02 GORRA BLANCA
03 LOMA BLANCA
04 TORRE VOLONQUI
05 GORETTA PILLAR SOLO
06 CORAZÓN ATTEMPT
As I have done sometimes in the past, I am beginning to write this blog post while sitting on a bus from El Chaltén to El Calafate. After more than three months in El Chaltén, my season terminated with a couple of very busy days tying up loose ends and getting organized to depart. Only now that I’m on the bus do I have the spare time to relax a bit and reflect upon my Patagonia climbing season.
Along with Seattle, Chamonix, and Squamish, El Chaltén is one of the defining locations of my life. Although I haven’t kept track exactly, my rough calculations leave me pretty confident that, in total, I have spent more than four years of my life in this small town (and I really mean in Chaltén, never going farther east than the ranger station for months straight). Out of the past 4 summer seasons (18-19, 19-20, 20-21, 21-22), I only spent one of them in El Chaltén. This was a pretty significant departure from the rhythm I had maintained for years, making at least one summer trip per year to Chaltén (the last season I had missed previously was 2004-2005). The rapid changes happening in Chaltén (in the town, in the climate, in the mountain conditions, and in the climbing scene) had left me feeling nostalgic for “the old Patagonia,” and I also felt that after dedicating so much time and energy to one small mountain range, I ought to explore other places more. During the past several years I did explore some mountain ranges that were new to me, and while I appreciated seeing new places, it also served to remind me that Chaltén is pretty hard to beat, in several aspects. After a successful winter trip to Chaltén this past September, I felt inspired once again for the Patagonian summer, left a bunch of gear in town, and returned in the springtime, just 5 weeks later.
I arrived in Chaltén on Nov. 7. Unluckily for me, I arrived immediately after an excellent weather window, one that turned out to be the best weather window of the whole “season” (the “season” is not clearly defined, but the typical Patagonia climbing season is generally Nov-Feb). I was checking the weather forecasts already in the weeks before arriving, and was completely aware of the fact that I was just barely missing an awesome weather window, but I didn’t let it stress me out. Years ago it would have, but by now I have spent so much time in Patagonia that I have had my fair share of “maximizing” weather windows, and my fair share of missing them, or failing to climb anything in them. Getting stressed and freaking out does not help anything if there is anyways no chance of changing the circumstances.
Missing the weather window in the first week of November was a bit more of a bummer than it might have been otherwise, because the following two months proved to have exceptionally bad weather, even by Patagonia standards. I tried to squeeze the most out of them, and got in some little climbs. While these climbs were of course great experiences, they were relatively minor ascents in my Patagonian catalog. Part of my motivation to get out and climb in the marginal weather windows was to get in good mountain fitness, and also to get psychologically “sharp” and ready for when a proper weather window might finally arrive. Personally, I always feel much more prepared for a hard alpine climb, physically and mentally, if I have been doing a bunch of alpine climbing recently.
01 – AGUJA GUILLAUMET – “TEE PITELKA”
My first climb of the season was on Nov. 27, when I teamed up with Pedro Odell for an ascent of Aguja Guillaumet. Pedro, just 19 years old, is part of the first generation of climbers born and raised in El Chaltén, among others such as his younger brother, Tomas Odell, and the brothers Pol and Joan Domenech. Pedro is making his town quite proud, having already climbed a bunch of cool stuff in the massif, often with his father, Max Odell, or younger brother, Tomas. Of course people’s motivations can always change, but considering his talent and current motivation, I imagine that Pedro will likely become one of the dominant climbers in this mountain range in the coming years.
On Nov. 26 we hiked up to the Piedra Negra camp, and had a nice evening catching up with friends there, such as Jorge Ackermann, Tomy Aguilo, and Roberto “Indio” Treu. The next morning we got an early start, as the weather window was forecast to crumble in the evening, and approached the west face of Aguja Guillaumet. I had never climbed the west face of Guillaumet before, but I had attempted it once, in January 2008, with Carsten Von Birckhahn. At that time there was only one existing route on the face, and I joined Carsten, a quite new friend at the time, for an attempt on another line he had spied. Even though we made it about 75% of the way up the face, I now can’t even remember for sure which line we attempted (although I could probably figure it out by studying some old photos). 2008 was the first season that I got to know Carsten, and his wife and children, who often accompanied him in El Chaltén during the Austral summer. Over the years we remained friends, and even though we climbed with different partners, we enjoyed spending time together in Chaltén, and occasionally in Europe or North America. In 2017 Carsten tragically died in a paragliding accident. So, while there are now a whole bunch of routes on the west face of Guillaumet, it felt fitting with Pedro to go to “Tee Pitelka,” one of 3 routes that Carsten established on the west face of Guillaumet in 2009 and 2010, along with Patagonian-climbing legend, Michal Pitelka. “Tee Pitelka,” by the way, refers to a favorite drink of Michal’s: hot tea with whisky added!
Pedro and I divided the route into two blocks, with Pedro leading the first half, and me leading the second. Pedro’s block had what I think is probably the crux pitch, with a section of flared offwidth climbing that apparently hadn’t been free-climbed previously. My block also had a quite challenging pitch, but challenging in large part because the conditions were quite cold and snowy. While following this pitch Pedro pulled on some gear, but I think only because his fingers were freezing cold after a long belay. Technically it is only I who made the “first free ascent” of the route, but, as usual, I find these distinctions pretty stupid. Pedro is, in actuality, a stronger rock climber than I am, and it was simply unlucky for him to follow this pitch with freezing cold fingers. While I am generally not particularly inspired by “first free ascents” in the mountains, I find these claims a bit harder yet to swallow when only one member of the team is credited with a free ascent, since, in most cases, that climber’s free ascent was completely dependent on the support of their climbing partner, usually climbing with more weight.
