In end of January, we'd already climbed some routes and peaks with David, we were feeling hopeful for one good weather window, like the one at New Year's, a few days of perfect weather that would let you go climbing big stuff without an anxious expectation of deteriorating weather (that was the Old Patagonia - now, it's hard to even imagine going up without a reassuring forecast!). We've had the taste of the good, fun climbing, of what it feels like when the weather's good, and there was definitely some expectation bubbling in Chalten. Curiously, Rolo announced some promising weather patterns arriving in about 2 weeks, according to some sci-fi long term forecast I never learnt how to read. The sliver of hope was enough to build into a rumor of "definitely big brecha coming up" (the most ridiculous is that, upon checking this forecast again in 3 days, Rolo saw the big brecha dissapear, but at that point the rumor had snowballed already). With nothing better to do, we hung out, drank beers at Fresco, did some bouldering, refreshed the forecast.. until helas, there was indeed a major spell of high pressure arriving! It was going to be a window of at least 4-5 days, and the excitement blew through the roof. People were re-adjusting their plans, going for enchainments, or even two separate peaks in the same window... A bunch of people going for Ragni on Cerro Torre... Plans were made - we wanted to go climb in the Torres. Maybe not the Cerro Torre though - let's do Torre Egger then! A true, vertigo-inducing spire standing proud at the rim of the Ice Cap, it has no easy way to the summit. We would climb its east face, approaching through the Torre Valley and the Torre glacier. The route chosen: Titanic, climbed in 1987 by the Italians Orlandi - Giarolli with ropes fixed in the lower portion by another team. An exciting mix of steep rock climbing and pure alpine ice.
We hiked in to Noruegos bivvy in the Torre valley on Wednesday. On Thursday we only did the approach on the glacier and climbed the first 3 pitches, one pitch away from the start of the ice runnel. We returned and slept another night at Noruegos, to then climb the bottom half of Egger east face on Friday. We slept on the 45 degree snowfield in the middle of the face, on a ledge we chopped into the snow which made for a neat bivvy, except that without mats, we were pretty cold from underneath (we did have a single wall tent though). On Saturday we climbed another 12 pitches or so of rock to gain another ice runnel, a snowfield and then the summit snow mushroom. Saturday around 6 PM we were on the summit, ecstatic, together with Brette, Quentin and Horacio, who started climbing on Thursday but then spent a restday (!) on the mid-way snowfield. We rappelled together long into the night to reach again the bivvy at the snowfield, and then rappelled to the glacier on Sunday morning. Weather worsened with a little shower while on the last rappells (which didn't matter, because we were getting wet with the ice melting in the gully anyway), and cleared up again in the evening, when we were already hiking out. After an emergency landing at Laguna Torre and sleeping there, we finally staggered to Chalten on Monday, still in good weather! I was feeling pretty beat up, and I think that was equal parts the climbing fatigue and the fatigue of the heavy pack-carrying!
Our packs were really loaded heavy this time around, since:
- we set off for a route involving both difficult rock climbing (i.e. a double rack, double ropes and a tagline) and real ice climbing (we had two pairs of ice axes, clearly intending to avoid any jumaring)
- we didn't have any pre-stashed gear, which is common and smart when you're fixed on a single objective
- being in a team of 2 instead of 3
Quite tiring was also the climbing with the pack. We brought the small BD haulbag in order to be able to haul on difficult pitches and carry it on the back for traversing/easier rock pitches. It was quite a volume restriction (that's why we chose not to bring mats), yet still kind of clumsy to climb with. I carried it on many pitches on the upper half, and it really sapped my core power.
Reflecting on the strategy employed is interesting because the puzzle itself is thrilling at the start. Maybe some would have done it otherwise... Our line of thinking was dominated by the idea of trying to climb free as much as possible and as fast as possible (they don't go together that well though).
The commitment to free climbing, which feels natural if you've grown up as a sport climber, is put to a test when climbing in Chalten. I was equally psyched to climb Egger and to try to climb Titanic free, but... in the crux pitch that was done by Marc-Andre Leclerc at 7b (on the first and only free ascent), my ambitions were reduced quickly. The sheer size and exposure of those walls makes it hard to enter a "red point" mentality instead of "summit" mentality. No doubt there is a ton of potential for free climbing on those walls, as Marc-Andre stated after his ascent, but that will only be attainable to people with great courage and boldness. Great adventure and opportunity to push limits can be found there for the select few. In the light of this realisation, the ascents of Nico and Sean (once again this season) grow in amplitude even further.
