At 11 pm, around 20 rappels later, we were at the Brecha de los Italianos. We had a five-course supper (1 cracker = 1 course) and tested the concept of one sleeping bag and one matress for two, sitting instead of lying down because of the lack of space. We experienced the feeling of being so tired that we only thought of sleeping but being prevented from it by the cold and the discomfort of the position.
Author Archives: louisbugnion
We knew little about El Chaltén before getting there except that it is a small touristic town at the foothill of Cerro Fitz Roy and that it would be the starting point of our climbs on the nearby granit spires. Some months ago in Huanchaco (Peru) during our surfing break we had watched a climbing movie taking place in El Chaltén. An American climber accompanied by two friends honoured the memory of his deceased girlfriend by opening a new route in the Fitz Roy range. Their plans were thwarted by persisting bad weather until they could realize a first ascent in the very last days of their trip. Some sequences of the movie endeavored to show the town and the climbers trapped by the storm: rain drops splashing against the windows of small, neat, wooden houses standing bravely in the high wind. My mind had shaped a picture of El Chaltén similar to the one of Hogsmeade, the small town next Harry Potter’s wizardry school (it is funny how imagination works…). Low houses overwhelmed by succeeding cold fronts or by the spirit of Voldemort and painted with bright colours as an act of defiance against the harsh climate or against dark magic. Grocery, bakery, coffee shop, hostal lined up along the main street and proposing services and goods to the visitor at the same time as they provide him with a temporary shelter. Our arrival in El Chaltén from Esquel along “Ruta 40” meant the expiry of my mental projection and its replacement with a more positive one.
The rapid development of the town in the last years under the pressure of the tourists flow took place in a quite spontaneous way. Its grid pattern of streets stretches out in all directions and the transition from pavement to gravel indicates the distance to the center. The mixed construction styles are only dictated by the taste and the often modest resources of the owners. As a result El Chaltén reminds of any functional town in remote areas of Canada or Scandinavia. The 100 m high cliffs surrounding the town in the south-east could even mislead the uninformed visitor by making him think that he finds himself in a rock quarry.
Ten years ago El Chaltén was confined to one camping and one grocery. Climbers did not stay in town between two “brechas” (or good weather windows) but used to camp closer to the peaks at places like D’Agostini, Rio Blanco or Rio Eléctrico about two hours away from El Chaltén. Nowadays El Chaltén counts dozens of hostals, restaurants and shops. Phone and internet connections are available (satellite connections though, slow and dependent on weather and winds) and all climbers return to town after a “brecha”.
In the winter El Chaltén leaps ten years into the past. It is deserted by most of its inhabitants/seasonal workers (the population not including tourists reduces from 5’000 to less than 500) and the economic activity of the town stops except for some construction work. First inhabitants came from the region around El Calafate 200 km away (which has also experienced an important development in the last years because of tourism). In the mid 90’s, during the economical crisis that struck Argentina, many people facing unemployement moved to touristic regions offering better job opportunities from all over the country .
On our first day in El Chaltén we raced around town to get information about accomodation (the hostal booked in advance per internet was crap), weather forecasting, route conditions and topos. We got a copy of the sport climbing topo for El Chaltén at Kalen restaurant. It is also Maria, its young boss and best cook in town, who gave us the adress of Refugio Chaltén or “La casa de Jesús”, the fantastic hostal where we would stay during our time in town. In the late afternoon, on the advice of a climber met in the street we ended up at Aires Patagónicos, a restaurant organizing private sales of mountain equipment and having the freshly printed alpine climbing topo by Rolando Garibotti (also founder of the very useful website PATAclimb.com) for consultation. Climbers progressively showed up in the restaurant and we rapidly found out that a two days “brecha” had just come to an end the day before. We learnt pretty much everything what we needed to know thanks to Belgian climbers and Juan, climber and cook at Aires Patagonico: how to generate the correct GFS meteogram, how to recognise a “brecha”, how to access the Niponino base camp, how to watch out for the hungry fox, … Another two days “brecha” was forecasted four days later and we planned to rock climb around Niponino on the not too high Agujas Media Luna or Mocho. It had been snowing a lot in December and there was still much snow in the cracks and ledges of the higher peaks. We also decided to make a roundtrip to Niponino before the “brecha” to scout the path and the rock faces and to carry equipment in advance. The models were forecasting winds up to 10 knots for the next day and up to 13 knots for the day after next. We had been told that no one climbs with 10 knots of wind but we did not think of 10 knots to be an issue to hike.
