After a week and a half in Chalten, we finally got out for our first set of climbing days in Patagonia. Somehow luck would have it that we found ourselves on one of the better known ice climbs in the world on Christmas. It was our first real taste of Patagonia weather, and a really wild mountain experience with many highs and lows. I’ll try to describe it here, with enough gory details for those who will relive it via this post, and enough beta for those who want a similar adventure. For either type of reader, note that its hard to capture it all, partly because all of us were too cold to take photos, and also because, as Austin Siadak suggest kindly while we rappelled through wild spin drift: “Shit got real”.
Scouting conditions and days leading:
Upon our arrival to Chalten last week, Jimmy and I hiked into Niponino and stashed a small set of gear, including a half rope, single rack, slings, and other hardware. This meant that once Austin arrived in town to join us, and there was a chance for decent weather, all we had to carry in was another rope, tents and personal gear. We did so on Friday morning with the intention of taking advantage of the next four days and whatever weather they offered.
On Friday, we started from the Hem Heryu hostel at 3am and took the right hand approach into camp. I started a bit later than the other two but caught up by using the shortcut past the Prestadores camp. We reached Niponino by 9:30am, quickly setup our tents, grabbed our stashed gear, and headed up towards Todo o Nada on El Mocho. This was one of the three smaller objectives we had been considering as good candidates in the few days of marginal weather that were forecasted. The others being Cara Esta on Perriogeorgio, the Super Domo route on Domo Blanco, and Greetings from Bad Men, also on El Mocho.
We reached the base of Todo o Nada to find ice and slush that was not worth climbing, but even the approach provided a fun adventure by itself: wet slab in mountain boots and lots of running water. We descended back to the base of the toe of rock coming out from the East face of El Mocho and decided to venture a bit farther up hill to get a look at Greetings from Bad Men. As another mixed ice/rock route on El Mocho, and thus at the same altitude as Todo o Nada, we should have realized it would be in poor condition as well. Instead, we spent nearly two hours navigating our way up more wet, snow covered slabs to see that Greetings looked bone dry. A solid amount of effort to learn something we probably could have deduced, but better to find out then, instead burning a the next day to discover the same thing.
We descended back to camp after 14 hours or so of movement with tired legs, but a much better understanding of the current conditions we could expect on our objectives for the remaining days we would be based in the camp at Nipo.
On Saturday, Christmas Eve, we spent the day resting and making a new plan given the warmer than expected conditions found the day before. The persistent rime ice covering the higher Eastern aspects of Standhardt, Egger, and Torre faces suggested that it had remained cold up high. Exocet was the highest and grandest of the routes we had been considering, though it wasn’t initially on our short list when we hiked into camp. As a group we agreed that it might be the best objective, the one we would be most thrilled by, but also a very very big mission. Probably 24+ hrs of approaching, climbing, and descending in possibly marginal weather. To maximize our chances of success, we walked up Glacier Torre on Saturday afternoon a bit to scout the best approach up to the Standhardt/Bifida Col. We decided the best way would be to hug the right side of the nunatak, then head up the gentlest part of the dry glacier, navigate through the crevasse field, then up through the climbers’ left sides of the out-croppings on the snow slopes beneath the col.
Christmas eve dinner consisted of polenta, cheese, sliced salami and a few cookies for dessert. We spent some time hanging with a few British friends who arrived to climb Piergiorgio the next day, and a few other parties trickled in later. Our Christmas treat really came the next day though, in the form of a vast range of emotions and conditions we found on our push up Exocet.
Based on the most recent meteogram we had access to, we were expecting cold weather to settle in for a day or so beginning Sunday, preceded by a small amount of precipitation. Our plan was to wake up at 4am on Sunday, to wait out heavy rain or snow fall, and then to begin our approach to the col where the climb started. We had heard of three hour times to the bergshrund below the climb, and ended up climbing to the col in 4. This involved performing the approach route we scouted above, then easy soloing up above the shrund to the top of the col where the chockstone pitch begins.
From here, at 1130am or so, I led the first pitch on the route, up past the iconic chockstone. Months ago, I had seen this pitch from photos and videos, particularly one showing Marc Andrew Leclerc and Jason Kruk on the route. Its an odd feeling to realize I have now led the pitch myself. As a better mixed climber than ice climber, I followed granite edges 10 ft to the right of the chockstone instead of tapping into the blobs of water ice and rime just below it. Eventually, after 15 or 20 ft I traversed left to try to find gear between it and the wall. Without any luck digging through plastered ice and rime for protection, I finished off the rest of the pitch. The top involved some easier hooking on smaller chockstones and toeing into the ice blobs.
If anything, I found the pitch after the chockstone to be much more difficult. We had heard that this pitch involved either climbing straight up before penduluming left across slabs into a right-facing corner, or gaining the corner to the left directly from the anchor. I chose the former, given that I saw no easy way to traverse. While the climbing off the belay was quite mild, it quickly transitioned to run-out technical mixed climbing involving some lie-backing, which I have yet to feel super confident doing in crampons. I ended up in the rightmost corner for a bit, did a small pendulum into the middle corner, placed a cam as high as possible, then did a lower-out into easier ground up the left-facing corner to reach a ledge belay.
