Written by: Brette Harrington
It was early September and my summer rock climbing had come to an end. I had just completed my final rock climbing project for the season and said goodbye to sunny California. I was headed back south to a land of wind and snow, Patagonia, Argentina. This would be my fourth trip to Patagonia, but my first during the winter season. I had plans to meet up with German climbers Caro North and Yvonne Koch to climb in the El Chaltén Massif. Aside from the three of us, a handful of other climbers, my boyfriend Marc-André included, had similar plans. I had five weeks before returning home, and a lot can happen in five weeks in the mountains. As always, everything was dictated by the weather, which ultimately led us to many failed climbing attempts, but some great successes in ski mountaineering.
Battling the Weather and Changing Plans
Patagonia receives some of the worst weather I have ever experienced. Powerful winds are considered normal; winds that have pushed me over and blown me to the ground. Winds that throw rocks, rip the roofs from buildings, have the power to roll vehicles, and generally prohibit anyone or anything from passing unscathed. The first two weeks of my trip were filled with cold snow storms, but moderate winds. The temperatures were too cold to form the necessary ice runnels for climbing, as the powder snow lacked any moisture and could not condense into ice. This was quickly discovered when we arrived at the base of a route called Todo o Nada only to find it entirely void of ice. That week, we took to skiing on a nearby mountain Vespigniani, which was an adventure in itself.
Caro, Yvonne and I made a second attempt to ice climb, but it snowed 50 cm on the approach causing the steep couloirs to fill with bottomless powder snow. We trudged slowly up the mountain battling a chest high wall of snow with each step. As snow flurries blew in the dark hours of the morning, we came to a place where we could no longer pass. With conditions like this, the face would surely be impossible anyway. It became clear that conditions were simply too snowy for climbing, and since this was not about to change any time soon, we decided to take advantage of the amazing ski conditions the next time that the weather cleared.
Skiing Cerro Solo
Caro and I decided to ski a striking peak visible from town called Cerro Solo. Normally accessed by hiking more than 10 kilometers of flat, dry trail with skis on the back, Cerro Solo is rarely visited by alpine skiers. We elected to try a more adventurous, albeit longer and more strenuous approach, traversing La Loma del Pleigue Tumbado, a long and gradual mountain ridge that eventually connects to Cerro Solo below its south face. This would allow us to ski tour a high ridge rather than carry our skis up the dry valley bottom, and make for a more interesting day.
We started off before light, hiking with our skis on our backs through the forested hills. Once we reached the snow-line we put our skis and skins on and began the upward climb of La Loma. The ridge line was blasted with strong winds so we skied down into a more sheltered bowl to the southwest, then back up over the exposed ridge to ski down to the deep bowl beneath the south face of Cerro Solo. There was an obvious couloir splitting the face, but a threatening sera loomed just above this, so we climbed a line slightly to the right of the couloir with our crampons and ice tools out and skis strapped to our back. In order to take the safest line possible we were forced into increasingly technical terrain, and as the angle increased we belayed one pitch to gain an obvious rock protrusion. Above this, we continued climbing up the deep and steep snow, becoming aware that the line we were climbing would make for an incredible steep skiing descent. Reaching the shoulder of the mountain, we ski toured to the summit via the enormous hanging glacier of the east face. Cerro Solo gave magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. The 360 degree view of the Patagonian landscape was spectacular, with the nearby mountains, too numerous to name, and off into the distance the remote Patagonian Icecap.
Caro and I then skied from the summit slopes in incredible powder snow, then back down into the south face couloir, taking our chances with the serac for a moment as we shredded the 55 degree couloir all the way to its base at the edge of the Lengas forests below. Our day ended with a bushwack down through the Lengas forest and a pleasant 7 mile walk back to town on the Torre Valley Trail. My GPS tracked our day to be around 23 miles and 8000 ft of altitude gain. It was a big effort that took a great deal of energy. We were careful to keep ourselves hydrated throughout the day, regularly sipping on our bottles which were all filled with Liquid I.V.
Climbing Cerro Piergiorgio
A few days later Caro and I had yet another interesting multi-sport day when we went to climb on the mountain, Cerro Piergiorgio at the far end of the Torre Valley. Waking at midnight from our bivy, we ski-toured further up valley until we came upon the large serac of the convoluted glacial pass called El Boquete del Piergiorgio.
Caro led up the cold, splintering ice in the darkness of the night. The blue ice bulged outward forming large overhangs. The icefall is in a state of constant, slow movement, breaking away as the pressure of gravity gives it the appearance of a looming set of jaws. Careful and tenuous movements were required to ascend it, as the ice was so brittle it would splinter frighteningly if the pick was swung with force. Upon reaching the top of the serac, after two slow and difficult pitches of steep ice climbing, we pulled up our skis and set off towards the base of Cerro Piergiorgio where we encountered our next obstacle.
