Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Patagonia Part II - Guillaumet (2579m) Comesana-Fonrouge route

December 12th- January 5th, 2011/2012 El Chalten, Argentina

When Brian and I got back from Cerro Solo the day before Christmas, the weather looked like it was going to be good for the next couple of days and especially so Boxing Day.  We both felt like it was time to kick it up a notch and the two alternatives were Agula de la S and Guillaumet.  We settled on the latter as we hadn't explored that end of the Fitzroy group yet and it was a bigger objective with more technical climbing.  The most straight forward route on Guillaumet is the Amy Couloir however due to the recent hot weather we had heard that it was out of shape.  We checked out the alternatives, spoke to the folks at the Ranger Station and the Comesana-Fonrouge route sounded like the one.  

It turned out the our contact Manuel from El Chalten Mountain Guides (ECMG) was planning on climbing the same route with a Canadian client, Mike.  Given he was making a living we didn't want to play any games but Manuel was good with it and even offered to give us a lift to the trail head.  We agreed to meet at 10:30 Christmas morning at ECMG.

So it was Christmas eve in town, I must admit I was having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit with no snow, no family and no Christmas decorations.  Having said that Brian and I made the best of it, he cooked us a great supper in the hostel complete with a great bottle of Argentinean Malbec that infused some spirit.  The sleep in Christmas morning helped as well.  

Sunday morning we met as planned and Manuel gave us a lift the 1/2 hour drive to the trail head.  The hike in follows the left bank of the river around for 2 hours and then climbs rather steeply for 1000 metres of elevation gain.  We left at 11 am with the typically heavy packs however left the tent and took biv sacks to attempt to lighten the load.  

The trail was easy going for the first bit and Guillaumet started to come into view, with it and Mermoz straight up from Brian's helmet in the photo.  After 2 hours we came to Piedra del Fraile, private land where they charge 75 pesos for passing through.  Some climbers attempt to skirt the clearing to avoid paying and there was a lot of talk about it as the cost had gone up considerably this year.  It made for a great lunch stop, however shortly thereafter the real work started as we quickly climbed above the valley.

Along the way up we met 4 Canadians from Nelson taking a break behind a large boulder.  It was a great excuse to take a break and catch up.  Carrying on, we made it up to the large black boulder marking the biv site around 4 pm, selected a spot and got organized.

Fantastic views all around!

We ended up camped next to a Finnish couple, Saku and Anu, and they turned out to be great people.  They had a bit of an epic on the same route earlier in poor weather and were considering options for the next day.

We grabbed supper and made plans.  Manuel was generous with beta, here he is pointing out the route which starts on the rib to the right of the upper snow slope above his hand.  It then follows the rib up and left before gaining the upper ridge and following it to the snow slopes at the top.

Biv sites are often not a great a place for a good nights sleep and it was the case here as well.  New arrivals showed up late and the Finns were up at 1:30 am to attempt the Amy Couloir.  Brian and I got up at 4:30 am, partly to let the rock warm up and partly to give Manuel a decent head start.  We were out of camp at 5:30 am with no need for headlamps.  The approach was pretty straight forward, up the snow and scree bands to the highest point of snow in the photo, with it steepening up a bit at the top.  The snow was perfect for cramponing, solid but not icy, and the views as the sun rose were spectacular.

Once we gained the highest point of the snow, we made two rappels down the edge of the rock ridge to the start of the technical rock climbing.  

Once down to the end of the rock spur, there was a good place to switch over to rock gear.  Mike and Manuel were just ahead of us and we were able to say hi to Mike before he started climbing.  At 7:45 am we had rock shoes on and the rack ready, stashed our big boots, crampons and ice axes in our packs for the upper snow slopes and played the obligatory game of rock, paper, scissors to see who took the first lead (Brian it was!).  We had a pretty good sized rock rack, double cams up to #3 and a full set of nuts and some hexes.  In the end we found the nuts and hexes didn't get used much but the double set of cams was very helpful on the crux pitch.

It took a few pitches to get into the rhythm and start to climb efficiently, however the rock was stellar right from the get go.  The first few pitches were shorter, blocky and fun.  I took a chance and put the second and third pitches together but ran into rope drag and didn't quite make the anchor so opted not to do that again.  This route is climbed fairly frequently and there are anchors along the way, set up for rappelling.  Bolts are very much frowned upon in this part of Patagonia and most anchors were pins with the occasional fixed nut and the obligatory dodgy slings.

