a brilliant light from the depths
of our souls." [Ibid p. 86]
in Buenos Aires, a correspondent for Swiss Radio courted Dorly
for an interview. True to her aversion for publicity she refused.
The man did not give up easily; after all, Dorly was the only
woman alive who had climbed the highest mountain in the Western
Hemisphere. After months of begging the correspondent wore
down Dorly's resistance, and she granted him a five-minute
interview. (The recording has survived; a transcript is available
elsewhere on this website.)
had by now gained a reputation as the best Swiss climber in
the Andes. When the Academic Alpine Club of Zürich (AACZ)
organized an expedition to the Cordillera Blanca in the summer
of 1948, he was invited to join. Normally expeditions of this
sort were organized and financed for members only. Frédy,
who was not a member, felt honored by the invitation and accepted
arrived in Peru at the beginning of June to meet the other
members of the expedition: Dr. Rüdi Schmid, Fritz Sigrist,
Ali Szepessy, and leader Bernard Lauterberg (later to lead
the first Swiss expedition to Dhaulagiri, seventh highest
mountain on earth).
recalls the impression Frédy made: "We four from
the AACZ had known each other for years and had made many
climbs together. We met Fred for the first time upon our arrival
in Lima, and in a very short time he became a member of our
team, so that he was no longer considered an outsider. A man
with a different character would not have accomplished this
so easily. He was an excellent mountain companion, always
ready to help and to pitch in whenever there was something
that had to be done. One could depend upon him in any kind
of situation." [Letter from Fritz Sigrist to the author,
Aug. 10, 1980]
a two month period, the expedition made several fine first
ascents, including Nevados Carhuas (5110 meters), Cashan (5723),
and Pucaranra (6156), accomplished by all members except Szepessy.
In mid-July the expedition wound its way up the Quebrada Alpamayo.
At last Frédy would have another chance to climb Nevado
their high camp the group was divided on how to attack Santa
Cruz. Some saw promise in the rock of the North Ridge, while
others preferred the snows of the steep Northeast Face. Accordingly,
the group split into two parties in order to attempt the peak
simultaneously by different routes.
a last call to the others, Frédy Marmillod and Ali
Szepessy crossed the bergschrund beneath the Northeast Face
of Nevado Santa Cruz. Above lay a steep, rock-ribbed snow
slope some four-hundred meters high. In the shadows the firn
was sufficiently hard to require step cutting, while in the
sunlight the snow had softened to the consistency of white
paste. Piton placements were almost nonexistent, ice-axe belays
no more than psychological. Roped but unprotected, the two
climbers ascended for ten hours "like flies on a window
pane following the folds of a curtain." [Sieg ueber den
Nevado Santo Cruz] Ali, on his first serious high-altitude
ascent, wanted to turn back when his hands get wet and cold,
but Frédy encouraged him to continue.
arrival at the upper North Ridge, Frédy and Ali found
no trace of the others. (Lauterberg, Schmid and Sigrist had
rappalled off the North Face to avoid a bivouac.) Continuing
along the ridge, they made their way around crevasses and
cornices in thick clouds until night surprised them at the
foot of the terminal cupola. Despite the lack of sleeping
bags they slept tolerably well, wrapped inside their Zdarsky
bivouac sack and wedged into a tiny hold dug into the side
of a crevasse. The fit was so tight that turning over required
the efforts of both men in unison. The next morning they reached
the top (6241 meters) after two easy rope lengths. The view
could not have been better: totally cloudless.
was the driving force on the climb. Ali wanted to turn back
when his hands got cold and wet, but Frédy encouraged
him to continue. Frédy led the route, cooked for his
exhausted companion at the bivouac, and re-climbed the rappel
rope to free a snag during the descent. He was not going to
lose the summit this time! After two previous failures on
the East Ridge it was a well-earned achievement, as well as
the high point of the expedition. Frédy regarded the
climb as "one of the beautiful gems of my alpine career."
[Letter from Frederic Marmillod to John F. Ricker]
Santa Cruz was seldom the goal of subsequent expeditions.
As late as 1975 only one additional ascent had been recorded,
in part because of the exposed nature of its flanks. More
importantly, however, the nearby peak of Alpamayo overshadowed
the higher summits around it.