The bergshrund, a gaping crack that forms where the mountain’s slope abruptly steepens, separates the lower snowfields from the more vertical realm above it. The bergshrund is often where the true climbing begins. The snowy walls buckled under the pressure of our weight causing the gap to widen to about 6 feet in places. Furthermore, the walls are often undercut, so the gap is even more fragile than it appears while topped in powder. Despite the challenge, we managed to cross the precarious gap giving an attentive belay, and finally we were climbing Piergiorgio. Steep snow led to an even steeper ice runnel. As the sun dipped slowly behind the mountain, so did the temperature. The climbing was technical and slow, thus the pitches were long and the belays were cold. We continued up the thin ice and maneuvered over rocky bulges.
The higher we climbed, the more violent the winds became. Snow plumes feathered off the shoulder above us as we held on to endure the gusts. We decided to turn back just before reaching the shoulder as the windy belays were far too cold to endure. We rappelled the face quickly and efficiently by finding sneaky piton placements. Soon enough we were skiing down the powdery snow atop the huge glacier to begin one of my most memorable ski descents of all time. We skied down the glacier and onto the lofted plateau to arrive back at the top of the serac. The sun lit up the Fitzroy towers in the golden light of sunset. I continuously turned my head back in awe to admire the beautiful mountain of Piergiorgio. Its rounded ridge lifted softly to the gentle shoulder; a mountain of such graceful curvature, standing so peacefully in the violent winds. Caro and I took our time repelling the five rope lengths over El Boquete with our skis attached to our packs. Arriving at the base of the serac, we continued the epic ski descent, traveling effortlessly down the gentle Torre Valley. So much effort had gone into attaining our highpoint, and now we were descending rapidly and with such alarming ease. The challenges of winter presented themselves during the ascent, but paired with skis the descent was magical. We arrived back at our camp at 7pm on the Torre Glacier after yet another 17 hour day.
Caro and I awoke the next morning at 6am and packed half of our camp off the glacier, then we took a day to ourselves and ski toured a beautiful glacier up to Paso Túnel. A venture that would not be of interest in the summer season, but covered in snow presented a joyful ski adventure. It took us two days to carry our gear out of the Torre Valley and in the following days I slowly began to prepare for my journey back home.
A Final Day in Patagonia
For our final day in Patagonia, I went with Marc-André into a different valley to make a final ski descent of an unnamed peak. Marc-André had spoken of a beautiful ski line in this less frequented valley after making several forays out to the icecap to kite-ski alone. We walked at a casual pace into Valley Rio Túnel crossing over the wetlands and getting our feet entirely soaked in bog water hidden beneath partially frozen snow. We carried our skis 16 kilometers on our backs, through a number of icy barefoot river crossings, before we were finally able to put them on. Glacier Túnel extended far into the valley up to the ridgeline where Caro and I had been skiing just a few days previous, but now we were approaching from the opposite valley.
As Marc and I progressed across the blue glacier, I spotted a line that Caro and I had skied and I reflected on the terrain on the opposite side of the mountain pass. We made our way up to the base of the mountain and worked our way up to the summit, a long but straightforward climb on sun warmed snow slopes. Arriving at the summit, we had a front row view of Cerro Solo’s rarely seen south face. After weeks of exploring the area, I could envision a detailed map in my mind of all I had traversed, skied, climbed and explored.
Marc and I stood atop a pinnacle and peered down our line. “Does it go, or will it cliff out?” we had wondered throughout the day, and now we could at last look down the whole line from the very top. From here we could see a perfect continuous line of white snow connecting from bottom to top that led all the way to the bowl below the mountain face. We let out resounding shouts of excitement before clicking into our skis and carefully dropping in to the face. At once it became clear that the snow was perfect powder, and we skied easily the most aesthetic line of the trip. We reached the bottom of the steep run with exuberant smiles on our faces, but our day was far from over. To regain the trail in the valley bottom we had to navigate down through a number of steep vegetated cliff bands with our skis on our backs. After reaching the base of the final rock outcropping, we had to make one final horrendous bushwhack through dense thorny plants, ripping our skis through the branches that continuously tried to grab hold. After a half hour of this misery we stumbled back onto the trail and only had to contend with 15 kilometers of hilly hiking in the fading light to reach El Chalten once more.
Exhausted from the long day, we were stumbling past our friend Claudio’s restaurant (which had opened that same night) as he was closing up for the night. He saw us with our skis on our backs, and invited us in for delicious complimentary chicken sandwich and glass of wine! It was an amazing, friendly finale to our trip. The following morning we said goodbye to our friends after a few relaxing hours hanging out in the front lawn, and began the long journey back home.
About the Contributor: Brette Harrington is a professional rock and alpine climber based out of British Columbia. Born in 1992, Brette grew up on the east shore of Lake Tahoe where she found her early love for the mountains through skiing. She broke into the vertical realm of climbing during her high school years when she joined her school rock climbing team. In 2010 Brette moved to Vancouver, Canada to study at the University of British Columbia. It was there that she honed in her climbing skills which have led her to climb infamous cliffs such as El Capitan in Yosemite Valley and The North Pillar of Fitzroy in Patagonia Argentina. Brette has put up numerous first ascents in Baffin Island, the Canadian Rockies, and the North Cascades. She is pushing to evolve her knowledge of the mountains through climbing and skiing.