Punters in Patagonia
By Duncan Lee and Colin Maddison
With his arms firmly wrapped around 2 boulders and his legs submerged in a raging ice cold torrent, Colin may have once again been wondering why he’d agreed to another of my “stupid ideas!” Over the decades that we have climbed together his inability to tell me where to go has resulted in numerous TD sups in The Alps, wet VS routes on Cloggy in December and, in this case, a soaking in the roaring white glacial waters of the Rio Blanco in the Chalten Massif in Argentina. Luckily it was only a wetting. Dave summed it up nicely as Colin crawled out, “Thank ***k for that cos I wasn’t jumping in to try and save him!” The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.
A week earlier we had departed Manchester for the long haul to Punta Arenas, at the southern tip of Chile, with permits and plans for routes on the spectacular Torres del Paine. Unfortunately, the notoriously fickle Patagonian weather had other ideas. After arriving at Peurto Natales, the nearest town to Paine, we checked out the weather forecast only to find out that it was dire for at least the next 10 days! It did however look better over on the Argentinian side of the range, so it was decided for us... another days’ bus travel ensued across the vast windswept pampas. Finally, after 8 hours of staring out of a bus window, the legendary summits of the Fitzroy range came into view. Stunning monoliths of golden granite, ice and snow pulled us out of our reverie. Taking all this in fully would have to wait however because it was time to shoulder our 30kg plus loads for a trudge across El Chalten in search of a campsite.
Day one in El Chalten was spent getting used to the relaxed pace of life in the town. The cash point had a sign on it saying it would be fixed tomorrow...it was still there when we left. Manana! As for obtaining climbing permits, you just filled in a quick form at the ranger station and promised to return the counterfoil when you left the area so that they knew you were still alive. After that we checked out the impressive bastion of Paradon de les Condors. We got moving on an enjoyable 5 pitch route, complete with condors gliding around behind us and nesting on adjacent ledges, a great introduction to the climbing in the area.
The following day started wet but soon dried out so we decided to ferry some kit up the hill and to check out the lie of the land. The main peaks were wreathed in cloud as we made our way through the moss covered, stunted beech trees up to Campo Poincenot, then up to the stunning Laguna Sucia. As we struggled on, making our way over the boulder strewn banks of the aforementioned Rio Blanco, the peaks finally revealed themselves in all their majesty. The river however looked less appealing. It was a raging turmoil of foaming white water and we had to find a way across it to get to the route we had chosen for the forecast good weather window. Finally, after a lot of head scratching, we found a solution that involved sketchy boulder hopping and leaping. It was during one of these leaps of faith that a vicious gust of wind knocked Colin backwards into the tumult. Only his quick reactions, grabbing boulders saved him from what could have been a serious beating.
After a spot of relieved nervous giggling we stashed the hardware under a rock and began the walk back to town via a different route. From Campo Poincenot we headed south, aided by the notoriously strong winds of Patagonia on our backs to the shores of Lagunas Madre and Hita, into the Val de Fitzroy. We descended back to town completing a good 25k round trip that earned us a couple of happy hour pints of the locally brewed ale.
We then sat out a day of wind and rain before stocking up on hill food, loading up our rucksacks and setting forth up the hill once more. The section up to the river crossing seemed a lot less arduous compared to 2 days earlier and the crossing itself less treacherous. The doubly-heavy loads, after collecting the stashed hardware, made the final 2.5 hour slog across ankle snapping boulders and scree seem endless. We were all glad when the grind up to “The Swiss bivy” was over and we could settle into the cave under a boulder. Shame a crucial bit had fallen off my stove in the campsite, so cooking was virtually impossible. Whoops!
We had a meagre breakfast the next day at first light before scrambling over glacier rounded, granite domes and scree which led to the snout of the glacier. We donned crampons and roped up for an hour’s walk across the ice to the base of our chosen route, Austriaca, on the Aguja de L’s (2330 metres), a good introductory route to the area by all accounts. Marvelling at the stunning views to all sides we geared up and set forth. Dave found a way across the impressive bergshrund to the steep snow slopes above. Four pitches of 55degree porridge like snow provided more hard toil in the dazzling sun. It was like swimming in a sauna. Colin then put in a fine lead on a tricksome mixed pitch that took us to the base of a stunning dihedral where the rock climbing began. We quickly changed into rock boots and clipped all the ice gear into the belay before Dave took the first lead up the corner, a pleasant 4+ warm up on rough honey coloured granite. We all then got a 5+ pitch each of mostly nice climbing. The exception was a horrible unprotected off-width section that was followed by having to teeter gingerly round a Damoclean block suspended in the corner. The last of these pitches led us to Le Col de Austriaca, where we got amazing views across the Torre Glacier to the peaks beyond, including glimpses of the summit of Cerro Torre floating above a bank of clouds.
