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