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New Routes in Patagonia
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February 2011 :: Argentina :: Patagonia

Short Version:

Between February 7th and 21st, Blake Herrington and I enjoyed rare good weather near El Chalten, in Southern Argentine Patagonia. We completed two in-a-day ascents: "Las Vent'uras" (5.11 A1, 500m), a new route on the West Face of Guillamet "Cosas Patagonicas" (5.11, 600m), a first free ascent on the West Face of Mermoz. Then, in one week long window, we freed the West Face of Cerro Pollone, traversed the summit ridge, and dropped down to the east side for a six day roundtrip effort from town. We freed "A Fine Piece" (Donini-Crouch, 5.11+, 750m) onsight, with one bivy on route, and made the first integral ascent of Cerro Pollone, including both West and East summits. Thanks to the amazing support of the American Alpine Club, through a Mountain Fellowship grant, for giving me this opportunity!

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Full version: On January 22nd, Blake Herrington and I arrived in Argentina, with plenty of gear in our packs and dreams of Patagonian summits in our heads. With generous support from the American Alpine Club's Mountain Fellowship grant, I was able to make this potentially once-in-a-lifetime trip a reality, and we were ready to make it count! After a pleasant week enjoying the sun and low-commitment cragging of the Frey, we endured a 50+ hour bus ride south, to El Chalten, to the big mountains, and to the real goals of our trip.

Shortly after arriving, a promising weather window could be seen in the forecast, so we loaded up for a shorter warm-up climb, and headed up to Piedras Negras base camp, just north of the Fitz Roy massif. On February 7th, we left camp pre-dawn and hiked over a low pass, traversed a steep snowfield, and arrived at the base of the West Face of Guillamet. Consulting a photo topo of the three existing routes on the face, we noticed that the plumb line, up the tallest aspect of the face, was yet unclimbed. We spotted a line of cracks, found a likely starting point, and roped up.

Blake led first, casually onsighting the first four pitches. On my lead block, one rope-stretching pitch of perfect vertical granite followed another, with a long, flared, and burly OW pitch provided the crux. Future parties might consider bringing a #6. High on the wall, we encountered more snow and ice, and this combined with the waning daylight and incoming weather to provide the needed sense of urgency after so many blissful pitches. On a steep and finger crack just one pitch from the top, frigid hands and exhaustion caught up with me and I took a short lead fall. After a brief hang I continued free climbing, and this would be the only point of aid on the route. Blake took back the lead, confident that the summit was near, despite icy cracks above. He quickly found a rappel, traverse, and semi-dry crack that gained the summit ridge. We unroped and trudged up the summit snowfield, tagged the top just as the last vestiges of light faded in the West.

After an unpleasantly dark and wet rappel session (starting down the Brenner ridge, ending accidently on a massive steep and blank face), we dropped back onto a snowfield sometime around 3am, and made tracks back to our base camp and some welcome sleep, just as the eastern sky began to lighten. In a 23hour roundtrip push from camp, we had established "Las Vent'uras" (5.11 A1, 600m), named for the Window (Ventana), Cracks (Fissuras) and good fortune (Ventura) that had allowed us this adventure.

Waking the next morning in our base camp, we quickly met other climbers, hiking up from town to make their attempts. They brought news of more good weather, and so we quickly motivated to run back to town and resupply. A quick round trip returned us to Base Camp the next day, and we rallied out this time to the West Face of Aguja Mermoz. The next peak along the ridge to Fitz Roy, Mermoz also sports a massive and rarely visited West Face. One route, "Cosas Patagonicas" had been established, with some use of aid, in the late 1980s by a group of Italians, and it was unrepeated.

Blake and I found the line, the obvious weakness up the orange and grey face, and started climbing just after dawn. The crux of the route came low, with a wet corner that required a few attempts before we were able to lead it cleanly. Above that, the climbing remained difficult, with numerous sections of wet rock provided some exciting moments, though no more falls. A definite highlight lead was Blake's bold foray up into a wet roof OW/chimney, pulling off the onsight with some footloose shoulder squirming.

After ~8 pitches, the dihedral ended and we traversed left to join the Hyper-Mermoz route, finishing the last ~6 pitches up to the summit ridge. Another sunset summit, and another all-night rappel (down the Argentine route), and we arrived back at camp just after sunrise the next morning. We had freed "Cosas Patagonicas" (5.11, 700m) in a 25hr push, and were now exhausted and ready for some bad weather, a perfect excuse for lounging, drinking, and feasting back in town!

After a truly enjoyable week of such relaxation, yet another weather window was peeking out of the forecast. Truly massive by Patagonian standards, the high pressure stretch on for a week or more! We were ready, and this time we had our sights on a bigger objective. The main goal that brought us South this season was Cerro Pollone, a beautiful and seldom visited peak on a separate massif, just west of most the Fitz range. Abutting directly on the ice cap, the Pollone range has, if possible, worse weather than the rest of the mountains. With an optimistic forecast, though, Blake and I began our approach on Feb 17th.

It took three days of slow approaching, up the Rio Electrico valley, through one particularly aggressive side-stream, across the Marconi glacier, and up the talus slopes and slabs that guarded the West Face of Pollone. Our route was not a new one, the obvious prize had been attempted in the late 1980s by a European team, who had made halfway up the face. A decade later, a strong American team had managed to complete the West Pillar, and had rappelled from there. Our goal would be to make the first free ascent of the route, and then continue along the summit ridge to the main summit.

Both parties had raved about the quality and challenge of the route, and we were entranced. The approached took longer than expected. We went first up the pleasant Rio Electrico valley, then up the snout of the Marconi Glacier. We crossed the glacier, and made our way to the cirque below a slew of rarely visited granite monoliths: Domo Blanco, Piergiorgio, Pollone, and a ridge of enticing towers stretched before us. The obvious approach to the West Pillar was a steep glacier extending down to the valley, but he had just one ice tool (having lost one in a freak river crossing accident the day before!) and did not look forward to navigating the many crevasses. Instead, we ascended a low angle ridge to the left of the glacier, mostly fourth-class with a few roped pitches, until we were above the toe of Pollone. After a bivy on the ridge, we rapped down to the snowfield and crossed to Pollone, finally ready to climb.

Starting up the face on Feb 20th, we confirmed our hopes, finding clean and solid rock. Though lower angle at the toe of the buttress, this section proved the most difficult, as it was devoid of continuous crack systems. We had to constantly switch between short-lived and flared little cracks, and one of these blank face traverses provided the routes crux, a stout boulder 5.11+ using two sloping aretes and microscopic footholds, and a heaven-sent little crystalline handhold on an otherwise blank face. After many pitches of fantastic climbing, and a comfy ledge bivy, we topped out the West Pillar on the 21st. We followed the long and convoluted summit ridge to the Main summit, and then descended down the ridge to the east, passing the East subsummit, making its second ascent (the first had been a month earlier, by our friends Neil and Jim).

We found an easy descent (rappelling and downclimbing) to the East onto the Fitz Norte glacier, just as the weather window started to close down. So, in a six day push from town, we had made the first free ascent of the West Face of Cerro Pollone, via "A Fine Piece" (5.11+, 750m), and the first integral ascent (including both main summits) of the mountain. Our month in Chalten was a truly amazing experience for me. Never before had I explored such massive and wild mountains, or put up new routes! Thanks again to the American Alpine Club, we couldn't have done it without you! Scott Bennett Bariloche, Argentina March 21st, 2011