We walked 2.5 hours to Laguna Torre one of the most popular hikes around El Chaltén not noticing much wind thanks to the forests and morains lining the trail. At the lake we put on our harnests to cross the river over the tirolean and skirted the lake heading to the Torre glacier. The wind picked up as we left forested terrain. We lost our way on the descent to the glacier, scrambling down loose morains and thrown off by powerful wind gusts and by our heavy backpacks. Back on the footpath along the glacier the wind was so high that we often stopped and held on to the rocks not to be knocked down. At the time of stepping onto the glacier (still 1.5 hours away from Niponino, El Chaltén-Niponino takes 6 hours), arched over our walking poles, stunned by the power of the wind, wearing gore-tex and gloves and hat despite the warm air and very worried about our tent going through the night, we resolved to stash our equipment on the spot and to return to El Chaltén. It was our first face-to-face with the Patagonian wind and that afternoon we promessed ourselves not to underestimate it in the future.
The day before the “brecha” the wind had been replaced by a light rain. We left El Chaltén at 12 am, accompanied by “deux lucioles” until Laguna Torre. The more we were progressing into the valley the heavier the rain was becoming. We again lost our way on the glacier and arrived at Niponino at 7 pm. During the night the rain ceased and on the next morning the sky was blue and the air was still. We climbed “Rubia y Azul” on Aguja Media Luna, one beautiful (free climbing) route (there are not so many in comparison with aid climbing routes, which you are welcome to free by the way…). The lower pitches were wet and the top pitch icy and we had a party in front of us and the El Chaltén grades are what they are (read next post) and we are anyway pussies so that we turned back at Niponino at 11 pm quite exhausted (14 hours after having left). On the second day of the “brecha” we opted for more approach and less demanding climbing with the route “Austríaca” on Aguja de l’S. That second day was more relaxing and the next morning the wind was picking up again. At 9 am we left Niponino enjoying amazingly light backpacks (most of our gear hidden below 100 kg of rock to discourage “el zorro”, the fox). We would be back “cuando vendra la proxima brecha…”
During that “brecha” two accidents happened. One instable boulder rolled over a climber approaching the Noruego camp and broke her coccyx whereas another climber broke his ankle sliding on the snow with his crampons on… In both cases a “rescate” or rescue was organized by the rangers of the national park with no other means than a stretcher and volunteers among the climbers (the closest helicopter is in El Calafate). In both cases it took around ten hours to carry the injured climber to El Chaltén and around 30 persons in total to take turns (the time between the accident and transport is not included).
– Aguja Media Luna, “Rubia y Azul”, 350m, 6c
– Aguja de l’S, “Austríaca”, 180m, 6a
More pictures can be found here.
Three years ago, very little time after Marius had left Europe for Valdivia, he had sent me a mail with pictures of high granit cliffs rising above lush forests. In his mail Marius was praising the climbing in Cochamó valley, a place with a name sounding like an North-American indian tribe and only a few hours away from his new hometown by car, and hoping that we could explore it together one day.
“So much untouched rock, it’s so inspiring!” that was what a British guy met in Huaraz and intending to open new routes in Cochamó had once told us. During our trip, Cochamó was often a subject to discussion with other climbers : with Egon in Tuzgle; he had brought 80 spits with bolts from Switzerland to set a new route there, with Adrien and Gaël in Arenales; they were determined to avoid rainy Cochamó as much as windy Chalten.
Thus when we crossed the Chilean border and the rain drops started hitting the bus window, we were well informed about Cochamó: about its spectacular, multi-pitch routes, crack climbing routes that won it the comparison with Yosemite but also about its world record precipitation rate (it rains 20 days per month in average). We were aware that we would have to be patient in order to climb and to enjoy climbing in Cochamó. In Valdivia it was raining heavily every day. But even when Marius told us that the weather in Cochamo was always worse than in Valdivia and that no good weather window was in sight we did not discourage and enjoyed the life in Valdivia. At the university the semester was coming to an end and Marius was giving the last exams to his students. Since he was keen to accompany us to Cochamó we were not in a hurry. Five days after our arrival in Valdivia, a three days good weather window was forecasted. We bought plastic boots, printed topos and loaded up Marius Kangoo: we were ready.
