Me and Thomas Gianola started our trip on December first, flying from Milan to el Sao Paolo, then to Buenos Aires and finally to El Calafate. After spending a night in El Calafate we took a bus to El Chalten, where we stayed for a little bit more than six weeks.
It was a quite spontaneous decision to travel to Patagonia and we booked our flight just a one and a half months in advance. The good thing was that we are quite flexible and so we could choose the cheapest dates so we good a quite cheep flight to el Calafate. We had bought a climbing guide about the region before we started and we knew which mountains we would have liked to climb....I mean who doesn't? I think the most famous mountains for alpinists that go to climb there (for the first time) are certainly the Cerro Torre and the Fitz Roy.
Certainly Patagonia is also well known for his unsettled and windy weather and we knew that good weather windows are quite rare to find, so we didn't expect very much from our first visit to Patagonia. We just thought - let's go and see if we can climb some mountains there.
The fist impression was very similar to what one would expect...it was very windy and it often rained. The fact that the weather forecasts for these mountains aren't reliable at all didn't make things easier. The main problem during the first few weeks was that it snowed a lot in the mountains and so during the good weather days the conditions were mainly quite poor.
The first climb we attempted was the Aguja S, a small peak on the left side of the Fitz Roy massif. As I said the conditions we not good enough to climb something big and we also wanted to do something easy to start, so we choose one of the most classic and easiest climbs, the via de los Austriacos on the East face.
The wind in Patagonia can be very "unique" and we had a good opportunity to experience it during our first climb. When the wind diagrams talk about 10 knots per hour ...don't trust them...10 knots per hour in Patagonia means it is going to be more windy than you expect...I rather would have said about 50-60 km/h.
The second thing we had the opportunity to experience were the approaches. If a guidebook says it is going to take 6 hours to do the approach you should calculate that it will definitely take that long, unless you don't know the approach very well or have a very light backpack.
The Austriacos route starts with a snow ramp (about 150 meters, 50-60 degrees), followed by three rock pitches in a dihedral that lead to a saddle. From there you have to climb three more long pitches on the north ridge to get to the summit.
Climbing in the sun on the east face was very enjoyable and the snow didn't bother us very much, but as soon as we got to the saddle we were suddenly exposed to very strong wind, a never ending gust, that made us decide to retreat.
We very quite disappointed, and were already wondering if those were normal Patagonian conditions and if we would ever get to climb any mountain.
In the meantime we learned little by little how everything was working in this seemingly inhospitable region, not just what concerned climbing but also the everyday life.
We were staying at a little hostel and we got there just because on "booking" it was the cheapest hostel we could find. But we were lucky - it was one of the cheapest but also one of the best! The owner Jorge was very kind and so were most of the guests that kept coming and going. We seemed to be the only ones that planned to stay there for a longer period and so we started to feel a bit like at home.
El Chalten is not exactly the cheapest place and so we started to figure out which would be the main ingredients for our meals: eggs, flour, milk, cheese (queso cremoso), potatoes, dulce de leche (milk-sweet cream), bread...and obviously meat! During the first few weeks our main dishes were pizza, pancakes and fried eggs. The main reason for this not very varied menu was that we read quite a lot about the climbs in Patagonia but missed to read some important main-informations about the country... We didn't know anything about the cambio blue in Argentina: the cambio blue is the unofficial exchange rate that you get on the black market and that is way better than the official exchange rate that you get in the bank.
In simple words it meant that we didn't bring almost any Euros or Dollars to Argentina and therefore with the official exchange rate everything was very expensive (official rate was 1€=10pesos, black market 1€=14pesos). So we had to try to spend as less money as possible and at the same time try to find a method to get some euros as fast as possible. I knew that a friend of mine was going to come to El Chalten towards the end of December, so I wrote him if he could bring us some Euros...in the meantime I sold a jacket to get some money.
During the first three weeks we spent quite a lot of time in the town, got to know new people and unexpectedly met people we already knew - for example Miguel, a Spanish guy who we met in Chamonix this summer.
Time was running by fast but it seemed we should not get lucky with the weather. We tried to go to climb the Poincenot around the 15th of December but the supposedly good weather turned into heavy snowfall and so after a night at the Laguna de Los tres we got back to town without even doing the rest of the approach to the base of the route. The more time passed, the more things seemed to be impossible.
