With one cumbre under our belts after changing to the ‘light, fast and modest summit’ strategy, Jeff and I were faced with only three days in Patagonia before having to return to our North American ‘real lives.’ With meteorograms showing at least a meager weather window Friday morning – our last day – it was time for a reality check. We wanted something more technical and a little more committing, but with west winds scheduled high[ish] and getting worse over the course of the day and cooler temperatures expected, our options were limited. The lack of summer weather and high west winds coming off the ice cap translated to no granite splitter cracks on the higher peaks, and knowing what we saw on Fitz and Poincenot in forecasted less winds the day prior while on Mojon Rojo, we restricted ourselves to the east-facing mixed and ice lines.
Combined with our requirements of packing and being on a bus back to Calafate to make our flights home, the options whittled to two: redemption efforts for either Guillomet or Standhardt. Never do I remember having such a long or thorough discussion defining a two-day objective. Bottom line, both of us would have loved round two on Standhardt’s Exocet, but it would’ve meant absolutely no margin in getting back to life on time and a very slim chance at success. Coupled with beta from previous efforts getting across the Torre Glacier in similar winds repeatedly blowing weighted climbers down made the decision easier than the coin: Back to Piedra Negra [later coined camp daaaaarkness by Mr. Hebert] and ascension of our second technical eastern chute. Not a gimme peak in the range, Guillomet has a trio of adjacent 5th class mixed and ice lines all leading to the summit ridge, making for a good ‘introductory’ mountain in cold or stormy conditions for freshmen like us.
Thursday noon we were packed, paid in full at the hostel with secured bus seats, shuttled to the trailhead with pockets full of Dale [pronounced Dah-Lay] cookies and sport beans. 2.5 hours into the approach however, and we were getting blown off the trail by the gusts ripping up the Rio Electrico Valley, and as we watched another wall of hate approach, we ducked into the canopy of dwarf trees gracing the glacial moraine. Lucky for us, two wonderful ladies from Buenos Aires on a trek also retreated into the thicket in search of cover from the snow and gusting winds. 90 minutes pasted quickly and wonderfully in their company, as Jeffrey and I walked away smarter about aspects of Argentina and BA, and were graced with the welcome – and rare - company of such well-spoken and fluent young women on a climbers’ trail.
Before we knew it, the Eldorado was set up and we were cozy inside – and thankful to be out of the weather for the night. We could only laugh as even with a well-sculpted rocky windbreak at our site, the wind played with the tent like a puppet master. Thankfully, our poles didn’t snap like the Brazilian group we passed on the way up, their attempts foiled by broken hardware at the hand of the mighty Patagonian winds.
And there we were, one last day to chase a peak, and as we dozed after second dinner, we could only hope the winds and snow would at least weaken for a summit bid. “Wake at 0400, at the pass for sunrise, and hope the for the best.” Sleep was fleeting and sporadic, alarms came, packed, tent disassembled, hiking by 0420 and at paso Guillomet for sunrise at 0630. The wind was double-barreled at the pass – it was raging from both the east and west, blowing up a fury of snow and ice from the night and giving us a free facial exfoliate if we weren’t completely bundled. As dawn – with her fingertips of rose – illuminated the range, the wind continued. As
Jeff re-dawned the down pants and as much insulation as he brought, I paced with unease to stay warm as I downed breakfast and though the clouds dissipated, the wind raged on: “Let’s wait it out, but no later than 0700.” 0700 arrived, so we geared up and aimed at the Guillot – fortunately the two right-most routes on the peak [with the Amy-Vidailet], are all so popular that they are chocked with anchors and tat for fast descents should things turn even more sour than they were already. Jeff and I pushed upward, the sun ducked behind the clouds and though the wind never disappeared, it did reduce its anger, allowing us to summit the route, saying nothing of the upper ridgeline and true summit of the peak.
We were close to our time splits at that point: we had tentatively set a noon turn around time to get us back to the trailhead with enough margin to get a taxi back to town [the thought of 10 miles on a flat dirt road still makes me sick to my stomach], so it was decision time. We proceeded: Not hard to find, we started up the technical rock section to find the cracks filled with snow and ice, but with good protection, steady upward progress was forged, and boom, we stood at the base of the summit snowcap. “Let’s do this.” Five minutes of booting gave us our second cumbre of the trip. Though the summit was windy, it wasn’t dangerous and though bedecked in cloud cover, we were rewarded periodically with visual breaks to the valley below so we took a few minutes to enjoy our Patagonia bookend.
What follows was almost automatic: methodical rappels, snow slogging, scree, talus and boulder dancing, a quick hot lunch and descent to the trailhead. The wind picked up again, giving rise to at least two mini twisters on the glacier, more airborne particulates and a tenuous descent down the moraine. We both expressed our good fortune for our timing: neither of us had any interest in being any higher for any longer than we were. After three weeks of similar conditions we were numbed to the rest of day’s experience, so the rest of the walk out passed quickly, and to finish off the wooded path to the road, vitamin G was too smooth not to turn down. In a rather Alchemist-esque twist, our hitchhiking was rewarded within 100m of the trailhead, and in a blink, we were back in town staging our gear – and ourselves – for the long travel days home.