In the crux 7b then, I rapidly passed the key section with a tension traverse and we carried on towards the summit. It was the only point where aid was used, and honestly, putting performance aside, we took great pleasure in moving fast, always climbing free, managing to strike that perfect balance between amount of gear/climbing speed on a climb that is sustained in both rock and ice.
I could go on and on discussing the Titanic strategy - you can imagine we discussed it at length! But maybe the best strategy is just to become stronger and faster.
|frantic packing (already in the good weather!) at Sebastian's hostel|
the next day, I went bouldering (conditions were poor, because there was no wind)
and then we hiked in.
|On the approach to Torre valley. We hiked in and out in good weather, which was a nice change from the usual.|
|approaching on Upper Torre glacier, under the east faces of Torres, with the line of Titanic in red. The east face of Egger is approximately 900m, we climbed somewhere about 25 pitches, going at 7a A0, M4, WI4.|
|The delicate ice in poor condition where I'd have surely bailed if it wasn't for David and his cat-like ice climbing instincts. On the first pitch of the ice runnel.|
|coming up the mid-way snowfield at the start of the second day|
|In the crux pitch, connecting two ramp systems.|
Torres del Paine
Two weeks after the initial arrival to Chalten, I unexpectedly ran into my friend Christophe whom I'd knew from my trip to Squamish and my time living in Grenoble. Since we'd both be without partners later, we made plans to climb at Torres del Paine in February. Getting domesticated in Chalten was cool, but I thought it would be a shame to miss the opportunity, since who knows when, if ever, I would come back to Patagonia. It's far away and super mentally taxing, I prefer doing laps on Triglav - just kidding.
The national park of Torres del Paine at the southern end of Chile gets A LOT of visitors, it is undoubtedly beautiful and worth seeing - incredible biodiversity in far southern longitudes, not far from the oceans, with wild weather and many awe-inspiring peaks. Because of the number of people, it's also very regulated, but luckily they have a special clause for climbers, it just takes some extra effort. We made sure to obtain our permit beforehand and spent some time planning our little expedition.
As of this moment, there's no guidebook for Torres del Paine. We consulted Rolando Garibotti before leaving Chalten to give us some ideas and topos. As there was a three-day window appearing in the forecast, he suggested we traverse the three Torres, then gave us plenty of useful betas, including a hand-drawn topo of the traverse with approximate times we'd need. Rolo is a true connoiseur of Patagonia, a knowledge base, a dedicated climbing historian with the same old psyche burning within. I feel very grateful for his help as well as some interesting conversations which shed a new light on climbing here.
We made the move to Puerto Natales, the small town in Chile serving as a hub for Torres del Paine. We were told to stay at Redpoint hostel, so we did, and got to meet a bunch of motivated Chilean climbers who worked there and climbed in the park. We're much obliged to the homies from Redpoint for the hospitality, useful info and buena onda throughout!
After a couple days in Puerto Natales during which we recovered adequately from all the exercise in Chalten, we were ready to leave for the park, in time to align with the start of the Brecha. On February 19th, we hiked to "la Cueva Bonnington" and bivvied there - an unforgettable birthday spent portering a 20kg haulbag. Anyhow, early the next morning we got up to a wind-less Valle del Silencio with no clouds in the sky - it's the big brecha, baby!
We scrambled up to the base of the North tower, which we quickly climbed via the Monzino route - the shortest, easiest way up. We were looking at doing something nicer on the North tower, but eventually we wanted to have good chances at doing the three towers (since we're not exactly Honnold) in the given time, which was 2,5 days.
We didn't take long for the Monzino and we were on the summit of Torre Norte at about noon. We realised we should absolutely keep going, so we rappelled back to Col Bich and started up the classic route on Central tower, the Bonnington - Whillans. It was this expedition that apparently put Sir Chris Bonnington on the course to become a great alpinist. The route is really cool, and must have been visionary back in the 60's. The granite here is more fine than in Chalten, the rock quality on these towers is amazing. Pitch after pitch followed and we made quick progress. We resorted to some aid in the crux 7a pitch because it was running with water, but the rest was pure climbing delicacy. After pitch 14, still in daylight, we reached a nice terrace and made out first bivvy there. The bivvy was comfy with plenty of food and water and incredible views - I feel like having cheated a little bit as this traverse was the best way to see the most of the park! On day 2, we soon summitted the Central tower and then spent the rest of the day navigating rappells through the steep southwest face. Chris did an excellent job worthy of a Chamonix guide by rigging all the rap stations and making a few comitting descents down an unknown wall. It took us about 7 hours to descend 1000 metres approximately, with Chris managing to break the hammer on his small ice-axe while setting up raps! The descent to the base of the routes in Central tower southwest face was quite straightforward, but to reach Col Condor (the col between Central and south tower) you still have to descend a band of gray rock which had quite some stacked blocks in places and was not obvious at all.
