It’s that time of year again when all eyes in the alpine world are turned towards Patagonia and the tiny village of El Chalten in Argentina. Home of the Cerro Torre (3128m) and Fitz Roy (3359m) massifs it boasts some of the world’s finest mixed and granite rock routes for a Greater Ranges area (though with the development of El Chalten over the last few years it’s starting to feel more like Chamonix now than a conventional ‘expedition’).
With the last few teams now coming out of the Himalayas, and the European Alps turning very wintery, some incredibly strong teams have descended upon El Chalten this year with big ambitions and new routing ideas. So I caught up with a few protagonists out there to see what was getting done…
As usual Colin Haley is spending a good few months scratching out in one of his favorite mountain towns. Interestingly though this season has been quite different from previous ones as Colin points out: “The most notable change this season in particular, is in the ice conditions. The very hot, dry Austral summer of 2011-2012, combined with a relatively dry winter, has left the peaks in very dry condition. Fitz Roy’s Supercanaleta was already melted-out by early November, and the Ragni Route on Cerro Torre currently involves almost zero rime climbing. The glaciers, and the Torre Glacier in particular, continue to ablate at a rate much faster than I’ve personally seen anywhere else in the world.”
Nevertheless teamed up with Italy’s funniest mountain guide, Andrea Di Donato, they did a quick hit up the now super classic West Face Ragni Route of Cerro Torre in a lightening fast 17 hours from Niponino. Whilst Colin comments that the West Face is turning into a bit of a Colton Macintyre of Patagonia and has now had many ascents, doing it single push from Niponino is still an impressive achievement, with most teams taking 2-3 days for a successful round trip ascent. He is quick to point out though that there were other teams on the route that would have made things a bit easier.
However whilst the dry conditions have improved the lower sections of the route by ridding them of the insecure rime ice it meant that the final mushroom pitch packed its own special punch: “The final, crux pitch of the route did not require any rime digging or tunneling in the current conditions, but because it was a hot day, and because we arrived at the last pitch late in the afternoon, it was melting in the full sun. If it were frozen I could say that it is in much easier condition than normal, but in it’s slushy state I felt it was just as serious as the other times I’ve led the pitch. I was told that the ice screws I placed were pulled out by hand – yikes!
At 7:50pm Andrea and I arrived on the summit, almost 17 hours after leaving Niponino, and after a quick reorganization we started the long, and perhaps foolhardy nighttime descent of the Southeast Ridge. Patagonia is a master’s class in alpine rappelling, and I feel I might have earned my degree by now, as leading endless rappels all night by headlamp is starting to feel pretty standard! We were back on the glacier shortly after first light, and stumbled back into Niponino 29.5 hours after leaving.”
The über-classic Exocet Chimney on Cerro Standhart has been proving tricky this year with its traditional steep ice-choked chimney melting into a waterfall at times. Not exactly ideal as the chimney is shoulder width at times so it’s impossible to get out of the way of the trickling water. At least one party, Kristoffer Szilas and Jess Roskelley, have been caught out in this water trap having to bail out of the route completely drenched and hypothermic as Kristoffer writes:
“After two hours of climbing through what was literally an icy waterfall, we were soaked and became too hypothermic to continue. On the descent I lost one of my ice tools and later fell into a crevasse when a snow bridge collapsed on me. Luckily I landed unhurt on a ledge 4 metres below. During all of that fun I developed a bad case of tendinitis in my left hand due to the cold and strain. Now it is totally swollen and I can’t even move my hand. Guess the trip is over.”
Korra Pesce (check out his latest interview with EpicTV here) is out this year as well and has teamed up with Catalan climber Manu Cordova. A super strong team they have some big plans and started off well with two excellent and fast ascents. On late November they climbed the Andy Parkin route of Vol de Nuit on the East Face of Aguja Mermoz and then a few days later they linked up Punta Heron and Torre Egger in a 23-hour return push from the Niponino Base Camp. Korra was kind enough to get in touch and tell us more:
“I landed at the tiny El Calafate airport on November 19 on the last good day of a long window of good weather. After ten days of mainly bad weather we finally had a chance of climbing something on a windy day between two storms. We chose to try Aguja Mermoz East Face via the Andy Parkin route Vol de Nuit. It’s a nice line with a lot of mixed climbing and almost no ice. Conditions were not ideal but this type of climbing was one we were both very familiar with. We climbed the route adding a couple of variations that allowed us to reach the top of the mountain. Descending the route we had to cut a stuck rope end, but only 17 hours after leaving our bivy we were back in our snowcave at Paso Superior at the base of the route.