The Argentineans use the French grades and most of the pitches were 4 to 5+ with one crux pitch of 6b.  This translates roughly into Yosemite 5.6 to 5.9 with the crux at 5.10c ( For those not terribly familiar with either; 5.6 is pretty much just reaching up and pulling down with a big smile on your face, 5.7 to 5.9 is a little more technical however it is all there if you take a moment to figure it out and 5.10 and up is just bloody hard (please note this will vary by who you ask, what kind of day they are having and how long it's been since they had a snickers bar!)

As luck would have it Brian ended up with the crux pitch, which we both climbed by pulling on a lot of gear - me more than Brian.  On the way up I couldn't help but think that it would be a whole lot more fun without the heavy pack on.  By the topo this was to be the 6th pitch however even after putting two together it worked out to our 7th pitch.  As you can see the rock clean and splitter.

The next pitch was mine and it involved a great airy traverse followed up a diagonal crack up.  We were now getting higher on the face and the views were stunning.  The climbing was just fantastic; great clean rock, good gear and fantastic views. The loud crash of serac fall regularly coming from the other side of the valley did take a little getting used to!

From here it was one more pitch up to the ridge and then several interesting pitches along it.  I expected the grade to get easier however it stayed pretty consistent and very enjoyable.  We climbed 15 roped pitches in all however the last pitch to the snow didn't really require a rope or rock shoes and we down climbed it without either.

We made the bottom of the snow slope at 4:45 pm and were just changing back into our climbing boots when the Finns came down the snow off the summit.  They had trouble with the start of the Amy Couloir so came back and made an alternative start to our route and tucked in between Manuel and ourselves.  No sign of Manuel so we assumed he had made quick work of it and rappelled off the front side before we caught up.

Brian and I left most of our gear on the rocks, grabbed a rope and made our way up the snow slopes.  It wasn't far and the snow was in good shape.

After carrying on up the snow slopes for 100 metres or so, there was one last easy bit of rock to the summit.  A great way to summit a fantastic climb.  As usual in Patagonia the exposure down the other side was breath taking, we even had a view of a team on the summit of the next peak Mermoz!  We summitted at 5:15 pm with almost no wind and it was likely the hottest part of the day.

At 9 1/2 hours up we didn't set any land speed records and given that we didn't waste any time in starting the descent .  We down climbed as far as we could and started rappelling at 6:15.  We used double ropes for all the initial rappels down the ridge.  The first is a little tricky as you don't want to pendulum out onto steeper terrain and need to pass one station to get to a station better situated.  

Three more raps lead to the Amy Couloir, which we intended to rappel as it would be faster as the route is shorter and then we would walk around the mountain on the snow.  However when I threw the ropes down the couloir the Finns yelled back that it was a horror show of falling rock in the couloir and that we shouldn't attempt it.  They had been hit by a couple of rocks, our ropes weren't helping and initially I thought they needed help.  Once we got the communication figured out we waited until they were tucked away before pulling the ropes and rappelled down our original ascent route.  We were initially worried that it would take longer however in the end it didn't cost us much time.  

Four more rappels took us down to the snow.  There was a little bit of route finding at the end because we wanted to swing a hard skiers right near the bottom to hit the snow slopes as far up as possible.  It was a bit of a guess but Brian's instincts proved bang on.  We started down the snow ramp at 9:30 pm, because of the hour the snow had firmed up and we took our time cramponing down.

Descending, we saw the Finns just 1/2 hour ahead of us and followed them down the scree back to the biv site.  We strolled into camp at 11:30 pm and managed to do so without headlamps.  We exchanged high fives with the Finns and Brian made us a huge supper of instant mashed potatoes with cheese and sausage.  Sounds horrible but tasted delicious!

We later found that Manuel had made it back to town at 11:00 pm and was likely jumping into his own bed by then!  Funny enough I got up in the middle of the night and when I tried to stand up, my left thigh muscle went into spasms - ah the joys of an 18 hour day!

