It was our first day in El Chalten. We’d just finished a short hike to a scenic lookout, and having rounded the final corner on return to the visitor centre, I noticed a man emerging from inside. His appearance was distinctive, most notably the flowing mane of wild grey hair.
“Holy shit,” I yelled, “that’s Reinhold Messner!”
And so it was, but that wasn’t all. In the hands of the world’s most famous mountaineer were the world’s most infamous pieces of mountain hardware – the erstwhile bolts from the controversial Compressor Route. Apparently, the Chalten Massif is so abundantly steeped in history that one need not go beyond the visitor centre to experience it directly.
But of course, we would delve much further than that. For climbers, Patagonia is a place of myth and magic, a hostile land with an inexplicable yet undeniable lure. It’s a spiritual nexus of sorts, an alpine Mecca which draws pilgrims from far and wide. Having covered almost the entire length of South America, our pilgrimage had almost been realised, and yet I couldn’t consider it truly complete until we stood atop one of those fabled granite spires.
With that in mind, we immediately began planning our first ascent. It was mid-December and a short weather window was approaching, during which we planned on climbing Aguja de la S. This squat pyramid is one of the shortest in the FitzRoy range and contains several moderate routes, one of which we figured would form a perfect introduction to the area.
With light alpine packs, we mosied up the three-hour hike to Poincenot Camp before crossing the Rio Blanco and heading up the valley. The crowds which often choke the popular trails on clear days immediately disappeared as the rough footpad wove through whispering beech forests and treacherous moraine. A steep, loose incline took us from the shores of Laguna Sucia to the Swiss Bivvy, a small cave excavated from beneath a huge erratic boulder in the ye olde times. Back then, the toe of the glacier was much closer, and although glacial retreat has now moved the ice a few hundred metres higher, it’s still the best accommodation in the neighbourhood.
We woke early and crossed the glacier as the incoming dawn drew pink and purple ribbons across the sky and set the granite faces afire with alpenglow. Despite the early departure, a party had beaten us to our chosen route. By the time we had arrived at the base, they were already halfway up the steep snow ramp which forms the initial pitches of Austriaca. Fully prepared for such a contingency, we switched our objective to the peak’s original route, Care Este. Also known as the Amy Route, this climb follows a striking red dihedral, and we were far from disappointed to be climbing such an aesthetic route.
Just getting on the damn thing was the crux for me. The snow around the base was worthless, faceted garbage and the initial moves were coated in verglas. I have rarely climbed in proper mixed conditions, so these first moves and the remainder of the pitch took far longer than they should have. Afterward, with a bit more familiarity and confidence, I was able to climb the remainder of the 150m-ish dihedral with relative efficiency. Before long, we were cruising the easy mixed scrambling in the middle of the route to find ourselves at the base of the summit pyramid.
At first, I thought we were hosed. The obvious crack seemed filled with snow and ice. We didn’t have tools, but even if we had, it was simply too steep for my paltry mixed skills to compete with. But as I got closer, I noticed a series of diagonal cracks which seem obvious in retrospect but only became so on closer inspection.
Climbing those leaning cracks in a single rope-stretching 60m pitch was simply phenomenal. The natural line took me onto the arete at times, straddling the narrow fin of rock with tremendous exposure to the west and crystal-clear views of the Torre group. We topped out onto the standing-room-only summit, exchanged high-fives, and then reversed the route to successfully claim our first scalp in the Chalten Massif.
I would have been fairly satisfied with one solitary tick, but we had an entire month or so up our sleeves and plenty of opportunity for another grand adventure. You know what they say – make hay while the sun shines. But the horses must be pretty peckish in these parts, because the sun doesn’t shine all that often in El Chalten.
Even so, killing time here is not the odious, whiskey-fuelled grind that it used to be. Nowadays, there are plenty of sport routes to fill in those listless weather days. None of them are particularly spectacular however, and the rock quality often leaves a great deal to be desired. An uncharacteristically accurate Mountain Project description reads thusly – “Climbing sport routes so close to Fitz Roy makes you feel a little like you’re dating the prom queen’s ugly sister, but at least you’re going to the dance.” I’m told the boulders are much better, but I can neither confirm nor deny this.
Before long, Christmas had arrived and we were given the best gift a climber could hope for – a Patagonian weather window. We saddled up once more, charging up the Rio Electrico to Piedra Negra, an unsheltered bivvy site beneath the looming north faces of FitzRoy, Mermoz and Guillamet. The latter was our target, with the Comesaña-Fonrouge our route of choice.
