Sunday, 4 March 2012

Patagonia Part III - attempt on Rafael Juarez Anglo-American route

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

After getting back to El Chalten from the Guillaumet trip on Tuesday December 27th, we had 4 days of bad weather in the mountains.  As usual the first day back was a great chance to sleep, eat, drink and repeat.  We did attempt to go rock climbing in town the first afternoon back however between howling wind, crappy rock (no it's not all crappy) and widely spaced bolts we quickly decided to get back to what we do best - eating a largely meat based diet.

We were camped at El Refugio and it was clearly getting busier, we had heard that January is when a lot of Argentineans' take vacation and it gets very busy.  Interestingly enough prices were going up as well, that old supply and demand thing.  Thursday was windy but not raining so we decided to stretch our legs out and hike to Mirador Pilegue Tumbado. Given it's not an approach to any climbs it would be a chance to check out some country we wouldn't get to see otherwise.  The path starts out behind the ranger station and we left about 10:30 am and made it up in just under 3 hours.  

We were greeting with excellent views and a lot of wind.  The snowy peak on the left is Cerro Solo, next moving right is the Torre group and of course further right is Fitzroy.  Our next biv site would be in the valley between the latter two.  We managed to do a little map study and even grabbed a nap before heading down.  As mentioned, the camp ground was starting to fill up and there were a fair number of climbers and lots of characters, probably the biggest was Juan - the owner and "manager" of the place.  He spent a lot of time muttering and moving sprinklers around.

The next two days (last of the year) were worse weather wise; windy and rainy.  It was about then that we made hay with our discovery that the least expensive thing to cook in Argentina is beef and the Argentinean Malbec's are very tasty.  We did a lot of inquiry and decided our next route would be the Anglo-American on Rafael.  It gets us into new country, was in the right realm grade wise and had no snow on top so we wouldn't have to climb with our heavy boots and tools in the pack.  The weather looked like it would get better early in the new year so we planned on leaving new years day.

New Years eve in the campground was a great affair with lots of BBQing going on and folks from Argentina, Germany, USA, France, Belgium and Canada.  Great fun and about midnight Wilfred, the guy from Belgium, brought out a bottle of "Vino Generoso" which ended up being cheap port - perfect!

We got up, a little fuzzy headed, the next day and managed to pack and leave town about 10:30 am.  After 3 hours we were back at camp Agostini and the tyrollean traverse. 

As you can start to see, this time didn't go quite as well.  The water was higher and there was more slack in the rope.  The first time I jumped on it I got about 1/4 of the way through and got wet feet and pack.  Backed up, reriged and tried it again with more success.  Wet feet - great way to start a 4 day trip (gave me an excuse for the smelly feet!).

We followed the same path up the moraine that we had used to approach Cerro Solo previously for about an hour, then found a shortcut down to the glacier.  There was one tricky crossing of a creek just above a waterfall, as you can see the water was really high.

From here we followed a rough trail down to the Glaciar Grande.  Along the way we had to cross an area where the path had avalanched.  Not horrible but an area that you wanted to focus.  Guides had stopped running trips to walk on the glacier for non climbers due to the instability of this section.

Once alongside the glacier we had heard from a friend, Glen, that the easiest crossing was to carry along for a kilometer or so until climbing above a small waterfall and gaining the glacier.    While the footing was a little tricky in spots, the seracs along the glacier with waterfalls and pools were spectacular.

Eventually we found the way around the waterfall and batmanned up a fixed rope to gain the easiest access to the glacier itself.  Great fun with the overnight pack!

By the time we gained the glacier it was 4:30 pm and neither of us was feeling particularly energetic.  Getting on the glacier with firm ice beneath our feet and little elevation to gain felt like a reprieve.  Given there was no snow and you could see the crevasses we didn't bother roping up.

