Thursday, December 30, 2010

Scratching around in the UK

Although i'll be back in Chamonix in a week or so, where you wouldn't give a three star scottish mixed route a second glance (well........maybe), i couldn't resist taking advantage of the wintery lake district that i'd found myself in. So early on boxing day morning Chris and myself were skidding along in the dark towards Wasdale head on our way to Pillar rock.
        Pillar is perhaps our most remote crag here in Cumbria and is a very interesting cliff. It has many aspects varying from clean slabs to steep turfy cracklines and although it hosts some brilliant rock routes, you could argue it has more winter potential than summer.
             We ended up climbing the first couple pitches of "Electron" HVS 5a. The first long corner which is the summer 5a pitch was excellent, as good as anything of that style i've climbed in scotland. The next couple pitches were scrappy. I then tried to climb a variation to pitch three as we didn't have a single piece of gear suitable to protect the 4c crack. It wasn't to be and after some tenous ballancing above a tied peg i traversed in to the top pitch of a VS called Electron which provided an excellent finish, similar to the Gargoyle Wall cracks on the Ben.
The meat of the route was this nice corner.
I gave it VII.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Patagonia summary

I've been at my parent’s house, in the funny little corner of England that is west Cumbria for a few days now. A slightly manic journey back from Argentina was followed by the normal annual traditions that Christmas triggers. I wanted to start the winter's training over this Christmas, but predictably I’ve been getting drunk and eating lots of food rather than putting the hours in on the legs.
     Here's a brief summary of Patagonia:
       The main aim of mine and Jon's trip was to climb Cerro Torre by its stunning west face, AKA the Ragni di Lecco route. Unfortunately, we didn't get a weather window long enough to get on the route. We required ideally three days, one to clear the route and about two to climb it, but would have probably pushed for it in a 2 day window if it had appeared. The longest true weather window we got during our trip ("true" meaning it was forecasted and stable), was one and a half days. Although when I realised the west face wasn't going to happen I was disappointed, i was just so impressed by other objectives i didn't find it hard to do a psyche transfer. Jon was the same.
      However, the west face certainly hasn't gone out of my mind, and seeing it in the flesh has just increased my desire to climb it. For me at the moment, the west face of Cerro Torre is the most beautiful route in the world. Its just perfect in every way; form, position, climbing, line, and completely unique. To top it off, i want to climb Cerro Torre, but for me climbing the compressor route holds as much interest as entering a bouldering comp.

We arrived in Chalten, the small village close to Fitzroy late at night on the 16th of November. The first few days were spent generally sussing out the place, celebrating my 21st birthday and getting our bearings. We then set to work carrying a tent, lots of food and all our climbing kit up to an area Known as "niponino" which is in the Torres valley where we made a sort of advanced base camp. The idea is that you leave everything stashed under a boulder up there, so that you can spend your time down in Chalten until good weather arrives, then race up and launch at routes from niponino.

Lugging supplies up to niponino

The walk up to niponino is about 6 hours walking fast, which doesn't seem far, but it is. We were soon calling it the commute, reflecting how many times we were doing it to re-equip our stash with food etc...

The "Commute"
Jon on the Commute.
Our little base in the Torres valley.


A few days after we had finished stashing kit, we were lucky enough to see a 2 day weather window appear on the forecast. With this in mind we headed up to our base at niponino with the exocet chimney on Cerro Standhardt in mind. In the end the window decreased in size but it was still enough for what we wanted. Exocet is one of the hard classics of Patagonia, traversing across Standhardt from the Standhardt col via slabs and snowfields then launching through a headwall in a sometimes only hip-wide chimney for four long pitches to the summit ridge. Some may have seen Andy Kirkpatrick and Ian Parnell attempting this in the Alistair Lee film, "Psyche".
       The chimney pitches are super steep, but on good ice. They are however really scary to belay in, as any falling ice WILL hit you.

Approaching Standhardt from base camp, Jon using his light trickery...

First short pitch

One of the mixed pitches before the pendulum.

Pitch that leads to the beginning of the chimneys

Reaching Jon's belay 2 pitches up the chimneys.

Fun ice

Somewhere in the chimneys

high in the chimneys, a little deceptive, probably afew degrees over 90 here.

The summit ridge consists of a slabby mixed pitch followed by 200 metres of snow and then a stunningly beautiful mushroom summit. The mushroom this year was pretty straight forward as it was excellent ice for both axes and screws.

From the chimneys, a mixed pitch and 200 metres of ridge finds you here, with the spectacular summit just above Jon.

A 20 metre ice pitch up the summit mushroom, then you find yourself stood here, with Egger and Torre behind.


After 20 mins on the summit, watching clouds roll over the western most reaches of the ice-cap we started to descend. We rapped the route mostly in the dark, not helped by two badly snagged ropes, both requiring a lot of climbing to free.
        Exocet as a route is uber-classy. The climbing is just completely awesome, from the mixed and dry tooling beginning to the steep ice in the chimneys, to the final 20 metres of mushroom. The line also is just totally awesome, the kind of thing you would design as a fantasy route. Great day.

