Torres Del Paine Climbing Logistics

Below is an unofficial and incomplete gringo-guide to climbing logistics for the Torre Towers in Torres del Paine National Park. It is based on my personal experience from my trip to the Park in February 2018. Hopefully this will provide a decent overview of the pre-climbing process required to climb on these beautiful monoliths. To my regular readers: this is not a standard blogpost. If you aren’t specifically planning a climbing trip to Torres Del Paine, I would not recommend reading anymore. If you want to read about my personal trip to the park, click here.

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The morning dawns cold, clear, and spectacular on the East Face of the Towers of Paine. The Central Tower is the left-most peak.

 

Pretrip

Permits:

YOU MUST APPLY FOR A CLIMBING PERMIT WELL BEFORE ARRIVING AT THE PARK. This is big one, that is why it’s first. If you read only one thing in this article, make it this section.

The “DIFROL” permit is issued by the Chilean Foreign Ministry. In theory, you can fill out the application online (in Spanish), but the link to the application was broken when we tried to use it. There is an email address listed on the website that you should contact in case of technical difficulties. We emailed this address (in Spanish) and within a week a reply came with the appropriate form to fill out and submit.  After filling out and submitting the form, the Ministry will email you a response in two weeks or less. Print out this DIFROL form and be sure to bring it with you when you go to enter the park.

Pro tip #1: Be sure to be very generous with the dates on your DIFROL application. There are no negatives to having more time than you plan to stay listed on your application, but it is a problem if you have too little.  Give yourself as much extra time as you think you could possibly need, and then a week more. As the owner of Redpoint Hostel said; “These are the mountains people change their flights home for.”

Pro tip #2: Also be sure to be very generous when listing what routes you plan to climb when you are in Torres Del Paine National Park. Think of your DIFROL form as like a passport, and the routes you list as country visas. You will only be allowed to travel to (and stay in) locations that are logical for the routes you have listed on the DIFROL form. Even if you only want to climb on the Central Tower like we did, be sure to list at least one peak/route in the French or Bader Valley in case weather conditions favor the smaller peaks. At the very least, list one route from both the West and East Faces of the towers so you have permission to go up and camp on either side.

Other Requirements:

In addition to the pre-printed DIFROL, you must bring your passport and proof of rescue insurance. The rescue insurance that that American Alpine Club provides to all its members is enough, just be sure to print something out that actually tells about what the insurance benefit covers (it does not say directly on the membership card).

Be sure to bring a color copy of your passport photo page and rescue insurance information. I am not absolutely sure that this is necessary, but the staff seemed to really appreciate it when it came time to register.

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A cold, grey day in Torres Del Paine. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

Strategy:

Times are a changing when it comes to the Torres Del Paine climbing game. With the improvement of weather forecasting and (mostly) improved access to wifi, the more common strategy for climbers these days is similar to that in El Chalten. Live in town (Puerto Natales), and head into the hills when the forecast shows a window. I feel this approach is better for people hoping to free climb routes in a short push, as the forecast does have to be more ideal for such attempts. If you plan to bigwall/aid climb/fix pitches, it might be better just to camp in the Park, so you can take advantage of any short window, no matter how brief. This later strategy is the one we chose.

Getting there:

The first step is to get yourself to Puerto Natales, Chile. Most folks travel to the park via a 4.5 hour bus-ride from El Calafate, Argentina. This is a result of flights often being cheaper and more direct to El Calafate than to Punta Arenas, Chile. If you take the bus, know that crossing the border is an experience. Lot of getting on and off at different checkpoints. It is worth noting that the Chilean border is very strict about what foods they allow in the country. Anything fresh or not in a sealed bag/container will be taken from you. They search every bag by x-ray and with sniffer-dogs. Best to leave the home-made snacks/dehydrated meals behind and bring the packaged stuff. If you do decide to risk it, your strategy should be to list on the customs deceleration from -some- of the contraband items you have with you, but not all. I have been told that in this case they will search your bag and often confiscate only the biggest offenders, letting you slide with the rest. If you list nothing though and they find out, bad things will happen.

Because of the way the bus schedules line up, once in Puerto Natales you will have to spend the night. This is okay, as Puerto Natales is where you want to do all of your stocking up anyways. It is a big town with plenty of choices for groceries, restaurants, lodging, and outdoor stores.  Canister fuel, white gas, dehydrated meals, and basic climbing equipment can all be found within walking distance of most hostels. You can also make campsite reservations in town, more about this below.

Special places of interest include:

Redpoint Hostel– Definitely the climber’s scene in Puerto Natales. Good beta, super friendly-climber staff, bouldering wall, competitive prices. These folks are good people. They were welcoming and inviting, gave out up-to-date route beta and condition reports, and even offered me access to the bouldering wall even though I wasn’t staying there. They also have the most thorough online database of climbing route topos in the park (its a large part of the collection you will find at Erratic Rock, and much better organized). Lastly, its a good place to sell gear post-trip or  to organize a trip to the semi-close sport climbing area.

Hostal Bellevista– If you want something a little more quite, secluded, and all-inclusive, try the rooms at Hostal Bellevista. The staff is exceptionally friendly and accommodating; they will bend over backward to make your stay pleasant. The rooms are all private and the amount of guest limited. Breakfast is included in the price of a room and they have a big yard  and common area where you can sort all of your gear. Both places are happy to hold all the stuff for you that you dont want to take into the park at no extra cost and are very flexible when it comes to reserving a room when the time comes to leave the park.

Erratic Rock Gear Rental Shop– This is where all the hand drawn topos are stored from past expeditions. At one point there was some organization to the system, but not these days. Ask to have a look, take the folders, and pick a spot on the floor to layout and get to work. Best to take a fully charged phone for taking pictures.

After you are done taking care of business in Puerto Natales, get an early-morning start and take a 3-hour bus ride to the the Park where the fun really begins.

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The long walk to the base.

Entering the Park:

First thing you must do is pay your entry fee. Get off at the park entrance (first stop). Save yourself some trouble and leave your stuff on the bus. Join the hordes of day-trippers as you work your way through the entry process. This takes a while. After the entry process get back on the bus. Be sure to tell your driver where you want to go and pay attention for where he says to get off. All the bus companies are different and with some you might have to change buses.

Once you navigate your way to Administration, you have to register for climbing. As mentioned above for the DIFROL, have all your required documents, photocopies, and at least one route name per basecamp site you may wish to visit memorized. Also, they will ask you for an expedition name. Might be fun to have one thought up, versus having to think one up on the spot. While I have heard horror stories about this part, our experience was nothing but pleasant. Just be sure to have what you are supposed to have. At the end of the check-in process you will be given your official CONAF form, allowing you to climb in the park. You will also be assigned a field ranger to periodically check in with. It is normally the ranger who is in charge of the last staffed camp you will pass on your way into the mountains. Our was very friendly, as I imagine most are. After showing him our CONAF form he let us do as we pleased. Just be sure to wave at them every once in a while to let them know you are alive, and dont loose your CONAF form!

