It’s 1 in the afternoon and Alan and I are packed into the back of a sedan along with three duffel bags and two overstuffed backpacks. Ivan, our Argentinian contact, is about to drive us off to the start of our expedition. His two young daughters are sitting in the front seat. “You fools!” one says in English. We all cracked up. We weren’t sure where they had learned that, but it was certainly true. Fools we were.
Alan and I had been planning this trip for just shy of a year. Through a combination of videos, magazine articles, and American Alpine Journal publications our attention was drawn to the Turbio Valley of northern Patagonia – more specifically to a peak called Pirita Central. From all of the information we could gather it seemed to house beautiful granite walls shielded by a long and involved approach. We believe that the last party to enter the Piritas Valley was in 2011. They reported that there was a run-down refugio halfway into the approach as well as an even sorrier-looking puesto in the valley adjacent to the Piritas, but otherwise the Turbio Valley was a fairly wild and unexplored climbing paradise.
With gleaming hearts and childish excitement we left the nearest town of Lago Puelo and arrived at the lake proper to meet our gaucho, Conono. We were told by Iván that he was “the man” in these parts, which indirectly meant “don’t give him a reason to get angry with you”. We loaded our gear into a small powerboat and sped off for an hour-long boat ride across the lake. Once on the far side our bags got transferred onto horses and Conono brought over one each for Alan and I. I looked like a proper fool trying to get on the darn thing, this being my first legitimate time on a horse. Thankfully Conono laughed instead of face-palming, so I figured things were going alright.
An hour later we emerged from the forest into a massive and green valley. There were a handful of homes spread across the broad area. Alan and I gaped in amazement- the place was beautiful. Conono ended up being way too good to us- invited us to stay under his roof and share meals with his family for the next day and a half. Due to the rains that had fallen during the past few days the rivers had swollen and we had to wait for the water level to drop in order for the horses to be able to ford them. In the meantime we had the privilege of getting a glimpse into how the five or so families that inhabited the valley lived their lives.
The morning of day 3 we were able to begin our passage deep into the Turbio Valley. We were joined by another gaucho, Nacho, who helped to manage one of the pack horses. The first day consisted of around eight hours of riding. I am not sure why I had this idea in my head that horseback riding would be pleasant, but that’s certainly not the word I would use to describe it in hindsight. Several of the river crossings were still too high for the horses so Conono and Nacho went ahead and forged a new path through the woods for us. If you would like to know what it is like to bushwhack while on a horse I will tell you – it is a bit brutal. Many branches to the face, sticks to the stomach and legs, and the occasional clotheslining incident. As it turns out horses don’t have particularly good spatial awareness with regard to the person on top of them.
We eventually made it to the confluence where the Turbio River splits into three branches – the point where we left the horses and continued on foot. In general Alan and I were incredibly humbled and amazed by our experience with the Conono and Nacho. As Alan would say, there’s nothing that makes you feel like more of a wuss than hanging out with a couple of gauchos. While we slept on our shiny inflatable sleeping pads, cooked on our fancy stove and fumbled around on horses they slept in the dirt, bushwhacked with kitchen knives and carried an aura that left us with the utmost respect for them.
After we parted ways at the confluence Alan and I shuttled loads for the next nine hours up to the first refugio. Much to our surprise we found the place to be well done up with an Argentinian man and woman living there. The man, Rikki, was quite a kind though eccentric fellow and we had a hard time understanding what they were doing there in
earnest. We managed to gather that they were unpaid friends of a prominent Argentine climber who was working on building a new puesto in the Mariposa Valley. The Mariposa Valley lies adjacent to the Piritas Valley and has been seeing a fair bit of activity in recent years (comparatively of course – it sees perhaps one or two parties a year). We also learned that the trail from the refugio to the split between the Piritas and the Mariposa was more or less clear. Alan and I were a bit shell-shocked after hearing of all the activity in the Turbio and were interested to see what the valley would look like.
The next day we packed our bags with climbing gear and food for five days and set off to
the Piritas. We found that the “clear” trail was somewhat clear when it actually decided to show up, but otherwise we were bush whacking though the thick brush and colique. When we arrived at the Piritas-Mariposa split six hours later we whipped out the machete and painfully began working our way upward. We were occasionally able to follow past signs of cut colique through the dense forest, but we were mostly just getting worked.
After around three hours we were out of water, energy, and patience and made our way down to the tumultuous river that splits the valley to sleep for the night. We found a small area of cobbles just big enough for us to squeeze our sleeping bags onto and we quickly collapsed into them. The next morning we woke up reluctantly and re-entered the jungle only to get hopelessly beat down by a bunch of plants for the next several hours. As the afternoon set in we finally emerged and were in the basin of the Piritas themselves.
We set up our tent, exhausted from the past few days. After our battle in the jungle we had our minds set that this round would simply be a gear drop. We would stay the night and return to the refugio to restock on supplies, as we didn’t quite think we had the food or energy to pull of the climb in that moment. We sat and looked up at the Piritas and said nothing for a while.
“It’s really tempting just to go for it” I said.
“Be careful,” said Alan “because I am also really tempted to go for it, but I’m not sure I have any rational thought left”.
An hour later we had left our tent behind and headed up to the base of the technical climbing with a light bivy kit and two days of food. I sat beneath the Piritas that night trying to sleep as a million thoughts swarmed my mind. It felt hard not knowing if we were in over our heads- not knowing where the line was and if we were going to cross it.
