The Alpine Ambience of Chalten

Every few weeks a spell of dangerously calm and sunny weather ominously parks itelf over the Patagonian spires of Fitzroy, Cerro Torre, and a dozen other granitic giants. During these times, climbers impulsively engage in masochistic bouts of intense physical activity known as alpinism. The behavior insprired by such weather can result in mental fatigue, physical injury, and even death. Luckily such weather is brief, allowing visitors from across the globe to again resume normal life camped in the Patagonian outpost of Chalten. Reached via a several-hour bus trip from the nearest town, Chalten brims with adventure and those who have come to seek it. In my fourth week here I have only now begun to appreciate the urban adventure potential all around me. Prolonged stetches of wind and rain – coveted ´weather windows´ -- provide conditions highly amenable to urban exploration. A two-week span of just such weather has been heralded by alpinists as one of the best in recent memory, allowing for unprecedented amounts of card-playing and iPod listening. And with additional storms forecast, the most ambitious and daring climbers are even considering a second read-through of their remaining paperback novels.When so many of the world´s top climbers are concentrated under such conditions, the prevailing mentality really encourages ´getting after it´ with internet kiosks and campgrounds abuzz over whose tent has recently flooded or gear cache has been blown away.
The recent weather window has also allowed me to test a full array of outdoor gear while pursuing cutting-edge objectives such as navigating potholes along the .75 miles of paved road, or fleeing from the ex-con local gaucho and his flock of equally aggressive chickens. The sprawling terrain of our youth-hostel bivy is frequented by stray dogs drawn to the bony detritus of recent barbecues. Yet my gloves and jacket have proven more than adequate protection against the social scorn resulting from frequent cultural faux paus and mistranslations. My climbing partner and I recently agreed on the bold goal of hosting a cordero, a traditional Patagonian lamb-roast. Unfortunately we had misjudged conditions, severely underestimating both the time needed to thaw our lamb, and the scale of the event which we had set in motion. An Argentine team (comprised of our dreadlocked hostel warden and his 5-yr-old son) arrived with innate local knowledge and more food in time to prevent any loss of appetite or party enthusiasm. Though no new technical terrain was covered on this adventure (we know of several prior corderos to have been held in this location) we feel that the event is notable for marking the first link-up-dinner comprised of American-style popcorn, Argentine roast lamb, and the Chilean specialty of red wine with Coca-Cola.
Faced with a forecast of steady rain, and rumors of chorizo prices at near seasonal lows, American Alpine Club president Steve Swenson also ´went for it´, comiting to an Argentine barbecue and fiesta of his own. Swenson and partner chose the light-and-fast approach, and would provide nearly all the meat themselves, relying on speed and efficiency rather than a set of fixed supply caches to keep partiers fed. Abandoning their basecamp at the southeast corner of town, the climbers quickly overcame the inital resistance offered by ¨La Candelita¨, the local brothel located next door.

Alaska and Patagonia veteran Mark Westman had reported the presence of tied-up horses and bad-tempered gauchos at this location earlier in the season, so safe passage through such terrain provided an obvious morale boost to the duo. Approaching from the opposite end of town, my partner and I recognized the fiesta objective as a worthy one. My balaclava barely prevented frostbite on my ears as we narrowly avoided crashing our brake-less bicycles into soaking mobs of German hikers or swimming-pool sized puddles. This particular fiesta contained sufficient levels of meat and wine for everyone. But by eschewing the traditional methods such as potlucking or BYOB climbers leave little margin for error as they aim higher in these endeavors. As the damp grey forecast stretches on and folks continue to push the urban envelope, there is no telling what encounters with local culture, marathon card games, or thrice-read paperbacks will be next to make news. And though a change of weather might be nice, I can already feel myself atop Fitzroy under sunny skies, longing for my next run-in with the neighborhood gaucho.

Sport climbing in the Madsen boulders, 2 minutes from town...


My friend Beckett... onsighting




Last Saturday was an eventful one for me. It began like so many other casual weekend mornings. Pink bunny slippers, oatmeal, a nice hot cup of tea, then a pleasant excursion around the neighborhood. And while I may have just been dreaming about bunny slippers, the scenery and location of the neighborhood certainly compensated for any lack of foot comfort. Our Friday bivy spot had been adjacent to a spring a small moraine pond, underneath the west faces of Guillamet, Mermoz, and Fitzroy (on the left).

We´d drifted off the previous evening eyeing those peaks, as well as the Cerro Torre and Cerro Pollone groups, to the West and South.

And after finishing our morning routine of soy lattes and coupon-clipping from the newspaper, David and I roused ourselves out of the ultra-classic ´table bivy´and crossed the North Fitz Glacier to the toe of Guillamet´s NW ridge.

