As I sit here in BA writing this blog Andy Davis is sitting on a plane headed back to Seattle, most likely somewhere over Brazil at this point. Triste. Our time together in Argentina may have come to an end but we did it big and we did it with style as a final salud to our trip. It seems like so many things that we had grown to love from our time in Argentina came as big, as good, and as tough as they would get at our final stop on our journey southwards and upwards: El Chalten.
We took a lovely 28 hour bus ride to El Calafate where we hung out for a few days until our near constant checking of the weather in El Chalten paid off and a weather window appeared on the horizon. Weather windows are few and far between in El Chalten so we decided not to take any chances and get there as soon as possible. Every climber has heard the countless tales of fellow climbers who have bought a ticket, lugged all their gear down to Patagonia and sat huddled in their tents for a month waiting for a window and never getting to climb. And there was no way that was going to happen to us, no siree bob!
Our time in Calafate was pleasant enough and the day after we arrived we got to head about 80 k out to see the Perito Moreno glacier. The PM is really a sea of ice measuring 97 sq mi, 19 miles in length. The glacier is stable, one of only 3 patagonian glaciers that are not retreating and the ice field it forms a part of is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. We got to spend quite a few rapt hours staring at this active glacier as pieces of it calved into the lake below. Pieces the size of a football sounded like a car when they hit the water and in our short time there we (by we I mean Andy) got good enough at predicting what would fall next that we got to see some truly massive chunks of ice hit the water. We’re talking small house size chunks. Pretty spectacular.
After the trip to the PM we took a bus to El Chalten which is an adorable mountain town with Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre constantly either towering above or lurking just behind the clouds. El Chalten means smoking mountain and after spending a few days there it’s fairly obvious why. The town was created in 1985 to help secure the disputed border with Chile and really that and tourism are it’s sole reasons for existing. There are countless numbers of hostels, restaurants and gear rental/ guide shops and you can’t turn a corner without being poked by someone’s trekking pole. It truly is a lovely, lazy town with friendly people, lomos the size of your head and microbrews to come back to after the long days of climbing.
As I said before, we arrived the day before the weather window opened and we were showing at least 3 solid days of good weather with temps above freezing, sunny skies and minimal winds. Perfect. We weren’t sure if the weather would hold so we decided not to take our chances and try to get our biggest objective bagged: Fitz Roy himself.
Day 1: Plan to leave early and head all the way to high camp, Paso Superior (really more of a glacial bivy). We leave late and make it to Poincenot camp before deciding to spend the night warm, out of the wind and not in a snow cave. Something that quickly became apparent to Andy and I is that the approaches in Patagonia can be just as difficult, if not more challenging, than the climbing itself. You’ll see what I mean soon enough…
Day 2: Hike up the very steep trail to Tres Lagos. Did not exactly find the right trail around the lake and instead forge our own that includes many extra hundreds of vertical feet up and the same for scary skree skiing down the other side. Find the bivy on the other side of Tres Lagos and decide that we will have a better chance of summiting if we leave from Tres Lagos and go light and fast up to Fitzy rather than haul our heavy bags up 2,000 vertical feet of glacier to Paso Superior. Spend the day lounging in the sunshine and watching the progress of climbers slogging their way up on the approach to Paso.
Day 3: Wake up at 11 p.m to start the approach to Fitzy. It’s still kind of light out. Very strange. Run into some climbers Andy knew from Seattle on their way down from Fitzy. Turns out the approach is a bit more ice climbing based than we had hoped. They said they wouldn’t have felt comfortable without 2 ice tools each and then once they got to the route everything after the first pitch was covered in rime ice resulting in a retreat. Due to lack of tools and my complete lack of ever ice climbing we decide our time will be better spent going back to sleep. We wake up at 5 to start the approach to an easier and smaller spire called Guillamet. Usually this climb is approached from a different base camp but we decide it’s probably possible to get there by heading up to Paso and crossing the glacier in front of Fitzy and Mermoz to arrive at Guillamet.
