Sunday, October 4, 2015

Back in Patagonia - An Amazing Six Day Weather Window

I arrived in a quiet El Chalten on the 11th of September, for the final week of winter and first couple weeks of spring.  A quick look at the forecast in the El Calafate airport showed a possible window coming in about a week’s time, so I had no time to spare. After two months spent in the urban-esque mountains of Europe and another in the growing outdoor recreation metropolis of Squamish, I was seeking solitude and adventure. Thus, I threw together a mental plan to solo Aguja Standhardt, the smallest of the three Torres in winter, but in reality felt that I would be lucky if I managed to climb anything in the area, having only been in summer and expecting very difficult conditions.

Travel was horrendous this time around,with airport delays, long layovers and my own personal errors such as going to the wrong airport ect ect.  By the time I reached El Chalten, three days after departing, I just wanted to be in the mountains. Although I arrived late at my hostel, I stayed up until midnight preparing a load of equipment to shuttle into the Torre Valley, and at 7:30 the following morning I was off.

Not knowing how much snow to expect, having both arrived and then departed in darkness, I wore my boots right out the door of my hostel. After an hour and a half on the trail, with no snow yet in sight I realized my error. Although the temperature were cold in the shade, and there was some snow on the ground I was surprised that conditions on the trail to Laguna Torre were not more 'wintery'. Then again I had not known quite what to expect, but my boots felt rather unnecessary for the first several kilometers of the approach..

The classic view of the Torres from the lake.

The descent to the Torre Glacier was in much worse shape than I had ever seen it. A section had collapsed, taking with it the old fixed rope usually used to navigate the steep descent. As I downclimbed fourth class rubble where the rope used to be, the winds grabbed at the skis strapped to my backpack and threatened to throw me off balance. After reaching the glacier, the winds abated somewhat, allowing me to cross easily and make good time to the base of the Torres. But once I reached Niponino, the popular base camp used by climber, clouds closed in and the scenery took on a whole different character. A cold wind whipped the fresh snow into drifts all over the glacier, and my hands quickly froze as I piled my equipment into the 100L drybag I had carried in with me to leave behind as a cache.

After burying my cache beneath a pile of stones I was quick in exiting the valley, the wind now in my back. A arrived back at my hostel just before darkness set in, sore from having walked a long ways in my boots.
After two days of rest I made my second carry into the valley. After two trips to the area, I had decided that making several carries is a more advantageous strategy over making only one trip with a crippling load. Fitness gains can be made this way, rather than inflicting damage on the body by carrying all the equipment at once.
This time, there was fresh snow covering the trail before reaching the Laguna. I carried my boots in my pack, and before navigating the descent to glacier I made the change to heavier footwear. Once on the glacier, my skis would have proved handy had I not left them stashed three kilometers further at Niponino. Fresh snow made the typically straightforward glacier more hazardous, and in some areas I had to probe for crevasses while breaking trail.
I deposited my second load of equipment at Niponino and made quick time skiing back down the glacier, stashing my skis where the glacier meet the moraine before walking back to town. On the walk back to town however, a pain in my left leg slowly began to grow, eventually making simply walking a painful affair. Never having had this issue in the past, I tried to remain positive that the situation would sort itself out and I would not spend the remainder of my trip hobbling around El Chalten on crutches.
The following morning some research led me to deduce that I had an inflamed IT band, likely from walking long distances so suddenly, through snow with heavy boots. I spent the next several days stretching, massaging, and took some  anti-inflammatories hoping that I would still be able to make use of a promising window in the forecast.
The window appeared to be best from the 20th of September onwards, with an unusually large high pressure system settling over the area for nearly a week. The 20th would be the last day of winter, and thus my hopes of making ‘winter ascents’ were unlikely to be realized. In Patagonia it is important to strategize in the most logical manner for a successful climb, and to not go too early simply based on how high the stoke is. For me this can be a crux. I decided that a couple extra days of rest would be good for my leg as well, and readjusted my mental itinerary to suit the dates of the weather window.