We hope others enjoy our alpine architectural work. The specialty of the house here is Tang and instant mashed ´papas´.

For us the climb began 600´vertical feet below the standard start, following an ascethetic crest of mostly easy climbing (up to 5.9) to where the ridge steepens and blends into the NW face of the mountain. The rock quality was as good as anywhere, with a complete lack of any dirt or vegetation in the cracks. The weather proved challenging but climbable.

We were accompanied by 10-20MPH winds, frequent sunbursts, occasional fog-bound climbing, and a couple memorable sections featuring weather of all four seasons in one pitch. I led the traditional crux of the route, a 5.10+ steep corner with twin cracks, but David found a strenuous 5.11 roof variation on one of his leads as well,
though I harbor suspicions that it all may have been a ploy to hand over the backpack to me for a while.

On the summit we met an Argentine team who had come up the North Ridge, and so combined forces to rappel their route of ascent. The descent went smoothly with so many ropes, as the first person to rappel would take an extra rope with them and leapfrog ahead, with someone was always setting up the next rappel while the prior rope was being pulled.

From the base of the climb we descended again to our table bivy and were quickly asleep under clear and cold skies, looking forward to another day of nice weather.

Instead we only had about 6 more hours of decent weather, as the clear and cold void overhead was filled with charcoal grey of moisture laden clouds and precipitation. Spurred by light snow, heavy winds, and increased longing for those slippers, we packed up in a hurry and hurried our packs up and over Paso Cuadrado. The descent back to road and trail soon had us out of the snow, and down into good old rain.

At the trailhead we immediately thumbed a ride back to town with a middle-aged Chilean couple. Though to put it accurately, it was the Chilean husband who pulled over with a grin and motioned to the back seat. Meanwhile, his wife´s nervous eyes maintained their constant vigil peering at me over the rim of designer sunglasses. Perhaps it was the unsavory idea of having a scruffy, unemployed, unwashed, foreign, 22-year-old in her back seat, armed with an ice axe crampons. But as she quickly reached to roll down her window I realized the threat of an ice axe and crampons was of little concern compared with the suddenly prolific foot smell emanating from our collective 6 pairs of sweat-marinated shoes. David and I soon followed suit with our backseat windows, and the husband, seeking to minimize any forthcoming tongue-lashing from his passenger seat, made the 9-mile drive back to Chalten in record time. Today it is absolutely storming, even here is town, so my pink bunny slippers are getting some use after all.

The only other major news is that my friends Mike, Kate, and Dana climbed most of the California Route on Fitzroy, with a couple nights on the route and one sleeping bag for the three. It is usually a rock climb, but they basically did the whole thing in boots and with tools or at least gloves. Nobody has summited Fitzroy or Cerro Torre since we have been here...


A-Frey-ed Knot

Sometimes I try to be funny on my blog, or have interesting quotes. Other times, I just dont think its worth it. I have been reading the book The Shipping News by Annie Proulx and after reading some really good writing, I almost lack the motivation to even try myself. Anyhow, Frey is an awesome place and at least I have some good pictures!

From Valle Encantado, we spent one night in Bariloche, doing laundry and buying groceries for a week of camping and climbing near Cerro Catedral and the alpine refugio called Frey. The first day was extremely stormy, but that proved great for hiking up, as our packs were too heavy and a hot sun would have been much worse. The evening that we arrived in Frey we climbed a 4 pitch route located about 10 minutes from our tent, a crack climb up the East Face of Aguja (needle) Frey.

The wind was howling and a bit of rain was falling, but it was a fun route and a good intro to the area.

(Good thing the red stripe was there to show our route or we might have been lost)

The climbs are on very nice reddish granite, anywhere from 3 to 10 pitches long and spread across two alpine valleys.

We probably climbed 8 or so towers over the course of the week, and enjoyed the friendly lakeside camping, one pizza dinner in the refugio, and memorable sunsets each night.

David and our local stand-in for Mount Baker, a volcano called Tronador.

The last day we climbed ¨El Sinestro Total¨, the longest route in Frey, and perhaps the best. We topped out on the Cerro Principal along with two young climbers who are living and working at the refugio this summer and receiving some room and board while climbing on their days off. We were impressed by the confidence and skills of these guys, and gave them a bit of gear to keep and use when we left. I think in 10 years they will be the new stars of South American climbing.
Here is my partner and the two Argentine Chicos on the summit... who is more excited?

Here is the 5.10d headwall pitch on Sinestro Total...

In addition to the two boys, we also encountered an Andean Condor on the Cerro Principal, which flew by us several times during the descent.
Why did the condor refuse to check his bag at the airport? He prefers carrion.

After the final day in Frey I was off for the 36 hour bus ride to El Chalten and Southern Patagonia.