After your done at Administration, take bus back to entrance (for an extra fee, maybe 5000 pesos or the equivalent in USD, just be sure to have some cash for this) and then take short shuttle bus (additional 3000 pesos) to Hotel Las Torres. All the back-and-forth with the buses and registration takes the better part of a day. With this is mind it is best to book a camp spot here (Las Torres) for the first night. You can book this in advance in Puerto Natales. This ensures you get a good nights rest and can get an early start the next morning. It is much cheaper than staying at Chileno Camp and it would be a long hike to Campemento Torres that day (they also do not allow hiking at night on the trails in the park, so keep this in mind).

The next day hike towards Campamento y Refugio Chileno which is about 2 hours away up the trail. Then, proceed uphill to the Campamento Torres (additional hour+), which is free to stay at with your CONAF form. The trail to this point is a highway/conga line of day hikers and horseback riders heading up to see the views of the Torre Towers. If you wish to climb on the West Face of the Towers, continue from Campamento Torres further up towards the Valle del Silencio to “Campamento Japones” (Japanese Camp). This is approx. another hour walk from Torres. This trail is technically unmaintained (but still easy to follow) and is only accessible to those with a guide or CONAF form. The Japanese Camp consist of a small tarp-and-log cooking shelter and a few spots for tents. Its pretty much the last flat place to camp with easy access to water. From here you can hike to most routes on the towers in 3-4hrs. The trail is mostly obvious, especially at the beginning. 

Pro tip #1: The bivy at the Bonington Cave is the closest decent bivy to the west faces of the towers.

Pro tip #2: Many of the pay campsites/refugios in the park offer showers, hot meals, and staple foods should you find yourself wanting. Be sure to carry some cash with you in the park if you plan to indulge.

For climbing routes on the East Face, it is best to stay at Campamento Torres. Enjoy the flush toilets, cooking shelter, and protection from the wind. To get to the base of the East Face routes you must hike the trail toward Mirador Los Torres. Soon after passing the treeline, the trail takes a hard right-hand turn. It is here that you will want to continue straight, leaving the normal hiking trail. Fight your way through the brush and across a few sections of exposed talus. Soon you will come out into a small drainage area which will be on the left side of the lake (you probably wont be able to see the lake from here though) which you makes for easy hiking. Soon, the terrain begins to get steeper. Pick your way up the ever steepening talus/drainage until you spot a very large “split boulder”. You will know it when you see it. This is your bivy spot. The hike is maybe three hours with heavy packs from Campamento Torres

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Side-view of the Split Boulder. I’ve had worse bivies.

Climbing:

The subject of actual climbing on the towers is a subject better left for someone else. Below is just a very brief description and overview of the areas.

-The Towers:

  • West Face routes are generally more mild in grades and shorter than the East Face routes.
  • The East Face has an easier approach and generally much more sheltered from the wind.

The French Valley:

  • Despite few mentions online, the French Valley has seen a fair amount of activity. At least most of the obvious, more moderate lines have been climbed. Still, for a stronger free climbing team or those teams looking for a short aid objective, there is some new route potential left.

The Bader Valley.

  • By far the least explored valley in the Park as far as climbing goes. Word has it that many of the peaks in this valley are more sheltered from the wind than other peaks in the park, so it might be a good option if the weather is good but winds are bad.
  • Most of the obvious routes have been climbed, but still a good bit of new routing potential.
  • Check with the Redpoint Hostel folks for the latest info on what has as hasn’t yet been climbed.
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It’s a view that hardly gets old.

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Trip Report: Muir Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite, CA

The Objective: An aid climbing/big wall style ascent of Muir Wall; VI, 5.9, A2 or C4. The route, described as “one of El Cap’s greatest natural lines”, ascends just left of the infamous Nose route. With 33 pitches from ground to summit, it is one of the longest routes on El Cap. While never totally outrageous in the grades, the climbing difficulties are fairly sustained.

The Background: As two big wall noobs, Tess and myself knew we were going to be pretty useless on our own. Sure, we had dabbled with some aid (and plenty of french freeing) in the past, and I even managed to epic my way up a two-day ascent of The Glass Menagerie in North Carolina. Still, we were moderate alpine climbers, not big wall badasses. Yet many of our future mountain objectives require aid climbing skills, so it was time to learn a new skill set. We recruited our former boss, current friend, big wall all-star, Arthur Kearns of Seneca Rocks Climbing School , to venture out to the Valley with us and show us how to get our Wall Rat on.

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Learning how to jug on the fixed lines to Heart Ledges. Photo by Tess Ferguson

Our journey to the Valley began as most good adventures should, with a frantic race to the start line. Arthur had agreed to this trip with only one stipulation, he would not go for less than two week. Tess and I, fresh off an expedition in Alaska’s Arrigetch Peaks, were going to have to push the schedule if we wanted to get the full 14 days. We flew direct from Alaska to Portland, picked up her car, and drove through the night (with occasional stops to buy wall rations) to arrive at SFO in time to get Arthur the next day. Then, with two haulbags lashed to the car’s roofrack,  it was straight to the Valley.

Being the only one having never been to the Valley before, I relinquished control of the vehicle upon entering the park so I could focus on gawking at all.that.granite. It was not the height that struck me, but the volume. That El Cap is a big piece of rock. Not more than 10 minutes after entering the Park we snapped back into reality when we saw the blue lights flashing behind the car. The crashpad has slipped down to covered the rear license plate and Tess hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt. Kindly, ohh so kindly, the ranger let us go only with a warning.

The Climb:

We began our climb on the morning of the September 2nd, 2017.  Step One of our plan involved spending the first two days climbing the route up to Heart Ledges. As far as introductions to aid climbing goes, this is a pretty good one. There are fixed lines permanently in place from Heart Ledges to the ground, so one only needs to go up with enough equipment for the day and simply rappel down to spend each evening on the ground.

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Tess leading out on Pitch 2.

The first day proved to be a hard learning experience for me. It was a 90+ degree day with not a cloud in the sky. We started up the wrong route (Freeblast), but didnt get too far before realizing our error. Finding the correct start (Moby Dick) farther up climber’s left I had the honor of leading that first pitch, a 5.10. While it went clean, I did wish I had brought more than two #3 and one #4 camalots with me.

This is when things began to get challenging. While at the belay ledge and with Tess leading the next pitch I manged not only to break my sunglasses but also chuck a liter of precious water off of the wall. To make matters worse, we found out that one of our water bladders had also leaked an additional half liter of water into the bottom of the day pack. Already carrying less water than we really needed for the day, this would become a fairly serious limitation later on.

Our goal was to make it past the large traverse of Pitch 6 that day. This should be reasonable for most parties. Unfortunately for us, due to heat, lack of water, and a really slow lead of mine on Pitch 5 (be sure to back clean a bit on this one), we decided to call it a day at the top of the pitch. We fixed one of our ropes in place and rapped down and left, hitting the permanent fixed lines and continuing back to the base.