On Sunday, the 20th of September I set of from Chalten with a light pack and hopes the my knee would not become inflamed again. I felt for any twinges of pain but none came, so I picked up my skis and made my way across the glacier under blue skies. There was no wind as I leisurely set up my camp at Niponino, temperatures in the sun were rather accommodating as I lay about camp sharpening my tools, melting snow for water and organizing my equipment for the following day.
My plan for the next day was to ski and climb to El Boquete, a pass at the head of the Torre Valley, separating the Fitz group from the Piergiorgio and Torre groups. From El Boquete I would be able to see conditions on Cerro Chalten’s ‘Supercanaleta’, another line that I was interested in climbing during the long weather window.

Camp in the Torre Valley, Cerro Chalten and Desmochada catching the evening light.

I left camp early in the morning, knowing that if conditions looked good in the Supercanaleta I would want to climb the first 1000 meters and spend the night at the start of the technical difficulties. I skied up the glacier to the base of the icefall guarding ‘El Boquete’, where I swapped skis for crampons and began climbing. Much of the climbing was simply 45 degree snow, but at the top there was one pitch of 90 degree ice to navigate in order to reach the pass.It looked too steep to climb with my pack on, I built a V-thread and hung my pack from a fifi hook, so that I could retrieve it after soloing the pitch. I climbed well to the left of my pack, so as not to dislodge it with the ice that fell as I swung my tools. The quality of the ice was awful, some of the worst I have climbed and enormous chunks splintered from the serac as I climbed. I had to take great care not to be knocked off by the enormous dinner plates that continually fell as I climbed, but after twenty meters of steep terrain I reached easy ground and hauled up my pack.

On the walk up to 'El Boquete' Torre Group in the background.

At the pass I coiled my rope and inspected conditions in the Supercanaleta. The couloir looked rather thin, with discontinuous sections even below the start of the mixed terrain. Cerro Pollone however, had a large flow of neve pouring down its South Face and looked highly appealing. A few months had passed since I had really spent time in the mountains, and soloing a dry Supercanaleta did not look like the best way to start things off. The South Face of Pollone looked like a smaller objective, and it also looked to be in excellent condition.  I elected to spend the remainder of the day skiing around the pass and to climb Pollone the following morning. The afternoon was spent in a leisurely manner, skiing laps down the long undulating slope to the base of the Supercanaleta and skinning back up. I am not an expert skier, especially in climbing boots, so this was a perfect and enjoyable place for me to practice making turns in a spectacular setting. Despite the mellow angle of the hill, I still wiped out in ways that surely would have made good entertainment had others been around to watch.

 skiing with Cerro Chalten in the background.

 I spent the night under the stars without a tent in a comfortable windstopper sleeping bag and it was quite a treat.  Stars were out in full force, and although a gust of cold wind would come every now and then in the night, it never penetrated the fabric of my sleeping bag and I felt well rested when I awoke in the early hours of the morning to approach the south face of Pollone.

I crossed the schrund under the cover of darkness; I had to make a long exposed traverse above the lip of the schrund in order to reach the aesthetic smear of ice that I hoped to climb. I could sense that I had not been on exposed steep snow in some time, and whenever a patch of ice made itself present on the wall above I found comfort in the secure placement of my tools.
I soon reached the long smear of white ice that stretched the whole vertical length of the face, and was delighted to find that the neve was of excellent quality. One swing stick hero Styrofoam at an angle of about 70 degrees for hundreds of meters!
As I swung and kicked and ascended the feature with a steady rhythm the sun began to rise over the sharp fangs of the Chalten Massif illuminating the sky in red. I stopped several times to take in the beauty of my surroundings, and to appreciate my luck with such weather and perfect conditions. High up on the face the ice thinned and I had to make a series of mixed traverses to reach a parallel ice smear; the perfect quality of the ice, even when only two or three centimeters thick allowed my easy passage and soon I was at a shelf bisecting the face into two parts.
Above, a one meter wide strip of ice led for another few pitches to the summit ridge. The climbing was easy, never harder than AI3, but of excellent quaity., As I climbed higher the face became plastered in rime, obscuring everything, and the ice became harder to follow until I reached the summit ridge.  Unfortunately, my attempts to traverse to the east summit of the mountain were thwarted by the heavily rimed up stoned. I tried several different options, but each time found my tools and frontpoints bouncing off the rock beneath; unable to make a belay I returned to a small saddle in the crest which I straddled as I made my first rappel anchor. A few rappels, some downclimbing, and a few more rappels down a narrow ice choked gully brought me back to my skis at the base of the route.

