Mountain Fellowship Winner Aaron Jones reports on his trip to Patagonia in late autumn, 2008. Aaron had three objectives, all solo, and had an incredible trip to Chile! Read on for the full report.
I traveled to Chilean Patagonia in November 2008 to solo the three Torres that are the iconic symbol of the area. After flying into Buenos Aires, Argentina with my friend Dave Turner we began our long bus journey south to Puerto Natales, Chile, the starting point for any expedition to the Torres del Paine National Park. We spent several days in town waiting out a government worker strike before we were able to obtain our essential climbing permit.
My plan was to work down the line on the east side of the Val de Silencio, soloing the three Torres North to South. I began with Torre Norte on December 10th, I soloed it to the south summit via the Monzino route. The Monzino is the first ascent route for Torre Norte and checks in at IV 5.10. After free soloing moderate rock in good condition to the Col Bich, I roped up for the initial 5.10 pitch. From the top of this 60+ meter pitch I free soloed all the way to the summit block before roping up again. After rapping the summit block, I once again put the rope on my back and down climbed to the first 5.10 pitch before rapping again. I returned to the col after 4 hours on route up and down. I returned to the Val de Silencio and my cave/tent home for a cave to cave time of 11 hours. Awesome route and one of my most enjoyable climbing days ever!
Due to typically poor Patagonian weather, I waited one month before climbing the Central tower. I had one false start on New Year’s Eve that ended only a few pitches up in a storm and included a very cold open bivy. Finally on January 11th I got another shot on the Bonington-Whillans route. The day was one of the best I had seen in my 2 months in the park. The couloirs was in poor condition and what had taken 1 hour to free solo previously now took 5 hours roped up. The month of storms had cloaked the Torres in ice and the good weather was sending down lots of ice fall and waterfalls for full Patagonian value. The climbing was fantastic, beautiful red rock with splitter cracks and dihedrals. I rope soloed most of the pitches in 70 meter rope stretchers only free soloing small bits here and there. At the 14th pitch, marked as a bivy ledge on my topo, I took off my pack and free soloed towards the summit with the rack, rope and camera. After some free soloing, I encountered icy rock and built an anchor and roped up the rest of the way to the summit ridge. After traversing across to the summit proper and scrapping my way to the top, I snapped a few summit photos and turned back towards my waiting pack for more clothes and fresh socks! I arrived at the summit at 1 am and spent the rest of the night rapping and replacing anchor tat, arriving at the col at 5 am totally spent.
I spent the next 3 weeks mostly staring at the yellow fabric walls of my tent. The weather was horrible and the Torres were only intermittently visible through the clouds and when they were I could see tons of rime ice covering the summits. Then on February 2nd, I got a decent weather window to attempt the South Tower. I left the tent that morning in a light rain and by the time I was several pitches up it had begun snowing. The rock was icy and the cracks filled with snow. This made the climbing challenging and the route took longer than anticipated. The initial grey rock was of poor quality but higher up the rock on the ridge turned solid and a beautiful shade of orange. After an 8 pm radio check I received word from Dave that a cloud was headed my way and on the south side of the tower it had begun snowing. Since I was only a few pitches from the summit, I decided to go on and hurry up. 100 meters from the true summit I decided to bail. The snow was now a full on whiteout that my headlamp couldn’t cut through and the snow had made the climbing even more difficult. I rappelled into the storm unable to see more than 10 meters in any direction. I was off route and forced to build my own anchors from my meager rack for about 150 meters. Once I found a familiar piton on route I decided it better to bivy in the storm than try to descend. I spent 5 hours shivering and listening to gangster rap on my ipod before the clouds lifted and dawn broke. I continued rapping and was very thankful upon touching back down on the ground despite not summiting.
I waited out another 3 weeks of horrible weather in my tent before calling it quits and hiking all of my gear out of the park. I returned to Puerto Natales for a few days of lounging at the Erratic Rock Hostel before boarding the bus for another multi-day journey north to Buenos Aires and my flight back to the States. All in all it was an amazing trip and I feel I learned a lot about what it takes to solo in such an inhospitable and unforgiving area as Patagonia. I would like to express my deep gratitude to the American Alpine Club for awarding me a Mountain Fellowship Fund grant and making this trip possible.