There are three bivouac sites in the valley ahead; Nortuagos (the Norweigan camp) which is typically used for climbing Torre and those spires close by, Polacos (the Polish camp) where we were headed, is used for climbing the west side of the Fitzroy group and Niponino which is literally not Polacos not Nortuagos and in the middle.  We had heard that Niponino as on the right had edge of the flat rock (Mocho) to my left in the photo above.  This ended up being one of those days that you keep trucking along but the mountains just don't get any closer.  We finally got to the right area for Niponino at about 7:00 pm however there didn't appear to be anyone else in the valley and we couldn't figure out where the Niponino site was.  Having said that the view of the west side of the Fitzroy group was outstanding.  From left to right is Pointcenot, Rafael, St. Exupery and Agula de la S.  On the far right you can see the back side of Mojon Rojo that we had climbed earlier.

Fortunately, Polacos is pretty easy to see as a large rock marks the spot so after hunting around a bit we carried on. After checking out the bivouac spots higher and closer to the water source we decided to use the rock itself and it made for a great biv site, well sheltered with fantastic views of the Torre side of the valley. 

Home sweet home, after 10 1/2 hours and 1250 metres of elevation gain we were ready to get organized (read throw our crap all over the cave), eat and sleep.

Sunday was to be a bit more of a relaxed day, our goal was to recon the approach to our route on Rafael and leave much of the heavy climbing gear at the base of the rock so we could to make quick travel the next morning.  We took our time getting ready and left the comfort of the rock at 10 am.  The weather was a mixed bag and stayed pretty consistent, the Torre group had their heads in the clouds and the Fitzroy group had blue sky, there wasn't any rain however the winds were pretty strong and gusty.

After a false start we found the right break in the rock band above Polacos, it was the first one to the left of the water source straight above camp, and made our way.  The route finding wasn't straight forward and we were happy to check it out in the daylight with some blocky scrambling mixed with snow and ice.  

The cleft above is the start of the Anglo-American route on Rafael, it is 12 pitches of rock climbing and gains the smaller right hand summit before following the right skyline to the top.  The first 10 pitches are moderate with the last two a little tougher (read 10b and 10a respectively) but with lots of gear to pull on if necessary.  Once we made it to the rock and stashed the gear it was a quick trip back down 800 meters of elevation to the biv site.  I had a brain fart half way up and left my pole in the snow before some blocks, naturally couldn't find it on the way down.  We were back at the biv site at 6:30 pm and had an early night of it.

That night we were happy to have such a sheltered spot, the wind blew hard - patagonian hard.  The gusts sounded like a freight train and deposited fine silt in just about everything; including your ears, nose and sleeping bag.  We planned on getting up at 2 am to allow for some route finding challenges however were both wide awake well before then.  What followed was a classic discussion - "well might as well at least go up and get the gear" all the while thinking of all the foolish things I've talked myself into with similar logic.  We left Polacos at 2:45 am.

Knowing the route we made pretty good time and didn't even need the headlamps for too long.  We made it to the gear stash at 6 am and along the way Brian even found my pole, good times!

There were a few funky moves on some ice bits on the way up to the first belay station.  As luck would have it one of my well used crampons broke on the way up, the plastic front bale snapped.  Fortunately we had the strap from the cookset with us and jury rigged it to a usable form.  Having said that I did find a chalk bag just past the gear cache, booty!

Rock, paper, scissors ensued and I got the first lead which looked a bit heinous from the belay.  I followed an ice runnel up to a dripping wet sheet of rock.  I stood on one foot and then the other taking my crampons off, getting in a solid tool placement and making a funky move only to go around the corner and realize that there is a bunch more ice.  Fortunately it was a short pitch and the next anchor was an obvious place to switch to rock shoes and leave the boots, crampons and tools.

Brian then led out right out of the gulley and onto the rock wall.  At this point we were climbing with all the clothing we had brought and gloves.  Brian had some severe rope drag however it was from the wind.  He traversed about 10 meters before placing gear and starting up, the rope was actually going up from my belay device and back down to the first piece! Needless to say communication wasn't brilliant.

