Tag Archives: Alpinism

Fitz Roy: Do. Or Not Do. There Is No Try.

View from the Aguja de l'S

View from Aguja de l’S

Because of the frequent snowfalls during the first half of December, some ice/mixed routes of the massif were in unusually good conditions at the end of December i.e. late for the season. Among them: the Exocet route, a goulotte line to the rear of a chimney drawing a straight line on the south-east face of Cerro Standhardt, and the Ragni route, a long ice, mixed and rime climb going up the north face of Cerro Torre. In the Ragni route the relatively dry austral winter had prevented the formation of rime (icy snow sticking to the ice and to the rocks) which usually makes the climbing more difficult (cleaning/digging work and bad protections). The Exocet and Ragni routes are graded ED and ED+ respectively but this year favourable conditions probably lowered the Ragni route grade to TD+/ED explaining why such a large number of parties attempted and completed the route. Both routes lead to the summit of two of the most impressive peaks of the massif and have become emblematic due to their difficulty, engagement, itinerary and quality and variety of the climbing. However we did not attempt any of these routes… We had first-hand information on the routes available from Paul, Chris and John, three Canadian guys staying like us at “Refugio Chaltén”, we had all the necessary gear and we had it stashed at the Niponino camp that is the starting point for both routes.
The Fitz Roy massif seen from Niponino

The Fitz Roy massif seen from Niponino camp

We talked over it a lot, weighing the pros and cons and made our decision for two main reasons: first we are fond of the principle of linear progression that we have always applied with Stephan. Before attempting an ED route you should have climbed enough TD routes of the same climbing style and even more so in a massif where the engagement is higher due to slow and limited rescue (no rescue in the wall). It was not our case since we had climbed only few TD ice/mixed routes. Second we had other worthwhile objectives (although less major…) which were also in good conditions at that time such as the Chiaro de Luna route on Aguja St-Exupéry and the Afanassief or Franco-Argentinean routes on Cerro Fitz Roy. A third reason that concerned only the Exocet route was that only one party can climb the route at a time because of the risk of ice fall in the chimney, raising the probability of retreat during the approach.
The Franco-Argentian Route on Fitz Roy with some improvised bergschrund traversing

The Franco-Argentinean route on Fitz Roy with our itinerary

When on Thursday morning, after our climbs on El Mocho on Sunday and on Aguja St-Exupéry on Wednesday, we heard that the weather would hold until Monday evening, we did not hesitate too long. We hiked down to Niponino over the chaotic and unstable scree slopes, packed all our equipment and departed for El Chaltén. On the way we ran across several climbers who we asked for information about the routes on Fitz Roy. Before the mid-January “brecha” (the present one), Fitz Roy had only been climbed over the Supercanaleta route by a couple of teams during the New Year “brecha” and by one French team over the Franco-Argentinean route in winter conditions beginning of December.
Once in El Chaltén and after having asked more climbers it turned out that only the long Afanassief route and some other long routes on the Goretta pilar had been climbed successfully during the present “brecha” (long means two bivies in the route). The Franco-Argentinean route had been attempted in the beginning of the “brecha” (on Sunday) but the party had retreated three pitches below the end of the rock climbing part because of large amounts of ice. The long routes were out of question since the time left until the end of the “brecha” was too short (Friday to Monday) and since we did not have the optimal equipment for these long routes. If the second does not intend to jumar it is indeed recommended to have very light backpacks i.e. approach shoes, aluminium crampons and a light two-persons sleeping bag. We thus opted for the Franco-Argentinean route hoping that the ice in the upper pitches had melted enough during the 5 days of good weather which had followed the last attempt. We also knew that at least one other party was attempting or would attempt the route that day or the next day.
The plan was the following: leave El Chaltén on Friday late in the afternoon, hike to the Rio Blanco camp (three hours), bivy there, start at 5 am on Saturday from Rio Blanco to Paso Superior (four hours) in order to benefit from the night refrost on the glacier (there was eventually no refrost), take some rest during the day until the departure at night on Sunday, summit on Sunday and return to El Chaltén on Monday. We did not take any tent with us to be as light as possible.
Sunrise on FItz Roy

Sunrise on FItz Roy

If this works to keep the heat outside as well?

