Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ragnivenas Attempt

Papa Noel brought a few days of calm but humid weather to the Chalten massif over Christmas, with poor conditions for rock climbing, but good conditions for crampon climbing. Jon and I hiked into the Torre Valley on the 23rd, and on the 24th we passed through the Standhardt Col into the Circo de las Altares with heavy packs. On Christmas day, we, along with an incredible 20-or-so other people, climbed Cerro Torre via the Ragni Route. It was of course a bit disheartening to arrive at the top of El Elmo and see about six rope-teams in the mixed pitches, but in the end everyone made it to the top on Christmas day, and everyone seemed to get along well and be at peace with the crowding.

After arriving on the summit of Cerro Torre, Jon and I made only three rappels down the Ragni Route, and then diverged for some adventure rappelling down the north face, arriving in the early evening for a bivy at the Col de la Mentira (also known as the Col of Conquest). On the 26th we slept in and started late up our main objective: the fantastic ice route, Venas Azules, established last year on the south face of Torre Egger by Bjørn-Eivind Årtun and Ole Lied. The climbing on Venas Azules was superb, but we were moving a bit slowly, and were still two and a half pitches from the summit when the weather took a fairly sudden turn for the worse. In ten minutes we went from an "everything is great," attitude to a decision to descend immediately.

The descent back down to the Col de la Mentira was quick and easy, but the descent from there down to the glacier took the entire night, and was fairly epic, with lots of shivering at rappel stations, and sometimes immense amounts of spindrift. We accidentally got off route on the very first rappel from the col, and it set us on a trajectory of rappelling down virgin terrain in the gut between Cerro Torre and Torre Egger. Jon did a great job of leading the entire descent, including the most insane rappel of my life - an enormous free-hanging rappel, which with 64-meter ropes and three directional pieces to stay close to the wall, we only managed to touch down on the wall below with two meters of rope to spare, all in total darkness with tons of spindrift!

Finally we made it to the base of Cerro Torre's east face, with no pitons left, one micro stopper left, and two cams missing as well, but that evening we were back in Chalten, safe and sound. I had hiked in with a slight sore throat, and after three days of high exertion and shivering my cold had degenerated into a nasty one, which of course Jon then picked up as well. So now we are resting in town, and hoping for strong immune systems to send us back into the mountains tomorrow.

Sunrise from low on the west face of Cerro Torre. A sea of clouds (very abnormal for Patagonia) below Cerro Adelas, Cerro Solo and Cerro Huemul:

The Cerro Torre headwall on Christmas day, 2012:

The Cerro Torre headwall in early January 2007. Photo by Kelly Cordes:

Parallel leaders on the pitch above the headwall:

The pitch above the headwall in 2007. Photo by Kelly Cordes:

Jon taking photos at the base of the last, crux pitch:

Norwegian climber Sigbjørn Veslegard leading the last, crux pitch:

The last pitch in 2007. Photo by Kelly Cordes:

Jon walking to the top of Cerro Torre:

Jon and myself looking a bit deranged on the summit:

Rappelling down the north arete of Cerro Torre:

Jon on the first pitch of Venas Azules:

Jon dry-tooling up a finger crack to avoid poor-quality ice on the second pitch of Venas Azules:

Jon starting up the A1 corner pitch of Venas Azules:

Jon coming up the fourth pitch of Venas Azules:

Jon on the fifth pitch of Venas Azules, a few minutes before we bailed:

Jon rappelling towards the Col de la Mentira in rapidly deteriorating weather:

Jon on the last rap into the Col de la Mentira:

Jon hiking down towards Norwegos, and eventually Niponino, with the sunrise behind:

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Last week some calm weather blew into the Chalten massif, but with cold and snowy conditions. Jon and I hiked into Niponino with some loose plans to scratch around on something while wearing crampons. After hemming and hawing for a while on the Torre Glacier at first light on the 16th, we finally decided to head up Tobogan. Tobogan is a slanting system of of ramps and gullies that climbs on the southeast aspect of Cerro Standhardt up to the Col dei Sogni (the col between Cerro Standhardt and Punta Herron). The route was established in 1999 by the uber-powerful team of Rolando Garibotti and Silvo Karo.

Jon and I found much icier conditions on Tobogan than Rolo and Silvo experienced, allowing us to enjoy high-quality ice and mixed climbing, rather than the "alpine groveling" that Rolo refers to. And while the dry conditions forced Rolo and Silvo into aid on some of the lower portions of Tobogan, the good ice conditions allowed Jon and I to make the first free ascent (if you're into that kind of thing... :P), at reasonable difficulties I would estimate to be AI4, M6.

