Patagonia is most climber’s dream destination. It could have happened last year but it didn’t. 2018 however, was a go. Bear with me, it’s a long post.
Halfway through 2017 I acquired an ITB – iliotibial band syndrome – on my left knee. And then another pulley injury in late October while in Siurana. I only started treatment for my knee in October but it was enough to pin me to a non-active lifestyle. Shape went away, both climbing and cardio, but decided to go to Patagonia anyways, especially after Jennie (the miracle osteopath of Clinique du Sport in Chamonix) started fixing my knee and promised I’d be able to do the long approaches in Chaltén, even if with pain (the French doctor told me to forget about it so I went to see Jennie). When Sean decided to join me, it gave me the stimuli needed to just go for it and put myself through whatever was necessary to have fun and climb some mountains.
Now, if you live in South America, Patagonia is THE place to go for alpine climbing. But because I moved to Europe and had been doing alpine seasons in the middle of the year, it took some organization to finally take time off in the southern hemisphere summer, and finally go to where all my fellow brazilian climbers and friends go all the time. I prepared from the beginning of 2017, started saving money, gathering tips, but then, injuries came. I decided to go anyway even if I wasn’t going to climb much, and I let everyone know.
And so in mid-January Sean flew to meet me in Santiago, Chile. After a few days of organizing things and resting a bit, we hopped on an 8-hour bus to Mendoza with our 27 kg of alpine gear (each) bags, which was Sean’s first view of the immense southern Andes. Once in Mendoza, food and supply shopping, and then some bus hopping here and there to reach our first climbing destination.
CAJÓN DE ARENALES
Arenales is a valley located in the heart of the Andes right at the Argentina/Chile border. The main area of rock climbing sits at about 2500m on the Argentinian side but it is very accessible, although not easy, to reach peaks of 5500m on the border if you decide to overcome the immense fields of loose scree to reach those peaks. It is best known however by the dozens of granite spires reaching 3400 m with hundreds of pure trad routes, as well as some multi-pitch, single-pitch trad, sport and bouldering. All that in an arid landscape cut by a mountain stream, free camping and a quiet setting.
We arrived in late January for a 10-day stay. Our trip there was meant to be a warm up for Chaltén and Frey, since we hadn’t climbed in about a month and weren’t that used to climbing trad together anyways. It proved to be a good beating up since we followed some of my friend’s advice to start on the most classic – which also happened to be the highest and harder routes, and that with the altitude pretty much effed us up, plus the fact that we really misscalculated the food and were on a forced diet for the whole time there. Add to that Sean tipping over our last dinner, and our last breakfast consisting of 1and 1/2 egg each plus some crackers, and there: the whole 10 days felt like a boot camp to put anyone back in shape.
We set up camp the first day which meant putting up our tent and bringing up our food to the “refuge”, which is more like a worn shack where you can cook and leave your stuff for free. The following morning we set off for our first objective, the Charles Webbis needle, an 1h30 approach up a screen field that is as shitty as can be (worse than the Dolomites), to climb one of the routes my friends suggested, the Ya te guaverigua, a 6a+ on the guidebook but 6b straight-away in real life. Feeling the altitude, with a chilly wind on our backs we climbed the first pitch and came down immediatly. What a spanking. This should have been the last route to climb and not the first. But we were smart enough to leave our gear hidden up in a cave for the next day. And there, the next day we wnet up 1h30 again up the nasty scree field to climb Aguja Campanille, where we climbed 180 m route Armonica, which is supposed to be a classic. Unsustained climbing with one good crack pitch and lots of broken terrain, but an amazing sharp summit of the highest needle in the area with awesome views in every direction.
The following days we felt the hastiness of our psyche in our bodies and limited ourselves to single pitches in Carlos Daniel or the sport routes near the bridge, and some multi pitch in the Muralla del Refugio. One of the routes we did there was Los Diedros, a 170 m 6a+ with lose rock and lose flakes scary as hell as in, about to fall on your head and cut your rope.
