A season in Patagonia
by Rolando Garibotti, Club Andino Bariloche
I arrived in Chalten in mid-November with many intentions, but also with the willingness to let nature dictate my decisions. In an area that fosters some serious weather patterns, nothing is conquered; we only experience what is given. Because of that, most climbs are for me unplanned and spontaneous, and I receive them with the reverence that an unexpected gift deserves. Although I had some objectives in mind, my main goal was to stick to an ethic of fairness toward the peaks I intended to climb. That meant many things, among which was not using fixed ropes, and not claiming an ascent if we didn’t actually reach the summit. Both these tendencies are common in Patagonia and show a basic disrespect toward the beauty of these unique mountains, which are unfortunately a very limited resource.
The weather had been awful for the last month and a half, and the faces of the climbers showed the strain of many unaccomplished dreams. The ambiance in Campo De Agostini (previously called Campo Bridwell) did not seem very healthy, so when the opportunity to visit the Icecap arose, I did not hesitate, and left for a couple of weeks. When I returned two weeks later, I was pleased to hear that my friend Doug Byerly was around and looking for a partner. We had already done two climbs together a few years back in Yosemite. Remembering the enthusiasm and motivation he had back then, I knew right away we were in for some good adventures.
After establishing a high camp on the Torre Glacier, beneath the west face of Aguja Poincenot, we decided we needed a warm-up climb to break the ice between us and the area’s mighty peaks. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait very long for good weather. In only a few days, Patagonia gave us her first gift. We found what we were looking for on Aguja Inominata, where, on December 2, we climbed a new variation to the pre-existing British route. We returned to our high camp fairly tired but happy with our newly acquired confidence.
To our surprise, we woke up the following morning to another beautiful day. Although tired from the day before, we didn’t lose any time repacking our packs and heading up to Aguja Saint Exupery, where we planned to attempt an ascent of Chiaro di Luna on the west face of the tower in a section where the tower rises some 780 meters from base to top.
The extreme cold forced us to wait until mid-day to start climbing. On the first pitches, we were forced to use direct aid to move up icy cracks. Once we found better rock climbing conditions, we started moving at a faster pace, and managed to cruise to the summit in a little under 10 hours. Knowing it was going to be a long night of rappelling, we started down with no delay. Several hours later, when a rope stuck on rappel, we decided to sit down on the big ledge halfway up the route and wait until dawn to keep descending. We passed the long hours sitting on cold rock, wishing we had brought our sleeping bags.
After returning to high camp the next morning, we devoted ourselves to drying out andrecuper- ating. To our relief, the next two days brought unstable weather, which gave us enough time to descend to El Chalten and fetch some new ropes; the ones we had used on our first two climbs were completely shredded. On the second day of unstable weather, upon seeing slow signs of improvement, we returned to our high camp, and that evening prepared our packs with food for several days and bivouac gear.
At 5 a.m. on December 8, we started from high camp in perfect weather, and headed toward the north face of Fitz Roy. To get there, we first had to climb to the top of the Hombre Sentado Ridge, which turned out to be an entire climb in itself: 1000 meters of fairly moderate alpine ice and some short sections of troubling mixed climbing. Climbing unroped, we arrived in under three hours to the top of the ridge. From there, another two hours of glacier travel took us to the base of the route we planned to attempt.
The Tehuelche route was first attempted in 1986 by a group of six Italian climbers that included ace rock climber Marco Stemi. The team used almost 1200 meters of fixed ropes and climbed to within 100 meters of the summit. But upon joining the summit ridge and what they thought was the Affanasief route, they were turned around by fierce winds. Our intentions were quite different—we planned to attempt a fast, two-person alpine-style ascent of the route. We felt that was a way of being fair and showing respect to such a beautiful face and grandiose peak.
We started climbing at 11 a.m. Though we were already feeling a bit tired after a long approach from the Cerro Torre valley, we found extremely enjoyable climbing and some of the best quality rock we had ever touched. To our surprise, all the fixed ropes used on the 1986 Italian attempt were still in place, though ten years of high winds had reduced them to an infinity of hair-thin cords.