In a rush, Jeff and I grabbed a shower, dinner, packed and downed some last Argentine Cabernet before sleeping a bit and starting our long journey homeward the next morning. After three weeks of incessantly checking the weather, shouldering heavy packs, approaching, climbing, belaying, sleeping and eating Jamon y Queso, it was time to change – an ambivalent return to jobs and life in the US. As I sit in terminals and watch the clouds below my flights, I’m reminded of another word I will forever link with Patagonia: Real.
I’m not an experienced world climber so I lack the authority to make claims like this, but that won’t stop me from calling it as I see it. By real, I’ll use the analogy of turning up the volume, because climbing in Patagonia is similar to climbing in, say, North America, but with a higher amplitude.
Weather is tougher – stronger in many ways, less predictable and faster. Sure we’ve all been on a ridge when the wind makes us crawl, or seen a storm front move in swiftly and unpredictably, but it seems in Patagonia the wind blows more, faster, and storms move in quicker and with more power leaving a mess that often takes days of good conditions to clean up. This leaves smaller margins to push the grade and forces a time efficiency with every action towards the subscribed objective.
The approaches are real: We weren’t aiming for any approach speed records, but then, we weren’t trying as we absorbed our surroundings and got a feel for the lay of the land. The millage to get to Niponino isn’t trivial, however, as you’re crossing a glacier, doing a Tyrolean traverse and doing it all with big packs and a lot of gear [unless it’s really summer or you’ve got a gear cache]. We didn’t even attempt the Ragni, where you get to Nipo then have to get over the Torre Group just to start your route. In many cases, you’ll have to get over cravasses and bergshrunds that would easily swallow a bus – or a small airplane – and this before even starting the technical parts of the routes you chose.
Commitment is real: Just to get down to Patagonia requires an effort. No doubt with a little persistence one could trim some of the fat off the layovers and connection flights, but either way, you’re making it almost to the 50th parallel in the southern hemisphere so unless you’re already at a major hub airport, there’s a lot of travel involved. Throw in the importance of your baggage [we’re not talking button-downs and slacks here], and even if one of your duffels is lost in one of the many transitions, your logistics can get rugged…quickly. For safety, forget life flight if you break your ankle taking a backcountry whipper, there isn’t even a formal SAR for the area, only a clinic in town and the unspoken law of self-reliance.
Take for instance what happened to one American climber in the lower reaches of Fitz Roy’s Supercanaleta during one weather window: he took a rock directly to his patella [a circumstance out of his control], a break leaving him stranded in a location it takes a healthy climber 6+ hours to reach when moving swiftly. This happened around the same time as the Red Bull Cerro Torre movie release in town. 30 climbers assembled, mostly in town after staying up all night at the ‘after party’ and were moving by 0800, got to the victim by foot in the afternoon, extracted to the trailhead and town by midnight, then proceeded to get back to partying until 0300. Though the climbing community can and does band together in critical situations, there is a much thinner safety net in those parts and that’s something every climber and visitor must realize before venturing out of town – and out of their comfort zone.
Objective hazards – There are seracs, crevases, young moraines, young granite and volatile weather, among other things before you even reach the technical routes you’re aiming for. It’s a great challenge to incorporate everything you know to safely navigate mountains, and you exercise that diversity in Patagonia. Many things remain out of your control, however, and force you to realistically evaluate risk, mitigate it as needed and – where you can – incorporate a little margin should the unexpected happen.
The routes are real: Just thinking of the Exocet makes me smile – and think twice – because of what’s involved. On top of the approaches and the objective hazards: you have a lot of steep ice to climb after a mixed/rock pitch and plenty of vertical gain and heaps of exposure…and that’s just one route, on one peak. The lines in Patagonia are stunning – both because they are so aesthetic, but also because of the size, gumption and luck it takes to succeed. It becomes a delicate balance of what you ‘need,’ and what you ‘want’ to bring as you maximize your chance at achieving your stated objective while staying safe enough in the uncertainty your surroundings bring.
The poignancy of these elements begin to wear off when you return to your own bed, the comforts of the first world, and the relative safety of North America’s more developed – and easier accessed – wilderness. But all it takes is picking up Rolo’s guide book to refresh the thought of the mental and physical preparation needed to tackle the routes down south and the thought process changes a bit – ‘how can I better prepare for the bigger routes,’ and ‘how can I make existing routes in my home ranges bigger, more committing…and more fun?’
With my current lifestyle, it’s tough to subscribe to a Patagonian return itinerary; with many other destinations in the world needing a visit and limited funds and free time, balancing a return to Chalten to weigh the weather and conditions to finish a few routes becomes a lesson in opportunity cost calculation. The place is stunning, we left two massifs full of world class unfinished business and now we’re more educated on how better to succeed there. Will travel elsewhere leave me with the mindset that even one summit there is worth the sacrifice? Perhaps. Will I be back? Certainly. When? That is to be determined.