Another worthy climb was on Aguja Carlos Daniel. We wanted a longer route so we opted for the easy, 6a 300 m Carlos Daniel, but ended up getting lost and climbing some virgin territory a bit harder than that – I’m pretty sure one of the pitches there was never climbed before. Although also lots of lose and broken, scary rock, we arrived at a magnificent summit all to ourselves, with a gorgeous view of the valley down bellow, and best for last, only 2 rappels to get down to some scrambling and then back on the trail.
Arenales was fine, and it is a good place to go with a partner and stay for long periods. However, we left with the impression that climbing is more enjoyable if you are cruising on 6b and above, since that is the kind of terrain where the rock is cleaner and more solid, with steadier pitches and routes without so many ledges in between. Everything we climbed bellow that was unnecessarily exposed to rock fall and big chunks of dangerous rock above and bellow you moving around. It is adventurous climbing but not at its best. If you’re nearby a visit is worth it but we don’t intend on coming back. Maybe we were sold something and saw another? It’s hard to judge after being spoiled with the easy access to amazing rock in Europe, especially the Chamonix granite. However, the idyllic nature of the place, the isolation, and the community that climbs and takes care of the place may make it a worth while visit. More info on the area can be found here. There is a pretty thorough guidebook however it is quite confusing, but a necessity anyways.
We were told the weather was bad because of the few rains and that it is usually scorching hot but we quite liked the mild temperatures and the rain never stopped us from climbing. We can imagine the valley turns into an oven if it does get very hot.
It is worth saying a bit about the Piedra Livre Foundation, led by legendary Yagua, who also drives people to and from parting from Manzano, the town bellow the valley. Putting it short, a group of friends and climbers managed to buy a big piece of land that was in dispute and which included the Arenales valley, and therefore kept the valley acessible to climbers and hickers by blocking the construction of private holiday home/resort. Further, they organized the community, maintain the refuge and built the eco friendly toilets, which from what we heard helped change the camping area from toilet paper all over to one of the cleanest campsites I’ve ever seen. You can also download a pretty neat free PDF with some routes on their website. It looks like the base for the proper guidebook but probably just as good if not better, and free.
After being back in Mendoza and starting a new contraceptive method (sounds irrelevant but it is key to how this trip went), we took a 17 hour bus to Bariloche (which really impressed us), rested for a few days and decided to go straight to Chaltén instead of Frey since I had friends on the way there and the first proper good window of the season was making its way there as well. We arrived at about 6 in the morning after 24 hours on a shitty bus. It was raining and we really couldn’t see anything but hey, it was legendary Chaltén. We sipped coffee at the bus station café and headed to the camping site to pitch our home for who knows how long and meet my friends.
I wish I could report of an amazing climbing trip but the fact is… it didn’t happen. I had strong side effects from my contraceptive, that started with bleeding for the whole time I was there, and rendered me too weak to go on any climbs. I knew even though I wasn’t super trained I could still push it and so I did accompany the boys to the planned climbs as weather permitted.
First we opted for the west face of Aguja Exupery on Torre Valley. Hoping a miracle would happen and I would feel good to climb, I packed all the alpine gear for the long approach to the Polacos bivouac (my GPD marked 25 km from Chaltén, some people say it’s 40 km), with my ITB injury still lingering (take that Colin, I didn’t pass my weight to anyone else ;P). First night we tried squeezing 4 people onto a BD Fitz Roy tent and obviously I didn’t sleep since I had body parts all over myself at all times. From there we went through what was probably the most horrendous approach ofmy life, traversing through hundreds of meters high piles of scree that kept moving and seemed to be ready to roll on our heads and bury us at any moment. Lucky for us asthe closer we got to the glacier the better the weather got, which meant the Torre massif coming out of the clouds and lots of amazing pictures. Midway through the glacier I had a sudden drop in energy and balance but still decided to leave to the last minute the decision to climb or not.