Unfortunately, this second pitch took a lot longer than any of us expected, and by the time that Jimmy and Austin were climbing, the mountain was starting to come down. The direct sun that had appeared above us was melting rime off the walls at an ever-quickening pace, and we needed to move as fast as possible. Jimmy reached the belay first, and while he belayed Austin, I short-fixed off a PDL and started the first of the two mild snow traverse pitches. Despite the hurry in our pace, we were all in awe by the beauty around us while crossing the snow fields. The Fitz Roy massif loomed in front in one direction, and the ice cap behind us.
As we continued simul-ing across the snow slopes, the chunks of ice falling from the sky kept us determined to stay focused on getting to the base of the chimney, or at least to safety where we could make a decision on what to do next. The rappel at the end of the snowfields put us in a firing range beneath a large chimney/gutter system, and from this anchor below the rappel I continued leading. After steeper than desired snow climbing and dodging missiles from above by darting between sheltered overhangs, I had the chance to reach the base of the upper Exocet chimneys. To say that what was currently coming down the chimney was anything less than a full expression of the power of nature would be doing the mountain injustice. I couldn’t stand within five meters of the start of the climb without regularly taking golfball size chunks of ice to my arms and head. Larger chunks of rime ice were crashing down just feet in front of me. Over the roar of the falling ice I yelled to Jimmy and Austin, who had left the belay at the bottom of the rappel to follow on simul, that I was coming back towards them. Once I had reversed my steps around the corner which separated us, I could see they had found shelter on a flat ledge underneath some gentling overhanging rock. This flat ledge become our home for the next few hours where we continued to witness thousands of pounds of rime splattering down all around us. A white Christmas indeed.
After building a small belay and laying out our ropes and packs on the ground, we settled in to a discussion of what to do next, the consumption of hot drink after hot drink, and a little holiday cheer. This time on the ledge with Fitz Roy sitting in front of us and 500 meters of the mountain angling down steeply below, is a perfect surrogate example of the amazing moments that climbing has to offer. We joked around and admired the beauty as three close friends on a ledge in one of the most beautiful places we had ever been. Soon afterwards, the onslaught of rime from above slowed to a near halt, and after hot Nuun, hot chocolate, and hot coffee, we decided to carry on towards the Exocet chimney.
With the consensus that an 11pm turn around time would get us down the mountain before it woke up again, Jimmy started his leads. As he peered into up the first pitch, he yelled back “I don’t know what the Ruskies were talking about, because this thing is fat!”, referring to an earlier condition report by Europeans that had indicated the climb was not in condition. The first pitch turned out to be rather wet, while the second two he led were dry and took screws well. All three offered out of this world ice climbing. As Austin and I followed, it was readily apparent we were just rock climbers in a different setting as we attempted to backstep and chimney our way up each pitch, in contrast to Jimmy’s grace in tackling the ice straight on.
At the top of of Jimmy’s third lead, we came to a consensus that we wouldn’t be able to top out within the timeframe we had given ourselves as it was already 10pm. This, and Austin and I were already a bit worn out by the cramped belays and barrage of falling ice that are unavoidable on this part of the route. Though we had tried to build a shelter using our packs, we had each taken some big chunks of ice to our heads while Jimmy was climbing.
We couldn’t have been luckier that we decided to head down, as seconds later the cold still we had experienced for the last fews hours quickly transitioned into the heaviest spin drift any of us had ever encountered. Because we were three, I had been been able to put in a V-thread or two on the way up, but the rest had to be drilled on the way down. This was quite challenging to do when every 20 seconds it felt like someone had turned on a snow machine and pointed it down the chimney. I was often the last one to rappel, and sat there with my headlamp off to conserve battery while getting soak to the bone at each of the hanging stations.
More trickiness ensued as we reversed the downward traverse from the bottom of the chimney to the ledge we had brewed at earlier. We simul-climbed this section, and I ended up in the middle, where, at one point, both ropes attached to my harness had gotten stuck on bits of hard rime ice now embedded in the snow slopes out of sight. Under headlamp, all I could do was work through the situation while getting blasted by more icy spindrift. This required completely un-tying from one rope, and then untying and re-tying on the other. As Austin repeated later, “Shit was real”.
Austin led the rest of the rappels down S.C.U.D. from here, which while uneventful, demanded patience and the ability bear through mild to moderate hypothermia. We each clambered to be the one to pull the ropes after the third descended, because it was a represented a chance to warm up just a little bit.
We reached the snow slopes where we had left our trekking poles near 4am as the glow of sunlight penetrated a few clouds on the horizon. At this point, we are still unsure what happened to the low winds and warmer temperatures that had been forecasted. Either way, descending back down through the glacier and talus would still require a few more hours of sustained concentration. While we warmed up slightly with each step, the wind seemed to get even worse. Jimmy, Austin, and I all alternated between walking and shielding our faces from sharp shards of rime ice that stung at our eyes. After down-climbing, rappelling, and post-holing our way down, we reached the dry glacier and final walk back to Niponino. We walked back into camp at around 8am, 27 hours after we left. From here all that remained was a six hour walk back to the warm hostel. Unfortunately, we would have to continue to battle Patagonia winds to get there. I think I wore my buff to shield my face from my small rocks blown by the wind all the way back to town.