We entered a new world as we hiked up the 20 km long valley to “Refugio Cochamó” through rain forest. The trail spanned over countless mud puddles, followed deep mossy trenches, crossed rivers over fords, slippery tree trunks or tyroleans. Even though the sun was shining we were walking in half-light, the canopy hung like a thick curtain above our heads.
We took a break at “Refugio Cochamó”, a charming wooden house on a small hill overlooking the “La Junta” camping grounds, and in the afternoon we hiked up another three hours to the “Selknam” camp at the foot of the Anfiteatro. The steep trail had been cut with machetes through dense bamboo woods, zigzagging between cliffs, waterfalls and centenary “alerces” (similar to redwood trees). The camp was set up around a massive boulder overhanging on one side and it had been newly fitted out with chairs, tables, fireplace and toilets by the “Club Andino” of Puerto Montt. On the next day and second day of good weather, we scrambled an hour and a half up an adventurous river bed and a steep gully to the start of the route. At 10am we were climbing the first pitch, at 8pm we were standing on the summit of the “Espejo”, at 1am we finished rappelling a neighbouring route and at 3am we were cooking risotto at the “Selknam” camp. We had a long day in the route “Cinco Estrellas” (also rated five stars in the topo…) for many reasons: many mossy and wet cracks when not completely clogged with earth and shrubs, difficult route finding (very few belays in place, minimalist topo), unprotectable slabs, sustained difficulties not reflected by the grading, unknown rappelling line at night (one stuck rope, two missed belays) …
On the third day and last day of good weather we slept late, walked down to the “Refugio Cochamó”, swam in the emerald green river, met the occupants of “La Junta” and watched dark grey clouds drawing close and gathering above the valley. The next morning it was raining. We were running out of food and white gas and Marius had to return to Valdivia. We left part of our equipment at “La Junta” expecting a two days good weather window later that week (the staff of the “Refugio” has a satellite internet connection and provides a daily weather forecast to climbers).
We walked down in pouring rain and high wind, the gusts dumping additional water from the trees foliage. We opted for different strategies with respect to clothing: Marius put on tights plus bathing suit as bottom and gore-tex jacket plus shirt as top whereas Stephan and I only wore underwear as bottom, not to forget the two vital bamboo sticks. As a result Stephan and I were emptying our plastic boots every half an hour. For the three of us the water retained by the backpack belt passed through the gore-tex barrier and slowly soaked in upwards. Worse, the repeated friction of the boots upper edges with our calves left bleeding wounds that have been imperishable reminders of that day up to now.
We spent two days in the touristic but cosy and lovely Puerto Varas on the Llanquihue lake side forgetting about weather issues in cafés and cake shops. The weather forecast indeed changed in the meantime, shortening the good weather window to one single day. The day before it, we took a bus to Cochamó village, hired a jeep to drive us to the end of the road 12 km away and hiked up to “La Junta” in stormy weather, speeding up in despair. It kept raining the whole night and on the good weather day the rock faces were all wet, draining the last days precipitations. We joined four beardy, long-haired American guys from Oregon (their precipitation rates compete with the ones of Cochamó) to “Pared Seca”, the only sport and always dry climbing sector (the route bottoms are wet though). In the evening rain returned and on the next morning we escaped that liquid hell, wet from top to bottom, shivering from cold, putting one muddy foot in front of the other and thinking with envy of our next destination: Piedra Parada in the desert.
We climbed: Cerro Espejo/Anfiteatro (1700m), “Cinco estrellas”, 450m, 6b+
More pictures can be found here.
Frey sounds like Swiss chocolate and the truth is not so far away. It is a group of granit spires planted on a dome shaped and snow covered mountain up above Bariloche but from the city the famous climbing spot may very well look like a goblet of ice cream topped with Chantilly cream and sprinkled with chocolate chips.
