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 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 http://www.pataclimb.com/ and summit climb for online information. The locals have put up a lot of topo's at http://www.climbinginpatagonia.freeservers.com/ which can be very useful. We also started to use http://www.windguru.cz/ 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.
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.