(5947 meters), unattempted up to that time, cast a spell on
the Swiss expedition, its symmetrical ice pyramid enchanting
them like a siren. The expedition established a high camp
beneath the peak, having crossed a dangerous labyrinth of
seracs. Frédy and Ali resigned from the summit attempt
in order to guide the Peruvian porters back to safe ground.
Through binoculars Frédy followed the slow progress
of Latuerberg, Schmid and Sigrist as they ascended the cornice-festooned
North Ridge of Alpamayo. Suddenly a cornice snapped under
their weight, setting off an avalanche. All three climbers
plummetted down the Northwest Face, chased by blocks of ice
and a mass of new snow before coming to rest on a terrace
far below. Miraculously, the climbers survived. Shaken, bruised
and injured, the climbers dug themselves out and traveled
back to camp under their own power.
lip, punctured by his ice axe, would soon heal, but Sigrist
had dislocated his shoulder. Schmid could not reduce it and
could only offer morphine. The expedition immediately descended
to the Santa Valley. Sigrist and Frédy took the next
bus to Lima, Sigrist to have his shoulder treated, Frédy
to return to Buenos Aires because his vacation time had run
had been a wonderful trip for Frédy with only one missing
ingredient: Dorly. She had stayed behind in Buenos Aires,
making this a rare occasion when the Marmillods did not climb
together. Yet the couple would return to the Cordillera Blanca.
In September 1949, they attempted Aguja Nevado, reaching an
altitude 200 meters short of the summit.
the arrival of Christiane in December 1948 the Marmillod family
was complete with four daughters. The climbs of the next few
years were exciting ones.
February 1950 came the first ascent of the heavily glaciated
Alto de los Arrieros (5000 meters). Except for nearby Volcán
Sosneado, this is the southernmost five-thousand meter peak
in the Andes. Companions on the climber were Otto and Lorenzo
Pfenniger, father and son. Pfenniger senior was a famous andinista
of Swiss extraction who made numerous first ascents, primarily
on the Chilean side of the Cordillera.
March 1951, Konrad Brunner and Marta Soini joined the Marmillods
for an expedition to Tupungato (6550 meters), the highest
Andean summit south of Aconcagua. They spent a full week approaching
the massif with mules and on foot, reaching a foresummit a
few meters below the highest point. Thick clouds prevented
them finding the true summit. An attempt was also made on
Sierra Bella (5230 meters), but the exertions of Tupungato
had drained the party's energy. Frédy called the climb
a "long calvary", and no wonder. After turning back
at 5000 meters, the group took a short cut back to the tents
and promptly lost its way in an ocean of nieves penitentes.
A miserable bivouac followed.
three or four years, Sandoz offered its Swiss employees two
months off to visit the homeland. The Marmillods arranged
these vacations to coincide with the European winter. The
family rented a chalet in the Alps and went skiing. At night
friends arrived to dine on fondue or something equally appetizing
– Frédy had a reputation for appreciating fine
food and drink – and the parties and good times might
last until dawn. Elvira became adept at cooking for large
groups of people and she learned to speak French during these
stays in Europe.
Marmillods skied quieter, less accessible corners of the Alps.
Cross-country skiing in tracks? Too boring; they would save
it for old age. Ski mountaineering with skins and lock-down
cable bindings brought them great joy. They shunned ski lifts
and were even known to ski uphill beneath a liftline because
they would rather exercise than wait in line! Later in life
they relaxed a bit and allowed themselves the luxury of a
ski lift because it permitted them to go further.
1952 the Marmillods prepared to tackle the Monarch once again.
Up until then only two routes had been climbed on Aconcagua:
the normal route from the northwest and the "Polish"
route up the Northeast Glacier. Riding through the Horcones
Valley in 1948, Frédy and Dorly had admired the South
Ridge, silhouetted sharply against the blue sky, and they
began toying with the idea of a new route. They studied the
ridge from various summits and vantage points to the west,
and in February 1952, they arrived with Michel Ruedin, a fellow
Swiss, to attempt it. Bad weather intervened and they had
to be satisfied with an ascent of the normal route, covered
in deep snow.