After climbing exocet we spent almost 2 weeks of bad weather in Chalten. This was spent generally "hanging out" with friends, which included sport climbing and bouldering sessions, drinking, eating and sleeping. We were checking the forecast as much as three times a day at some points, scrutinising the changes with every update. We were desperate for another weather window, but it was becoming obvious how unlikely a three day window was going to be. The forecasts from NOAA are very well displayed and very accurate. They're so detailed that when you do get a window, you're calculating the climb down to the individual hour in correspondence to the forecast.

The Valley that Chalten sits in. Its quite often nice weather here, but any distance in to the mountains and it soon changes.

The Weather, the key is for the windspeed to drop beneath 7 knots, and the dew point-temperature lines to be spaced.

Cerro Piergiogio

Eventually another weather window showed itself on our computer screen. At first it looked sizable, and we were thinking about the west face. Then it diminished in size and looked like a window we may be able to climb the Supercanaleta on Fitzroy with- a not too hard but long route which has to be one of the best lines in the world. The closer the window was, the more it became obvious that it was going to be a day or less. There was also a huge amount of snowfall preceding the weather which made options difficult. After some thought we decided to try and repeat the east face of Cerro Piergiogio. Piergiogio stands proud at the very head of the Torres valley, sitting on top of a huge and complex jumble of glaciers which feed the main torres glacier. It has an impressive east face which looks completely blank from niponino, but when beneath it a chimney/corner system reveals itself. We knew it had been climbed once before over a few days with fixed ropes and aid, and that the summit consisted of a snow mushroom, but little else.
      The morning we set out it was still pretty windy, which made walking up the glacier towards the steepening of the glacier pretty miserable. Its a lot of lateral distance as well as about 1300 metres height gain to the bottom of the face. A serac band forms the rim of the largest rise on the glacier before the plateau beneath Pollone and Piergiogio. To get round this we climbed a gully similar to Combe or Green on Ben Nevis which safely gained us access to the gently rising plateau, which in another kilometre or two led us to the bergschrund of Piergiogio. Throughout the walk in there was about 2 feet of fresh powder, which made the long approach far more energy-sapping than it should have been. For the first half we benefited slightly from Bjorn-Eivind Artun's track which then branched off to pollone (they had climbed a stunning looking gash up pollone the day before) however, they had been in snow shoes, so the track was barely beneficial.   I think it took around 7 hours to complete the approach, which ended by literally swimming the last 50 metres and over the schrund, it was like winter in Cham without the skis!

The east faces of Cerro Piergiogio and Cerro Pollone, from niponino.

Taking a brief moment after sunrise to admire the Torres. This was just after climbing the gully which gained us access to the plateau.

Three or four hours in to the approach and its still a long way away!

The face.

Jon Swimming to the schrund
The first two hundred metres of snow slopes passed fast and we were soon at the start of the hard looking stuff. Everywhere there were pegs and occasional rope left in place from attempts and the first ascent. From here i led a long pitch of incredible quality, it felt like there were a couple sections warranting Scottish 6ish, but incredible protection throughout. Above me was a very steep wall split by a thin vertical crack with a few pegs in it. To the right a larger crack system which wasn't as steep ran parallel, and looked like it would go free, but hard. While i belayed Jon up to me i debated the options, finally deciding upon the steep left hand crack as it seemed to end on the left, which is where we wanted to be. A mixture of aid moves, dry tooling and rock climbing for 20 metres found me at a point where i could swing left in to a narrow ice groove. Jon and myself have a habit of taking small racks on routes, and here i was regretting it, having to do some gear recycling for the aid moves-tiring stuff! After i'd swung across I climbed the last 10 metres or so free up a narrow ice ramp.


Looking up, low on the face.

The first tricky pitch.

Aiding up the hairline crack.

Starting to free climb again.

From here a pegged crack on the right, which had obviously been fixed on the first ascent led up right. But right above me a groove led in to a tightening chimney, at the very top of this chimney i could just make out a thin slither of ice glazed against the sidewall. It looked great climbing. After Jon joined me i went off again. The pitch started brilliantly, same style as below but maybe a notch harder and very time consuming with so much cleaning for hooks and gear. Further up in to the chimney the rock turned nasty until i was climbing a seem of poor rock and bridging on small footholds on either side, constantly clearing every inch of the rock. There were no suitable gear placements to be found on this part of the pitch, until eventually i excavated a flake on the right wall and slung it. A body length higher I hammered a wire 3/4 in to a flaky thing and committed to the crux with said wire a little beneath my feet. The crux involved some small chipping in to the very thin ice slither then a few moves without feet, up thin ice placements until i could get a pick in past the first two teeth and place a stubby. With a dry mouth and evaporating arms i finished the last 20 metres of ice and brought Jon up.