At this point it was a little hard to tell if we were on route or not.  There weren't any anchors however it looked like one usually rappels down the gulley so there wouldn't necessarily be any anchors on the face.  The climbing was pretty straight forward and about right for the grade so we carried on.  Finally on the fourth pitch Brian headed left to gain a ledge that we had heard about, festooned with several rap anchors.  Next pitch was mine and I hunted around for the line and finally decided to head up a wavy feature with mostly fun climbing. 

About half way up I took off my gloves as there were some funky moves although still had an extra coat and balaclava on.  My hope was to find a way left or right before the roof higher up, as luck would have it I didn't find an easier way.  Given I had good protection on both ropes just below the roof, after fiddle farting around a bit I just went for it (perhaps forgetting for a brief moment just where I was).  Just as I was stretching a bit for a hand hold above, I came off.  Not one of those graceful "lob off in a wonderful ark and gently touch down on the rocks" kind of falls but rather a "slide down the rock attempting to do anything to slow the progression" kind.

The fall wasn't long, maybe 5 meters at the most, but on the way down I managed to catch my right foot on a rock rib with quite an impact.  I yelled down to Brian, let him know that my ankle was likely broken and apologized for the predicament I had just put us in.  The ankle was a bit sore and the foot at a funny angle, I put my hand under the sock looking for blood and was quite relieved that there wasn't any.  It was 11:15 am so at least we had a lot of daylight left.

In the back of my head I was thinking - "let the games begin" we had a long way to go. Brian lowered me to his stance and I took out the extra gear, as luck would have it I was past the halfway point in the ropes so we used a small anchor to break it up.  The first rappel was good and steep so Brian and I rappelled together.  After that we were faced with some lower angle rappels down the gully and decided that it would be easier to rap separately.  Brian was using his head and pulled the padding out of his backpack and duct taped it to my right knee so I could rappel with one foot and one knee which actually worked quite well.  All we had for the pain was ibuprofen and I had a couple, it was pretty tolerable except for the couple of times I smacked my foot on the rock.

We were pretty lucky with the ropes as there were a lot of horns that it could get stuck on however on the third rappel our luck ran out and a rope got stuck.  Brian played with it a bit until it was within 15 meters of the end then we pulled out my knife and cut it.  That put us down where we left the boots and ice gear.  Fortunately my foot hadn't swollen too much and I could get my climbing boots back on.  We then did one more short rappel to the last station, I put on my styling rain pants and Brian tied the ropes together and lowered me down the ice and much of the snow. Fortunately the snow had warmed up there was good footing so I was able to down climb much of that section on one foot once we ran out of rope.  As luck would have it, the one crampon I needed was the one I broke earlier in the day.  At one point my footing was feeling a little tenuous and I looked down to find my crampon and come off and was sticking two inches out the back of my boot.  Fortunately, I was able to move over to a rock and fix the issue.

Once down from the upper snow slope it was time to make our way through the blocky stuff. It was going painfully slowly and I checked my watch to see that I was descending at 25 metres per hour.  Given we had 600 meters to go and it was 4 pm, I was running through options in my head.  Apparently Brian was doing the same math and brought up Plan B, sit and clear a biv spot and he would run for the gear.  Neither of us liked the idea much so I suggested we give it one more hour, after which Brian came up with his second great idea of the day; to tape our mountaineering axes to each side of my ankle helping to stabilize things.  Between this and two poles I was able to develop a technique of using the heel of my right foot, along with the good foot and two poles.  Where ever possible I would bum slide on snow and rocks. 

We also moved into the snow where ever possible and Brian would set up and anchor and lower me down the snow, when I hit rock or ran out of rope I would untie and make my way at the usual glacial pace while Brian would move ahead and set up the next station.  It worked very well and helped speed up the descent significantly.  At one point we found a fixed rope that we had seen the day before and we rappelled down it.  Unfortunately, we essentially rappelled down a small stream and it was hard not to get soaking wet.  In addition, with the wind howling around us there was a lot of water flying around near the snow however we knew that the biv site was well below the freezing mark so weren't terribly worried.