Aguja Poincenot - Cochrane Willans
Some days later the weather improved, obviously after some consistent snowfall. We went up again to try to climb the only climb that seemed to be possible: the Cochrane-Willans on the Poincenot,
We went up together with Israel Blanco, a guy we met some days before and whose climbing partner had gone rock climbing to Chile for a few days.
We decided to start from the Laguna de los Tres in order not to have to carry our heavy 4kg tent higher up to Paso Superior. As we got to the Laguna de Los Tres it had already begun to rain and kept on raining and snowing also during the night. When we woke up the next morning we realized that it would have been too dangerous and strenuous to try to go up that day so we decided to wait and see if the snow would settle down a bit.
We were not really sure about what to do as it had snowed about 30 cm. We were close to return back to town but then some other guys came up and told us they were going to try to climb the Aguja Poincenot the following day. So we decided to stay one more day and give it a try.
We started from the Laguna de Los Tres at about midnight. We where glad to see that the snow surface had frozen a little bit during the night and everything seemed a bit safer. We got to the Paso superior and continued towards the base of the face. The first part of the Cochrane-Willans is a quite easy snow ramp up to 60-70 degrees steep.
Then two mixed pitches lead to the upper part. In good conditions the upper part should be quite easy rock climbing up to V+ but that day it was was quite covered with snow and we had to climb it with crampons and iceaxes. Some sections were quite tricky and also the route finding was not always easy.
The wind got stronger and stronger, as predicted, and we climbed the last pitches almost in the storm. There was another climbing party that had gone to the top together with us and to be sure that we would have another pair of ropes in case one would get stuck we decided to abseil together.
The bad thing about this strategy was that we were exposed to extremely strong winds for quite a long time. The descend seemed endless and I would say it's almost a miracle that we all got down safe and without loosing any rope. For me it certainly was one of the crucial experiences in Patagonia and one of the worse situations I experienced in the mountains. Sometimes the wind was so strong that it would have probably blown us away if we would not have been attached to the anchors. We also had to struggle against the wind to get down to our tent that we reached after about 23 hours.
Back in town we were very happy to have done this epic ascent even though in normal conditions this climb wouldn't certainly have been that challenging.
We were quite tired but that didn't bother us very much as the weather during the following days got very poor.
Over Christmas it even started to snow in El Chalten so we had the opportunity to cook something good for Christmas (to be honest it was Thomas who spent the afternoon cooking while I had gone climbing with a Grier, an very pleasant and cute girl we met hitch hiking some days before). On Christmas eve we were pleased Grier joined us for dinner.
Towards the end of December the weather finally seemed to improve. It seemed like we should get a chance to climb something. Again we were quite undecided about what to do as we knew that two Austrian teams we going to try to climb the Supercanaleta, that hadn't been climbed during the last months due to very dry conditions in the lower part. But as we had left part of our gear at the Laguna de Los Tres we decided to have a look at the Franco Argentina on the Fitz Roy. On the way to the Laguna de Los Tres we unexpectedly met Toni and his girlfriend Sara. Toni is an old friend of mine whom I climbed a lot with during my studies in Innsbruck and I was very surprised and happy to meet him again on the other side of the planet :-).
We were the first ones to go to the Paso Superior early in the morning. In the afternoon Miguel joined us, as we had planned to climb the route together with him. During the day many others followed and in the evening the Paso Superior was quite crowded with tents. Most of the people wanted to climb the Cochrane-Willans on the Poincenot but there were also two other roped parties that wanted to try the Franco Argentina. We left our tent at about one o'clock in the morning. Miguel decided to stay at the Paso Superior as his shoes were soaked up with water.
One team was already ahead of us so we had the advantage of their tracks. As we got to the Silla we realized that there was still a lot of snow in the cracks - too much to try to climb the route in a day and even if we would have wanted to climb It, we could not have done it as we didn't bring any sleeping bags or stove. So, again, we had to retreat, but this time we knew that we simply had taken the wrong decision, because the weather was good and stable.
We got back to our tents where Miguel was still waiting for his shoes to dry up. As we still wanted to try to climb something we decided to go to the Poincenot camp and try to climb the Aguja S the next day.
