As we stepped off the boat onto the far shore of Lago Puelo, the horses were already there, waiting for us. Tess turned to face me and in a slightly-too-casual manor asked, “so what do I need to know about horses?” Having spent little time around such noble creatures, and even less time riding them (twice that I can remember), I responded with the only rule I knew, “Uhh… Don’t walk behind them?”
Within minutes both Tess and I were “in the saddle”, learning all we would need to know by a quick gaucho tutorial delivered half in Spanish and half in charades. “Hold the reins like this. Feet in the stirrups. Bueno? Bueno.” And just like that, we were off.
Our first ride was pleasant enough. A casual hour of flat trails took us to the home of our gaucho, Conono, and into the center of his small community that is truly located on the fringe of society. In this place, the primary school has a horse pasture in front where kids can “park” their horses while they live at the school for ten days at a time (followed by four day “weekends”). In daily life, the mixture between old world and new was often conflicted. Most homes were equipped with a television satellite dish, but only a wood-burning stove for cooking. Smartphones, but no internet. The list goes on.
The first night brought rain, which raised the river to an unacceptable level for travel. During our 24-hour delay, we entertained the children, toured their school, and tried to prove our usefulness with assisting in the household duties.
The following morning we awoke early to a gentle knock at the door, our sign that the river was low enough to safely cross and that our journey up the Rio Turbio was to begin. Before we had time to even think about breakfast our bags were taken and loaded, the horses saddled, and our gauchos ready. For a long day and a half we rode across rugged terrain. Steep, washed-out hillsides, river crossings, tight jungle passes, and wildfire-scorched lands were just some of the difficulties we encountered.
During our journey, the unbreakable work ethic and undeniable “manliness” of the gauchos was not to be missed. At one point the gauchos comfortably left us to have a siesta in the shade of a small cabin while they went out and spent an unexpected four hours hacking out a new trail, only to return sweat and branch covered, ready to continue on our journey. In the evenings, while Tess and I huffed and puffed to inflate our fancy air mattresses and crawl into our sleeping bags, the gauchos laid out the sheep skin blankets from under their horse saddles and bedded down for the night with little more.
At mid-morning on Day 2 of riding, we reached the end of the line, the confluence of the Rio Turbio. From here on out, it would be our own backs, not the horses, which would strain under the heavily laden packs. We spent the rest of the day shuttling our load one and a half hours up the hill to the puesto, a rustic cabin open for all to use. In total, we had to make three round trips before we were completely established (and completely exhausted) at the puesto.
The next morning brought with it the next form of punishment, two long days of hiking up the Turbio 4 river valley. While some of the hiking was not too difficult and involved traveling along a quasi-established trail or dry river beds, we spent most of our time battling through jungle so thick that our progress was measured in only meters per minute. Often times, the foliage was so dense that attempting to use a machete was futile; it simply just took too much time and energy to try and cut a way through. Only through much frustration and perseverance did we make it to the end of that first day. This evening was the only time of the whole trip where we seriously questioned the feasibility of our expedition.
Thankfully, while the second day of bushwacking proved challenging, it was not the same caliber as the first. We managed to break free of the trees and the angle of the ground beneath our feet lessened considerably. A couple more hours of walking and we had reached the end of the valley. We spent the early afternoon establishing our basecamp and resting our aching bodies in the picturesque spot.
Our plan thus far, as per the advice of some veteran Piritas Valley climbers, was to hike into the Piritas with just enough food and equipment for a single attempt on our intended line. If the weather was in our favor, we would try to climb. If not, we would cache our equipment at camp, head back to the puesto for more food, then return for another attempt. Originally, we had set out with five days worth of food. Two days were burned up on the approach hike. In theory, this left us with food for one day of climbing, one day of descending, and one day to hike all the way back to the puesto. It was a tight schedule.
During that first week, we pushed harder than we thought we could, day after day. At some point, we stopped craving a rest day, and started to accept the feeling as part of life in the Rio Turbio. It seemed though that our hard work was paying off. The forecast was calling for three more days of bluebird weather, and chatting it over at basecamp, Tess and I could find little reason to not at least attempt our new route. With nothing to lose but more calories, we packed a light bivy kit and left our newly established base camp in the early evening, having not spent more than two hours enjoying its comforts.