I believe that we made the second ascent of Tobogan to the Col dei Sogni, but, like Rolo and Silvo, we didn't manage to climb any higher than the col, and the route remains unfinished to the summit of Punta Herron or Cerro Standhardt.

Jon soloing up the mellow first pitch of Tobogan:

Jon coming up to the base of the first steep pitch:

Jon following the first steep pitch on Tobogan. After the sun went around the corner things re-froze, but on the first few pitches we were climbing wet, dripping ice-slush:

Jon a few pitches up Tobogan:

With the pesky sun gone, Jon heads up one of many pitches of excellent AI4 runnels:

More quality ice climbing!

Jon on the mid-route traverse:

Jon leading the crux pitch - an icy, low-angle offwidth, that I would guess to be M6 in the conditions we found:

Jon leading the last steep pitch on Tobogan, before a mellow ice gully climbs the rest of the way to the Col dei Sogni:

Jon coming up the last few meters to the Col dei Sogni:

Jon at the Col dei Sogni, with a frosty Spigolo dei Bimbi above, about to start our favorite ritual - rappelling through the night!

The line of Tobogan (photo from a few years ago):

Jon also has some of his photos up on his blog:

Friday, December 14, 2012

Guillaumet Laps

For the past couple weeks in El Chalten my climbing has been mostly limited to sport climbing at El Calamar, Chalten's best crag. However, I have gotten a couple day-trips in to climb Aguja Guillaumet. When the weather forecast is marginal, and a day of approaching and camping in storm isn't appealing, a long day trip is often the best choice, and since Aguja Guillaumet has one of the shortest approaches of the mountains here, it is a logical option for a day trip. Climbing Guillaumet in a day from El Chalten is probably comparable to climbing Snowpatch Spire in a day from Golden, B.C.

The first Guillaumet lap was with Spanish climbing-machine Manu Cordova. Both of us had just hiked out from foiled forays in the Torre Valley, and after seeing the updated weather forecast, we hatched Guillaumet plans at midnight over pizzas. After a couple hours of sleep we took off for a climb of Guillaumet's classic first-ascent route: the Comesaña-Fonrouge, on a day that turned out to have better-than-expected weather.

The second Guillaumet lap, now my eighth trip to the summit of Chalten's most accessible spire, was with Canadian Rockies hardman Jon MF'ing Walsh. Jon is joining me down here for a few weeks, hopefully with lots of climbing, although the weather is quite unsettled for now. We climbed Guillaumet via the Guillot-Conqueugniot on a fairly stormy day. When we topped out on Guillaumet Jon had been in Chalten for almost exactly 48 hours, and we had already spent two afternoons sessioning crimpy sport climbs at El Calamar!

Looking up at the northwest side of Aguja Guillaumet. Photo by Manu Cordova:

Manu leading the classic traverse pitch on the Comesaña-Fonrouge:

Colin following a pitch on the Comesaña-Fonrouge. Photo by Manu Cordova:

We forgot to take a cheesy self-portrait on the summit itself, so we snapped this one while already part-way down the descent. Photo by Manu Cordova:

Manu rapping the Comesaña-Fonrouge:

Jon coming up to Paso Guillaumet in colder conditions:

Nice ambience below the east face of Guillaumet, looking across at the east faces of Aguja Mermoz and Fitz Roy:

Slogging up to the bergschrund, with Cerro Electrico behind:

Jon in the Guillot-Conqueugniot gully:

Jon reaching the top of the Guillot-Conqueugniot gully:

Plenty of blowing snow in the air on the last 5th-class pitch:

Another Guillaumet lap!

Jon rapping Guillaumet in worsening weather:

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Cerro Solo and Cerro Torre

I have once again escaped to the Austral summer in Argentine Patagonia, returning as usual to the town of El Chalten. The nature of Patagonian alpinism continues to evolve at a rapid pace. The availability of reliable weather forecasts and route information (in particular, the publication of the massif's first guidebook, by Rolando Garibotti), combined with a large number of very good climbers always on hand, has turned once-legendary routes into commonplace routes. The Ragni Route on the west face of Cerro Torre, for instance, is quickly becoming Patagonia's version of Le Ginat or Colton-MacIntyre. With much longer approaches, and steeper, larger peaks, the Chalten massif will never be quite like the Alps, but it is certainly evolving in that direction.

