I had a bit of climate shock a couple weeks ago, traveling from the Squamish summer of shirtless sport climbing, down to a snowy, icy El Chalten in mid-winter. I arrived in El Chalten on August 23, and supposedly proper winter had arrived only a few days beforehand. People around town talked of a “pequeno verano” for all of June and July, with way above normal temperatures, sunny weather, and sport climbing around town. I arrived to find El Chalten covered in snow and ice, with temperatures in town hovering around -10C.
It seems that I arrived too late for giveaway winter ascents, but overall I was glad. After all, I’ve been thinking for several years that I wanted to come to El Chalten in winter, and it would’ve been disappointing to find it snow-less! Over the past several years I have spent large amounts of time in El Chalten, and one of the biggest downsides for me is missing a lot of the northern hemisphere winter, as I’ve always been really fond of wintertime. Well, not willing to sacrifice the summer climbing season in the Chalten Massif, obviously I jest needed to get my winter fix down here as well!
I came down here with some ambitious soloing plans, but so far have been spending my time ticking some classic summits that I’ve always wanted to visit, but have never been high priority in summertime. Part of the reason that I’ve been scaling back my ambitions is because conditions are far from ideal. The Chalten Massif saw almost zero snow accumulation all fall and winter, and then a few dumps of snow just recently. So, the glaciers are in the worst possible condition: crevasses completely obscured by smooth, fresh, wind-deposited snow, but with snow bridges that are very thin and weak. In addition, ice conditions on the peaks are very poor – mostly it is just powder snow on dry rock. During the first spell of good weather I headed out towards the ice cap with a heavy backpack full of climbing gear. Shortly below Paso Marconi I poked my ski pole through a snowbridge and decided to turn around.
When a second spell of good weather appeared in the weather forecast, I hiked into the Marconi Glacier on Sept. 1st. The next day, my twenty-ninth birthday, I romped up the original route on Cerro Domo Blanco with immaculate weather. The route is technically quite easy (some 50-degree snow ramps and a bit of 3rd-class mixed terrain), but I was still quite stressed, constantly worried that a pocket of snow on the ramp system might avalanche and send me over the cliffs below. Thus, in many areas where I could’ve easily loped along, I carefully hugged the rock walls, brushing snow off of holds so that I could hang on in case a slab ripped out. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but despite the extra care, and despite plenty of trail-breaking through deep snow, I topped out with plenty of time to spare. Domo Blanco is very centrally-located in the massif, and the views from the summit are fantastic!
On September 6 I used a shorter, more marginal weather window to climb and ski Cerro Electrico. Cerro Electrico is a humble peak amongst the fantastic spires of the Chalten Massif, but its big selling point is the shortest approach of any alpine peak around town (Cerro Solo and Aguja Guillaumet are much longer. Only Cerro Vespignani compares). You start rapidly gaining elevation after only 30 minutes of valley-bottom hiking.
Via the normal route on the eastern side, Cerro Electrico is a mellow glacier climb, perfect for ski mountaineering. Visibility was in and out for most of the day, but on the summit I got some spectacular views of the Chalten peaks. After tagging Cerro Electrico’s main summit, I decided to try the northeast summit, which is quite prominent when viewed from Piedra del Fraile or Piedra Negra. From the glacier on Cerro Electrico’s normal route, the northeast summit is just a small, 4th-class rock pyramid. The line that I climbed had a bit of M3-ish climbing, which demanded attention mostly just because it was covered in powder snow. Without a rope I didn’t really want to down-solo that M3-ish bit, and found a slightly easier way to climb back down.
Rumor has it that the northeast summit of Cerro Electrico was previously unclimbed. For sure that’s not because of its difficulty (it’s just a short, 4th-class detour from the normal route), but simply because, like many still-unclimbed summits in the massif, there hasn’t been interest. Anyways, “Cumbre Noreste” isn’t really a name, so I’ll refer to it as “la Cumbre Roja,” which is descriptive, and likely what many people already call it.
There is actually a fair amount of waterfall climbing and mixed cragging that one could do in the mountains around Chalten. It is for sure not the quality of the Canadian Rockies or Norway, and most all the approaches are long, but I think could actually be a worthwhile trip for someone who is into adventure waterfall climbing. There was even plenty of ice forming on the wall just across the river from town, and the classic, easiest rock route was climbed with tools and crampons by Herve and Vicente, the day or day before I arrived in town:
Looking west out to the ice cap and Cerro Mariano Moreno. Domo Blanco actually has three summits, and I thought the central one might be higher than the east summit that I arrived to first, so I went over to be sure… Of course, from the central summit the east summit looked highest afterall…