Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Patagonia: Los Gringos Turistos

I pulled hard against the sharp, juggy undercling, right arm extended and tense, left hip turned into the wall against the steep overhanging limestone.  I pressed outward with my toes, my core tight as my left hand groped for a hold, missing the good one and finding purchase on three fingertip dimples in the white rock.

Karsten Delap getting into position to take photos.
I instantly knew I had missed the correct hold but was rapidly fatiguing against the steeply angled rock and the lack of forearm fitness, a result of two preceding weeks characterized by much walking but little vertical movement.  Nevertheless, I committed to the poor handhold and released my right hand aiming for what I knew to be a good handhold above.  With a furious scream and a powerful burst of energy, I sprang upward, missed, oozed down a rough patch of rock, and fell off.

Downtown Bariloche.
  “Nice work, man,” said Kevin, from behind his camera, suspended in the air on a rope just a few feet away.  With an injured foot and hip, he was playing the role of photographer.

I flexed my hands, attempting to force blood back into my cold, numb fingers.  Despite the cold, it was good to be out climbing, moving.  It was good to get pumped, get tired, strive, scream, flail, push, fall.

We were making good use of our last two days in Bariloche, taking advantage of the opportunity to catch up on not only our sport climbing but also cultural experiences we had neglected.  We spent the days cragging and the evenings acting like tourists.  We sampled the many things Argentina in general, and Bariloche in particular, do well--ice cream, wine, chocolate, beer, and beef.  In contrast to the preceding two weeks, we kept a much more relaxed schedule, resting, catching up on sleep, and catching up with Kevin’s friends.

At Berlina brewery.
On our last evening, we shared the kitchen at the campground with a group from Buenos Aires.  A gaggle of high school students had just graduated and were spending a week in Bariloche to celebrate.  A couple of their mothers serving as chaperones were in the kitchen preparing milanesa, similar to chicken fried flank steak.  I watched with interest as they prepared the meal while I absent-mindedly kept an eye on our remaining tortellini, the last of our field food.  Slowly, the students trickled in and out one-by-one, seeing what was for dinner and offering a greeting.

As they came, the students started to linger, asking questions when they discovered I knew a little Spanish.  Soon, there were a half-dozen teenagers crowding the small kitchen, intently querying me about my life, my age, my work, my wife--everything they could think of.  In short order, the two women ejected us all from the kitchen so they could finish making dinner in peace.

The students invited us to sit with them and their parents and teachers for dinner.  Soon, we were conversing about our recent climbing attempts, our stay in Bariloche, our return to the states, their activities for the upcoming week, and their aspirations to become school teachers, coaches, engineers, and entrepreneurs.  We became facebook friends, gave out business cards, took photographs, and shared customary hugs and kisses on the cheek before finding our way back to our cabañas.

The next morning, we packed for a bittersweet departure.  The youths and their chaperones were gathering for breakfast.  Amidst a clamor of, “¡Ciao!” and, “¡Buen viaje!” we left the campground.  I anticipated the long road home and recalled the enthusiasm of the amazingly friendly students.  There was nothing to do but smile.

Grabbing one last choripan on the road (courtesy of Kevin Shon).

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Patagonia: Shifting Winds

The atmosphere at Refugio Otto Meiling is what could be described in castillano as “¡re buena onda, che!” or “really good vibes, dude.”  I was speaking with Gaspar, the caretaker of the hut, a young man in his late 20s with a mop of shaggy brown and blond hair, clear blue eyes, a weathered face familiar with sun and wind, and a persistent smile.  He complimented my attempts at Spanish and we made plans to get beers in Bariloche when we were all off Monte Tronador.

The view from Refugio Otto Meiling.

Packing for the hike up to the refugio.
I turned my attention to the hut’s other occupants--two separate groups of middle-aged men from Buenos Aires and a local mountain guide with his elderly Italian client.  There were just enough people at the hut for us to all converse in a mixture of Spanish, English, and a little Italian.  The amicable atmosphere lent itself to friendship and conversation, preventing any potential reclusion of our group as the three gringos in the corner of the room.

One of our new acquaintances inquired about our attempt earlier in the day on Pico Anón, the international summit and the highest point on Tronador.  I again got to relate a story of a summit unattained.

On the road to Monte Tronador.
Our day had begun well enough, traversing the glacier west of the hut on an icy crust just strong enough to prevent us from punching through to the sugary slush of snow below.  We moved silently forward through the pre-dawn darkness, roped together as we advanced, individual globes of light from our headlamps strung out between crevasses in the frigid morning.  I sensed the tension in the rope, moving in step with my two partners. 
On the way to Pico Anon (Internacional)
Dawn found us crossing the southern ridge of Tronador onto the Chilean side of the mountain, on the western aspect, once again out of the sun.  The sight in front of us revealed a prolonged stretch of steep, hard snow slopes dirtied by rockfall and scree released from the poorly consolidated tower of volcanic tuft above.  The long runout below fed directly into the gaping crevasses in the maw of Glacier Blanco.  Hurried but cautious, we traversed the slopes in the growing wind.  Attaining the west ridge of the peak, a bergschrund and mixed rock terrain guarded the summit only 200 feet overhead.

