Monday 20 January 2014

Plan B

Sunrise on the glacier below the Mermoz. Whatever happens today, it’s going to be a good one.

We are recovering after our second venture into the mountains in Patagonia. Everyone in El Chalten seems to be talking about which bits of their tired bodies are hurting the most and how many hours they spent on the go yesterday. The weather, for one day, was pretty good. But still not enough for rock climbing.

We had our eyes set on a rock climbing objective on the Aguja Poincenot and packed our rock rack, shoes and chalk bags. We still took pairs of ice tools, just in case, and trekked in to a high loch to camp for the night. We were unable to make it up to our intended bivi spot at Paso Superior since some climbers coming down had triggered a small slide with the snow softened by the afternoon sun. We weren't about to go up and risk doing the same for the sake of a longer walk in the morning. So we got into our sleeping bags around 6pm and failed to sleep.

Fitzroy bathed in the early morning sun.

At 3am we put on our crampons and slogged up onto the glacier, with sweat dripping from my helmet. We were rewarded with a stellar sunrise, bathing the Fitzroy range in lovely morning sunlight. There were some clouds blowing in though, and it was freezing as soon as you stopped moving. A quick discussion established the obvious; we would have no chance of having enough hours of warm sunshine in the day to free climb a hard 16 pitch rock route. Plan B? Get the ice tools out. 

I had already spied a stunning looking new mixed line to attempt on the nearby Mermoz, a huge steep groove feature with thin runnels of ice that looked no more than a foot or so wide in places, flanked by blank vertical granite on each side. So we headed for that, even though I must admit I thought it looked far too hard for us to actually succeed on. But that’s new routing - you just have to go and try. Lots of folk say they would rather go for routes they think they can do, and I understand this; it’s nice to get to the top of things, at least once in a while. As a personal choice I’ve always erred on the side of trying a harder line, and never been too bothered about having poor or very poor odds of success. I’d rather fail on a hard route than succeed on an easier one, or to use a bit of aid to ensure success (as some of the routes here have done). We could have been certain of success on one of the easier lines on the day. But I would only have been walking down, wandering if that groove which had caught my eye would have been possible, or not.

Steinpull moves and thin ice on the hard pitch.

After a pleasant first pitch on ice, I belayed below a desperate looking corner containing an ice choked off-width crack. In my mind I thought we would be abseiling off shortly. Calum led through and had a go. He took a short fall after 20 feet and came down saying he thought it was too hard. I had a go and grunted my way up it. The pitch was about VIII,9 and took a lot of energy. So I was happy to soak up the morning sun on my belay and try not to fall asleep hanging in my harness!

Calum sets off up another amazing runnel of steep ice.

The next three pitches were amazing. They were all primarily on steep, narrow ice runnels with hard cruxes getting over bulges or dealing with cruddy ice. On one pitch I swung my tool, breaking a large chunk of dense ice off the runnel. I was in too much of a precarious position to get out of the way and it hit me square in the jaw. Once I was happy I still had all my teeth in my head, and that the bleeding both outside and inside my mouth was only minor, I carried on. 

About to break a big blob of ice off, which nearly got me back by trying to break my teeth off. This was an amazing pitch. The granite on either side was totally smooth. My whole world was a foot wide sliver of ice for about 30 minutes.

On the 6th pitch I climbed through a hard and precarious bulge back onto an ice runnel with an improbable looking overhanging corner above, which was dripping with thin blobs of ice. Until then, the route had been quite well protected, so we had both been happy to push hard with the climbing. But here, there was no rock gear to be had. Everything was verglassed. Because another mixed route was strictly our backup, we hadn’t taken any spectres or ice screws, which would have been the only protection for the next 60 feet or so. It was pretty frustrating. I could see it looked about tech 9 and would probably go. But there was no way I could justify trying with my last good protection already 40 feet below. So I made the only decision available; to go down. Even though there was no way I was going to risk my neck to carry on, it’s still a tough choice to reverse from a route in such a special place.

Setting off into overhangingness, only to retreat from 60 feet higher.

After the abseils off, walking back to camp and then El Chalten was ankle hell. Today I’m barely able to walk at all. But I’d love to go back to the route for another go with the right gear, if the weather gives us a chance before we leave. After studying my photos of the face, it looks like only another 60 to 80 feet of hard climbing before the wall leans back and starts to become more featured again. 

I’m also learning a lot about the logistics here, and in the process making a few mistakes. We carried a little too much gear, and should have walked in from Chalten earlier in the day so the snow was in better condition to get to our intended bivi spot. There wasn’t much we could do about having the wrong gear for the mixed route, since that wasn’t our planned objective. I was amazed that we got as far as we did. Unfinished business is unfinished business. It's not in my nature to completely forget about that. However, in this case, the climbing to our highpoint was just so good that my mind was filled with the great moments we had up to there, and how nice it was going to be to finally take off my boots after walking and climbing for 30 out of the last 37 hours.

Saturday 11 January 2014

At last some mountaineering

Seconding a brilliant VII,8 pitch on the Aguja Guillaumet, Patagonia. Photo: Calum Muskett

With a one day weather window forecast for Friday, we packed our things and wondered what objective to point ourselves at. The options were a bit limited. So just going up and being there was all we realistically hoped for. It had snowed very heavily the day before and many of the approaches would be dangerous. The rock routes would be in winter condition, and the window was too short to go on a really big wall.