Lionel Terray and Guido Magnone, two members of a French expedition,
climbed Fitzroy, a very challenging peak in Patagonia. When
the French expedition returned to Buenos Aires it was fêted
continuously for three weeks, and the Marmillods held a celebration
party at their home. The pièce de résistance
was a grand cake in the shape of Fitzroy. Lionel Terray and
Franciso Ibañez shared the honor of making the first
reputation of Aconcagua's South Face had reached France, and
the expedition planned a visit to look the mountain over.
Frédy was invited to join and he agreed instantly.
The group arrived in March 1952 and found the South Ridge
an attractive objective from which to obtain good views of
the South Face. The climbers reconnoitered the lower slopes
of the Southwest Face, searching for the system of couloirs
that Frédy had observed and photographed from peaks
across the valley. Close at hand, however, the key couloir
was swallowed up by the immensity and complexity of the West
Face. It has been said that this flank of Aconcagua holds
more interest for the geologist than for the mountaineer.
The group gave up and returned to Plaza de Mulas to make an
attempt by the normal route.
looked forward eagerly to the ascent with Lionel Terray, a
renowned world-class alpinist, but fate decided otherwise.
Frédy suddently came down with an agonizing toothache
and was obliged to return hastily to Buenos Aires for dental
work It was a bitter disappointment that he regretted for
it turned out, most of the French climbers were stricken with
altitude sickness and also forfeited the ascent. The only
two to reach the summit were Terray and Lieutenant Francisco
the Argentine liaison officer with the Fitzroy expedition,
was a man of boundless energy, ambition, and charm. An original
caballero, a true gentleman, he was well liked by many people
and he had climbed Aconcagua four times. Inspired by Maurice
Herzog and Annapurna, he was planning the first Argentinian
expediition to the Himalaya.
Grajales, a man of similar character, was chosen to be a member
of the Himalayan team. Like Ibañez, he was one of the
best Argentinian climbers of the day. Grajales possessed an
well –developed sense of humor that endeared him to
anyone he met, including the Marmillods. He recalls meeting
Frédy and Dorly:
1952, as I was descending to Plaza de Mulas after having made
a solo ascent of Aconcagua, I came upon two packs in front
of the refugio. I stole a lemon from one of them: it belonged
to Federico Marmillod. Thus I came to know him and thus he
included me his project of climbing the coveted South Ridge.
Marmillod was a very good andinista, a true mountaineering
pioneer. He was one of those climbers who opened up routes
and always wanted to do new things in the Cordillera. His
wife Dorly also distinguished herself on difficult climbs."
[quote from newspaper]
same year, as part of their training for the Himalayan expedition,
Grajales and Ibañez made a reconnaissance of the Southeast
Ridge of Aconcagua, whose upper part coincides with the Polish
Route. They encountered many problems attempting to gain access
the ridge and gave up, opting to join the Marmillods the following
year on the South Ridge.
climb commenced from the Horcones Valley in mid-January, 1953.
Ibañez had just descended from the summit of Aconcagua,
his fifth ascent, while the Marmillods had made the first
ascent of Cerro Mirador (5509 m), which they named for its
marvelous view of the Monarch's stupendous South Face. Grajales
was waiting for them at Plaza de Mulas.
three mules and a baquiano (muleteer), the climbers traversed
the western slopes to a camp which had been sited the year
before. At 5500 meters, this was the highest point accessible
by mules, but only with great difficulty. An entire day had
been spent preparing the route with ice axes, and one of the
beasts took a fifty-meter tumble, luckily without serious
consequences for itself or its load.
a day of reconnaissance, the ascent began in earnest on January
20, each climber carrying fifteen kilos. Trusting their lives
to sleeping bags, air mattresses, and a four man Zdarsky bivouac
sack, they boldly left the tents behind, to be recovered days
later by the baquiano.
6000 and 6600 meters, the South Ridge was broken by a series
of vertical and impractical towers of congolomerate rock.
The key to the route, therefore, was a great couloir just
west of the ridge, but access to it was complicated by a band
of rock one-hundred meters high that girdled the Southwest
Face. Rather than attack the band directly, the foursome traversed
for two to three kilometers beneath the band until they found
an easy passage through it. They climbed to the base of the
first tower and then descended two-hundred meters across talus
to the entrance of the couloir, where they placed a bivouac
underneath an overhanging rock. The net elevation gain was
only two-hundred meters.
of the next day was spent in the couloir. After several hundred
meters it narrowed to a snow chute where the climbers donned
crampons and roped up for the first time. Shortly after they
had passed through the narrowestg part, a large block toppled
off the wall above and plowed through the constriction, the
only rockfall observed during the ascent. The couloir widened
into a steep slope, and at 6400 meters the second bivouac
the night the weather deteriorated," wrote Frédy.