Onward and upward to the southern ridge.

We paused momentarily to consider the rapidly lowering cloud ceiling, dark clouds looming and engulfing not only the summit but the entire south ridge we had just traversed.  A stiff gale put us on our knees and blasted our faces with ice pellets.  The daylight sun was evidenced only through the partially translucent fog and the reflection off the brown-tinged snow.  With visibility rapidly diminishing, we shouted to one another through the gusts.  Unanimously, we elected a prudent retreat back to the hut.
Descending in the clearing whiteout.

I relayed this tale, as we all shared a freshly prepared meal of goulash.  The forecast for the next day called for a severe storm to arrive no later than noon.  As Karsten and Kevin discussed our plans to hike out the next day, I hatched a plan of my own for the next morning.  I ruminated on the view of Cerro Lamotte through the bay window, a jumble of small rock fingers protruding through an icy cone atop a small glacier.  Far from the highest point on Tronador, Lamotte nevertheless represented a minor summit on the extreme end of the mountain’s east ridge.

Lunch time!
I informed Karsten and Kevin of my intent to make a rapid ascent of this sub-summit early the next morning before our hike out, offering them the opportunity to join me.  Feeling uninspired by yet another snow slog and suffering their own array of over-use maladies, both elected sleep over a second consecutive 3:30am wake-up call.

The next morning I set out in the darkness, the first to depart the hut.  I immediately second-guessed my decision.  The temperature was not quite so cold as the preceding morning, so with every step I found myself punching through the crust of frozen snow and post-holing up to my shins.  After a half-dozen steps I became unperturbed and developed a steady rhythm, ascending the ridge at a cardiac pace.

Intermittent clouds covered the landscape, warning of the approaching storm.  Despite the occasionally limited visibility, navigation was quite simple--follow the ridge to the saddle, avoiding the glaciers on either side, turn right on the next ridge and begin rock climbing.  I negotiated steepening snow and wove a path through minor towers on 4th class terrain.  Fifteen feet of gray ice with a coating of granular snow led to a final short, simple hand crack guarding the summit block.

Cerro Lamotte summit shot.
From my perch on the tiny peak, just large enough to sit on, I could see nothing, engulfed entirely in cloud.  My entire world was a small pedestal of rime-covered tuft that fell away precipitously on all sides into grayness.  The only evidence of my exposed position were the blasts of frigid air surging upward from behind and below, washing up and over me, fiercely flapping the hood of my jacket.

As I could see little, I did not linger on the summit. Shortly after descending back to the saddle, the clouds broke briefly, revealing both my path eastward back to the hut as well as the glorious first light of dawn.  I paused once more to take this in and snap a few photos.

I returned to the hut for an early breakfast as my companions began to stir.  While we prepared for departure, the predicted storm arrived, bringing driving winds and a steady bout of freezing rain and sleet.  The weather did little to dampen our spirits.  I put on my rain gear and stepped outside into the awesome force of the storm.
Sunrise near the Cerro Lamotte summit.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Patagonia: False Summit

Karsten and I huddled on the summit of the aguja, buffeted by blasts of wind sometimes in excess of 70mph, enough to literally knock us off our feet.  We were both silently urging Kevin to climb faster so we could escape the bitter cold and intense gusts as soon as possible.

The aguja of Cerro Penitentes (courtesy of Kevin Shon).
As Karsten belayed, I looked out to the west and north from our perch atop this granitic pedestal.  Cerro San Lorenzo was completely enshrouded in a capricious cloak of cloud, spraying a tumultuous mist of graupel and blown snow from each of its three disparate summits.  An ever-changing lenticular wave crashed over the main ridge, rushing eastward, spitting pellets of icy, frozen fog outward and downward.  The increased moisture set off point avalanches in the wet snow on the opposing slopes across the valley.  My face stung with the spray of blowing sand and freezing rain from each rush of wind.

Kevin attained the summit just in time for the next wave of frigid atmosphere to wash over us, leaving us stooped together clinging to the rock for purchase.  We hurriedly prepared the ropes for rappel while I admired the fickle beauty of Patagonian weather. 

