A Season in Patagonia

The road to El Chalten. Photo - Calum Muskett
The road to El Chalten. Photo – Calum Muskett

In the distance, rising up from the barren plains, a series of granite spires poke their heads above snow capped summits. As the bus turns the final corner, a flat, straight road, stretches out to their base beneath a tumultuous sky. The mountains look different to the many photos I have seen of them. There’s far more snow plastering their otherwise gold tinged walls and the katabatic winds have chilled the summer air as we disembark from the bus into the sprawling town of El Chalten. It is my second trip to Patagonia this season and I feel like I deserve a bit of good weather.

My first thoughts of climbing in Patagonia were conceived in high school, just as I started climbing at the age of 13. A project in our Welsh lessons had led us to research information about Patagonia following a Welsh migration to the area in the mid nineteenth century. A google search discovered to me some of the outstanding peaks and when I later read Paul Pritchard’s ‘Deep Play’ the idea was firmly set that I should visit the area for myself and experience the wild weather and impressive climbing first hand.

That was seven years ago. In the meantime inspiration and practicality had to be balanced out. An alpine apprenticeship was undertaken, big wall trips started to happen and plenty of ice and mixed climbing was squeezed into the winter’s in-between. But at the back of my mind I knew I would travel to Patagonia at some point in the future – the question was when?

In 2012 the Compressor Route up Cerro Torre’s South-East Ridge hit the headlines having received its first “fair means” ascent by two North American climbers, Jason Kruk and Hayden Kennedy, who climbed the line without using any of the original bolts for aid. Perhaps more interestingly though, the pair, on their descent, removed 102 of the bolts from what American pioneer Jim Donini described as “the world’s hardest via-ferrata”. Two days later the route received its first fair “fair means” ascent by David Lama and Peter Ortner: Lama managed a totally free ascent of the route having made a couple of detours from the original line. It seemed now, that the route had come full circle from Maestri’s first ascent, which was described by Reinhold Messner as “the murder of the impossible”, and returned to its original state before finally being climbed without resorting to any aid climbing.

This route, in its new, free state, up perhaps the most visually aesthetic mountain in the world, renewed my interest in Patagonia and along with Dave Macleod I booked flights to the area for the January of 2014. In the meantime though, I’d been invited to Torres del Paine with Mike ‘Twid Turner, Jerry Gore and Raphael Jochaud for my first experience of the Patagonian mountains. We travelled out in mid October to attempt to make the first ascent of the South face of the South Tower of Paine.

From Manchester airport three flights and two bus journeys bring you to the foot of the mountains; it felt like a long way but it’s worth looking back to Chris Bonnington and Don Whillans’ expedition in 1963 for perspective. One month on a ferry brought them to Argentina which was followed by a long and complicated journey over land to finally arrive at the towers of Paine. Three months were then spent camped beneath the Central Tower of Paine – long enough for Whillans to build the forerunner of his ‘Whillans box’ to withstand the harsh Patagonian weather; this was later to be used on many expeditions worldwide. Near the end of the trip the pair succeeded in making the first ascent of the Central Tower via the Rio Ascencio – an impressive effort for the time up one of the most impressive rock pillars on earth.

I’d been really looking forward to going out to climb this south face; in fact, one day out in the Alps last summer I was enthusing about the prospect of climbing the wall to Hazel Findlay when she pointed out that we’d be climbing there in early spring time. I answered that it would be fine because we’d be climbing in the sun on a south facing wall. Hazel looked at me funny – then the penny dropped…

We arrived in Torres del Paine one French man short. Raphael had to re-book his flights for the following day due to passport difficulties. We stocked up on noodles, smash and dulce du leche (a South American caramel delicacy) in Puerto Natales and walked into the Bader valley which was to be our home for the following three and a half weeks.