Once at Polacos, we set up bivy/camp and while the boys started discussing the climb plan I realized it wouldn’t be safe for them for me to tag along and I decided to stay behind. Seeing as I always try to see the positive in everything, it meant I could sleep until late. The boys got up in the middle of the night to go up and some other people passed by as well (when I finally left the bivouasc there was an Alex Huber-owned bag outside the bivy). Between 6 and 7 the sunrise was amazing and I forced myself to crawl slightly outside the cave inside my sleeping bag to take some shots, and that to me, considering I wasn’t climbing, was enough to make the trip worth while. They boys came back in the end of the day without having climbed due to frozen cracks and so did the super-star posse of Huber and a few other parties. I guess nobody climbed as I spent hours watching and didn’t see any climbers going upwards anything. We hang out for the afternoon and then back to sleep, since everyone was knackered. In the morning we rapidly packed to get back to Chaltén since weather started deteriorating, and Sean and I made it back in time for a giant bife de chorizo dinner and wine, and then rolled down the street back to camp.
Some days later, after lots of boredom, we decided to go for the Guillaument during a short 30 hour window. I was feeling better but far from 100% and more aware I’d probably wouldn’t be able to climb so I didn’t even bother taking my personal gear this time. They summited Guillaumet via the Amy route in shitty conditions and Sean described the approach as the most dangerous he’d ever done in his life. Me, I just spent my day hanging out around the campsite, chatting with the refuge guardians and playing with the cat. And eating.
While back in town, most of our time in Chalten was spent actually walking from one side of the town to the other, eventually stopping for coffee or hot chocolate and empanadas, looking for working wifi, or eating “asado” (barbacue) done by Alex and chugging wine and beer. We got lucky with weather as it had been a shitty season but right as we arrived we had good and long weather windows one after the other. My cheap Quechua tent survived 90km/h winds (I decided not to take my BD Firstligh and risk an expensive one breaking down), although those nights went sleepless. We waited anxiously for the improving of conditions while I watched myself bleed more and more, until on our third week, and after 5 days of waiting for the last good window of the season (which was supposed to last 6 days but lasted 3), we got fed up and decided to leave. Too much waiting, not enough climbing.
The frustration was very big. I’m in my late 30’s and I’ve done my share of carrying heavy bags in altitude. I don’t need to prove my abilities to anybody anymore. But I need to make the most of my time, and I want to climb, especially now that I’m living in Europe and travelling to South America takes more time and costs a lot more money. Chaltén seems like a place with horrendous approaches for a much less than guaranteed climb (I cannot comment on the quality of the rock but, from people I know in real life it wasn’t good even though all the pros always say it’s fantastic, maybe just up higher?). Immense distances, senseless and dangerous mountains of scree, pretty bad weather, bad snow conditions, bad ice conditions, broken rock, frozen cracks… all for a very slim chance of climbing. I guess if I was in my early 20s and had sponsors on my back and lots of free time I’d be going to Chaltén every season. But the more I travelled in the past years, the poorer I got and the pickier I am with making the most of my time. This visit to Chaltén had finally made me understand the point of view of so many Europeans I’ve met when they said they don’t want all those factors to be weighing in. They wanna climb. And so do I.
As frustrating as the trip was though, Chaltén did leave an impression. I was baffled by the possibility of spring and ice routes. While on the Polacos bivouac, I was amazed by the dimension and grandiosity of those mountains, but what stood out the most was the Torre massif and the faces of Standhardt, Egger and Torre itself, and the alpine lines that lay there. The Cordón Adela and mountains further away from the town also seemed to have amazing options for snow and ice routes as well as ridge traverses apparently seldom explored. Given I am a much more competent alpine and ice climber than rock climber, that’s more a type of climbing I’d be willing to reach and endure the horrible approaches to, when the season was right, which wouldn’t be January/February. There’s new life plans in place, there’s less time and money, and although I would not go back to Chaltén for rock, had I had the opportunity (time and money mainly…) and found myself in shape, I would hit it in the Spring. It also seem like a wonderful destination for trekking, and the trek around the ice cap looks amazing as well (given you’re willing to sacrifice a good weather window for trekking and not climbing).
As predicted by Alex, who said most of the people who come to Chaltén don’t climb at all their first times, I didn’t climb. Sean summited Guillaumet, but I feel that had I’d been in good health, even though I wasn’t in the best shape, I would have gotten on some peaks, summit or not. We got very lucky with the weather overall, and being a bit more patient would have helped too. But we had other places to go and rocks to climb.