Straddling the summit ridge of Pollone. The south face is the shady bit on the right.

After picking up my equipment at El Boquete I made a few rappels back to Torre Glacier and skied my way back to my tent in Niponino. A glance at my watch after reaching camp revealed that it was only 4pm, and I scorned myself for not doing another route, or attempting Piergiorgio with so much time left in the day. However I still opted to rest for the remainder of the day, and the following day to leave myself prepared to go big in two days’ time.
Taking a rest day in the Torre Valley under perfect weather, and with excellent conditions, was for me likely the mental crux of my whole venture! I desperately wished to grab my tools and solo one of the many frozen waterfalls pouring from the couloirs beneath the Chalten Massif but I continued to tell myself that I would need that energy on the following day.
During my Pollone ventures, it has appeared from the glacier that ‘Tomahawk’, the route that I wished to take on Standhardt was unformed. The other option was to climb only ‘Exocet’, a shorter route that, although still aesthetic, involves more approaching and less climbing.

How the rest day generally started, sharpening tools and organizing gear.

I walked out onto the Torre glacier to get a view of ‘Los Tiempos Perdidos’ on the south side of Cerro Torre as one of my alternate plans had been to climb ‘Los Tiempos’ and continue with a North to South traverse of the Adelas. The route looked to be in good shape, and I went to bed thinking I would start early and climb ‘Los Tiempos’ instead of Standhardt. However the objective hazard associated with the route left me feeling slightly uneasy.

What the rest day generally regressed to. A few hours later.

At 3:30 AM an avalanche in the vicinity of ‘Los Tiempos’ woke me from my dreams and I promptly changed my mind and decided to go for ‘Exocet’ instead, preferring to enjoy the day rather than await my possible impending fate at the hands of an avalanche.  I repacked my bag, adding a few cams and extra slings to the rack and at 4:30 AM began the approach towards the base of Aguja Standhardt.
Crossing glaciers without a rope, rightly known to be a harzardous activity, is the one aspect of alpine soloing that I fear the most and enjoy the least. Luckily the snow conditions were iron hard and my crampons barely left scratches in the surface. After ascending a few hundred meters by the light of my headlamp I found myself in an icefall that I did not remember from my two previous times on this glacier. I tried several different options, but found my way barred by gaping crevasses or towering seracs each time. Eventually I sat down in a relatively safe zone and waited for the first early morning light to orient myself. I ate some food, drank some water and admired the stars for about an hour until the light was sufficient to see where I needed to be.

I retraced my steps back down the glacier for about 200 meters and then took the correct route leading to Standhardt, crossing one crevasse on my knees before reaching the base of the wall. From this vantage I could suddenly see a faint strip of ice in the crux pitch of Tomahawk, and although it was hard to make out, it looked as though it may be continuous.
‘I might as well try to do what I came here for’, I thought to myself, and traversed over to the start of the first pitch; listed as M5 C1 on the topo I had in my pocket. Although more technically difficult, the steep climbing on ‘Tomahawk’ looked much more appealing to me than walking up a crevassed glacier without a belay, even in good snow conditions.
Never having climb any of the terrain on which I was about to embark I had few expectations. I carried a few cams, pins and wires as well as two ice screws so that I could build belays if necessary. I placed a shoulder length sling around a horn of rock and hung my pack from it using a fifi hook, I girth hitched another sling to the bag and clipped it to the first sling in order to retrieve everything when I pulled up the bag.

The East Faces of the Torre Group from the valley floor, taken on my way to El Boquete.

