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Climbing Patagonia: exploring El Chalten

Climbing Patagonia, Photo: Zeb Blais. Early morning glacier approach to Poincenot.

Early morning glacier approach to Poincenot.

 

Argentina’s rugged landscape and romantic allure has captivated me since I was a little kid.  It seemed like an incredibly free place – wide open country like America’s wild west.  Climbing Patagonia was a greater fantasy still- a far off land at the end of the earth where jagged granite spires pierced through brilliant blue and white glaciers.

I’d felt the energy of Patagonia years before when I traveled to Bariloche to ski and climb in the Lakes Region.  This time it was palpable.  As our bus rolled into the town of El Chalten, the famous mountains of mountaineering lore radiated excitement.  Our timing was good, we had arrived in the beginning of a window of clear weather.  Even the elusive Cerro Torre, which is often shrouded in cloud, was out in its full glory.  To the east of the Torre Group, the Fitzroy Group was proudly showing off its golden granite cliffs.

Climbing Patagonia, Photo: Zeb Blais. On our way into the Fitzroy Group.

On our way into the Fitzroy Group. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

It’s hard not to be absolutely mesmerized by the mountains in Chalten, but we knew it was a fleeting moment and we needed to take advantage of perfect climbing weather.  We lugged our insane quantity of gear to the closest hostel, threw our bags down and got to work sorting out supplies and gear for our mission.  What routes were in?  What would our abilities allow us to climb?  How long would the weather last?

 

We prepared ourselves for whatever conditions might come our way: ice gear, rock gear, avalanche tools and full winter camping kits.  We set out from town loaded to the gills with food for 3 days – the time until the weather was supposed to take a change for the worse.

 

Just before our camp at Paso Superior,  we spotted our route: the Whillans-Cochran on Poincenot.  Poincenot (Poyn-seh-not) is the second tallest peak in the Fitzroy massif and an incredibly aesthetic one.  It’s as intimidating as it is beautiful.  A large bergshrund (the crevasse that separates the moving glacial ice from the stationary ice at the top) bars access to the Whillans ramp, a 65 to 70 degree snow and ice smear that leads to mixed climbing and an all granite finish.

Climbing Patagonia. Poincenot. The Whillans ramp is the snow line on the left. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Poincenot. The Whillans ramp is the snow line on the left. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

The line looked fairly reasonable – the Whillans ramp leads across the eastern apron of the mountain to the south side where a bit of moderate mixed climbing ends in steeper rock to the summit.  Calling it a snow ramp makes it sound like a place where you might leave your 3 year old kids at a ski area but it is serious terrain.  Before even gaining the ramp, we had to navigate the bergshrund.  It was bridged by steep, awkward snow of dubious strength.  Below the bridge was a 100 foot fall to the bottom of the crevasse where a fallen climber would bounce and be spit out down the sheer 1,800’ face below.  No big deal in Patagonia, just part of the game here!

Climbing Patagonia. Jeb stepping across the snow bridge over the bergshrund. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Jeb stepping across the snow bridge over the bergshrund. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

The ramp itself was straightforward: good quality snow and enough ice to confidently sink tools and ice screws into it.  Being our first mission in the range,  we opted to belay the pitches and place protection as we went.  Many climbers solo this section for speed, but we were happy to play it slow and safe. First timers in Patagonia, we wanted to be more comfortable with potential rockfall, snowpack and route conditions before we wanted to commit to that level. Andreas Franson actually skied the Whillans Ramp, in what he alluded to being his last accolade of extreme skiing.  He too was surprised at the steepness of the route, it looks deceivingly less steep from town or pictures.

 

Climbing Patagonia. Jeb belaying me on the Willans. It was steeper than it looked from town. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Jeb belaying me on the Willans. It was steeper than it looked from town. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

We climbed to the mixed section of the route and knew it was time to turn around.  We were moving too slowly to complete the climb and we wanted some daylight to navigate the glacier back to camp.

Climbing Patagonia. Jeb and I near our high point on Poincenot. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Jeb and I near our high point on Poincenot. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

Climbing Patagonia. The last snow and Ice before the mixed section. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Rapping the last snow and ice before the mixed section. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

It was a long day, but we still had good weather and we wanted to take another crack at something in the group.  We sighted in on an smaller objective: The Amy-Vidallette Route on Guillemet (Gee-sha-met).  This route was shorter, a glacier traverse to a moderate snow and ice climb to moderate granite climbing, to a snowy finish.   It seemed we still had the weather on our side and this was a more manageable climb.

The day started well, firm snow conditions made for easy walking.  But soon enough, we were breaking deep trail slogging to the start of the steep climbing.  We made it to the bergshrund separating the glacier from the steep snow and ice couloir and climbed a smear of vertical ice stuck onto the granite to get across the divide in the glacial ice.

Climbing Patagonia. Heading north to Guillemet. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Heading north to Guillemet. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

The climbing was straight forward and fun until the top of the last pitch where it became steep snow climbing in faceted, unconsolidated snow.  After pulling through this challenge we were at a notch in the massif allowing us incredible views to the east and west.

Climbing Patagonia. The Amy Vidallet on the right. We gainied the slope by climbing ice on the granite far climbers right in the picture. Photo: Zeb Blais.

The Amy Vidallet on the right. We gainied the slope by climbing ice on the granite far climbers right in the picture. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Climbing Patagonia. Jeb topping out on the snow and ice couloir of the Amy-Vadallet. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Jeb topping out on the snow and ice couloir of the Amy-Vadallet. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

We continued up the granite, but were soon engulfed by clouds.  We knew we were on the edge of our weather window, and made the call to descend.

Climbing Patagonia. Our final pitch before the weather rolled in. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Our final pitch before the weather rolled in. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

We hadn't gotten to the top of anything!  Surprisingly, we weren't disappointed.  We had learned a lot about the nature of climbing in Patagonia, the quality of the rock and ice and the weather.  This time it was a learning experience - we were happy, safe and had a lot more knowledge on how to succeed on our next mission.  Can't wait to go back!

Climbing Patagonia. Until next time Patagonia! Jeb tossing the rope to descend Guillemet. Photo: Zeb Blais.

Until next time Patagonia! Jeb tossing the rope to descend Guillemet. Photo: Zeb Blais.

 

Thanks to Darn Tough Vermont Socks and Julbo USA Performance Eyewear.

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