The most notable change this season in particular, is in the ice conditions. The very hot, dry Austral summer of 2011-2012, combined with a relatively dry winter, has left the peaks in very dry conditions. Fitz Roy's Supercanaleta was already melted-out by early November, and the Ragni Route on Cerro Torre currently involves almost zero rime climbing. The glaciers, and the Torre Glacier in particular, continue to ablate at a rate much faster than I've personally seen anywhere else in the world.

As for me, I've been here almost three weeks now, but because of the various variables in alpine climbing, I've done a lot more hiking with heavy backpacks than I have alpine climbing. For the past couple weeks I've been partnered with the suave Italian metrosexual hipster, poet, culinary artist and alpinist, Andrea Di Donato.

On a day with decent weather, but not a long enough period for climbing a more serious route, Andrea and I climbed Cerro Solo's southwest face, by Insomnia, a route established last year by local climbers Juan Manuel Raselli and Ignacio Teerink. Insomnia is an example of a trend which I'm sure will continue, of first ascents of moderate classical alpine terrain. There are many mountains in the Chalten massif which have been largely ignored for decades, overshadowed by the Torres and Fitz Roy, but are equivalent to the coolest, most spectacular peaks in The Cascades.

Finally, last Wednesday, I got to do some of the climbing that I come here for, when Andrea and I made an ascent of Cerro Torre's Ragni Route. It is a climb that I had done before, but I honestly believe it is the most spectacular ice climb in the world, so certainly a route worthy of repeating! We chose to do the climb as a day-trip from the Niponino bivouac in the Torre Valley, approaching via the Standhardt Col, and descending via the Southeast Ridge.

We left Niponino at 3:00am on the 28th, and with very good conditions on the approach, managed to arrive at what I would call the base of the route (150m below the Col of Hope) at 8:00am. We took a nice relaxing rest stop to melt snow, and finally starting climbing at 10:00am. Andrea took us to the top of The Helmet, and then I led from there to the summit. There were three parties ahead of us on the route (I told you it's turning into the Colton-Mac!), but it wasn't a problem.

The final, crux pitch of the route did not require any rime digging or tunneling in the current conditions, but because it was a hot day, and because we arrived at the last pitch late in the afternoon, it was melting in the full sun. If it were frozen I could say that it is in much easier condition than normal, but in it's slushy state I felt it was just as serious as the other times I've led the pitch. I was told that the ice screws I placed were pulled out by hand - yikes!

At 7:50pm Andrea and I arrived on the summit, almost 17 hours after leaving Niponino, and after a quick reorganization we started the long, and perhaps foolhardy nighttime descent of the Southeast Ridge. Patagonia is a master's class in alpine rappelling, and I feel I might have earned my degree by now, as leading endless rappels all night by headlamp is starting to feel pretty standard! We were back on the glacier shortly after first light, and stumbled back into Niponino 29.5 hours after leaving.

Andrea climbing the lower couloirs on Cerro Solo's Insomnia:

Colin switching from 60-degree-snow-mode to 4th-class-rock mode, halfway up Insomnia. Cerro Huemul in the background. Photo by Andrea Di Donato:

Andrea climbing classic, chossy 4th-class rock on Cerro Solo:

Andrea nearing the ridgecrest on Insomnia, where the line joins the standard route:

Andrea joining the standard route on Cerro Solo (where the deep snow wallowing began), with Fitz Roy in the background:

Andrea nearing the summit of Cerro Solo, with Lago Viedma in the background:

Myself and Andrea on the summit of Cerro Solo, with the business card of Chalten's best hostel. Photo by Andrea Di Donato:

The line of Insomnia on Cerro Solo:

Colin rappelling down the west side of the Standhardt Col. Photo by Andrea Di Donato:

Brew stop below the Col of Hope. Photo by Andrea Di Donato:

Andrea starting up the Ragni Route, just below the Col of Hope:

Andrea climbing above the Col of Hope:

Andrea climbing a short ways below The Helmet:

Andrea below The Helmet:

Andrea leading The Helmet:

Colin on The Helmet:

Colin starting the mixed pitches. Photo by Andrea Di Donato:

Andrea in the mixed pitches:

Colin leading in the mixed pitches. Photo by Andrea Di Donato:

Colin starting up the headwall. Photo by Andrea Di Donato:

Colin leading above the headwall. Photo by Andrea Di Donato:

Colin starting up the last, crux pitch. Photo by Eduardo Gonzalez:

We were joined at the last pitch by a Spanish team. Self-portrait by Eduardo Gonzalez as Colin leads the last pitch:

Andrea arriving at the summit of Cerro Torre:

A moment of celebration before the all-night rappelling! Photo by Andrea Di Donato: