Argentine Patagonia,  2005/06

Compiled dispatches, originally sent live from the field with a PDA / Sat phone combo to The North Face website.

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Windy South...Patagonia.     04-Jan-2006

Lisa Rands & I (Kevin Thaw) arrived in El Chalten, below the frosted, spiky Argentine Patagonian skyline almost a month ago. Up until Christmas time was spent being teased by fickle weather. Barometric pressure is the usual oracle for spring boarding ascents. It remained low throughout the month yet offered a couple of clear spells sufficient to just get involved with technical ascent before quickly closing and flushing us from the Torres valley.
Basecamp is two hours hike from town. Campamentto Bridwell is located beneath the lake at the snout of the glacial valley and is protected from the fierce winds be the former terminal moraine. A unique aspect of the region is the still clean water, filtering isn't necessary, a true rarity on our planet.
From camp Bridwell the up-valley journey time is quite weight dependent: Anywhere from three to six hours. The trek commences with a tyrolean traverse over the Rio Torres followed by a sort section through Lenga forest before descending onto the first of two predominantly dry glaciers. Dry meaning bare ice with obvious visible crevasses: Allowing unroped transit with tennis shoes in good conditions.
A small flat bench/valley hovering above the second glacier dubbed Polakos (Polish) camp was our bivouac site. First trip up valley is always heavy; sleeping gear, cooking set-up plus climbing gear always seems to add up even if one of the set is skinny.
Polish bivi is somewhat wind protected but is rapidly eroding. Myself and Alan Mullin spent a few night in 2000 and since rapid devolution is evident.
Now the term valley is a little stretched in describing Polakos, a flat bench remains from what used to be a 40ft trench. The view has certainly improved, one was forced out to see the amazing skyline opposite, the east faces of Cerro Torre, Torre Egger & Cerro Standhardt now just require a roll of one's sleeping bag.
St Exupery was the initial precipitous challenge, initial thoughts were for and ice/mixed route on the south face but unfortunate warm conditions and early season rain (usually snow) had stripped ALL the peaks of ice lines.
Some of the classic ice lines (e.g. Exocet on Standhardt) had not formed for the first time this year! The West facing line Claro de Luna was our intent, three thousand feet above Polakos accessed by a ramp slicing through fortifying cliff bands.
First try saw us at the routes base watching clouds fold over Cerro Torre and quickly fill the valley. A week rolled quickly by before attempt number two. This time the weather window started to flex and falter after allowing us to get 1500ft up the face. The famed High winds luckily not kicking up to speed until just after we'd finished rappelling. The following tempest chased us from the high camp back down to Bridwell and the standard disheartening white wall dropped into place. Immediately to the west of Cerro Torre is a huge ice-field (thousands of square miles); this of course condenses any passing moisture right on the peaks as warmer air from Argentina's southern Pampas rises to joined the freshly chilled air. The white wall is rain/snow falling just up valley from camp, which luckily remains mainly beyond the precipitations outstretched arm.
Christmas morning dawned fresh and clear, hiking up valley between Bridwell and Polakos was quick and light as most all the weight was stashed in boulder caves at the latter. The 26th remained calm and clear allowing us to speed through the 22 pitch route (graded 5.11+ but more realistically 5.10+) in just under six hours. Beautiful granite, steep clean cracks with hardly any wet grovelling that is usual on peaks as frosted at these. Myself and Lisa climbed simultaneously for much of the route (both moving together with protection between (of course)), seriously cutting down climbing time.
Ironic I guess to try and be quick after so much waiting and not just revel in the steep. Here it feels like trying to sneak in ascents is the best bet, quick before the mountains realize and draw their veils.
Our initial challenge absorbed far more time than anticipated but there's still sufficient remaining for Lisa & I to see out the next. A linking of
formations, a grand integral culminating on one of the finest summits on the planet.


Further tales from the South     14-Jan-2006

January seems to be consistent here in Argentine Patagonia and for want of a better word can only be described as crap!
Many Hypothesise the white wall that drops over the peaks but the theories are really just that. Looking up from the rustic town of El Chalten it seems hard to believe Lisa and I stood upon the usually invisible St Exupery: When it does grace a vista the frosty rime ice hardly looks appealing.
Hopefully Peter's arrival (Jan 26th) will be perfectly timed with a break in this trend. Big plans are afoot and we're both excited to get on with it.
Immediate plan for myself is to head out with a couple of Argentine friends and ride the Rio Santa Cruz from it's birth in the vast Lago Argentino (town of El Calafate) all the way to the penguin colonies on the Atlantic coast, 450-ish km. It's a fast flowing river but without serious white water, this is a good thing as our rafts are Wall-Mart specials (really, bought from Wall-Mart in Buenos Aires). Not knowing much about rivers or the planned fishing for evening meals (Steel head salmon) I feel a bit more nervous about this venture than heading across a mountain range without bivouac gear!
Looking forward to this adventure with a butterfly or two in my stomach!