We had returned from Valle Encantado on Saturday and we spent Sunday afternoon at Esteban and Silvia’s lovely house situated on the heights of Bariloche. Esteban is the son of a cousin of my grandmother whose father emigrated to Argentina in the beginning of the 20th century… They had very kindly invited us for a “domingo asado” (Sunday barbecue), a traditional and popular activity very much part of the Argentinean culture. Their wooden house is nestled in a large and lush garden at that time of the south hemisphere spring: high dark pines framing the Nahuel Huapi lake, blooming fruit trees standing alongside dense bushes and beds of aromatic herbs lined up along house.
That afternoon we were introduced to the technology of self-built, portable solar ovens, we admired Silvia’s art of stained glass, we commented on the Higgs boson discovery and the “faster than light neutrinos” (they both worked at CERN), we tasted their home-made yoghurt and bread as well as mint tea and candied peaches from the garden and we were told about the story of an Austrian mad-doctor, friend of the president of Argentina who was working on atomic fusion on a uninhabited island of the Nahuel Hapi lake after World War II.
On Monday morning we left Bariloche for the second time. We took a bus to Catedral, the town main ski resort and hiked up to “Refugio Frey” with food for five days. The Frey hut is very well located at a pass dropping on one side to a small lake (and our daily bathtube) and on the other side to the access valley covered by deep, enchanted forests. The bivy places set up with small stone walls against wind are spreaded over a gentle slope above the hut whereas on the opposite slope stands the “Aguja Frey”, the nearest spire with the largest number of routes. The Frey hut is well visited by backpackers undertaking the three days Jakob trek around Bariloche.
At the Frey hut we came across a swedish guy met ten days earlier in a bus and passionate about paleontology. We got to know Alan, the friendly hut warden and climber, willing to buy any climbing gear since imported goods are unaffordable in Argentina. We also met a bunch of climbers coming from the Petzl Rock Trip: two Brasilean boulderers not afraid of long approches, the famous Daniel du Lac and his girlfriend, a group of cheerful Argentinean climbers returning at night from their climbs (we are not yet generalizing…) convinced of having spotted Adam Ondra in Piedra Parada; after investigation it seems that they are the only ones (however it results that pro climbers in general are smaller and skinnier than expected by their fans and Daniel du Lac is the exception that proves the rule since he is taller than me).
– Aguja Frey (1850m), “Diedro de Jim”, 50m, 5b
– Aguja Principal (2410m), “Ruta normal”, 150m, 6a
– Aguja El Abuelo (???), route mix: “Conflicto de generaciones” and “Anonimo Yankee”, 100m, 6b+
– Aguja M2 (2000m), route mix: “Llegando al cielo sin morir” and “El fin de los dias”, 45m, 6b
– Campanilo Esloveno (???), “Fonrouge-Bertoncelj”, 120m, 6b
– Aguja Frey (1920m), “Lost fingers”, 120m, 6b
More pictures can be found here.
Chile and Argentina are so long that we, geography idiots, had to simplify things a bit to orient ourselves. We assumed both countries to be one-dimensional and directed along a north-south axis. In addition we defined four reference cities (somewhat relevant to our climbing destinations) regularly spaced along that axis: Salta/Antofagasta, Mendoza/Santiago, Bariloche/Valdivia and El Chalten. The distances between the reference cities could be expressed in km (around 1500 km) or in bus hours (15 to 20 hours). But luckily you do not need to use this memorizing trick. From your computer or smart phone you can just take a look at the Google maps at the end of each post and scroll Argentina/Chile up and down.
From Tuzgle to Los Arenales we first headed south-east to Salta (which evidenced the fact that our initial assumption was wrong since it took us almost 9 hours to get there). The road descending from the Altiplano crosses over beautiful landscapes. The valley sides reproduce endlessly the same erosion patterns and alternate variously coloured sediment layers whereas the valley bottoms are carpeted with lush vegetation. In Salta we experienced rain again after one month of draught before moving down a notch on our imaginary map to Mendoza and 150 km west of Mendoza to Tunuyan in the heart of Argentinean wineyards and orchards.
In Tunuyan we went round and round to find a grocery store open during the siesta time (2 pm to 5 pm) with little success. We drove the last 70 km to Los Arenales with Yagua, a “gaucho” and taxi driver for climbers from Manzano, a small village at the foothill of the Andes and for our sake with a shop open during the siesta time. Manzano changes its face on weekends when hundreds of “mendocinos” flock to Manzano and spend the day grilling next to their car, wandering in the streets, riding horses or eating ice creams.
