Third times a charm: El Chaltén, Argentina

Looking back from over a year later, it was an outstanding season. It was my third visit to El Chaltén in four years, and truth be told, I hadn’t been planning to go. I was going to school to learn Finnish and working, with plans to sit the season out. But life has a way of throwing curve balls, and this one took me back to Patagonia’s iconic Fitz Roy Range.


I can think of worse places for life’s curve balls to take one to. Photo by Lauri Hämäläinen.

Due to some lame technicality, I was abruptly kicked out of my Finnish course. After fighting the good fight to be cool and stay in school, I concluded that it was no longer a viable option. My focus then shifted to the next best (better?) thing, chasing those snowy summits.


Going up!

I asked my main expedition partner, Tess, to join, but as it was quite last-minute and herself fresh off an autumn expedition to China, she had to decline.  Fortunately, my past seasons of experience in Chaltén had endowed me with some contacts for other partners. In the end, I was fortunate enough to team up with two Finnish hardmen, Lauri Hämäläinen and Sami Modenius, for their 4-week trip. Following that, I had the pleasure to spend a week+ climbing with Adrian “The Wizard”, a good friend of mine from Colorado.


Adrian the Wizard prepping for battle on the upper pitches of Fitz Roy’s Pilar Goretta.

There were a lot of pieces to the puzzle that made this season such a success. First and foremost was the strong, competent partners that I was lucky enough to share a rope with. Sami is a IFMGA guide (the highest level of guide certification in the world), and Adrian and Lauri are stone-cold crushers who had both already ticked the two biggest peaks in the Fitz Roy range, and a slew of others. No doubt, I was the weakest and least experienced climber of either group, and that was okay. Even so, on almost all our missions to the hills I felt I still had something to offer and contribute to the team, and it was a real treat to learn from the big kids how to get it done in the big mountains.  I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to join in the fun.


Ohh, so that’s how it’s done. Sami showing the way on St. Exupéry’s lower mixed pitches.

Another huge factor in our highly successful season was the climbing experience everyone had in that specific range. This was Sami and I’s third season climbing there, Lauri’s fourth, and Adrian’s fifth. For each of the two teams I was a part of, we had well over a collective year of full-time climbing experience in the Fitz Roy range. It was the first time in all my visits there that I really felt like I knew the rules of the game, where the pieces all started to make sense. If the weather forecast is A, the conditions B, and the weather-window length is C, then we should try X climb. Each and every time we set out, we were able to achieve our objective and make it down before the weather closed in. My time in the hills was at about a 80/20 ratio of fun-in-the-moment to suffer-fest. In past seasons, these numbers have been reversed.  It was an odd sensation to be practically laughing one’s way up and down these mighty peaks, and even the arduous approaches (okay, only sometimes, and rarely on the descents).


Lauri on the summit of St. Exupéry.

On the flip side, we never were able to summit any of the taller peaks in the range. Mostly, the weather windows were just too short to safely attempt them. My dream of climbing Fitz Roy is still just that, even after getting heart-breakingly close to its completion on the last weather window of the season. That one pained me, and still leaves me with heavy doubts on if we should have went for it. I suppose even great seasons must have their darker moments.


It’s a long road home sometimes. Photo by Lauri Hämäläinen.

The world is a strange place these days. After sitting out this past season, I do intend on making the pilgrimage to El Chaltén again this coming January. Of course, with all the unknowns its hard to say if this will actually come to fruition. What I do know though is that if I don’t plan and prepare for it, it certainly won’t happen. So with that, training has already begun in earnest and I’m doing what I can to keep the fire stoked for the next opportunity to climb in those magical mountains.


An unedited, unenhanced sunrise photo from our bivy ledge, half-way up Fitz Roy.



A Day on the Turf: Climbing in the Polish Tatras

A dated tale of adventure from before the age of closed borders and quarantines. 

I impatiently paced back and forth in the narrow corridor of snow that the lip of the cabin’s roof had provided. In the open doorway of the wooden hut stood two people: my friend, Mateusz, and a member of the Tatra Mountain Rescue Team. They spoke in hushed tones in a language I could not even begin to comprehend. After many minutes of me trying to look care-free, the conversation between the two came to an end. Mateusz came over to me, and the door closed. I waited for him to speak; he already knew what I was anxious to know. “What do you call the thing with the skull and two bones making an X beneath it?”, he asked. “A skull and crossbones?”, I replied. “Yes, thats it! That is what the man used to describe the snow conditions for the day.” I hung my head. It seemed that my decade-long dream of climbing frozen turf in the Polish Tatras would remain just that – a dream.