We hit the last of the snow in the gully at about 7 pm and at the point only had about 250 meters of descending to go.  Unfortunately, that was the last of the easy terrain and from there on in it was a matter of just putting our head down.  I managed to get to the biv site at 9:15 pm, 10 hours after the "incident" and a long long time since we started with totally shredded rain pants.  I don't think I've ever been happier to see my sleeping bag!

Brian did a fantastic job of setting up my sleeping bag with the feet high, making us supper and feeding me ibuprofen on a regular basis.  We only cooked half of what we had just in case and I actually had a pretty good nights sleep.  

We were up at 6 am the next morning given it was going to be a big day no matter how we approached it.  The ankle was a little sore, but my sense was that we could get out under our own steam.  After a quick breakfast, we packed all of the heavy climbing gear in my pack and left it with a note in the back of the cave.  Brian took the bulky and heavy stuff and I took a few things in his day pack.  After re taping the mountaineer axes to the ankle we were off at 7:30 am.  With no snow to slide down it was slow going.  Brian went ahead to scout the easiest trail and I followed behind.

We hadn't seen a soul since crossing the Tyrollean on the way in and I assumed we would be on our own until then on the way back.  However when we were descending the edge of the moraine Brian yelled back that he saw someone and was going to run ahead to catch up. Frankly, I doubted that it was going to make any difference and just trudged along with my head down.  I was surprised when a Brazilian named Marcio jumped up beside me and offered to carry my pack.  It was 10:00 am and he lead us back to a biv site they had found (Brazilico?!) and met his climbing partner Guy.  Two brilliant guys who had just carried a couple of big loads in the day before.  Best news of all was they had a radio!

Marcio and Guy had a contact at a trekking agency in El Chalten that was feeding them weather reports every morning.  They managed to get word through that we could use some help and agreed to call back in half an hour.  They were good enough to feed Brian a little coffee and taped up my ankle to help support it.  Reception was a little hit and miss however when Brian called back we were left with the impression that there was a rescue group on their way.  After discussing it a bit we decided to carry on as far as we could under our own steam.  The guys from Brazil were good enough to join us so we could have access to the radio along the way, so much for their rest day.

It was a bit of a long, slow haul however it was good to have some company and the Brazilians had sussed out the easiest route .  Like the previous day the wind was strong a gusty, from time to time I had to stop and lean on the poles until it subsided enough to carry on.  Here we are on the Glaciar Adela on our way to the Glaciar Grande.  As you can see a lot of the glacier is covered with rocks and we stuck to the sticky bits and didn't use our crampons (the Brazilians were in running shoes).

After a couple of hours we approached the Glaciar Grande and given it was a true Glaciar crossing elected to stop just before in the shelter of some large boulders.  The Brazilians didn't have glacier gear with them and Dr. Carolina, the doctor in El Chalten and the person organizing the rescue suggested that we stay with the radio.  It was 2 pm and we thought we might have a couple of hours to wait so hunkered down out of the wind.  Brian and I had some sausage, cheese and crackers to share all around.  We heard over the radio that a team of 8 were on their way.  I really didn't get it and was wondering what all 8 were going to do, 1 under each armpit and 6 budwieser girls?

Well, we just got comfortable and had something to eat and from our vantage could see a couple of guys running across the glacier.  The first two, Diego and Leo, were the leaders and spoke some English.  They took a quick look at the ankle, gave me a something for the pain and suggested they help me walk to the edge of the glacier.  By the time we started moving the others had arrived and ran around to the edge of the glacier.  Some discussion ensued as they put together the stretcher and at the edge of the glacier and "packaged" me in. 

At the outset one of the arms for the stretcher was missing however they soon figured out that my mountaineering axe fit perfectly and Brian had the well used padding from his back pack that fit over and all was good.  Funny, I kind of fought the idea of being rescued at the start and let Diego know several times that I could make it under my own steam.  He was very patient and reminded me of all the damage I would do if the ankle was broken.  I couldn't help but think of all of the effort that it would take to get me back to civilization this way however after about an hour I gave into it and just enjoyed the ride.  Of the initial 8, two were wearing parks jackets however all were volunteers.  At least they weren't missing a good climbing day.

