Monthly Archives: January 2014

Flexible Plans

Sunrise over Paso Superior. Photo - Calum Muskett

Sunrise over Paso Superior. Photo – Calum Muskett

After consuming many steaks, waffles, brownies and pancakes, Windguru, our weather forecasting website, showed signs of a weather window opening up. El Chalten suddenly turns into a bustling town when the forecast improves. The shops are full of climbers purchasing chocolates and biscuits and people suddenly have another subject to discuss other than how bad the weather is: where are you heading over the next few days?

Dave and I decided that the East face of Poincenot looked like it had some good objectives. Good rock climbs that awaited free ascents and also potential for variations or new routes to their sides. We also had a backup plan of several mixed routes, existing and new, in case the temperature was a bit low on the nearby Mermoz. So far it seems that the most flexible plans will be the ones that have the highest success rate and being prepared for several eventualities might mean carrying more equipment but will also increase your odds of getting up something.

Ally approaching the East face of the Mermoz. Photo - Calum Muskett

Ally approaching the East face of the Mermoz. Photo – Calum Muskett

Our approach was in full view of Poincenot and Fitzroy and provided a stunning outlook despite the fact we could see just how far we had to walk. The trail is also popular amongst walkers and justifiably so as the old woodlands and lakes are lovely to walk through and alongside. We were heading towards the high camp of Paso Superior but when we reached the glacier in the early afternoon it was covered in small, slushy avalanches and we decided to make the longer walk in early the following morning. We also met some climbers descending from Paso Superior and they told us that the current conditions were good if you liked either freezing rock or slushy ice climbing in strong winds. Not what we had hoped for!

East Face of the Mermoz. Photo - Calum Muskett

East Face of the Mermoz. Photo – Calum Muskett

After a brief breakfast we were away at 3.30am and making the long slog up to Paso Superior. It was a sweaty walk with heavy bags and I felt like I was in the worst physical condition I’d been in for the whole trip. Once we reached Paso Superior we were treated to a stunning sunrise but clouds quickly shrouded the East face of Poincenot destroying our hopes of free climbing. We headed over to the Mermoz and climbed up to a long steep gully line that Dave had spotted as being unclimbed in the guidebook. The gully had an almost continuous line of ice down it and looked like an amazing proposition.

Dave heading up the first pitch. Photo - Calum Muskett

Dave heading up the first pitch. Photo – Calum Muskett


Tin opener moves up the very sustained first corner. Photo - Calum Muskett

Tin opener moves up the very sustained first corner. Photo – Calum Muskett

Dave got us underway and unfortunately for me the second pitch was a steep wide corner crack with very little for your feet. A gave the pitch a go, heaving away on tin opener hook placements, but was soon spat off taking a short fall. Feeling exhausted and unlikely to make a clean ascent, I handed the lead over to Dave who made steady progress upwards and reached easier ground and the next belay.

Despite its modest appearance the following pitch was a scary grovel over an ice bulge on disintegrating ice followed by a thin slab and paved the way to a continuous thin ice runnel no wider than half a foot in places. The climbing remained sustained, with strenuous bulges to overcome every so often, but it was absolutely fantastic. We couldn’t believe our luck at finding another awesome new route to try. We were both knackered though, even starting to fall asleep on some of the belays until our energy gels perked us up. Dave knocked a big piece of ice into his face whilst leading one pitch and he then had the misfortune of looking up when I knocked one down on the following pitch.

Leading up some great ice runnels capped by small roofs. Photo - Dave Macleod

Leading up some great ice runnels capped by small roofs. Photo – Dave Macleod


Dave leading a slim ice runnel. Photo - Calum Muskett

Dave leading a slim ice runnel. Photo – Calum Muskett

By mid-afternoon the route was back in the shade and the ice was hardening up again. Dave set off on a clearly desperate but well protected crack and continued up to a steep wall above. After several attempts Dave lowered back down to the belay, not keen to go for the lead without spectres or ice screws to protect him. Both feeling exhausted we decided to descend. When we reached the glacier below we realised just how close we were to easier ground – maybe only twenty metres. If we’re granted another good spell of weather we’re hoping to give the route another shot but given the fact I’m now in bed with a cold, I’m hoping that won’t be for another few days!

