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.
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!
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 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.
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!