After the retreat from Exocet, we learned the same weather window we leveraged - which was deemed ‘good’ to some - only saw one ascent of the Supercanaleta and 17 people lined up at the fabled snow ramp for the Whillens-Cochrane with not one successful summit bid. News reports included a 40’ whipper on the crux mixed section by a very experienced alpinist, calling the conditions “desperate.” Many people merely “took the gear for a walk” in that 2-day spell of decent weather as we all continued to experience the conditions of ‘old Patagonia” – stormy and cold.
After returning from Niponino, day after day the weather brought either sideways rain or strong winds, causing both Jeff and I to experience first hand another vocabulary word used frequently in Patagonia: Fester.
When repeated days start out with hearing the wind and rain drive at the sheet metal siding and roof on the hostel, the drive to get out of bed spirals downward. Data from the meteorograms revealed high winds in the mountains with precipitation, a scene sometimes – but not always – reflected down in town. That meant forced rest days. Well, just two. I’ll admit I’m not quite strong enough to rebound in just 12 hours – after getting back from a three day effort at Niponino, I needed one day of R&R in town to bring the physical and mental gauges back to ‘f’ before headed back into the mountains. Trouble was, after a rest day Saturday, Sunday and Monday being junk weather meant three straight days mostly inside and the projected weather for the final week of our stay showed bad trends – nothing ‘good’ on the horizon. For a couple guys only here for three weeks, that’s a double whammy that’s tough to stomach.
Now, there have been periods of time for others in previous years [and even earlier this season] where festering and time out of the mountains was even longer, but since Jeff and I are new to the game, only three days brought a case anxiety neither of us could tolerate much longer, but at the same time leaving us thankful for all the infrastructure in Chalten. I seem to recall a Donini quote from the days of yore when the pioneer climbers of the Chalten and Torre Massifs would return to the Chalten area after days [or weeks] at the advanced base camps, only to find military-issued A-frame tents, and weather that wasn’t much better than the unsavory winds and precip they left in the mountains. There are restaurants, hostels, posh hotels and even a ‘house of ill repute’ and ubiquitous –albeit spotty – internet in town these days so at least if the weather is preventing a summit, life isn’t too bad.
Thankfully our climbing predecessors have bolted many sport routes around town as well as discovered boulders to get hands on rocks and people out of tents and hostels for much needed exercise and fresh air. When the festering and cabin fever reached a head, Jeff and I threw caution to the wind [which was not light in the valley that day] and headed out to clip bolts. To our surprise, we stumbled upon a five-pitch route called ‘the bottle,’ and had great fun working our way up El Chalten’s surrounding cliff-side. Views from the top were wonderful, and it was clear we wanted nothing to do with the mountains that day – wind scoured the summits and precipitation was evident.
It was also time to redefine ‘success’ on this trip. Sure, both of us wanted to try our hand on the major Cerros and Agujas that are hallmarks of this area, but weather was not being kind to us, so we used a baseball analogy as we mapped out our final six days in Patagonia: do we want to swing for home runs [big-named routes on the big peaks, involving more risk and more commitment], or get runs by being scrappy – bunts and singles [less glorious objectives, but with less commitment and exposure]. With no ‘real’ good window presenting itself, we leaned on the latter. Since we’re still in the freshman season here, we still haven’t visited some of the high camps, nor seen the massifs from all their stunning angles. Mojon Rojo’s east face isn’t major, but with the half day ‘window’ we had, it certainly beat our festival of fester in town. Turns out Adam and Allen were both of the same mind, so we had a posse: wake at 0330 Tuesday and leave town on foot by 0400, with an aim to be off the summits and out of harms way shortly after noon.
Reading about the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and how they too festered in a log cabin on the outskirts of town while on the lam, there were parallels – we’d become a posse much like the Pinkerton Agency that hunted the wild bunch the world over, but instead of hunting down outlaws we were on the hunt for an adventure and a summit.
Not much to say about the day as it was mostly the visuals that took the words out of our mouths. Stunning vistas were everywhere, a long approach to more gorgeous views of the Torre massif from the summit, and the many extended ’15 min’ stops on the way home to admire our surroundings. Yes, we knew the weather would turn sour – very sour in fact – in the latter hours of the day, overnight and into Wednesday, so we were in no hurry to get back to town. Regarding the climb, you could almost say that it was one big, diverse approach with trail, scree, tallus, boulder-hopping, 4th and low fifth scrambling and knee-deep boot-packing to a summit boulder problem [where Adam did manage to find two good pro placements]. Normally, such an outing wouldn’t be so highly regarded, but we were all excited knowing that we made the most out of the opportunity given to us, and seeing mountains like this would bring a smile to even scrooge himself.
A major highlight on the descent was seeing the weather move in. The phrase “wall of hate” is often used to describe the fronts that roll over the range off the ice cap and Pacific Ocean to the west. Knowing how cold and hard the wind was blowing on the summit of Mojon Rojo, watching the clouds tear across Fitz Roy’s cap made us shiver even as we sat in a breathless sunny boulder field hundreds of meters below.