The next morning we set off and reached the beginning of the technical climbing by daybreak. I started off on some grassy pitches that went anywhere from ‘5.easy’ to ‘5.scary’ to ‘5.I’m now desperately cleaning out cracks with my nut tool to aid past this awful section’. We reached the rock above the initial steep section and I passed the rack of to Alan to lead the scary slab pitches. We eventually arrived at the base of Pirita Central proper and were psyched to find really incredible rock. Pitch after pitch of beautiful flakes and cracks with very few route-finding issues or poor rock. Amongst the exhaustion, horseflies, dehydration and heavy pack we had to keep slapping ourselves to realize how high quality the climbing was. We swapped blocks of leads until dark set in and we hunkered in on a small ledge a handful of pitches from the top of Pirita Central.
Armed with our small puffy jackets and the little bit of mental fortitude we had remaining we shivered through the night huddled together in fetal position until the sky started to lighten again (the sleeping bag unfortunately didn’t make the cut). The next morning we reached the summit in a few more pitches, pretty psyched about the whole thing. We were shocked at how pleasant the climb was- the high quality rock, the moderate grade, and the truly fun climbing. We ended up naming our route El Conono (IV 5.9 C1 800m).
We considered trying to climb Pirita Left on our way down, though as we worked our way northwards we found the glacier to be too dangerous to cross with the one ice tool and one set of crampons we had between us. Thus, we began to walk the glacier out behind the Piritas in order to descend back to our camp. We made our way from snow back to rock and began rappelling…and rappelling and rappelling for the next 8 hours. We consistently had a rough time finding suitable placements for anchors. That along with stuck ropes, rock fall and snowfields created a bit of a nightmare. When we finally reached the moraine of the glacier we were greeted with sketchy talus sliding and more rock fall.
We crossed the final moraine just as darkness fell and were slapped in the face by a final river crossing before we could make it back to our camp. Water is certainly not my forte, and after 14 hours of heads-up descending I was fairly pissed. The water was deep and fast and we both got submerged up to our waists before we made it across.
We made it back to our bivy site from two nights prior and slept for a few hours until we awoke to a drizzle on our faces. We spent the next two days pushing back through the jungle to the refugio to restock our food supply.
With our main objective done (in much quicker time than we had expected) we debated what to do with our remaining time and decided to check out the Mariposa Valley. The hike
was much more pleasant and cut out than that of the Piritas. We attempted to climb a feature to the left of what we think was La Oreja. After 9 pitches of vertical bushwhacking, vegetated cracks and mossy slabs we called it off and rappelled off of shrubbery to return to the ground. The remaining peaks in
the Mariposa were certainly impressive looking, though the rock itself was much less inspiring. Many of the features housed vegetated cracks and hanging glaciers that caused wet rock and constant bombings of ice. Satisfied with seeing what the Mariposa had to offer we descended and went back to the refugio.
Our original intent was to attempt another peak up the Turbio III called the Fenix, but after much thought we decided it felt a bit ridiculous to attempt a peak that involved so much bushwhacking with only a two man team, especially when Alan and I were both psyched to continue our trip further south in El Chalten. With that, we decided to begin our journey out of the Turbio.
We ferried loads down to the main river for several hours. Once there it was time to pull out the kid’s fishing rafts Alan had brought from Finland, inflate them, load them up with our gear and paddle them down to Lago Puelo. Our paddles consisted of several branches from the woods duct taped to plastic paddle ends, which as one could imagine are not of the highest quality as far as paddles go. One of the rafts ended up getting beat up pretty good during the horse ride and had several un-patchable holes that compromised three of the four air containers in the raft. Alan valiantly took the “bird bath”, as we dubbed it, and we were heading downstream by late afternoon.
The first day of paddling was pretty desperate. Neither of us had any control of our boats- Alan due to his boat being full of holes and me due to my complete inability to handle myself in a river. After two and a half hours of yelling and cussing down the class two river we hit a pretty big strainer. Alan ran into it full on, but managed to pinball around it. I on
the other hand got pinned pretty good. I was able to eventually pull the raft and all of it’s contents back upright and then to shore. With everything and myself soaked we decided we might as well camp there for the night. The next day we fared a bit better and 6 hours of paddling later we were spit back into Lago Puelo.
We were greeted by a Lago Puelo National Park ranger who was kind enough to invite us over for a barbeque, which was utterly fantastic. We were able to communicate with Ivan and he set us up with a boat ride the following morning back across the lake and into civilization.
Overall it is hard to sum up our experience in the Turbio. I think that due to the limited information we had going into the trip it was difficult to fully anticipate what we would struggle with and what would come easily. Many things were harder than we expected and many were more fluid. Not knowing the temperament of what each day would bring always kept me on my toes and I think it kept me from fully settling in and processing the experience thus far. I am certain, though, that the Turbio has left me wanting more, and as Alan and I rode away from the valley we began planning our trip back.
Special thanks to:
The American Alpine Club’s Mountaineering Fellowship Grant
Misty Mountain Threadworks
Ty the Weather Guy – Ty gave Alan and I updated weather reports via satellite messenger that were instrumental to our success.
Cabalgatos Lago Puelo – Ivan and Liza were incredibly useful to us on the logistical side of things, and overall we can’t thank them enough for the kindness they showed us on either end of our trip.