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Patagonian Apprenticeship
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January 2009 :: Argentina :: Chalten Massif

Mountain Fellowship winner Jordon Griffler reports on his adventures in Patagonia in early 2009.

Alan Ream and I had intended to attempt the Spiral/Corkscrew/Anglo-Argentine Route on Cerro Torre, skipping as many bolts as we could along the way. This is the long-sought climb that starts on the southeast ridge (Compressor Route), traverses across the upper south face, and finishes on the upper west ridge. As it turns out, the Norwegian team of Ole Lied and Trym Atle Saeland pulled it off before we arrived, clipping only a few bolts, during the monster weather window they had in early December. It's too bad we weren't down there for that because I think we would have had a fighting chance, but alas Patagonian weather is fickle, and we never did get a long enough window to try. It didn't help that Cerro Torre basically looked like an ice cream cone the majority of our trip. Honestly, it was fantastical to think that we would get the required weather window only spending a month down there, but we had a good experience and learned a lot nonetheless.   

The American Alpine Club would be glad to hear that I didn't spend the entire time eating pizza, drinking beer, and sport climbing (though I made an honest attempt). We decided to carry all of our equipment up to the glacier (to future parties I would suggest doing that in multiple trips), and due to our bumbly nature we decided to follow cairns to nowhere before dropping straight down the moraine with our stupid-heavy packs (much to the confusion of the people cruising the relatively easy trail in sneakers). From here, we decided that our time would be best spent wandering aimlessly around the glacier before attempting to relocate the trail. After this scenic detour, our approach went without a hitch. (That's what 30 years of combined climbing experience gets you, by the way.)

The New Year dawned with some nice-looking weather, and we figured a little climbing would be in order. Seeing that neither Alan nor I has a very good grasp of the Alpine Start, we woke at dawn, had a cup of coffee, and then decided to go climb Aguja de l'S. On our way up, everyone else seemed to be descending because of the wind. We hid for a little while and then noticed that the wind had died considerably. With a "Well, we've come this far already" shrug, we headed on up. The climb went without a hitch, in perfect weather, to a really cool, little spire (little being relative). We had no hang-ups on the descent, and all in all had a really nice day of climbing. Who said that late starts are a bad idea?

After a week of "meh" weather back in town, we decided to head back up with the supposedly rising pressure. After one really horrendous night (we decided to bring the ultra-light-single-wall-joke-of-a-tent rather than the ultra-bomb-proof-Himalayan-super-tent) salvaged with a borrowed sheet of plastic, the weather broke clear. Arriving parties were bearing a forecast of one to one and a half days of good weather. Cerro Torre still looked like an ice cream cone, so we figured we'd go rock climbing. That is, until we started getting psyched up. It's amazing the effect of a whole bunch of excited climbers, none of whom have been able to climb for the past week or so, all gathering in one of the raddest climbing areas in the world with a decent weather forecast.

Our gaze shifted to the Torre side of the valley. While Cerro Torre and our attempt on the Spiral Route were out, both of us were psyched on an attempt on Exocet on Cerro Standhardt. We knew of two other parties headed up that way, so we did what Front Range climbers do best: snipe ice routes We packed our bags there and then, deciding to go for a single push through the night. The approach went smoothly up to the col, but the initial rock pitches looked to be exciting in that half-a-millimeter-of-ice-over-rock sort of way. Some scary moves off the deck (where someone had fallen earlier that season) led to some more scary moves, but at least with pro. Conditions didn't get any better for the rest of the rock pitches. An entire night's worth of climbing netted us four or five pitches. Come first light, we were at the rappel to the snow ramp, with a few more pitches to reach the Exocet chimney proper, or back down to the glacier. Also come first light, the entire face decided it didn't feel like being snow and ice anymore. Suddenly our decision to go ice climbing in some seriously nice alpine rock weather didn't seem like such a bright idea. So we did what we do best and got the hell out of Dodge. A series of wet rappels got us back down to the glacier. Some serious napping and some slogging had us back in camp.

The next few days went really, really fast. We got to do some sport climbing with some locals and semi-locals. Tried to off-load all of our gear down there, rather than pay for its ride back to Colorado. ("Anybody want to buy a picket?") Woke up in the pouring rain to pack up, hopped on a bus, got on a plane, and were back to shredding the "gnar" in Colorado in just a few days.

All in all, while we didn't accomplish anything mind-blowing, we learned an incredible amount. This trip has opened my eyes to what alpine climbing is really about, and has shown me just where I've come in these past five years of climbing, and how much more I have to learn. I'm deeply indebted to the American Alpine Club for giving me this experience. While the grant I received wasn't huge, it was more than enough to push me to commit to this trip. Thank you so much AAC! 

Jordon Griffler, 20, lives in Superior, Colorado.