From the col, 4 more balancy pitches (5+ -6A) up the arête of the summit pyramid led us to the wonderfully pointy apex of the mountain. Three of us could just about perch for a few minutes as we savoured the astounding vistas all around. A few quick photographs and it was time to begin the descent. The first abseil was rigged, a long diagonal affair that was all going well, but just as I was getting to the rap station I was hit by a strong gust of wind. It sent me flying around an arête for a long pendulum leftwards that culminated with me slamming into the wall of the gully. A gash on my left knee soon saw my trousers covered in blood as I scrambled back to the abseil station cursing my stupidity at not putting in a bit of gear to prevent such a swing.
Two more abseils got us back to the rucksacks at the col where I necked some pain killers and patched up the knee as best I could. The abseils down the corner went well and revealed that the scarily loose Damoclean block had made its way to the glacier since we were last there. Gulp! Thankfully it had missed all the ice gear we had left below. The last few abseils on the snow were tortuously slow as we struggled to find anchors, but finally we were back on the glacier for a knee deep trudge back to the rocks and the final scramble back to the bivvy. This completed a 16 hour round trip. Back at the bivvy we had lots of company, it was like sardines under the boulder, so I grabbed my kit and found a nice little spot upon which to spend a night under the crystal clear star filled sky.
The next day saw us starting slowly before beginning the long grind back down to the valley. Thankfully, despite the gaping hole in my knee, it seemed to work okay and the weight on my back was causing me more discomfort than the blood gently oozing down my leg. Once back at the campsite we just collapsed onto our backs on the grass for 10 minutes recovery before even getting a brew on the go. Suitably rehydrated we put the tents up, found the missing bit of the stove, cleaned up the knee properly and thought about trying to find a doctor’s. We decided a better plan was to go for a couple of well earned happy hour pints and a pizza, rounding off 3 great days on the hill, despite the injury.
The next predicted window of good weather was 4 days away, but by the time it arrived I didn’t feel up to another Patagonian beating, so I went for a stroll down the valley as Dave and Colin shouldered heavy loads and set off up the hill. Meanwhile, as I watched condors gliding gracefully around the cliffs I marvelled at a truly bizarre sky. It was as if someone had drawn a line down it with a ruler. There was glorious sunshine, albeit with a gusty wind, to the east of the line and dark foreboding clouds to the west of the divide.
Colin takes up the tale.
I think it was around midnight when I poked my nose out of the bivvi bag. The black, cloudless sky was studded with a billion stars. So why the f**k was I getting rained on?
Shuffling round a bit, to the west the sky was an unbroken blanket of cloud. Overhead, a perfectly straight divide. Below it, Dave and I …. just on the wrong bloody side of it!
It had all started well enough with a near perfect forecast for two days; just long enough. The only disappointment was that Duncan couldn’t come with us. Partly because he’s a mate and it was sad to leave him behind. But more importantly, I was going off with a shit hot, UIAA certified Mountain Guide and I needed someone else to make me look less incompetent! To quote Dave just a few days earlier, “I could put you two down as part of my Continual Professional Development!”
But there was comfort in being with someone of Dave’s experience and abilities even if the outlook from his end of the rope would be far less reassuring. So we waved bye bye to a forlorn looking Duncan and squeezed into a minibus for the 15km journey along a dusty gravel road up the Valle Río de las Vueltas and the start of our approach by the Río Electrico.
Deposited at the side of the road with blue skies overhead all seemed well set until it became apparent something was not quite what it should be. The first part of the approach is a walking route up a side valley to Refugio Los Troncos, a private refuge. Straightforward enough except that the start of said route seemed to lie somewhere under a rather expanded Rio Electrico!
The entirely inadequate local map offered no clues but after a bit of prospecting through scrub along the bank of a side stream a vague trail opened out across the flat and stony valley bottom. The odd small cairn suggested a former route and after a kilometres or two increasing scrub merged into woodland and shortly after we happened across a good trail that was presumably what we should have been able to access from the road. Making a mental note of where to turn off on the way back we headed on.