Pedro and I reached the summit at 14:20, and had a fairly uneventful descent rappelling back down the route. While the cold, snowy conditions made things more difficult on the ascent, I appreciated them on the descent, because the upper chimney system would be prone to rockfall issues in drier conditions. We descended back to Piedra Negra, packed up camp, and hiked out that evening.
02 – GORRA BLANCA
My next mountain climbing adventure was on December 6 and 7, when I headed to Gorra Blanca, joined again by Pedro, but this time also by his younger brother, Tomas. Unlike the most well-known mountains in the Chaltén area, Gorra Blanca is not a slender granite spire, but a classic mountaineering mountain, with some chossy rock, but mostly covered in glacier, rime ice, and snow. Despite being relatively non-technical, it is one of the highest summits in the Chaltén area, and a mountain I had thought about climbing for years, but never got around to doing. Pedro, Tomas, and I headed to Gorra Blanca in a “non window,” when the weather was clearly not good enough for technical climbing in the mountains, but we thought would be just barely good enough for a classic mountaineering objective.
On the 6th we hiked from the Rio Electrico bridge to Paso Marconi, and slept in the Chilean hut there. The next day we got an early start, hiked up the gradually steepening glacier, and then continued up a ridge of rime. One of the perks of climbing Gorra Blanca are the excellent views from the summit, so we were lucky to have the clouds part shortly before reaching the top. We descended back down the way we had come up, and hiked out to the Rio Electrico bridge. It had definitely been a short, marginal break in the bad weather, and the last couple hours of the hike out were in a strong rain. Zero technical climbing was involved, but it was nonetheless fairly tiring as a 2-day outing, due to the long distance and elevation gain. A friend asked if it was hard to spend a couple days in the mountains with teenagers (17 and 19 years old), but the answer very clearly was ‘no.’ In addition to already having a wealth of alpine climbing experience, Pedro and Tomas are both very mature and responsible for their age, and made excellent companions.
03 – LOMA BLANCA
In mid December my friend Tad McCrea arrived in Chaltén, and we had some time set aside to climb together. At Christmas there was a 2-day window of good weather that we unfortunately squandered, due to making overly-ambitious, overly-complicated plans. On Dec. 29 there was another 1-day pseudo-window, with clear skies but very high winds. The winds were far too strong for technical climbing, but we figured we would be able to scramble up Loma Blanca. Similarly to Gorra Blanca, Loma Blanca is a non-technical summit that I had thought about climbing for years, but had never gotten around to climbing.
We ascended and descended via the “Canaleta Odell,” on the north side of the mountain. Although it is the only route I have climbed on the mountain, I am convinced that it is the most efficient route, assuming that one is starting from the road (as opposed to being already camped on the Glaciar Marconi Sur). It was basically just a giant hike with some scrambling on rock and snow, but nonetheless felt exciting at times simply due to the explosive wind gusts that threatened to blow us off of our feet.
04 – TORRE VOLONQUI
On January 8, Tad and I hiked back into the mountains with very abnormally high temperatures, to a camp on the side of the Glaciar Marconi Sur. The following day we scrambled up a rock buttress and a broken glacier to a bivy below the east face of Torre Volonqui. This was intended to be a “half rest day,” but was nonetheless tiring due to quite heavy packs – In addition to bivy gear and a few days of food and fuel, we were equipped for both real rock climbing and ice climbing.
On January 10 we packed up our bivy, and began scrambling up to a col just to the north of Torre Volonqui. At the col we realized that the complicated terrain we ascended from the east side could have been avoided by a short, easy snow slope rising from the west (from the South Patagonia Ice Cap). If not for the fact that it had been quite windy the previous two days, approaching via Paso Marconi would’ve probably been easier. From the col we made a rising traverse up a snow slope, climbed a short gully of 60-degree ice, and scrambled up a bit of 3rd-class rock to the base of the real summit spire of Torre Volonqui. Here we put on the rope, and climbed a single 30m pitch to the summit. This pitch followed a straightforward crack, but completely numb fingers and toes in the morning shade and breeze made it feel difficult.
After rappelling down the summit spire of Torre Volonqui, we started traversing towards Aguja Volonqui, beginning an intended traverse across several summits. After a couple hours we were on top of some unnamed high-point, looking into a deep chasm on the ridge. Not only did the chasm look very complicated to get across, but our next objective, Aguja Volonqui, looked extremely unappealing. A mountain that traditionally remained draped in snow and ice year-round, Aguja Volonqui had turned into an extreme choss-pile during the past several years of rapidly warming climate, and during this very warm weather window it was only getting worse. It was not very difficult to decide to abandon our intended traverse, but we had done quite a bit of free-soloing up to this point, on terrain that was not very appealing to rappel down. So, we back-tracked a short ways northward on the ridge, and then embarked on a mystery descent to the east, making something like 10 rappels back down to the glacier. We arrived on the glacier just a couple hundred meters away from the bivy spot we had left that morning. So, not only had we turned a relatively minor summit into a much bigger, more complicated objective than necessary, but we had done it all with massively heavier packs than necessary! Ah, bugger!
We briefly considered traversing a section of glacier and then continuing our planned traverse farther along. However, conditions on the glacier were abysmal, with knee-deep slush due to the heat wave, and the various options for regaining the ridge looked unappealing, with water and slush running down the melted-out rock. Instead we swam down the slushy glacier back to a camp in the valley bottom. We had definitely not maximized the weather window, and once again it was due to making overly-ambitious, overly-complicated plans, with too heavy of backpacks. At least Tad is incredibly good at hiking and climbing with a heavy backpack, and took more than his share for the whole ordeal, which of course made things much more enjoyable for me than they could have been. The next day, Jan. 11, we hiked out to the Rio Electrico bridge, and hitched a ride back to town.
