Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fitzroy - Attempt 2

I am sitting in our El Chalten apartment every muscle aching a day after arriving back down from our second attempt on Mt Fitzroy. It is a bit devastating to have come so close to summiting the mountain but having to retreat on what is almost definitely our last shot for the trip. We gave it our all and approached the climb tactically well except for one major flaw which is appearing to be our route choice. Two confirmed other parties managed to summit the day we didn't both climbing from the opposite side on a longer but slightly easier route (NW ridge) which was free of ice due to its exposure to the afternoon sun. When I spoke to the other parties about the route they had nothing good to say about it (a lot of loose rock) and didn't seem excited to summit. An American in one of the teams on their way down said "It was sh#t. I am only sport climbing from now on!". I laughed at this knowing that once recovered in a couple of days he would be raving about his experience as is all too common in alpine climbing.
Our attempt began one days rest after arriving down from attempt one. We saw a good weather window and decided to take our time approaching the climbing allowing an extra day for ice to melt from the cracks and so that we would be fresher when it came to the day we would push for the summit. We left El Chalten at 10am and had a leisurely stroll to Paso Superior making it in only six and a half hours. We spent the night in our snow cave where our gear was stashed and were moving again before first light across the glacier to the base of the Brecha mixed climbing. We hit a snag here as the aproach we had previously done was impassable due to the schrund widening. We descended a bit and walked a few hundred meters around to the left which is known as the French Variation for getting up to the Brecha bivvy. Here we managed to gain a snow slope above the schrund and spent an what seemed an eternity rising upwards with burning calf muscles before we could traverse over to our original line. The traverse turned to black ice and felt dodgy. We were relieved once it was over and only a bit of mixed rock and ice led to La Brecha. At this point Owen and I looked at each other and said "Were not doing that again" so we knew that this attempt was it.
Walking up the glacier.
Me on the glacier with the La Brecha gully in the background on the left.
 From La Brecha we scrambled around to the base of the mixed pitch leading up to La Silla which I led hesitantly due to a quite hard mixed boulder problem it contained. We had arrived at the La Silla bivvy mid afternoon so we dumped our bivvy gear and continued to the base of the wall were the Franco Argentine route begins. To get to the base of the wall you cross/climb an ice ridge that is like walking on glass. Even with crampons and axe you feel as though you could go sliding away at any instance. At the start we roped up and if someone slipped the other would jump over the other side. For the last steeper 50m Owen placed a couple of ice screws. The base of the wall is just steep ice connecting with a thin crack containing some fixed rope to clip into. I just hung there and took off crampons and boots careful not to drop either before putting on my rock shoes. Since I had been up the first pitch before it didn't take too long to ascend. There was less ice than before but not much less. We fixed our rope at the anchor of pitch one and use our second to get down the ice ridge and back to our bivvy.
Owen following the mixed ground up to the La Silla bivvy.
Home away from home! The La Silla bivvy.
3am in the morning and we were psyched! Despite it being ridiculously cold. We had a quick breakfast of snacks and made our way to the base of the route, jugged the first pitch and were at the top of the second before sunrise. I led the first block of seven pitches which involved more aid than climbing. I had my axe out a lot of the time chipping out spots of ice to place gear in. Luckily the ice was aerated and came out easily. At pitch seven we felt as though we were on target. Not moving fast but fast enough to make it. Owen then took over on ever increasing icy ground until pitch ten. Pitch ten it seemed everything changed. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped and the nature of the ice changed from white and aerated to hard blue ice in all the cracks and  a lot of exposed rock was covered in verglas. Owen gave it a crack but retreated and I was shivering at the belay. Our decision it seemed was made. It was frustrating as you could see the top of the cliff band above us only three pitches before the mixed ramp to the summit. An involved descent got us back to La Silla where we decided that rather than spend another cold night out we would push through and continue down to Paso Superior. We navigated the rappels down the Brecha in the dark and were back in our snow cave by midnight.
The view from the end of pitch 7.
The night time descent down the Brecha.
 The next day we rested and chatted with other climbers at the pass about their experiences and tried to eat all our food so that we didn't have to carry it down. We planned to have a crack at one of the smaller peaks the next day but when morning came we had slept through our 4am alarm and the mountains were shrouded in clouds anyway. So we packed up everything and started the day long descent with heavy packs to El Chalten.
Paso Superior. We were interviewed by the three Japanese men in the foreground who were making a documentary.
Sunrise from Paso Superior.
We have two and a half weeks left in Patagonia and the plan now is to attempt some of the smaller peaks in the range to try and stand on at least one summit! The weather is turning again though so we are not sure when the next opportunity will be. I feel we have been lucky to get the windows we have just had when I remember the stories about people who have done trips here and not gotten into the mountains for the entire season! For now its recovery and a bit of sport climbing in the valley.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fitzroy - Attempt 1