We descended by night to El Chalten and rested all of the next day. Another day of good weather saw us ready for action at Niponino. We chose to climb Punta Herron and Torre Egger. We had a very early start and walked to The Standhardt Col where we climbed the first two pitches of Exocet then continued along the big ramp that slashes all of the East face of Aguja Standhardt, climbing a couple more pitches then rappelled directly to the base of the magnificent Spigolo dei Bimbi on Punta Herron.
Here we swapped ice tools for rock shoes and started climbing up this incredible route. The exposure of the climbing and scenery was unreal with the Hielo Continental to the side and behind us the Pampa and the huge lake Viedma on our left. Steep compact rock laden with rime formations and the odd mushroom lay above, and of course several hundred meters of steep mixed terrain below us.
The day was really hot and there was no wind at all. After reaching the top of Punta Herron we rappelled to Col de Lux and finally climbed to the top of Torre Egger via the Huber-Schnarf. It was really a great feeling to be up this difficult mountain. But the way down seemed ridiculously tricky. Patagonia is a test for anyone’s rappelling skills and rapping down Torre Egger is certainly one of the most complicated descents I’ve done.
Descending the route we climbed was simply out of question, we preferred to abseil down the South Face to the col of Conquista then climb up one little pitch and rap down the east side of the col. The rappels went surprisingly well, but all the way down we were quite stressed about the idea of getting stuck on this savage part of the mountains. All around us there was a huge amount of ropes and remnants of past epics end failed expeditions. We eventually reached flat ground and finally our tent at Niponino by around midnight.
It maybe less ‘cutting edge’ news Fred Degoulet and Benjamin Guigonnet showed a remarkable tour de force on the Franco Argentine Route on Fitz Roy (650m 6b+ A2). Both Fred and Ben are incredibly strong technical climbers as well as well versed in the art of Alpine light and fast suffering (doing a single push ascent of the Moon Flower Buttress on Mount Hunter and down its immense West Ridge a few years ago- no mean feat as they were the first ascent of a very snowy season!).
With a pretty poor weather window and getting horribly lost on the way in due to a torrential downpour and a complete white out they eventually bivouaced on a rocky outcrop that was still miles away form the Paso Superior that they were aiming for. The following morning they still weren’t sure what to do until at about 10 am it started to clear which brought with it good and bad news; the good news was that they could finally see something, the bad news was that the mountains were plastered in fresh snow. The Franco Argentine route is a rock route so not exactly ideal!
Nevertheless they powered on to the Paso Superior and ate their last meal- going super light has its down sides and they would now be down to just 8 cereal bars each for the whole ascent and descent. Grabbing a few hours sleep they headed off at 11pm to make use of the refreeze for the approach and leaving even their down jackets behind they started what they hoped would be a fast ascent of the route (not for any speed breaking reasons just simply due to a complete lack of food and a ver short weather window).
At 4am they were at the base of the route proper and it was on. Unfortunately all the fresh snow meant that this traditional rock route was not a dry tooling route- a far more laborious affair. But thankfully they are both as happy with tools in their hands than hands on bare rock and they inched their way up the face.
Feeling exhausted the further they got up from lack of sleep and food they eventually pulled out from the last and crux pitch on to the easy angled terrain to the summit. Their crampons had been so worn down though from the dry tooling on the route that they found it impossible to get them to stick in the easy angled ice and on more than one occasion found themselves feet ripping out and landing on their axes….not ideal when you’re moving together!
As usual though getting off Patagonian summits is another climb all together and after summiting at 4.30pm they finally stumbled in to their bivy at around 11pm exhausted but content.
Many thanks to Colin Haley, Korra Pesce and Kristoffer Szilas for fact checking and the write ups.