During my inaugural visit to Chile, at some point in the early months of 2013, I caught my first glimpse of the iconic spires of Cerro Castillo. Aptly named, the crenelated ramparts share an undeniable likeness with the profile of a medieval castle, complete with moat, turrets, and a fortified keep guarding the summit. This intimidating visage made a lasting impression on me, but it would take the passage of more than half a decade before I would realise the goal of ascending this striking peak.
Since that first viewing, I had seen Cerro Castillo perhaps a dozen or so times on various journeys along the Carretera Austral. During a span of two years and four visits to the Aysen Region, I took part in maybe 10 or so expeditions in the area, each of which involved passing the mountain whilst en route to other destinations. Often times, it was shrouded in cloud, which partially explains why successful ascents of Cerro Castillo are relatively rare – Patagonian weather is infamously fickle and not even slightly undeserving of its reputation for hostility.
As part of La Carretera Alta, we made a brief visit to the Cerro Castillo area in early November 2018, during which we volunteered for a short period at a sustainable building project near Puerto Ibanez. The wind was relentless, often around 50km/hr in the relatively sheltered coves near Lago General Carrera, which meant upwards of 130km/hr on the summit of Cerro Castillo. Obviously, we would be having none of that guff, but did a little sport climbing as a consolation prize. When the weather ceased to improve, we returned north to Frey for a splendid week of alpine rock.
After Frey, a quick weather check provided good news. A nomadic high-pressure system was about to make a fleeting visit to the southern tip of South America, bringing with it a short but almost certain period of calm. The timing was serendipitous, and we raced south to position ourselves at the foot of the mountain as the skies cleared.
During the drive, we discussed tactics. Normally, an ascent of Cerro Castillo via the Normal Route is conducted as a three-day expedition. A four-hour approach finds parties at the New Zealand Basecamp, a tranquil grove of gnarled beech trees below the Northwest Face. From there, a gain and loss of roughly 1400m will see successful ascensionists back at camp well before nightfall, after which they hoof it out the following morning.
But honestly, who could be arsed? For a multiday effort, we’d need a tent, stove, food, sleeping gear and various other odds and ends. In all likelihood, this extra gear would provide only marginal benefit. Light is right, we reasoned, figuring we could probably shorten the approach time by cutting back on weight. What’s more, kicking it over in an alpine-style single push would allow us to sleep in the van where we could get a good night’s rest.
Or at least that was the theory, but as it turned out, neither of us slept a wink. The sun beamed right though the gaps in our curtains until finally dipping below the horizon at around 10pm. After this, a belligerent blackbird shadowboxed with his reflection in the wing mirror, tapping some sort of avian morse code for our listening pleasure. Finally, we gave up on the idea of sleep, rising an hour earlier than planned and began the attempt at 12am.
The approach went without a hitch, and as suspected, took only three hours to complete. After a vague segment in the beginning, the trail is well worn and exceedingly easy to navigate, even in the depths of a moonless night. Before long, we found ourselves at the New Zealand camp having covered about 12km of distance and 800m of vertical gain. Here, we stopped for an hour to brew up, eat breakfast, and wait for the approaching dawn.
Just before 4am, we left camp and pushed upward though fields of moraine as the sky began to show vestiges of light. Perhaps 2 hours later, we found ourselves in the prominent central couloir that leads toward the rocky spires. It was broad daylight by the time we donned crampons, after which we ascended the moderate snow slopes for another 2-3 hours of slogging.
Although the crumbling brown towers are spectacular, the couloir stretches onward into tedium, seemingly forever. Of course, it must end at some point, and the terminus forms the nexus for three different routes – the Normal Route, the Chilean Variant, and the incredibly aesthetic Japanese Route (Fun Fact: The Japanese Route was actually opened by a South Korean, but at the time, the locals didn’t know the difference).
Having been given beta by our friend and local climber Matias Cabrera, we had taken a fancy to the Chilean Variant. This is essentially the Normal Route, but instead of an exposed snow traverse, it involves two pitches of rock climbing in addition to the final rock pitch of the summit block. These pitches are graded at 5.8/5.9, but deserve an R rating at the very least.
“There is some protection,” Matias told me, “but I strongly suggest that you don’t fall, jajaja.”
The topo he provided me described the rock as MALA CALIDAD, which means bad quality for those whose Spanish is lacking, but whom I assume can still decipher the intent behind that ardent capitalisation. But it didn’t look that hard, so we abstained from changing into the rock shoes we’d had carried with us.
The climbing was certainly achievable with mountaineering boots and backpack, but also pretty engaging. Personally, I can’t remember having climbed worse rock in my life, and keep in mind that I’m a regular choss wrangler in the Glasshouse Mountains and on lesser-known “classics” at Frog Buttress. Helmets come highly recommended, or better yet, just don’t climb these pitches at all. Technically speaking, the grade would probably be more like 5.7 on the ground, but given the generally murderous nature of the rock, I suppose it’s worth an extra number or two. Given the inadequate protection and constant rockfall hazard, the climbing is just as serious for the second as for the leader.
However, without any real fuss, we eventually found ourselves at the summit block, where a short and better protected pitch of rock found us on top of Cerro Castillo. We summited at 11:30am, and we were stoked. There was not a breath of wind, and the skies were clear – a rare treat indeed for this neck of the woods.
I wasn’t particularly worried about snow conditions for descent, as the sun-affected aspects were on benign terrain and the steeper sections of the central couloir were yet to be exposed to the heat of the afternoon. That said, we proceeded quickly through the couloir in case of rockfall, but also taking care with our steps on the steeper segments. Once the angle levelled off, we gleefully glissaded some 500m or so to the treeline below, arriving back in New Zealand camp for another break and a small meal before departing for the car.
At first, it was a delight to see the Patagonian forest by the light of day, but this pleasure was short-lived as fatigue gripped us. I’m not embarrassed to admit that we accepted a lift from a nearby farmer who drove us about 3km along the gravel road from the trailhead to our car, wherein we celebrated with high fives and a 14-hour sleep.
All told, our mission took 19 hours 19 minutes, covered about 22km of distance and 2200m of elevation gain and loss. I don’t think it was the hardest alpine climb I have ever done, but it was certainly one of the most dangerous, and I’m not sure that I would recommend the Chilean Variant to others. In good conditions, I feel that the Normal Route is almost as challenging, probably more enjoyable and certainly much safer.
With all that being said, I still had a fantastic day in the hills and am particularly chuffed to have finally knocked off this objective. After spending so much time in my consciousness, it feels grand to have finally ticked this scary bastard off my list.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.