We discussed what our next move should be. The avalanche report issued everyday by the Tatra Mountain Rescue Team showed moderate, a two on the 1-5 scale. Not that high, but as I once heard someone say, “If you had a moderate chance of getting your ass kicked at the bar tonight, would you still go out?” Not having beacons or any of the essential safety equipment for traveling though avalanche-prone terrain anyways, it was all a moot point. The only question that really remained was if there was any climbing that we could access without traveling through such dangerous territory. That’s what we went to go find out.

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On the way to the hills.

A decade prior, from the warm comfort of my then employer’s house, I flipped through an old issue of Alpinist Magazine. A short story towards the beginning of the publication caught my eye. A man, wearing an over-sized, fuzzy bomber hat, stared mid-swing at divot of grass, ice tool poised to strike as soon as the camera shutter closed. I was taken. This didn’t look like the standard winter climbing fare. I read on. The location was the Tatra mountains, in Poland, and the style was frozen turf climbing. Due to the rather porous rock that makes up the area, huge, near-vertical mountainsides are often covered in a thin layer of soil and grass. In the summertime, these plants are bonded to the mountain with little more than their roots. During the winter, and especially the spring, it is a different story. The freeze-thaw cycle bonds these dirt clods tight to the mountain, or so climbers hope. Using mostly standard ice climbing equipment, one ascends the mixed face of bare rock, snow, and frozen turf, oftentimes many hundreds of meters in length. Unfortunately, in the area with the highest percentage of frozen turf coverage, the Western Tatras, climbing is forbidden. Fortunately, the Polish High Tatras also offer turf climbing, providing a fairly even mix of rock, snow, and turf per pitch.

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Here you can see all the three elements; rock, snow, and turf. Photo by Mateusz Madej.

It was March of 2019, and I was off to Austria for a friend’s wedding. Ever the schemer, I was all-in for trying to stretch this trip to cover as much of Central Europe as possible. I recalled from an earlier exchange of emails with a Tatra local that the best month for turf climbing was March (maximum freeze-thaw). Coincidentally, I had just made a new Polish climbing friend a few months prior during my time in Argentina. Things were looking promising. Some messages were swapped, plans were drawn up, and before I knew it, all systems were a go.

After the wedding, I took some time to visit with friends before heading to the Tatras. While I was languidly walking through the foothills and apple orchards of Moravia, a serious storm was blowing across much of the European continent, blanketing the area with major amounts of precipitation. Unfortunately, the Tatras got slammed by this, bringing heavy snowfall and significant winds to the range. The conditions were too bad to even attempt to climb, and I was put on stand-by. My three-day Tatra climbing blitz just turned into two.

The next morning I found myself at the central train station in Brno, frantically trying to reach my friend Mateusz. A bus, Poland-bound, was leaving in 4 minutes from a stop a half a kilometer away. “Dude, can we climb?”, I asked when he finally answered. Through the broken connection came his reply, “I think there is a good chance, but I cannot promise.” Decision time: try to catch the bus to Poland, or head west to Germany for a couple days of drinking beer? I hung up, and with my 50 lbs (23 kg) pack, sprinted for the bus.


Entering the crux pitch of our climb. Photo by Mateusz Madej.

It was a long journey from Brno to Krakow and onto Zakopane, where we spent a short night in a hostel before getting an alpine start. The mountain huts had all been reserved, so we had to start from town. A taxi took us up to the start of the hiking trail, and we began our hike by headlamp. Dawn came slowly as the inky black turned to lighter and lighter shades of blue. We reached the hut just as others were waking up for their days of skiing, hiking, or climbing. There we got the bad news about the conditions.

At the base of the mountain cirque where we had hoped to climb was a big and broad lake. Mateusz knew it would be safe to walk at least to there. Coming so far, I was prepared to give up goal of climbing for the sake of safety, but I did want to at least see the mountains in their full form. We left the hut and started up the hill. Reaching the lake we saw a few other parties, some skiing, some preparing to climb, and some just taking photos. We, as objectively as we could, evaluated the situation. Peak by peak we went across the cirque, crossing them off our mental maps as too dangerous, given the avalanche conditions. It was not the walls themselves that was the issue, but the hundreds of meters of avalanche-prone snow slopes beneath the faces that denied us entry.