We attempted to sleep in the next day, however the winds picked up and we were woken by the buffeting.  After a leisurely breakfast we left camp at 11:00 am, made it back to the road at 2:40 pm and got a ride into town by the first car driving by; a Swiss-German couple on a fly fishing trip.  Followed shortly thereafter by a celebratory supper at the local brew pub and blissful sleep.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Patagonia Part I - Mojon Rojo (2163m) and Cerro Solo (2121m)

December 12th- January 5th, 2011/2012 El Chalten, Argentina

Synopsis:  5 out of 5 stars.  Come on this is Patagonia, with good weather!

I caught an el cheapo flight from Edmonton to Santiago, Chile through Toronto and San Paulo, Brazil on the 12th of December looking forward to 6 weeks in Patagonia.  The 28 hours went by fairly quickly, helped significantly by talking my way into United's first class lounge in San Paulo and sleeping pills on the flight.  Lined up to pay the 132 $US entry fee for Canadian's that Chile charges, roughly double what Argentina does.  A very well organized minibus service dropped me off at the hotel that Brian, my climbing buddy, organized.  A couple of slaps on the back and two large beers before crashing.

We got up at 7:30 am the next morning for the next installment in our own version of trains, planes and automobiles - to catch our flights to Puerto Natales in southern Chile where we could cross over into Argentina.  In retrospect it would have been more convenient to fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina and then down to El Calafate however we were originally thinking of doing some climbing in northern Patagonia on the Chilean side later in the trip.

It was great to fly local; Sky Airlines didn't charge us for extra baggage (we each had roughly 65 kg's of climbing and camping gear) and fed us twice.  The flights (we flew to Punta Arenas and then back to Puerto Natales) were great with spectacular views of the mountains along the way.  There was a volcano erupting partway down near Bariloche, Argentina.  Puerto Natales is a small town in southern Chile on a lake with views of the granite spires of Torres del Painne in the distance.  It felt a bit like northern Canada in the summer.  The sun didn't go down until nearly 11:00 pm, the flora and fauna were darn close, it was about 15 degrees C (hey at least it was above!) and you felt like you were the back of beyond.  Brian organized the travel and lodging for the first part of the trip and did a great job of it.  We stayed at Casa Teresa which was a small two story building covered with purple aluminum siding.  Obviously feeling the effects of the travel and limited sleep we hit the hay while there was still a little sunlight.  Funny enough, we were woken about midnight when it sounded like just about everyone in town was driving around with their horns blaring yelling out the windows.  This went on for a bit, we found out in the morning that Chile had won a soccer game against the US.

The weather was fantastic and given that it's notoriously fickle in Patagonia, we couldn't wait to get climbing.  Brian and I got up early the next morning to grab a bus to El Calafate and cross the border into Argentina. We brought along enough food for lunch however were surprised when the border came up shortly into the ride.  Argentina bans bringing in most foodstuffs from Chile.  Having said that the border crossing took roughly an hour but wasn't terribly stressful.  We arrived in El Calafate just before noon and immediately bought a ticket to El Chalten leaving at 630 pm.  It gave us a little time to check out El Calafate, buy some groceries (as the shopping is better and cheaper than in El Chalten) and hit an internet cafe.  We arrived in El Chalten at 9:30 pm, however the bus stopped on the way to enjoy a great view of the Fitzroy group!

On a side note, we managed to break both the bus rules within the first 15 minutes of being on board!

I sat on the bags outside the bus station while Brian scoped a hostel, naturally the bus station had moved since the map we had was printed so it took a bit to figure things out.  We spent the first night at the Condor, 65 pesos a night for a room for 4 with lockers and a shower (roughly 4.1 pesos/cdn dollar).   We shared the room with a french lady and her daughter who was a little nervous to have two male dirtbag climbers in the room, luckily Brian turned on the charm.

It was Friday December 16th, the weather looked a little mixed but after talking to Manuel and Fransisco at El Chalten Mountain Guides (fantastic guys and great sources of information) it sounded like the next day would be a pretty good climbing day.  We raced over to the ranger station for a climbing permit and back to the condor for a quick repack on the lawn.

