Thursday, February 14, 2013

Patagonian Last Hurrah

After climbing on Innominata, we spent the next eleven days hanging out in El Chalten waiting for another spell of good climbing weather. We spent the time trail running, sport climbing around town and bouldering. I also had a chance to put together the blog posts you are reading!

Early last week the forecast was predicting a three day good weather window. J Mills and I put together a last chance plan to climb Fitzroy before the end of our trip. Unfortunately, twenty four hours before starting our climb, the forecast deteriorated to decent weather on parts of two days. The problem was the good weather periods were now only twelve to eighteen hours long and separated by a day of very high wind and precipitation. We didn't think we could climb it in one of the 12 -18 hour good weather periods, especially since neither of us had climbed it before. This lack of familiarity would slow us down and it would be dangerous for us to still be on the mountain when the high winds hit. So we changed our plans and decided to hike our gear up to a high camp called Piedra Negra and stay there for three days. From here we had access to two smaller mountains, 

On February 6th, J and I hiked to Piedra Negra. On the way I tweaked my back lifting my heavy pack, but I was still able to get to the camp. I was concerned about how rock climbing would make me feel so we decided to do an easy climb and settled on the Brenner-Moschioni route on Guillaumet. There were twenty or thirty climbers camped at Piedra Negra that night and in the morning we could see that most of them were headed towards the Brenner route. We quickly changed our plans and switched to the Comesana-Fonrouge route where only one or two pairs of climbers were going. It was a good choice because near the summit both routes converge and it was a big mess with this crowd. On rock it can be difficult for faster teams to pass slower teams because there is usually just one way to go. The slower teams can cause huge backups making it a long day for those stuck behind. Fortunately we avoided most all of that and had a pleasant day on this easy but enjoyable climb.

Me leading first pitch of Comesana-Fonrouge route on Guillaumet

From the summit we had great views of the Pollone group and Marconi Pass that J and I had crossed on our hike out from Cerro Torre.

J on the summit of Guillaumet

My back didn't give me any real problems so we decided to do a more difficult climb next. But, just as was forecast, we we had to sit out the day of bad weather at camp.

We decided to do a route on the north face of Guillaumet called Guillotina. The guidebook showed some 5.11+ pitches on it so it would be a challenge for us.

I took the lead on the first block of four rope lengths and the plan was for J to lead the final four pitches that were more difficult.

Me leading the third pitch

J following

J following

Jay took over the lead and did a good job getting us to where Guillotina intersects the Comsana-Fonrouge route we climbed a couple of days ago.

J leading one of the crux pitches

By this time it was getting late and we still had to walk down to the road and get a ride back to El Chalten. So we skipped the last couple of pitches of guillotina and rappelled down.


Hiking out

After these climbs it was time for J to fly home. My wife, Ann, was flying into El Calafate the next day. Ann and I have two weeks of trekking planned both here in Argentina as well as in Torres del Paine in Chile.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

West Ridge of Innominata (aka Raphael)

J and I got back to El Chalten in the late afternoon on January 20th . The weather was still good so we wanted to get out climbing again, but we needed rest and food. In Patagonia, good weather spells like this are rare so we wanted to recover quickly. We decided to rest for two days, and after this the forecast showed two to three more days of good weather. We still had gear at Niponino and we wanted to go rock climbing this time so we headed back into the Torre Valley to do the West Ridge of Innominata. Innominata is a rock tower in the Fitzroy massif immediately south of Poincenot (which I climbed with Mark Westman in 2009).

L to R: Fitzroy, Poincenot, Innominata, St Exupery
We left El Chalten on January 23rd and walked to Polacos, a campsite one hour beyond Niponino just below the approach to the rock towers south of Fitzroy. The approaches to Innominata, Saint Exupery, and De la S (the three towers south of Poincenot) all use the same rocky ramp system above Polacos. From the top of this ramp system we headed up the first gully between Innominata and Poincenot for a short distance before roping up.

West Ridge climbs the wall on the right then along skyline.
As we started our climb, the sun came up on the Torre group lighting up the granite with a bright orange.

Torre Group at dawn

Starting up our route

I led the first block that had several of the most difficult pitches on he route. It followed a crack system up a wall to the crest of the ridge that was mostly clean, enjoyable, Yosemite-like crack.