The hike to Paso is beautiful and not too bad. We make it up in good time and the glacier is stable and easy to walk on. We leave some extra gear at Paso to pick up on the way back (keep this in mind) and start heading towards Guillamet, roped up for glacier travel. At first it was easy going but as the sun starts to rise and the day gets warmer, the snow gets softer. Andy, breaking trail, is postholing up to his knee if not waist. We have to cross a number of crevasses via snow bridges and we both posthole into crevasses. While it was very exciting for me there was no need to worry in the end. I could see that I was mostly inside a crevasse but it was definitely too narrow for me and my backpack to fit into. Plus Andy had the rope tight and was in a good position. Still very exciting to look down sheer blue walls to nothing. Andy thought I was just more upset than usual about postholing.
Anywho, we made it across the glacier pretty exhausted and reached the base of the climb at 11, a bit late to start a patagonia climb. We had decided to do a route called Brenner-Moschioni (6b, 9 pitches). It was gorgeous and completely worth the approach. We simul climbed the beginning easier pitches and then went up absolutely gorgeous rock with incredible cracks and rock formations. We had so much fun. The kind of climbing where you’re smiling the whole way up.
We rapped down in good time and decided that it would be unsafe to go back across the glacier late in the evening after it had melted out even more. So instead, we would head down to the base camp one is supposed to approach from (Piedra Negra) and circle back around to Tres Lagos. Easy, right? Wrong. We finished rapping by 6 and started the hike down. We descended skree for far too long and got to Piedra Negra around 8. We chatted with people for a while then started the long hike back to camp at 9. The hike was on great trail but long and brutal. It took us another 2 hours to get to the halfway point at Piedra Fraile by which point we had no food left. There was a campsite with beds there and we sprung for it. The nice man working there said the kitchen was closed but agreed to get us some food. We got a massive can of peach halves in sugar syrup and four cheese, mayonnaise, and bread sandwiches. We crashed.
Day 4: We woke up, paid for breakfast and continued the hike “home.” The trail to Poincenot is flat but long. It took us 4 hours to get back to Camp Poincenot and then we had the steep hike back up to Tres Lagos and around the lake. This time we found the correct approach which helped our time but still didn’t see us back at camp until 4 after a total of 20km of hiking. We snarfed a large amount of food and then Andy strapped on his boots and crampons and made the trek up to Paso to get all of the gear we had left there. It took him 1 hour to ascend and 20 minutes to come down. It took us 2.5 hours to go up together. Can you guess which of us is the weak link here? We took down the tent and retreated to the trekkers camp at Poincenot.
Day 5: We headed back to Chalten and got to sit down, eat at our favorite spot, Porter, drink some microbrews and actually take a minute to celebrate the fact that we had climbed a climb in Patagonia! And it was spectacular! Hurrah! Another!
We rested in town for a few days but the weather window continued to stretch and, if anything, get better so we decided to head over to the other valley to try a climb called Chiaro di Luna on Saint Exupery spire. It’s a big one, 750m of climbing in 19 pitches and consistently in the 5.10 range. Longer than the regular route on Half Dome! The climbing would be the tough part on this one, we knew it. The book said it was only a 5 hour approach!
Day 1: We headed out on another perfect, sunny day on the lovely trekkers trail to Lago Torre where we would spend the night. The trail was beautiful and we got to see Cerro Torre getting bigger with every step. We set up camp and called it good.
Day 2: Started the hike to Polacos (base camp for Chiaro) bright and early. We cruised across the Tyrolean (a fixed line across a river you can clip into and pull yourself and your gear across) and were on the trail by 9. The trail was well marked for a while but the cairns grew fewer and farther between and we decided to go high when we should have gone low at a crucial split. We spent a bit of time bushwhacking through mean shrub trees until we got cliffed out. We retraced our steps and went down. We got to a fixed line, hurrah! We ended up at the top of an extremely steep glacial morraine. There seemed to be no other path so we chose the least steep area and started downclimbing.