Towards the end of the right-side, we came across a smaller sub-peak that had potential. There was only about 50 meters of snow between the lake and its base, and almost all of that was low enough angle to be deemed safe. After much vacillation, we decided to go for it. We would take it one step at a time, and if we saw any of the warning signs of an avalanche, we would get the hell out. 20 minutes later, we reached the base.

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Mateusz approaching our sub peak, the central blob.

Our route was three to four pitches long. Mateusz was familiar with this climb, as he had done it before as the final test for his alpine climbing course. Now it was my turn to be tested. The route was pretty ideal for a first-time Tatra climber; it started off relatively low angle and then got progressively steeper, each rope length more difficult than the last. I was very hesitant on the first pitch, and quite honestly, a bit terrified. The turf was not at all as I had imagined. I was expecting deep dirt and hero ice axe swings that buried the blade up to the hilt. What I had instead was a blend of snow and dirt that went from few centimeters thick to only a few millimeters. The thicker parts were filled with hidden stones that would cause your ice tool to ricochet off should you hit one. The gear placements were non-existent. Slowly, cautiously, I made my way up, one steeper step at a time, taking long rests on the lower-angled spots in between, and searching desperately for gear placements. Eventually, I reached the end of the first pitch.

As the climbing continued, move by move my confidence in the turf improved. I learned that less swing often results in more stick, and that ice tools are never as good as a proper hammer for nailing glorified tent stakes half way into frozen turf for anchors. We reached the top of the climb and I took in the views. It had been a while since I had seen a place that felt so wild and rugged, a place that made me feel so vulnerable.


Feeling alone, high on the wall.


The piece of gear that was supposed to stop me in event of a fall. Maybe best to avoid that if at all possible…

After returning to the base of the climb, we made our way back across the lake, and down the hill to the hut. Posted was the following day’s weather forecast; it looked grim. A huge warm front was on the way, and it would bring above freezing temperatures to even the tallest peaks in Tatras. With that, we knew our time in the hills was over.

That night, I once again found myself waiting at a bus stop, wondering if I should get on. Mateusz and I could stay where we were and try skiing at one of the resorts the next day, or we could head back to the lowlands, hope for a sunny day, and take our chances sport climbing. Risking it for the biscuit, I boarded the bus.


A beautiful day for climbing rocks.


Snapshots from Zanskar: The Great Himalayan Mountain Range, India (2 of 2)


Climbing high above the Shimling Valley on Starikatchan. The village of Tungri is the patch of green in the lower right. Photo by Tess Smith.

We make the call to switch valleys. Two weeks of mostly good weather and three and a half attempts on a handful of peaks has gained us a net total of only a few hundred meters of climbing. We learned a lot in this first valley – mostly that the clean, compact faces are too bold for us, and the horrendously loose ridges and gullies too dangerous. Now it is time for us to attempt our primary objective, what we really came here for: the east face of Starikatchan.

We spend a week (what feels like an excessively long time) trying to organize and facilitate a move to a new base camp in the nearby Shimling valley, home of the unclimbed Starikatchan. We decide to ditch the camp staff this time. To have them is convenient, and the cooks are oh-so-kind, but we still prefer the solitude of our own company. This time, instead of a group of nearly twenty, we move up valley as six; two climbers, and four porters. After half a day, we reach a flat, sandy area that will be our home for the next two weeks. Once the porters are paid and our goods deposited, the air takes on a lighter feel. We watch the porters make their way down valley, becoming smaller and smaller with each step before dropping down onto a steep slope and out of sight. We finally are doing what we came here to do.


Tess leading another pitch on Starikatchan. The true summit can be seen far in the distance, on the left-side of the photo.

I try my best to sneak the packaged loaf of chocolate cake in with the rest of the food, although it’s unlikely that this will go unnoticed. We have counted calories and discussed every bit of kit that will go into our packs. Tess’s calculated mind will no doubt question this last-minute addition of an undisclosed and undocumented 600 calories of sugar and flour. The four matches, also contraband, I am less concerned about. So small and packed in with the lighter, they will most likely go undetected. My only real hope for the cake is that it won’t be seen until we are already off the ground and climbing, at which time questioning its presence would be moot.