"Clouds descended on our mountain and showers of snow
swirled about in the violent wind. Little by little, snow
filtered into our down sleeping bags, soaking everything.
I dreamed of an evil genie, hidden high on our route, who
was gleefully operating a gigantic snow making machine. In
the morning we laboriously extracted ourselves from our frozen
shells. Our morale was low, and given the unstable weather,
there was no thought of going higher. We had food and fuel
for two days. Weather permitting, we would attempt the traverse.
If not, we would go down. Fortunately, the weather improved
in the afternoon. The setting sun, glowing with auspicious
colors, raised our hopes before the harsh hours of the night
descended upon us.
23. The friendly roar of the alcohol stove had been in our
ears since 2 a.m. We stuffed our packs and at 7:30 started
on the last lap. The first two hours were the worst. We had
only climbed a little bit when the wind assailed us violently,
stabbing us with cold despite thick layers of clothing. Following
a secondary ridge on the West Face, we arrived at its junction
with the true South Ridge at about 6700 meters. The sky was
cloudless and the view extended far into the distance in every
direction as if we were looking down from an airplane. We
stopped to massage the feet of our companions and continued
along the ridge, which we never left. Whereas we had thought
this would be an icy knife edge, we were presented with a
broad crest where snow alternated with loose rocks. There
was only one tricky step, a short rib of unstable rock. Little
by little the wind died out, so much so that this day would
be the most beautiful during the three weeks we spent in the
Cordillera. We ascended at a serene pace, enjoying immensely
our walk in the sky. From Mercedario to Tupungato, the glorious
succession of peaks and glaciers of the Central Cordillera
spread out over two-hundred kilometers, the relief enhanced
by bands of puffy clouds that hugged the bottoms of the valleys.
More than anything, we were entranced by the tremendous South
Face, whose precipitous slopes, interrupted by ice balconies,
opened up beneath our feet. The rocks that we trundled into
the void toward the Lower Horcones Glacier, whose dark carapace
sprawled far down into the valley, three-thousand meters below.
Already we were planning routes on the South Face and climbing
mentally from shelf to shelf.
five in the afternoon we gave each other the traditional 'abrazo'
[hug] on the South Summit of Aconcagua (6930 m). There, well
planted in a cairn, we found the ice axe left six years earlier
by Thomas Kopp and Lothar Herold, the first people to have
reached this summit, using the route from the north. I exchanged
axes, little realizing that a few days later mine would be
carried down in turn by a Japanese expedition and offered
solemnly to President Perón. Such are the little tricks
of fate on the summit of Aconcagua!
ridge along which we continued was narrow and required care
since it was rather icy. After two or three hundred meters,
the ground became easier and we finally removed our crampons
and coiled the rope. Shortly before the familiar caneleta
of the normal route, we passed the guanaco corpse which had
given Kopp – and the readers of his book – such
a surprise. Ibañez cut off a hoof as a souvenir. The
nearby north summit seemed to greet us like a friend on the
other side of the street. We would have liked to answer its
call and put the finishing touch on our traverse, but time
was short and another night in the open was definitely not
part of our plan. At nine o'clock, shortly after nightfall,
we slid one after the other into the tiny General Juan Péron
shelter. Grajales quickly cleared out the snow that had blown
in through the door that was hanging askew on its hinges.
next day we descended to Plaza de Mulas after one long rest
at the Plantamura Hut and another at the first trickle of
water, which we found at the foot of the talus slope. What
delicious music running water makes! Our parched throats gulped
down great draughts, and then we basked in the sun's caresses
… several days in a frozen world gives these sensations
an exceptional intensity. But these feelings are soon blunted
when biting cold and craving thirst are taken away. All the
same, the memory of our beautiful, high-altitude adventure
took root in us, ready to shine a light upon the darkest of
route up the West Face and South Ridge, which we had the satisfaction
to open, offers only moderate technical difficulties. The
route is nevertheless much more interesting, more alpine,
than the customary route from the north, which is really no
more than a mule path for nine-tenths of its length. We spent
seven days on the mountain, including one for reconnaissance
and another sitting out bad weather. Undoubtedly, a well-acclimated
team could make the traverse in four or five days given favorable
conditions." [ACAB 1954]
West Face and South Ridge, to date the only new route on Aconcagua
made by a team which included a woman, was not repeated until
1979. Fernando Grajales explained why: "I believe it's
because the approach to the ridge is complex. Higher up the
route is not difficult. But the West Face requires a lot of
study because in the lower part there are many couloirs and
gullies and it is necessary to choose the right one."