05 – GORETTA PILLAR SOLO
Renato Casarotto was, in my opinion, one of the most impressive alpinists of all time. While I am inspired by many climbers past and present, Casarotto has always been one of the most inspiring climbers to me. As someone who has focused a significant portion of my climbing career on pursuing difficult solo objectives, I think I have a deeper appreciation than most for how much greater the difficulty is of a solo ascent, and thus I am especially impressed by Casarotto, who was probably the most accomplished solo alpinist of all time. I am also very impressed by his breadth of talent as a climber. It is always much easier to reach a high level in one discipline of climbing if one focuses on that discipline exclusively, and always much more difficult to reach a high level in several different disciplines of climbing. The fact that Casarotto was at the cutting edge on low-altitude, highly-technical climbs, and also at the cutting edge in the extreme altitude game, is very impressive. Among Casarotto’s many incredible ascents, the first ascent of the north pillar of Cerro Chaltén is undoubtably a highlight.
The Goretta Pillar is, in my opinion, the most iconic and aesthetic feature on a mountain that is iconic and aesthetic from any angle. It was attempted in 1978 by an Italian expedition that included Renato Casarotto. Casarotto returned the following year with two climbing partners, but after they abandoned the project he continued on his own, slowly fixing ropes to the top of the pillar, and eventually soloing to the summit of the mountain. He named the pillar after his wife, Goretta, herself a strong climber, who accompanied him on most of his expeditions. Despite the extensive use of fixed ropes, this was an incredible accomplishment for the era. In fact, even if the ascent had been carried out with fixed ropes by a large team, I am confident it would have been a celebrated ascent at the time. In an era when there were very few climbers in Patagonia, when there was no town of El Chaltén, when there were no weather forecasts, or satellite communications, or LED headlamps, or Grigris, or even camming devices… Casarotto was busy thrutching up ice-encrusted wide cracks by himself, a thousand meters above the glacier, pounding wooden wedges into the cracks, buffeted by the cold wind, and probably belaying himself just with prussiks… The image in my mind is very inspirational!
For many years I have dreamed of repeating Casarotto’s solo ascent on Cerro Chaltén. Of course in the modern era it can’t compare to what Casarotto accomplished and experienced, but by climbing in alpine-style (without fixed ropes) I knew it could nonetheless be a major challenge. When I arrived in Chaltén in early November, the only specific objective I had in mind for the season was to try to solo Cerro Chaltén via the Goretta Pillar. Last summer in Chamonix I had spent a number of days practicing my rope-soloing techniques, with the Goretta Pillar, among other dreams, on my mind. On Dec. 19 I carried a big cache of gear up to Paso Guillaumet that included the rope and all the rack that I thought I would need for the ascent. However, consistently poor weather kept the objective out of the question for weeks and weeks. A couple days after returning to town from Torre Volonqui, it looked like a big weather window was finally poised to arrive in Chaltén. A few days of the window looked less than ideal, with significant wind, but it was nonetheless a forecast for several consecutive days without any bad weather, which allows one to consider bigger, longer climbing objectives that are not realistic goals in short weather windows. It seemed pretty clear that if there were any moment of the season to try my main goal, it was this one.
I hiked into the mountains on Jan. 15, before nearly any other climbers had departed town. This was for a few reasons. One, I wanted to start the route early and give myself a generous time buffer, as I expected my climbing progress to be quite slow. Second, I knew that my pack would be extremely heavy on the approach, and didn’t want to be tired when starting the route, so I planned to take a relaxed pace on the approach. Last, I had to take a major detour on the approach to retrieve my cache from Paso Guillaumet. When I had left the cache at Paso Guillaumet nearly a month earlier, I anticipated attempting the original Casarotto route, which reaches the base of the pillar itself via a snow and ice gully on the east side, accessed from the Glaciar Piedras Blancas. However, in the ensuing weeks of hot weather, the east-facing gully had become completely melted out – something that never happened twenty years ago, but is becoming increasingly normal during the Chaltén summer season. So, I changed my plans to instead attempt the route “Mate, Porro, y Todo lo Demás,” which is accessed from the west, from the Glaciar Fitz Roy Norte.
“Mate, Porro, y Todo lo Demás” was climbed to the top of the pillar in Jan. 2008 by Rolando Garibotti and Bean Bowers, and saw its first complete ascent to the summit of Cerro Chaltén in Feb. 2011 by Matjaz Dusic and Lovro Vrsnik. Compared to the original Casarotto route, it is more sustained in difficulty, but access to the base of the route does not become melted out and dangerous during the summer season. I had already climbed the route once before, in January 2013, with my girlfriend at the time, Sarah Hart. On that ascent I led all of the pitches and hauled a heavy backpack on most of them, which made it a big challenge. Nonetheless, I knew that climbing it solo would be a much bigger challenge yet. Having climbed the route previously was definitely an advantage, but my memory of climbs from ten years ago is hazy, so the knowledge was of limited help.
On Jan. 15 I hiked from the Rio Electrico bridge up to Paso Guillaumet to retrieve my cache, brought it back down to Piedra Negra, and slept at Piedra Negra. On the 16th I hiked from Piedra Negra over Paso del Cuadrado, down to the Glaciar Fitz Roy Norte, and then finally up some long snow couloirs to a bivy about 300m below the base of the route. That may sound like a relatively chill day, but it didn’t feel that way due to a very heavy backpack, that I estimate was easily 30kg. On the 17th I cramponed up the remaining 300m of snow and ice slopes to the base of the route, spent a little while reorganizing, and started up the climb at 8:52.