Aguja S - second go
So after a few hours of sleep we started from the Poincenot camp. We already knew the best way to get to the Laguna Sucia and to the base of the route and our backpacks were quite light, so after about 4 1/2 hours were were at the base of the route. We climbed the first pitches and got to the point where we had given up some weeks earlier. Fortunately the weather was perfect and so after three more pitches we stood on the top of the Aguja S. For us it was a great feeling, at least we had reached a summit again!
It was the 31th of December and we got back to town at about nine o'clock in the evening. After three days of walking and climbing we felt quite tired but we knew that a good weather window was supposed to come in the first days of January.
At night I went to the Vineria to have a couple of beers with Sebastian and Roman and some other people that were staying at our hostel. There I also met Roli (the Austrian friend who brought me the Euros) and he told me that he and his friends had climbed the Supercanaleta on the Fitz Roy the day before. These were very good news for us because so knew what we could try next.
Fitz Roy - Supercanaleta
We almost couldn't believe it but the coming weather window seemed to be even better than we thought. We started on the fourth of January and did the approach starting from the Rio Electrico to Piedra Del Fraile, Piedra Negra, Paso del Cuadrado and finally we got to the base of the Southface of Fitz Roy, where the Supercanaleta starts.
There were also three Austrian guys that were going to climb the same route. The conditions seemed to be quite good and fortunately it wasn't very windy as we didn't bring the tent. After some hours of sleep we started to climb. The first 1000 m are not very difficult and offer snow/ice sections up to 65°. We climbed this first part in the dark to be safe from ice and stone-fall. After that you have to climb a few steeper ice and mixed pitches and you also pass by the frozen body of Frank, a Dutch mountaineer who died falling into the Supercanaleta while trying to solo the Californian route in 2002 and whose body is now covered by ice.
After the middle part you get to a ramp you have to follow diagonally to the right. After this traverse you get to some steeper pitches. In dry conditions this upper part apparently can be climbed in rock shoes. In our case there was still quite a lot of snow that covered the rocks end so we climbed all the pitches with crampons and mostly with ice axes. The nearer we got to the ridge the stronger became the wind. The last few pitches offered very interesting mixed sections but the placements very mainly very good. The last two-hundred meters were on less steep snow and easy mixed terrain. We got to the summit after about thirteen hours and enjoyed the view for another half an hour before descending again.
We descended to the col and abseiled along the Supercanaleta (you skip the first part on the ridge and the traverse and abseil down directly through the dihedral). After a few abseils we passed the next dead body...this time it was the body of Chad Kellog who died in 2014 due to stone-fall while rappelling. He was left there hanging from his harness, and abseiling we passed directly besides his body - a very sad and macabre view. After about six hours of abseiling we got to our sleeping bags. We slept at the base of the face for another night and then walked out to the Rio Electrico the next morning. In the evening we were back in town again and had time to check the weather forecast and rest a bit.
We were positively surprised that the weather forecast was still good for the next few days.
We also knew that a few teams had gone to attempt to climb the Ragni route on the Cerro Torre that during this season hadn't still been summited. We also heard rumors that someone had seen a person on the top of Cerro Torre with a spyglass. So we decided not to rest for too long and after one rest day we started again, this time towards our next big goal: the Cerro Torre
Cerro Torre - Ragni Route
Which alpinist doesn't know the Cerro Torre and dreamt about climbing it? It is said that the Torre is one of the most difficult mountains to climb, on one hand because there is no easy way to get to it's top and on the other hand because you need quite a few days of good weather to climb it. Until the year 2012 the Maestri route, on the east face was the most popular climb to get to it's top. But then, after climbing a new route, Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk removed almost half of the bolts Maestri had drilled during his first (aid) ascent and since then it is not possible anymore to climb the mountain along this route (David Lama and Peter Ortner free climbed almost the same line 2012 after the bolts removal - crux pitch 8a).
Since then another much more logical but harder accessible route won popularity: the Ragni Route on the West face. The Ragni route, now the Torre's normal route has been first ascended in 1974 by Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari and Pino Negri. It truly is a masterpiece and it is almost incredible to think they managed to climb that face at that time.
The access to get to the base of the route is rather complicated and usually takes two days.
The first day we walked to the Laguna Torre and from there we continued to Niponinos, a campsite situated underneath el Mocho and Cerro Torre's east face. When I say campsite I don't mean a camping nor a perfectly flat open area where you go to camp and just hang out. Basically Niponinos are some big boulders on a glacier moraine with some small flat sandy spots in between them. The place is very comfortable but the approach is not that pleasant.....
