After hours of scrambling around gendarmes I had a new appreciation for the phrase “alpine trickery”...
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Everyone knows that the Chalten Massif of Patagonia is a range of climbing dreams. The serrated skyline provides impressive vertical relief courtesy of steep, sheer walls of snow, ice, and excellent alpine granite, making it one of the most mythical climbing destinations in the world. So when fellow La Sportiva ambassador Colin Haley encouraged me to consider joining him as his climbing partner for the month of December I was initially intimidated.
I’ve only been climbing seriously for a couple of years and was concerned that my technical level wasn’t high enough to make the trip worthwhile. After a single day of scrambling together in Chamonix earlier this year, however, it was clear our respective mindsets and skillsets in the mountains had some compatible overlaps, and Colin assured me we’d have plenty of interesting objectives from which to choose in Patagonia.
Ultimately, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn about the region from possibly the most experienced active climber in the range. This is Colin’s 14th year coming to El Chalten and last year he had his most successful season ever, succeeding in such headline-grabbing objectives as the Torre Traverse in-a-day, the first solo ascent of Torre Egger, and a car-to-car ascent of Cerro Chalten (Mt Fitzroy) in-a-day. Impressive stuff.
When we arrived in El Chalten ten days ago, it seemed to be right at the tail-end of a weather window, so we sat out four days of wind and precipatation before another brief window presented itself. Colin has all aspects of climbing here dialed and it has quickly become clear to me that part of his considerable productivity and success in this range is a result of the focused, analytical approach he brings to the task.
In deciding our objective for last Tuesday, Colin compiled a list of climbs—one column required hiking in to a basecamp Monday night and the routes in the other column were meant to be accomplished in a single, long push starting early Tuesday morning from town. With the weather still iffy on Monday, we defaulted to the Tuesday-only column and settled upon the so-called “Motocross Traverse” as our goal—summiting both Aguja Guillaumet and Aguja Mermoz, the first two peaks in the seven-summit skyline of the Chalten Massif. I suggested the added wrinkle of doing a fully human-powered, town-to-town ascent, i.e. starting from town on bikes, which Colin was also keen on.
An objective like this is meant to maximize the combination of Colin’s and my respective strengths and experience-bases. I’ve been primarily a runner for the past 22 years, with much experience moving quickly in the mountains in all-day efforts of cardio output. Colin, on the other hand, has an equal depth of experience in alpine climbing and had actually completed this link-up twice before as part of the Care Bear Traverse (Guillaumet, Mermoz, and Chalten), so his familiarity and comfort with the terrain meant it would be a good warm-up for our first time roping up together. The human-powered, town-to-town aspect would provide enough of a new wrinkle to keep him interested.
The early morning bike approach under a refulgent, nearly-full moon went smoothly and proved to be even more time-efficient than the typical tactic of hiring a taxi for the 16km of bumpy, rocky road to the Rio Electrico trailhead—indeed, we pedaled past a couple of friends hiking on the approach trail who had left town in a cab 20 minutes before we’d departed on our bikes.
After we’d abandoned our steel steeds and made the steep hike to the Piedra Negra bivy sites, Colin was shocked at the dryness of the alpine terrain. There had been rumors of the Chalten region basically not having a winter this year, and these were confirmed by the drastically receded and disturbingly crevassed and broken glaciers. Based on this, we changed our initial plans of climbing the Amy couloir on Guillaumet’s northeastern flank—the bergschrund guarding its base being uncharacteristically large—to instead ascend the peak via the equally classic Comesena-Fonrouge rock route on its northwestern aspect.
We made good time on this line, simul-climbing all but the crux 6b+ pitch and arrived at the summit 2h30 after leaving the toe of the route. Simul-climbing large chunks of alpine rock on a thin, light rope—incorporating Petzl Microtraxions to protect the leader from a second’s fall—was a tactic that I employed extensively with my partners all summer back in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, so I quickly fell into a comfortably familiar rhythm.
The C-F is an undeniably moderate route, but I arrived on top with much of my initial uncertainty laid to rest. The climbing had been quite a bit easier than I’d imagined and the weather was absolutely perfect—sunshine and essentially zero wind. And while Guillaumet may be the most moderate peak in the Chalten Massif, the scenery from its summit is in no way diminished with expansive views over to Piergiorgio, Aguja Pollone, Aguja Bifida, and even the Cerro Torre group. Not to mention Cerro Chalten itself towering overhead.
