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Risky Business on San Lorenzo, A Single-Push New Route on Patagonia's Second-Highest Peak

Risky Business on San Lorenzo

A single~push new route on Patagonia’s second-highest peak.

Jordi Corominas

Oriol Baró and I had intended to climb elsewhere in the autumn of 2008, but due to permit problems we were forced to look for a new objective. Poring over our file of projects in waiting, we decided to travel to Patagonia and started rebooking plane tickets and emailing friends. Two days before our departure, Rolando “Rolo” Garibotti sent us a pair of photos of San Lorenzo’s unclimbed faces, and the die was cast.

We spent two days in Buenos Aires, booking our onward flights to Patagonia and looking for maps of the region to sort out exactly where this mountain was located. We opted to fly to El Calafate, where we had friends who could help us organize our trip to San Lorenzo, about 200 kilometers north of Fitz Roy on the Chilean-Argentinean border.

At 3,706 meters, San Lorenzo is the second-highest summit in Patagonia, after San Valentin in Chile. San Lorenzos normal route, established in 1943 by Father Alberto De Agostini and two companions, climbs up broad glaciers on the Chilean side. On the Argentinean side of the mountain, however, the southeast and northeast faces of the peak rise steeply for well over 1,000 meters. Only one route had been completed on this side: the east ridge, climbed by a South African team in 1986. The 1,500-meter northeast face, which we hoped to climb, had seen one strong attempt, by a French pair in the 1990s that climbed three-quarters of the face, and several probes around the base. But other than this and the little we could glean from photos, we knew nothing about the face.

In Calafate we finished our food shopping and found a friend, nicknamed Pelao, who was willing to drive us north to Perito Moreno National Park in his 4WD, for in this zone there is little in the way of public transportation. After a day of lakeside bouldering and an Argentinean barbeque, we took leave of our other friends and headed up the famous Highway 40, which crosses all of Argentina from north to south. Half pavement and half dirt, with interminable straightaways through vast, uninhabited grasslands, the road carried us toward our objective. Finally, we veered onto a side road toward the national park and traveled 100 kilometers of rock, mud, and snow to reach one of Argentina’s least-visited protected areas. We feared at any moment that we would end up stuck in some slippery mud hole, our climbing ambitions dashed before even reaching the mountain.

Toward dusk a river crossing made further travel by vehicle impossible, and we were forced to pitch camp in the middle of the road, since everywhere else was a quagmire. It was September 24, and with winter having just ended in this part of the world, there was still plenty of snow around. Watching the sunset from our improvised camp, we were sorry we hadn’t brought along skis to descend the surrounding slopes.

We spent the next two days ferrying loads to our base camp; we’d brought enough food to last nearly a month, for we knew that one might have to wait a long time to climb in Patagonia. The walk from the vehicle to base camp gained just 40 meters in elevation, but, after fording the brisk waters of a glacial-fed river, it took us four hours to cross an interminable plain. Base camp was a hut built by climbers from wood and plastic inside a small forest of lengas and ñires, two species of the gnarled beech trees characteristic of austral Patagonia. The hut even had a fireplace to warm the inside, proof of the ample time those before us had spent waiting. We pitched the tent a ways off, out of the trees, hoping to capture some of the minimal heat the sun provides at this time of year.

On September 27, we prepared to bid farewell to Pelao and carry our last load of supplies to base camp. While testing the satellite phone, a message from Rolo arrived: The weather forecast for the next three days looked good! Immediately our nerves started to act up and we began to feel rushed. What to do? We said a hurried good-bye to Pelao and completed the final ferry to camp, and then spent the afternoon preparing our packs. In Patagonia no opportunity can be wasted; there was no telling when good conditions might return.

The following day dawned clear, but still windy and cold. We could see the mountain but not the northeast face. At the toe of the Lacteo Glacier, we crossed a lake that fortunately was completely frozen—in summer one would be forced to traverse around the edge on slippery, awkward moraines. The lake was covered with huge blocks of ice, trapped like prisoners by the cold. We climbed onto the toe of San Lorenzo’s east ridge, where we pitched our high camp on a spine of rock and snow at around 2,000 meters. From here we still could not see our route, so we climbed a bit higher up the ridge to find a way onto the glacier at the base of the northeast face. This face is extremely complex—filled with rock towers, snowfields, and gullies, some of which lead nowhere—and we could not reach a point where we could see our line clearly.

We set the alarm to wake us very early but failed to hear it go off—such is the inconvenience of a wristwatch tucked deep inside the sleeping bag. Finally, around 3 a.m., we departed. It took us a couple of hours to break trail through crusty snow to the bergschrund. In darkness, we started up the gully that appeared most obvious. Toward dawn, however, we realized that we weren’t where we wanted to be. After a brief discussion we decided to descend, although in doing so we might lose our one chance to climb the mountain. At the bottom of the face, we finally had a chance to study its structure, and were able to decide where the best route must go, although the final reaches, which disappear from sight above a frozen cascade, remained a mystery.