Having set up a reasonably comfortable base camp amongst a cluster of trees we began ferrying gear up to an advance camp. We soon found a suitable place to set up camp only an hour’s walk from the base of the cliff and got to work preparing the area. It was more involved than we anticipated due to the strong winds and we were left cowering behind boulders during the stronger gusts. After digging up some walls of snow against an overhung boulder we thought we’d created a fairly sheltered spot to put up a tent. I started putting the tent up from the inside and whilst I waited for Twid and Jerry to tie it down, an almighty gust came, lifting the tent up, with me inside, and blowing it over into the boulder field. Bruised and disorientated I hung on to the tent with one hand and a boulder for dear life with the other, until the wind abated enough to flip the tent back into its alcove with me still inside! We hastily weighed the tent down with bags of rocks and were soon inside the meek and now highly ventilated fabric shelter trying to light the stove.

Base Camp beneath the South Face of the South Tower of Paine. Photo - Calum Muskett
Base Camp beneath the South Face of the South Tower of Paine. Photo – Calum Muskett

The wall we had our sights set on had been attempted once before by Twid and Stu Macleese in 2006. After many days on the wall, inching their way through the complex and dangerous loose rock of the central section, they began to think that they’d broken through the most difficult ground when they were hit by a savage storm. They descended there fixed lines down the steepest section of wall, having to pull themselves down the ropes the updraft was so strong. By the time they reached the ridge they had no further rope to descend leaving them stranded 250m above the glacier. The pair were nearly hypothermic after several days stuck on the ridge before the weather abated enough to allow them to recover a rope and make the rest of the descent. For Twid, this wall was clearly unfinished business, and this time he was better prepared and ready to endure the Patagonian weather once more.

The next day we hiked up to the base of the South face. As we gazed up at the wall following months of planning Raphael asked: “Where do the other routes go?” He hadn’t quite grasped that there could be an unclimbed wall as large as this left in Patagonia, but as I was to later discover, it’s nearly as unusual to find routes that have been climbed.

We had decided to climb the wall by fixing ropes from our highpoints, thus enabling a rapid descent in the case of a storm. Climbing alpine style on a wall like this would require a good forecast for multiple days, something we couldn’t guarantee given the Patagonian climate; as it happened, one day of good weather seemed optimistic.

Our first day on the wall was a cold one. Snow and ice lay on each and every edge on the lower slabs and despite their modest difficulty, climbing shoes were necessary to advance up the tenuous ground. Balanced on a small ledge several metres above the snow slopes, I made the transition between warm mountain boots and thin rock shoes. By the time my mountain boots went back on at the top of the first pitch, my toes were knuckle white and I began to realise just how optimistic our plans were of free climbing this route.

Twid belayed on the apron slabs, day 1. Photo - Calum Muskett
Twid belayed on the apron slabs, day 1. Photo – Calum Muskett

Our pace up the wall was slow. Continuously poor weather, combined with difficult climbing up friable granite, meant that we couldn’t hurry. Difficult aid pitches stacked up on top of each other and ground that could be covered quickly in good weather seemed to take an eternity.

With one week left, only several pitches remained to reach the top of the wall, followed by perhaps two hundred metres of scrambling to get to the summit. With so little ground left to cover, success seemed almost inevitable, but in Patagonia, you should never count your chickens until they’ve hatched, because chances are they’ve probably just blown away!

Over the following few days the weather moved back in keeping us tent-bound. The wind was relentless and the noise of flapping fabric was so loud you could barely sleep. My holiday read was Moby Dick and it seemed ironic to be reading about ships being caught in huge storms off the coast of Patagonia. Going to the toilet was also quite problematic. I recall leaving the tent, bleary eyed one morning in order to have a pee and being hit by such a strong gust of wind whilst doing my business that I was pinned against a boulder for twenty seconds…messy!

The problem with the wind is that when it finally dies down and you’re left with some semblance of peace and tranquillity all you feel like doing is sleeping and recovering. It’s quite difficult to convince yourself to come out of your reverie and get into action. A long jumar awaited us at the base of the wall and sleet was already beginning to fall. We got to the top of the ropes and I began leading the next pitch. The walls and cracks were covered in verglas whilst spindrift poured down from above. I reached a good ledge 60m higher up the wall and immediately descended; climbing in a blizzard on this wall seemed like a bad idea.