The traverse south on Guillaumet’s long and complicated summit ridge proved to be quite a bit slower going. Despite the day’s perfect weather, the previous couple days of precipitation had left enough fresh snow on the rock (southern aspects are the snowy ones in the southern hemisphere) to dampen our pace.
After another three hours of scrambling around gendarmes, building anchors, rappelling, downclimbing, and changing in and out of crampons, I had a new appreciation for the phrase “alpine trickery”. This time-consuming ridge combined with our short weather window giving early hints of closing, so we decided to rappel west from the Guillaumet-Mermoz col and head back down to Piedra Negra and our bikes on the shores of the Rio Electrico. By time we had pointed our tires back towards town we were enjoying a powerful and precipitation-laced tailwind, sweeping us home 18 hours after we’d left.
The past week since this outing has been plagued by shockingly powerful winds (growing up in Nebraska, I thought I knew all about wind…not so) and surprisingly persistent rain. It’s too early to know whether this is going to be a “good weather” season or a “bad weather” season—or somewhere in the middle—but right now, Colin’s extensive previous experience indicates that the paltry ratio of climbing to non-climbing days we’re enduring is typical.
A few other observations:
— The extremely long hours of daylight—roughy 5am to 10pm—combined with the Argentine penchant for late nights has thrown me off a bit from my usual early-rising ways. Going from 40 degrees North to 49 degrees South took some adjusting, primarily in that dinner doesn’t usually happen until 9pm at the earliest. Which is basically bedtime for me in the Northern Hemisphere.
—Rolando Garibotti’s reputation as uber ambassador of the region is well-documented, but to witness it firsthand is truly something to behold. The night before heading up to Guillaumet, Colin and I walked across our driveway and sheepishly knocked on Rolo’s door at 10:30pm for what Colin termed “the full beta spraydown”. Despite the late hour he immediately bounded upstairs to print off fresh photos of our planned traverse and then proceeded to spend an hour enthusiastically marking them up with intricate detail of route-finding and rappel anchors, going so far as to recall the climbing beta on specific sections of rock. That kind of energy and passion is infectious.
—I debated back and forth on whether or not to bring my bike to El Chalten. Traveling with a bike is a pretty big pain in the ass, but with my illiotibial bands giving me such fits for the past nine months, cycling has been my primary avenue of developing and maintaining cardio fitness. Ultimately, I brought the bike, but I think that when I return in the future I will leave it at home. The only reason we don’t go into the mountains to climb is because it’s raining or the wind is blowing like crazy. Both of these conditions make cycling pretty miserable—and in the case of the Patagonian winds, nigh impossible—so the bike hasn’t been of much use. Compounding this fact is that there are really only two options for riding: 1) a paved road east/southeast out of Chalten, or 2) a rough, flat dirt/rock road north out of town. Instead, I’ve been fending off the bad weather demons with daily long hikes on the local trails. With healthy legs, these trails would offer excellent running options for non-climbing days.
—In planning our packs for our outing on Guillaumet last week, Colin’s rigorous attention to weight was notable. I used to be similarly obsessed, but 1) there just isn’t really much gear involved with running, and 2) I had simply relaxed in my approach. However, especially on alpine climbs with long approaches, every gram adds up and has an accumulative effect on fatigue over the course of a long day and the ability to climb steep cruxes efficiently and quickly. Colin chastised my choice of soft-shell pants vs. a less durable but much more lightweight pair of windproof shell pants, a couple extra locking carabiners, and an extra pair of glove liners. However, my decades of experience in endurance sports meant that I carried less than half as much water and food as him, so maybe things evened out. Overall, though, it was a good reminder to be very calculating on the material you’re going to carry on your back for a long day in the hills.
After doing little more than hiking and some light bouldering for the last week, things are looking up again weather-wise for this week and we’re both excited to get back up in the mountains!
Photos: Anton Krupicka and Colin Haley
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anton Krupicka is a member of the La Sportiva Mountain Running Team.
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