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.

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