Patagonia Part 2 - Chalten
Breakfast, check the forecast. No windows. Stretch, run, lunch. Check the forecast. Climb, talk, supper. Check the forecast. No windows.
We're waiting for good weather in the town of El Chalten. It’s the base for alpine routes in the Fitzroy and Cerro Torre massifs, but the Patagonian weather is being particularly tricky this year. It's been a wet start to the summer (seasons are opposite in the Southern Hemisphere) and the long-term forecast is for a 'wetter-than-average' year. Tony and I are just passing the 1 month mark on our trip to Patagonia, and - until recently - hadn’t climbed a single pitch in the mountains. Thankfully, in the few days it’s taken for me to write this, we’ve climbed a route. Phew! We walked in to the mountains four times before the weather and conditions allowed us to climb. Before Chalten, we spent a few weeks in Torres del Paine with Calum Muskett, but bailed early on our objective due to bad weather and moved here.
As always, the weather needs to be relatively stable to attempt routes in the mountains. Due to our southerly latitude (nearly -50 degrees south), and the proximity of storms in the Southern, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the weather in Patagonia is fierce and unpredictable. The strength and instability means it's difficult to know when a window of calm, warm weather will arrive, or how long it will last. We constantly check forecasts to see if an area of high pressure, low winds and no precipitation is arriving. This 'triple whammy' of good conditions has been especially lucrative in the 2016-2017 season.
The alpine days here can also be higher volume than other mountain ranges of roughly similar altitudes (the Alps, for example), because there's no lift access. A seven-hour approach walk with 1900m of height gain can lead you to the base of a 1000m route, which can be quite tiring.
Of course, this simply adds to how special Patagonia is. The remote feel, the impressive aesthetics of the granite mountains, and the quality of climbing... when it all comes together it’s fantastic!
This reinforces several things about the few climbers who have consistently 'succeeded' in Patagonia. Colin Haley has returned nearly every year for 13 years; Rolo Garibotti first climbed here aged 15. You need to have spent a lot of time in the mountains, and have a lot of patience. Colin openly says some of his ascents are 'alpine redpoints.’ They are the culmination of years of building a piece-by-piece knowledge in the mountains.
It's important to note that with every major success on a route, there's often many attempts or failures which you don't hear about. I can't speak for other climbers, but I can personally say that I've ‘failed’ on many, many alpine routes, and this is simply part of the game. I think ‘failure’ (and actually that word seems totally wrong - I’m always learning, rather than failing) adds to how special those 'perfect' alpine ascents are. I can fully appreciate and understand other people's alpine ascents. I know the effort and perseverance involved.
We’ve done a fair amount of learning on this trip. You can’t control the weather, so you just have to accept the forecast and not get wound up by it. I think this takes some practice, and again is part of the learning process. Thankfully, there’s plenty to do around Chalten, and we’re living in comfort.
Torres del Paine was a particularly interesting time. Calum, Tony and I experienced very poor rock climbing conditions, and although several ‘weather windows’ gave initial hope, they quickly disappeared. We walked many, many kilometres on that trip, and by the end of it I certainly noticed my legs feel stronger and arms feel weaker!
All these thoughts make me wonder: what draws me to the mountains, time and time again? Why do I do it? Although our climbing days in Patagonia have been slightly worse than average, every expedition or trip to the mountains has a lot of time waiting for the weather. Scotland, Alps, Alaska, Canada, Alps, Scotland, Patagonia... over and over. Rinse and repeat. Wait and watch.
But I can’t honestly answer the ‘why’ question - it’s too complex. Sometimes I like the challenge; sometimes I like to stand on top of a picturesque mountain. Climbing in the mountains can feel like a combination of my skills, knowledge and experience. I enjoy the peace and solitude in a beautiful, natural setting. But is it worth all the waiting and frustration? Yes, of course it is!
But if I’m honest, I feel a bit spoilt even suggesting that, because there are billions of people in this world who have a far poorer quality of life, and are far less lucky than me. Their problems can be life-threatening. And here I’m worried about whether I’ll get a good weather window on my trip to Patagonia, whilst living in a house and wearing warm clothes.
The mountains will always be there, so if we don’t manage to climb anything more on this trip, I’ll have learnt a lot and walked even more. I’ll be keen to come back to Torres del Paine and to Chalten, and - slightly addicted perhaps? - I seem to always want more. There are always more mountains, more routes to climb, more places to visit...
Breakfast, check the forecast. What’s that on the forecast? Stretch, run, lunch. Maybe it’s a window... Climb, talk, supper. Check the forecast. It’s definitely a window! Quick!