The segment of Ruta 40 which connects San Martin and Bariloche is nothing short of spectacular. The winding, vertiginous blacktop offers endless postcard vistas – towering peaks, tangled forests, deep glacial lakes. This is the Patagonia that exists in the minds of tourists and on the pages of magazines.
But soon after skirting Bariloche to the south, the highway departs the mountains and pushes into the endless Argentine pampa. The corrugated gravel of Ruta 12 merges almost seamlessly with the flat, dry surroundings. The landscape loses none of its grandeur, but it is a more stark and severe type of beauty. This is the other side of Patagonia – the less celebrated but exponentially larger part of its personality.
Beyond the village of Gualjaina, vast canyons and crumbling mesas march toward the horizon. After perhaps 45 minutes of increasingly impressive scenery, the proud feature of Piedra Parada comes into view. This lone sentinel stands watch over the grey waters of Rio Chubut as the river makes its sluggish pilgrimage from the Andes to the Atlantic. Here, in the shadow of the rock and beside the whispering willows, you can make a comfortable basecamp from which to enjoy some of the best sport climbing this side of the equator.
Many aspects of climbing in Piedra Parada are not as they appear at first glance. For starters, the eponymous “Standing Rock” for which the area is named has very few routes. Rather, the lion’s share of the climbing takes place in a nearby canyon and the various nooks and crannies therein. And despite the impressive vertical relief of the canyon walls, most of these routes are no more than a single pitch. Many sectors are heavily chalked, but some of the less popular areas are tucked away in obscure areas and can be difficult to locate amongst the overwhelming abundance of rock.
Luckily, the area guidebook can demystify this situation with ease. Now in its second edition and available in many outdoor stores in Bariloche or online, this beautiful tome is certainly worth the investment. With many more routes and sectors having been equipped since the original Petzl Rock Trip in 2012, the guidebook now covers more than 300 routes together with excellent photography, clear topos and maps, and all the other odds and ends you need for a rad cragging experience. I realise I’m gushing a little bit here, but we’re talking about South America, where finding accurate climbing information is like finding affordable real estate in Sydney. It really is a nice book.
The rock itself is volcanic tuff, which for those playing at home, is the same type that can be found at Kangaroo Point. Don’t hold that against it. Unlike our humble urban crag, the rock quality at Piedra Parada is generally excellent and certainly doesn’t appear to have been quarried in the recent past. I’m told the character is closer to that of Smith Rock than KP, and although I’ve never climbed there, I’m sure that can only be an improvement.
The routes are highly featured with horns, crimps, huecos and pockets, with a style that is mostly technical vertical face climbing with the odd steepy-steep thrown in for good measure. The bolting is of a very high standard, sensible while still being engaging. The grading seems fair and mostly consistent, and perhaps a little soft. Best of all, there are quality routes for all comers – excellent climbing can be found just as easily in the lower grades as the higher ones, with difficulty ranging from 4 to 9a (12 to 35 in Ewbank).
In a word, the climbing at Piedra Parada is phenomenal. Having clipped bolts from Mexico to Argentina and almost everywhere in between, I believe it to be the pick of the litter as far as South American single-pitch sport climbing goes. And that’s just my opinion, but it was one formed not just on the strength of the climbing alone, but on the overall experience. If you visit early in the season as we did, you can essentially have the entire canyon to yourself. The cliffs are eerily silent except for the rusty, plaintive calls of the bandurria, and the semi-arid landscape around your campsite takes on a wild, melancholy splendour in the evening light.
If you could only visit one crag in South America, Piedra Parada wouldn’t be the worst choice. If you’re a trad climber, it will make you want to clip bolts. If you’re a sport climber, it will be a borderline religious experience. But if you do have a rack, don’t listen to any of that guff about the actual Piedra Parada formation itself being unworthy of your attention – the normal route, Sueño Lento (6a, 270m) is a fantastic micro-adventure in the fashion of a classic Glasshouse Mountains romp, but with better rock. It’s a proud feature and I reckon it’s worth a lap.
Anyways, here are a few more tips for young players:
- The season runs from November to March. We climbed in November and found the mornings to be quite cool and afternoons quite warm. I’m guessing summer will be very hot, but shaded sectors can be found at any time of the day.
- Apparently, the place gets uber busy in the peak season. If solitude is your thing, the shoulder season is perfect, but if you are travelling alone and looking to find partners at the crag, try December to February.
- Camping is free on the south side of the river, but there are two paid campsites which open in peak season. They have basic facilities and some limited food items for sale.
- We took our water straight from the river but filtered and treated it as there was a decent amount of sediment and livestock upstream. Bore water is available at the campsites.
- Before you arrive, stock up on supplies in Esquel or Bariloche. The nearest shop in Gualjaina is 45 minutes away and stock is limited.
- There is WiFi at the school located approximately 5km west. Ask nicely and they will let you use it for a little while.
- The campsites and crags are surprisingly clean and free of trash and poo. Let’s keep it that way!
- A rack of 15 draws and a 70m rope will allow you to climb basically anything. There are a handful of trad routes and a single rack to 3 should suffice if you’re so inclined.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.