Monday, December 23, 2013

Patagonia: Beta Report



In mid- to late-November, Derek DeBruin, Kevin Shon, and Karsten Delap traveled to Argentina with the intent to attempt a new line on the east face (Argentine side) of Cerro San Lorenzo in central Patagonia.  The weather proved to be problematic, preventing an attempt, but we did get to do some other climbing as well as gather valuable beta.  The details are below.

East Face of Cerro San Lorenzo, mid-November 2013.
Travel to Argetina
Our party flew in to Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires.  Previous experience has shown LAN to be one of the most reliable and on-time operations.  This trip proved no different.

Travel within Argentina
From Buenos Aires, there are two options for air travel.  The southern option is to fly to Rio Gallegos; however, the flight scheduled is somewhat limited.  From there, you could rent a vehicle of arrange for transportation to the trailhead.  Rolando Garibotti, curator of pataclimb.com was very helpful in this regard.

The northern option is to travel to Bariloche, where a car rental or a ride down Routa Nacional 40 goes to the trailhead.  Rental cars are available at the airport in Bariloche and rides for hire to points in Patagonia are available as well.

It is also possible to rent a car in Buenos Aires (rates are cheaper in el centro than at the airport) and drive directly to the trailhead.  Depending on the number in the group and the rate and rental period, this could save a fair amount of money.  However, that money comes at the cost of time.  It is probably a better plan to fly to Bariloche or Rio Gallegos.  We rented a vehicle and traveled from the north.

Travel to and inside Parque Nacional Perito Moreno
Once in the country, whether coming from the north or south, the goal is ultimately to get to RN 40 which runs the length of Patagonia to the north and south along the western edge of Argentina.  We traveled along RN 40 to Routa Provincial 37, which marks the entrance to Parque Nacional Perito Moreno.  This intersection seemed to be indicated on the map as Las Horquetas, though there was literally nothing there save a gravel road and a sign.

Also noteworthy is that the last reliable places to purchase gasoline (nafta) are some distance from the park entrance.  To the north is the town of Perito Moreno and to the south is Gobernador Gregores.  A jerry can for extra gasoline is not strictly necessary but is not a bad idea.  For example, while driving from the north, we stopped for gas in the hamlet of Bajo Caracoles (the last place to stop to the north of the park) only to discover that the whole town had run out of gas the preceding day and they did not know when the next shipment would arrive.

After turning onto RP 37, there are two possible locations to get gas on the way to the park entrance.  The first is Estancia Sierra Andia about 10 or 15km into the park and located on the left.  (It’s the only building on your left and therefore hard to miss.)  Estancia Menelik is some 40 or more kilometers into the park and is on the right.  These places may or may not have gas and as they are private ranches, the care-takers may or may not be home to sell it.  If they are there, the price for gas was about double that elsewhere when we purchased it.

Beyond these two estancias lies the park entrance.  As of November 2013, the operating hours were 9:00am to 9:00pm and the park was closed May to August.  We arrived after hours and so camped just inside the entrance near the ranger station.  Future climbers should respect the registration requirement and be sure to register with the ranger during operating hours before heading to the trailhead.  He was quite friendly and also familiar with climbers.  He was a good source of beta, internet, weather forecasts, and bathrooms.

Entrance and ranger station of Parque Nacional Perito Moreno.
Past the entrance lies Estancia La Oriental on the right.  We did not stop here, but they are supposed to offer lodging of some kind.  The gravel road dead ended at Estancia El Rincon, donated to the park in May 2013.  It was a small museum staffed by the park.  The rangers there allowed us to use a small side shed as a staging area for final packing.

La estancia El Rincon
From El Rincon, a small gravel and dirt road led us north to the park property line.  Beyond the park property, the road became progressively less-friendly, featuring sand hills, rutted dirt, increasingly large rocks, and stream crossings.  A 4x4 vehicle with good clearance would have been welcome (the Toyota Hilux and similar vehicles are a popular choice).  That being said, our 2WD Ford Ecosport handled quite admirably.

Creek crossing in the Ecosport.
Eventually, this road ended before a major stream crossing.  We parked there, though carefully selected our spot in case of rising water levels/flooding.  More than likely, no one else would be parking there at that time of year, so we felt comfortable leaving some items in the vehicle (excess equipment, a food cache, etc.)

Approaching Cerro San Lorenzo via Rio Lacteo
There are two principle ways to approach Cerro San Lorenzo from the Argentine side.  The northeast aspects of the peak are best approached via Routa Provincial 39 and the Rio Oro valley to the north.  For the East Ridge (the “South African Route”) and all points south, the approach via RP 37, Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, and the Rio Lacteo valley to the east and south is the best approach.