The majority of the solo climbing that I have done in my life has been on ascents carried out without bivouacs, and climbed mostly free-solo. By contrast, on this ascent I anticipated to rope-solo essentially the entire route, and therefore to make multiple bivouacs. There is probably no single pitch on the entire climb that I wouldn’t be comfortable free-soloing if it were at a crag and I had the opportunity to rehearse it many times. However, free-soloing the same pitch 1000m up an alpine climb, with ice in the cracks, water running down the rock, strong wind gusts, oversized rock shoes, and a massive backpack is not even remotely the same thing, and rope-soloing was obviously necessary. The problem with rope-soloing is that every single pitch must be climbed, rappelled, and ascended a second time. Not only is the technique extremely time-consuming, but it is also extremely tiring. Because rope-soloing is so slow, a given section of terrain takes roughly twice as much time as it would with an equal partner, which in turn means more bivouacs, more food, more fuel, etc. Lastly, the logistics of the whole endeavor necessitated a very large amount of total equipment, and moving all of that mass up the route by myself was brutally tiring. I had 100 total meters of rope, a full double set of cams (with triples on a few sizes), 1.5 sets of nuts, a whole bunch of quickdraws, slings, and carabiners, a Grigri, a Nanotraxion, two ascenders with foot loops, several locking carabiners, rock shoes, chalk bag, harness, helmet, ice climbing boots, steel crampons, 1 ice axe, 2.5 pairs of gloves, 1 ice screw, 1 abalakov threader, a tent, a thermarest, a sleeping bag, a stove, fuel, 3.5 days of food, and a bunch of clothing. Because I had such a heavy backpack, it was necessary to re-ascend each pitch by jumaring, rather than by climbing. This, in turn, complicates things even more, because for every single pitch climbed I had to put my rock shoes on one time, take my rock shoes off one time, put my boots on one time, and take my boots off one time. So many footwear changes at so many hanging belays gave many opportunities to accidentally drop a boot, which would nearly always be a huge ordeal on an alpine climb.
For all the reasons described above, my progress was slow and tiring, even if no individual pitch was notably difficult. I was never in a frantic rush, but tried to be consistently efficient, never taking breaks more than a few minutes, and keeping my momentum. About halfway up the Goretta Pillar are some decent ledges. I arrived there late enough and tired enough that I definitely would have stopped to bivouac if it were a possibility. To my dismay, there was zero snow or ice left on these ledges. After a big, tiring day of climbing, I knew that a bivouac with no water would almost certainly dictate a retreat the following morning. So, despite dwindling daylight, dwindling energy, and little water left, I had to instead keep climbing, for many more pitches and many more hours. It had been fairly windy all day, and I had already been climbing in most of my clothing. As it turned to night the water turned to verglas, and I kept moving by headlamp. It wasn’t until around 4am that I finally reached a large terrace about two-thirds of the way up the Goretta Pillar. To my dismay, in the dark I couldn’t find any snow or ice here either. I rappelled back down the last pitch I had climbed, switched into boots, and began jumaring back up to the terrace. Half-way back up this last pitch I stopped for half an hour in a chimney to hack away at the ice, and put the ice chunks into a stuffsack. It wasn’t until around 5am that I regained the bivouac terrace with my big backpack and stuffsack full of ice chunks. By the time I had made a bivouac platform, set up the tent, blown up my thermarest, melted a bunch of ice, eaten and drank, my headlamp had long been unnecessary again. It had been a huge day, with 650m of technical climbing, 650m of rappelling, 650m of jumaring with a heavy pack, and an additional 300m of cramponing up ice slopes. I lay down to sleep with the rough expectation that the next day I would bail, rappelling down the Kearney-Knight variation of the original Casarotto route. It had simply cost me so much time and so much energy to arrive two-thirds of the way up the pillar, I doubted that it would make sense to continue.
Due to the fact that it was daytime and bright, and also because of wind gusts buffeting the tent, I only managed to sleep a couple hours on the morning of the 18th. When I woke up I felt physically wrecked. The normal thing to do would have been to pack up my bivouac and get on my way, either up or down. It was clear to me that I wouldn’t be going up, as I was simply way too tired. However, I decided to postpone going done either, as the weather forecast indicated that there was no imminent threat of bad weather. I spent the day mostly laying in my tent, and managed to take a couple cat naps. Never before in my life have I taken a rest day during the middle of a technical alpine climb. It felt especially odd to do so in Patagonia, where good weather is so rare that one is usually in a rush for the entire duration of a good weather window. Around 7pm I got a visit from two American climbers, Thomas Bukowski and Jonathan Guy, who were also climbing “Mate, Porro, y Todo lo Demás.” They had started up the route early that morning, and were shooting to bivouac on top of the pillar that evening. Around the same time I thankfully was able to find a trickle of water just big enough to refill all my water bottles, which was great for saving fuel and saving the time and hassle of melting ice chunks. By the time that I went to bed on the 18th I was no longer dead-set on descending. I figured that I would try to get a good night of sleep, and perhaps try to continue in the morning, depending on how recovered I felt. Just as I was about to fall asleep, another pair of climbers arrived on the terrace to bivouac for the night: American Tyler Karow and Briton Jacob Cook, who were making an ascent of the “Care Bear Traverse” (a traverse of Guillaumet, Mermoz, and Cerro Chaltén).
I got up around 6am on the 19th, feeling far from fresh, but recovered enough to justify continuing. Around 8am I began climbing again. The rope-soloing was of course still extremely slow and tiring, but at least I had my systems very well dialed by this point. By making very long pitches, each one at least 65m, I was able to climb from the bivouac terrace to the top of the Goretta Pillar in only 5 pitches, arriving there around 3pm. I made a couple of traversing rappels down towards the notch between the Goretta Pillar and upper north-facing headwall of Cerro Chaltén. There I was surprised to discover that it is necessary to do a pitch of horizontal ridge traversing. Even though I had climbed Cerro Chaltén via the Goretta Pillar before, I had completely forgotten about this section, in part because it had been 10 years, but also because it is a trivial bit of terrain when you are climbing with a partner. However, in boots and with a huge backpack, it looked clearly too scary to free-solo, and rope-soloing a horizontal ridge traverse is arguably even more arduous than rope-soloing vertical terrain. I decided to have a peek below the ridge crest on the east side, and fortunately was able to find a traversing route just barely easy enough that I was comfortable free-soloing it in my boots, wearing my big backpack. I think it was roughly 4pm when I reached the base of the upper headwall.