We spent the next hour scrambling up some easy slabs and hiking through boulder fields to reach a bivy spot near an upper lake, as close to the base of the the Piritas as we felt comfortable sleeping. Our bodies were tired, but our psyche was high. As I tried to sleep, I hesitated to think that we would be able to pull the climb off. I hesitated even more to think about the consequences if we couldn’t.
The early morning arrived soon and our pre-dawn, alpine start brought with it all its familiar rituals; instant oatmeal in tepid water for breakfast, packing in silence by headlamps, topping off water bottles in the glacier-fed stream. By the light of headlamp, we departed. Tess led the way higher up the scree slope and onto the 4th class ledges that guarded the start of the route. At dawn, we were at the base of the climb. A startling last minute discovery revealed that we had too much gear. Our hiking shoes wouldn’t fit into the single small pack we had, along with everything else. After much vacillation, we made the choice to abandon our only sleeping bag and leave it at the base.
Our proposed climb was comprised of three distinct sections; the approach cracks, the approach slab, and Piritas Central proper. Every climb so far established on either Piritas Central or Piritas Right has first climbed these approach cracks and slab before reaching the start of the towers. The first section, the approach cracks, is only four pitches long, but the climbing can be dirty, difficult, and challenging to protect. Tess took the first block of leading and while the first pitch went smoothly enough, the 5.11 cracks of the second and third pitches required some cams to be pulled on.
At the start of the fourth pitch, I took a turn on the sharp end. One more easy crack pitch took us to the start of the approach slab. Climbing on the slab, we methodically worked our way across wide, flat ledges, over short sections of steep, water-polished stone, and even up a few loose gullies. All the while, we consistently grew closer to the looming Piritas Central. After many hot hours of toiling across the sea of granite, we finally reached the base of the tower.
After guzzling a frustratingly small amount of water (we had brought only one liter of water, per person, per day) and slamming half a Knoms Bar we got down to the business of climbing our intended route, a direct-a-line as possible up the center prow of Piritas Central.
Quickly, we fell into a groove; three pitches of leading, three pitches of following. As the sun moved across the sky we moved up the face, climbing one rope-stretching pitch after another over immaculate granite, perfect layback flakes, and mostly moderate terrain. Somewhere around Pitch 10 dusk finally turned to night and we were forced to stop and wait for daybreak. A small, uncomfortable ledge offered something of a refuge, but the windy, cold, clear night made sure we were kept awake shivering, thinking about the sleeping bag we had left behind so many hours ago.
Just as the cold deepened and began to chase away even the slightest hopes of sleep, the stars began to fade and were ever-so-slowly replaced by dawn breaking across the Andes; another cloudless was day dawning.
It was my turn to lead, so I stuffed my cold, wooden-like toes into my shoes and set to climbing up rock of ever decreasing quality and difficulty. Half way through my third lead, I ran out of mountain to climb; the summit! I let out the stereotypical “Whooohoo!” to alert an out-of-sight-Tess that we had found the top. A few minutes later she joined me on the summit of Piritas Central, at what is also technically the border of Argentina and Chile, where we spent a few minutes taking in the fine view that was the fruits of our labor.
I then discussed the idea of going for a “twofer” and trying to do an ascent of Piritas Left, the smallest and easiest of the three towers, before starting our descent. While Tess wasn’t so keen on the idea, she was a good sport and agreed to give it a go with me. A short walk across the summit ridge set us up for some rappels off crumbling ridgelines to reach the short glacier snow field that separates the two Piritas. When we reached the glacier, we realized that the snow was a bit steeper than we were comfortable crossing, and the objective hazards too high. With our brief attempt on Piritas Left aborted, we tuned our focus to the descent.
If only we had known. Our decent proved to be far more epic that anticipated. The vague description I had been given of how to get down sent us walking across the mellow glacier that runs behind the Piritas. We emerged far to the climber’s right of the towers and had our choice of gullies to head down. I hesitate to think that we made the right choice. Eight long hours of desperate rappelling later we finally made it clear of the sketchy snow moat at the cliff’s bottom and landed on the glacier, just as the sun dipped below the mountains.
