I flew in to el Calafate on January 17th and took a taxi to my home base for the next 5 weeks in El Chalten, a tiny mountain town in southern Argentina. Pete’s plane was delayed a day, so I hung around with this year’s group of monkeys, ate food and tried to readjust to this place of drastic extremes. In a very similar fashion to the last time I landed in this town three years ago, the weather was terrific and people were flooding to the mountains with their heads filled with dreams of golden granite and cloudless skies!
Pete pulled in on the 18th around 9:30pm. As always, It was great to see him once again. Soon we were scheming and packing our bags for a mission into the Torre Valley. Our plan was to hike into the base camp Niponino – a distance of 15k traversing a lake, an endless moraine and a dirty, rapidly changing glacier. With 50lb packs and navigating a new approach we staggered in to Nipo after 7 hours of slogging! The hike gave Pete and me a great opportunity to catch up and it felt wonderful to head into the mountains with a solid partner.
We decided to continue past Niponino towards the tongue of the Glacier in hopes of shortening the approach up and over the Standhardt Col the following morning. We moved some rocks around and built a solid bivy spot for our small single wall tent. We ate some food, set the alarm for 4am and tried to get some sleep.
The alarm came quickly and soon we were moving over the glacier up towards the Stanhart col. Gaining 1000m, we zigzagged around crevasses and arrived at the steeper ice and mixed terrain around 8:15am. What lay ahead was 150m of low angle ice and mixed climbing to the col proper. We simul-climbed and moved slowly on the soft and unconsolidated snow. From the col we began to rappel 200m to the west and for the first time saw the giant clean granite walls of the Circo de los Altares.
Our goal was to establish a new route on the west face of Punta Philip, a subsidiary peak of Aguja Bifida. Descending to the base of this wall proved more challenging than we anticipated. It involved squirrely down climbing of dirty ice and a few awkward rappels.
At 1:30pm we, finally, arrived at the base of this beautiful 800m wall. We ate food and scoped some potential lines. By 3:15pm Pete was leading the first pitch and we were happy to be in our comfort zone. We moved efficiently and by 10:30pm Pete had led 8 long pitches of new terrain on the west face of Punta Philip just South of the established route Su Patagonia that was established in 1996 by a group of Sardinians.
As the sun disappeared behind the snow capped mountains across the continental ice shelf we trundled some loose rocks and ice chunks from a small ledge and tried to clear out an area big enough for our small single wall tent. We ate mashed potatoes with cheese and were in the tent by 11pm. A very long and complex 17-hour day in the mountains.
The alarm went off at 6:00am. A quick oatmeal and coffee session and soon I slipped on my climbing shoes and began my lead block. I led four pitches involving some scary steep climbing with massive loose blocks, as well as some moderate terrain and clean cracks. A short wide section brought me to the top of an isolated pillar. I put a cordellete around the summit and belayed Pete up to the anchor. We discussed the option of rappelling down the tower to the East and heading back up and south to hopefully end up on an established route to the summit. The terrain looked challenging, committing and difficult to reverse. Happy with our mini-summit we snapped a few photos and began our descent. We found the Su Patagonia rappel anchors and descended using them for four rappels. The original anchors from 1996 were in rough shape, so we backed them up with cord we had brought. We left their established descent line for a more direct descent and headed down and south towards the gear we had stashed at the base of the wall. Pete did a great job leading the rappels and we were happy to touch down at 1:30pm after a pretty straight forward descent by Patagonia standards.
We took our harnesses off and lounged in the sun. The entire weather window had been extremely warm and the mountains were falling apart around us. Large seracs, rockfall, and ice fall were a constant and it was unnerving to be surrounded by such massive features that seemed to be growing increasingly less stable.
We made a decision not to retrace our steps back over the Standhardt col to Niponino and instead headed northwest across the Continental Ice Shelf to Paso Marconi. This route was about 50k and involved a lot of tricky down climbs, rappels and route finding.
We waited at the base of the walls until 9:30pm and began the trek back to civilization. First we had to descend to the continental ice sheet and it turned out to once again be more complicated than we had anticipated. A lot of down climbing low angle ice led to a final bergschrund. I tied our tag line around my waist as Pete settled into a small crevasse and prepared to give me a hip belay as I down climbed with tools and crampons to its lip. The plan was to down climb the 10 foot step and then belay Pete as he down climbed low angle rock around the side.
I got to the lip of the schrund and quickly discovered that it was severely overhanging. Feet dangling I hung from my tools and committed to a very uncomfortable lower with very cold water running into my pants. Once at the bottom I placed both pack packs at the base and Pete rigged a snow bollard to rappel off of. Pete batmaned down the tagline and we were soon alone on the continental ice sheet just as the moon was rising. A beautiful waxing gibbous illuminated the endless ice sheet enough that we did not turn on our headlamps. It was absolutely wild to traverse this empty landscape alone and under the moon light. It was like being on a different planet. We headed first west and then north towards Paso Marconi. As the sun rose we took a 20 minute break and brewed some coffee. We had been up for 24 hours and we were still a long way from home! We marched on. Some exposed down climbing and some tricky glacier travel led us to the rolling alpine hills north of the Fitzroy Massif. We continued on slowly towards the closest road.
30 hours into this mission I encountered a few cows in the trail. I was slightly ahead of Pete and stopped to admire these beautiful animals. There was a very large mom who seemed to be pregnant and a young cow together. I banged my trekking poles together to encourage them to move off of the trail. The next thing I knew the mom had turned to me, lowered her head and charged me at full speed! I backpedaled and stumbled a bit. Turning to run, the giant, angry momma was right on top of me. I leaped behind a tree and was about a half second away from being trampled. I quickly began to yell and present myself as a big scary creature. In reality, I was a terrified, confused and overtired climber! The cow backed off and waddled into the woods. Pete, who had witnessed this madness, and I quickly moved away from this area and continued the never ending march back home. This savage cow attack seemed too strange to be real! It all happened so fast and seemed so unbelievably random. For three very long days we had been managing all sorts of risks and hazards in the mountains but a charging cow was not one I had planned for.
After 31.5 hours of being awake and about 15 hours of hiking over 50k we arrived at a road. We slumped our backpacks on the ground, took off our shoes and immediately laid down. I soaked my swollen and battered feet in the icy Rio de las Vueltas and closed my eyes. We rested for a short while as we waited for cars to drive by to give us a ride back to town where our little casita, real food and a hot shower awaited. We were tired, sore, stinky and hungry but extremely fulfilled and happy!
We are pleased with our new route
Shelter from the cow V 5.11 A0 550m