Twid tackling some hard aid climbing. Photo - Calum Muskett
Twid tackling some hard aid climbing. Photo – Calum Muskett

After two more days boxed up in our tents and beginning to get really fed up with our diets of noodles and porridge we were faced with our final opportunity to reach the summit on the last day of our trip. At the top of the ropes Twid took over the lead and reached a wide and easy angled corner; the final real pitch of the wall before a scramble to the summit. By this point the winds had picked up, blowing spindrift across the face and when I reached Twid the only sensible decision was to descend – if the winds got any stronger it would become nearly impossible to abseil down. The further we descended the stronger the winds got and as we neared the ridge we were being blown sideways. The final abseil to the glacier left us in a complete white out and descending to base camp with heavy loads was both hard work and demoralising after putting in so much effort over the previous three weeks.

Raphael getting high up on the South Face. Photo - Calum Muskett
Raphael getting high up on the South Face. Photo – Calum Muskett

We were close but we hadn’t reached the summit of the South Tower of Paine. Months of preparation and effort were poured into the fulfilment of this dream and to be defeated, so near the summit, was a bitter pill to swallow after such an experience. At the same time, the decision to descend was an easy one: no summit is worth risking your life for and the objective dangers were totally out of our hands. I also knew that I would be returning to Patagonia in less than two months and having faced such appalling weather this trip I felt deserving of some karmic payback.

Escaping off the face on the final day of efforts - several hours earlier I was out of shot above the clouds high up on the South face. Photo - Twid Turner
Escaping off the face on the final day of efforts – several hours earlier I was out of shot above the clouds high up on the South face. Photo – Twid Turner

The Fitzroy massif is by far and away the most popular destination in Patagonia for the modern alpinist. At its base is the patchwork tourist town of El Chalten; a place that is littered with cafe’s, restaurants and enough steak to guide most vegetarians from their stray path. It’s a town that barely existed ten years ago. Rab Carrington, whose name is synonymous within the areas climbing history, reflects on travelling to what is now El Chalten in the early 1970s:

“Getting to Fitzroy National Park from Rio Gallegos was a nightmare. There was no public transport and in fact there was no proper road. In 1973, we borrowed a Jeep and trailer from a friend in Buenos Aires to make the journey overland. All there was at the end of the dirt road was a small concrete hut; the Park Ranger’s residence. We put up our tents on the grassy bank next to his hut. Nothing there….the park ranger, ourselves and a few gauchos.”

Sunrise beneath Fitzroy. Photo - Calum Muskett
Sunrise beneath Fitzroy. Photo – Calum Muskett

One thing that hasn’t changed in Patagonia over the years is the weather. But given Rab’s explanation of their forecasting, modern alpinists are at a distinct advantage here as well:

“Al Rouse had borrowed a Thommen Altimeter from the Alpine Club and that was our sole meteorological service. On the smaller peaks we went up whatever the weather. When we were going for something bigger we had our gear packed permanently and left whenever the altimeter showed an improvement. We once left our base camp at 2:00am because the barometer had gone up!”

Dave and I felt well prepared and very keen to get cracking on the Compressor Route. Reports were that the face was covered in snow, but we were confident that in the coming month, a couple of days of sunshine would clear the face of the dreaded ‘white shite’. This optimism was swiftly checked when we met David Lama whilst bouldering on our second day. “Forget about the Compressor this season” he said, in a laid back Germanic tone. Here was someone who knew better of our chances than anybody else and to be told so bluntly what our hopes were was a significant reality check.

We were soon greeted with a short, cold weather window – perfect conditions for mixed climbing. We headed up to Pedra Negra where Dave and I took shelter beneath an inadequately overhung boulder whilst snow and sleet beat down upon us. The steep approach the following day felt like a rude awakening after several days of bouldering and must have been particularly difficult for Dave who was dosed up on Tramadol following a recent ankle operation.

Our plan A was to climb on the East face of the Mermoz, however we were stopped in our tracks by dangerous avalanche conditions. With no idea what to do we turned around and looked straight up at a wall covered in iced up cracks and corners, the fact it still awaited a first ascent was just a bonus.