Marmillod's two companions went ahead with their Himalayan
plans the following year. Under Ibañez' leadership
the "President Perón" expedition reached
8000 meters on Dhaulagiri. During the stormy retreat, Ibañez
developed frostbitten feet to the point that he could no longer
walk. A heroic rescue by all available Andeans and Sherpas
could not alter the tragic outcome. Ibañez died in
the Kathmandu hospital from his injuries. Argentinian mountaineering
was deprived of its most enthusiastic proponent, and the Marmillods
lost a close friend.
their third ascent of Aconcagua, Frédy and Dorly shifted
their attention from high-altitude mountaineering to rock
climbing and easy glacier tours. They began to bring along
their daughters, and climbing became a family affair, except
for Christiane who was still too young. Following an initiation
to rock climbing at the Sierra de la Ventana, the girls received
their first taste of andinismo in the Lake District of southern
vacations from the mid to late fifties were spent on Lake
Todos los Santos, a convenient base for exploring the Lake
District. On the opposite shore stood the sharp peak of Puntiagudo
(2494 m), first climbed in 1937, when one of the first ascent
party had been killed on the descent. On account of that tragedy
and the peak's notoriously rotten rock, Walter Koch (Marta
Soini's father) forbade anyone to attempt it. But the Marmillods
could not resist the call of this little Matterhorn. From
Koch's house at the foot of the mountain, Frédy and
Dorly set out accompanied by daughters from both families.
Mariette Marmillod recalled that the rock seemed to crumble
away as they looked at it. The party did not summit on that
occasion, but on a later attempt Frédy and Dorly overcame
the difficult summit pyramid and reached the top.
ascents of those years included Volcán Lanin (3776
m), a boring three-day climb with an unplanned bivouac on
the descent that left the girls rather sore afterward; climbs
in the Los Tres Picos massif (2600 m), an impressive range
of rock peaks and spires that rise out of surrounding glaciers;
and several ascents of Tronador (3554 m), the highest and
most beautiful mountain in the vicinity of Bariloche.
and Dorly missed the higher Andean summits to the north, and
in 1956 they returned to Aconcagua with J. Guajardo. Their
goal was to climb the Southeast Ridge, but the weather and
technical difficulties made this impossible. They succeeded
in making the second ascent of Cerro Ameghino (5883 m, first
by a woman), a peak northest of Aconcagua.
López (2076 m), an interesting rock peak near the Bariloche
ski area, attracted the Marmillod clan several times. Once
when the family was on an easy ridge, a young climber was
attempting to solo a steep face nearby. On the summit, Frédy
looked around, called out, and listened. There was no sign
of the solo climber and no answers to his calls. Later in
the day, Frédy found the youth's battered body at the
foot of the face.
incident and other accidents had the effect of increasing
Frédy's concern for others. If a person in the refugio
seemed inexperienced or poorly equipped, or said he was going
to try something that Frédy felt he should not do alone,
he would keep an eye out for him. On occasion he changed route
or delayed his own plans so that he might be in a better position
Clerch, an active Bariloche climber, recalls one such occasion:
"We arrived at the old refugio on Tronador, exhausted
and soaked from bad weather. The hut was full of people who
milled about in the corners of the shelter. When we arrived,
a man got up, lit the fire and made us tea. He introduced
himself as Frédy Marmillod. The next day, we left in
hopes of reaching the summit. The weather was not good and
we had to turn back. When we got back to the refugio everyone
had left except one person, Marmillod. He said that since
conditions were bad, he wanted to wait and see if we returned
safely from the summit. He bid us goodbye and left."
[letter from Semiramis Fino to Mariette Marmillod]