 

Going with the flow.

Back in El Chalten following six days descending the Rio Santa Cruz. Met Peter in El Calafate (river source), he safely arrived with all his baggage and now we're looking up valley at a churning white wall, Peter has yet to see the peaks but we've plenty of time.

Flavia & I figured four days was the initial plan for river riding, I say initial plan as conditions didn't conform with intent. The first day was smooth and fast. We managed to keep the two $20 Seawolf 3000s in the central current denting the 350km run considerably. Once on the river we were committed to its course, the closest road is 50km to the south and an infrequently travelled dirt track. Give or take a meander or ten the Santa Cruz dissects the province of the same name from west to east, luckily the same tack as prevailing winds. Born from glacial melt into the vast Lago Argentino it traverses the estepa (similar to western US deserts) to Piedra Buena's salt water estuary.
Civilization remained abstract the entire duration, one operating ranch and a sole traveller (ranch worker hiking the fields).
After the first day's cruising success it felt like things were going to be uneventful, the region's famed winds quickly changed the scene for a couple of days. When the river banks remained tall it was easy to hug the bank and maintain trajectory. Without the raised bank the wind quickly nailed our two vessels to the down-wind side: Sometimes the next bend granted quick straight transit but more often the river tangented without a favourable tail gust. Two nights were spent within view of the start, frustrating to say the least.
Guanacos (Llama relatives), Nandu (Ostrich), Condors & water fowl maintained a vigil on the two flotation "Toys" tied back to back.
Following a particularly punishing wind day the night was spent in the perfect shelter of an old estancia: The light glow of Piedra Buena's generators grazed diminishing clouds showing the journey was about to end.


Set and Ready     31 Jan, 06 - 10:42

The finest spiky skyline now rears above campamento Bridwell, not fully basking in the open still a touch reticent for a full reveal.
Basecamp is only two hours above El Chalten's rapidly growing townscape.
The village is on a dusty pampa bench just above a river confluence, lenga forest immediately above relinquishes to glaciers and again just as rapidly to the famed fortresses of Argentine Patagonia. Our bus ride was a flat drive around lago Viedma toward a grey wall: Simply flat with no definable mountain features. Peter waited two days for a mere hint of anything beyond, finally retracting their shyness the peaks revealed freshly clad in rime ice!
The scene was already set by myself and Lisa during December, gear, ropes, food and fuel await Peter & I tomorrow, four hours up valley at the base of an intended new line. The "Sit Start" Torre enchainment plan has been pushed down in priority, instead a new route perhaps due to my lack of reticence? A pair of fellow climbers were asking about options when faced with diminished mixed climbing potential; I shared topos and information on routes available, when further queried even shared the initial plan for Peter & I.
Not that one can truly lay claim to a project, it just seems there's a code within the sport and one doesn't scoop someone's intent while they ride a river for a week's diversion?
Not to worry there's no shortage of precipitous terrain, Fun will of course be had with the new line and the Grand Enchainment when a longer more stable high pressure graces the region a visit.
In prior years February has proved the month of stability weather wise, lets hope the tradition doesn't shift and we can use up our collective psyche & energy in standing atop these slender well guarded Torres.
 

The Storm won.     4 Feb, 06 - 13:57

Peter & I left the lenga protection of Campamento Bridwell as the clouds appeared to be peeling from the towers. Frequent glimpses became more so while barometric pressure took an upward turn.
Across the Rio Torres via a rope tyrolean traverse begins the voyage over three glaciers. All dry ice which allows passage in less than full-on mountain kit, three hours to previously cached food & equipment. Pressure began to drop through the night, it wasn't windy for our three am coffee session and clouds weren't yet evident until sunrise granted full clarity. We drew beneath the intended buttress to be greeted by strengthening gusts and heavy clouds. They raced through a col creating funnel raking directly across the buttress. Thwarted before the true game w. withdrew to the previous night's bivi spot, two hours back down glacier & waited for a tangible sign:? Snow became the sign and we bailed back to Bridwell.
Small weather windows sometimes grant a fine outing but evidently not every one.
Next round will be with the main project.
February is still young and plenty of good weather is due to land, optimism always pays.
Would climbing in Patagonia be the same if it mimicked Yosemite's perfect conditions perhaps the elusive, even fickle environment adds that distinguishing touch? Not the highest above sea-level but arguably some of the most striking.