There is a big difference between climbing the Goretta Pillar and climbing Cerro Chaltén via the Goretta Pillar. This is in part because the Goretta Pillar is a pure rock climb, so if stopping at the top of the pillar one can leave behind boots, crampons, and ice axes, and the climbing is of course much easier with a lighter pack. It is also because the upper headwall has harder, more sustained climbing than nearly any of the routes on the pillar itself. These headwall pitches have been freed at 7a (perhaps only once), but almost every party does some aid climbing because the pitches are nearly always either icy or wet. Climbing the upper headwall in icy conditions is generally the better option, but requires either a chilly weather window, or a bivouac on top of the pillar. As I was starting up the headwall at 4pm on a very warm day, the pitches were not just wet, but extremely wet, in places a waterfall. I climbed these pitches as fast as I could, to minimize how wet I got, but nonetheless my clothes got pretty drenched. I also opted to jumar in my rock shoes, to save time, and so as not to take my boots out of my pack in such a soaking wet environment, and therefore minimize how wet they got. Once through the steepest pitches I was out of the line of most of the water, and fortunately my clothes dried out easily over the course of climbing the next couple pitches. It was a little past 11pm when I finally finished the fifth-class terrain and put on my crampons. With my heavy pack there was one more section that gave me pause, but was easy enough, by a small margin, that I felt comfortable climbing it without a rope. Afterwards it was only easy slopes of hard snow to the summit, where I arrived at 12:18am on Jan. 20.
Normally, if arriving on the summit of Cerro Chaltén around midnight, I would immediately start descending the French route (the standard descent route). However, the thought of rappelling in the dark, with an abnormal rope setup, while already really tired, sounded not inviting. Instead I set up my bivy tent in a small nook immediately below the summit boulder and ate a chunk of cheese for dinner, saving my last two energy bars for the next day. That night the air was calm, but it was lightly snowing. This was no surprise because I had been getting periodic weather forecast updates by Inreach, but it nonetheless felt odd – typically in Patagonia if the weather is anything less than good, there is wind. Despite the calm air and my fatigue I slept poorly, I think in part because I was anxious about the descent that still awaited me. The last section of the descent, from La Brecha de los Italianos down to the glacier, is a gully that in recent years gets melted out in warm summer periods, and once it is melted out is a dangerous place for rockfall.
All night I had assumed that I was the only climber left on Cerro Chaltén, as the weather window seemed to be already deteriorating. In the morning I was surprised to see a Chilean-Brazilian team arrive on the summit, and to hear from them that other parties were bivied nearby to the west. I didn’t want to be near any other parties while descending from La Brecha, so upon learning of all these other climbers near the summit I packed up my bivy and started descending immediately, I think roughly around 9am. Rappelling down the French route was easier and shorter than I had remembered, even with my abnormal rope setup, and I regretted not just descending the night before. At 12:30 I reached La Silla and ate my last energy bar. As I scrambled from La Silla down towards La Brecha, I pondered my next major decision: to descend immediately to the glacier, or wait half a day for colder temperatures and therefore safer conditions for rappelling the gully. I had to make a decision quickly, because other parties were descending the French route above me, and if I chose the former option, of descending immediately, I wanted to be far ahead of other parties. On one hand, waiting until the next morning seemed like the more prudent choice. On the other hand, the wind was forecast to get very strong the next morning, and I was already out of food, so waiting would present other risks. Rushed to make a decision, I decided to descend immediately.
Rappelling down from La Brecha to the glacier was a stressful experience, as I knew it was a dangerous portion of terrain, and I knew that I was descending it at a poor time of day. The conditions were indeed horrendous, with many loose blocks where traditionally there was snow and ice, and a stream of sandy water flowing in the gut of the gully. My rope got soaked in sandy water and became extremely abrasive, destroying my locking carabiner and belay device during the following rappels. My strategy to minimize the risk was simply to spend as little time as possible in this dangerous area, and in that regard I think that I succeeded, taking less than one hour to descend from the col to the glacier. Descending as quickly as possible came at a price, however: I abandoned a cam to rappel off of, and lower down an ice screw to rappel off of. On the penultimate rappel my rope became very stuck. It was terrain where I probably could’ve climbed up to get the rope unstuck under other circumstances, but because getting out of the dangerous area as quickly as possible was my priority, I instead cut the rope, and used the remaining portion to just barely get over the bergschrund on the final rappel.
I was on the glacier just past 2pm, with one final obstacle: descending to Paso Superior without falling in a crevasse. I have done a lot of solo glacier travel in my life, but I never take it lightly, and I am always very conscious of the terrain and the snow conditions. In this case the snow conditions were horrendous, and not confidence inspiring for solo glacier travel – knee deep slush. I again considered making a bivouac and continuing my descent the following morning, and again I decided against it, mostly due to the fact that I was out of food. The main factor that convinced me to continue descending were the tracks of three Spanish climbers who had descended the glacier a few hours earlier. While it was far from any sort of guarantee, walking exactly in their footsteps at least offered a higher degree of safety than without recent tracks. Without the recent tracks I think I would have opted to make one more bivouac and descend the next morning.
