First Ascent of Las Vent'uras

Sunset over the ice cap
Boundary Bay Oatmeal Stout vs Great Divide's Belgian 'Colette'. Riding my bike to sunny baseball games at Coors Field. Sneaking good food into a bad movie at the dollar theater. Feeling too full to want more food. Being warm. These and similar thoughts dominated my mind as we drudged down the final few hundred feet of glacier to our camp at Piedras Negras. I was thrilled to have pulled off a new route after a week in the range, but at the time, probably even more thrilled to just crawl into a tent and pass out.

Why do I spend all my time at home thinking about going climbing, and all my time climbing thinking about going home?

After months of training, linking up routes across Colorado and Utah, scheming up silly ideas and re-plotting logistics, finally climbing on the big peaks of Patagonia is hard to describe. And these peaks ARE big. The climbing is steep, physical, abrasive, serious. It wears out people and their gear. Even one of the smaller peaks (Aguja Guillaumet, the most northern of the Fitz Roy range) has an east and west face each nearly 2000' high.

Still my lead block

A week ago, a dozen climbers convened on the cluster of A-frame cabins in the center of El Chalten to drink tea and grouse about the weather. Nothing new, except that this time, there were hints of optimism mixed in. As Mikey and Colin explained to Scott and I about comparing the two available climate models to extrapolate the forecast, someone else mentioned under their breath that if we only listened to Mikey "We'd never go into the fucking mountains..." That particular someone else being from Maine, we recalled learning the day prior that natives of his state "have been doing so much with so little for so long, that now they can do everything with nothing forever." Well, whatever the hell that means, we couldn't disregard the apparent optimism. So as the Maine-iacs headed off up the trail to the Cerro Torre valley, Scott and I set about packing and eating in preparation for what looked like 2 days of OK weather in which to try something new on Guillaumet's west (windier but sunnier) face.

A 20 minute taxi ride from town and three miles of wooded hiking along the Rio Electrico brought us to the base of a 3,300' uphill slog, treeline, a small glacier, and our temporary home among the black rocks (Piedras Negras) where crumbling choss abuts white granite.

Don't fall into stuff. (crevasses, moats, bergschrunds, other climbers) And don't let stuff fall on you. (Ice, rocks, other climbers) On our first full day, I went over glacier travel 101 with Scott. We climbed the Giordani Ridge (1000' 5.5) to reach the northern end of the mountain, and traversed three snowfields to a vantage point beneath the face. What had looked good in photos now looked even better in person. A direct line from the very toe of the face, through roofs to the summit. If only that chimney will be a go. With our gear cached at the base, the 2-hour approach well-sorted, and solid steps across the steeper snow aspects, it was time to eat, sleep, and get pysched. This wasn't training any more.

I took the first lead block, mostly cruising up easier terrain on the steepening line of a major left-facing corner.

Scott sleeping while he should be belaying me

A 5.10 hand crack and snowy slot reminded me how fun and frustrating it can be to rock climb here. It also let me turn the sharp end over to Scott for the chimney.

Long stemming pitch to the roof
A band of roofs splits the face at mid-height. Rather than climb out and over, our prospective line appeared to burrow through these overhangs. With Scott leading Out of view, the winds whipped our lead and tag line like strings of a marionette. I guess that makes me the puppet. All I knew was that the ropes were moving slowly. What I would learn when following the pitch, was that Scott had turned the corner to find a 100' offwidth and chimney, full of ice in the back, and with the view down past one's feet being 700' of vertiginous air. He also kicked open our #5 cam as he abandoned it to the #6-sized offwidth, leaving him essentially unprotected for much of the pitch. Inspiring. And through the roofs things were looking possible. We didn't like the wet cracks above until we encountered ice-choked cracks even higher. It was simply too soon post-storming to hope for only dry rock.

Scott on the frozen splitter
Below the overhanging summit block, Scott took his last lead, a vertical hand crack, to a leaning, overhanging, thin-hand splitter. And it was on this pitch, not even the route's mental or physical crux, that frozen hands and brutal gusts sent him for a short lead fall. He got back on and finished the pitch right away, but we didn't pull the rope to re lead. I tried to follow it in gloves and still had numb tips. Circulation returned as I shamelessly yarded on gear while seconding.
Another crack full of dripping ice tentacles. 

I lead an easy pitch that we thought would have us up-and-over, but it dead-ended. From here, the two nearest crack systems that breached the headwall and onto the summit plateau were both filled with big daggers of water ice, and poured forth constant streams of water. We made one short pendulum/rappel to reach a crack further left, and I lead up onto the top. As I fumbled for a headlamp, Scott threw down the rack and rope and we scrambled up to the true summit.
Blake leads, with the lower half of the face visible

Everyone waits for 'windows' of weather here. Windows that they can fill with cracks. (well, the climbing of them anyway). Windows are called Ventanas, and cracks, those are the fisuras. Ventura is an old Spanish word for fate, or experience. We called our route the Vent'uras, meaning window with cracks.

Las Vent'uras
West Face of Aguja Guillaumet
600m - 6c / 5.11 A0
Scott Bennett and Blake Herrington - 23 hours from Piedras Negras camp - 2/8/11

Nuts and bolts:

1x9.2mm rope (now coreshot)
1x8.1mm rope
1x30L Cilogear Pack - Hauled on a few pitches with tag line
1x rack to #5 Camalot - doubles in mid sizes - #5 good call
1x Wires
1x CAMP Awax tool w/hammer
1x light ice axe
2x light boots/shoes
1x e-Lite
1x mid-strength headlamp
6x 'snack units' each - 3L water
3x pins/hooks - Do Not Need
1x Space blanket - DND

  • No Crampons, we kicked in steps and cached gear the day before
  • No bivi or sleeping bags
  • Lots of gloved climbed in wet terrain up high
  • Got lost on descent, rapped N. Face - Bad Idea - anchor shenanigans
  • 23 hours total trip from Piedras Negras
  • Worst weather day of the 6-day window
We had carried sleeping bags, a 2-man 4-season tent, sleeping pads, and crampons up to Piedras Negras camp, which is reached via a 20 minute ($25) taxi ride, and about 3 hours of hiking.