Instead of trudging up the hateful, loose moraine and subsequent snow slopes, we opted to combine the upper route with the lower ridgeline. Known as the Giordani route, this aesthetic extension of the northwest ridge covers easy terrain – essentially one long scramble with a mere handful of actual climbing moves. We climbed it relatively quickly in two long simul-pitches before finding ourselves at the base of the main event.
There were several parties on route that day, and some additional teams climbing adjoining lines on the east face, but the relatively high amount of traffic never became a problem. Given the length of the route, we mostly felt as though we had the climb to ourselves. The uber-classic Comesaña-Fonrouge offers varied climbing with several memorable moments, especially in the middle pitches – a stellar twin-crack marks the crux, followed by an easy but exposed traverse, in turn leading to a sustained and technical dihedral. These incredible pitches would leave a poet short for words.
With the technical climbing completed, we strapped crampons to our approach shoes and nipped up the final 100 vertical metres to the summit. Although it was relatively early in the season and the guidebook suggests that a uniform snow pack is generally expected here, perhaps only 15m of this final segment required traversing on snow. It’s a stark reminder of the impact that climate change is having on these peaks, in addition to the unbelievable and almost unprecedented event of the Supercanaleta on FitzRoy running dry this year.
Certainly, these are troubling circumstances and a cause of deep concern, but they seem faintly ironic in light of our final attempt. The ostensible stability of peak season never materialised, and January instead bought minor storms that gave the peaks the appearance of having been dusted in icing sugar. We spent most of the month ensconced in our comfortable base camp in valley below, complete with a resident armadillo whom we named Gerald. From here, we watched as clouds swirled around the granite peaks and the howling winds filled the cracks with snow and ice. In such conditions, our final route choice was perhaps rather foolish, but this is an easy conclusion to draw only in hindsight.
With our time in El Chalten drawing to a close, a final weather window appeared. It was short and tenuous, but beggars can’t be choosers. We returned to Piedra Negra and established camp, turning in for an early night in anticipation of an equally early start the following morning. We were then slammed by a small but violent squall.
Initially, the winds rocketed in from the ice cap, deflected largely by our small windwall. At some point in the night, they reversed direction and occasionally flattened our tent with insanely powerful gusts – the Authentic Patagonian Experience. Each tense lull ended with a roaring crescendo, not unlike the breaking surf of a storm surge. As each new wave of air crested the peak to our east, we had time to sit up and brace the tent before the roof promptly slapped us in the face. Having thus spent the night, we slept in the following day and waited for the sun to shine on the west faces. This never occurred.
On the third day, the requisite alpine start found us approaching the western aspect of Mermoz, bound for the Argentina route. I was already fairly certain of our impending failure as we began the approach. Although on the mend, the weather was still less than perfect with overcast skies and occasional frigid easterlies laced with ice crystals. Having seen little or no sun since the storm, the conditions on the exposed slabs leading to the face varied between unpleasant and horrific, which obviously boded ill for the route itself.
Sure enough, when we arrived at the base of the climb, the snow conditions meant that merely getting onto the rock was difficult. I resorted to aid techniques to gain the initial steep corner, after which the generous coating of ice made even the largest of holds tenuous and desperate. Even still, I was committed to giving it my best shot, but came to a point where the rock steepened and I was no longer comfortable with the risk. We bailed, and shortly afterward realised that we’d been on the wrong route anyway!
Although we came up short on our third attempt, we learned a lot from that outing, as we did during all our climbs in the Chalten Massif. Having arrived with somewhat low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised at what we were able to achieve, especially given the relatively challenging conditions that season. The entire experience was a real eye-opener for me. It significantly broadened the scope of what I might have considered possible in my climbing career, as well as formed a perfect examination of the skills I’ve gathered thus far. I came with a molehill of ambition and left with a mountain.
For those who haven’t yet experienced climbing in the Chalten Massif, know this – the hype is real. This is a place where reputation and reality align – the history is rich, the scenery is fantastic, the rock is impeccable and the routes are all-time. You’ll need a solid background in adventure climbing, glacial travel and self-rescue to climb here, and it’s not a place to be testing the boundaries of your technical limits. But that said, don’t be too intimidated either – with modern weather predictions, the calm periods are surprisingly hospitable, and there’s no real reason to be climbing in even marginal conditions.
But be warned – you can check out of Hotel Chalten any time you like, but you can never leave. Patagonia gets under your skin, and once it’s there, it’s not coming out. I’m already planning my return.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
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