“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. While I don’t think that Charles Dicken’s now cliché line was written to describe climbing in El Chalten during the shoulder season, it seems to fit my experience almost to perfection. Overall, my five weeks in El Chalten have been frustrating ones. Opportunities were missed, and many more never appeared at all. Most of my days have felt wasted. Maybe it was just a string of poor luck (even by Chalten standards), or maybe it was time to pay the penance for having such success in the Turbio. But, between those long hours of bad weather, self-pity, and defeat, were moments of joy, amazement, and fellowship. Below are a few of the most memorable ones.
The sound of the Chalten Massif is wind. Traveling across the entire Pacific Ocean without a hint of land to slow it down, this “Broom of God”, slams itself into the these golden granite pillars with its full and uncompromising force. More than once I have been reduced to first compromising, then pleading with the wind for only a few moments of calm. Neither of which proved effective. While being knocked off of one’s feet and tossed about quickly became commonplace, one night in particular stood out from the rest.
Tess and I checked the weather forecast obsessively, as climber protocol dictates in this town. We saw a brief but steady two-day “weather window” coming up. Pressure was high, winds were low, and precip was none. Time to take for the hills. We set off for the Colmillos, a cluster of three under-loved spires, hoping to attempt a new route on them. After a lengthy and involved approach, we gained the glacier that guarded our objective. Nearing nightfall, we set up our tent and settled in for the night.
As the evening progressed, an unexpected wind sprang up. Steadily increasing, but not forecasted, it was easy to ignore from the cozy confines of our sleeping bags. Though, at some point, I noticed my head was wet, really wet. So wet, in fact, that it cut through the dense, sleep-filled haze and reached cognitive thought. Sitting up, I surveyed the scene. The tent door, which had been left slightly ajar, was now fully open. The vestibule, which covered all of our gear, was missing, and the tent was steadily filling with rain being blown sideways. “Tess. We’re f**ked”. And with these words we began to take action, dragging our near 50kg (100lbs) of soaking gear into the already cramped tent. Sitting amidst the chaos, with the tent fabric slapping our faces, a sudden, strong gust was too much for our tent anchors to handle. Boom! The tent, with the two of us and all our gear, were blown backwards and completely upside down, sending us for a short ride across the glacier. As quickly as it had begun, the ride was over and we righted ourselves. The remainder of the evening was spent pressing and leaning against the windward side of the tent. Minutes crept along and formed hours. As fatigue overwhelmed us the storm slowly abated, leaving us to fall asleep in sad, wet sleeping bags amongst the mounds of gear.
Connecting the Past and Present:
A solid built man with short, salt and pepper hair and a warm smile greeted us. We shared no common language and I felt mildly intimidated, maybe even a bit silly, to be sitting before him. This man, Leo, had been a member of the first two climbing expeditions into the Rio Turbio Valley. Upon hearing about our trip there from a mutual friend, he asked to meet with us and see pictures from our journey. What could I offer a man who had spent nearly three months exploring this remote region?
With the help of our friend Julia, a skilled translator, we began. As the images from our trip played across the computer screen, conversation began to flow easily. Questions were asked both ways. “Is the puesto we built still standing?” “What drew you to first explore there”? Every photo helped to erase the 15+ years that had separated Leo from the Turbio, and each new snapshot brought more memories, more stories, and wealth of information. Tess and I were both astounded by the stories that were shared; Falling horses, land slides, floods, epic whippers, exploded boats, and drill impalements topped the list. It all made our adventure seem like child’s play. “The Turbio is wild”, he said. “If I saw a dinosaur walking around back there, I would just think it was normal”.
While Leo’s climbing expedition days are now over, it is clear that his adventurous spirit remains. When asked about the potential for climbing in one of the other Turbio drainages, he had serious doubts. From his view high on the wall, he had scrutinized the rock in the neighboring valley and recalled that the cliffs did not appear to be of high quality. After a moment of silence, he added with a smile, “but the valleys to the west, the one’s accessed from Chile, look to have amazing potential”.
The North Pillar:
The saying goes that “Fitz Roy is the mountain to climb, and Cerro Torre is the mountain to have climbed”. Being the two most iconic features in all of the dramatic Patagonian landscape, their pull draws people in from across the globe. My first (and only) taste of alpine climbing in El Chalten was on Fitz Roy’s north pillar.
The forecast promised three to four days of stellar weather; an unusually long stretch for this time of year. Tess and I had become fast friends with one of our housemates, Adrian. With his flight home quickly approaching, he realized this window would be has last opportunity to climb. Plans were discussed, and after much vacillating it was decided that the three of us were to attempt the Mate, Porro, y Todos Lo Demás route.
The following morning we began the long and involved approach. Steep hillsides gave way to rock scrambling. Scrambles turned to snow fields, snow fields to glaciers. Crampons on, crampons off. Again and again. Over ten hours later, we reached the bivy spot; a small rock outcrop positioned 200 meters below the start of the climb and two-thirds of the way up a 700-meter snow gully. It was the most stunning place I have ever spent a night at.
Pre dawn, we awoke and prepared. Leaving everything we deemed “unnecessary” at the bivy site, we continued up the ever-steepening snow gully to the start of the climb. While the weather was good, climbing conditions were less than ideal. As the sun rose, I found myself leading a steep mixed pitch on what should have been clean rock. Three rope lengths later we were finally able to ditch the ice climbing gear and lace up our rock shoes. Adrian began to lead. On the wall, the cracks were choked with snow and ice. It seemed as if every hand, foot, and gear placement had to first be cleared of frozen precipitation before it could be utilized. The going was slow, and just barely possible. If it wasn’t for the vision and skill of Adrian, the only direction Tess and I would have gone was down. Pitch by pitch, Adrian moved the rope up the wall. It was an impressive show. For me, just to see what is not only possible, but often required, to climb such a route made for an eye-opening experience. To save time and energy, Tess and I jugged many of the pitches.
At the top of the 16th pitch, which we reached hours after darkness had returned, we found a sloping ledge; home. Sharing only one sleeping bag, and wrapping the tent body around us, we shivered through the sub-freezing night. In the morning, with the rock above looking even more ice and snow covered than the previous day’s, we made the decision to descend.
Hour after hour of rappelling ensued. Single piece anchors were standard, and eventually the snow was reached. Down Down Down. Reversing each step painstakingly, trying not to become a statistic. At sundown, we were still hours away from our only reasonable bivy spot. Up the snowfield to the pass. Down the sketchy slabs and rock scrambles. Finally, we arrived at the camping spot. The largest dangers were now behind us and all that remained for the next day was four hours of hiking. As the packs were dropped, both mental and physical relief swept over us. Laughs were shared as bleary eyes and shaky hands tried to pass a warm cup of gruel back and forth. By the end of the second mug, sleep was overtaking us. As a light rain fell, we cuddled together under the tent fabric, and were ohh-so-grateful for the two sleeping bags we got to share that night.