From the parking area noted above, we crossed the stream, a mandatory wet crossing.  We continued following the road bed until it led us to a view of Rio Lacteo.  From there are two options.  The first is to stay high on the intermittent trail on the river left/east bank.  This path is the “established” trail, which we followed on our return leg.  However, in the spring, the thawing soil can create exceptionally marshy conditions in the grassy pastures.  Consequently, boots and gaiters would not be ill-advised as the suction of the ankle-deep mud is quite severe in places.  Alternately, future parties should be prepared for wet shoes and wet feet.

Hiking up Rio Lacteo valley (courtesy of Kevin Shon).
The second option is to drop down low into the Rio Lacteo drainage, which we did on our approach.  The channel is typically quite braided with numerous gravel bars, streams, etc.  Most crossings, if even required, were shallow or dry, though there were a couple wet crossings.

Ultimately, we followed the Rio Lacteo valley on the east side of Cerro Penitentes until we reached the confluence of the north and west forks of Rio Lacteo.  This brought us to the hut of Puesto San Lorenzo, located on the east/river left bank.  The hut is fairly weather proof and features a wood-burning stove with griddle, a table, hanging space, and dirt floors.  There is also a separate latrine and a wind wall for tents.  Water is easily accessed just down a steep slope to the river.  A lightweight day hike should get most parties to the hut in 3 hours.  With expedition loads, we found our travel time to be more like 6 hours.

Puesto San Lorenzo.
From the Puesto, we made one additional wet river crossing over the north fork of Rio Lacteo, though it’s rumored that there is occasionally a bridge there.  After the crossing, we followed the north/river left bank of the west fork or Rio Lacteo where an occasional trail led up to the boulder field on the shelf above.  Across the boulder field, we continued westward and upward as the Rio Lacteo turned into Class V whitewater.

The next bench above yielded a braided section of the Rio Lacteo just downstream of Lago Lacteo, the lake formed at the head of Glaciar Lacteo, which feeds Rio Lacteo.  Crossing the river here at the braided channel through mostly dry crossings, we continued along the south/river right side of the river as the north side of the lake proved impassable (unless one enjoys 80o dirt gulies).

Once on the south side of the river, we continued onto the shoulder skirting the south side of Rio Lacteo and the north side of Cerro Penitentes.  We stayed high from there, well above the lake, and continued traversing westward through the talus, scree, and boulders.  Eventually, this bench turns the corner of Cerro Penitentes where it is possible to follow the line of weakness to the dirty glacier below.  During our November 2013 visit, the glacier was quite dirty and obviously in recession.  Lago Lacteo was approximately twice as long at that time as the size represented on the 2007 Aoneker map. 

Lago Lacteo with East Face of San Lorenzo in whiteout behind.
The east face of Cerro San Lorenzo is accessible from this glacier.  Future parties should not that in springtime hanging glaciers, potential wind-loaded slabs, and bergschrunds guarded much of the rock and ice higher on the face.  Also, the lip above that runs along the south ridge was heavily corniced and appeared to be glaciated as well.

Climbing Season
While January typically offers some of the best weather windows in Patagonia, previous parties had reported San Lorenzo suffers from considerable rock fall at that time of year.  For us, November seemed to offer the best compromise for weather, snow conditions, and rockfall hazard.

Supplies
Specialty foods such as bars, gels, and freeze-dried meals are difficult to find in Argentina; we brought ours with us.  However, whole foods were much easier to come by and were available at supermarkets or specialty shops in major towns and cities.  To the north, canister fuel was available in places like Bariloche, Bolson, and Esquel, but we did not need to purchase fuel any further south than that and so do not have information on where to obtain it.  White gas was available at paint stores and is referred to as solvente calefacciรณn.

Weather Forecasting
For forecasting, we referred to pataclimb.com’s excellent pages on weather forecasting and sending satellite phone text message weather reports.  We also regularly referred to the NOAA forecast available at http://ready.arl.noaa.gov/READYcmet.php (Cerro San Lorenzo’s main summit is located at -47.59, -72.31).  However, south of the city of Perito Moreno, the NOAA page generally did not load.  Locals tend to use windguru.com instead; this presents essentially the same information but in different units.

Puesto San Lorenzo seemed to collect slightly cooler air than either of the confluential valleys and slightly more wind.  When we were camped near Cerro San Lorenzo, much of the weather seemed to break into the valley north of Lago Lacteo, regardless of wind direction.  Further, severe weather tended to decrease in intensity as it made its way down the valleys to the east, tending to decrease in severity near the head of Lago Lacteo.

Ten meter wind speeds of about 15 knots were climbable to about 2000 meters of elevation.  Wind speeds increased with altitude though, and a 10m speed of 15kt easily equated to 60mph winds and gusts strong enough to knock a climber off balance.  It would probably be best to limit climbing days on Cerro San Lorenzo to wind speeds of less than 10kt.  Further, even on days with single-digit wind speeds, the summits of San Lorenzo were often shrouded in blown snow, indicating high winds aloft regardless.

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