J following 2nd pitch

The third pitch climbed up a steep corner capped with a short five inch wide crack. I grovelled my way up this seemingly monolithic piece of rock, and as I grabbed a good hold at the top, a block of rock fractured off that I pushed aside as I came off with it. I suffered a minor scrape under my eye leaving me with a bit of a shiner. But fortunately it didn't seriously harm either of us. I had a good cam in the crack just below where the rock broke off that held my short fall.

I led the next cleaner, but more difficult, looking crack. According to the guide book we had twenty pitches on the ridge before the West Ridge intersected the Anglo-American route which had five more pitches to the top. To try and speed things up I grabbed gear to pull through a couple of difficult sections.

J following 4th pitch

J took over the lead after this with the idea that he would get us past the first tower on the ridge and then I would take over again and lead us around the second tower to the Anglo-American route.

J leading up the ridge

We had heard from some friends who had climbed this route, that after the initial steep pitches there was a lot of easy climbing that would go quickly.

Me climbing along the ridge crest

We did find some easier climbing, but the route finding to get around the first tower was complicated. We thought we could make up some time by climbing simultaneously while roped together. But we found the climbing and route finding just difficult enough that we belayed each pitch.

J leading crack to regain ridge crest

We ended up moving slower that we had hoped. This was our first long rock climb in the range and we could probably learn to move a lot faster with a bit more practice.

J did a great job getting us to the ridge crest between the first and second towers and it was my turn to lead again.

J between 1st and 2nd towers
To pass the second tower I climbed sideways in a series of squeeze chimneys.

Me in squeeze chimney

We got to the intersection with the Anglo-American route at 8PM, which was the route we would rappel down. We still had five more rope lengths to the summit of Innominata and if we kept going we would probably arrive after dark. Both of us didn't want to rappel an unknown route in the dark, so we headed down without climbing to the summit.

We finished the rappels into the gully between Poincenot and Innominata just as it got dark. We down climbed the gully to get to the ramp that would take us back to our camp. Unfortunately we did not register some key landmarks on the way up and we couldn't find the entrance to the ramp. We went up and down the gully several times without finding the way. So we finally decided to take a nap for a couple hours until it got light and we could see our way.

Waiting for dawn

After it got light we found the ramp and quickly descended to our camp at Polacos.

Camp at Polacos

We hiked back to Niponino and picked up everything we left there and made the long walk back to El Chalten.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Climbing the West Face of Cerro Torre - Getting Back

At first light we left our camp below the Col of Hope and descended the small glacier to where we made three rappels over the rock band we climbed two days ago. Another thousand feet of descending on snow and a couple more rappels over rock slabs brought us to the big glacier at the bottom. On the map this place is called Circo de Los Altares. To be surrounded by such magnificent mountains felt like I was inside the greatest of all cathedrals.

Circo de Los Altares
From Circo de Los Altares we followed tracks west out to the main Viedma Glacier from trekkers who had come in from the icecap. We had a long walk ahead of us north along the edge of the icecap for about 10 miles to where our route headed east over Passo Marconi. From the pass it would be another twelve miles down the Rio Electrico to the road head.

J getting onto the icecap
We stayed roped up walking along the icecap because I had fallen into a hidden crevasse up to my waist here here with Bill in 2009. It was beautiful but tedious walking along the edge of the icecap. Distances seem closer than they are when the view is unobstructed view for miles. We would walk for hours and Marconi Pass didn't seem to get any closer.

Trudging on the icecap
After reaching the pass we descended the glacier on the other side. This glacier used to connect easily with the Marconi Glacier at the head of the Rio Electrico valley, but climate change has caused extensive melting of these glaciers and they are now separated by rock slabs threatened with seracs. In 2009 Bill and I had found a descent route down the rocks that was safer. It was late in the day, so J and I set up camp in a sandy bottomed rock nook protected from the wind, and went to reconnoiter our descent for the next morning.

Camp off the glacier below Marconi Pass

Unfortunately I couldn't find the exact place where Bill and I had been able to down climb the rocks onto the Marconi Glacier. The place where we did head down cliffed out several times, forcing us to make several rappels. But we eventually made it down to the glacier which we descended to a small lake where we got off the ice for the last time. We picked up a trail to Laguna Electrico where we had to be careful not to walk out a dead end peninsula like Bill and I did in 2009.

