Expeditions always have troubles of some sort—storms, choss, sickness. Sometimes, you get scammed by a donkey herder. Read on for a great report by Mountain Fellowship Fund recipient Rob Gonzalez-Pita. Rob and his partner went to Chile for some exciting climbing in the Cordon Granito.
“Un Millon pesos?!?!?!” Was Humberto seriously going to charge us two thousand U.S.D. for a horse ride and a couple of donkeys? My climbing partner and I had done our research and concluded that the expense to shuttle our loads to the base of the Cordon Granito glacier would be roughly eight hundred dollars. Apparently the Chilean who organized the service to transport mules and pack horses didn’t agree with us. Upon a failed attempt at bartering in Spanish for half an hour, Humberto’s offer of two grand was not going to budge. Should we concede to our inner gringo and get taken advantage of, or should we get real and decline his offer?
Not paying attention in any of my classes for the last month I was in school, the only thing I could think about was climbing in South America. Blowing off studying for my finals, I decided that organizing my gear in my expedition bag was more important than studying trophic level efficiency. After all the waiting and nervousness of getting down to Chile, I finally arrived in Santiago with all of my bags.
After a short bus ride from Santiago to Rancagua, we procured all of the food necessary for the planned 24 day expedition to the Cordon Granito range. Then we met up with Humberto and Cesar, our contacts in Rancagua who were going to help us with the transport mules. Upon realizing the unreasonableness of paying $2,000, we decided to decline the offer and head south. First we had to return half of our food, and schlep the other half with us for fifty four hours on a bus. All of the time and energy spent on organizing the trip was pretty much shot to shit. As hard as it was, we took it in stride and started to move forward on deciding what to climb.
All of the talk and media attention about Parque Nacional de Los Glacieres in Southern Patagonia drew us to find out what the place was really about. It was not an easy task to get down there, to say the least. A twelve hour bus ride to Puerto Montt, followed by a six hour ride to Barlioche, concluded with a thirty-six hour ride to El Chalten, Argentina. Needless to say, we started to grow fond of each other as well as the terminal de buses.
Upon arriving in El Chalten, we could see Fitz Roy from town. Feeling inspired, we started to build the psych for climbing some alpine granite. It took a couple days for the weather to clear, but on the first clear day we headed up to the hills. Our eyes were set on the Whillans-Cochrane route (650m, 5, 60 degrees) on Poincenot. Being relatively new to big mountains, we found the cliffs to be quite a step up from the Rockies. As dumb as it sounds, we didn’t know it was necessary to traverse the Glaciar de Los Tres in order to reach Paso Superior at the base of our intended route. So, we got stuck on the talus field to the south and spent the night on a ridgeline below Poincenot. Nowhere near the Whillans-Cochrane, I to had to ask myself, “What the hell are you doing?”
Although disappointed at our lack of route finding experience, we knew that there was still first attempt potential on the East Face of Poincenot as well as Aguja Rafael Juarez. From our bivy site, we could see some of the routes on the south faces of Poincenot and Aguja Saint Exupéry. From what I perceived, there was a possibility for first ascents on these walls. I thought about a climber back in town who had told us that his first trip to the area was a considered a ‘scouting mission.’ His group had worked on learning to make the approaches and had failed on all of their other objectives. I really hoped our trip wouldn’t turn out to be the same.
Then the waiting game ensued but this time we were multi-tasking: waiting for the weather to clear and second guessing our skill and psych level. Copious amounts of empanadas, coffee and dulce de leche kept us entertained when the meteogram told us what we could already see: the weather was bad. The next ‘window’ found us back up in the Fitz-Roy range, trying to climb the Austrian route (450m, 5+, 55 degrees) on Aguja de la ‘S’. After finding the Lago Sucia bivouac, we started to mentally prepare for the next day’s climb.
My wristwatch’s battery died in the middle of the night and we motivated a couple hours later than expected. Up the col and across the Glaciar Rio Blanco, soon we were standing in front of our alpine objective. Unfortunately, the cracks that we were trying to climb were filled with ice and snow, and not suitable for any sort of rock climbing. Being humbled once again, we walked back to Chalten with our tails between our legs. After more empanadas and an uneventful New Year’s party, we started to get accustomed to life in Patagonia, disheartening as it was.
We weren’t going give up on climbing without a fight. And the saying “the third time’s a charm” rang true. Collecting our motivation, we hiked up to Piedra Negra in the shadow of Aguja Guillamet. The east face of Aguja Guillamet’s Amy Couloir (450m, 5, 60 degrees) was what we chose to climb.
Fortunately, our alarm went off this time and we didn’t get lost on the approach. Now there were no excuses, we needed to summit. After getting around to the east side of Guillamet, crecting the col, traversing the Glaciar Piedras Blancas and ascending the Bergschrund, we simul-climbed all of the ice in the couloir except the last pitch. One mixed pitch and we were at the base of four rock pitches. Although these pitches retained snow and ice, with gloves and crampons we had no problem climbing. After the technical pitches, we ran up a snow ramp and yelled, “Summit!” in each other’s faces. We were psyched!
Being extremely excited about reaching the summit of a Patagonian peak, we reveled in the joy of attaining the goal of our journey for a couple of days. The next forecast in El Chalten and the surrounding mountains looked pretty miserable. Foul weather was forecast for the entire last week of our trip. Precipitation, wind and our newfound addiction to riding on South American buses enticed us to head back north.
We arrived in Bariloche after a heinous twenty-four hour bus ride – only one hour was spent outside of the fourteen passenger bus with meager suspension. Bariloche is pretty much the Aspen of Argentina and we didn’t really enjoy the Ritz-like feel of the city. Immediately we headed up to the Frey’s granite spires, only an hour away from the city. Climbing the Frey seemed like preschool in comparison to the Fitz-Roy range. We liked the laid back attitude of getting up at ten in the morning to climb four pitches of rock. A couple days of climbing and playing chess in the tent concluded our stint in the mountains of Patagonia, Argentina.
The bus-riding fix was attained once more on our voyage back to Santiago. All in all, our first international climbing trip was a success, even though the amount of climbing accomplished was not as much as intended. I guess that’s just how it goes.
The experience was what really mattered. Now I know how much patience, communication, semen build-up and determination expedition climbing requires.
I would like to thank The American Alpine Club for the Mountain Fellowship Grant which allowed my dream to become a reality. I’d also like to thank my parents and Phoenix Multisport for all of the support I received.