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My Freshman Year in Patagonia My Freshman Year in Patagonia
2023-06-22 14:42:00

It felt like a dream. Almost as soon as we left the hostel, we returned…everything and everyone in the same place. Except while time stood still in El Chaltén, we had been on the move for over 20 hours. Up one valley and down the next. With each step away from the hostel door I could feel my excitement build, and in the half light of the morning dawn, I saw the tall, toothed peaks of the Torre Valley for the first time. Their scale was almost unfathomable from across the valley. But, without a doubt, it was the most beautiful mountain range I had ever seen.

After kilometers of rolling rocky trail and aggressive side-hilling through endless alpine vegetation, we descended a loose scree slope. We made a quick stop to fill our water before crossing the dry-glacier to arrive at the base of our route. Each boulder we passed, big or small, was cemented in place by fine grains of glacial till. Making our way up the approach gully felt like weaving through a crowd of statues. As we danced through the rock field, our objective became obvious.

For decades, climbers have questioned the quality of rock on the West Face of Mojon Rojo from the comfort of their tents tucked away in Nipinino, the most popular camp in that part of the range. Looking eastward from Nips, the Fitz Roy Massif cannot be missed. Each peak towering high above the glacier, the immaculate wind-sculpted granite shining in the morning light. However, to the south, the character of the range has a pronounced shift in rock type and color. Directly across the valley from the Fitz sits a mountain with less prowess and more loose rock. While most climbers don’t think twice about Mojon Rojo, the mountain offers gems for anyone eager for a lesser known adventure. In 2013, alpinists Colin Haley and Sarah Hart made the first ascent of a surprisingly solid route, “El Zorro” on the West Face of Mojon Rojo. 

When my flight touched down in El Calafate, Argentina earlier that month, I rushed through the airport toward the baggage carousel anxiously awaiting visual confirmation that my bags had arrived. A lost or delayed bag would be a tragedy and my journey had already felt hard enough. During each of my four southbound flights, I was battling with the cabin pressure. My ears just wouldn't equalize when we landed and I found myself wondering through each airport sleep deprived and congested. 

Finally, with bags in hand but ears still clogged, I split a cab with another climber, and saddled up for a few hours of driving across the high desert of Patagonia. We passed a number of giant glacial lakes, and hundreds of llama-looking animals called guanacos. The open desert funneled us into the small mountain town of El Chaltén, my home for the next month. After arriving at any climbing destination, my first instinct is to look for the walls. But in typical Patagonian fashion, the mountains were fully obscured by swirling clouds of snow and rain. Turning to heft my duffles onto my shoulders, I saw a man wearing a GORE-TEX jacket and flip flops lashed together with a bit of cord walk out of the driveway. He slowed and nodded at me as I looked up knowing immediately who he was. I uttered “is Kiff in there?” With his thick, unmistakable accent, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll told me, “Sure is, right over there.”

@kiff_alcocer

I felt nervous and intimidated dragging my giant bags through the front yard of the “Hem Herhu.” But waiting to welcome me was my friend and climbing partner for the trip, Kiff Alcocer. We hugged, he introduced me to the crew and then showed me to my bunk. “You must be hungry.” I was… I couldn't wait to eat a real meal and then sleep for as long as I could. After I got settled, Kiff gave me a crash course in Patagonian weather forecasting as he was a multiyear veteran of the range. I asked when he thought the next weather window was and we chatted about plans for the next few days. 

Life in El Chaltén looks different for everyone. There is a constant stream of tourists and trekkers wandering up and down the main street, looking for the perfect souvenir or filling their bags with supplies for their multi day trek to behold the mighty Fitz Roy. Waiting for weather requires an immense amount of patience. Luckily, the weather forecasting for climbing outside of El Chaltén has become surprisingly accurate in the last decade. Every climber in town seems to roam around in search of enough WiFi to load the 10 day forecast.  

On one of my first nights in town we ran into a friend from California. “Oh woah, yeah your ‘Freshman Year’, respect!” I had to laugh as he welcomed me to town and shared a few stories of recent travels and route conditions. It was hard for me to imagine what spending four consecutive winters in Patagonia would look like. The thought of being a freshman was daunting, as I had just arrived and had not even seen the mountain with my own eyes. I had no idea if I would even want to return the following year, but I tried my best not to seem too eager.  

A day or so later, I woke up, still slightly congested and desperately wanting my ears to pop. Curious about the road out of town, I left the hostel and started to run up the valley. The sky was blue and the clouds were finally starting to break. Eventually I saw the famous peaks of the Fitz Roy skyline emerge. Even from this distance, I was thrilled to see the mountains. Almost in sync with my first views of the peaks, I felt the satisfying pop of pressure being released from my ears. Feeling physically and emotionally lighter and more clear-headed, I ran back to town, more excited than ever to go climbing.  

I’m not the most patient person, so waiting for weather around town was challenging. My friends at home were taking bets on how long I would last before getting cabin fever. On this trip, I tried my best to go with the flow and if we could climb in the mountains, great, but if not, well that's just part of alpine climbing. Fortunately, lots of climbing in town has been developed, at least enough to keep the hordes of alpinists content between weather windows. There are hundreds of world class boulder problems strewn throughout the valley, numerous sport climbing cliffs, and even a modern climbing gym. As we waited for my first weather window to appear, we fell into a quiet little routine of climbing, devouring empanadas, eating ice cream, and drinking lots of coffee. 

A good partner for alpine missions is often the hardest thing to find. Kiff and I had never climbed in the proper mountains together, only having shared a handful of days sport climbing. We had both spent a lot of time climbing with some of the same partners over the years, so we thought we would be a good fit. 

@kiff_alcocer
@kiff_alcocer

Knowing what to bring into the mountains and how long to stay is a challenging question for climbing in a place like Patagonia. The prevailing winds pick up speed across the Pacific Ocean, and they slam into the summits of the Torres and Fitz Roy Massif like a freight train. One day the climbing conditions are prime for rock climbing, other days the same routes are glazed in ice. The variability makes it difficult to pack and plan for specific objectives but also gives each successful ascent a little more value. As Kiff puts it, the daily question is, “What shoes should I wear and how many hoods do I need?” A simplistic way to view alpine climbing, but one I believe to be true. Once you know what you want to attempt, it’s all about choosing the best tools for the job. 

The time had come to start packing our bags. First the forecast showed five possible days of climbing, then three, then finally settled on about 36 hours of high pressure, warm temps, and no wind. Every 12 hours the updated weather forecast influenced our packing. Bivy kit? Puffy pants? How much extra food? With the final forecast in hand and realizing some of our first choices for a route might be crowded with other parties, we decided to climb a slightly lower elevation objective that wasn’t on most people’s radar. We would go fast and light on a one day mission up the Torre Valley, climb the 700m “El Zorro” on Mojon Rojo, and then descend the east side back to town. During this short window, most other parties were heading into the mountains a day before we did, loaded down with gear for a potential one and a half day window. After wishing the other parties good luck, Kiff and I ate a big breakfast, then did our best to fall asleep in the early afternoon, before our 2:00 AM alarm.  

Standing below the approach gully on the west side of the Fitz Roy Massif, we scrambled a few hundred feet through wet and snowy rock to the base of the route. There we were, staring at our tiny phone screens, zooming in, scrolling around, trying to identify as many of the major features as we could before we started climbing. The bottom half of the route is full of blocky and loose alpine style rock, while the upper half of the route ascends through amazing red and orange splitter cracks.

@kiff_alcocer
@kiff_alcocer

We worked together seamlessly, racking gear and flaking the rope, before we started simul climbing the bottom half of the route. Kiff handed me the rack, I tied in, and started quickly up the first few pitches. With only a few minor course corrections left and right, we found ourselves climbing a surprising amount of slightly wet but high quality cracks. After I ran out of cams, I stopped and belayed Kiff up. He then took the lead, and we continued to dance our way through the loose rock, climbing swiftly. Each transition was quick and in only a couple of hours we were sitting below the upper head wall of the route. 

The pitches ahead looked incredible – a system of splitter cracks through featured stone. Small edges for feet and fingers gave the route a radical face climbing feel, all against the backdrop of the mighty Cerro Torre. I lead the first few pitches up the headwall, stopping frequently at grand belay ledges with incredible gear anchors. After a while we started to swap leads and found the upper pitches full of unique body positions and enjoyable climbing. The highlight reel includes pitches of parallel splitter finger cracks, traversing crimp rails, and curving hand cracks. 

“This is a very unusual Patagonia experience,” Kiff said. “Not really any wind, pleasant cloud cover, warm temps… this is sick.” Pitch after pitch of climbing left us smiling at each belay, and before we knew it, we were climbing through the last hundred meters of the route. We were maybe the third party to have climbed this line, and we were fortunate enough to free climb all of it with dry-enough conditions. Later, we agreed with the guidebook topo that the line was probably 5.11- (6b+). Towards the summit of the route, the climbing eases off and rides a series of slabs and knife-edge ridges toward the main feature. We picked our way across the ridge, and reinforced the anchors before continuing our descent.  

The evening sun cast its golden light across the jagged summits, and we took a moment to appreciate how pleasant that route was. Below us was a few hundred meters of snowy glacier, and we had only a couple hours before nightfall. We had brought only one chopped ice axe and a single pair of aluminum crampons for the two of us, but luckily didn't really need it for any of the mission. After postholing through isothermic snow for a while, we “boot-skied” down the remaining snow slopes and stepped onto the dry rock slabs below.  

We picked up the faint climber’s trail through the scree and talus before we needed our headlamps. The prior week of rain and snow in the mountains made for a loose descent, but we kept on hiking down the steep slopes until we found some dry ground. Our feet began to hurt and we uttered the mantra “just don’t stop” as we hopped over boulders the size of suitcases, and skied down scree in our tennies, stopping every once in a while only to empty the rocks from our shoes.  

Despite our pace, the last few kilometers from camp Poincenot to town seemed to go on forever. Everything was a bit of a blur, as we were slightly sleep deprived and hungry. We passed the occasional hiker heading up to catch the sunrise on the Fitz Roy Massif, but kept on trucking down the trail. The lights of El Chaltén only came into view in the last 2 kilometers.  

When we stepped through the door of the hostel, it looked like we had never left, but we had walked 19.5 miles (31.4 km) and gained 8,665 ft (2641 m) in our 21hr 21min mission. Kiff and I slammed some food and quickly fell asleep. The following morning we'd barely finished our breakfast before we were eyeing the 10-day forecast for any sign of another weather window.  

Sitting at the bar in the local climbers’ hang, Kiff and I listened to story after story of folks getting shut down due to icy cracks, or having to wait in line under the same objective, amidst the occasional success stories. We felt lucky that we’d picked our line during that window. 

Unfortunately after our mission on Mojon Rojo, the weather for the rest of the month deteriorated, and precipitation picked up. Most of the seasoned Patagonian climbers remarked on how especially awful the weather was this February. Luckily, our spirits were lifted by friends arriving hopeful for a late season window. The more time you spend in a place like Patagonia, the greater your chances are of climbing something big. I was just grateful to see the mountains with my own eyes and get my feet wet.  

As there was no window in sight, I spent the next couple weeks before my flight home refocusing on some sport climbing projects and trail running. Life in Argentina is relaxed and late starts are the norm. For the rest of my time in El Chaltén, I embraced the laid back culture, and enjoyed getting quality time in with the incredible community of climbers. I was eagerly awaiting my Sophomore Year.  

@kiff_alcocer

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Words by | Tyler Allen

Images by | Kiff Alcocer and Tyler Allen

Words & images by | Athlete Name


Equally at home in the laboratory or on the sharp end, Tyler splits his time between working as a geology researcher at Dartmouth College and guiding rock and ice climbing around the states.

Read more about Tyler here