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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.