We started in the stretcher about 3 pm and the first step was to cross the glacier.  One guy on each end, two on each side and two went ahead to scope the best route.  Although the footing was a bit tricky this was one of the easiest sections.  The guys were fantastic and I felt badly about my lack of spanish.  They would stop for a break every now and then to catch their breath and all I could give was a "mucho gracias" or two.

When we made it off the glacier the terrain got more difficult however a couple of other volunteers caught up.  We stopped at the place where Brian and I batmaned up the rope and they had set up another rope so I could rappel down and then got back in the stretcher and continued.  With the bumping around the straps would loosen up and a couple of times I thought I might fall out but after a while I figured out how to tighten the straps when necessary from the inside.

I was wondering how we were going to handle the section of washed out moraine.  There was no way they were going to be able to take the stretcher across so I assumed I would just have to get out and make my own way.  I was totally shocked  when we arrived and another team and come behind and had set up fixed line all along.  I literally got out of the stretcher, clipped into a line and hoped along with two poles while one person pulled me and another pushed.  It went very slick.  Back in the stretcher making our way to the Tyrolean, Brian and I counted over 30 people.  I heard later that our local contact, Manuel, figured out it was me and let them know that I was a big boy (by Argentinean standards) and they better get lots of help. In addition to the locals they had solicited climbers hanging out at the main campground in town.  Needless to say I was absolutely blown away, a fantastic group of people and I was already wondering how to give it back.

Climbing up from the glacier was a ton of work, good thing there were lots of hands.  Then into the trees and down a steep path.  When it got very steep people had run ahead and built an anchor around one of the trees.  A rope was then fed down and attached to the stretcher so they could better control the descent.  Up to the Tyrolean, we would take a quick rest stop every 45 minutes to an hour.  Everyone offered me food and drink and were unbelievably friendly, especially given the work I was causing.  We made it to the Tyrolean and across at about 10 pm and took a short break.  It was about then I realized how totally screwed Brian and I would have been if we had to do it all on our own and how lucky I was. I also caught a glimpse of Brian and believe he looked more shattered than I've ever seen another human being.  I thought to myself I may have trouble talking him into another adventure for awhile.

A whole new crew took me along the hiking path, sometimes with a wheel under the stretcher and sometimes carrying it.  Funny enough when they were wheeling me it was actually harder as I had to work a bit to stay on the stretcher, hard to complain though.  It was definitely faster going than up high and near the end the army showed up.  Very organized, divided into four teams and rotated amongst themselves in a very orderly manner.  They basically marched the last hour and a half without putting me down.  

I was watching our progress however we took a different path into town at the end and was actually surprised when we arrived at 2 am.  I was wondering how this trip was going to end, Brian and I had joked about being rolled into the gutter.  I was put down right behind an ambulance and unzipped.  Being a little at a loss for words I started applauding and everyone there joined in, a bit of a feel good moment and another round of "mucho gracias" - I got to learn more spanish!  This was the first time I've been rescued from anything and words can't convey the appreciation that I still feel for such a group, they saved my bacon and were unbelievably good about it.

When I went to get up, I was motioned to stay in the stretcher, they pushed it into the ambulance and Manuel jumped in with Dr Carolina.  I was never so happy to see a Doctor! The photo above was taken in the back of the ambulance, being self employed it's good to know what I'd look like as a street person!  Dr. Carolina was spectacular and took me straight in for Xrays, when I came out all of our gear was laid out neatly on the floor by the rescue team - unbelievable!

A long story short Cesar, the ambulance driver, took Brian and I back to El Refugio at 3 am in the ambulance and picked us up the next morning at 9:30 am for a 2 1/2 hour drive to El Calafate to see the specialist.  There I was told my ankle was definitely broken, admitted for two days and put on an IV antibiotic for a nasty infection caused by all the activity.  Brian headed back to El Chalten for all of our gear and I started flying home on January 11th, arrived in Edmonton on the 13th and had surgery on the 16th.  All is well and I certainly have a special place for the mountains and people of El Chalten!