We finally made it to the start of the glacier and headed up. It’s a dry glacier on this side so no boots or crampons were necessary. Easy to go light and fast. We had gotten some beta from friends to stay high and left which turned out to be pretty shoddy beta. We were crevassed out an hour in and had to retrace our steps. We went another way and after much dry glacier/ skree travel made it to Niponino (the camp supposedly an hour out from Polacos). We headed up to Polacos on terrible glacial morraine ridges and then got to ascend some steep skree to Polacos. We arrived exhausted at around 5 p.m after a solid 8 hours of hiking. We set up our bivvy, set the alarm for 3 a.m and got down to scarfing dinner.
Day 3: Woke up to stars and the outlines of the Fitz Roy range. Not so shabby a sight to open your eyes to, even if it is 3 a.m. We were up and hiking by 3:30. The trail up to Chiaro was entirely loose skree and rocks but at this point Andy and I are pretty good at navigating that stuff. We made it to the base of the climb by 5:30 and were climbing by 6, heading upwards at the same time as the sun. We found the basalt dyke to start just fine but Andy decided to take an earlier leftwards leaning crack that was a bit off route and a bit more difficult. The crack on route was a 5 but Andy dearest found us a 7a ish(5.11d) crack to start our climbing day off with. It was actually pretty fun though and the rest of the climb only got better. A beautiful layback finger crack followed by rambling exposed ridge climbing with many parallel cracks and then 150m of stemming chimneys at the top. The rock was stellar, the lines beautiful, varied and sustained. All the climbing is in the 5.10 range with a couple pitches being harder and a couple easier. We did the whole climb in 21 or so pitches and were standing at the summit by 7 after 12 hours of climbing. The climbing had been so beautiful, the views so spectacular and simply being on the summit after such a massive undertaking had us both beaming and far from tired.
We started rapping by 8 and decided to take the rap line of Kearney Harrington. The rope got stuck in cracks a few times and the raps were short and plentiful to avoid both rockfall and getting the rope stuck. Therefore, the sun went down and we were still rapping. The moon and stars came out and we were still rapping. Andy had to find the anchors by headlamp each time and occasionally spent a bit of time reinforcing the most sketchy of the anchors he found. Time ticked by and we finally hit solid ground at 12:30, after 4.5 hours and twentysome rappels.
Solid ground turned out to be a slab and snow gully. Usually, the gully is full of snow but the continued warm weather had melted it out resulting in exposed loose rock, huge expanses of steep slab, rivers and snow. Not exactly the best conditions for a quick night descent. A combination of scrambling, downclimbing and improvising rappels ensued. After one last 60m rap off of some nuts Andy was willing to part with we were off the snow and back in the land of cairns. We made it to the bivy site, an hour or so out from Polacos, at 4:30. We decided to sleep for an hour, wait for the sun to come up, and then continue down. At first light we woke up and headed down the final skree slope back to Polacos. We got to greet climbers headed up as we were heading down. We got back to Polacos at 6:30, 27 hours after leaving. We crashed in our sleeping bags for 2 hours before we had to wake up and head down. We had to be back in Calafate the next day so Andy could head back home and I could fly to BA.
Day 4/5? We started hiking down by 10 and even with a far better idea of the route to take all the loose rock and the dry glacier had us shnockered. We made it all the way back to Chalten at 6:30, after yet another 8 hour hiking day. I can tell you with confidence that we did more trekking than most of the trekkers in that park. And really not all that much more climbing….
The last bus to Calafate had left at 6:30 but we managed to get a spot on a minibus leaving at 7. We packed lickity split, snarfed some crackers and were miraculously back in Calafte by 9 that night. A few empanadas and an entire pizza later we got to sit back, relax with a nice microbrew, and smile as we thought about the climb we had the good fortune to clamber abouts on. It may have been tough but the approaches were part of what made the climb such an achievement and such an experience. Patagonia doesn’t give up its climbs easily but when you do show that you’re worthy of giving a route a shot you are richly rewarded. I know both of us would do it all again to have that moment of standing on the summit after climbing such beautiful rock, seeing Fitzy above you, Torre to the side of you and a person you love and trust next to you.
Sadly, the next day Andy and I had to part ways and it will be a few months before we see each other again. It was a great way to end a spectacular trip with Andy and I’m excited for a few more adventures in my future (probably less climbing based now that my rope gun is gone). And ladies, you better keep your hands off my Andy while I’m gone!