Standing on top of summits in Patagonia seems to be pretty hard. We finally did it though, Jimmy, Austin and I. Of course, Austin has before, but for Jimmy and I, it was a first. The climb was unconventional in the sense that it was not one of the grander points on one of the larger massifs, but a new route on a smaller peak just out of town, Cerro Solo. We followed new terrain for 1000m before linking into Colin Haley’s recent new route El Dragon for the last 250m.
Cerro Solo is a beautiful peak that sits just outside of town. Other than the normal route that ascends a glacial slope on the west side of the summit, it doesn’t see much action. Folks are commonly distracted by the crown jewels of the area: Fitz Roy and the Torre group. Just a few years ago, Colin Haley put up a new route on the East side of Cerro Solo, climbing a short, steep chossy face and called it El Dragon. We knew about this route, having shared some information with Colin on it, and wanted to do a sit start of sorts. Our intention was to climb one of several ridge lines or series of towers which eventually link into El Dragon, and then to take his line to the summit. Having just come off of our energy-draining ascent on Exocet a few days before, we hoped that Cerro Solo would be less taxing than routes on the larger peaks and cast off late in the day on Tuesday around 4pm.
From town, Austin, Jimmy and I walked into Lago Torre, did the Tyrolean, and continued along the south side of the lake. We stopped and set up a bivvy just before the trees end, just 10 minutes before the two fixed lines which define the crux to this approach to the Torre glacier, and farther up, Niponino. The approach to here in the evening took three or so hours, and the trees offered nice shelter from the strong winds which never seem to stop blowing. Between soft dirt and shelter from the trees, it was the most comfortable bivvy I’ve done yet in Patagonia. Too bad its not closer to larger objectives.
At 2am, we started what we hoped would be a short day. After passing the fixed lines, we continued to contour along the climbers path that runs along the north flanks of Cerro solo. At the bench where the glacier is normally gained to head into Nipo, we instead headed uphill, climbing scree and talus up a gully running with water. From here, directly above us was the snow gully coming down from Puff Puff Pass, the col where El Dragon begins.
We meandered up the scree towards the snow slope and Austin and Jimmy stopped for a small photoshoot for a few photos. Within an hour, we spotted what would be the start of the our traverse, a small buttress that was the first in the series of several leading to small three more prominent points along the ridge heading towards El Dragon.
Loose rock aside, the route provided easy soloing in mountain boots for the first half, with a few moves up to 5.7. The rock quality varied between fun steep jugs and the chossiest stuff I have ever climbed. At one point, Austin picked up a bundle of needle-like rock slivers a foot long and an inch thick – quite novel! We mounted a few of the small towers along the way, or “dongs” as Colin Haley named some of them. I often climbed ahead with just the rope on my back, while Jimmy and Austin followed with the heavy packs.
After summiting the first of the three towers, we made a single rappel and traversed to the climbers left until reaching a col from which we would start gaining a small spire. Topping out this small spire required the rope, and contained some of the hardest climbing on our entire route at 5.9. Fortunately the rock was of sufficient quality to get good gear here. Austin led this first real pitch in rock shoes. With the comfort of the rope, I followed in my boots. While Austin and Jimmy put their boots back on at the summit, I rigged our second rappel and headed down. Patagonia proved itself once again, and these rappels sometimes ended up being one of the most difficult aspects of the climb. Between the sharp rock on the way down, and the loose compact rock, one had to be fairly creative with finding rap anchors. Over the route, we left quite a few pitons, coordelette, and nuts. At one point we hammered in our own small chockstone into a constriction and slung this to avoid leaving our remaining gear.
Reaching the top of the third summit required some fun snow traversing between granite boulders on the south side of the ridge. Following these, we made yet more tricky rappels to reach the col beneath El Dragon. We pulled out the rope on this snow traverse because despite the easy movement the consequences were quite high.
It was around 3pm by the time we reached Puff Puff Pass. At this point, we were feeling a bit behind schedule, and were marveling about how much larger the terrain had felt than we had originally expected. Austin was psyched for the first lead and put on some Rage Against the Machine as he racked up to really get the mood going. He launched off on what would be one of three roped pitches on some variation of El Dragon – its hard to tell which parts of Colin’s route we actually climbed. With only a single 60M rope, we established that Jimmy would tie in 20ft from the end of the rope, and I at the end, so that we could all simul-climb together.
Despite being nearly vertical, Austin made quick work of this first pitch and Jimmy and I were soon climbing. Delicacy was the word of the day here. We knew Austin was climbing on only a single rack (fewer pieces between us all than any of us would probably have liked), and any falls would be a disaster. Though I have climbed some loose stuff in my day, simul-climbing as three definitely made things a bit more exciting. Climbing next to each other, Jimmy and I enjoyed working through some tricky sections on loose flakes and harder but more solid climbing as we caught up to Austin at a belay he had built 150m up.
Above the first belay we all unroped and climbed another 150m to reach a second vertical impasse. Once again, Austin dispatched another pitch in style here. He followed a weakness at the far climbers left where the wall dropped off steeply below some 30 meters of 5.8. This took us to a final set of ledges and 3rd class terrain 100 m below the summit. With one more pitch to go of better looking rock, I took the lead and we simul-climbed to the summit and one of the best views I’ve yet to have in Patagonia.
We were lucky enough to have tracks leading from the summit down the standard route on Cerro Solo. We were unlucky enough that these tracks went down the wrong gully, and we spent an extra hour down-climbing steep blocky terrain well-above our original bivvy. This required lots of back tracking and re-routing. A suggestion descending Cerro Solo: be sure to head left at the tower that is found a few hundred meters after the departing from the edge of the glacier.
After reaching the scree slopes above the final gully that runs to the bivvy site and the trail back to town, we found and maintained a nice trail that switchbacks through the trees. This got a little shwacky near the end but was quite easy to follow. At 10pm we got back to our stashed gear and made a quick turnaround back to town. We were all quite anxious to get back due to the longer than expected day and I ended up running most of the trail from Lago Torre.
Between it being a new route and the number of rappels we had to perform during our traverse of the towers, we ended up leaving a lot of stuff behind. This included:
- Coordelette. We used 40 ft to build anchors, then a sling and the chord off of Austin’s chalk-bag.
- Pitons (2 lost arrows, a knife blade and an angle). Left behind 3 of 4 for rappels.
- A nut or two, made permanent with a hammer and a pick.
In addition, we brought:
- 1 x 60m 9.4 ish rope, which meant that when simul-ing the two followers tied in 20ft from the end and at the end, respectively.
- A single rack to #3
- A double set of nuts so we could leave many if necessary
- For water carry over the long day, we filled up a 2.5L in a dromaderry in one of the follower’s packs, then each had .5L bottles on our harness. We refilled these as the day went on.
- A set of climbing shoes and a set of alpine boots each. We all carried one of the two that we were not wearing on our harness.
- An small mountain axe each. The Petzl Sumtecs work great for this given the small built-in hammer AND pommel for steeper snow/ice sections, which we encountered during the descent.
- For layers I wore my Ferosi -> Uberlayer -> Hellium II. Between this setup and a buff to shield my face it was the perfect outfit for day. I often wrapped up the Uberlay around my harness instead of stuffing it into its pocket for faster access/convenience.