It isn’t until the evening, long past dark and after many, many rope lengths of mostly uninspiring climbing (along with a few gems), that the cake is ready to make its grand appearance. Sitting on our sloping, uneven, yet spacious bivy ledge, I ask Tess to close her eyes and turn around so I can light the “candles”. Not thinking, I light all the matches while they are sticking straight up, therefore unable to reach the fuel of the matchstick beneath them. All but one of the matches go out within seconds. Quickly, I tell Tess to turn around, sing a shoddy version of “Happy Birthday” through cracked lips, and celebrate my friend’s decision to spend her 25th birthday on the side of an unclimbed, 6000m Himalayan peak, oceans away from her loved ones, with only myself for company.


I ❤️ to Party Party. Photo by Tess Smith.

The night is warm and cloudy. Occasionally, I am woken by the tinny, metallic sound of snowflakes falling onto our single shared sleeping bag and bivy sack. Had we known how mild the temperatures were to be, a few degrees above freezing, no doubt we would have only taken one of the two. Together, they provide a more-than-necessary, luxurious coziness. Predawn, in the hazy blue light we begin to stir. We do everything we can from inside our nylon confines, trying our damnedest not to leave the shared warmth of the sleeping bag until it is an absolute necessity. Clear snot begins to trickle down from my nose as we sit, sipping warm drinks. I sniffle, and wipe at it with the back of a gloved hand. The weather is foreboding, yesterday’s sun replaced by steel grey clouds. We are both worried about our chances of getting to the top today, but say nothing, for what is there to be said? We both know the count.

Tess has often said that first ascents are simple: you climb until you can’t anymore, and then you go down. We are still roughly 400 vertical meters from the summit, having covered 500 vertical meters of new terrain the day before. Currently, there is nothing barring us from further upward progression, so I offer to take the first block of leads. The rock is worse then the previous day. It is equally loose and blocky, but steeper. A heavy, wet layer of late-spring snow still clings to the side of the peak in many spots at this altitude, limiting our options of ascent. We cut back left, then right, again and again over the runout terrain, in an effort to avoid the snow. Roughly 100 vertical meters of hard-fought ground above, we can no longer go up. The narrow peninsula of granite I followed terminates into a sea of avalanche-prone snow. It’s time to go down.


Racking up on the morning of Day 2. Photo by Tess Smith.

The sky explodes before my eyes. Even at the peak of my frustrations I cannot help but to acknowledge its beauty. A bright outline of yellow surrounds soft purple clouds, with a smattering of blue sky, sprinkled in here and there. It was a rather desperate plan, but one I longed to fulfill. With only two days left before we have to leave the mountains, it is our last stand. For this final effort, we have planned an ascent of the Southeast ridge of Starikatchan, the unclimbed peak that we were previously turned back on only four days prior.

Hope is fickle beast. Too much of it, and the fall from grace can break you. Too little, and you will never even bother to show up. I know I am going into this one with too much heat, but with already nearly four weeks of unsuccessful efforts behind me, I need something to lean on. As predicted, the fall is hard. We are moving too slow on the approach, and before we even reach the base I know it’s over. What took us one and half hours to hike four days ago, now takes us two and a half. After almost four hours walking across the glacier and already over an hour behind schedule, I call off the siege. Hours later, once again back at camp, I drop my trekking poles to the ground in frustration and yearn to already be back home.

The final days of the trip pass in a curious trepidation. The conflict between Jammu and Kashmir and the national government of India has begun to flair up again. All phone and internet communication in the region is cut to prevent anti-government protest from being organized. All upcoming climbing permits and trips to the region are canceled. Thousands of additional military troops have been organized and sent into the area. While things are safe and not noticeably different in the region we are traveling in, the need to stay vigilant and present overshadows the hard-felt feelings from the mountains.

Since my return home, the more fleeting feelings of frustration have passed. Instead, they have been replaced by a long-lasting gratitude, as warm and soft as the pashmina wool of the Jammu and Kashmir region. Two climbers embark on an expedition that pushes their personal boundaries. Firsts are achieved. Maybe not first ascents, but things more personal; first time climbing at altitude, first time visiting one of the world’s greater ranges. First time on a previously attempted, unclimbed peak. First time visiting India, first time experiencing the culture of the Zanskar. Already, we are planning our return to the area. There are, without doubt, many more personal firsts still patiently waiting for us there.


The final magical sunrise.


