The Waiting Game- El Chalten

 

 

It’s 8AM. Maud and I are a few pitches up one of the classic “warm up” routes in El Chalten’s Argentine Patagonia. We’re both slumped against the cold granite at a hanging belay and decide it’s a good idea to shove Maud’s feet in my armpits in attempt to turn them back into functional appendages before she leads her block of pitches. Even in the hazy stupor of having slept for two hours the night prior we both crack up. I am reminded of how much I love being in the mountains with a good friend.

I left the States in early December with enough luggage to feel thoroughly embarrassed. Does it really take three 50 pound bags to go climbing for three months? I suppose so. I was fortunate enough to run into a handful of climbers during an overnight layover in the Buenos Aires airport. They were easily distinguished by their multiple 50 pound duffel bags and reluctancy to spend money on a hostel for the night. Their company made the remaining travel to El Chalten much more easy and enjoyable and they later turned out to be good friends. My plan for the next one hundred or so days was as follows:

-Early December to early January: climb with Maud in El Chalten. Try to get a feel for the place and tick off some easier routes if we’re lucky.

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The Frenchie in her natural habitat.

-Early January to late January: meet Alan, a friend from Seneca Rocks WV, and climb further north in the Frey. The goal here is to get used to climbing with each other as well as spend some more time climbing granite.

-Late January to late February: Piritas Valley Expedition- the main reason for this trip in the first place. Al and I’s hope is to establish a new route on the peak Pirita Central.

-Late February to mid March: return to El Chalten and maybe with some luck we will get a late season weather window.

When I arrived in El Chalten I was psyched to realize the place lived up to its expectations in many capacities. The mountains are wild, the town is great, the approaches are complex and nothing is ever as easy as it seems. During the month or so that I was there we accomplished two routes. Yep- two whole routes- and we were psyched. I am incredibly impressed, frustrated, intimidated, and overall inspired by realizing what it takes to climb these mountains. You can spend weeks waiting for a weather window and rush into the hills only to find that the conditions are bad, the meteorogram was wrong, the cracks are too icy, the approach too time consuming, or whatever else you can fathom. This place has a multitude of ways to crush your spirits and I felt fortunate to begin learning about all of them.

As far as climbing goes, here is a synopsis of my time spent in the mountains:

-Hiked 20 kilometers with Maud, Aaron, and Will (some American friends from my time in the airport) to retrieve some gear Maud had cached at an area called Laguna de los Tres. We thought that we were in the middle of a bad weather spell, however we received news one arriving at the Laguna that tomorrow might go. Say what? ACTION! We ran back to town, hastily packed some gear and began hiking to a peak called Guillaumet by 8PM. After a few hours of walking we stopped and slept for four, then got up and started walking again only to watch some foul weather move in and engulf our objective. We retreated to town.

-Will, Aaron, Damien (another airport friend), Maud, Victor (a French friend) and I climbed a small glacier route on Cerro Solo (Cara Este, 60 degrees) during a one day break in a larger string of  poor weather. The route was quite pleasant and while it was not a peak of great technical significance it was nice to stand on top of something.

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I used to think Patagonian alpinism was all business- fast and light and badass. The reality- when it starts raining on the approach you hide in the woods and drink cheap beer and boxed wine until it stops. Here- Maud and Will killin’ it on the approach to Cerro Solo.

-A day and a half window appeared and Maud and I returned to Guillaumet with high hopes. We spent one day hiking in the slush. On day two we awoke to blue bird skies and began our approach only to find Guillaumet plastered with a harsh and mocking layer of snow, ice and rime.

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Scribbles: Day two, when all of the parties attempting Guillaumet realized that the weather was beautiful and no one was going to be able to climb.

Day three we approached yet again and made it up two pitches of the Brenner-Moschioni (300m 30 degrees, 6b).  I began chopping ice out of a crack with an ice tool while wearing my rock shoes and realized that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing up here. A party behind us bailed, giving us some emotional validation for feeling intimidated, and we quickly followed suit. Within the hour we watched clouds swallow the mountain once more. Back to town once again.

-The first decent weather window appeared in the forecast and Maud, Victor and I headed out to the Poincenot with the intent of doing the Whillins-Cochrane (550m 5+ 70 degrees M4). By the time we made it through several hours of the approach my body was not suiting well to climbing with a bit of a stomach ache and an uneasy ankle. With thoughts of the Piritas Valley and needing to be healthy for the remainder of my trip I reluctantly bailed and headed back to town. Maud and Victor found success on the Poincenot the next day which was excellent news.

-Within the week my ankle felt back up to speed. The last day Maud and I had in town a very nice window appeared and we set our sights on Aguja de l’S’ Austriaca route (350m 6a 50 degrees). We made it past the snow sections and enjoyed some rather pleasant rock climbing aside from some chilly morning temperatures. The last few pitches, however, gave us a taste of the classic Patagonian wind. We suffered up them, bodies plastered to the granite in hopes that we would not get ripped off of the exposed ridge until eventually we were standing on the summit. Psyched, we descended and hiked back to El Chalten, returning at 1.30AM for a 21 hour day.

Some things that I learned:

-The sun is heinously strong. I had heard that there was an ozone hole here, or perhaps a recovering ozone hole. Regardless the sun felt as strong as that near the equatorial mountains and caused many a sunburn.

-The whole “Patagonia is windy” thing is real. While rappelling de l’S I had two nicely made saddle bags on each gear loop to avoid having the rope fly every which way. The wind decided to lift these saddlebags,  smack me in the face with them, then let them explode everywhere. You win, wind. You win.

-There is not a good supply of dense, substantive food in Argentina. Some of the “hardcore” climbers resorted to cacao powder mixed with butter. I was not so brave.

-The climbing community in El Chalten is incredible. Having the opportunity to create a small family in Chalten made all of the days spent waiting in town enjoyable, and infinitely changed the outcome of my trip.

-The pastries are excellent.

 

Overall I am psyched to return to this place – both in March and further down the road. For now though, on to phase two!

Cheers,

Tess

 

Special thanks to:

 

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Knom Bars
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The American Alpine Club

 

 

 

 

 

 

*If you have any questions about locations, logistics, route beta, or anything else feel free to contact me any time.

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