Waiting,...     5 Feb, 06 - 23:33

Patience is certainly a major factor in our current game. Moving around the North side of Fitzroy is the notion for tomorrow. A weather window could land very soon, we'll be ready. Barometric Pressure vigil via various web-sites is pointing toward a favourable spell before next weekend?
Not too many glimpses of the peaks since our venture up the Torre's valley. Bouldering in an around town has absorbed time, fine cross-training after marching under heavy packs and truly world class (though not hugely extensive).
Tall steep boulders with definitive lines typify the lenga slope above campamento Madsen and the braided Rio de las Vueta; majority of lines are above V5. (Incidentally putting a boat into the local river adds a couple of weeks to the Rio Santa Cruz voyage).
Cragging around town is abundant but not the same quality as bouldering. Certainly easy to grab an hour or two from town or any of the basecamps. An evening on the boulders seems somewhat more relaxing than dealing with rack & ropes after tramping them up n' down hills?
Staging the next venture is less involved as far as approaching goes,
Fraile is two hours (conservative, heavy load time) from trailhead and route beginning two more, all without stepping on snowy glacial terrain.
Last year's fat weather windowed February has drawn many aspirants to the region. Guess we're all hoping for a repeat of those fine conditions: My hope is repeating the same line from last season's window, Fitzroy's North Pillar then across the ridgeline for more.


It's all about barometric pressure.     7 Feb, 06 - 18:25

Wind is raking the peaks following two days of very low barometric pressure, some of the peaks are visible but look very inhospitable.
Seems to be another sport climbing, bouldering day. Truly a fine aspect of Argentine Patagonia's hub El Chalten is the ability to stay active and remain just beyond the stretching grasp of bad weather. Town and the basecamps have very different conditions; camp Bridwell at the head of the Torres valley is usually just outside the rains veil whereas Rio Blanco on the east side of the range sits a touch higher and doesn't quite escape precipitation. Both are two and & bit hours above Chalten, short enough to head down and avoid wet tent sitting days. A perfect balance for Alpine quests? Tent sitting seems to whittle psyche whereas forming bouldering projects keeps fitness and when coupled with frequent marches doubles its value.

The trekking capital of Argentina is Chalten's title and the peso's devaluation firmly placed it on the international circuit, hence the construction boom. Our basecamps are stop overs for most tours or day trips around Los Glaciares national park. Many people travel through to view the sharp peaks and tumbling glaciers. Some get more involved & tour around the continental ice cap, west face's of the Torres, traversing passo Marconi to passo Huemel requires around seven days, dry land to dry land.

Prior weather forecasts (always a paramount game here) proved somewhat accurate but the proximity of two systems bumped things around erratically. A low pressure system is now residing in the vicinity. Very windy yet partially clear at the moment, rained around nine am and the wind is increasing.
Heading up to the north side of Fitzroy manana, further stocking the cache and a day on foot being the main goal

 

Cached and vigilant     10 Feb, 06 - 01:01

One partial day of reasonable weather allowed the cache below Guillamet to be deposited. A quick ride around to the north side of the massif gains access to the Piedra del Fraile/Passo Marconi (ice cap) trailhead. Less than two hours to Refugio los truncos at Fraile then 1500m up hill to the gear deposit at the snout of the glacier ushering down from Guillamet. Load free we'll be able to return to the high point in three hours. Twenty minutes below the rope up point to commence travelling across the spiny ridge line.
Back to the cyber weather vigil, computer animations of pressure systems rolling around the southern tip of the Americas. Trying to hypothesize on the gap lengths between the whipping cold fronts.
Days are still very long, summer sun is evident until ten pm and up a little after five. Funny but I notice the shortening light cycle even though it's still considerably more than California's longest day.
Not too worried about the weather yet as we've still a pile of time. Boulders n' crags are staving off stir craziness even engaged an evening or two of soccer but it would be nice to get after it on the towers!