The climbing was difficult and conditions, with many wet and icy pitches, were far from ideal. On this first day on the wall, we were forced to carry heavy packs that contained bivouac gear and supplies for three days. After climbing 20 pitches, we arrived at about 7 p.m. at a big ledge called the Grand Hotel. Since this is the only large ledge on the 1300-meter route, we decided to bivy.
I had dreamed of climbing this route for almost 10 years, when, at age 15, on my first visit to the area, I stole the original topo from the park headquarters. During late evening, the sky clouded up, and we went to sleep expecting the worst for the next morning. Pessimistic as I am, I was sure something would get in the way of our dream. But to our astonishment, the next morning brought bright clear skies. Starting early in the morning, we began climbing the big dihedral that makes this route so striking, which was named “Diedro de Marco” by the Italians after Marco Sterni who led it in its entirety. There we found the hardest climbing on the route, at times unpro- tectable due to the large-size cracks.
The day was warm, so the upper pitches were wet, finishing with a gushing A1 waterfall pitch that had us gasping for breath and scrambling to dry clothes on the ledge above. This is where the Italians had been turned back, and with the weather beginning to deteriorate, we left the pack behind and climbed rapidly for several pitches to easier mixed ground. We wore only rock shoes, and, due to the large amount of rime ice coating the rock above, wondered if we could make it to the summit. Carefully, we picked our way through a maze of wild formations to the true summit, a thin blade of granite towering above the surrounding peaks. We were treated to a brief glimpse of Cerro Torre and Poincenot before the summit was completely covered with clouds. We descended quickly into what we thought would be our worst nightmare—a Patagonian storm—only to discover a few hours later that the weather remained stable and we were able to enjoy a smooth ride back to the Grand Hotel.
After several hours of sleep, we ate our last provisions and headed down. Back at the base 48 hours after starting, we felt pleased with ourselves, though we still had a hard time believing that what we had just done was not merely a dream. There was still a long way to go to get back to our high camp, a journey that involved some tricky and dangerous glacier travel. We had worn out another two ropes—four in total after climbing 75 pitches in six days.
The rest of December didn’t help our climbing much, as foul weather kept us in our tents for weeks, making us wonder what it was that we were trying to accomplish. On the 28th, however, we received a late Christmas present: a 24-hour period of good weather. During this brief window, I managed, by moving light and fast, to solo the Kearney-Harrington route on Saint Exupery. Because of the stormy weather of the previous weeks, I found very icy conditions on the route, which made the climbing slow and dangerous. I climbed mostly unroped, self-belaying in a few short sections, and had to check almost every hold for verglas. I reached the summit after four hours of climbing and descended quickly, reaching high camp in time for afternoon tea. Doug, meanwhile, teamed up with Jimmy Surette, and the two went on to attempt (unsuccessfully) the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre.
The new year brought no change in the bad weather. The snowfall increased to unprecedented amounts—the locals claimed that they hadn’t seen so much snow during the summer for over 15 years. The continuous bad weather stretched our nerves thin and by mid-January the mood in Campo De Agostini was as unhealthy as when I first arrived.
Doug and I, still feeling enlightened with the climbs we had done, cared little for what the weather was doing. Although our inbred consumer instinct pushed us to want more, ultimately, we were satisfied and in a rare peaceful state. Doug decided to leave for the Paine Towers, so I teamed up with the Italian Gian Luca Maspes. Together we attempted another route on Fitz Roy, but rain and wind turned us around even before we could start to enjoy the climbing. A few days later, in marginal weather and knowing that our luck had run out, we climbed the Piola route on El Mocho, just to remind ourselves what we were there for.
Summary of Statistics
AREA: Argentine Patagonia
ROUTES: British Route (IV 5.11 A0, 650 meters), Aguja Inominata, December 2, 1996; Claro di Luna (V 5.11 Al, 850 meters), Aguja St. Exupery, December 3, 1996; Tehuelche (VI 5.11 Al, 1500 meters ), December 8-9, 1996, north face of Fitz Roy; Kearney-Harrington (V 5.10, 600 meters), December 25, 1996, St. Exupery (Garibotti, solo)
PERSONNEL: Doug Byerly, Rolando Garibotti*
*Recipients of a W.L. Gore Shipton/Tilman Grant.