I started to organize while Brian bought fuel and a couple of towels for when we got back (hey a shower would be nice!).  We managed to leave town at 4 pm with a plan of staying in the Rio Blanco campground roughly 3 hours away.  Halfway along the hike, after a gain of roughly 350 metres, we came to a great viewpoint of the Fitzroy group.

Spectacular!  From left to right; Mojon Rojo, Auila de la S, St Exupery, Rafael and Pointcenot (you can just see the shoulder of Fitzroy far right).  After 3 hours, we walked through a very crowded Pointcenot campground and carried on for 15 minutes to the nearly deserted Rio Blanco campground (with a sign, climbers only).  A few things you gotta love about camping in Patagonia; all the running water is potable and when asked the rangers strongly suggested zipping all food inside your tent!  Yes there are no bears or other varmints bigger than a mouse.

Supper and fairly quickly to bed, up at 3 am to a clear sky and not much wind.  There was a 3 sided cook shelter which we took advantage of for breakfast and hit the trail at 4.  After roughly an hour we came to Lago Sucia and a fatastic view of the Fitzroy group.

The lake itself was spectacular with sheer cliffs and hanging glaciers at the far side.  There were quite a few large chunks of ice floating at the near end of the lake in the morning, by afternoon they had blown to the far side.

We made our way around the left shore until just before a waterfall and then picked our way up some tiring scree.  About when the sun came up (at 5:45 am) we passed a cave that would make for a great biv site and made it to the glacier at 8 am after gaining roughly 900 metres.

We spent roughly 2 hours crossing the glacier and with the sun and not much wind it got hot.  At one point I had to stop because the sunscreen on my ample forehead was running into my eyes.  The snow got a little sloppy and we were happy to have started the day when we did.

Yes, that's Mojon Rojo to the right of Brian, not quite Fitzroy but a great mountain to get the lay of the land.  Once we transitioned onto the rock, it was mostly scrambling with two spots that we used the rope one of them being the summit pyramid.

We summited at noon with the wind starting to pick up.  Great views of the surrounding peaks with Pointcenot in the background.  The high point of the climb was stepping around this summit pyramid on the west side with just over 1000 metres of exposure, thus the rope!

The descent was pretty uneventful, we retraced our steps and made it back to the campsite just before 5 pm, the total elevation gain was roughly 1600 metres and the top of Mojon Rojo is 2150 metres ASL.  Funny enough, our weather beta was that it was likely to rain about 3:00 in the afternoon and we got the first shower at 3:05 pm - these guys are good!  Having said that Brian hung our food in the cook shelter in the morning and when we returned it was gone.  Fortunately, we met a friendly polish climber that shared some of his supper and we did have plenty of toothpaste for breakfast.

Given our rumbling stomachs we headed into El Chalten fairly quickly the next morning.  We dropped the bags off at our choosen hostel/campground El Refugio, mostly because it was cheap - 35 pesos for a bunk bed (if you used your own sleeping bag) and 25 pesos each to camp.  Yes there was one room with only two beds in it, perfect!

Next step was to find some pizza and on Fransisco's advice we checked out Patagonicus and had a feast.  Third stop was the ATM at the bus station to see if it had money, it didn't which wasn't that unusual.  Fourth stop was a shower and shave, life is good!

The next three days were forced rest days.  At the start it felt good to sleep in, eat and drink but that only lasts so long.  We did a lot of checking out potential routes, both with Manuel and at the Ranger Station.  The latter could be useful depending on who was there and their level of climbing ability, most spoke good english.  Interestingly even though the big peaks were cloaked in clouds and it was windy there wasn't much rain.  We actually went rock climbing in town for an afternoon (lower left side of the photo below) and getting around wasn't bad.  You tried to plan outings to go into the wind to start so you would be blown home.   I even had a chance to check out the local garbage can art.

We arrived in El Chalten without a lot of beta, once in town we used and summit climb for online information.  The locals have put up a lot of topo's at which can be very useful.  We also started to use for weather information using paso superior as a spot search.  It was actually fairly accurate and gave an idea of wind, cloud cover and precipitation.

Fortunately a weather window was opening up and we prepared to depart Thursday December 22nd.  It wasn't looking like a long window and it was supposed to be quite cold.  Given the temperature we thought a snow and ice route was in order and set out for Cerro Nato, quite far back as it is part of the Cerro Torre group.