We followed a crack and corner system up the centre of the face and each pitch was followed by an even better one. The route held a full repertoire of winter climbing skills from torquing axes in cracks all the way through to tenuous ice hooks. We reached the top feeling really chuffed and the bumslide back down to our camp was a good energy saving technique for the long walk back.

Tricky mixed climbing on our new route on Guillaumet. Photo - Dave Macleod
Tricky mixed climbing on our new route on Guillaumet. Photo – Dave Macleod

About to tackle yet another steep mixed pitch on our new route on Guillaumet. Photo - Dave Macleod
About to tackle yet another steep mixed pitch on our new route on Guillaumet. Photo – Dave Macleod

A week later we were back on the same glacier; however this time on its opposite side. We’d walked up to attempt to free climb an aid route on Aguja Poincenot, one of the pre-eminent rock pillars of the range first climbed by Don Whillans and Frank Cochrane in 1962. Conditions, once again, were against our planned objective but this time we knew of a neighbouring line that lay unclimbed on the daunting East face of the Mermoz. The thing that led us to this face first of all was Andy Parkin’s route ‘Vol de Nuit’, a large and imposing technical mixed route. I contacted Andy for some information on its first ascent and the answer was eye opening:

“I went to solo ‘Vol de Nuit’ and it was a big one for me. Committing beyond what I thought was reasonable but I had no choice, free soloing. I even did one arm pull ups to get off the worst, just before the ice field. The wind, higher up on Fitzroy roared all the time but I was sheltered on the East face of the Mermoz. The whole line was intricate and to begin with I went too low, in the dark before gaining the real line of grooves and cracks; it was awesome!”

Feeling a little less bold than Andy, we headed into a steep ice runnel up a gully. Having taken a short fall on a steep corner I handed the lead over to Dave, who was a much better suitor for it, smoothly climbing the pitch on his first go. The climbing above barely relented in difficulty and is amongst the finest mixed climbing I have ever done. We were both exhausted but felt like success was near until Dave reached an impasse. We lacked the right gear to protect what looked like the final twenty metres of difficult climbing and were unwilling to push the boat out in such a committing environment.

Dave tackling a deceptively desperate mixed pitch on our new route attempt on the East Face of the Mermoz. Photo - Calum Muskett
Dave tackling a deceptively desperate mixed pitch on our new route attempt on the East Face of the Mermoz. Photo – Calum Muskett

Descending back to El Chalten, I wondered whether that would be our final opportunity of climbing in the mountains this trip and reflected on my time spent in Patagonia over the previous months. I’d failed to reach any significant summits, hadn’t repeated a single one of the many classic rock or mixed routes and had eaten my own body weight in noodles, beef and dulce du leche. Despite all this I’m still keen to return. The potential feasibility of the climbing combined with the element of doubt added by the weather, make experiences of succeeding all the more memorable as Dave Macleod sums up:

“I’m used to the idea that it’s the wild weather that adds something extra to your experience of climbing in mountains. Climbing under blue skies and warm, still air is great for getting things done. There are plenty of places in the world to do this. But it’s the storms, clouds and waiting for special moments that makes your memory of the mountains many times stronger. If you are lucky with the rare Patagonian weather windows, you’ll feel like the luckiest climber on earth. If you are not lucky, the storms will renew your respect for the power of the mountains.”

If you think that Patagonia is now devoid of the adventure that the original explorers first encountered then think again. Paine and Fitzroy are just the tip of the iceberg and there are hundreds of miles of mountains still left to be discovered. You’ll need all the energy you can muster though as Andy Cave explains:

“You need a sense of adventure as the access can be challenging, a machete, horses and boats are often needed to gain new places. Lower level cliffs can have vegetation in the cracks so glaciated areas are probably best. I was in the Cordillera Darwin, Tierra del Fuego in September; two climbers alone in a mountain range as big as the Alps…”

Patagonia is one of the greatest mountain areas on the planet and one that is growing in popularity year on year. For those willing to take their chances then the rewards can be huge – or at least, so I’m told.

Patagonia I’ll be back, but next time, please can I have some good weather.

Dave caught in the vastness of the Patagonian landscape. Photo - Calum Muskett
Dave caught in the vastness of the Patagonian landscape. Photo – Calum Muskett

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