As I started up vertical but blocky mixed terrain, I removed my gloves for a better sense of contact with the rock and my tools. I entered a short offwidth section, heel toe camming to the best of my ability with crampons on and using my right tool to stick a narrow ice vein in the back of the feature. After mantling over the top of the block, a series of awkward shimmy’s across snowed up flakes brought me to a large wide corner feature. After some more offwidth climbing, facilitated by good holds on the outside edge of the crack, I was able to make a 180 degree spin and exit onto the left hand wall via a series of gritty ice filled cracks, using both my hands and dry tooling techniques. As I swung my tool into the more continuous ice at the top of the pitch I was both pleased and surprised to have not needed to belay or aid climb at all. I placed a pin and a small TCU and used the temporary anchor to haul up my pack on the microtraction before continuing.

On the crux pitch of Tomahawk.

An easy pitch led to the base of ‘Tomahawk’s main feature, 60+ meters of vertical ice in a narrow and highly aesthetic chimney. I did not want to leave a sling at the base of the pitch as I did not expect to be descending the same way, and thus chose to solo the pitch with my pack on, dragging my rope behind me. The ice was somewhat sun baked, and I had to work for solid tool placements, but the availability of the side walls prevented the climbing from ever becoming too strenuous. I used a combination of chimney and stemming techniques to ascend the pitch. At times I found myself palming the left hand wall and walking my feet up the ice on the opposite side of the chimney, using only my right tool in the ice. Drop knees and stemming between holds on the chimney’s side walls also came in handy; a technical and highly enjoyable pitch!

Chilling in the chimney on the crux pitch of Tomahawk.

I topped out this pitch and found myself staring up the more moderate snow ramps and ice steps leading to the junction with Exocet. The east face was now in the full sun and, as per usual, chunks of snow and ice were raining from the walls and running down the gullies. The face had been receiving full sun for the previous four day, and I did not expect anything too huge to come down so I continued climbing, sticking to either sides of the runnels that much of the debris were channeled into.

There were a few steps of grade 3 and grade 4 ice in the ramps, and soon I was on the main ramp that bisects the face diagonally beneath the upper headwall. Here the snow was soft and heavy, warmed by the sun, and kicking steps was heavy work due to the snow balling in my crampons making me feet rather heavy.

Looking back down to the Torre Valley. My pack hanging at a rappel anchor.

After a short while I finally reached the base of the Exocet chimney proper where I had a snack and prepared myself for the steep climbing above. As I started into the chimney I found the ice to be of generally good quality, as the sun being further to the north than in summer, did not reach the back and affect the ice.

Looking up the radical chimney pitches on Exocet

For the next several pitches, I hung my pack from in situ anchors, or from slings girth hitched through v-threads that I had made. I would solo until near the end of my 80 meter rope, then place another screw and tag up my pack. I found the climbing steep and sustained, but not overly difficult and I never felt the need to stop and belay. I slithered my back along the left hand wall, using the chimney position much of the time to progress without taxing my arms.

Climbing the ice chimney on Exocet

 After four 80 meter pitches found myself at the top of the chimney staring up at a mixed slab guarding the summit ridge. I expected to need a belay at some point, as from the base the slab looked quite thin, but as I started upwards I was able to find adequate edges to stand on and free soloed the pitch finding it much more straightforward than it had appeared from below.

Looking down the mixed slab pitch above the ice chimneys.

I topped out onto the summit slopes and was rewarded with an incredible view out over the icecap, a view that melts my mind each and every time I see it! A light wind sweeping over the ridge and some clouds in the sky prompted me to move quickly in case the weather was about to change, and I scampered over to the base of the beautiful rime mushroom that forms the summit. Here I saw that a small tunnel through the rime would provide passage onto the summit, but the tunnel was so narrow that my shoulders barely fit inside. I found myself unable to swing my tools or kick with my boots, so I resorted to some kind of ‘rodent’ technique. Similar to a squeeze chimney in rock, but distinctively more ‘rat like’ with plenty of snow and rime falling in my face to complete the cartoon like image.