Waking early on Day 2 we made our way quickly to the base and began jugging up the fixed lines to our high point. With wildfires nearby, the Valley filled with smoke everyday and by the time we had reached the top of 5, we could hardly see the Cathedrals just across the Valley. This day would prove much more successful than the day before and we were able to climb all the way to Heart Ledges. Pitch 6 was our first of many experiences with cam hooks. This traversing pitch can be quite heady for a new leader with all the back-cleaning that is required. Also, Pitch 6 is challenging to clean and offers the second some proper practice for cleaning a traverse; all useful skills to have dialed in before committing to the higher wall. Pitches 7-10 went smooth enough. It was extremely helpful to have two #4 and two #5 camalots with us for those pitches.

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Arthur jugging with a view of the hazy Cathedrals in the background.

Upon reaching Heart Ledges we actually found fixed ropes in place that went all the way to the bolted anchor atop the vertical section of Pitch 12, above Mammoth Terraces. While the lines were definitely permanent, and cut specifically for this job, they were not of the same “permanence” as the lines stretching from Heart to the ground (which consisted of two, independent, side-by-side lines, versus just a single line that went up from Heart to Pitch 11.5). The conclusion being that I am not sure the lines going from Heart to 11.5 will be there in future seasons.

Day 3 was when the real work began; hauling the pigs up to Heart Ledges. Our two haul bags were atrociously heavy. With the forecast calling for more days in the 90s, we went as light as we could on water, taking just over 2.5 liters per person, per day, for 6 days. Still, this still ended up being over 100lbs of just water. Add in everything else needed for three people wall climbing and you end up with some soul-crushing haul bags. Tess, immediately upon standing up for the first time with one of the haul bags on, fell over backwards right there in the parking area. Even the short approach to the base of the route was brutal and time consuming.

Moving the pigs up the wall also proved to be quite the challenge. On the more slabby pitches it required two people hauling, even with the 3:1 haul system we were using. Slowly, we got the pigs all the way up to Heart, and then opted to move them one pitch more, to the right side of Mammoth Terraces. Here we staged our pigs and ledge for when we would truly begin life on the wall. Once again, we rapped back down to ground for the night.

Back at our cushy Camp 4 campsite, Arthur decided to take a rest day. Originally, this was the plan for all of us, but for Tess and I the thought of having only jugged the pitch from Heart to Mammoth, and not actually led it, proved to be too much. We woke early and blasted up the fixed lines, with only a single rope, a light rack, and a couple extra two-liters of water for the stash. We completed Pitch 11 and we back on the ground by mid-day. Then, we made the most of life in the Valley. Cold drinks, ice cream, and watching contenders give their all on Midnight Lightning attempts. In the evening we prepped as much as we could for the morning’s departure. The weather looked good, and we were going up.

Leaving behind the fixed lines and flat ground, we were now fully committed to the wall. Our goal for Day 4 was to climb from Mammoth Terraces through Pitch 17, hauling to and bivying on Grey Ledges (top of 15) and fixing the last two . On the whole, the climbing went fairly smooth, requiring a healthy selection of cams (including some mid-sized offsets [Metolius 0/1 and 1/2]), and offset nuts. As a party of three with only one double portaledge between us, we were fortunate enough to find a nice spot to set up for the night.  By hanging the portalegde just a foot or so below a natural 10′ x 1.5′ ledge, we were able to have a comfortable (enough) sleeping spot for everyone.

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First time using the ledge on Yosemite! Photo by Arthur Kearns.

The morning after our first night on the wall we faced one of the logistical cruxes of the route; the traversing Pitch 18. With three of us, all armed with two-way radios, it proved to be a less challenging ordeal than we had anticipated. We positioned a team member at each anchor and one smack in the middle of the pitch. This proved to be a real live-saver as there is a flake/horn that sits about 6′ below middle of the pitch, just perfectly positioned to snag the haul line. While the radios were a bit overkill for a party of three, they would be a real assets for a team of two on a windy day. Our 20m lower-out line proved adequate and got the job done. Thanks to Arthur, we went into the lowerout early in the day with a clear plan, and this time things worked out just as we hoped.

In staying with modern etiquette, our intention was to try and climb as clean as possible. While we were equipped with hammers and pins, they would be relegated to live in the haul bag unless absolutely necessary, at which time they would be sent up to the leader using the tag line. The first real test of this came on Pitch 19, after the traverse.  Tess led this pitch, the first C3 of the route, with style. Following this I free-climbed Pitch 20, finding the climbing not overly difficult but mildly worrisome due to the numerous loose blocks and sharp flakes I encountered.

The top of Pitch 20 was to be our home for the night. After hauling up the pigs and setting up the ledge, Arthur and I left the organizational task to Tess and went up to climb and fix the next two pitches. I had the distinct “pleasure” to lead Pitch 21. This pitch has a notable section of awkwardness in the form of a surprisingly unenjoyable offwidth-like slot. It took a mix of free moves in approach shoes, classic french-free techniques, and traditional aid climbing to battle my way through it. To make matters more intense, there was a very pissed off (thankfully small) bird who had built its nest deep in the crack and wanted to fly out just at the time my body blocked the exit. Beauty ended up following this Beast as Arthur lead a lengthy and enjoyable Pitch 22. Be sure to back clean when you can on this one; its long! Pitches done and ropes fixed to the top of 22, we rapped back to our ledge just as dusk began in earnest.

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Arthur cleaning Pitch 21.

That night, as there was no good natural ledge for one of us to sleep on, Arthur unleashed his secret weapon. Having modified a lightweight, nylon hammock, he had expertly sewn it to the ideal dimensions for attaching to the bottom of our portaledge. Being as he was the inventor, he also chose to be the test pilot. While I dont think it was the most comfortable night for Arthur, it did serve as a proof of concept and performed as intended.

We knew going into it that Day 6 was going to be a tough one. The goal was to get ourselves and the pigs to the portaledge bivy on the top of Pitch 26. The climbing,  consistently more difficult than the prior days, contained two of the three crux pitches of the route. After jugging and hauling to our previous high point, Tess took the lead on Pitch 23, the first of these cruxes. The pitch opens with a pretty serious pendulum followed by an equally serious section of aid climbing. Fixed pins, cam hooks, hand-placed peckers and plenty of offset brass were incorporated in pitch. Never once did our fearless leader call for the hammer though. Pitch 24 was Arthur’s lead, another C3 pitch. Ripping a piece of gear down low, he was able to collect himself enough to get back on and finish the pitch.

The second crux, Pitch 25, fell to me and proved to be one of the coolest of the route. A single, straight-as-an-arrow crack splits an otherwise featureless face. The climbing is continuous and challenging, but never (too) terrifying, and the position could simply not be any better. But beware! Clipping the anchor on this pitch is a nightmare! It took me around 20 minutes to do and I tried every trick in the book. From the last placement under a small roof one has to lean back and stand tall to have a shot at clipping the anchor. For me, at 5’6″, I needed a stiff draw with the gate of the carabiner held open (with a sling) to barely be able to clip the anchor. Finishing up the climbing for the day, Tess lead through the awkward terrain of Pitch 26, back cleaning often between fixed pieces.

Arriving at the ledge, it was past dark by the time we got the haulbags up. Thankfully, the bivy was as good as advertised. Again, we set up the portaledge just below a natural 6′ x 1′ ledge, which served as an ideal night-time perch for the third. After devouring some Fruit Cocktail in Heavy Syrup, we then set up the ledge and got to sleep.