Owen and I woke up at 4am Thursday morning and were out the door by 5 to start our trek back up to Paso Superior for what was going to be a two to three day weather window. We didn't have to carry much as everything was stashed up there from our previous reconnaissance trip. It took less than 8 hours to get to the pass where we were struggling to stay connected to the snow ridge due to the strength of the wind gusts. After an hour and a bit the winds died down signalling the start of a spell of good weather. Due to still having a fair bit of time left in the day we decided to try and make it to the top of the Brecha, a 300m mixed rock, snow and ice gully approach to the bivvy called the Brecha de los Italianos. This involved another long slog up a glacier then dealing with a tricky schrund before the mixed 300m even begun! We made it to the top just before dark and were exhausted after a day of over 2000m elevation gain.
Owen walking up to Lago de los Tres
Owen above Lago de los Tres on the way to Paso Superior.
Owen on the glacier above Paso Superior on the way to the Brecha de los Italianos.
Four in the morning and we were up again to tackle another long mixed pitch leading to a rock and ice covered slope were the La Silla bivvy is located. The La Silla bivvy is a rock big enough for two to sit behind out of the wind. It is also the closest bivvy site to the base of the Franco-Argentine route up Mt Fitzroy. Two Americans that were in front of us the day before had bivvied here and were at the base of the granite wall were the route begins. So we waited...
The first pitch of the route is a 50m finger crack at a grade of 6a+ in the topo but the word around town was that it was closer to 6c. It didn't matter as it was choked with ice and snow and turned into an aid climbing epic by the Americans taking a couple of hours. It was easier once they had cleaned it for us but the speed at which we were moving became an issue and with the pitches above all iced up we decided to bail. The Americans and a team of three Korean ladies (North Face sponsored?) behind us also decided to turn around. The route needs a couple of days of good weather to come into condition and we need to jump on it first in line so there is no waiting around. 
First good weather in a few weeks and everyone wants a go! Owen rapping down over the icy ridge approach with three Koreans and two Americans above.
The joys of finding a nice rappel anchor! At the top of the Brecha begining our descent.
Owen a couple of rappels down the Brecha.
After bailing back to Paso Superior we fell into our snow cave and slept for what must have been about 12 hours. The next day we stumbled back to town defeated but found an even better period of weather is approaching and now have renewed confidence since we understand the approach and conditions better than before. Plans are always changing along with the weather forecasts but at the moment it looks like today is our only rest day before heading back to Paso Superior tomorrow. We are breaking up the approach to conserve energy and give the route a day of good weather before we jump on it. After tomorrow we will go from Paso Superior to La Silla were we will bivvy behind the rock there. Hopefully most of the other punters will give it a go that day and be out of our way for the next. We will have a very early start to be first on the next day and hopefully make it up!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Paso Superior

Owen and I are resting back in town after slogging our way up to Paso Superior with all our gear. This is the bivvy site that most parties start out from when attempting Mt. Fitzroy or any of the other peaks along the same ridge line. The walk isn't so bad except for when you have to carry half your body weight the whole way! It is a popular tourist walk from El Chalten up to Lago de los Tres before things get a bit more involved and you have to skirt around a lake with steep sides and then up a glacier to a relatively simple alpine ridge leading to the Pass. 
Poincenot, Fitzroy and Paso Superior from just above Lago de los Tres. The red line is the approach we did.

We took about 9.5 hours and ended up at the windy and wet Paso Superior to find a free pre-dug snow cave which was awesome. It was cold and uncomfortable but out of the weather. 

Owen looking a bit too happy to be cold, wet and residing in a mound of snow.
The next morning it started out windy with gusts so strong it was hard to stand up outside. We thought we might be stuck for another day up there but the wind dropped off enough for us to retreat. Most of our gear is up at the pass now except for our glacier traveling gear stashed at the base of the glacier. The weather looks like it will be good enough for a crack at Mt. Fitzroy this Friday so we are having a couple of days rest before heading up again with a bunch of food for a prolonged stay.
Fitzroy on the walk back down.

Friday, February 3, 2012

El Chalten

After a ridiculous transit half way around the world Owen and I have made it to El Chalten in Argentina. Climbers we met at the airport who were leaving spoke of one of the best seasons in terms of weather for a long time. Apparently we had recently missed an unheard of 6 day weather window. The downside to all this is that there had been too much melting and large rockfalls were common and the schrund at the base of the walls had become so wide it had become hard to cross. So it is a good thing the weather has taken a turn for the worse this week dumping new snow up high. We need the time to get ourselves organised anyway. 

El Chalten is a tourist town catering to trekkers and climbers and is jam packed with people so we have managed to get ourselves in at a youth hostel till Monday when we have organised an apartment above a bakery for the remaining 5 weeks. The other option is to camp but with 50kg's of gear each we decided the cushy way was the way to go (Thanks to Seth and Sea to Summit for helping me out replacing all my old gear!). We plan to head up to Paso Superior to familiarise ourselves with the walk and stash some gear during this bad weather period in preparation for attempting the Franco-Argentine route on Mt Fitzroy. There is also a lot of sport climbing and bouldering around El Chalten where the weather is much nicer. We did some sport climbing yesterday and have a boulder festival on tomorrow so there is plenty to keep us busy.
El Chalten with Mt Fitzroy in the distance.
Mt Fitzroy
Its windy up there!