Looking up the summit mushroom to the exit tunnel.

After three or four difficult meters I arrived onto the summit of Aguja Standhardt, somewhat surprised to be there after having started the climb hours before with zero expectation of what I may encounter. I checked the time, 4:30PM, exactly 12 hours after leaving Niponino. I ate some food, enjoyed the views and let the moment sink in for a short while before digging down to solid ice and building my first v-thread to rappel from.

On the summit of Aguja Standhardt. Hielo Continental in the background.

Rappelling back through the tunnel was a strange sensation, I had to make my body straight as a pencil to slide back through.. I quickly kicked steps back across the summit slopes, rappelled the mixed slab and threaded my rope directly through V-threads in the chimney below, retrieving my slings along the way and leaving nothing behind aside from holes in the ice.
The descent for Exocet is relatively straightforward, but as I had only a single 80m rope as opposed to the usual double 60m ropes, I did have to stop and make my own anchors at times.

Rappeling Aguja Standhardt.

The only frightening moment of the whole climb came during the descent. After a 40m rappel, I reached the ends of my ropes only a meter above an in-situ anchor consisting of an old bolt stud lashed with a wire, and a fixed nut. I used my crampon to snag the master point and lift it up towards my waist so that I could clip in with my daisy chain. I then slithered off one end of my rope, keeping the other end securely in my hand and tried to softly ease my weight onto the anchor. As my weight came onto the anchor the fixed nut suddenly began to remove itself from the crack, leaving me scratching at features in the rock in order to un-weight the anchor before half of popped out! With my weight off the anchor, I replaced the nut in the crack and hammered it home with the pick of my ice too. Again happy with my rappel anchor, I continued downwards towards the glacier.

I reached the glacier just before dark, around 8pm, and could see that I had one major crevasse to navigate before rejoining the track I had left in the morning. Above the crevasse I was able to dig with my tool and find substantial ice to make an anchor and belay my crossing. Below the crevasse I picked up my track and made good time back down the glacier, arriving at Niponino around 10pm where I melted snow for water and at some well-deserved snacks!
Despite being tired from my long day, I had a hard time falling asleep. I replayed the days’ events again and again in my mind, and marvelled at my luck with weather, conditions and timing. The route was undoubtedly one of the highest quality ice outings I had ever climbed, and it had been such a cool experience to climb it onsight-free solo with the entire Torre Valley to myself.

Before breaking camp and hiking back to El Chalten. The south face of Cerro Pollone in the far background.

The next morning I lay in my tent until the first sun rays illuminated the ground outside my tent, and then I dried out my equipment and re cached it in the rocks before beginning the long walk back to town.

I was exhausted while retracing my steps back towards El Chalten, but deeply content with the adventure that had passed. It had been all that I was looking for and more; with all the elements of a special and soulful venture in the mountains. Back in town, I could not wipe the smile from my face as I continued to marvel at my luck. It is often unbelievable when a idea conceived in my mind becomes a reality and a memory. Cheers to the mountains of Patagonia.

The Piergiorgio group from Aguja Standhardt. Domo Blanco, Piergiorgio and Cerro Pollone.


  1. Wow, Marc. Amazing, And a good read, too!

  2. Awesome read Marc. Thanks for sharing this!!!

    Adam Hart

  3. Super inspirational!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. This post has really made my day, i forwarded to my wife and she will really enjoy that too. Some really spectacular images and really well written. Can only recommend this to others who need an bit of inspiration to go out there and explore like you have. Great work keep it up and look forward to seeing more. Thanks.

    Wilbert Bowers @ Mirr Ranch Group

  5. Great blog! I really love how it is easy on my eyes and the information are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made.
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  8. Just watched the film made about you Marc. What a phenomenal human you were. May you rest in peace knowing you're still inspiring and influencing others to greatness!

  9. Rest In peace Marc. You are an inspiration

  10. Just watched the documentary. You’re amazing Marc. What an’s like I’m there with you in a VR sort of way since I’m not a climber. You are one of a kind … irreplaceable.