Trying to sleep at Paso Superior. Does this work to keep the heat outside as well?

On Saturday morning we were at Paso Superior where we met two of the three parties that had attempted the route on Friday (and first ones since the party on the previous Sunday). One Austrian party had reached the summit, climbing the last three pitches with crampons and ice axes and being back late on the same day at Paso Superior. The second party, an American one, had turned back halfway up and the third party, also American, was still on the mountain (they had bivied close to the summit). Later that day, Tim and Sam, a Belgian party showed up at Paso Superior also intending to climb the Franco-Argentinean route on Sunday.
The Desmochada, next time...

Sunrise at the Brecha de los Italianos with Aguja Desmochada, next time…

We woke up at 11.30 pm and left Paso Superior at 0.30 am on Sunday followed by the Belgian party. The refrost was only superficial and stepping aside tracks meant breaking through a delightful crust. We traversed the slopes below the bergschrund to the left until we could spot the tracks of the Friday parties. We found two sets of tracks crossing the bergschrund over snow bridges that no longer existed. The bergschrund was 5 to 10 m high (double as high if you would have rappelled in it to climb it) and overhanging. We traversed further to the left and almost as far as Aguja Poincenot we encountered a zone where the bergschrund had partly collapsed. A small berm was overlooked by 4 m of steep ice and 3 m of overhanging snow/ice mixture. Stephan engaged in the dodgy section, digging through the snow/ice upper part, desperately looking for good anchor points for his ice axes and trying to make the mantle less steep until he suddenly fell backwards and landed on the berm 5 m below, luckily without getting hurt. He left his backpack on the berm, took the one “estaca” we had and courageously went back to the fight. Some minutes later he had overcome the bergschrund and was hauling his backpack. I joined him and we made a long traverse to the right on 60 degrees steep snow slopes. We linked up with the tracks of the Friday parties and followed the base of a rockwall, stepping over ice and bad snow. We eventually came up against some rocks and climbed two pitches up to the ridge overlooking the Brecha de los Italianos. We scrambled down to the breach and took a break waiting for the sun to rise. It was 5.30 am. We had a soup and we stashed the sleeping bag, the mattress, the radio, the cooker, some food and two ice axes (out of four).
The last bit of snow on the Silla before the rock climbing

The last bit of snow at the Silla before the rock climbing

The Belgium team is just behind us

The Belgian team is just behind us

With the first sunlight we climbed easy rocks up to la Silla, the snow saddle at the base of the south-east face of Fitz Roy where the Franco-Argentinean route starts. We climbed the first ten pitches (of which some beautiful continuous crack pitches) relatively fast despite many wet sections and our heavy backpacks. The leader carried his mountain boots and his clothes while the second carried his boots and his clothes plus two pairs of crampons, two ice axes, food and water. The 6th grade pitches were sustained but not undergraded as on Aguja Media Luna or El Mocho. On the contrary the 5th grade pitches often included a 6th grade section.
The first 6b pitch, perfect but wet hand crack

The first 6b+ pitch, a perfect but wet hand crack

On the last 3 pitches, the cracks are filled with ice, water on the face and we protect with ice screws, funny!

On the last 3 pitches, the cracks are filled with ice, the slabs are dripping and we protect with ice screws, funny!

