I’m still not sure what to make of it all. A month ago, I found myself in El Chaltén, partnerless, with two full duffle bags of climbing gear, an open mind, and a blank journal. The goal? Well, I didn’t really have one. Remember what I said about an open mind? Ultimately, I was here to climb, but had no real plan and at the moment, no partner.
I arrived in El Chaltén on December 30th after a whirlwind of travel, starting in Wilson, WY to Salt Lake City, Miami, Buenos Aires, El Calafate, and finally to Chaltén. My trip almost ended before it really started when I left my passport on the photocopier at Dave’s house, only realizing the mistake on the opposite side of Teton Pass. Luckily I was able to meet my mom and sister halfway and save myself an hour of driving back to get it. Very luckily as it turned out because after hauling down to Salt Lake through Idaho, parking at Nick’s house, and catching a cab to the airport, I made my flight by less than an hour. Sometimes the universe makes things work out just right. So after the saga of travel including two overnight layovers in Miami and Buenos Aires, I stumbled into Chaltén a physical wreck and promptly slept for a day straight. Luckily the weather in the mountains sucked, so I wasn’t missing much.
And so began the whirlwind month of climbing, trying to climb, retreating from climbs, walking long distances in the mountains, eating far too much dulce de leche, and obsessively checking the weather forecast. I found myself partnered with a rag-tag cast of Montanans and Coloradans, all met down in Patagonia, but almost all only one or two degrees of separation apart back in the States. Funny how even though we’re scattered across the West, the climbing community can feel so small sometimes.
To put it simply, the weather this year sucked. Or perhaps more accurately, the weather this year was back to normal. After multiple years of monster weather windows, dry rock, and warm sunshine, the Patagonian weather gods tightened the belt this year, and we had to batten down the hatches in response. In my month in Chaltén, I had the luck to get into the mountains on five occasions, all but one for a weather window lasting 24 hours or less. Suffice to say, the weather in Patagonia is all it’s cracked up to be. And while I would have been even happier climbing warm sunny rock routes on the Fitz Roy Massif, in hindsight I’m somewhat thankful my first trip down here was so ravaged by storms. With the advent of reasonably accurate weather forecasts, readily available internet in town, and cozy hostels, there’s no reason to go up into the hills at the first sign of rising pressure, only to get hammered by a fast-moving storm halfway up a route. With forecasts down to the 3 hour model, we can pick routes prudent to the window and thus attempt to avoid getting caught by a storm way up high. In this time of dialing alpine climbing down to a science, it’s a good reminder to know that ultimately, no matter how good the forecasts get, or how light our gear is, or how waterproof our shell jackets are, the mountains still decide when to let us come play.
Despite the bad weather, and my rookie learning curve, I feel like I had an incredible run of good luck in the mountains. Maybe I was too stubborn or dumb to care about how short a window was, but between the five “major” windows we had, I was able to get out almost all of them. Climbing down here requires a high tolerance for suffering and I did my best to meet that head on. In summary, my season looked like this:
- 1/4/17: Climbed Supercanaleta on Cerro Chaltén (Fitz Roy) with Spencer in a piddly little 18-hour weather window. We climbed the couloir through the tail end of a storm, then started the rock/mixed pitches just as the weather broke and the sun came out. The route was super rimed up and the upper pitches went super slowly as we climbed all of them with boots and crampons and all but one with two ice tools. All told, we spent 20 hours on route, 17 of those on the upper 15 pitches. After topping out at dawn, we rappelled back to the glacier and our tent just as a storm came in and hammered the mountains.
- 1/12/17: Attempted Claro de Luna on Aguja St. Exupery with Spencer. After a lengthy spell of bad weather, Spencer and I hiked back in just before he had to leave to attempt Claro de Luna, reputed to be one of the best 5.10 alpine rock routes. Period. With another odd overnight weather window, we started climbing at 1830 (6:30pm) with the intention of bivying halfway up and finishing in the morning. Needless to say it was a cold night sharing a single bivy sack with no sleeping bag, but we had a stove and made a couple rounds of hot water to keep morale up. The route is all it’s hyped up to be. Amazing rock, amazing climbing, amazing views. Claro de Luna is a special climb. Unfortunately after sending the last crux pitch, the Wall of Hate came over the Torre Range earlier than anticipated and we had to beat a hasty retreat through a building snowstorm to get back to the tent at Polacos. Although we did not top out on St. Exupery, we were both stoked on the climbing we did.
- 1/17/17: Climbed the Fowler Route on Aguja Guillaumet with Matt and Ryan. Once again, the weather window came at night, so we decided to stick with the theme of short ice and mixed routes and hiked up to Piedra Negra, once again, in a storm. Planning on climbing through the night and then returning to camp, Matt and I didn’t bring bivy gear, just a tent and stove. After much deliberation about the weather at Paso Guillaumet, we decided to go for it and climbed through the night. I had the pleasure of leading the middle ice pitch, 60 m of pure fun up a series of chimneys, smears, and a short mixed rib. Lots of spindrift coming down, but no wind and no snow in the gully itself. We topped out just before dawn and rappelled back down the standard Amy Route descent. After pulling the all-nighter on route we packed up camp and death-marched back to the road and our waiting beers in the river.
- 1/24/17: Attempted the Anglo-Americana on Torre Innominita/Aguja Rafael Juarez. Matt’s flight left at 8am on the 25th, so we had exactly 24 hours to try and pull something off. After wet night at Niponino and a mercifully dry day, we woke up pre-dawn and slogged up the approach gully to Rafael Juarez. The storm two days earlier had left a dense coating of rime on every peak and although the day before was sunny, it wasn’t enough to fully dry the cracks. After solo-ing the initial neve pitches, we climbed three pitches of ice-choked cracks before calling it a day and humping our gear back to town just in time to get a burger, beer, and fries and a half kilo of ice cream each before Domo Blanco closed. And Matt still made his flight.
- 2/1/17: Climbed Aguja Poincenot via the Whillans-Cochrane route. Long story short, both Damian and I called an audible in our last few days before leaving town and roped up for the Whillans route. A spectacular way to end a season in Patagonia, humbled and proud.
So now I find myself back in airport purgatory, trying to sort through what feels like a lifetime of experiences packed into a single month. I return with two slightly lighter duffle bags, a full kilo of dulce de leche, a journal full of ramblings, musings, and narration to sort through, and a much longer list of friends and partners in climbing, cribbage, and cooking steaks over an open fire. Vida amigos. Vida escalando. Vida Patagonia.