Super Domo and Ice Cream Afterwards
As anyone who has visited El Chalten can attest to, sharing some ice cream at Domo Blanco is a must do while in town. You can do a half kilo of ice cream for 150 pesos (roughly 10 dollars) with up to four flavors. One of best available is “Super Domo”, and one of the best ice routes in the area has been named after it. Super Domo, the route, is located on the peak Domo Blanco, which dons a domed summit, thus appearing like Mont Blanc from afar. For the last few weeks, we’ve been able to see the upper ice pitches on Super Domo from various viewpoints in the Torree Valley. We finally went to sample the goods that everyone has been talking about. We definitely earned our ice cream, even though we missed the summit due to high winds and detonating weather (though nearly everyone else seems to experience the same fate on this climb as well).
Deciding to have a go in marginal weather
According to others who have been here a few seasons, this years’ weather has been wetter and colder than recent ones which have enabled a bit more climbing. At the same time, Patagonia experienced a very dry winter this season, so much so that most of the glaciers are fairly broken up and the lower altitude ice and mixed climbs aren’t in. These conditions led us to choose to try Exocet the other week. Since then, we’ve continued to get marginal weather windows at best. Typically these include a drop in the wind while pressure peaks around 1010 and precipitation is forecasted before and afterwards. Climbing in these windows requires knowing that things could get a little bit gnarly when the wall of hate rolls over the Torre massif if you are on route.
When we headed into the mountains this during this last window, we really didn’t want to relive the Exocet adventure but we wanted to try to do a little climbing too. We brought a tarp to prepare for the unplanned bivvy. With just a small blip of lower winds, our plans included trying to do Exocet again (we knew the route), or going for Super Domo. We approached from town Tuesday night and slept in the trees on the left side of the lake as we had done previously when climbing Cerro Torre. The following day we intended to try to wake up, get to Nipo, and then to continue on from Nipo gaining terrain up to the Bifida col and beginning Exocet as the wind died down. Within this itinerary, we intended to top out on Exocet late Wednesday night when the winds were forecasted to be lowest, giving ourselves time to get off the mountain before it really got wild.
Well, nothing seems to ever go to plan around here. We got into Nipo around 6am (three hours from the trees just beyond the fixed lines), and it was raging. We huddled behind a boulder as we pulled out our stash of equipment, sorted gear, and got suited up to head further up valley. After an hour or so of deliberating whether the current winds would die off as expected, we decided to stay true to our strategy and headed out. Two hours after leaving camp, we found a crevasse and built a small shelter in which to escape. The wind had gotten so strong as we gained elevation that I merely had to lift up my foot to gain higher ground. The wind lifted me up and forward.
After brewing some coffee and reviewing our options while we sat in our make-shift shelter, Jimmy and I headed back to Niponin to rest and to revisit our plans. We settled on doing Super Domo as we were both comfortable with the climbing it contained, and knew that it would be less committing than other options. We set the alarm for 2am and rested for the remainder of the evening.
Super Domo is divided into three distinct tiers, each of which tops out at a small notch from which you must traverse farther climbers’ right to reach the next tier. The first tier is moderate alpine ice and neve climbing up steepening couloirs, the second contains more of this and then a cruxy mixed pitch, and finally the third offers three pitches of great ice climbing. The route as first put up is rated WI5 M5/M6, 500m.
After snoozing through our alarms, we rose at 5am. Getting started after waking up was quick as we had eaten our breakfast the night before (food was becoming scarce) – just coffee and a gel if I remember? We were out of Nipo by 530am and arrived to the bergshrund which marks the base of the route by 8. Jimmy was climbing within ten minutes. We were hastened by the falling rime which meant the sun was at our backs and the mountain was shedding to shed.
The first few pitches of the route contained beautiful neve and couloir climbing. These pitches were relatively uneventful beyond the chunks of precipitating rime ice and one of my crampons falling off. It seems there are several paths up to the first notch, and we followed tracks from a party above us up a ramp to the left, before contouring right and into the main gully. After simul-climbing roughly 100 m, my right crampon fell off. I looked down to see it dangling by the strap around my ankle. Scary! Coincidently, Jimmy built a belay at this point to manage the remaining 40m of terrain and I was able to continue on with my right crampon clipped to my harness. We dealt with these shenanigans and I belayed him to the stop of the first tier on the route – more easy neve and alpine ice.