We reached our second bivy on a small shoulder above the Col Condor, under the South tower, early in the evening and enjoyed the second comfy night. The temperatures stayed high throughout this brecha and we really slept well.
The South tower is a true giant, even taller than the Central tower, and even it doesn't have a 1300 metre face like the Central, it has steep walls from every side and an impressive, slender, sail-like form. The golden-coloured upper half sits on the same band of gray rock of dubious quality underneath. Starting from the colouir between Torre Central and Sur, in the north-east face there's only one route, the Aste, which we had to climb in order for our last summit. The Aste tackles the most improbable looking face I'd ever seen - it seems steep, hard and grim with potentially lots of loose rock. On our third day, we took some time to figure out where to start, but once we got that going, some in-situ gear helped steer us in the right direction. It took 10 pitches to reach a big break half-way up the tower where the rock changes from gray to golden-yellow. From there, we simul-climbed another 500 metres of amazing golden granite of wicked shapes and splitter cracks, not difficult climbing, but we hardly took time to breathe. We knew bad weather was on the way so we tried to lose no time. And the forecast proved to be spot-on correct... We reached the summit, immensely proud of having pulled it off, and quickly started rappelling in an ever-increasing wind. As we got to the base of the wall some 4 hours later, the wind had picked up so much already that the gusts were literally knocking us off our feet. Having completed the 'W' traverse of the Torres, we staggered back to our Cueva, thanked mr. Bonnington for having picked such a nice, wind-secluded spot and floated off into sleep.
The 'W' traverse is actually more like a link-up - the true challenge would be literally traversing all the towers (going up on one side and coming down on the other, instead of rappeling the same route as we climbed on North and South tower). And adding the Peineta, the slightly shorter but no less impressive tower just north of the three Torres. But anyhow, what a stroke of luck it was to get a major weather window once more, do a big climb and make it back just in time before the crazy winds!? We made ideal use of the brecha and I thought it was cool we stuck with the original plan and just kept climbing until it was done. What a privilege to be on the top of those incredible formations that are so unaccessible, looking at the vista in every direction, for three days in a row!
One curious observation is that Torres del Paine has much less climbers than El Chalten. In the whole brecha, we saw 6 other climbers. Most of the activity here seems to be focused around the Torres (there's many other interesting walls though), while any other wall is more often than not a serious big-wall undertaking involving siege tactics, fixing ropes etc. There's a number of walls with few or no established lines. If there is to be a guidebook soon, as rumour has it, this might change - and I thought it was cool to have gone here before that happens. It felt a bit less like choosing your route from a menu and a bit more of unknown.
|On Col Condor - with some more big mountains around, Fortaleza and Espada, towering above Valle del Silencio|
|The hippie climber home, Redpoint hostel in Puerto Natales, including a bouldering room that also sometimes served as dorms|
|the man vs. the haulbag|
|Hiking towards Valle del Silencio. A rare shot with no crowds in sight. The park has a great number of visitors, but luckily they all flock to the same spot, so once you leave the main trail, you're alone.|
|"Hello, I'm here to climb the towers!" Left to right: Peineta, the two summits of Torre Norte, Torre Central and Torre Sur|
|scrambling up towards the North tower with its distinctive two summits, Central tower in background|
|me following on Bonnington-Whillans|
|an amazing bivy ledge on Bonnington-Whillans (at pitch 14)|
|looking at the monumental South tower. The lower portion of Aste is not visible, while the second half climbs the knife-edge arete in front.|
|The sketchy looking start of Aste on Torre Sur. We received a hand-drawn sketch of the route and the instructions "the first pitch is runout. Place a cam in an undercling flake, then climb until easier ground..."|
|coming down from Torre Sur with Torre Central, southwest face on the left|
|looking not so fresh, finally on the ground after Torre Sur!|
|A testament to the proverbial Patagonian bad weather in one of the climbers' shelters.|
|last day in Puerto Natales: amazing pumpy sport climbing on potato-like conglomerate blobs at Laguna Sofia!|
The two blog posts were intended to share those highlights and some info about the ascents. As I'm reflecting on it now, it seems very distant already - hopefully one day, I can get to climb some more over there...
Thanks for reading. In the times of isolation and counter-virus measures, I hope this was a good diversion from the daily preoccupation. Keep the spirit of climbing alive people, and to everyone sharing the passion, I wish we will be back at this noble, purposeless activity in the shortest time.