Greetings from the heart of a tempest.     11 Feb, 06 - 17:26

Things are lookin' like an upturn in climatic conditions is closer to visiting. Monday & Tuesday look promising, that's as far as climate plotting is depicted on-line.
Optimism is paying off, not a single dip in psyche during the normal bumps & dips of barometric pressure and precipitation. The allure of such summits never seems to diminish, climbing here makes sense. To clarify, some mountains and walls look aesthetic and somewhat alluring to all folk: As opposed to what could be the best climbing crag on the planet but looks like petrified bird droppings clad with fauna.
Optimism is frequently tried as wind charges down the dirt streets whipping dust into every orifice, rain offers a break as far as settling the brown air.
Of course there's still that fact that these peaks totally make sense to climb. Not solely my perspective?
There really isn't a single non technical summit in the region, some are of course more attainable than others but not a single walk-up. Does the appeal receive an added layer from such fickle conditioning? With that said I also know how it feels to be exiting Patagonia after playing the waiting game without fruition, peakless following nought but a camping trip.
Having climbed St Exupery already I feel a little resolution with it all but the hunger isn't staved.
Hoping the next week will grant a break from this waiting game?


The Pressure,...     14 Feb, 06 - 14:35

Sorry to harp on about the weather again but it is always our paramount topic, "what's the pressure doing", "have you looked at the internet"? This is how we climbers greet while about the basecamp, town or on the trails.
Optimism reigned yesterday, that was until the low pressure system broke from its path and is now releasing a payload onto the peaks as I type.
We're getting the raft out tomorrow, paddling over the river to check cragging potential. Two further days of distractionary activity will be required before an upswing from the barometer allows mountain fun.
Peter went for a mission up Cerro Solo today while I took a ride in the opposite direction onto the pampas to see a new bouldering venue and change the horizon for a couple of hours. Cerro Solo is a peak immediately above camp Bridwell, climbed avoiding the glacial cap via a 3rd class ramp system on the north face. It offers spectacular views onto the continental ice cap and of the entire range, if clouds permit. Akin to the bouldering Cerro Solo lies just beyond the normal stretching arm of the bad weather. Peter's summit view unfortunately left a little to the imagination but the vista west across the ice cap fully displayed its vastness. Discounting Antarctica the Patagonian ice field is the largest in the southern hemisphere.
Having enjoyed Cerro Solo previously I opted to join a group day tripping to a fresh venue far from the white wall of rain. Driving away from the southern Andean cordillera is similar to cruising the great basin eastbound away from the Sierra Nevada in California.
Glacialy polished, wind swept and beautifully bleak would describe the boulder deposited long ago. A single block of mystery rock (metamorphosed conglomerate) next to Lago Viedma, quite possibly the finest backdrop? Activity was limited to the sheltered side as wind progressively gained speed through the day, the forecast is for more of the same.


Summer Hemisphere?     16 Feb, 06 - 15:17

Another morning spent cowering in the face of ferocious and sand studded blasts of Patagonian winds. These winds, bullying and racing themselves around this part of the globe, are what set these peaks apart from any others I have visited. Upon my arrival at the Calafate airport, the barren landscape showed no trace of greenery, as if some galactically monstrous leaf blower had scoured the countryside, which I suppose it had. The town itself is situated in a sunken ravine, the relative shelter providing the residents the much coveted opportunity to grow some grass or even, perhaps, a shrub.
Here in exposed Chalten, however, we have only the coffeshops to protect us.
Kevin and I recently made a few optimistic forays into the mountains, buoyed up and psyched to reach the feet of these jaw dropping peaks under blue skies. Each time, though, the weather has reared up like an angry wave, and we have run away like frightened bunnies. A week ago, during one such scree skidding retreat, I took the opportunity to catch a toe under a rock and flip head over heels into vicious thorn bush. Kevin looked up just in time to catch my heels overhead, turning my crunching pain into his fond memory. A week later I'm still pulling out thorns.
I spend the resulting downtime pacing the village, abusing caffeine and looking for the cloud shrouded summits. I count the hours. Kevin deals with such adversities much differently than me, holing up in a friends' tiny cabin and tinkering with a suitcase full of miniaturized electronic gadgets.
My neurotic hankering after the mountains has probably helped land me with my present chest cold. Kevin, on the other hand is fine and dandy. He is always very well rested.
We have just heard the word - a weather window is coming next week - three whole days of summer. I better get some rest.