From the first step, I took the gear and continued on. From here, the route makes the first of two rightward snow traverses, before heading up more gentle couloir climbing. We simul-climbed once again, and stopped just below the mixed pitch I was prepared to lead. Above lay a band of dark rock to the left of which was a roof-capped-chimney and to the right an icy rightward facing corner. I was a bit nervous looking up at the pitch as I recalled a story a friend told me about traversing into the corner. It sounded a bit wild and unprotected. He had taken a swing while following his partner up it, who had apparently pulled him too tight on a top-rope belay and ripped him off his feet. Even top-rope falls with crampons on aren’t fun…
Jimmy reached me at my belay in the ramp below this mixed pitch and I started up. I left the heavy stuff with him but grabbed the pins just in case. I’m quite thankful I took these with me, as an angle provided the first bit of good gear well after the crux. Perhaps others climb this section differently, but I headed up from our belay to the black rock, traversed right to the arrete, then followed this up into the corner. Gaining the arrete required very delicate tool placements and blind feet on downward slanting snow ledges before I was able to get a placement into some rime farther right and move my foot onto a small ledge. No gear yet. I made it a bit higher where I found a very marginal green C3, and then hammered in an angle between the granite and dark rock where the corner opens up. A little happier. From here, one or two more exciting moves led to some of the coolest mixed climbing I have done in the mountains: stemming between features on the face and the corner while lie-backing on flakes with a glove hand. Just a bit higher, textbook vertical seems provided locker pick placements off of which you could hang a truck. From here route remains fun but is pretty much over. To protect this section there are plenty of .75 -#3 gear cam placements.
After Jimmy followed me up this mixed section, we found ourselves at the base of the second snow traverse. Above the end of this traverse were the ice pitches we had seen from across the valley. Beautiful grade 4 and grade 5 ice in a larger corner system. I wanted to do a bit of ice climbing before handing off the reins to Jimmy, so I led across the snow slope and blasted up the grade 3 pitch to get us to the base of these harder ones as Jimmy followed on simul. While I belayed Jimmy during the last bit easier terrain here, another party was finishing up the last technical pitch of the route deep in the corner system. It looked goooood.
After the second gear transition of the day, Jimmy began up the last of these two pitches. After a few minutes, I noticed he was taking not the easiest but, of course, the steepest line to the top. Nice. My only fear was that the wind was beginning to pick up. With three screws between he and I, he made it to the top and reached the belay under the last pitch. To capture the beauty I did my best to grab a bunch of photos and videos while belaying at the same time, an easier feat now that I have figured out a system for hanging the camera off my neck.
As Jimmy reached the top of pitch and put me on belay, the party above us had began rappelling down and one of them had reaching me to briefly share an anchor. We exchanged some cordial information before he relayed that it was blowing hard above the last pitch. Between this condition report and the spin drift that was starting to come down, we had enough data points to know that weather was closing in quickly. It was going to go from fun in the sun to full-on Patagonia in minutes. Time to finish it up and get off this thing.
When I reached Jimmy at the second to last belay, I asked whether he believed we should continue up. We agreed that another 30 minutes shouldn’t mean too much more trouble and the reward was greater than the risk. He started the pitch in good weather and I tracked his progress via numerous butt shots. Sure enough, as he gained in height, so did the winds and spin drift in magnitude. By the time he had reached the top, it was blowing hard. I did my best to follow at light-speed once he put me on belay. I knew he must be enduring a hurricane up above. Despite worsening weather I was able to enjoy the climbing just a bit. It was certainly one of the most amazing ice pitches I have ever followed. Hard ice with lots of pick placements made the effort rather minimal, and thus allowed enjoyment of the position within the back of the chimney. Higher up it was possible to stem or rest your back against the wall if you were fatigued.
“I’m coming, Jimmy!”, I yelled as I crested the bulge and neared him at the top. To no surprise, he had already rigged the rappel by the time I reached him. Within moments of topping out we did a quick fist-bump and “Boom” before I started down. Seconds later I was back in the shelter of the chimney getting hammered with spindrift while waiting for Jimmy to descend from above.
As I weigh 30 more pounds than Jimmy, we try to make sure I always head down first with a back up in-place on anything but two bolts. We stayed strict to this rule on the way down Super Domo, which required many raps, some down-climbing and traversing, and handling two stuck ropes. While the weather had definitely taken a nose dive and it felt like we were reliving the adventure we had on Exocet two weeks earlier, I felt just a bit less committed leading the rappels because we were heading down the same terrain we had just come up.
Rappelling the third tier was a breeze. At the bottom I led back across the snow slopes on the end of the joined double ropes while Jimmy belayed me, then I belayed him across and fed the rope through the anchor simultaneously. It was while rappelling the next tier that the real trouble began. For 15 minutes or so, we tried every trick in the book to free the rope after it had gotten stuck above the crux mixed pitch. Neither Jimmy or I wanted to lead this thing a second time. We were finally able to pull the rope down by the opposite side from the knot and apparently the overhand was able to slip through the biner. Descent challenge 1: handled.