Laguna Electrico

We had only one more obstacle, wading the Rio Pollone where it enters Laguna Electrico. It had taken longer to descend from our camp that morning, and in this hot weather the river would be getting bigger as the day went on. When we arrived there I noticed it had more water than when I waded it four years ago. We didn't want to walk the rest of the way in wet boots so we decided to cross in bare feet. So I had to go slowly and feel my way along the cobbly bottom for secure foot placements. But the water was painfully cold and I had to fight the urge to move too quickly. We had several channels to wade and between them we experienced the painful process of warming our numb feet. The final channel was the deepest and swiftest. J went first and it was up to his thighs. As I made my way across we couldn't hear each other because of the roar of the water so he motioned me to lean into the current to compensate for the water pressure against my body. I grit my teeth and slowly and carefully worked my way safely to shore.

Me wading the Rio Pollone (J Mills photo)

After the river crossing we followed a nice trail to the small settlement of Piedro del Fraile that has camping, cabins, and food for hikers and climbers. The last couple of days J and I had eaten very little and we had been talking about what we would eat once we reached Piedro del Fraile. When we finally reached our haven, the small restaurant was closed for the afternoon. I could see the caretaker inside and I knocked on the door, but he wouldn't respond. Afraid that we would have to walk the last two hours to the road head on empty stomachs, we went around back and were able to communicate in broken Spanish that we had climbed Cerro Torre and had no food. The caretaker seemed to light up when he learned we climbed the mountain and made us two nice, but very expensive ham and cheese sandwiches. That made us feel much better as we walked the final bit of our journey.

J and me at Piedro del Fraile

Friday, February 1, 2013

Climbing the West Face of Cerro Torre - The Ascent

J and I left camp around 1:30 AM on January 18th.. We crossed the bergschrund and moved together up the fifty degree ice slope for 500 feet to the Col of Hope. From the col we turned left and ventured onto Cerro Torre itself for the first time. Each of us alternated leading blocks of several rope lengths. I took the first block with a plan to lead to the top of a formation called the Helmet. We would climb my block in the dark to make sure we would be in the shade on the upper Headwall pitches. We wanted to avoid climbing this section in the sun which causes the vertical rime ice to melt and fall.

The climbing above the Col gradually steepened and we quit climbing together and started to belay individual pitches. In places I found melted out footsteps and old rappel slings in the ice from previous parties. But I still found it difficult to find the route around all the fantastic rime formations by the light of my headlamp. I made a route finding error at the Helmet by traversing left and following some old pitons into the base of a mostly rock corner. Only later did I discover that I missed the normal route that wound its way up through some ice runnels to the top of the Helmet. It was now J's turn to lead as the sky started to light up in the east

J Leading the difficult corner pitch
J did an amazing job of leading this loose icy rock pitch with our minimal rock protection rack. It ended up being the most difficult pitch of the climb, mostly because it was run out with minimal protection in places where it was everything I could do to make the moves and retrieve the cams, nuts and pitons. It was a very good piece of work that got us back onto the established route.

J leading mixed climbing onto the West Face

J led up easy ground to one of the most unique and enjoyable pitches of the climb. The route worked its way over blocky terrain into a wind scooped tunnel of ice that wound up inside the rime. It felt surreal to be surrounded by these sculpted formations – like something out of a psychedelic dream. I emerged from the tunnel into an ice chimney to find J wedged into an icy nook securely anchored to a pair of ice screws.

Me coming out of the ice tunnel  (J Mills photo)
J led the last pitch of his block up the chimney that was capped by a chockstone that was difficult to surmount. The chimney was a tight squeeze for me to follow with the pack, and I didn't have room to rotate my body to pull around the chockstone. With a bit of cursing I grovelled my way up to the belay where it was now my turn to lead the next block. It was my job to get the ropes up the infamous Headwall pitches that were immediately above us..

J leading up the ice chimney
There was nothing magical or different about the steep ice climbing on the Headwall. This is the kind of terrain that I'm accustomed to from the frozen waterfall climbing I do near my winter residence in Canmore Alberta.