From pitch 11, many cracks were filled with ice and water was flowing on top of it. We climbed the two first 5th grade pitches at the expense of some gymnastics, wet clothes, cold hands (we were in the shade by then) and one ice screw! We then had the choice between a 6c pitch on the left that had turned into a waterfall and a 5+ pitch on the right that was sprayed with large amounts of melting ice. Stephan opted for a variant in the middle. He gained some height removing ice from cracks and holds with his ice axe, overcame a difficult dihedral with the back on one side and the feet on the other and eventually topped out on snow slopes marking the end of the difficulties. The Belgian party had caught up and chose the same option.
The crux pitch, cleaning of the ice from the walls

The crux pitch, cleaning the ice off from the walls

after the last pitch, which was as well the crux of the route, covered in ice, we reach the upper slopes

We reach the upper slopes at around 5 pm, the last pitches have taken us a long time

We put on boots and crampons and climbed the last 250 m of 50 degrees steep ice. At 6 pm, almost 18 hours after having left Paso Superior, we were standing on the summit of Fitz Roy, warmed up by the sun still high in the sky but shaken and cooled down by high winds while admiring the Campo de Hielo, a huge, flat glacier covered with snow stretching beyond the Torre massif. We started to abseil stucking the rope only once in the upper slopes.
Louis on the summit of Fitz Roy

Louis on the summit of Fitz Roy

Happy, our last summit in South America

Happy and sad, our last summit in South America

Collateral dammage

Collateral dammage

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.

Where to go?

Where to go?

The panoramic view during the rappel

The panoramic view during the abseiling

At 4.30 am, tired of not sleeping, we prepared some tea, ate the last crackers and at 5 am we were abseiling the first out of eight rappels from the breach down to the glacier. The Belgian party had stuck their rope in the last rappel before la Silla so that they had to spend the night up there and to climb the first pitch again in the morning to unstuck their rope. At 8.30 am on Monday we were back at Paso Superior happy, tired and relieved, 32 hours after having left. We ran down in the midday heat to Lago de los Tres, Rio Blanco and Laguna Capri where we had a swim and ate our last rations of bread, “cremoso” cheese and “dulce de membrillo” (quince).
On Tuesday the “brecha” was over and the wind was blowing again through the streets of El Chaltén. Within 2.5 hours, at our hostal, we sold 30 kg of gear (ropes, friends, ice screws, backpack, poles, expresses, tent, clothes) to Argentinean climbers. On Wednesday morning we were leaving our homelike hostal “la Casa de Jesús”, Natalia and the kids with heavy hearts after three and a half weeks in El Chaltén. Soon it would be time to leave South America as well.
It's tough to understand Juana, but entertainment assured

It’s tough to understand Juana, but entertainment assured

We climbed:
Fitz Roy, Franco-Argentinean route, ED-, 650m 6c+ (6a/A1) 55°
More pictures can be found here.


Filed under Ice, Rock

Tradclimbers Paradise – Arenales

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.

The Arenales valley

The Arenales valley bordered by monumental fans

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.

A condor very, very close to us

A condor very, very close to us

Stephan in the Fuga de Cabras

Stephan in the Fuga de Cabras

Rest day... too cold

Rest day… too cold

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.

First pitch of the Torecilla

First pitch of the Torecilla

We're getting higher on the Cohete

We’re getting higher on the Cohete

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.

Louis appearing from the fog

Louis appearing through the fog

Offwidth pleasures

Offwidth pleasures

Stephan on the Cohete

Stephan on the Cohete

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.

Our climbs:
– 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.

The snow three days ago is still there... we're frozen

The snow three days ago is still there… we’re frozen

Forced stretching

Forced stretching

Louis lost in a chaos of stones

Louis lost in a chaos of stones

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Filed under Rock

A 3-day ride with Señor Chopicalqui

In the mind of the mountaineer, the beauty of a mountain is certainly not an objective matter. It may depend on the view of the mountain from a particular angle, a particular moment of the day (most often when the first or last sunlight caresses its slopes), a story or adventure that creates a connection with the mountain or sometimes just a picture that has been taken by another mountaineer.
In the case of the Nevado Chopicalqui (6345m), it was a simple picture that awoke our curiosity, even before we knew where the Cordillera Blanca was. To us, the Northwest ridge seemed to be a perfect climb, combining a beautiful mountain with technical difficulties (TD, 2-3 days, source Biggar 1996/ Reedition 2005). However, as usual for such kind of climbs, information is scarce and the only reliable source documenting a successfull (but an epic 7 days) climb dated from 2002, which represents ages in terms of glacier changes, rockfalls, bergschrunds… that meant that we opted for adventure and the total unknown.