On September 30 we began our second attempt, leaving the tent at midnight with climbing gear, food, water, some extra clothing, and a stove. Since we had used up most of the good weather in the forecast, we would have to ascend without stopping to sleep. With the trail across the glacier already in place, we reached the foot of the wall quickly, and, after another short debate about the best route, we opted for the path of least resistance. There was another variation to the left (which, as we would see during the descent, had a couple of vertical sections), but fortunately we resisted its temptations and opted to save our energy, given that we still had not even seen what waited near the top of the face.

We climbed a fun, vertical crevasse wall and then four pitches of snow and ice to reach a wide ramp of steep, compact snow where we could simul-climb. A series of diagonal traverses to the left then put us in the central gully of the face, where the difficulties returned and we began to belay again. We were moving fast, but night was vanishing just as quickly. At dawn we were on the frozen waterfall we had seen from below, which led in two sections of reasonable difficulty to the hidden part of the face. Six hundred meters still lay between us and the summit. Despite the fact that we would soon enjoy a bit of warmth from the sun, we were not looking forward to it hitting the face above us and sending down avalanches of snow and ice blocks. Luckily, a layer of swirling mists veiled the sun’s rays and the temperature remained cold.

What we discovered on the upper reaches of the mountain was discouraging: a labyrinth of towers and gullies, down which the wind playfully tossed debris from rotten rock walls. We continued up slender gullies of ice, decomposing rock, and frozen mud amid a continuous bombardment. Above, we could see the summit mushrooms hanging threateningly. Either luck or intuition kept us moving steadily upward, finding and following gullies that were not too difficult and had manageable exits. Eventually, a long traverse brought us to the east ridge, where we climbed two pitches on good granite, encountering a couple of pitons along the South African route.

After a final rock tower, we climbed atop the first snow mushroom on the summit ridge. It was 3 p.m. We were about 100 meters away from the high point on the ridge. Our plan had been to traverse over the summit and descend the normal route; we had hoped to climb that route before attempting the northeast face and mark the way with our GPS. But because of our haste to take advantage of the good weather, we had done no reconnaissance before our ascent. Now we could see the dark clouds of a storm front approaching from the Pacific Ocean. We had no desire to follow our tracks back down the dangerous northeast face, but neither did we want to descend an unknown route in a storm. And so we turned our backs on the final snow mushroom and began the long descent of our route.

It took us the rest of the afternoon and all of the following night to complete the 35 to 40 rappels. On the first of these, the ropes knocked loose an unstable rock that fell some 10 meters onto my head. The blow was enough to crack my helmet and leave me with an aching neck for the next 15 days. For the most part we rappeled from V-threads, but we also fixed some pitons and a couple of snow pickets. We had carried three ropes in case one had to be sacrificed during the rappels—and, as luck would have it, we ended up using more than 50 meters of the newest cord to help construct rappel anchors. Toward dawn, perhaps as a result of mounting fatigue, we started to doubt the best route of descent, but finally we finished the rappels just where we had planned. We reached the foot of the wall with the first light on October 1, amid showers of spindrift from the blizzard that was now arriving in force.

Our tracks across the glacier had already been erased by wind-blown snow, and with a total lack of will we were forced to break trail again. Only a few meters from our high camp, we had to stop and sit in the blowing snow for a bit, waiting for the thick clouds to clear enough for us to locate our tent. Finally, we saw it, whipped by the gale-force winds now blowing across the spur. We packed up our gear and, several hours later, exhausted and soaked but still content, we reached our base camp in the midst of a full-blown Patagonian storm. Finally we could stop, drink, and relax.

We spent the next week of bad weather cooped up and shivering in the hut while we waited for a ride out of the mountains. All the while we dreamed of our friends in El Calafate and the barbeque we would enjoy upon our return.

Summary:

Area: Central Patagonia, Argentina

Ascent: Single-push ascent of the northeast face of Cerro San Lorenzo (3,706m) by the route Nord Africana (1,500m, ED1), Jordi Corominas and Oriol Baró, September 30-0ctober 1, 2008. The joined the 1986 South African route on the east ridge for two pitches and then stopped on top of the first snow mushroom on the summit ridge, about 100m east of the true summit. The two men rappelled their route of ascent, returning to their bivy below the face 30 hours after leaving.

A Note About the Author:

Born in 1958, Jordi Corominas lives in the Pyrenees of Spain, where he works as a mountain guide. His first ascent of the west face of Siulá Chico in Peru with Oriol Baró was featured in the 2008 AAJ.