A big, fat thank you to the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream grant for the support and helping to make my journey to the Zanskar a reality.

Snapshots from Zanskar: The Great Himalayan Mountain Range, India (1 of 2)


The stupas of Shey Monestary from below – Ladakh, India

The soft flapping sound of a thousand prayer flags fill the air around us as we approach Shey Monastery. My mouth is dry; a constant irritation since arriving here three days ago. Most evenings, in an effort to hydrate, I drink until my stomach is full, and still it somehow never feels like enough. Today is our third and final day in the city of Leh, the capital city of India’s state of Jammu and Kashmir. My climbing partner, Tess, and I have been busy exploring monasteries and ancient palaces, while our bodies attempt to acclimatize to the oxygen-deficient air of this Himalayan city, located at almost 4000m.

Even at our incredibly slow pace, we cannot help but to huff and puff our way up the hill, totally unable to catch our breaths. The sun feels strong on my skin, unaccustomed as it is to such unrestricted rays. At last, we reach the monastery’s white stupas and take a short break. I notice that the stupas, much like the entire surrounding mountainside, are showing signs of slow degradation. Thin, grey cracks, like threads, can be seen covering the Buddhist shrines upon close inspection. My observations are interrupted as a plastic water bottle is thrust in front of me. Passed back and forth between the three of us, (Tess, our guide Tsephel, and myself) we take small, courteous sips of water that do little to quench the thirst caused by the high desert.


The stupas of Shey Monestary from above – Ladakh, India. Photo by Tess Smith


Our porters, burdened with their 20kg loads.

I’m feeling nervous. Well, not nervous exactly, but my senses are on high alert. Everything around me is new, and my mind and body are trying their best to keep up. For the last half-dozen hours Tess, our local companions, and I have been slowly hiking our way along a hillside, each step taking us further into the uninhabited Rangtik Valley of Zanskar, India. Our hike had begun in the village of Tungri, where we had spent the previous day sleeping off our 36-hour 4×4 jeep journey from Leh. Nestled further up the valley among the boulders is today’s end goal, our basecamp spot: a small, flat patch of dirt located at an elevation of 4900m, in the heart of the Great Himalayan Mountain Range. We travel along yak trails, past vacant stone shepard’s huts, through small plains filled with spring grass, and across large, steep bands of broken rock. Our guide, camp cook, and assistant cook lead the way, having been there once before, two years ago, on another team’s climbing expedition.

Down the hill, hiking through the remnants of the spring snow, is our group of porters. Each of the dozen or so men are loaded down with 20kg of food or equipment that one of us had deemed indispensable for our month in the mountains. I shudder at the sight of them carrying such monstrous loads, packed in seemingly the most uncomfortable and inconvenient ways. Metal crates carried by nothing more than a strap across the forehead, duffel bags as backpacks, large stoves carried in bare hands. Even those with proper backpacks refuse to use the hipbelts, having the burden resting entirely on their shoulders.

In an effort to befriend the porters, I “brake bread” with them and share in their meal; a mix of yak yogurt and barley flour. The taste of soured dairy linger around in my mouth long after our break ends. It was true that the yogurt was possibly not the freshest, and that, along with the drastic altitude change, will prove too much for my body to adapt to in such a short time. The next two days will be miserable.


Recovering at base camp. Photo by Tess Smith.


Leading out onto shitty snow while attempting a new route on Phobrang. Photo by Tess Smith.

We both lie on our backs, soaking in the sun like cold-blooded animals, perched on a small slab of exposed granite 50 meters out from the base of the wall. Our spirits are slowly rising from the depths of failure and self-despair, and we are beginning to once again acknowledge the beauty that surrounds us. We bask in the silence, the overexposed whiteness, the freeing, momentary feeling of realized insignificance.

It starts as a whisper as light as a feather, only detectable due to the stillness of the air around us. Slowly, the whisper grows into the familiar sound of an ignited white gas stove, before its eventual crescendo into that of a jet engine. We know the “what”, or at least have a good idea. It is the “where” and “how damn big” that concerns us. The thunk, quickly muffled by the surrounding snow, signals an end this lone stone’s symphony. Maybe the size of a bread loaf, it lands about 20 feet to our right. We freeze, and after a tense momentary panic (it is unusual that a single stones falls on its own, without bringing with it some companions), we look at each other with wild eyes, chuckle with relief, and begin to vacate our stunning rock island with haste.