Our route on the NW ridge of Chopicalqui, picture by Lucho Lopez Oropeza, a Peruvian Mountain Guide

Chopicalqui lies in the Yungay Province, which is sadly known for the huge earthquake and alluvium that killed 22’000 people in the city of Yungay 40 years ago. As good “gringos” we got ruled out at the bus stop in Yungay and paid for an expensive taxi drive up to the basecamp. Already in the taxi, our visit the night before to Louis favourite restaurant “La Brasa Roja” proved to be fatal to my stomach which rebelled against the short walk to the basecamp at 4300m. Once arrived, my stomach refused to contain any food or tea during two days, delaying our departure to the ridge. During that time, the camp was abandoned. We were the only team near Chopicalqui, only cows and donkeys fighting with us over the campground (one of them litteraly attacked Louis backpack and made our pasta and milk powder bags explode).

Finally, on day 3, I felt strong enough to shoulder the lighter mountaineering backpack, while we left our trekking backpacks hidden in the rocks surrounding the basecamp. During the night, we walked up the grassy slopes in the direction of the NW ridge, overcame some delicate and slippery slabs and reached the glacier at dawn.

Louis in Muchacho-Style in a delicate section of the approach

Fortunately, while I was vegetating in the tent the day before, Louis had hiked up the opposite moraine to look for a way between the crevasses up to the foot of the ridge. He took the lead and navigated us safely between crevasses and seracs sometimes as large as buildings.

A short mixed section allows us a relatively easy way through the seracs

But the last meters to the ridge were barred by a huge bergschrund that turned out to be the crux of the day. We solved it by a no-foot climb with only our ice axes in almost loose snow.

Stephan climbs the glacier towards the ridge

During the last 3 weeks, everybody had told us that the moon was about to change and consequently the weather. So far, we had proven to be very lucky, but on this trip our luck faded out. As accurate as a watch, everyday the sky would cloud over around midday and it would start snowing gently for some hours. During the night, the sky would clear up again, yielding a cloudless morning sky and taking our worries partly away but not the new snow.
For the first night, we managed to set up our camp at the foot of the ridge at about 5500m, on a snowy shoulder big enough for our tent. It was midday and it began to snow. We holed up in our tent for the rest of the day. We were quite down, barely speaking to each other. The snow exerted its weight not only on our tent but also on our spirits. The next day was going to be a big day. Would there be a way up? Where would it be? In addition, we could procure only one fuel canister in Huaraz, which in my opinion was going to be enough to melt snow and prepare food for one evening, maybe two. Since we had no idea how many days this route would require, the perspective of eating snow to hydrate ourselves further increased the tension. That evening, we finally melted an amount of snow equivalent to 4L of water with our jetboil (cooker). After that, we shook the fuel canister to estimate its content: 1/3 of gas left…

First night, and very happy to be able to cook in the tent, outside it is snowing…

Our camp 1, just next to the crevasse.

The night finally was calm but freezing cold. As we awoke, our sleeping bags were soaked from the condensation and the interior of the tent was all covered with a layer of frost. We packed our camp before dawn and soon faced the first difficulties. A huge bergschrund barred the access to the headwall.

Louis passing a scary bergschrund

Through some ice stalactites and a debris section, the bergschrund appeared possible to climb. Louis led this scary pitch, placing his ice axes with care, finding only few solid holds. Reaching the ridge, he was out of gear and I took over the lead. On top of us, a huge snow mushroom forbid any passage. As far as we knew from the old descriptions, this obstacle should be avoided on the right side. However I was more attracted by the left side, that was hidden to us but already in the sun… it was gambling. If I were wrong, we would have to repeat a delicate traverse and downclimb or abseil. The top ridge was already in the sun and the snow already softening… I went for the sun.
I traversed under a huge band of overhanging ice to reach a rocky and very airy ledge. The ice was solid and so was the protection. After 20m of traverse, I reached a steep but easy snow field and I looked up. A way between seracs opened up to me and I got a big smile, won! We simul-climbed to the shoulder and also Louis was smiling when he joined me shouting: “I thought you were either a genius or a total idiot!”