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Tess enjoying her room with a view.

In the daylight the view from our position was spectacular. To our right were these diorite bands that reminded me of dinosaur scales. To our left, a blank sea of granite. Above us stretched an unbroken, 300′ long, left-facing corner. Below, the whole of Yosemite Valley spread out before us.

If we hadn’t lost our status as big wall noobs yet, Day 7 is when we really shrugged it off. The goal of the day was to fix lines from our camp to the top of Pitch 30. Being that our bivy spot was so good, we voted to just spend another night in the same place. Arthur lead Pitch 27, and thus having completed his leading for the day (and us not having anything to haul), he rapped back down to our bivy and spent the day organizing gear, repacking the haulbags and enjoying the position.

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Arthur and myself eyeing up the next pitches. Photo by Tess Ferguson

As a warm-up, I opted to lead a really enjoyable Pitch 28 that featured endless, bomber cam hook placements. Pitch 29, the crux of the route, was intense. It took me two gripping hours to lead. Lots of shallow, mid-sized c3 and offset cam placements were found in old angled piton slots. The cams were separated by sections of hand-placed medium and large birdbeaks. Thankfully, half-way through the pitch is small section of usable crack in which you can build a life-station in. Beyond that, more hand-placed beaks and a magical, hand-placed .5″ sawed angle got me to the top hammer-free.

Following this Tess lead Pitch 30, weaving her way through awkward roofs and over sketchy copperheads (one of which ripped out on her). We rapped back down our newly fixed lines to a delighted Arthur. If we had wanted to I believe we could have made it to the top that evening, but in no hurry and enjoying ourselves, we decided to spend the last night on the wall. Knowing that the major difficulties were behind us, we feasted on the extra food and water we had left.

Day 8, our final day on the route, we hauled to our previous high-point and began the trickery required to get ourselves off the wall. The climbing on Pitch 31 proved to be pretty damn terrifying for me as the leader; it should not be underestimated. Also the “5.7 mantle” on Pitch 32 makes for an exciting finish.

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Feeling pretty sketched on Pitch 31. Photo by Tess Ferguson

Reaching the summit, we took in moment and reveled in the company of each other. Then we began what can only be described as the worst and most difficult part of the whole trip, the hike off. I was caught woefully unprepared for the difficulties involved in the super sketchy down scrambling with massive haul bags and rain beginning to fall. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

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One more picture at the top before the epic hike down.

Gear:

Below is a severely abridged gear list along with notes on what we used and what we didnt.

Ropes:

  • Tag line (6mmx60m)
  • Haul line (10mmx60m static)
  • Lower out line (9.4mx20m)
  • Lead line (10mmx70m)
  • Lead line (10.1mmx60m)

Rack:

  • 000c3: doubles
  • 00tcu/00c3-3c4: triples (only doubles of 1-3 after fixed lines)
  • Wanted five .5-.75 in total
  • #4 c4: doubles
  • #5 c4: doubles (single after fixed lines)
  • No number 6
  • Offset cams (1.5 sets, heavy on the small sizes): definitely useful, could have used more of the Metolius purple/blue and blue/yellow. Essp useful on c4 pitch
  • Cam hooks (2 mds) – wanted one micro and two large
  • Peckers (2 full sets) only used 2md and 2lg
  • Sawed angles (.5” and ⅝”): smaller size was used hand placed. No other pitons used.

Other:

  • 32 loose lockers (just enough, could have used more)
  • 10 sport draws: (see long draw note below)
  • 15 long draws (used all draws but only because we short fixed pitches)
  • 34 loose non-locking carabiners (since all our cams had their own racking biner, this was too many)
  • 3 48” slings total
  • 6 cordelettes (Wanted more. 2 cords per anchor: 1 for hauling/docking, one for personal and belaying, one extra for misc. use)
  • 20ft docking line/cordelette for each haul bag

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ode to the Weekend Warrior

“For one year I traveled. For one year I climbed.

From the high latitudes of Norway’s Northwest coast,

To the incredible peaks that Southern Patagonia hosts.

Bigwalls in Yosemite Valley,

snorkeling off a boat in Hawaii.

Cold nights spent under the Alaskan sky,

for a year I was able to spread my wings and fly.”

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Watching a new day dawn from above the clouds.

While it is nice to have one’s wings, what are they without a nest to return to? As my year proceeded I went from admiring every plane takeoff and landing to dreading even the thought of another hour of travel. While I was still enjoying my time spent at the destination, I knew it was time to stop. To take a break from living out of a duffel bag (or three). To have a routine again. To eat and train well. To make some money. To become excited about the journey once again.

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Okay, so sometimes it’s five duffel bags.

Now, and for the last four months, I have been living the life of a Weekend Warrior. No. That is not true. Let me try again. For the last four months I have been living the life of a Sunday Climber (and even that might be giving myself too much credit). Work, school, and training take up all of the weekday hours. Saturday is reserved for meal prep, homework, and spending time with my wife. This leaves Sunday; one day a week for me to go play on the rocks and in the forest. To do the thing that I quite possibly love the most in this world. Yet still, even with this seemingly all-consuming passion and desire, the same desire that has taken me to the far-flung corners of the globe, I still struggle to get out the door many Sundays.

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Sunday cragging in Eastern Finland.

Please, don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to complain. I feel that I am one of the few, lucky people on the planet who has the opportunity to spend each day doing exactly what it is they want to do. I want to be doing what I am doing. I want and need the break; the time to prepare mentally, physically, and financially for the next adventure. I enjoy what I do when I am at home. It is only that with all of responsibilities that come with the Monday through Friday work week, I often struggle to find the motivation to climb, and especially to try hard.

This is a very different struggle to that I face on climbing expeditions. On an expedition you miss things and people. You often pine for the easy life, for a shower and a warm, dry place to sit and rest. Even the though the struggles can be intense, you always know that they are temporary. They don’t feel as long-term, and they aren’t. Not like now. In addition, expeditions are simple. You are there to climb, and climbing is everything. There is none of this balancing act that makes up all of our daily lives. 

And it is with this in mind that my sincerest admiration and respect goes out to all you Weekend Warriors. You all are the real heroes of this climbing game. You all who have the motivation, the skills, and the discipline to get after it on the weekends. You all who make the tough sacrifices, drive the hard bargains, and strike the balance between those pressing obligations and the pursuit of something personal, selfish, and beautiful. It is you who inspire me to be a better climber. Thank you all for setting the bar high, for giving me something to strive for, and for encouraging me to make the most of that brief stretch of time between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.

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Another weekend ends. Photo by Henri Arjanne.

 

Nyt: suomeksi!

On kiva matkustaa, mutta jos ei voi palata kotiin, se on arvotonta. Viime vuonna minä menin joka paikkaan. Norjasta Alaskaan, Jossesta Havaijille, mä menin. Se oli niin onnellista, mutta olin väsyin lopuksi. Oli vaikeaa mennä joka päivä, koko ajan. Mä halusin taukoa.