As we moved across the easy glacier terrain, racing the encroaching darkness, one last obstacle remained in our way. In traversing right and moving away from the Piritas to gain the descent gully, we ended up on the wrong side of a very large and very cold glacier-melt lake, complete with mini icebergs. All day during our rappelling escapade, we had been scanning the walls that formed the sides of lake, wondering if they would provide a safe passage through them to the other side of the lake. In all of our searching we only came across one potential route. If the slope proved to be too steep, it would be a long, cold, swim for both of us. Thankfully, the slope’s bark was worse than its bite an easy scramble had us to the other side just as night came in earnest.
Unfortunately, the descent still had one last trick up its sleeve. While we had made it across the lake without getting wet, we soon realized that we would have to pass through the lake’s outflow river, and this time we would not get so lucky. The water was deep, cold, and cloudy, and the current strong and steady. Stripped to underwear, we cautiously worked our way across the river using each other for balance. After many minutes, and with remarkably no falls, we reached the far bank. Success. A few hundred more steps had us at our bivy supplies, where we dropped all of the climbing gear and began the final task of retrieving Tess’s sleeping bag. The 90-minute round trip was tough, but we got it done. By the time we returned, it was taking both of us multiple blinks to focus our eyes. We were thoroughly trashed, but we had done it, a new route and a safe decent.
In the 10 days that followed our climb, we returned to the puesto for a desperately needed food resupply, explored the Mariposa Valley, where we attempted a route on the feature dubbed “The Earlobe”, and managed only a single rest day. The weather was ideal, and only brought rain one night during our entire stay in the valley. While we had intended to remain in the valley an entire month, both Tess and I felt that we had not only completed our primary objective, but explored an additional valley, too. Our thoughts had briefly turned to attempting an exploration of one of the other three Turbio confluences, but an afternoon of scouting showed us that it would be too much work for this two-person team to handle alone. We made the decision to begin our journey out of the Rio Turbio valley.
A day and a half of monotonous rafting, sprinkled with moments gripping fear took these two rafting newbies us down the Rio Turbio and dumped us into the lake of Lago Puelo. We spent one night at the staffed campground on the lakes edge, and thanks to the kindness of the park ranger, Mario, took part in an “asado”, an Argentine traditional bbq. It was an evening of indulgence. Homebrewed IPAs were followed by delicious carne cooked in a brick oven. The night grew late, and finally these two gringos bowed out, leaving the locals to finish off the evening. The next morning, our local contact, Iván, who I now have the pleasure of calling a friend, arrived on a boat ready to take us back across the lake and back into society.
Our final night in Lago Puelo was a special one. Our hosts, Iván and Liza held another asado for us. They prepared us brilliant food, listened in earnest as we shared tales of our adventure, and spoke with us late into the night under the clear southern skies, growing our friendship. It wasn’t long before they were asking when we would return. Throughout Tess and I’s trip, both of us had considered it to be a one-time deal. We had achieved more than we had imagined possible, and felt more than content with what we had done. It was over for us. That was, until that final boat ride access Lago Puelo. As we both stared across the growing distance between us and the Rio Turbio, I said to Tess, “Mario said there was rock at the end of the Turbio 3 confluence… When do we go check it out?” Her response, “How about next, next, winter?” Maybe, after all, the Rio Turbio isn’t quite done with us yet.
El Conono, IV 5.9 C1 800m
FA: Tess Ferguson, Alan Goldbetter
While I am deeply endebted to many people for there services on this trip, for the Piritas I would like to specifically thank the following folks.
American Alpine Club, Knoms, and Misty Mountain Threadworks: A huge shout out for believing in us your generous support in helping make our dreams come true.
Ty Atwater aka Ty-Ty-the weather guy: Ty was kind enough to be on call 24/7 for Tess and I sending us constant weather updates via a satellite , not only keeping us safe, but helping to ensure we had the tools needed to be successful.
Iván and Liza Larsen: Sometimes friendships are born when you least expect it. Iván and Liza were are local contacts and catered to all of our pre-climb needs. From arranging gauchos and boats, to rides to the butchers, they handled it all in a professional and caring manor. We could not have been in better hands for our adventure than these two.
Mario and the Lago Puelo park rangers: These folks opened up there home and lives to two smelly, dirty, and tired gringos and helped to share.