The descent to Paso Superior went smoothly, and by 4:30pm I was lounging on rock slabs beside the upper pond of Laguna de los Tres. I spread out all of my gear to dry in the sun, and lay down on the warm, glacially-polished rock. Here I finally relaxed and had the peace of mind to appreciate the ascent. After an hour or so I packed up, and began the hike towards town. I was of course hungry and tired, although the only aspect of the hike that really bothered me was walking for many hours in wet ice climbing boots. I stopped a couple times to lay down and free my feet from their prisons, and gaze back at Cerro Chaltén, but arrived finally in town for a late dinner.
This ascent was a pretty novel experience for me. Compared to previous hard solos that I have done, it was less psychologically intense because I was self belaying. However, the total physical effort felt massive, and the duration was a major element – correspondingly it felt like it required a lot of drive and perseverance to succeed. The phrase that accurately describes my ascent is “the first alpine-style solo of Cerro Chaltén by the Goretta Pillar.” Generally speaking, if a “first” ascent of some sort requires that many words to describe what makes it a “first,” then it is usually not a very notable achievement (ie. “the first person from Milwaukee named Milfred to climb the Seven Summits!”). However, personally I am very proud of this ascent, and felt it to be a natural, appealing objective. I know I’m not the only one who felt this way, because David Lama, at least, told me it was his goal one season in El Chaltén.
This was my 14th ascent of Cerro Chaltén, my 4th solo ascent of the mountain, and my 2nd consecutive ascent arriving on the summit by myself, at night. To me it feels like a very comparable achievement to my winter solo of the Supercanaleta last September. These days, however, the mountains of Chaltén are frequented predominantly by rock climbers who dabble in alpine climbing (as opposed to experienced alpinists), so my guess is that my Goretta Pillar solo is likely to be repeated sooner than my winter solo of the Supercanaleta, which required a deeper level of alpine climbing experience. Unless conditions on the headwall were perfect, I doubt that even someone with the skills of Alex Honnold will free-solo Cerro Chaltén via the Goretta Pillar anytime soon (free-soloing just to the top of the pillar would already be a very achievable goal for him), but I could imagine someone such as him making a one-day solo ascent that is predominantly free-solo, with some sections of self-belaying.
One last thing to mention: While my climb was much smaller in scale, it was a similar style of climbing as Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll’s solo “Moonwalk Traverse” a couple years ago. While I already was fully aware of what an incredible accomplishment that was, my experience soloing “Mate, Porro, y Todo lo Demás” made it even more impressive to me. That is a climb that has my full respect!
06 – EL CORAZÓN ATTEMPT
After my solo ascent on the Goretta Pillar I felt very satisfied with my Patagonia season, and considered calling it good and heading back to Chamonix. I still felt psyched to try some more stuff though, and one of the climbers that I met on the Goretta Pillar, Tyler Karow, found himself without a partner. He was clearly very motivated, and clearly had the skills to get up stuff on the Fitz peaks, with a good track record during his first two seasons of Patagonian climbing. We decided to team up for the last couple weeks of his time in El Chaltén, and during the bad weather discussed potential objectives and climbing tactics. I appreciated that, like myself, Tyler was keen to talk beforehand about various details of climbing styles and safety standards, rather than just figuring it out on the fly when roping up together for the first time.
Near the end of January, another weather window appeared in the forecasts. Over several days the weather forecast changed constantly, looking at some moments like several days of very good weather, and at other moments like hardly a weather window at all. When the forecast changes so frequently, it is never a good sign for stability and reliability of the predicted weather. Due to the fluctuating forecast, we postponed choosing an objective until the last minute, finally settling on the east buttress of Cerro Chaltén (it is usually referred to as the “east face,” but I think “east buttress” is a more accurate description). The east buttress of Cerro Chaltén has 5 established routes: Un Mar de Sueños, Via Ragni/Ferrari, Royal Flush, El Corazón, and Línea di Eleganza, all but Mar de Sueños established in “expedition style” with extensive fixed ropes. Even though they all look excellent, we decided that El Corazón seemed like the most appealing line, and in hindsight I think it was a good choice. It would be my second occasion of the season attempting a route established by the Czech-Swiss legend, Michal Pitelka.
Our decision to attempt the east buttress of Cerro Chaltén was largely based on a weather forecast that indicated the window would be fairly windy, with wind from the typical northwest direction. While Cerro Chaltén is the highest peak in the range, climbing on an east face would probably be much less windy than on a west face. For me personally it was an appealing objective because it is one of the most major and prominent features in the range, but one that I had never climbed on. Finally, I knew that it would be an excellent objective to attempt with Tyler. While he has limited alpine climbing experience, Tyler is a very experienced Yosemite climber, with both free ascents of El Cap routes under his belt as well as speed ascents of El Cap aid routes. There are probably no climbs in the Chaltén area more similar to El Cap than those on the east buttress of Cerro Chaltén, so I bet (correctly) that Tyler would be right at home and climbing fast.
We planned to hike in on Jan. 30, but we woke up that morning and got a view of the mountains for the first time in a few days. The mountains had a lot of fresh snow on them, conditions were clearly far from ideal for a rock climbing objective, and we briefly considered changing plans or postponing our approach day. We decided to stick with the plan, however, rationalizing that from our planned bivouac on the Glaciar Piedras Blancas we could always downsize to some other nearby objectives, and we also had enough food to postpone our climbing day if necessary for conditions to improve.
We took a relaxed pace on the approach, and in the early evening set up our tent on the Glaciar Piedras Blancas, immediately below the east buttress. Unfortunately, conditions on the east face were very snowy. It was clear that while one could make upward progress in such conditions, we would have no chance in such conditions of climbing the east buttress in one day, which was our intention. After a bit of discussion, we decided that we would chill out the following day, and hope for one big climbing day on Feb. 1, with hopefully greatly improved conditions.