We finally hopped on another 24 hour bus back to Bariloche late at night in late February, quite disappointed with the lack of excellent climbing we were so anxiously expecting. I didn’t fall in love with Chaltén as some people told me I would, and obviously everything has to fall into place for anyone to have 100% productivity in Chaltén, and I guess all I had was the weather. But then, what was to come would blow our minds.
This 24 hour bus trip felt shorter than on the way down since we slept for about half of it. On the way south we had stopped in Bariloche for a few days and loved it. It was a welcome stop again, it was like a less touristy and less hyped Chamonix but in a more welcoming South America. Bariloche is amazing. It is beautiful, organized, green, mountainous, friendly, an oasis in the middle of the desert with so much to do, so many crags around it, so much rock! Our plan was to spend a few weeks in the Refugio Frey area, climbing the granite spires until our limit date to reach Uruguay.
We spent a few days preparing gear and food shopping for Frey. Our strategy as advised by Alex was to go up with all the gear and enough food for only 2 days. Climb those 2 days and then come down to Bariloche again to pick up food for another week to 10 days. We were staying at excellent Camping Los Coihues in the village of the same name, in front of lake Gutierrez, outside of Bariloche. By the way, I cannot recommend this place enough. The guys there were amazing, the infra structure is awesome, although away from center of Bariloche it is very close to a bus stop and very well equipped supermakert, plus, next to lake Gutierrez for water sports on warm days, and just 2 km from one of the trail heads to the Frey.
In Arenales we took very little food even though the approach was less than 30 minutes. Yet in Chaltén we had to take more gear, walk for longer and still, we loaded in quality calories. Sean probably had close to 30 kg and myself a few kilos less when we set off from Lake Gutierrez to reach the refuge. This trailhead is 2 km longer than the most popular one that start on the Catedral cable car and said to take 4 hours. I calculated with the weight it’s take us 6 to 7 hours but it took 5h30 (although it felt like longer). When we finally arrived we registered at the refuge and found a sweet camping spot where we pitched the tent and build a little kitchen area. So far it seemed nothing short of amazing: warm enough to swim in the lake, amazing granite spires less than 10 minutes away, free camping for as long as we’d want, and a weather forecast that was very promising.
We started off at Aguja Frey, on the classic (what’s NOT a classic in Frey?) Sifuentes-Weber, a 100 meter 5+. First obvious impressions that were confirmed in other climbs: take twice as much gear as the guidebook recommends, and contrary to what I was told, the rock is very good to place protection, aside from being solid and more clean and with more continuous routes. We were impressed: really good climbing right away. Finally! The streak cotinued as the next day we did Jim’s Dihedral and Jim’s Crack on the same needle (the latter probably my favorite route in Frey, perfect hand and feet jams) and in the afternoon got on Naca Naca Crunch Crunch on Aguja Abuelo, a fun adventure climb with some amazing jams and face climb to a flat summit at the end of the valley. We were getting super psyched as nothing so far as disappointing, on the contrary, the routes were a perfect size, the rock was absolutely amazing and the weather fantastic, which allowed for dives in the lake and some tanning as well. On the third day we headed for Aguja Principal, the highest one, to do the Clemensó route (200 meters, 5+), famous for the “cave-pitch” which was awkward as hell. However, the route again was fantastic with every possible type of crack climbing one can imagine.
The fourth day we walked down to Bariloche in about 2h30, picked up a few pieces of gear from our luggage in the campsite, shopped for food in the center and headed back up via the Catedral trail WHICH WAS SO MUCH EASIER than the Gutierrez one. We had very heavy packs again (2 dozen eggs, 1/2 kg of bife de chorizo, bacon, cheese, etc etc etc) but that trail skips the steepest part, is not as exposed to sun and only took us 3 hours. We also checked the forecast for the future and it seemed like we’d have at least a week of guaranteed good weather, so we went up with about 10 days worth of food. The plan was to go for Campanille the following morning but for the first night there it was super windy and we couldn’t sleep. We woke up wrecked and decided to have a rest day. So hard!
