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Splitter Cracks and Stellar Weather
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February 2010 :: Argentina :: El Cajon de Arenales

Ryan Huetter, winner of a 2009 Mountain Fellowship from the AAC, reports on a new route in El Cajón de Arenales in Argentina:

During the long weeks since I climbed the North Tower of Paine, waiting in vain for the right day to climb the Central Tower, much time was spent fantasizing about warm-weather routes and creating the ultimate Top 10 climbs for the coming season. But when the opportunity came to return to El Cajón de los Arenales, to explore the inner canyon and attempt some new routes, I realized that the fantasy had become a reality.

With much haste, I put together an itinerary that would allow my Brazilian friend, Wagner Machado, to take some time off from his geology work in Rio and come down to help me realize this vision. From the start, however, we found that we were going to have to work hard just to get there. Wagner’s luggage was lost, forcing a delay, and when we tried to contact the logistical-support person that I had met last year, the phone number was wrong. This led us to the crux of the trip.

Hiring a regular taxi to take us and all of our gear from Tunuyan in the Argentinean province of Mendoza to the Gendarmeria Portinari (an Army outpost on the border with Chile) was the biggest mistake we could have made. The taxi ran only on propane and so had the horsepower of a lawnmower. Unable to make it up the smallest of hills, we had to get out and walk with our gear to the tops, until finally the “Little Engine That Could” stopped dead, leaving us and our mountain of climbing gear miles from where we needed to be. After five hours of load ferrying, we finally could crash after getting all of our equipment to the Refugio El Cajon.

Waking up the next morning, I was struck by the strange lack of gale-force winds, snow, or other climbing-prohibitive weather patterns. This wasn’t Patagonia! Being at almost 3,000 meters at base camp, and with persistent tendonitis in my foot, we decide to acclimatize on a nearby spire, climbing Carlos Daniel (250m, 5.10a) and taking some pictures of interesting features from the summit. The next day, we went for a long hike over the talus into the inner canyon to repeat a climb on El Marinero, a giant prow of rock rising steeply from the shore of the glacier-fed lake, and see if it held the opportunity for a new route. We climbed two pitches but failed to see any evidence of a route. The terrain above us seemed steep and intimidating, unlike the route we were supposed to be on. Reaching a belay stance, we decided to leave a gear anchor and fix our ropes to the ground so we could scope out a line with binoculars and come back with all the gear we would need to establish our climb.

Back on the ground, Wagner and I were both amazed at what we saw above our high point: a perfect line going up a series of steep dihedrals, just to the right of the vertical to overhanging south face. We were stoked. After a day of taking some more gear to the base, we were ready. Leaving at 8 a.m. (not the midnight alpine start I had been used to!), we hiked to the base of El Marinero and jumared up our lines, and then I racked up to lead the third pitch, hoping for the best.

We’d hoped for the best, and we got it. The route opened itself in front of us. The climbing was difficult and sustained, but never was there a question of where it would go: It was a natural line up a beautiful face on immaculate rock. The climbing and quality of the rock was very much like that of the High Sierra, and several times I had remind myself that I wasn’t on the Incredible Hulk but instead was in the Argentinean backcountry! The steep corner systems offered up amazing and endless hand and finger cracks, through slots and over roofs, always ending in comfortable belay ledges, pitch after pitch.

After seven long pitches we made it to the top of the wall, with no drama, onsight and all free aside from a tension traverse I led, which Wagner eliminated when he followed. As we rapped the face, sometimes following our route, sometimes to the left, we found no evidence of a previous route except for a single slung horn halfway up the wall. We installed all new rappel stations, only placing two pitons and one bolt. We assume the original route climbed to the top, but are unable to figure out where it would have gone, and are unsure if it has been repeated since its recorded ascent in 1993. Our route is for sure the second route on the face, and perhaps the second ascent of the formation overall. The route is comparable to the best of the other long hard free climbs in the canyon, and will become an area classic once more climbers start venturing a bit deeper into the canyon. We named the route El Regalo de Poseidon (Poseidon’s Gift): 300m, 5.11b, 7 pitches.

The rest of the trip was relaxed and uneventful. We repeated several classic established routes in the Camponile Towers before returning to sweltering-hot Mendoza—this time hiring a 4WD vehicle to take us down!.

A big thanks goes out to the American Alpine Club and the Mountain Fellowship, which made this trip possible!

Editor’s note: For more information and photos from Cajón de Arenales, click here.