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Uusi päivää, uusi lentoa.

Nyt ja vimeiset neljä kuukautta, Minulla on ollut tuo tauko. Arkipäivisin teen töitä, menen kouluun ja reenaan. Lauantaisin, mä teen ruokaa, teen läksyjä, ja rentoudun mun vaimoni kanssa. Ja Sunnuntaisin? Sunnuntaisin on kiipeilypäivä. Vaikka mä rakastan kiipeilyä, niin kun sunnuntai tule, miksi on niin vaikeaa mennä ulos ja kiipeillä?

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Olhava viikonloppu.

Ehkä olen laiska, ehkä olen kiireinen. Mä en tiedä oikeasti, mutta tiedän, että se on vaikeaa. On vaikeaa tasa painoilla työelämän, kotielämän, ja kiipeilyelämän välillä. Ja minulle sen pitäsi olla helppoa. Minulla ei ole lapsia, ja minun työnantaja on ymmärtäväinen.

Kun minä ajattelen tätä, olen inspiroidun. Te inspiroitte minua. Te inspiroitte minua olemaan parempi kiipeilijä. Te inspiroitte minua käymään kiipeilyalueilla lähellä minua. Te inspiroitte minua menemään kiipeilemään ja yrittämään kovaa. Kaikille teille Viikonlopun Sankareille, Kiitos paljon.

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Viikonlopun Sankareita Suomessa

 

Training While Traveling

The rain pattered down on my hat brim, each droplet flashing briefly in the light from the streetlamp before smashing into the earth. Dead leaves and old foil food wrappers crunched beneath my running shoes. Occasionally, the headlights from a passing car would blind me before carrying on down the road. It was a dark, cold, evening and there I was, running laps around a Wal-Mart parking lot in Southern New York. “Is this really worth it?”, I thought. Of course whatever the answer, it didn’t really change anything. I had made a commitment and I planned to stick to it. Anyways, I was already wet. What good would it do to stop now?

‘Tis the season for travel, and with all that fun and routine-change training often goes out the window. After almost a year on the road, here are a few tricks I learned to keep you training while enjoying that summer holiday.

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An evening training session with one of the greats. Rocky Balboa and I in Philadelphia. Photo by Henna Jylhä

Before You Go

Choose a training-friendly destination. What do real estate and training have in common? They both share the old mantra “location, location, location”. Think about this in both a big-picture and small-picture sense. Big picture would have you favoring national park visits over exploring the urban jungles. Can’t do that? How about focusing on the small picture then. Look for hotels that have a guest gym or an Airbnb located close to a large park or running trail.

Bring the right tools. A set of running/climbing shoes and a pair of shorts can take you far. This is one of those times when less is more. Do your homework as to what options are available to you, and prepare accordingly.

 

On the Go

Make a daily/weekly plan. This is one of two tips that made the biggest difference in my training. Make a schedule of vacation events and activities that you plan to participate in, and schedule your training time around that. Try to get it on the schedule at least 24 hours in advance so you (and others) can be ready for it. This might require some early morning workouts, but just think of the additional training effect you’ll get.

Consult the locals. Check out the local climbing gym, seek advice from a city running clubs, visit the area’s outdoor store, and search around on the web. These places are normally filled with people eager to help visitors see the best of what their home has to offer.

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Those locals often know the best places to train. Deep water soloing at a secret venue on the coast of Hawaii.

Have a long-distance training buddy. One of the biggest motivating factors for me is my training partner. While understandably difficult to always have with you on vacation, you can still stay connected through the wonders of technology. Did you snap a pic of that awesome sunset you saw on your evening run? Send it to your pal. Take gym selfies, be goofy, have fun. Whatever you got to do to keep the motivation going.

Modify existing group/family activities. Going on a casual family hike? Why not take along a few extra gallons of water and turn that walk into some serious training. Going to the pool? How about sneaking over to the lanes and putting in some laps while the others soak in the sun.

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Carrying some water uphill on a hike in New Jersey. Photo by Henna Jylhä.

Try to slow down. This was the second big lesson I learned when it comes to training while on vacation. We often want to see and do a great many things while traveling in an effort to make the most of our time. Unfortunately, this “on-the-go” style of travel will wear you out in a hurry. Consider dialing back the itinerary a bit and giving yourself a bit more time to train, relax, and enjoy your surroundings.

Stay Motivated. It is easy to slip too deep into “vacation mode” and let your training routine go by the wayside. Do what you can to keep motivation high. Set a photo of your big objective as your phone background. Text your climbing partners and see what they are climbing. Stay focused on the long-term goal and the joy that it will bring you.

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Talk about motivation! Staring down the big objective while working out on the hangboard. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

In the Mountains (special tips for when actually on expeditions)

For my personal training, this is always the crux. Oftentimes there is a long period between leaving home and actually getting on the rock. This is a critical time and one where it is all too easy to falter.

Get out of the tent! Yes, the weather is shitty. Yes, its cold and wet. Yes, you can’t climb and the views are bad. Still, doing nothing is a sure way to let all those previous months of effort slip away. You don’t have to even train seriously, just get out and move your body.

Don’t over-train. On the flip side, when the weather in town is good and conditions in the hills are bad, it’s easy to push too much on those “casual” trail runs. Be sure you will have enough time to fully recover before heading into the mountain. Moving your body, staying healthy, and being well rested are all equal priorities while waiting to take to the hills. Do not to compromise your goal just for the sake of sneaking in one more training session.

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Dont worry, Mom. No overtraining here. Just trying to remember how to rock climb while waiting for snow to firm up.

Living the HI Life: Adventures on the Big Island of Hawaii

Twenty feet up the wall, I eyed the roof above me. Long and nearly horizontal, I had to crane my neck back as far as it would go and still I could barely see its lip. Below me the swells came in, pounding against the jet black, porous rock. From above, a voice filtered in, offering words of encouragement and some much needed advice how to climb through it. I recited the lines in my head as I began my ascent. “Move fast. Grab the tufa with your left hand. Big move.” My feet pressed firmly against the roof from the left while my body exploded to the right. My hand latched the jug, but the fatigue was too much. My fingers, soft from prolonged exposure to the salt water, uncurled and I fell. Plunging feet first, I was injected deep into the clear, blue, tropical water below.

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Working the opening moves at the End of the World. Photo by Nico Testa.

After six weeks of nearly constant, high-end climbing adventures it was time for a break. I had opened a new route in Alaska and learned to bigwall climb in Yosemite. Both my mind and body were in need of a little bit of R&R. Thankfully, my family had just the thing.

My parents, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, decided to do it up big. A vacation to Hawaii was planned, and the kids and their significant others were invited along too. I caught a ride straight from Yosemite’s Camp 4 to San Francisco, where an evening of debauchery ensued. Having left nearly everything behind with Tess, I commuted with public transportation to the airport with nothing but a small carry-on. Not a piece of climbing gear accompanied me. Not even my climbing shoes.

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Enjoying a perfect ocean sunset.