I don’t quite remember all the climbs we did before leaving and in which order, but we did 2 climbs in a day in Aguja La Vieja, a sharp pyramid like needle: the first was Del Frente, essentially a face climb with fantastic holds, and then Sudafricana, a three pitch crack with some off width after a roof, also absolutely amazing, jaw dropping climb (that required a good fight from me). We left La Vieja wishing we were 10 years younger so we could have those 10 years to go back to Frey and climb everything, as it seemed one route was better than the other and nothing was less than really good.
We also hit Aguja Frey again where we did Lost Fingers, a very technical route with another hard roof that gave Sean a good fight and for me a good aid practice, as well as some bloody knucles. Again an out of this world route. Our last climb was Del Diedro on Aguja M2. We were wrecked from back-to-back days of climbing but I didn’t want to leave without doing it because all my friends recomended it. I don’t know if it was because we were so tired but if felt a lot harder than it was, but then, that’s another impression about Frey, the grades there feel a bit harder than usual.
I ran onto some friends from Brazil and they had an updated forecast and apparently the temps were gonna plummet and there was snow coming. We still had food for a few days but were super tired and it would be pointless to stay up there cold and not climbing. We had to keep going north to enter Brazil by mid March, so with heaviness in our hearts we decided to head back down to Bariloche, where we stayed a few days just chilling and doing nothing really relevant.
Frey was amazing. It was so amazing that it made the trip to Argentina worth while. In fact, of the whole 2018 South America tour, the most memorable thing was by a loooong far, Frey (followed much later by the 400g bife de chorizo we ate at Ahonihek in Chaltén). As Sean said, Frey is one of those places on the far side of the world where you can schedule an exclusive vacation to. You can spend the entire high season there and you would not be bored, it is that good. Good thing we didn’t hit Frey before Chaltén otherwise we wouldn’t have left. It is world-class trad climbing in a beautiful environment with a beautiful community. The work the local climbers have done on those needles is super impressive – the routes are all excellent, the ethics is great, the place is clean, the refuge and campsite are organized… so much so that our visitor mouse even got a name: Mickey! He’d eat stuff that fell off pans and plates but never attacked our packed food (we hung our trash so no problem with that).
If you have some time, not much money, and want to make the most of it on trad, Frey (not even Chamonix) comes to mind. Again, it is that good. Bariloche is worth a mention as well, it is an enchanting town with awesome atmosphere. It’s a place I kinda wish I had been born in, since there’s everything from amazing sport climbing, to trad to big glaciers and alpine routes and ice climbing in a tiny area, well serviced by a well stocked and super friendly town.
After Bariloche we headed to Buenos Aires for a few days where we caught a free Tango show and I took a picture with the Mafalda statue, and from there headed to Uruguay. Argentina is an immense country with pockets of amazing scenery with vast stretches of nothing (desert) in between. It’s not an easy country to be a tourist in, especially due to the difficulties with cash, using credit cards and internet, and a faulty infra-structure in general, which left me with the impression that it kind of stopped in time somewhere in the 80s. But maybe that is what adds to the experience of being in such isolated places such as Chaltén, the same way the rustic qualities of Peruvian mountain towns add to the experience there, or on the Nepal valleys. If it had it all it wouldn’t be what it is, and character is something most of these places have of, and lots of it. Climbing wise, what a country! And we didn’t even go to Piedra Parada. Very easy to spend half a year climbing in Argentina and not get bored.
Climbing in Frey is out of this world. Am I repeating myself?
We arrived in Uruguay by crossing the Plata river on a ferry from Buenos Aires, and arriving first at Colonia do Sacramento, a lovely historic town with preserved ruins from the colonial times. We then headed to the capital Montevideo, another historical and very welcoming town, and finally to the coast, where we spent a few days in La Pedrera chilling and taning, before getting a bus to Brazil from Punta del Leste. Uruguay is a very civilized country in the smallest details. I left with the impression that it is the most “first world” of the South American countries I’ve been to (almost all), and a sharp contrast to the previous months (except Bariloche) and the months to come. Apparently there’s not much climbing in Uruguay if any, but there’s very good surfing in idillyc isolated beaches, and it would be a nice surfing vacation at some point.
From Punta del Leste we caught another 9 hour bus to Brazil where we’d meet Alex for the first leg of our Brazilian rock tour 2018.