Living on a separate island forcingly changes one’s way of life. The first concern for sure is food and shelter, once this assured, one starts to look for activities and tries perhaps to connect to the outside world with a message in a bottle. After the first “brecha” in El Chaltén, the weather seemed to be very bad beyond the forecasted time which is 8 days. So we were to experience this very same isolation since we were trapped in El Chaltén, waiting for the next window of good weather. Analogue to the island life (let it be a tropical island to make things easier), our first focus was the kitchen. Our menus improved drastically, Pumpkin “Quiche”, Brownies, home-made bread, Banana cake, Moussaka, Lentil goulash… As for our shelter, in the Refugio de Chaltén, the family of Natalia and Jesús and their kids made us feel at home. Our daily training consisted in climbing the nearby cracks when the weather was good enough, and some stretching and important thinking when the weather was bad.
Every year hundreds of seasonal workers are coming to El Chaltén during the summer to work in hostals, restaurants, ice cream shops, trekking agencies, etc… Most of them are young folks and very active even after their workday. Coming from different parts of the country and with different backgrounds, everyone contributes what they can to animate the life in Chaltén: Folk dance lessons, tango lessons, concerts, milongas, recitals, cinema classes, etc…, much of it taking place in the friendly café La Lucinda.
After all, the ten days we had to wait for the next “brecha” went by quickly with all these activities. The weather finally looked promising, beyond the end of the forecast! Although only the three first days are given with a high certitude, this seemed to be an incredible happening. We set off on the first day of good weather, walking below a clear blue sky. As bad the weather can be in Patagonia, as surprisingly good can it be during the “brechas”. Our main goal was to climb the route “Chiaro the Luna” on the Aguja St-Exupéry, a must do for rock climbers and we wanted it to be dry, since the team that had attempted it during the last “brecha” had had the cracks of the upper pitches filled with ice and therefore had turned around before the summit. Upon our arrival at the Niponino camp, the face we wanted to climb was drenched in water. Our planes were soaked as well, so we decided instead to climb first El Mocho, a summit on the Torre massif at a lower altitude which looked dry.
We got up before dawn and climbed to very, but very unstable moraine up to the foot of El Mocho. The sunrise dipped the steep rockwalls in red, just as we reached the start of our route, the “Voie des Bénitiers”, opened by the Swiss Michel Piola. Louis was leading the first part with several tricky 6b pitches, whereof one very memorable pitch climbing a distinctive pilar by a 30m long hand jam crack, incredible! I started to lead the crux pitch, a 40m exhaustingly long finger crack system with a severe move on a slab that goes free at 7b+ (at least that is what they say). The climb remained sustained until the end, Piola is not known for easy grades… The sun was strong that day, drying us out, so that the snowfield at the top was our salvation.
Despite stucking our rope twice, we managed to rappel down quickly and reached our tent before dawn. During the day we could spot at least 3 teams in “Chiaro de Luna”, all the better we had changed our planes avoiding the congestion, and during the night we saw a few head lamps coming down the approach gully, we hoped it would not be our case.
The next day was a rest day, we wanted to find out how the weather forecast had evolved and we used our radio to communicate with the National Park guards. The information they provided did not allow us conclude, only until a recently ascended hiking guide informed us about the actual conditions. We knew that we had to make a second rest day because of high winds and a bit of rain, which occured pretty exactly. On our second rest day we tried to kill time socialising. We met two teams that had made attempts on the South East Ridge of Cerro Torre (Corkscrew Linkup and Kennedy-Kruk route), interesting persons with very interesting projects.
We started hiking in the afternoon to join a small bivouac place at the foot of the Aguja St-Exupéry in order to shorten the hike to our next route. Equipped only with a sleeping bag and a mattress, we passed a splendid first night under the stars, with a direct view of the Torre massif. We got up early in order to start climbing with the first light. The air was fresh and the sun was not supposed to shine on the route before midday, but we soon got the rythm of the cracks, which were to be never ending and perfectly shaped.
Being the winner of our highly sophisticated selection method, Louis led confidently the first half of the climb until we reached the shoulder where we changed the roles. After some improvised route finding, we arrived at the crux pitch, which was an amazing 50m pitch with some steep climbing and a 10m Dülfer runout at the end – better not think about it too long but climb. A few more pitches in a deep and wet chimney led us finally to the summit ridge which was already in the shade and covered with ice and snow.
At the summit we met the South African team which we had got to know the day before, who had climbed the Kearney-Harrington route. The summit was really nice, but we were only halfway since the rappels promised to be interesting. Instead of following the South African team, we decided to descend the chimney that we had climbed up, according to the topo… Due to the disrupted character of this chimney we were forced to make short rappels in order not to block the rope which took us an eternity. Soon we saw the other team descending the gully at the bottom of the rappels and we still had a couple of rappels to go. Finally at the break of the night we reached the gully. But the game was not over yet. Since we are supporters of the “light and fast” technique, we had left our boots at the start of the climb which was a good 250 m below us on a 45 degree slope with quite a lot of loose stones, snow and slabs. Furthermore a huge rockfall had taken place during the day in this very gully, shaking our mountain and covering the slabs with a layer of dust and rock debris thick enough to make us slip with every step. Soon we realised that walking down with the climbing shoes was not an option, so we started to rappel down again, fighting with the knots in our rope, the search for belays and the loose rock debris. The darkness was complete during the new moon, so we wondered how the h… they could have named this route “Chiaro de Luna”?!
Finally we reached our bivy spot and spent another night below the stars. The next day we descended to Niponino, only to discover that the fox had broken the protective rock barrier around our food stash and had eaten or tasted most of it. With the news that the weather was still favourable for at least four more days, our decision was therefore taken easily: hike down to El Chaltén, buy more food and attack again!
-El Mocho, Voie des Bénitiers, 6c C1, 400m
-Aguja St-Exupéry, Chiaro de Luna, 6b+, 750m
More pictures can be found here.