Hawaii, the Big Island, is a magical place. While I was very much looking forward to days on pristine beaches, it proved to be so much more. The ecological diversity was unimaginable to me. From the often snow-covered Mauna Kea to the lush, green jungles of the island’s east side, I could hardly comprehend that this was all the same island. As a family, we drove the island by day and returned to our vacation rental by night. We explored the beautiful beaches and reefs on the west coast and the dry, wind-blasted grasslands of the south, which reminded me so closely of the Patagonian esteppe that I nearly forgot where I was.

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The rural and arid southern plain.

Even so, after a bit less than a week the climbing itch returned. I began to catch myself in the evening scanning the web for information about Big Island climbing. Curiously, there was little information to be found. The only area that got repeat mentions was an area called End of the World, a deep water solo spot that, coincidentally, appeared to be just a 15 minute bike ride away from our house. Still, I was hesitant about going. There was many a warning online referencing the dangers of ocean swells. Humbly, I posted on a Facebook page about climbing in Hawaii. Against the odds, by the next evening I had found a willing partner to show me around.

Sweat-drenched and pedaling hard I arrived at the End of the World. Feeling naked (for I nearly was) I approached the cliff armed with nothing more than the swim trunks and flip flops I was wearing, and a towel in my hand. Quite the contrast to the 80+lbs haul bag I had carried down from the top of El Capitan just over a week before. My partner, who happened to be a professional dive master, queried me on if I was a good swimmer. Not knowing what is considered “good” on the dive master swimming scale, I answered cautiously, “I’m okay, I guess.” His responded with another question, “but your not a sinker, right?” I hoped I wasn’t to be.

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Nico showing me the ways of the DWS warrior.

At the area Nico taught me the basics of ocean swells. Three bigger swells followed by three smaller ones; this is the basic pattern almost anywhere in the world. The strategy then was if you fall in and can’t get out right away, don’t panic. Tread water, conserve your energy, and wait for the big swells to pass. Then, when the small ones cycle in, make your move.

In borrowed climbing shoes I took to the rock. Traversing in we stayed dry, at least at first. The mental game was as exhilarating as it was taxing. Climbing solo, with no ropes, over the very unfamiliar medium of a swelling ocean was like nothing I had experienced in climbing before. The rock, in total contrast to the smooth liquid below, was black as coal and coarse as asphalt. After a few hours our hands could take no more of the abrasive and highly-feature stone. Thinking my climbing experience was at its end, I expressed my gratitude and began to prepare for the bike ride home. “You passed the test”, Nico said with a sly smile. I was confused. What test was he talking about? As it would turn out, I had spent the afternoon under secret evaluation. Seeing that I could climb and was in fact not a sinker, I was extended an offer that I could have hardly expected.

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Rock above, water below.

Early the next morning Nico’s white pickup truck arrived outside the house. We were off to a semi-“locals only” climbing area, and what would be one of the most unique and memorable climbing experiences of my life.

Forty feet of slightly overhanging walls loomed above us. Smooth, water-sculpted holds were plentiful. The azure water below, over twenty feet deep, gave the appearance of being much shallower due to its clarity. Teeming with life, tropical fish of every color swam in the ocean below. Lava tubes, exposed at low-tide, made for mesmerizing explorations between climbs. Sea urchins, crabs, aquatic plants, and even small fish made their homes in the tidal pools around the cliffs. Off in the distance, just 200 ft from the wall, the island’s shelf dropped drastically; the dark blue color of the sea signaling its depth change to over a thousand feet. Free diving spear fishermen, effortlessly treading water, waited patiently for the perfect big game fish to appear.

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Nico traversing over the lip of the lava tube.

Moving freely, I picked my way up the wall’s deep pockets and rounded edges. Never once did I have to worry about the typical climbing concerns of rope and gear. With each route my comfort increased as the trepidation subsided. Before long I was following in my mentors footsteps, pushing my physical and mental limits until I would find myself swimming in the water below.

There is little rest when deep water soloing in the ocean. The cliffs need to be steep to be safe and even when you are not climbing, swimming and treading water keeps your muscles from totally recovering. After only half a day we were too tired to continue. Atop the last route we clinked bottles and I did my best to take in the scene before me. It is not the cliffs that impacted me the most, but the impossibly vast and open seascape that stretched out before us, all the way to the horizon.

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Topping out in paradise.

Reflections from Chalten: 4 of 4

Salvation

Slinking through the dusty streets on another perfect day, I was in a foul mood. Since my return I had been berating myself for not doing things differently. Why hadn’t I chosen a better-known objective? Why hadn’t I used the first weather window to scout out the approach? Why, why, why? I had missed the best window in two years and I was angry. I had resigned myself to counting down the days until I could leave this town and these mountains behind.

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Tess walking along the ice cap.

Shunning company, I excused myself from all social duties. It was only necessity that brought me out of my room; I needed food and a bus ticket out of town. My friend Igor had made me a loaf of bread, and being that his camp spot was near the bus stop, I told him I would stop by to pick it up.

Salvation comes in many forms, and this time it came in the form of a trout, or more specifically, a conversation about trout, salmon, and all things fishing. Unknowingly I had walked into the middle of a small cookout. Before I had time to protest I was seated in front of a plate of fried and grilled fresh-caught fish. Surrounding me were two happy strangers and Igor.

It wasn’t long before my forced pleasantries transformed into genuine interest. We spent the next two hours talking about the fishing and nature in our home countries. Not able to express the concept of ice fishing in Spanish, Igor helped to translate and spread my thoughts across the language barrier. Having been swept far away from my world of climbing, I was happy to discover that not all was dark. That my small world with even smaller concerns was far from the whole of existence, and that illumination was just a change of topic away.

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This photo of Jessica fly fishing in Alaska really helped to break the ice.

I never got to thank those guys for pulling me out of my cave of self-pity. They not only fed my body well, but also brought some much needed nourishment to my spirit. This was the catalyst that allowed me to enjoy and make the most of my last few days in El Chalten. Sport climbing, hiking, and a lovely goodbye dinner made the end of my trip a special one. I don’t know when I’ll get back to Chalten, but the memories I have will keep me yearning to return.

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Until next time, Chalten!

 

Reflections from Chalten: 3 of 4

Purgatory

Hope, like fire, is a dangerous element. A two-edged sword, it can offer protection and instill a confidence that can carry you through a storm. Allowed to go unchecked though, it can quickly overwhelm one’s mind, leading to devastation as reality ultimately prevails. In two climbing seasons I have spent ten weeks in this town, most of that time waiting for a weather window like this to appear. Three days long, stable, and predictable. This is the kind of weather that allows those dream climbs to occur. I had a motivated parter. I had the objective. I was feeling rested and fit. Finally, it was all coming together.

A smile crossed my face as the weather closed in around us. Snug in our well protected cave that would be our home for the next day and a half, I was excited that the forecast was proving to be so accurate. Yesterday we had summited a smaller objective, a sort of warm up for the main show which was still to come. Two days of rest and bad weather were to follow. On the fourth day, already in a camp high on the mountain, we would be in an ideal position to begin our multi-day ascent of St. Exupery.

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Igor on the summit ridge of De L’s.