       The pitch had taken almost 2 hours, mostly due to the amount of cleaning i was doing, so i was grateful for Jon taking over again. Jon led a traverse which lead to the last pitches up ice runnels and a grey ice field to the crenulated summit ridge. As we reached the ridge the forecasted storm started to role over with plumes of snow and extremely high winds tearing overhead. Just to our right there was a rime mushroom which seemed to form a highpoint, i quickly scampered up it then we began the descent immediately.

        The ice from the summit was great for V threading, though unfortunately our first rap got snagged while pulling it through. It took a while to pull through with the help of a ropeman and a lot of muscle from Jon. Jon rapidly lead the raps down to where we made a traverse, which we had to pitch in reverse in the worsening storm. Back in to the chimneys we took extreme care not to snag the rope, and we both sighed with relief when we completed the last snaggable rap. A few raps later i was shocked to see a lot of blood in front of Jon once I joined him, unbelievably he'd managed to rip his nostril open with the hook of his grivel V-threader-OUCH!! 

       We hurriedly completed the last rap over the Schrund just as the light started to dim. The wind was by now extremely strong and without goggles it was hard to look up never mind see anything in the whiteout. Aware that we had to cross a heavily crevassed area of the plateau then locate the small couloir we climbed up we spared no time. We were both knocked down to the floor a few times on the walk across the plateau by the insanely strong winds. Luckily, once we reached halfway across the plateau we could make out the Hombre Sentado ridge, and from there we made our way through the seracs and some hours later were eating a well deserved pan of smash in our tent.

Starting the crux pitch.

A bit higher.

In the depths of the chimney.

Traverse from the top of the corners.

Thin smears.
Summit snowfield.

Downclimbing from the summit in the last blue sky of the day.

Rapping the chimneys.

Emerging from the whiteout on the plateau above the Hombre Sentado ridge.

Glad to be out of that!!

The line.

In the last few days before we left there was a glimmer of hope in the weather for one last climb. But it soon turned in to a window of barely a few hours, so we used it to retrieve our base camp. Although not great, i feel the weather we experienced in our 5 weeks in Chalten wasn't extraordinarily bad. We had some short windows which allowed activity, sure we didn't get a 5 day window which sometimes happens, but i get the impression we had it better than some.

  Its worth saying, that after looking at photos of the ridgline which forms the collective "summits" of Cerro Piergiogio, we didn't top out on the highest of the summits. On we had read that the summit was a snow mushroom, and therefore, when we reached the ridge and there was a snow mushroom to our right, but no other mushrooms to be seen, we darted up it and called it the summit. From the top of this mushroom i could easily see that we were higher than anything to our east on the ridge, but a gendarme 30 metres or so west of us did look like it was a metre or so higher. With the storm rolling in we made the easy call to start our descent. So this year atleast, this summit wasn't "the" summit, maybe its higher sometimes, but in all honesty i reckon the rock gendarme to the west is always a couple metres higher.

         We left feeling fulfilled and pleased with how we'd spent our time. But most strongly, i felt i needed to come back. I'd like to try and spend a couple of months in Chalten next year, as this seems to be the only way to guarantee (well not guarantee, but increase chances...) of a window big enough for the west face and other such stuff. Whether i'll be able to afford it is another matter, but i'll try.....

A great many of the photos i have used in this report are the property of Jonathan Griffith, they are worth a lot of money to him. Therefore i'd appreciate it if you didn't nick any photos. If you want them go here- or . Muchas Gracias.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

East face of Cerro Piergiogio

We've just returned from our latest stint in the mountains. This time we managed to climb the East face of Cerro Piergiogio. This beautiful face was climbed in the mid 60's over three days with fixed ropes by Jorge and Pedro Skvarca. Its a great line, great climbing and great summit. We climbed it in a long day from our base camp in the torres valley, freeing two of the three hardest pitches at a bold feeling VII. Going off Rolo Garibotti's incredible knowledge of the area it would appear to be the second ascent.

Crux Pitch.

It was an excellent day. One which i shall recount fully when i'm not in a fly infested cafe in the middle of nowhere. Jon, being the budding photographer that he is, has put up some great shots here-  .

A storm was rolling in over the ice cap just as we topped out, which made the descent interesting. This was taken halfway down.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Trapped in El Chalten

The last week or so has been spent down here in Chalten. Chalten's a funny little village, which has only existed for about thirty years, thriving off the back of the trecking routes in and around the ice-cap. There's not much to do here other than move from one cafe to the next, trying to track down the strongest internet connection (5 minutes to open google home page is pretty fast here).
       We check the meteograms every few hours and analyze the changes in precipitation and wind speed/direction religiously. Every now and then a glimmer of hope appears, then the window will get pushed back until it doesn't exist any more. We were meant to begin the long walk up to our tent and stash this morning, however we woke up to fresh snowfall and heavy winds.
     It looks like the west face of Cerro Torre is off the cards now due to weather. But i'm not as bothered as i would have expected, after seeing the amount of equally impressive objectives to go for, and after having climbed Standhardt by the completely awesome "Exocet".
The twice daily ritual of analyzing the updated meteo-graphs.
      Right, i'm off for a quick session on the ever dry boulders just outside the village- one of the plus points of Chalten.