“It’s embarrassing how few stamps I have on my passport right now,” was a phrase I repeated at least twice in 2013. As I pressed my left thumb on the digital reader, looked into the web cam, and heard the resonant ‘thud’ as the customs officer stamped ‘Argentina, Entrada’ on the 8th page of my ID, I was back in the travelling game. With an airport push-cart filled with 140lb of the lightest climbing and camping gear on the market, it also marked another step in a life-long goal – to experience one of the world’s preeminent climbing destinations: Patagonia.
So much climbing news coming out of the Chalten area the last couple years. The good news being the unprecedented, large climbing windows of good conditions and immaculate weather causing many ascents and success on many levels for many visitors. The controversial news including bolt-chopping after the first fair-means ascent of Cerro Torre’s east face and subsequent bolting by Red-Bull fuelled camera crews capturing David Lama’s historic free ascent of the same route. The inspirational and humbling news, namely, every blog post by Colin Haley, Rolo Garibotti and other hard chargers as they set the bar for what alpinists can do when they’re fit, strong, motivated, and presented with the deux-ex-machina of unheralded weather.
With the internal clock ticking, the eternal reminder of “life is short, live your dreams,” a good gap in the work schedule following a major project completion, and a climbing partner with a rare green light for extended time off and similar aspirations for the Fitz Roy and Torre Massifs, all that was needed was planning, and the confidence to pull the trigger.
“Flights booked, this is happening.” Patagonia was a go. Fast-forward through shared spreadsheets, flight changes, logistics, training trips and gear discussions, Jeff and I were napping off the 48-hour travel marathon in the El Calafate parking lot waiting for the last bus to El Chalten. As kilometers ticked by, the iconic backdrop of Lago Viedma was coming into view, and the excitement level was starting to boil over. Add to it a pit-stop at the La Leona Hotel and the history of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid calling the same site ‘home’ for an on-the-lam spell back in the day, and experience was really sinking in – “I’m here, and this is incredible.”
The drive into Chalten brought striking similarity to the sage and juniper-bedecked dunes of the Eastern Sierra and other spots in the arid high desert of the American West. Gorgeous mountains backing the sweeping prairies and emerald, glacial-fed lakes and rivers give the place its own signature, however, and particularly poignant is how preserved it appears. Taking only one road on one trip and being in a coach, I am far from the seasoned visitor, but I can say a first impression is that this land is laissez-faire, and leaves a great feeling that the government shares the sentiment that undeveloped land and un-industrialized resources aren’t necessarily unprofitable or undesired. Being so used to seeing nearly all open land in the US as either irrigated and cultivated or fenced and covered with unsightly and un-belonging herds of cattle, the shear void of the plains leading to the mountains and glaciers are welcoming and wonderful.
At the end of the road [technically not the end as an un-paved thoroughfare continues northward to more remote regions of Patagonia] lies the gringo climber haven of El Chalten. Lots of cafes, restaurants and supermercados dot the streets, while feral dogs and a persistent stream of trekkers and neon-and-down-clad climbers give the air of a busy, energized mountain town. El Chalten translated is a native word for “smoking mountain,” reflective of its breathtaking skyline but it is more deserving of the ‘windy city’ nickname than Chicago. This record is being typed as the wind pounds the windows of our café as we endure another forced rest day. In our hostel dorm, the walls actually flex when the gusts pick up and just watching the trees and shrubbery around town bow to the strong winds evoke even more respect for the early climbers who besieged these hills for first ascents 50+ years ago when there were no solid structures to weather the storms nor forecasts to assist in planning.
With so many foreigners speaking English – and a seemingly disproportionate quantity of Americans – I have to admit that of the limited international travel I’ve engaged in over the last decade or so, the town doesn't feel that far from home even when all signs indicate the contrary. It doesn’t hurt that nearly every day I’m running into a familiar face from many climbing crags I’ve visited over the past few years. Perhaps the most frequently used English word I’ve heard over the first week here is “window,” and to prevent myself from an endless ramble, I’ll close and keep my fingers crossed a good window of weather will afford us an opportunity to cross a major objective off our list.