12 km away from Manzano on a gravel road the “refugio” of Los Arenales awaits the climber. It is set down on the valley bottom like a spatial module with its half-cylindrical roof and its patchwork construction of wood beams, concrete and metal sheets. In the background monumental fans rise on the valley sides. The “refugio” is not guarded but in spring and summer it hosts a joyful and always renewing troop of climbers. The occupants at the time of our arrival were: an American couple and two American guys, all staying in Los Arenales for more than one month and growing goodly beards, a fluctuating group of Argentinean guys, generally returning from their climbs at night, two Swiss from Massongex + three French guys from the Pyrenees, on their way to the Petzl Rock trip, an Argentinean couple of half-professional climbers, leaving for El Chalten and a good weather window and last but not least hordes of tiny birds and mice exploring the “refugio” in search of food.
The spring had not completely taken hold of the place since it had been snowed 40 cm in the preceding days. Nights were still cold and despite the strenuous approaches the first pitches in the morning often turned into local anaesthetics for the fingers. The wind was blowing hard over the tops of the massive granite spires bordering the valley. Whereas the cracks, dihedrals and ledges made up our playground, the clouds were putting on a show in the void next to us, billowing up the steep walls, tearing off on sharp ridges and swooping down deep gullies.
– Aguja Charles Webis (3450m), “Fuga de cabras”, 230m, 6b
– Aguja Torrecilla (3250m), “Universo mental”, 120m, 6b
– El Cohete (3300m), “Mejor no hablar de ciertas cosas”, 300m, 6b
– Aguja Charles Webis (3450m), “Escorpión”, 230m, 6b+
More pictures can be found here.
On our first night in San Pedro de Atacama, on the valuable advice of a local climber met at the tourist information, we had had the best meal since we were in Chile. At the “Estrella Negra”, a small vegetarian restaurant, we had been served a colourful and tasty menu (I do not remember what exactly) accompanied with home-made bread and lemon/ginger juice. As we had left the three half new age half rasta young people running the place, we were made up with Chilean cooking. In the next two weeks we passed by the “Estrella Negra” every time that we were back in San Pedro de Atacama hoping for a good supper and a stock of home-made bread but we always found the door closed. Looking back it seems that in our memory the repeated disappointments got the better of the delightful experience on the first night.
However we overcame it and the day after returning from Socaire we took a bus to Salta (Argentina). We got off at mid-way in Susques, the first town on the Argentinean side of the Jama pass and the starting point to Tuzgle, a crown of red tuff cliffs overlooking a “quebrada” at the foot of the “Cerro Tuzgle” volcano. The climbing potential in Tuzgle was publicized some years ago by a Petzl team in this movie.
In the bus we came across Julia and Egon, a couple of climbers (and route setters) from Ticino who we had shortly met on our first day in Socaire. After talking with us about the access to Tuzgle, they decided to join us without passing by Salta as they had initially planed.
In Susques we were dropped in front of the modest tourist office whose only and squinting employee turned out to be exceptionally helpful, efficient and honest. He organized a car and driver for the next day to transport us to the 75 km away canyon and answered very professionally to the dozen of practical questions that we asked (in South America you almost always get an answer to a question but it is often either incomplete or false since people prefer to invent answers than not to give any). He also proposed to look after our luggage during our time in Tuzgle and to personally check that the driver would pick us up five days later. We spent the evening in Susques trying to make unfriendly grocers smile, drinking warm beer and discussing average speed and road gradient with a lonely french biker linking up Tierra del Fuego to Alaska. The next five days we were cut off from the human world (except for three or four cars or motorbikes per day passing on the road) climbing in the shade, burning up in the sun, freezing at night, looking at blazing stars, cooking sheltered by boulders, taping, jamming, panting for air, stumbling into chinchilla tunnels, listening to the slamming of our tents in the desert wind.
Since the water of the small river flowing down from the volcano was not drinkable, we had taken all our water with us. We drank or cooked our 18.5 l to the last straw whereas Julia and Egon survived with 16 l.
Egon showed a big interest in creating a topo of the discovered routes and with our common effort we ended up with this proposition:
More pictures can be found here.