On Jan. 31 we hung out in the tent, watching the snow slowly melt off of the route. While conditions certainly did improve a lot, they didn’t improve as much as we hoped for, because the first several hours of the day were somewhat hazy. We also got an updated weather forecast by Inreach, and debated our options. Two choices quickly became most prominent: one was to stick with our original plan of El Corazón, and the other was to attempt Aguja Poincenot by the Potter-Davis. The Potter-Davis was clearly the more prudent choice – a much smaller route, with much drier conditions, although with nasty conditions on the approach section. Corazón was clearly the more exciting choice, and with a nonexistent approach, but it was also clearly a dubious choice, given the iffy weather window and poor conditions. The last forecast that we saw when making a decision indicated that high winds and precipitation would show up around 6am on Feb. 2.
We spent quite a bit of time debating whether to go for Corazón or the Davis-Potter. Tyler was pretty steadfast in his enthusiasm to attempt Corazón. While I also found the idea very exciting, I was much more hesitant to head up such a big route given the combination of slow conditions and marginal weather window. The experience reminded me of discussions that I had years ago with my late friend Bjørn-Eivind Årtun, in which it felt like I was the only one even considering the risks involved. Like Bjørn-Eivind, Tyler had a lot of skill and motivation, but limited alpine climbing experience, and hadn’t yet lived enough scary experiences to know to be scared. In the end I gave in to Tyler’s enthusiasm, and we decided that we would try Corazón. We rationalized that if we reached the summit by 3am that we would be OK, and planned a turn-around time at the route’s “heart” feature. We planned to divide the route into three blocks, with me leading the beginning and end, and Tyler leading the middle section. With a plan finally decided, we set the alarm for 3am and caught a wee bit of sleep.
Right around 4am on Feb. 1 we started climbing. The first three pitches climbed some very chossy terrain that I think was just a snow slope in relatively recent history, and at 6am we started the first pitch shown on the topo. There was certainly a lot of snow and ice on the ledges and in the cracks. This made the climbing noticeably slower than it would have been in dry conditions, and I felt a bit pessimistic about our plan. There were various points from which we could easily bail, however, so there was no reason to not keep going and just move as quickly as we easily could given the conditions. I think we reached the first snow ledge around 10:45, and swapped leads.
Tyler’s lead block was the steepest, most sustained portion of the route, with pitch after pitch of perfect, splitter cracks. Like on my lead block, conditions were far from ideal, and he had to deal with a lot of ice in the cracks. Nonetheless, he was in his element, and made excellent time considering the icy conditions. One could argue that he was trying a little bit too hard to move fast considering that he took a couple of lead falls. Fortunately, both were inconsequential. One of the most prominent features on El Corazón is the heart-shaped rock scar after which the route is named, and it also presents a crux of the route as one needs to traverse leftwards from one crack system to another. The first ascent team did some bat-hooking and made a pendulum, which sounded tricky and time-consuming. In 2011 Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll and Nico Favresse free-climbed a direct traverse, but it is a bold, scary pitch, especially for the follower, and requires both climbers to free-climb. Tyler and I were climbing in classic Yosemite style, with the follower jumaring, so that option would’ve required a bunch of reorganization, plus a full-length haul rope, which we didn’t have. Tyler came up with a clever solution: He climbed partway up to the pendulum of the first ascent party, built an anchor to abandon, lowered back down cleaning all of his gear, and then traversed across Sean and Nico’s traverse, mostly by pendulum, but also with a bit of free-climbing at the end, eventually reaching a bolted anchor of the Royal Flush route. I followed on pendulum, using our 32m tag line to pull myself over to Tyler’s new anchor.
After the heart, Tyler led another four pitches to finish a proud lead block around 8:45pm. It was late, and we were both certainly tired, but we were still on track to reach the summit before 3am, as planned. I took the lead again, on some terrain more moderate, but also with more snow and ice. I was rushing, partly because the daylight was nearly finished, but also because dark clouds had been building all around, the wind had been slowly increasing, and I felt increasingly anxious that we needed to get to the summit as fast as possible. The French route is definitely the easiest way to descend, especially with the ropes we had chosen to bring, but we had to get to the summit before we could start down it. Around sunset we passed the final bivouac of the first ascent team. A couple pitches higher it began to lightly snow. Shit. I stopped at the top of what is marked as pitch 30 in the topo, and waited for Tyler to join me.
When Tyler arrived at my belay, we began to discuss the situation. If the weather were good, going up and over the summit would’ve been by far the easiest option. We had only 4 moderate rock pitches left to climb, then a relatively easy descent down the French route. However, the weather was getting worse quickly, and I began to think that we might have to instead retreat immediately down the east buttress. After a couple minutes of debating, the decision was made for us, as it suddenly started to snow much more heavily, and the wind gusts became much stronger. It was immediately obvious that we needed to descend as quickly as possible, and that we had climbed ourselves into a very serious situation. We had 1000 meters of steep rappelling below us, down the Royal Flush route, and we were in nearly a blizzard. I think it was roughly 11pm, so the bad weather had arrived about 7 hours earlier than the last forecast we had seen. I felt furious at myself for having gotten into this situation. Bad weather arriving 7 hours earlier than forecast should never be a surprise, and we had made plans with way too small of a weather buffer. Tyler has the excuse of alpine naïveté, but I should have known better.