On an early recon hike of the valley. The Phobrang is the obvious peak on the left, with Tess in the foreground.


A big, old thank you to the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream grant for the support and helping to make my journey to the Zanskar a reality.

The Wild Atlantic Way: Climbing on Ireland’s West Coast

I didn’t want to go, but what choice did I really have?  The offer: A free place to stay, 50e round-trip, business-class flights, an opportunity to hang with three great friends who hardly ever get to meet, and the chance to climb at an area that’s been on my list for years.

The timing, though, was horrible. To make this happen I would have to leave home just ten days after returning from a 6-week-long, major expedition to India’s Great Himalayan Range. I would be in piss-poor rock climbing shape after that long at altitude, not to mention that I would be just plum tired of travelling and, no doubt, want only to spend some time at home, resting and reflecting on the previous trip. As could be predicted, the Siren call proved too irresistible to me. I took the bait and booked the trip.

After India, I felt like I had enough time to only do a quick load of laundry and repack, before I once again found myself on a bus, airport bound. The destination? The Burren, Co. Clare, on Ireland’s wild west coast.


The cliffs of Ailladie, under stormy skies.

Besides the tiny Arran Islands located just a handful of kilometers off the shore, “the next piece of land you would hit after leaving the the Burren is Newfoundland”, chuckled Sonia’s jovial father over breakfast at their home in Limerick. The words echoed in my head as we first approached Ailladie in howling winds that I would sooner associate with Patagonian massifs, rather than single-pitch Irish crags.

Known as the Burren’s premiere climbing area, Ailladie is located directly (and I mean directly) on the North Atlantic coast. This cliff is the first thing the building wind and waves hit after traveling across the entire Atlantic Ocean, and it feels that way. On climbs, the angry emerald green sea froths and stirs and smashes relentlessly into the walls, sometimes just a single meter below your feet. To look up at the imposing grey limestone faces that seem to tower above, with the swells of the ocean just below is vertigo-inducing. Couple this with a strict trad climbing ethic, finicky gear placements, and often wet rock (to be expected in Ireland, I suppose), and it was clear that this crag punches far above its weight class.


The view from above, looking into the churning, green drink below. Photo by Lauri Hämäläinen.

Our trip, which was only a week long, was exceptionally wet, even by local standards. Yet, this was no match for our enthusiasm. On the rainy mornings we took the opportunity to sleep in late and then check out the local cafes (which, if the rain persisted, often led to exploring the local pubs). For us, it seemed that the afternoon often brought an end to the rains and that blustery sea breeze made quick work drying off the cliffs to passable, “sticky-damp” conditions. With this system we managed to sneak in at least a few climbs every day.

The style of the climbing took some time to get adjusted to. Grades that we were used to dispatching with relative ease now required full attention, and sometimes even that was not enough to see us to the top. We had been warned that virtually every cam placed in such water-polished limestone was to be regarded with suspicion, and this kept us on guard and always hunting for stopper placements among the flaring cracks. As the afternoons passed our familiarity with the stone began to increase. On our second-to-last day, it all came together. We had a full day of blue skies and dry rock, and feeling confident, were able to try some of the harder lines we had been eyeing up all week. The only way I can sum it up is to say that when the Burren is good, it’s good.


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A rare bluebird day on the west Irish Coast.

Our last day on location was another wet one. Between the rain showers, we spent the morning top-roping a heady route just over the sea. As the rain became more steady and the gaps between the showers shorter, we opted to call an end to all the climbing. We had gotten what we had come for; somehow, we had managed to climb all the routes in Ailladie we had hoped to, with the exception of a single, stand-out line (the most elegant and hardest route on our to-do list). As my father would say though, “it’s always good to leave something to come back for”. The rest of our day was spent laughing our way though local sites, hunting for big waves, eating fish and chips, saying goodbyes to friends old and new, a long drive back to the Dublin airport, and an all-to-brief late-night nap at the airport before an early morning flight home.


Looking for waves? We found ’em! Photo by Lauri Hämäläinen.





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.


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




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.


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


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.


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


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


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.

It’s a view that hardly gets old.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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


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


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


  • 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.


  • 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












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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Topping out in paradise.

Reflections from Chalten: 4 of 4


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.


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.


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.


Until next time, Chalten!


Reflections from Chalten: 3 of 4


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.


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.


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.


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.


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