We left town at 8:00 am, Thursday December 22nd after leaving our extra gear with Juan at El Refugio.  The start of the trail was to Lago Torre and the Agostini campground.  It provided great views of the Cerro Torre group on the right below and Cerro Solo (which we ended up climbing) on the left.

We made it to the campground at 11:00 am, had lunch and carried on over the river via the tyrolian traverse.  Funny enough it is the first one I've ever done and Brian showed much better style than I, most importantly neither of us got wet.

The view from the other side of the tyrolian was absolutely stunning, the lake is Lago Torre, the high spire in the middle Cerro Torre and the glacier calving into the far end of the lake is Glaciar Grande.  Cerro Nato is out of the picture on the left hand side.

We worked our way high up on the shoulder of Cerro Solo on the left side of the picture however were stymied by recent avalanches, however had a beautiful view of Glacier Grande and Cerro Torre.

Eventually we decided to work our way down and see if a passage on the glacier was possible however it quickly became apparent that it just wasn't going to go that way.  Having said that we did get to stomp around on the glacier and explore (albeit with heavy packs!).

In the end we decided to return to the Agostini campground and climb Cerro Solo the next day.  Our first experience of getting spanked in Patagonia, having made a 10 hour day out of what could have been 3, however it was tough to be too upset when exploring such a beautiful environment.  Funny enough during the whole trip we didn't run into any mosquito's although there were several camps (including Agostini) with loads of horseflies however they didn't really bite.

We did have a fair amount of vertical to get up the next day and although it wasn't tremendously technical it was going to be a long day.  So we were up at 3 am, out on the trail (which took me a while to find given the hour) at 3:45.  We had the approach pretty well nailed after the day before went back over the tyrollean and up the moraine.  A bit of elevation gained and then just before the waterfall we cut up through the bush on a small trail after 1 hour of hiking and the sun came out shortly after.  Great views looking down on the Glacier Grande.

As you can see it was pretty much a scree fest for the first bit which eventually gave way to blocky granite which afforded some fun and even a fixed rope in one spot.  At 8 am we popped left around a large rocky feature and found the bottom of the snow slopes, 800 metres above the campground.  It was time to go into glacier mode and don the crampons, harness and rope.

We were lucky with the timing, the day turned out to not be nearly as cold as forecasted and very sunny.  The snow was just softening up when we got on it and I wouldn't have wanted to be an hour later.  We wound our way along the climbers right hand side of the snow slope, finding a line through the crevasses.

Eventually we came to a large cliff band we had to pass on the left along a ramp and Brian took over the lead.  There was some excitement with the remnants of a waterfall falling off as we passed underneath at about the same time my crampons started to ball up.   At one point I attempted to sprint 25 metres on sloppy snow as ice was landing behind me, all with balled up crampons.  Something that would have made good film and yes, it is time to buy new crampons with anti-bot plates!

Once we turned the corner, there was a steep section over the bergshrund (maybe 50 degrees) and then we took a short break on the top of the rock on the left for some food.  As you can see the footing was good, not as sloppy as the flat bit.

Once this section was gained it flattened out a bit and we traversed back right to a small rocky outcrop and reached the summit of 2260 m at 11:30 am after a 1700 metre elevation gain.  Great views over the back of the patagonian ice cap (yes, that's Brian high on life).

And a spectacular view of both the Cerro Torre and Fitzroy groups!

We were quite sheltered from the wind until we were on the very top, so we ducked under and had some lunch.  Descending the snow was pretty quick and we were back on the ledge taking off the glacier gear at 1 pm.  Interestingly, each time we were on the snow we ran into clouds of small flies just 50 m onto the snow, fortunately they didn't go very high.  I also had a horsefly buzz me most of the way down, just to test my focus!  The rest of the descent was pretty uneventful except for me getting us into the trees a little high and having to do a little bushwhacking.  Back at the campsite at 4:30 pm for another 13 hour day.  Mashed potatoes for supper and early to bed.

We left for town on Saturday Dec 24th at bout 9:45 am after a good nights sleep and made it back to town at about 12:30 pm.  Stopped in to see Manuel on the way back to the hostel and found that Monday looked light a good climbing day which meant a quick turnaround as we would do the approach Sunday on Christmas day.