Me leading first Headwall pitch (J Mills photo)

J at the belay on the first Headwall pitch
The most important thing was for me to control the fatigue in my forearms by periodically hanging on with one ice axe and lowering the other arm and shaking fresh blood into it. I repeat this with each arm as I climb, always maintaining a reserve of strength so I never let go . I placed ice screws for running belays about every 20 feet in case I did fall..

Me leading the second Headwall pitch (J Mills photo)
The two steep Headwall pitches took us onto lower angle terrain in the upper rime formations. The rime was unconsolidated with no opportunities to place anchors for running belays. To be safe, I had to pick a circuitous route that provided the greatest security. This placed us on a snow and ice platform where we could see the final summit pitch. It consisted of a spectacular vertical half pipe that wound up through a snow and ice tunnel at the top. Fortunately the route had seen several ascents in recent weeks and had been cleared of loose snow. The pitch was also peppered with holes for ice axe pick placements and footholds which also made it easier than normal. J volunteered to lead and he traversed thirty feet from our perch to the base of the half pipe. The first thirty feet were gently overhanging snow that took ice axe placements well, but was too soft for placing ice screws for running belays. The pitch soon turned into ice where J could place ice screws and he could stem on each side with his legs to relieve the strain on his arms.

J leading the summit half pipe
I led an easy pitch up through the rime to the top of Cerro Torre.

Me leading up through the easy rime to the summit (J Mills photo)
It was a windless and cloudless day and we were both very happy to be there. We had the route all to ourselves and enjoyed our 360 degree view.

Steve and J on the summit (J Mills photo)
To the east we had spectacular views of the Fitzroy group. To the south we could see the huge Laguna Viedma. To the west was the vast southern icecap and to the north we could see our walk out over the Marconi Pass and down the Electrico valley back to El Chalten.

Fitzroy group from the summit of Cerro Torre
I was a bit concerned about our descent down the West Face which would be subject to falling ice now that it was in the sun. After several quick rappels from the summit, we got down onto the West Face that was running with water in places and peppering us with small dime and quarter sized pieces of ice. Just as we finished the last rappel exposed to falling ice, one of our ropes got jammed in a crack 50 feet above us. It took an hour to retrieve it, and we got away unscathed except for numerous small bruises from being pelted by the small pieces of ice.

Steve standing on the top of the Helmet on the descent ( J Mills photo )
We had to reset all the existing rappel stations we found because they had melted out of the ice. As the sun started to set we arrived at the Col of Hope.

Rappelling to the Col of Hope
In the heat of the day the final slope back to camp was subject to rockfall. These slopes had now gone into the shade so the danger was now diminished. We rappelled as quickly as we could, but near the bottom, a volley of stones came whizzing by and damaged the sheath on one of our ropes. To get out of there quickly we abandoned an ice screw for a quick anchor and soon were out of harms way and back at camp.

Returning to our camp below the pinnacle

Climbing the West Face of Cerro Torre - Getting There

Cerro Torre is a very technical granite spire located on the Argentina-Chile border on the edge of the southern Patagonian ice cap. This area is characterized by frequent violent storms that produce hurricane force winds. With little to stop them in the southern ocean, these storms blow from the west over this tiny wedge of South America. Temperatures are moderated by the maritime influence. But the storms are full of moisture that build an icy rime in fantastic formations on the westernmost peaks in the range, including Cerro Torre.

East Face of Cerro Torre (J Mills poto)

In the post WWII era many of the worlds great mountains were being climbed for the first time. Fitzroy, Cerro Torre's larger neighbor across the valley to its east, was climbed in 1952 and stretched the technical limits of what was possible at that time. But Cerro Torre repulsed numerous attempts due to its difficulty and horrendous weather. Many accomplished climbers of the 1950's and 60's considered it an impossible mountain. But by the late 1960's and early 1970's, mountain climbing was experiencing a new wave of innovation in equipment and attitudes. Climbers were now attempting mountains by steep difficult new lines, and not just by their easiest routes. The first ascent of Cerro Torre came to represent the goals and aspirations of this new generation of climbers.

