With a weather window on the horizon Kelsey and I set our sights on El Chalten and the perfect granite spires that we have dreamed about since climbing here 5 years ago. After a month of travel, staying at beautiful hotels, and being wined and dined it was time to use the stores of fat that we had been building up. With perfect timing my torn calf had also finally healed enough for me to walk somewhat normally after about a month of hobbling around.
At first it looked like three splitter days of good weather but the middle day closed down a bit with increasingly high winds and questionable weather. Our plan was to head into the Torre Valley on Saturday and climb Sunday and Monday before retreating back to town before the coming storm with forecasted 120km winds on Tuesday. We packed our things, registered at the Info Center (required for climbers), and set off down the very well traveled and beautiful hike to Lago Torre. We arrived at Lago Torre a little over 2 hours after starting out and ate lunch among the hordes of people enjoying the breathtaking view of Cerro Torre and the Torre group.
Five years ago when we made the trek into the Torre Valley to climb Chiaro Di Luna on St. Exupery we took the original “trail” around the south(left) side of Lago Torre. People still go that way but with the continued retreat of the glacier it has fallen out of favor for the now preferred “trail” that goes around the north side. We were hoping for a yellow brick road put in by Colin and Rolo but encountered the usual hike/scramble through seemingly never ending piles of chossy moraines constantly shifting under foot. There were enough cairns around to keep us on track through the sea of choss and the couple km on the dry glacier at the end felt like our yellow brick road. We made better time than 5 yrs ago to Niponino so I guess I am sold on the North side of the lake.
We arrived in Niponino around 6pm(5hrs or so from the lake) and after shopping around for sheltered spots we settled on one that was quite small but offered decent protection. By arriving a little late we missed out on some of the more deluxe spots so we set to work building an impressive rock ring to protect our lightweight tent. We chatted with the folks around us and general consensus was that Sunday was a weather induced rest day and unfortunately for us that meant Monday would be our only day of climbing for this window. We awoke on Sunday to clear skies and calm winds and started to second guess the forecast but that was short lived as the wind briskly picked up sending everyone off to secure their belongings and we hunkered down in our tent or hid behind rocks for the rest of the day.
There were three routes on our list: Voie Des Benitiers and Frader Pisaf on Mocho as well as Rubio y Azul on Media Luna. All three are 350m+ and 5.11ish on perfect granite to the top of spires in one of the most beautiful amphitheaters on earth so we couldn’t really go wrong. We chose Rubio y Azul which seemed the most aesthetic and also gave us the opportunity to retrieve a forgotten cam for a friend.
The winds were supposed to still be high in the morning so we got an alpine start of 9am from camp and slogged upwards through the scree toward our objective at the foot of Cerro Torre. The approach from Niponino took about 1.5 hours and we eventually emerged from the scree and talus to joyously walk up about 500ft of granite slabs past Camp Noruego to the base of Cerro Media Luna. We brought crampons for the final approach but did not need them with the snow already soft enough to kick steps with 5tennies.
There was another team starting off as we were arriving but they proved to be fast and were out of our way quickly. The route begins with an offwidth corner on beautiful orangish granite. It was not especially hard but if conditions are bad or one was not comfortable with offwidths a second #4 or perhaps even a #5 cam would not go unused. Fun stemming and steep juggy climbing followed by ledges and easier climbing on the second pitch brought us to the base of the 6b pitch. The crux was a short but powerful layback that was a little hard to protect giving way to easier climbing to the top of a tower and our first view of the glorious headwall.
Perfect cracks led up the face towards a gaping chimney that overhangs formidably beyond it. I led the first half up immaculate finger and hand cracks and Kelsey followed. The weather was perfect and we were loving everything about this climb. Plus the position we were in, staring up at Cerro Torre and across at the Fitzroy group was an inspiring place to be. The next pitch was 6a(5.10ish) and looked like more of the same quality so Kelsey took the sharp end. She adeptly jammed up the thin hands off the belay to a splitter hand crack and dispatched the distinct finger crack and stemming crux going over a bulge to the anchor.
The next short pitch took us to the base of the crazy 6c chimney and it was even cooler than it looked from below. The pitch starts with a hand crack that widens to fists and then a little bigger as the overhang increases and the sides of the chimney close in. Using a combination of jamming, lying back and eventually stemming I found my way to the top of that incredible pitch. My poor healing calf was redlined constantly and I found myself inventing creative ways to shake it out. The most accurate way I can describe the chimney pitch is as a combination of the Split Pillar (Squamish) and the Pressure Chamber (Leavenworth) but a bit harder.
The gear notes in the book say to double up on cams to #3 but I was sure glad I brought a #4. I pushed and hopped my lone #4 for quite a few feet past a unique but solid feeling bolt that I had no interest falling on and then ran it out on easier terrain to the anchor. I think most people would be happy with two #4s and they would probably both get some use on the first pitch.
We exited the chimney onto the summit ridge and into the sun! I did an easy but very exposed move to the actual summit and we both took in our position. We were now about as close to Cerro Torre as you can get without actually climbing on it and surrounded by steep rock and glacier on all sides.
In Patagonia the climb is often less than half of the battle. The approaches and descents are considerable undertakings and are rarely straight forward even in good conditions. And then there is always the rappelling. Colin Haley says that climbing in the Chalten Massif is a masterclass in rappelling and I could not agree more. Besides needing to evaluate various anchor and create your own it is necessary to able to improvise solutions to a number of problems. it is easy for things to go wrong on the rappels putting yourself in a bad position if you have overextended your energy or your skill set.
On our descent Kelsey and I had worse luck than usual and in 10 rappels we had 4 separate hangups. Some were quicker fixes but all involved some sort of hijinks beyond normal rappelling. One especially time consuming snag required me to climb/aid/ascend close to 60m to where the rope had gotten wedged in a crack just below the anchor. Kelsey had eaten the majority of our remaining food by the time I returned.
Eventually we got back to the ground but with our late start the light was fading and we hustled to get down to camp. Scree sliding, slab walking and waterfall descending eventually led us to our tent and a shorter than expected amount of sleep before departing in the morning with enough time to get Kelsey to work(aka reliable internet) in time the next day.
This meant we woke at 5am and retraced our steps across the dry glacier, through the scree piles, around the lake and back down the hikers trail to El Chalten. This early start proved to be a boon for us as we saw the apocalypse sweeping across the skies above the Torre Valley and bringing with it some pretty hefty winds. We ended up getting out just in time and enjoyed food and beer at a bar with good internet while watching the world blow by us.
Until the next weather window…