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.
Tag Archives: Chalten
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.