There were also two Austrian teams there. One three men party and one two men party. We already knew them and so the atmosphere was quite good.
After bivouacing there we started at about six o'clock the next morning and went to Paso Standhardt, rapelled down on the other side and went down to the Circo de Los Altares. It would not be necessary to descend until the Circo de Los Altares but as we didn't exactly see where we had to traverse we preferred to go down and then go up again to the Filo Rosso.
As the snow was already very fluffy we decided to bivouac about 1300 m underneath the summit. As we didn't bring the tent we bivouaced directly on the snow.
Again it was not a very long night and at one o'clock we already started towards the Col de L'Esperanza. We got to the base of el Elmo, the buttress of the steep needle-like summit, with the first light. The atmosphere was simply magic, only the wind made it a bit more uncomfortable. From there we climbed about three or four pitches to get to the top of el Elmo. Generally it took us a bit longer than we would have liked as we were the last of three teams and had to wait quite a lot on the belays. After the Elmo we got to the quite easy mixed pitches and to the head wall that offered two very good and steep ice pitches. After those two pitches two more ice/rime pitches led to a little saddle where we enjoyed the sun before climbing the unique ice tunnel that leads to the last pitch. At the base of the last pitch we had plenty of time to rest and watch the others climb this incredible rime formation before it was our turn. The climbing on the last pitch was very cool, and as we were probably the seventh climbing party to climb this pitch this season it was quite clean and good to climb.
We finally got to the summit at about half past three. Indescribable moments - a dream came true. The weather was perfect, the wind wasn't almost blowing and we enjoyed the view from the top before starting the rappels.
After about six hours we got back again to our tents. This climb was certainly one of my best and most unique adventures, even though from the technical point of view it didn't seem that hard to me (the crux is the last pitch and was maybe comparable to a WI 5+ pitch).
But what I didn't know was that the hardest part was still up to come.......
Already during the descent the wind had consistently got stronger and we especially felt it on the last part of the rappels underneath the Elmo. Then, at the tents the wind seemed a bit less strong. Our original plan was to hike down to the Circo de Los Altares before it got dark and then go back over the Passo Marconi during the night. What we did't expect was such a strong wind. We passed the moraine at the end of the Circo de Los Altares and started to walk in direction of the Paso Marconi but the wind was that strong, that we decided to return back to the Circo de los Altares, bivouac there and decide what to do the next day. Also Peter and Sepp had decided to stay at the Circo de los Altares so the next day we started together with them. Due to the strong wind we decided it might be better to go back over the Paso del Viento. The paso del Viento lies in the opposite direction than Paso Marconi but apparently it takes the same time to go back to El Chalten - 12 hours... And about 12 km of hiking on the hielo continental...
After some endless seeming hours we fortunately got to el Paso del Viento. We did't have a detailed description about this descent as we had planned to do the descend via Paso Marconi. So we thought it would not last that long to get to el Chalten. We were wrong: in total we had to do 45 km and we got back to El Chalten after 14 hours. What a hike!
Back in El Chalten I could not miss to go to have dinner and drink a few beers with Toni and Sara - crazy!
During the next days we rested, ate and slept a lot. The weather stayed good and after a few days we thought we should do one last climb before it would get worse again and we would have to leave. So we decided to go to climb something easy that we could do in one day.
Aguja Guillaumet - Brenner
After three rest days, on the apparently last good weather day we started at two o'clock in the night. We took a taxi to Rio Electrico and from there we hiked up to Piedra Negra and to the base of the Brenner Route on the Aguja Guillaumet. This is one of the easiest and most accessible routes in el Chalten ( 350m 6b). At about 8 o'clock we started to climb and reached the top about four - four and a half hours later. During the descend we realized that we still were quite tired from the last adventures and that probably this would have been our last climb on this trip.
And so was it.
Even though the weather stayed very good for the next days we decided that it would be better to take it easy on the last days and leave the next big projects for our next trip to Patagonia!
It was a great experience that gave us also he opportunity to meet new interesting people whom I hope we will meet again in future. Thanks and good luck for future projects to everyone we met on the trip!
At this point I would also like to thank "Reusch" for the support. Best gloves ever!
Thanks also to Uli and "Riskprotect" :-)!