Foolishly, I allowed my to hope to run unchecked. Unbridled and let free, it went nearly to the impossible, and took a firm grasp. Now, instead of one major peak, we would climb two, back to back, in the best style possible.

We rose at midnight and packed quickly in the silent night. It wasn’t until we left the cave to fill our water bottles that we saw the snow falling all around. Visibility was near zero. Already four hours into the forecasted good weather window we were dumbfounded. After an hour of waiting with no signs of stopping we crawled back in our cave and went to sleep. At five, with the light of dawn minutes away, we rose again with another team and prepped for our departure. The snow was beginning to lighten and showed signs of stopping. While all the fresh precipitation didn’t bode well for rock climbing, our route was to begin with a long snow ramp that would take us up the first 200 meters of the mountain. “How perfect”, I thought.

On the two-hour approach things went very smooth. The cold temperatures kept the snow on the glacier in easy walking condition. Having a team on the nearby mountain was a comfort, while still allowing us to have our objective to ourselves. The day had come and it was beautiful, sunny, and still. A rare, perfect day in these mountains.

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On approach to our objective, St. Exupery, The center tower. Photo by Igor Martínez Gutiérrez

It wasn’t until we were 500 meters away from the base that we realized we had a serious problem. The glacier, while quite safe, was filled with a maze of large, open crevasses. These cracks in the glacier, of indeterminable depth, were far too wide for us to simply step over. Having viewed these from the nearby peak few days ago, I knew they would make for a tricky approach, but I assumed that with time we would be able to find our way though. We had time, so we began the search. Up and down the glacier we moved. Hours slipped away as the sun rose higher in the deep blue summer sky. After nearly six hours, we had exhausted all of our options. It really seemed that there was just no way through this natural labyrinth.

 

The dreaming came to a screeching halt. I tumbled off the cloud, falling, hurtling towards the hard, unforgiving reality below. Cartwheeling, and in a last ditch effort to slow the fall, I proposed another radical plan; climb lesser, nearby peak today, then make the grueling 8 hour descent back to the valley to attempt another easy peak. Already being so late in the day, the plan would allow for a maximum of only two hours of sleep that night, capped by two hard days on either side.

The first peak went easy enough, it was actually pleasant. The day was nice, we had some laughs and enjoyed the stunning landscapes around us. By early evening we were back at the cave, packing furiously. After learning all we could from other climbers in the cave about the notoriously tricky approach for our second objective we bounded off down the hill.

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Igor just moves away from the summit on Mojon Rojo.

By headlamp we covered the final kilometers to our camp spot for the night. With only 2.5 hours until wake up we didnt bother with a tent, just a sleeping bag and the stars above. My eyes had seemily just closed when the alarm went off again. There was hesitation about getting up and going for it; it was only my partner’s motivation that convinced me to move my tired and beaten body.

In the pre-dawn we struggled to follow the vague clues our fellow climbers had given us about the approach to the mountain. We crossed the river and entered the forest. We found a stream that seemed to correspond to where we wanted to be on the map. Up and up we ascend along its bank, passing through thick brush and overlooking spectacular waterfalls. We saw no signs of the passage of others, but this did not concern us as we felt we were nearing the mountain.

At daybreak we broke through the treeline. Seeing the mountain laid bare before us, we noticed that a long rock spine lay between us and the start of the route. With confidence still high we picked our way up the loose, gray shale and onto the crest. Immediately, reality hit hard. What we had thought was an easy ridge proved to be a impenetrable mass of steep, red walls made up of loose and crumbling rock. The game was up. No way to cross it, our only option was down. Being too late in the day, too exhausted, and with still no better information about the approach, our attempt was over. Under peaceful, clear skies and with a crushed spirit, I began my return to town.

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An elusive, clear view of Fitz Roy’s summit basking in the light of dawn.

 

Reflections from Chalten: 2 of 4

 

With dreams of a new route I slam the lid down on my new 100 liter backpack. 65 pounds (30kg) of some of the world’s most lightweight and advanced gear fills it nearly to the brim. The weight is oppressively heavy no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise. Unfortunately for my partner and I, we have some long days ahead.

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Big packs and many miles. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

Hunched over like tired soldiers by the weight of our packs we silently march on. Through the sun and rain, wind and rivers, over hills and across valleys. For hours we move as the voice of podcast drones. Soon I realize I’m not even listening to the words. Lost in a myriad of nothingness, I continue.

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Water above, water below. Tess nears the far shore on one of the many river crossings along our path.

The deep blue water of the glacier-melt lake begins to fill more and more of my field of vision. A small arched wall of stacked stones is the only sign welcoming us to our campsite. Just an hour ago, we finished a 1500 vertical meter climb into a mountain pass. Having descended a third of that, we now camp on one of the final spits of land before the start of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. The land, barren and rocky, reminds me of a boulder-filled Norwegian coast. The nearly 17,000 square kilometer Ice Cap, as it is more commonly called, shimmers in the strong light of the Patagonian summer sun. Even though I know it is frozen, I have to look twice, three times, and stare intently to assure myself that it is not just an impassable sea of water.

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Tess cautiously exploring the ice field.

In the morning, we rise with the dawn. We ready ourselves in silence, the feeling of intimidation hanging heavy on our already burdened shoulders. By daybreak we find ourselves entering the world of ice. It is clear after only a few moments of being in this eerily exposed environment that life does not sustain here for long. As the hours and kilometers tick by, the wind begins to howl. “Let’s just wait here until it clears”, my partner suggests after arriving at the bottom of the horseshoe-shaped mountain range. While the sky above the ice cap has remained mercifully clear all day, the clouds, thick as cotton, blanket the peaks completely. I stare at the map on my phone’s screen. If not for this, I would never know the mountains were here.

We wake at 3:00 a.m. on the third day. Even the act of sitting up has my body screaming. My partner lies beside me sniffling, losing her own battle to a worsening cold. The wind outside is still blowing viciously. Now, the moment of truth. I close my eyes tight and stick my head out of the vent in the rear of the tent. While I came here with high hopes of climbing, now I wish for nothing more than the clouds to still be in their place. For them to give me a reason to lay back down, snug in my cocoon of down and safely protected by a few tenths of a millimeter of waterproof nylon. The weather, fickle as ever, obliges me.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I know what this means. All of our efforts have been for naught; those hopes of climbing blown to pieces by the merciless Patagonian winds. All that remains of our dream is the long, brutal walk home. But for now, that is none of my concern. I lay back down and listen to the snap of taught nylon in the breeze as I drift into a dreamless sleep.

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The long walk home, beaten and empty-handed.

Three Stikes: A trilogy of trails in Torres Del Paine, Chile

Strike one

The pressure was growing more and more uncomfortable. We had already spent over a week strategizing and carefully maneuvering our 350 lbs of gear into position. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we waited with a hunger for the chirp of our satellite messenger, signaling the arrival of our daily weather forecast from the outside world. After days of updates that left us with more questions than answers, the time had come to leave the relative comfort of our camp in the forest and move higher into the mountains. We needed to know what was really happening up there.

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Tess on approach.