Louis reaching the shoulder at the beginning of the ridge

What followed was an airy climb on a razor-blade snow ridge, an abyss of vertical 1000m on the left and 500m on the right. Often the snow was loose, allowing only few solid placements. Both of us were fully concentrated, placing delicately every foot and ice axe.

Stephan on the airy ridge

To avoid a collapsed section of the ridge, we had to improvise

Chopicalqui Norte (6021m) and Chopicalqui (6354m)

It took us 3h to reach the summit of Chopicalqui Norte and we were relieved to find a square meter of almost flat ground. It was 11am, the sky began to cloud over again and we decided to install our second camp 100m after the bottom of the abseil at around 6000m.
As soon as we planted our tent, it began to snow. But that time, we were in higher spirits, our moods boosted by our route finding and the fact that the airy ridge was behind us. But difficulties still remained ahead of us and a retreat from that point would be very difficult. Another miracle made us cheer up. After preparing the Japanese noodles and melting snow, the fuel canister seemed only to be half empty!

Our tracks on easy terrain

Our second camp at 6000m

We woke up with a clear sky above our ice cave, but with a very strong wind. At dawn, we were again facing the first crux: a pitch with a bergschrund bridged with loose snow, mixed terrain, vertical ice and a delicate mantel onto loose snow. We were feeling the effect of altitude more and more, each movement made more difficult. Steep snow fields followed and alternated with airy traverses on top of seracs. The knee-deep snow of the last days was slowing us down considerably, making us breath hard at every step, the wind rushing in our wide-open mouths.

First crux of the third day: a treacherous bergschrund, solid rock, steep ice and a mantel onto loose snow

Louis on a delicate mantel onto loose snow

Us climbing the crux on the third day, photographed from Pisco by Lucho Lopez Oropeza, a Peruvian Mountain Guide

Louis organising his gear on the mushroom

Last 100m before the summit

At 8.30am, we finally reached the summit. A moment of deep emotion after 3 days of hardship. Our glory lasted for only a few minutes, the strong wind urging us to climb down.

Stephan in a whirlwind of ice crystals, making him blind for seconds

No one had been climbing the normal route for days and the old track was covered by 50cm of fresh snow. We downclimbed a runnel, abseiled once on Abalakov, jumped over some crevasses, sometimes wading hip-deep accumulations of snow.

Even the descent from the summit requires a lot of attention

The top mushroom with a happy andinist

On the lower part of the glacier, a few small flags indicated the way. We were all too happy to step on the moraine since head-size snow balls were sticking to our crampons, making us walk on unstable high heels.

A long and arduous descent on a heating glacier

We had a break in the sun, unpacking the tent, the sleeping bags and the mattresses to dry, prepared a soup with our still half-full fuel canister! After an hour of rest, we walked down to the basecamp. Cheered up by our success, the 2h hike felt effortless.

The moraine path down to the basecamp

Flower of the Andes

A bad surprise awaited us at the camp, though. Our trekking backpacks with gear and food were not in their hideout any more. How could that be? No other team had been on the mountain. Since we had sighted only cows and donkeys in the first two days, our first guess was that a local, either a farmer or an “arriero” had been checking out the camp. We settled down for another night, cooked without running out of gas and raised our ears to the slightest noise for the case that the theft would return.

The next day, we walked down to the road 106 hoping to be given a lift, only to find out that all the traffic was in the direction opposite to Yungay. The Pisco basecamp was about an hour by foot away and turned out to be a much busier place. There, we found a taxi driving us to the National Parc checkpoint. We told the story of the theft before taking a “collectivo” back to Yungay and to Huaraz.

Chopicalqui in Quechua means “fits in the center”. We will try to take it at face value, remembering in first place our 3 days on that magnificent mountain and putting the unfortunate loss of our backpacks aside.

Roasted cuys for cruel non-vegetarians…

More photos can be seen here.


Filed under Ice