That morning after much time tent-bound, we had awoken to clear skies and relatively calm winds.  Energized by the sunshine, we left camp for a reconnaissance mission to the glacier beneath Cerro San Lorenzo, hoping to get a view of our intended climb before the weather worsened once more.  Our efforts were disappointed, though, by a shifting cloud layer ensconcing the entire east face.  We knew the mountain was there, but we could not see it.

We set our sights instead on the northmost aguja of nearby Cerro Penitentes, crossing a braided gravel bar and drainage and ascending snow slopes and a scree cone to the base of an 80-foot pillar of rock.  A short 5.7 pitch lead to the summit, a platform of rock perhaps 10 feet by 10 feet across, previously untouched by man.

A hasty retreat then led us back to our base camp with the promise of a hot drink and more time spent in the tent waiting on the weather.  Karsten dictated a cryptic satellite phone text message to me and I relayed the unfortunate news:  with only four days left to stay in the mountains before we needed to leave for our flight, we wouldn’t be getting a weather window.
The view of Cerro San Lorenzo during our Cerro Penitentes climbing window.
I sat silently for a moment as the weight of this information settled.  The tiny pillar we had just climbed would be the only climbing we would do there.  Two years of staring at photographs, researching routes, weather, and approaches, meticulous planning, grueling physical training, hungering for an attempt on a new route on this mountain--all disappeared instantly, without so much as having set foot on the glacier, let alone attempting to climb.

Hiking out during a short weather window.
Immediately after returning to the vehicle on our trek out.
We weighed our options and had only two real choices.  First, we could wait in our tents and hopefully get a small weather window large enough to try something else nearby on Cerro Penitentes.  Or, we could pack up, hike out, and head back up north to hopes of better weather and other objectives.  After some discussion, the choice seemed obvious.  We came to climb, and we likely wouldn’t be doing that sitting in a tent on a boulder field.

There was not much left to do at that point but to shift my focus and my energy to new, alternate objectives.  I walked to my tent and began packing my sleeping bag.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Patagonia: Swept Away

I tossed in my sleeping bag as we became stormbound.  I listened to the dusk outside, just beyond the single thin layer of nylon separating us from the forces of mother nature beyond.

Spending some time in the tent.
The wind announced its arrival with a blast just up the valley that sounded like a landing jet aircraft.  Moments later it reached our campsite, viciously pummeling the tent walls.  The tent heaved under the strain of the successive 60mph gusts, the windward wall intruding into our sleeping area.  The guy lines tensioned and shifted with the repeated loading like 2 millimeter nylon tightropes strung between the tent wall and the 75 pound piles of rocks to which they were anchored.  The low rock wall we laboriously erected around the tent as a wind break served only to taunt the wind further, offering no real reprieve.

And then there was the sand.  We were camped on a glacial moraine composed almost exclusively of two things:  boulders and sand.  The latter permeated everything, coating every surface, having worked its way into every crevice.  With each gust sand was pushed over and through the tent, the mesh ventilation ports serving merely as a sieve for the tiniest particles.  I could hear the sky announcing the arrival of the next gust; I rolled over and waited for it to again push the tent walls in and dust my sleeping bag with yet more sand.

As the night grew inexorably toward morning, the wind brought with it increasing moisture.  The rain never seemed excessive, merely constant.  The gusts of wind became less severed and instead assumed a reduced but constant pace.  The continuous driving force peppered the tent with the tiniest of water droplets, tiny balls of ice that had only just transformed to water as they descended to our altitude.  The temperature hovered a few degrees above freezing, ensuring that any trip beyond the zippered porthole of the tent resulted in shivering or sopping, numb fingertips.  The dull lull of the rain changed to hard pelting on occasion with a driving gust, the wind not wanting to be entirely forgotten.

I played a game with myself, attempting to strike the perfect balance between avoiding dehydration as well as the urge to urinate.  Eventually, the pee bottle needed to be emptied or the water bottle refilled from the glacial stream.  It was impossible to win this game.

Every few hours we shouted at each other through the walls of our team’s two tents.  We discussed the weather, checked the forecast on the satellite phone, and conjectured bout when we might leave the tents and continue onward.  With each passing moment, it was easy to recognize our finite supply of time slipping away, yet it grew harder to leave the shelter of our bright yellow havens.

The rain turned to graupel as the wind increased.  Piles of ice pellets and even tiny snowflakes formed at the edges of the tent vestibule as the temperature in the tent’s interior dropped noticeably.  We joked through the tent walls about the great sunbathing to be had at either respective location.  I was grateful for the shelter.

The next gust of wind was particularly fierce, seemingly inflating the tent floor beneath me and my sleeping bag.  The gauchos have a Spanish colloquialism for wind like this, calling it la escoba de dios--the broom of God.  Curled in my sleeping bag on the ground, I contemplated this expression for a moment.  I did not want to be swept away.