Thursday, January 28, 2016

Gym Climber's Guide to Patagonia

No matter if you are into hiking, bouldering, climbing giant alpine walls or capturing incredible scenery with your camera, the Chaltén Massif is a place every outdoor enthusiast must see. If asked to share one essential pointer with those who aspire to visit the area, it would be to BOOK THE TICKET! There are plenty reasons to put off the trip for another year: lack of skills to send the Fitz Traverse, fear of getting pinned in town by the unstable weather, lack of funds, absence of the perfect partner, less time off work than desired. Some are valid concerns. Having said that, I found most to be the product of exaggerations, false assumptions and fear of the unknown. In the article, I will do my best to share my experience staying in the town of Chalten, organizing logistics and sampling some of the climbing in the area. The article was written with intention to encourage members of the Planet Granite community to explore Patagonia, so I will do my best to share plenty of wisdom.
Richard cresting the ridge near the Guilliamet's summit

Climbers...they are ALL the same! :)

Fitz Roy (on the left)  massif from Niponino.
Let's start with basic history and geography! Chaltén is a small town in southwest Argentina. It is so close to the border with Chile that climbers literary have to get a Chilean visa in order to use some of the trails that lead into the mountains. The territory was disputed by the two nations and the reason Argentina got to keep it, was because a few resident of the area claimed to be of Argentine descent. Originally, the town was named after the most prominent peak in the area - Mt. Chalten, or Fitz Roy, as we know it. Chaltén, means the "smoking mountain," and during my stay I understood why. The clouds formed a circle around the base or swept over the summit on most of the days I was able to see it from town. Fitz Roy is a symbol well-displayed on most of the businesses around town. Globally, it is recognized as the symbol of Patagonia, the brand, which was founded by Yvon Chouinard. Yvon has made numerous difficult first ascents in Yosemite, along with impressive feats in the greater ranges as a climber. He also made significant advances in climbing equipment, which led to manufacturing climbing gear and clothing for the masses. He picked the outline of Fitz Roy massif as the symbol for the brand after climbing a new route on the mountain in 1968. Back than, it was only the third ascent of the peak. The area changed a lot since the days of early exploration. In the late 1960s and even in the early 1990s, Chaltén was not what it is today. In the present, the area has a variety of upscale hotels, expensive restaurants, a disco, la chocolateria, gear outfitters, authentic souvenir stores and an organic grocery shop. For the visitors on the budget, cheap food, hostels and even a campground options are available. Personally, I paid two hundred dollars for a month long lease of a shared room with a communal shower and a kitchen. One could go there for a year while renting out their place in the Bay Area and make a significant profit!
Imagining David Lama free climbing this headwall is sort of wild.
St. Exupery
Good morning

Less than 48 hours in Argentina...summit of St. Exupery.
Bud (red) and I (black) on top.
The original explorers came for a few months and camped on the glacier, with no way of knowing when the favorable weather will arrive. Frequent false-starts kept them fit, but in contrast, the modern climbers load up on crispy empanadas in the morning, enjoy world-class bouldering during the day, than pass around a wine bottle in the evening while pretending to be weather-experts as they analyse the meteograms. The experience of climbing in the range is not the suffer-fest it once was. Although the comforts of town make the experience more varied and not as monotonous as it used to be, the mountains are still fierce. With hundreds of new routes to the top and established rappell routes to get down from the summits, the mountains themselves are as dangerous they once were. With the increased number of climbers, likely even more so, as the number of deaths and tragic events happen yearly. A variety of reasons contribute to accidents and range from mistakes under pressure, inexperience, unexpected storms, crevasse falls, loose rock and simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The photos of the peaks are beautiful, but don't let the looks deceive you into letting the guard down.

While big and proud, Fitz Roy is not the peak most would consider to be the most striking in the area. Personally, I climbed in multiple ranges around the world with striking peaks, including an ascent of Alpamayo. Some polls consider it to be the most beautiful peak in the world. However, in my opinion, not even Alpamayo or anything else I have seen can come close to the view of the Cerro Torre illuminated by the early morning alpinglow. A perfect rock spire capped by an ice mushroom, it rises thousands of feet above the glaciers that surround it. Multiple books and shorter narratives have been written about the history of its disputed first ascent. Recently, a new wave of drama followed the "fair-means" ascent of the Compressor Route which ended with some of the original Maestri Bolts getting taken out. While Fitz Roy is the biggest, Cerro Torre the most striking, it is likely Torre Egger that is the most difficult to summit by the easiest route. No matter which peak you choose to attempt out of the many attractive options, every one of them requires a certain level of competence and allows for unique views towards other magnificent mountains.
Guillamet - start of the Motorcross Traverse
Richard on one of the good pitches

Life is good (climbing to the summit from the trailhead)

After starting from trailhead around 10 am(?) Richard and I summited Guilliamet and bivied a little ways after the top.
Colors only get better as the time passes...
My trip to El Chalten did not start the way I thought it would. Instead of waiting weeks for a weather window while enduring sleepless nights due to hurricane-alike winds, I was forced into a desperate search for a partner few days prior to my arrival. A three-day weather window was supposed to come as I collect my bags in the airport. My original partner was coming a day and a half later than I, but some last minute searching led to a random guy I met at the base of the Incredible Hulk last summer. His real name was Bud Miller and I had a good feeling we would get along. After some internet communication, we picked Chiaro Di Luna as our objective. It is a grade V 5.11a, which ascents St. Exupery. An elegant spire with incredible views of the Cerro Torre Massif.