Arriba.     19 Feb, 06 - 13:38

A weather window is looking more imminent, fingers crossed.
The bad weather ensues, last couple of days have been too damp to venture onto the boulders and the wind gusts truly memorable. Certainly testing on the tents and I'm happy to report all remain perfect. Poor conditions have furthered weather forecasting skills and the vigil of pressure systems, fronts, the jet stream and resulting effects. Watching the changes with their evident local effects seems to accrue knowledge on the outlook. Current prognosis is for a couple of better days, not exceedingly high pressure but it could change up and get finer. Main issue is the jet stream's track: It's been pretty much directly over us most of the summer season hence no stability.
Today we are heading up to the cached gear with the hope of a strengthening high pressure system granting sufficient time to complete the project. The reality of the outlook isn't perfect, Monday looks good followed by swag for a day or two and fine again Thursday; beyond that it's back to tempestuous low pressure.
At least we'll be going climbing tomorrow. Guillamet & Mermoz seem a good goal for the short window with continuation if things change?


From out of nowhere     22 Feb, 06 - 23:48

Yesterday we awoke at the piedra negra (lack rock) bivi site to snow and sleet on our bivi sacks. The dawn patrol idea of climbing was thwarted by what seemed to be a single cloud dropping onto Fitzroy then billowing throughout the range and finally delivering snow. Not having shelter beyond bivi sacks we dropped down slope an hour for protection from the forest at Pierre del Fraile. The storm really did come from nowhere. Our locale on the north/west side of the massif offers perspective to spot inclement incoming hours before it lands, this one crept in from the opposite side (very rare) then popped like a balloon on the peaks.
Peter had a bout of food poisoning the day prior to all this movement and was left feeling a touch below par yet undeterred.
Before the food illness Peter had a touch of flu, medication killed the worst of it but now I'm in those initial ill stages. Now I hope the weather won't land during my first couple of my sick days. Figure I'll be over the worst by Saturday and the weather looks like it's waiting until Monday?
Guess some seasons are better overall than others, I've been lucky enough to see the good but unfortunately Peter must remain a little unconvinced? My theory is that last years tales of fine weather trickled through the community and filled town with eager summit seekers, will this years reports of tempestuousness leave basecamps empty as next year is graced by a tropical summer?

Our mantra remains in tact, still plenty of time & the weather will land.


Time enough!?     26 Feb, 06 - 20:59

It's still not time to wax philosophically over some seasons being better than others and goals left unchecked. There's time!

Grey sky with occasional spitting rain is the condition for today's eighth annual National Trekking Festival, events to promote and celebrate the regions resource. Highlight being a Gauchos v Trekking Agencies woodsman/woman contest. An event to wind down the season, Tourism seems to be slowing significantly, many less trekking folk cruise the streets yet climbers remain. We all seem to share a very similar schedule in being outbound around the first week of March: If Murphy's Law were to land, good weather will arrive here mid-March?
Once again a bump from the normal bad weather looks to be gracing us a visit, could be more than a teasing glimpse of the now frosted towers? Well adjust plans if the window is brief, I know Peter would like to stand atop something for his time in the south. I certainly feel due a good day swinging from the steep. With gear cached for two aspects of the range we're set to go for the first thing in condition. Hope is not lost for grand plans, everything will unfold when the high pressure lands on Tuesday, will it stay?
Autumn has slowly began to show as the days have considerably shrunk, the lenga show a yellowing in their leaves. Another optimistic note is the normal stabilising conditions brought by seasonal temperature shift.

 

Last chance?     4 Mar, 06 - 22:24
We just returned from a foray into the Torre valley ending with the wind & rain literally flushing us out.
Once again the high pressure system looked to be visiting but was steered clear by the jet stream and replaced with a huge low. Today wind has reached all season record speed, it's even hard to walk the streets through Chalten. We were actually lucky to have extracted ourselves yesterday, don't think strolling the glacier would be too safe today. Nobody was flung to the ground yesterday but being blown into a crevasse is a very real danger. It wouldn't be fun to be one pinned up valley for fear of being dashed to the ground every minute.
Exodus has become de rigour each day a team of climbers packs and bounces out of town as the weather shows signs of an autumnal shift. Feels a touch like Yosemite at the end of the season. Tonight many of us have chipped in for an asado, traditional local sheep bbq that should encompass all remaining in town. By the end of next week the exodus of steep seekers should be complete, only the Argentine guides and year round residents will remain.
With all this said we're still not done yet and have gear in position should a good day land. All in all a lack lustre weather season but that means a perfect one next year, right?

Here's my account published by Climbing Magazine accompanying Dean "Bullwinkle", "Winkie" Fidelman's (The Stone Nude dude) black & white images>

Kevin Thaw