The first several rappels were the most intense, as the blowing snow made it difficult to see, especially in the dark, and the wind gusts were strong enough to blow our ropes wildly around in the air. We made decisions as conservatively as possible to minimize the chance of a rope getting stuck, as it would have been extremely difficult to deal with a stuck rope in our situation. Once we descended below the heart feature we began to be thankfully more sheltered from the wind gusts, which was a huge relief. Nonetheless, I still felt that we needed to descend as quickly as possible, in part because the weather could always get worse, and in part because we were barely warm enough. Spindrift poured periodically down the wall, but it wasn’t a concern compared to the wind. We had a 70m lead line, and a 32m section of 6mm Pur’line. This rope setup allows one to make 50m rappels, but with added hassle. Making 35m rappels, on the other hand, is very quick and easy, with reduced risk of a rope getting stuck, so this is what we did for the entire upper portion of Royal Flush. Many of the pitches on Royal Flush are longer than 35m, but the first ascensionists placed multiple protection bolts on every pitch. So, we had an easy, fast way to make intermediate rappels, but from single bolts. I hate trusting my life to a single bolt, and try to never, ever do so. With more time on our hands we could have built anchors next to the individual bolts, and had a proper backup anchor, at least while both hanging there, and while the first person was rappelling. However, we were in a rush to descend as quickly as possible, so most of the times that we rappelled off of a single bolt I simply gave it some very hefty bounces while still on rappel, before going off rappel and committing to it. This was a shortcut on safety that I hated making, but it seemed like overall the right decision, because getting hypothermic was an alternate risk. The descent took us roughly 9.5 hours, arriving on the glacier around 8:30am on Feb. 2. Back in our tent on the glacier, we ate, drank, napped, and lazed around for a few hours, before finally starting the uneventful slog down to town sometime in the afternoon.
The terrain on El Corazón was really spectacular, and I think we climbed well, particularly given the poor conditions. The descent was an intense, scary experience, but we worked well together and made, I think, the best possible decisions to get down with the highest overall safety margin, given the scenario. In hindsight it was clearly the wrong decision to attempt such a big route with such poor conditions in such a marginal weather window. It wasn’t a crazy decision, but clearly the wrong decision in my opinion, and the sort of decision that if one made on a regular basis would eventually end poorly. I don’t think I would have made that decision had I not been buoyed by Tyler’s unwavering optimism, but I take just as much responsibility – I did, after all, agree to the plan. It was a learning experience for Tyler, and a reminder for myself to always leave a bigger time buffer with incoming storms. It reminds me of my most recent big Patagonian climb with Alex Honnold, when, on the summit of Cerro Domo Blanco he wanted to continue with our traverse, but I insisted on descending. Despite the nice weather at the moment, the weather was forecast to drastically deteriorate in the coming hours. Several hours later, we were very glad that we had descended, because it was so windy that it was hard to even hike in the valley bottom. I guess the lesson is that Yosemite climbers don’t have enough fear of weather in the mountains… which is hardly surprising given the nature of the weather in California! 😉
I am quite used to taking photos while climbing, but I’m not very accustomed to taking video while climbing. Tyler does it all the time though, and managed to shoot a decent amount of video during the adventure, that he turned into this nice little movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJslD7Q-Mv0&t=575s
One more thing to mention: In 2011 Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll and Nico Favresse climbed Cerro Chaltén’s east buttress by a combination of the Ragni/Ferrari route and El Corazón, reaching the summit in 28 hours, both climbing every pitch free (which is WAY harder than only one person climbing free and the other climber “supporting”). This ascent was rightly lauded at the time, but after climbing nearly all of Corazón I am even more impressed. Respect. It seems that my two strongest experiences in the mountains this season in Chaltén have both left me with more respect for Sean! Also worth noting is that in 2016 my friends Jorge Ackermann and Tony McLean climbed Corazón in 20.5 hours. I’m pretty sure that Jorge is the only person to have climbed 2 routes on the east buttress of Cerro Chaltén, as he also made the first ascent of Un Mar de Sueños in 2012.
07 – REFLECTIONS
With a two-month period of very bad weather, this Patagonia season was not super productive for me in terms of total volume of climbing, despite spending more than three months in El Chaltén. However, soloing Cerro Chaltén by the Goretta Pillar was a major goal for me, an ascent that I am very proud of, and that ascent alone makes me very happy with my Patagonia summer season. In addition, I had very positive experiences climbing with the Odell brothers, with Tad, and with Tyler. All of them were new climbing partners to me, and it is always a pleasure to find more good climbing partners.
These days I think that a lot of climbers come to El Chaltén as much for the social scene as for the climbing. I am a naturally social person, and I have always liked to party, but I make a conscious effort in this period of my life, especially while in El Chaltén, to stay focused on my climbing goals, of course at the expense of socializing and partying. While I probably have a reputation of being relatively antisocial compared to many of the climbers in town, I do really enjoy this aspect of El Chaltén as well, and it is undoubtably a major perk compared to going on an expedition to a remote place. El Chaltén has been an extremely important place in my life, and a significant part of what makes El Chaltén special, like Chamonix, is the concentration of so many people who are driven, energetic, and passionate about the life they are leading. When Maestri’s bolt ladders were chopped on the SE Ridge of Cerro Torre in 2012, I voiced my opinion in support of the action, which was an unpopular opinion among many of Chaltén’s year-round residents, and I received a lot of negative vibes as a result, not only that season, but in the ensuing seasons as well. For me it was a very sad experience to feel so much negativity in a place that had always been overwhelmingly positive to me beforehand. I feel like in the past ten years the emotions surrounding the bolt chopping have simmered down, and that wound in the community is largely healed, much to my relief.
El Chaltén is still a small town, but it is changing at an incredibly fast pace. Every year it continues to evolve, and slowly, for better or worse, it feels more and more like Chamonix. Like any fast-growing town there are growing pains, such as the dearth of affordable housing, and the exploding frequency of fatal accidents in the mountains. Now having internet and a bouldering gym sure is nice though. I can’t help but feel nostalgic for the Chaltén that I knew 19 years ago, but I still love the place today. In addition to the spectacular alpine terrain, I am grateful for all the “buena onda” shared this past season with the many other foreign climbers, Argentines who come for the summer season, and year-round residents of El Chaltén. And while I mostly refrain from the many parties constantly happening in El Chaltén, I am very glad that I was convinced to go to the bouldering festival party – it was epic!