Soon after the 33 hour flight and five hours of travel by bus, I was dropped off in Chalten. Even though I was exhausted from two days of sleepless travel, before finding my hostel, I went over to Bud's and we prepared our gear. Few hours of sleep and we hit the trail, which begun only two blocks up from my hostel. The exhaustion from travel was completely overshadowed by the excitement. When we first saw the scenery Laguna Torre has to offer, we took a break during which I snapped dozens of photos. The views only got better as we made our way towards the Niponino camp, which is situated between the Fitz Roy and the Cerro Torre Massif. Chiaro Di Luna is considered as one of the best alpine rock climbs in the range and could be described to a Californian as the Positive Vibrations and The Red Dihedral on the Hulk stacked on top of each other, or as the longer version of the Northwest face of Half Dome. It is not a cutting edge climb; it was even free-soloed while I was visiting. But it being the first time my new partner Bud and I climbed together and the first trip to the range for both of us, we were a little intimidated by the big objective. To be honest, it is hard to not feel overwhelmed while hiking up the giant glacier, surrounded by walls that are much more impressive and rugged than the El Capitan! In comparison to Yosemite, there is no organized Search and Rescue available, if needed it could only be organized by the other climbers, if they want to volunteer. Each party is responsible for their own safety. Coincidentally, Bud was an active member of the Yosemite's Search and Rescue, so I felt much more secure climbing with him than I would with any other stranger. We got along well and made good time climbing the route in blocks. There was a memorable spot when instead of the easy, but time consuming aid, I decided to run out a thirty foot 5.10a layback. The route finding was not too difficult, but before we found the summit proper we had to negotiate a section of powder-snow covered slab. It turned into harder section of ice and led to a wide  bouldery crack which we did not have the large enough gear to protect. The way to the summit proper is not as well described in the outline, as most climbers opt out to rappell the route without topping out. To me personally, the summits matter, and eventually we snapped photos with majestic views from the pointy top. In my opinion, once you have the skills and the weather, the crux of climbing any of the longer routes in the range is the route finding, efficiency and endurance. The guidebook for the area, although awesome, is much too general for someone used to the Supertopo format. I have nothing against the Supertopo guidebook, have several myself and consider it to be the best of the select options! But an aspiring Patagonia climber should be ready to find thousand-foot sections summarized in a sentence, or a general outline, not a pitch by pitch breakdown. To prepare, I would suggest using the general topos, such as those found in the Yosemite Valley Reed's guide. Climbs like the Middle Cathedral's Ho Chi Minh trail or the North Buttress (not to be confused with DNB), or the Windfall to Windchill link up a little further west, would be excellent options to practice route finding. Longer routes in the Sierra or a trip to the Bugaboos could be a great way to work up the skills, efficiency and gain the confidence required to take on a committing route in Patagonia. Big wall climbing could help one to deal with exposure, commitment and to get efficient with the rope management. Ice climbing and general mountaineering will prepare you to deal with crevasse rescue, confident soloing moderate snow slopes and leading sections of steep ice. Plus, big wall climbing and ice climbing are fun and teach one a different way of ascending a mountain. The diversity and freedom of choice the climbing could offer is what attracts hundreds of new participants to the sport, which for some, evolves into a lifestyle.

Summit of Guilliamet (the real summit is the furthest pinnacle, not where the climber is posing...even though no one really gives a shiet) and the ridge we traversed to Mermoz. 
Climber on one of the summit pinnacles of Guilliamet
Richard on the ridge traverse to Mermoz
Fitz Roy with the North Pillar right across from us. Poincenot is the other big peak further away.
Richard on top of Mermoz
Richard and I on the summit of Mermoz

Rapelling by one of the perfect splitters of the Red Pillar. Something to come back to for sure!
On the way down it got GNARLY! We were getting pounded by the wind.

Shadow of the Fitz Roy Massif
Unfortunately for me, during the hike out, I hurt my heel, which limited my aspirations. While waiting for the next weather window, I was able to boulder only a few times as putting the climbing shoes on was a painful experience. So instead, I occupied my days with eating ice cream, reading, pull ups and surfing the web in a coffee shop. As the sight of the early morning sun hitting the Fitz Roy never got boring to photograph, a lot of my time was spent taking and editing photos. In the evenings, I was still able to play the weather expert, but as a newbie to the range, did not have much credibility. Generally, I learned there is always a forecast for good weather a week away and one should not let even a day long window pass in hopes to take advantage of one that looks better, but coming later. Unless a major high pressure is starting within twenty four hours of the new meteogram, take the forecast with a grain of salt. This valuable information was shared by some of the veterans of the range and led to a second successful trip into the hills.