Little did we suspect the conditions we found. The forest in which we had resided had cast a thin, green veil over our eyes and senses. Unassumingly I laced up my approach shoes for the three hour hike. With only a mist hanging in the air, I opted for a windshell, leaving my waterproof jacket in my pack. It was only 500 meters later, after breeching the front line where the forest and mountain met, that I saw my errors. Snow clung wet and heavy to even the lowest of the peaks. On the ground, precipitation was beginning to accumulate rapidly. The towers, as if swallowed by an ocean, uttered no signs of their total imprisonment.

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Entering a world of snow. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

Two cold, damp days followed. Our tent, pitched just outside the final bivy site, required regular snow clearing in order to avoid total collapse. Our goals, to shuttle loads across the glacier and fix the first few pitches of the route, disappeared as slowly and frustratingly as the hours. By the time the weather finally broke, so had our hopes of climbing the Central Tower.

Strike Two

Our four days of good weather had been reduced to two. Consequently, our goals had been reduced accordingly. After an evening of contemplation followed by preparation, we were fully recovered from our earlier disappointments and committed to our new objective; attempting a new aid line up a smaller, unnamed peak. Rising before the first rays of dawn we packed silently in the crisp darkness.

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Pre-dawn gear sort. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

Once again we had been misled by our senses. Only after nearly completing our preparations did we take notice of the haze of clouds that obscured our objective. With no visibility, nothing of consequence would occur. We returned to the familiar confines of the tent to wait for a break in the cover.

An hour later with clouds lifting, we left with the arrival of dawn. Having underestimated the weight of our packs, the hiking was slow and laborious. Contrarily, the disappointment came quick. As fast and final as a guillotine, we understood the fruitlessness of our plan after cresting the final moraine. The approach, which only then revealed itself completely, involved a long and technical mixed climb just to reach it’s base. With such harsh time constraints, we knew with totality that our climb was over before it began.

Strike three:

The remainder of the day, while beautiful, did little to rid the peaks of snow. Another pair of climbers joined us at the bivy site and we enjoyed the comradery and reassurance of the highly experienced team. With our climbing options dwindled down to a bare minimum, we chose the one that offered the highest chance of reward.

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Red sky at morning.

Needing a win, we cast out the next morning under a beautiful sunrise. Our goal was to climb a new, shorter free route on one of peaks that made up the nameless, sawtoothed ridge opposite our camp. As the peak grew closer we found a labyrinth of false ridges, scree gullies, and loose rock. With little to lose and less to go on we started up one of the gullies. Hours later, having found our path blocked by an icy couloir on one side and a cliff of snowy loose blocks other, we began our descent, having yet to climb a single meter. With the the sky a cold grey and flurries beginning to fall, we cautiously made our return to camp.

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Time to go down. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

You’re Out:

With the window closed we moved back down the hill. The forecast continued to offer nothing but discouragement. The rains, the winds, the cold managed to find us even in the Eden of the forest. The small red handle that was once barely visible in the mind’s eye grew bigger and bigger as the hopelessness became more final. Eventually we pulled the handle and self-ejected ourselves back into civilization ten days ahead of schedule. While the stereotypical overly-optimistic American in me desires badly to avoid the reality and mask the disappointment, it would be untrue. Of course, the mountains do not concern themselves with our petty needs, and I hope they will remain like that, both merciless and wonderful.

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The Central and South Tower of Paine.

 

 

 

Reflections from Chalten: 1 of 4

The Arrival:

Two travel-weary souls, wearing matching red slippers, meet in an airport far, far away from either of their homes. This has become the standard meeting scene of Tess and I over the years; this time was no different. After our reunion, another long layover, a flight, and a bus ride delivered us to our destination, the town of El Chalten, Argentina. Two years ago Tess and I had spent six weeks together in this town. It was an experience that for me was equal parts challenging and rewarding. The brief time we actually spent climbing during that month and a half was incredible; I had the single best climbing experience of my life on those steep, golden-hued granite walls. The time in town, the waiting, was hard and often dark. There were sunny moments, too. I made some great friends. Friends who I would come back to see again and again even if it wasn’t for the climbing. But when the time came to leave, I was beyond ready. I returned to my home weaker, slower, heavier, and more unhealthy than when I left.

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Dawn breaks on the Glacier Marconi

I promised myself it would be different this time. The town of El Chalten has so much to offer in terms of outdoor recreation. Even when the weather in the mountains is bad, it more often than not beautiful and clear, alibet a bit windy, in town. There are hundreds of sport climbs within walking distance of the hostels we frequent. A plethora of fun bouldering lies waiting in excess in the nearby foothills. The hiking and trail running options, almost all of which are accessible by a short walk from town, are beautiful, fun, free, and nearly limitless in potential. The icing on the cake is that with friendships already established, finding a motivated partner is never an issue.

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Training in the park with eyes on the prize.

This time my problems came from the other end of the spectrum. How do I stop my activities in town from negatively affecting my mountain experiences? No doubt, a high level of suffering often occurs when attempting to climb in these mountains. The only thing that can effectively combat this is an even higher level of motivation to be there. With options to sleep in, eat well, relax in good company, and then head out for some fun, mostly safe climbs and trail runs, i found this motivation beginning to wain. In addition, when things didnt go well on those “easy” climbs, I struggled to convince myself that the results would be different in the harsh and often unforgiving mountains. If I cant climb a 6a graded sport climb, why think I can climb a 6a ten rope lengths up on a cold, intimidating peak?

Free Space:

We kept hoping, but dared not whisper a single word aloud. A 36-hour gap in the notoriously bad weather and appeared and it was Tess and I’s first foray into the mountains this season. Attempting to climb a peak called Guillaumet, one of the the Fitz Roy range’s “bookends”, in a single push from “car-to-car”, we left at midnight during the still ominous weather. Hours of hiking separated us from the base of the peak. The wind, strong enough at times to make us gasp for breath, was a constant companion during those early morning hours.

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Readying for another pre-dawn, alpine start. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

We reached a large, overhanging boulder and took refuge under its cold, granite roof. The rain had changed to snow, and though the forecast promised and end to it soon, we remained skeptical. We sat, waiting for something to happen. Sure enough, something did. Climbing team after climbing team walked biy us, no doubt, on their way, to the same objective. We too, hiked on.

A pink-hued dawn greeted us at the base of a large snow slope. The clouds, lifting ever-higher, slowly revealed their closely guarded treasure. Forms began to take shape, and vail was finally removed from the mountains.

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The storm retreats, the climbers approach.

We followed the conga line of climbers up higher and higher. Commands between partners in every language filled my ears. Above climbed a guide and client from Italy. Below, two Frenchmen, one who had lived in Finnish Lapland for 6 months. The now cloudless day was warming up rapidly, and the snow we were climbing, that bonded us to the side of the mountain, was turning more and more water-like. Finally we reached the rock. After waiting in line a while, it was our turn to climb. Two more pitches of snow-filled cracks and very scrappy climbing lead us to the summit snow field. Ten more minutes of moderate effort saw us on top of my first Chalten summit. While it was far from the remote mountain experience I had imagined, it was special all the same. All that remained now was the 12-hour decent back to the road.

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