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.