With some more luck, we fixed our rope yet again descending the last tier. This time Jimmy had to prussic up the rope while I shivered for 20 minutes at the belay getting blasted my ever increasing amounts of spindrift. Somehow the overhand knot wouldn’t role over a tiny notch in the rock because the other side was pinching it. Jimmy freed it and came back to me. Descent challenge 2: handled.
I led a few more rappels, stopping at every station that I could to ensure to reduce risk at the cost of slowing of speed of descent. Our last rap made it to just feet below the bergshrund where we started. Descent challenge 3: whiteout glacier navigation after a warm afternoon over poorly bridged and covered holes we could no longer see. All our tracks had been completed covered by new snow and wind, and we could see 100 yards at best.
I kid you not when I say that Jimmy and I nearly crawled the 1000 ft down the glacier. Higher up, we moved unroped on steeper terrain, until finally I found myself waste deep in a man-eater. A bit more down-climbing and we roped up with some knots in the middle. With my trekking pole out in front of me like blind man on the side-walk, we inched downwards. Nearly half the time, Jimmy and I were on our hands and knees in an effort to bridge our weight across seemingly unavoidable gapers that we had walked over on the way up while the glacier was frozen up. Of anything I have done during this entire trip, those agonizing hours were the most stressful I have experienced.
We finally made it to flatter ground, where the now snow covered drier glacier presented similar challenges. A bit further, and we were finally walking on blue ice in a light drizzle at 8:45pm with the tent not so far away. By our measurements it took us 6.5 hours shrund to the top of the technical pitches, but then another 5 to rappel the route and reach the dry glacier below Descent challenge 3: I hope I never have to do that again.
Without a second thought, we included ice cream in our evening last night at Domo Blanco. As four, we bought a kilo and got 5 flavors include Super Domo. Its not even my favorite flavor but how could we not?
The book topo reads a single rack and a half, which we were unsure what to take up. We ended up bringing:
- A single rack from Green C3 to #3, two extra tips-sized X4s, two tri-cams, blue (.75 ish?) and brown (.5 ish?) – Loved having the tri-cams again, particularly for backing up the rappels in icy cracks in both active and passive modes. They are growing on me more and more. The smaller cams ended up being quite useful as well, and I would choose to bring them again in place of doubles of anything larger.
- A short lost arrow and an angle – the angle was the first piece of good gear I got on the crux mixed pitch
- 10 ice screws (2x10cm, 4x13cm, 3x16cm, 1x19cm – for glacier travel) – The smaller cams ended up being quite useful as well, and I would choose to bring them again in place of doubles of anything larger.
- 12 or so slings, a few double lengths and a coordelette
- Two 70m half ropes – the second to last ice pitch is long and 70s allowed us to belay it comfortably. I wonder how it would go on shorter ropes.
Some notes on personal gear
- Brought goggles this time for comfort managing the spin drift when it really hit the fun. What a game changer.
- I’ve really started to dial my glove setup: (1) a LW general purpose glove for approach and an easy climbing it involves. For this I’ve been using OR Stormtrackers which climb well but also have a longer cuff and are a bit more waterproof than my climbing gloves. When done approaching, I put on a (2) a bulkier belay glove that also doubles for use climbing snowy pitches where dexterity is less important and I don’t want to get my climbing gloves wet. Finally for harder pitches, either leading or following, I dawn my (3) OR Project gloves which I got this year. They are freaking awesome: warm, great fit, and very comfy and with great dexterity. This go back into my jacket every time I reach a belay.
- The same layering kit I’ve been wearing on most of my winter days lately.
530am – Left Niponino
8am – At schrund racking up (2.5 hrs for approach)
810am – Jimmy starts climbing
3pm – Top out (~7 hrs to climb)
8:45pm – midway down the dry glacier between Domo and Nipo (5 hours to rappel and crawl down the glacier)
9:30pm – back at Nipo
For Thursday and Friday (the day we climbed Super Domo and went back to tent, and the following day, in which we walked back to Nipo. I had only 2400 calories left. Well-spaced throughout the day and the next morning, I was able to sustain my level of energy and feel good the next day back in town. The difference? High performance foods and the right balance of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. We did a mixture of bars we brought from the states, GUs, Stroop Wafels (also made by GU) which contain caffeine and branched chain amino acids. The later help greatly in reducing recovery times, muscular fatigue and breakdown, and provide high-quality carbohydrates which help to replenish glycogen stores for fast-paced energy when you need it most. A week ago, I went out with a friend here, Nick, and we had a diet heavy with local baked goods and processed grains (still high in carbohydrates). I felt horrible after and we put out about a 1/3 of the total effort as Jimmy and I did more recently. The difference is in the quality of food consumed and staying hydrated too. Read about it here.