- 7.8mm Half ropes
- .4 – #1, plus few TCUs. We ended up using a green C3 sized cam many times. We also brought a #2 by accident (oops, at least it was an ultralight).
- Some larger tai-cams and a set of nuts – I know that nobody likes tri-cams but they ended up getting as much use as anything on our rack.
- A few pins.
- 11 screws, though I don’t think we ever placed more than 7 including belays on a single pitch.
- Followers carried a 45 Aryterx FL and 20L Patagonia pack.
- Stove + gas for boiling water. We swapped out Jimmy’s larger dromedary for the chance to boil and drink hot water on route. This couldn’t have been a better decision given that we had to wait out the conditions for a few hours, and used the warm water to heat ourselves up.
- During our attempt, we each brought around 2200 calories. This was sufficient to get us through the outing, but I am sure any of us would have been happier for more. We all supplemented a supply of bars and gels we brought from the states with Mantecol candy bars and and some chocolate from the grocery stores here. While they aren’t chalk full of BCAAs, caffeine, sodium, or other nutrients and performance enhancers, they do an okay job on a calorie to weight ratio and rank high on the satisfaction scale late at night.
- Between Austin, Jimmy, and I, we brought a number of hot drink packets like chai tea, hot cocoa, and coffee. All of this was absolutely indispensable as we tried to stay warm and happy. I am still enjoying the larger size of the instant coffees from Alpine Start.
- Personal layers:
- I wore a layering system similar to what Mark Allen described here (https://www.outdoorresearch.com/blog/stories/the-ultimate-guide-to-high-intensity-winter-layering). I’ll post about that soon. Of note, I climbed most of the day in Axiom jacket and Uberlayer, which was my first time wearing that combo. I was quite happy with both as we were nailed with weather all night long. I wore the Transcendent hoody as another insulating layer on the way down, and was quite happy with the warmth to volume/weight ratio in comparison to the larger jackets that Austin and Jimmy were wearing.
- I also brought along a set of lightweight, easy on/off gators to try them out. They performed quite well as we put in a track on the way up to the col. I continue to remain quite impressed with some of these more visionary pieces from OR. I imagine these will be quite useful later in the season when Jimmy and I replace alpine boots and pants with lighter soft shells and approach shoes to reach some warm(er) weather rock climbs.
- Three sets of gloves, one for the approach, one for belaying and snow climbing, one for the more technical mixed and ice pitches.
515am – left Nipo
930am – (4.25 hours to col)
10am – start climbing
230am – to alcove
530pm – started climbing again
1045pm – started rappelling
430am – down to snow
630am – on the toe of dry glacier beneath the col, passed the crevasse field.
8am – back at Nipo
830am – asleep in the tent after eating everything I could get my hands on
Final thoughts and next time:
After talking with some folks, it seems there are many parties that can identify with our experience on Exocet. Here are some of things that we’ve gleaned from the outing:
- Timing both the macro conditions (presence of rime and ice) and the variable stability of these conditions is very important on the larger alpine routes here. It was wild to see the change that occurred within just 30 minutes of the sun striking the east face we were climbing beneath. Climbing and rappelling Exocet through the late evening and night seems like a higher probability way to climb it.
- It seems that others have also had some trouble deciphering the second pitch and it shouldn’t be underestimated.
- Climbing in marginal weather windows comes the risk of encountering a major shit storm.
- The stove and hot drink packages are a necessity for longer pushes on alpine climbs and something I’ll definitely be adding for the future. In particular hot chocolate, chai tea mix, and hot Nuun were great.
- Polenta for Christmas dinner didn’t cut it.
- All of the little things added up to make this climb just a little bit more probable: scouting out Greetings from Bad Men on Friday, and scouting the approach to the col on Saturday, pre-stashing gear at Nipo, bringing the right assortment of food and drinks, letting each team member lead their strong suits on the route, etc. Sure we didn’t top out, but we all felt like we did our best and had a successful attempt.
Its quite nice sitting back in the hostel now, drinking warm coffee and joking around with the Dutch climbers who are also here waiting out bad weather. As the experience gets farther away, its becoming harder to remember just how cold and miserable the second 12 hours of our climb was, and just how great it was sitting on the ledge on Christmas day with two close friends. I think this is why we keep heading back into the mountains, because we remember the beautiful moments and are somehow able to forget the miserable ones. Hopefully writing this post will remind me that even though we don’t have photos of being blasted by spindrift and trying to build belays with frozen gloves, those details of the experience should not be passed over. They represent the fact that there is an edge to the void that is not worth approaching. Hopefully the rest of the climbs here will be a little less draining on the soul, and will involve a little more sunshine.