Dave torquing up icy cracks. Photo - Calum Muskett

Dave torquing up icy cracks. Photo – Calum Muskett


Go With the Flow

On the road to El Chalten. Photo - Calum Muskett

On the road to El Chalten. Photo – Calum Muskett

Dave and I arrived in Patagonia on the first of January looking forward to climbing some of the best granite towers on the planet. When we arrived in El Chalten though we learnt that the weather over the preceding month had been terrible; very little had been climbed and resident Patagonian alpinists were saying the mountains were looking the whitest they’d ever seen them.

Unfortunately, this is bad news for us. Our hopes are to climb the Compressor Route (or South-East Ridge) of Cerro Torre free and on the two occasions we’ve seen the summit the route looks like it’s plastered with snow. In fact, whilst bouldering a few days ago, we bumped into David Lama, the first and only free ascentionist of the Compressor Route who told us “not to bother this season”. This, alongside the negative mood of many climbers in town, is what we’d feared and hoped would not happen. Apparently El Ninõ is in a different place to usual this year and that Patagonia is caught between two weather fronts. This could be true, or it might be the case that after two irregularly good summer seasons the weather has returned to its ‘full on’ normality. Despite all this, the weather in Patagonia is so unpredictable that the Compressor Route may yet come into condition. All it needs is a few days of sunshine to shed its snow…

Fortunately El Chalten is a really nice place to spend time. The pace of life is about as laid back as the internet connection here (I’ll leave you to guess…) and there are plenty of nice cafes and restaurants to enjoy, ‘La Chocolateria’ and ‘La Waffleria’ being my favourite haunts. There’s also some great bouldering, reasonable sport climbing and plenty of trails to go running along.

Ally and Ben approaching the Guillaumet. Photo - Calum Muskett

Ally and Ben approaching the Guillaumet. Photo – Calum Muskett

After about eight days of ‘relaxed living’ windguru gave us a promising weather window and after studying the guidebook we came up with a number of plans ranging from summer lines to mixed routes. We decided to head round the back of the range to the high camp of Piedra Negra which gives access to the back of Fitzroy Guillaumet and Poincenot leaving us with plenty of options.

We ended up finding a bivi spot just beneath Piedra Negra under a boulder and below the snow line. It was blowing a hooly, trekkers were turning back from the Col due to deep snow and we had almost given up hope of climbing the following day. We woke up at a relaxed hour (there’s 18 hours of daylight here in the summer) to blue skies and no wind so began the long slog up to the col. We were intending to climb on the Mermoz and attempt either ‘Vol de Nuit’ or a new line further right but after digging an avalanche pit decided that walking down the loaded slopes would be a bad idea. Instead we looked straight above us and on the right hand side of Guillaumet was an impressive wall with rimed up cracks all over and solid granite. We knew no information about this section of wall having left the guidebook behind but we suspected it was unclimbed.

Dave seconding the superb first hard pitch. Photo - Calum Muskett

Dave seconding the superb first hard pitch. Photo – Calum Muskett


Heading up the steep groove. Photo - Dave Macleod

Heading up the steep groove. Photo – Dave Macleod

After a short and very easy intro pitch we arrived at a thin runnel of snow and ice leading up a corner. Dave took the lead and despite its modest appearance it felt pretty thin near the top, torquing in a parallel sided crack. The following pitch was thin and sustained starting up twin cracks before a thin traverse left to an awkward section of groove. I felt pretty chuffed when I got to the top of this having not pulled on an ice axe since last winter. After another couple of great, sustained pitches, we arrived at what we expected to be easy ground, only for Dave to go round the corner and discover that the route wasn’t yet in the bag.

Dave looking up at the technical groove high on the route. Photo - Calum Muskett

Dave looking up at the technical groove high on the route. Photo – Calum Muskett

Dave headed upwards out of sight and I patiently paid out rope expecting this pitch to take a while but before long, I was following Dave up an amazing pitch. Consecutive moves on stein pulls (wedging the axes in upside down) followed by pulling over onto a thin ice covered slab which only just had enough ice on it to make it possible.

We were very fortunate to have found such a great line. It could easily have been too difficult, or a bit of a pushover, but what we found felt like the right level of difficulty and length for the day. It would be a classic in Chamonix! Altogether the route weighed in at Scottish grade VIII 8 (technical grades: 3, 6, 8, 7, 8, 8). There’s no mention of the route in the relatively new comprehensive guide so we’re assuming we made a first ascent, or at least a first winter conditions ascent.


The line of our new route. Photo - Calum Muskett

The line of our new route. Photo – Calum Muskett

Hopefully the next weather window will bring as good a route!

Amazing clouds above Poincenot. Photo - Dave Macleod

Amazing clouds above Poincenot. Photo – Dave Macleod