The meandering walk through attractive woodlands along-side the fast flowing river would in other circumstances have been a pleasant stroll. But by now another disadvantage of leaving Duncan behind was becoming apparent. All the climbing gear previously ferried by three in two carries was now being humped by two in one go. But this was the easy bit. After another five kilometres or so we emerged from woods just before the Refugio where the real work began. A thin path zigzagged steeply up through scrubby undergrowth. The rest of the approach was going to be hard work.
The peaks of the Fitzroy massif are not high. Fitzroy itself is just 3405m. Alpine in scale I suppose, but they are steep granite monoliths and the approaches can be long, starting from only 400m. Our objective, the Aguja Guillaumet was modest in height at 2579m but challenging enough for a two day weather window of opportunity. Then there’s the Patagonian wind that comes with a roar in ferocious gusts. Having emerged from the woods and begun the laborious toil uphill its impact became increasingly apparent.
After a few hundred metres we emerged onto a small grassy alp where some big boulders might have provided bivvi spots. But this was much too low and we toiled steeply upward again on an increasingly vague track through loose rocky terrain. The higher we went the greater the force of the wind that hit us. Repeatedly hunching and bracing ourselves against each successive gust. At one point, much to Dave’s amusement, running back downhill with the gust the only way for me to stay upright. Higher again turtle-like on my back, rucksack jammed between the boulders legs in the air.
Dave, of course, pulled ahead quickly. But he’s a short arse so has less wind resistance (as well as being a bit of a machine). Finally, though, after some five hours of effort we gratefully dumped our loads at the bivvi site. Sadly, not a cosy, sheltered cave this time; just low drystone walls against a boulder. But, fortunately, having left Duncan behind, Dave and I had been in charge of all the kit and as a result had the benefit of a fully operational stove. So we sorted out the bivvi and settled down to a totally inadequate supper of dehydrated noodles and a few brews.
The route looked excellent. A short approach across a small glacier to a 45 degree snow couloir leading via slabs to a fine, airy, rock ridge that merged into the north face. Up this, circumventing a couple of towers to a final summit snow slope. With lots of pitches of 4 and a couple of 5 the only slight concern was one of 6b+, but I wasn’t planning on that being my lead! Unfortunately, the very real worry was the wind. It was bad here and the clouds raced across the summits at an alarming pace. It would have to drop.
Around 8.00pm we slid into our bivvi bags and immediately the rain started! To save weight we’d decided not to take sleeping bags and just rely on down jackets. My top half was warm enough but my legs were cold despite thermals, trousers, over trousers and my feet inside my rucksack. Perhaps they’d warm up once I got some body heat inside the bag? They did not. By midnight it was apparent they weren’t just cold, they were wet! It was grim and I didn’t even have the consolation of being able blame Duncan this time.
Sometime in the early hours I was forced out of the bag to pee. It was still raining; the wind still blew. Dave stirred and we had a brief exchange. This climb almost certainly wasn’t happening.
Another two or three hours huddled against the boulder until the first signs of dawn. Emerging wet to varying degrees to rain and the wind unabated there was only one option. So a brew, pack up and then the knee jarring descent through rock and scree, the final steep zigzags and the long trudge through the woods. Disappointment, a heavy rucksack and the developing pain in my right foot that was to affect the rest of the trip. Hey ho, all part of the greater mountaineering experience!
Eventually back at the dirt road there was just one last problem. We were way too early for the bus and it was 15km to El Chalten. So on we trudged. Fortunately, a kilometre or so down the road a vehicle came along and stopped for us. Unfortunately, it was a taxi so it cost us about 600 peso!
Back in El Chalten, with the forecast dire for the next ten days or so, it was time for another long bus ride. There might just be a sufficient weather window in the Torres Del Paine ….but...
Backtracking just briefly, before we left and as Colin recovered from the ordeal, Dave was as keen as ever. As a result of his enthusiasm we finished off our time around El Chalten with a fine elegant 2 pitch 6b+ arête on Paradon de los Condors. The next day we let the rangers know we were all okay (if a bit battered) then boarded the bus back to Chile in the pursuit of another elusive weather window. But, more about that in the next newsletter....
Thanks to Dave Kenyon and Colin for putting up with me and to the KMC grant scheme which enabled me to buy a tent that could withstand the ferocious Patagonian winds! Cheers.