Me leading a nice ice runnel on pitch 2. Photo: Calum Muskett

So we decided to go to the Guillaumet and see if we could safely get to a mixed route on its east face. On Thursday’s walk in, it was still windy, snowing and clagged in. My ankle hurt like hell with a heavy pack on and for the first hour I was unsure if I was going to make it. But after a while it became tolerable and I could think about something else. Near the snow line, we made a small bivi with rocks under a boulder and settled in for the evening. 

Calum setting off on steep cracks on pitch 3

The dawn slog up onto the glacier brought a sunny morning and the greatest surprise of the trip so far - no wind. After hearing so much about the wind in these mountains it was a little surreal to be standing in the morning sun looking at the granite walls. Our plan A, a route on the Mermoz, was immediately ruled out after a block test in the snow revealed an easy shear. Later, we met some Austrians who did venture across the glacier, but gave up before they even got to the foot of the Mermoz, in chest deep fresh snow.

We weren’t about to waste the chance to climb something, so we headed right to the Guillaumet and eyed up a 6 pitch steep wall with some snow and ice clinging to various cracks and corners. A short route by Patagonian standards, but as we found out, it packed it in, with one pitch of Scottish tech 6, one of 7 and three of tech 8. 

Calum starting up a big tech 8 corner on pitch 5.

Calum got two great pitches in the middle of the route. First a smooth wall with thin cracks and good hooks at VII,8 and a long steep corner which was around VIII,8. I had another VII,7 pitch with lots of great steinpull moves on rounded flakes. But the highlight for me was the final pitch which I got to lead; an improbable looking ramp leading into a smooth overhanging corner above. Both features didn’t give anything away until the last minute. The ramp went with a series of undercut placements in a row, with feet on a delicate smear of thin ice. The top corner went with lock-offs, feet not able to help much at all!

Eyeing up a thin ice smear on pitch 6. Photo: Calum Muskett.

Counting an hour back at our bivi boulder to have some Clif Bars and tea, we walked out in 6 hours. Calum had the march on. He was gunning to get back to El Chalten that night. I   scurried along behind him, trying to keep up through the forest as the darkness crept up. Just before midnight, Calum suddenly flung down the haulsac in frustration that we hadn’t got back to the road yet, pulled out his bivi bag and within seconds he’d retired for the night. I crawled into my bivi bag and settled in, only to hear a truck go over the bridge in the road, about 200 yards away round the next bend in the path. In the morning we only had a short stagger and a quick hitch back to El Chalten.

Lovely clouds above the Poincenot.

Even if that turns out to be our only weather window (which it might, the way the season has gone so far), It was great experience to get some climbing done on the Patagonian towers. As far as we know, it’s a new route too. I certainly felt like we made the most of the tricky conditions to get a good route done. So now, it’s back to bouldering, sport climbing, eating steaks and watching the forecast. 

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Patagonia first days

Repeating Wasabi, V12, near El Chalten (video still: Calum Muskett)

We have now been in Patagonia for 4 days, and our expectations for getting some free climbing done in the mountains soon are coming down to reality. We’ve met lots of familiar faces around El Chalten, and many new ones. Everyone wants to be up high doing long rock routes, but everyone is waiting for the wind, snow and rain to stop. At least two climbers who’ve spent a few seasons here have informed us that there is no chance of our primary objective on Cerro Torre coming into condition. So we have some plan Bs, Cs and Ds.

Most of those still require it not to be snowing and blowing a hoolie on the granite towers. So for now it’s time to crack on with the excellent bouldering. Straight away I’d got stuck into trying Wasabi on the superb boulders near El Chalten. It gets Font 8b although I think it’s a bit easier than that. Today it dawned rainy but cold. I worked on my book until lunchtime and then wandered up for another session on it. My first try saw me right up at the lip of the boulder but scared to carry on in a pumped state with no mats. Thankfully David Lama turned up with a mat and I got it done next try. I have a little video of this, but the internet connection is far to slow to bring it to you. 

I’m told there is a hotel in town with something resembling a real connection. Given the forecast, it shouldn’t be too long before it’s time to go for a cup of tea there, so I’ll send it then. Tomorrow’s forecast is stormy, then stormy again the next day, and the next. Patagonia: hardcore bouldering destination and writer’s retreat! If I could run, I'd be doing plenty of that too.

I had a great time today at the boulders and certainly looking forward to getting stuck into more hard problems while we wait.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Commencing the wait

Calum, Ben, Ally and myself have just arrived in El Chalten, Patagonia. We are here with the plan to climb on Cerro Torre, if we can. Any of you who have been to Patagonia already know that any firm plans here are, shall we say, subject to some adjustment. We want to climb rock, so we will have to wait until the liberal coating of snow and ice currently covering Cerro Torre melts back a bit. 

I’ve never been here before. Back in 2001 I was considering it when my friend Alan Mullin was going there. He pretty much put me off it with tales of two consecutive two-month trips which consisted of sitting in the hut waiting for a weather window that never came. But then, one might be lucky, and Patagonia is somewhere you really ought to visit at some point. So since Calum and I both had eyed up the same projects here, I thought now was as good a time as any.

I was fully braced for a month of editing my book and getting fat, and on arrival in El Chalten, the forecast duly delivered. No weather windows in sight so far. However, I didn’t really appreciate that the bouldering here is so good. So while we wait, we are bouldering, a lot. I’ve had two great days climbing so far. I’ve done some nice granite sport climbs and got some good links on Iker Pou’s famous power endurance problem V12 ‘Wasabi’. I’ll be back on that again soon. It’s great to be on a climbing trip after so long on the couch after surgery. Here’s to the next month, whether it brings chilly adventures in the mountains, or ‘waiting’ amongst the granite boulders and adventures on small crimpers.