A week after climbing Chiaro Di Luna, we got a day-long window to climb. By than, my original partner was with me, so we decided to do the Motorcross Traverse, which climbs Aguja Guillaumet and Mermoz. The first two of the seven peaks first traversed by Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold in 2014. The recent REEL rock movie captured their climb, the town and the surrounding scenery really well. Guillaumet is not a long or very difficult to climb by one of the popular routes that ascend the mountain, so we managed to make breakfast in the hostel, grab a cab, arrive to the trail-head after ten in the morning, hike in, do the climb, summit and find a bivy spot near the top. All prior to losing the valuable daylight, although in retrospect, I would wake up earlier than 7 am, if I had an option of doing it again. I didn't know it prior to the trip, but since none of the peaks in the range are high in altitude, town to town ascents are not only possible, but doable for mortals. To climb the first of the two peaks, we chose the Brenner-Moschioni route with about a thousand feet of rock climbing with difficulties to 5.10c. The route is followed by moderate snow and ice slopes to an incredibly exposed spire-like summit. Richard and I were in rhythm and covered the terrain quickly. To prepare for the trip, during January of 2015, we climbed multiple routes in the Yosemite Valley together. Including the four pitch WI 5 ice climb called the Silver Strand, which forms fairly rarely and fell apart a few days after our ascent. To our luck, a week later the weather was good enough for us to climb the Nose on El Capitan in much less than a day. Knowing your partner and being 'on the same page' is very important when it comes to long climbs where taking less time doing small tasks could mean saving hours in the long run. Generally, the ice climbs in Patagonia tend to be in better shape in November and through the early January, earlier in the season. The Ragni route on Cerro Torre being one of the few exceptions, which is usually doable during any weather window that is long enough.  The rock climbing is usually better during the later season; January and February. Although the seasonal conditions depend on a variety of things and could change in course of a few hours.

Bud on the way to Niponino. Was I hallucinating, dreaming or shocked by the scenery? Not sure, but I want to return and climb in this range again! 
Day after climbing Guillaumet, we crossed around intimidating pillars, climbed over steep spires, traversed exposed snow slopes and followed the Argentina (900m 5.10b) route from the notch between the two peaks to the proper summit of a peak named Mermoz. While enjoying the view of the Chilean ice cap, along with the shadows of the Fitz Roy Massif and a unique view of the Cerro Torre, we realized the wind was picking up and our weather window was coming to an end. As we rappelled two thousand feet to the glacier, the winds pounded our bodies and picked up the ends of our ropes into the void above. After dealing with a stuck rope and getting over the giant bergshrund at the base of the wall, it got dark. We were tired and decided it would be safer to deal with crossing the glacier in daylight. At that point, all I had was a single energy bar and a teabag, which served as the dinner for the evening and the breakfast before the lengthy hike out. Despite the winds, snow flurries and limited comfort of a two person bivy sack, we fell asleep like babies. Having the light gear and bringing only the essentials allowed us to have much less than twenty pounds in our packs while climbing on the traverse. Packing light allowed us to move quickly over moderate terrain as we were less tired and enjoying the technical climbing without being slowed down by the heavy loads. (I could  easily write a separate entry for packing light for overnight alpine climbs)

While climbing peaks was what originally brought me to Patagonia, the trip allowed me to make new friends, sample local cuisine and experience the local culture. I was delighted to leisurely boulder around town on the days my foot has allowed it, and to my surprise, the most pleasant experience I had in the mountains, was a solo backpacking trip to Laguna De Los Tres. Before the outing, I was annoyed by my injury. It forced me to fly out only eighteen days into a trip that was supposed to last a whole month. The needed time alone, allowed me to remember that being flexible and having low expectations is an essential part of mountain climbing. Summitting a particular peak by a particular route, should not be expected, as the conditions in the ranges, along with the conditions of personal health could change in an instant. Finally, I had the relaxed atmosphere with plenty of time to reflect on my grand adventure. Seeing large groups of friends enjoying the day reminded me of how much I miss hanging out with my own family, friends and even the co-workers! The shorter stay during which I climbed way more than I expected, was no longer viewed as a negative outcome. Compared to the rushed experience of climbing rugged mountains, being able to have a simple overnight trip allowed me to stop and take in the views for as long as I wanted. The weight was no longer a concern, so I brought along my heavier camera, which captured the jaw-dropping landscape along with its inhabitants. The appreciated psychological cleanse, let my mind wonder towards excitement for the future. As I gazed towards the outline of the Fitz Roy's Goretta Pillar and the magnificent wall of Poincenot, the possibilities seemed overwhelming.

Writing this piece brought back pleasant memories, so I'd like to thank my new friend Reinhard for encouraging me to write it for the members of PG. My hope is that sharing the experience will inspire some of the readers to venture on own adventures to Patagonia, towards the local mountains of the Sierra Nevada or any other place one may want to visit. No matter which mountain range, hike, climb, peak or a boulder problem makes you excited, it is important to remember Lao Tzu's famous quote - "the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." In case of us climbers, the journey could begin after hearing a story or seeing a photo. Hopefully my evil plan to plant the seed of adventure will work! :)