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.
Category Archives: Rock
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.
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.
Sometimes the environmental conditions make that one has to fight hard to be able to climb, sometimes the conditions are just ideal, so that one can focus entirely on the difficulty of the climb and forget about frozen fingers, wet and overgrown cracks, bad protection, the weather forecast and nasty “tabano” flies confounding one’s nose with a runway.
Coming back from Cochamó we felt that we needed a cosy place like that and after all with the weather models forecasting rain and storm for Patagonian mountains till end of December, the Patagonian “meseta” seemed a nice and almost dry place to be.
The “meseta” is part of the most extensive desertic region of Argentina and was subject to intensive geological movements of elevation and lowering giving place to a stair-like landscape. The high geologic activity in this region has also given place to a fantastical rock formation, the Piedra Parada, a more than 200 meter high freestanding monolith, whose story began 65Mio years ago. If one wants to go for the technical term the Piedra Parada is the most important “volcanic-piroclastic complex” in the region of the Chubut river. It is the leftover of a gigantic volcano with a caldera diameter of about 25km, and was active before the Andes were created. The many colors of the stones that can be found in its vicinity are witnesses of the agitaded past. During the last eruption the volcano collapsed and the lava in the chiminea cooled down and formed what is known as the Piedra Parada when the softer stone around the chiminea eroded.
The Buitrera canyon lies near the Piedra Parada and is a product of erosion. Its colors and the strange rock formations must have fascinated early populations since the oldest proof of human dwellings in the region (between 5’000 and 10’000 years ago) can be found at the entrance of the canyon.
More recently a new form of live could be found in the canyon: climbers. A definite climax of the population was to be found during the Petzl Rock trip in November 2012, when more than 1600 climbers were queueing for 200+ routes in the steep and richely featured rock walls of the canyon. When we arrived three weeks later, there was hardly a trace of the overpopulation, except for the brand new car of Don Mario, the owner of the camping ground.
We immediately made acquaintance of the “local” climber tribe, climbers from France (Tchen and Thibaut), Chile (Antoine), Argentina (Maria and Walter), all of them spending several weeks/months in the Buitrera.
After all the trad climbing and long approches we had done lately, Louis and I had a hard time getting used to the hard sport climbing, but we learnt quickly that we could rely on the bolts and climb until you fall. Inspired by the insistence of the others we also started to work harder routes, meaning that we tried a route several times up to the moment we were able to climb it without falling.
Apart from small showers we stayed dry, the wind was more than bearable, the temperatures were agreeable, we had a swim in the river Chubut every day, sat down by the fire at night sharing our exploits of the day. We finally again felt mentally prepared for a harsher environment and during our stay the weather situation had improved in Patagonia, nothing could contain us now from heading to El Chalten!
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.
Since August Louis and I have been on the road or let us say on the rock, we tried not to spend more than 2-3 days in cities or to travel and to climb the rest of the time. This resulted in a tight schedule, since everytime that we were in a city, we needed to find out how to get to the next climbing spot, to buy the provisions for a week, to wash our clothes, to sort the photos and actually to travel. Once at the climbing spot life was more relaxed and we were only bothering about climbing, eating and painful fingers and toes.
However, at some point, we felt that we needed a break. Moreover we had been longing to visit our friend Marius in Valdivia who was part of our team in the Cordillera Blanca (Peru).
For the time of a week we again had a real home (thanks Paola and Marius!), did some sedentary activities like going to the movies, having our hair cut or going to the local boulder gym that Marius recently founded with some friends. At “La Gruta” we also had the opportunity to make a presentation of our trip and to show some of our pictures to the local climbers community.
In order to maintain a certain connection with nature, we also spent a day rock climbing in Llifen that offers a bunch of sport climbing routes in basaltic stone that is located in the backyard of Valdivia (given the distances in South America it was still a 2 hours drive). On top of all these relaxing activities we visited some rudementary hot springs near Llifen.
After this relaxing stopover in Valdivia we had the very much required strength to undertake our next quest, the Yosemite of South America, the mythic Cochamo Valley.
Some 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.