I first started climbing in 1968, and I was inspired these young technical climbers. I was greatly influenced by their aspirations and Cerro Torre became one of a handful of iconic mountains that I wanted to climb. But life and other mountaineering projects would get in the way, and it took forty five years for that ambition to be realized.

Chalten Massif - Cerro Torre is the spire on the left

In 2009 I finally made my way to Patagonia for the first time. For years my previous climbing had been focused on mountains in South Asia. The climbing scene had changed dramatically over the years and climbers were now living in the new town of El Chalten rather than shacks in the woods. Internet weather forecasts had made it easier to time your ascents, especially on the big multi-day objectives.

The Town of El Chalten

Cerro Torre was high on my list and I made my first attempt that year with Bill Serantoni. Our plan was to climb the steep ice on the rime coated West Face. To get there, our plan was to hike up the Torre Valley and cross over to the west side of the range by climbing up to the pass between Mts Standhardt and Bifida and rappelling down the other side. This was a committing venture because once we rappelled onto the other side we could not go back the way we came – it was a two day walk out over the ice cap and over the Marconi Pass and down the Rio Electrico valley back to El Chalten.

Bill Serantoni rappelling from the Standhardt Col in 2009

It was our first time in the range and we made the mistake of attempting the route in mid-February which is late summer in the southern hemisphere. By then the glaciers were badly broken up and full of crevasses and the snowy approach up to the route on the other side was melted back to slabby rock that would be time consuming to climb. With only a couple of good weather days in the forecast we decided we didn't have enough time to climb the route and walk out the icecap before getting hit by a severe storm..

After returning from Antarctica to Punta Arenas, I rode on buses for two days to El Chalten to meet up with a friend from Canmore, J Mills. J had arrived in El Chalten two days earlier and he emailed to get there as soon as possible because a long good weather window was forecast. I arrived the evening of January 13th and we left the next morning for Niponino, a camp on the Torre Glacier. I was hoping that my previous knowledge of the approach would help, and that this time we would reach the summit of Cerro Torre.

Crossing the rope bridge (J Mills photo)

There is a good trail up the Torre valley to Laguna Torre. But from there the route to Niponino becomes more difficult. It starts with a Tyrolean traverse on fixed ropes over the Rio Fitzroy.

J overlooking the Torre Glacier

After crossing the river the trail climbs steeply up the hillside with great views of all the peaks in the Torre valley before descending to the Torre Glacier. The approach to the West Face of Cerro Torre from Niponino is a climb itself. There is a moderately difficult glacier climb with delicate ice bridges over deep crevasses that leads to a steep snow and ice gully up to the Standhardt – Bifida pass.

Glacier approach to Standhardt Col

J on the approach to Standhardt Col

Rappelling down the other side of the pass committed us to a long walk out the ice cap regardless of whether we climb Cerro Torre or not. It was a lot of work to get to this climb and back to town and I had already done it once before. This time I hoped we would be rewarded with a successful climb.

Me rappelling the west side of Standhardt Col (J Mills photo)

Once J and I descended the glacier on the icecap side of the Torres, we could see our way over to the slopes that led up to the Col of Hope and the real start of our route on Cerro Torre. But it was now around 10:30 AM and the sun was starting to hit these slopes. We would soon encounter our biggest obstacle on this climb – the heat. We decided that climbing up to the Col of Hope in the sun would be unsafe and debilitating. So we spent an extra day camped in the rocks waiting until the next morning when we could climb to the Col of Hope in the shade. The weather forecast predicted we had enough good weather to wait this extra day. The main issue is we would have to stretch our meager food supply for another day which would make for a hungry walk out. But we wouldn't mind if it meant we could climb the mountain safely.

Route up to the Col of Hope

The approach to the Col of Hope was blocked by 300 feet of granite slabs and a short wall. Earlier in the season the slabs would have been covered with snow and easier and quicker to climb. But four rope lengths later we put this behind us and reached the easy snow slopes leading to a good campsite just below the Col of Hope.

Me following the first rock pitch approaching the Col of Hope (J Mills photo)

Me climbing the slopes to our camp below the Col of Hope (J Mills photo)

Camp just below the Col of Hope (J Mills photo)

Looking up to the Col of Hope and the summit of Cerro Torre