Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Adventures in the Patagonia- Cerro San Lorenzo

Where to start writing a perspective on an amazing trip into the wilds of Patagonia......

An Objective

Once, we had decided to go to Patagonia, all that remained to decide was what we we going to do there. Would we go to one of the famous climbing areas such as the Torres del Paine in Chile or the Fitroy area, where I had been 4 times previously and still had unfinished business? or a completely new adventure to a relatively unknown and little explored area? Mick Fowler, the legendary british alpinist had been there a few months earlier and had been thwarted by bad weather and heavy snow but it inspired us enough to commit to a trip there. We had a couple of photos and some aerial photos but that was about it. We all geared up for a great adventure. We had no assurances that we would be able to climb anything. The Patagonian weather is famously unstable and Cerro San Lorenzo is the second highest mountain in Patagonia at 3700m. The plan was was to explore the area and hopefully climb a new route on the beautiful Pilar Sur (south pillar) of San Lorenzo. Conditions, weather and our abilities to climb and suffer would ultimately decide on the success of our mission. With such uncertainties and a dynamic team, the trip would be a great adventure.

"Patagonia is not a precise region. It is a vast vague territory that encompasses 900000 square kilometres of Argentina and Chile. Patagonia can be described by its soil and climate. The wind that blows with terrific force from october to March- in Chatwins expression "stripping men to the raw" and made Antoine de St Exupery's plane fly backward instead of forwards. In Patagonia, the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks, the devout prays, the lonely grows lonelier, sometimes fatally" - from Bruce Chatwins book 'In Patagonia'

The Team

Pete- Super psyched, incredibly fit,  strong and fast climber and runner. Scottish winter climbing enthusiast. Recently completely his PhD.
Timmy- Sheffield based climbing enigma. Immensely talented understated all-round climber and super relaxed guy with a penchant for classic one-liners. I had first met Timmy in 2006 in Patagonia then again in the UK in 2007.
Donie - Irish and living in Sheffield. Determined and talented climber and excited as muh about climbing as having a relaxing holiday. Incessant sweet tooth. Favorite quote "What can we eat next?".

Ronan. - Born and bred in Dublin Ireland. I hadn't met Ronan before this trip. All I knew was that he was super psyched and had an immense dislike for Netto canned food. Ronan would prove to be incredibly fit, strong and stoic in the face of a traumatic injury. If the shit hit the fan, Ronan is the guy you'd want on your side. A real asset to the team.

Rob - Australian component of the team, communications and equipment manager, base camp chef.

Ross - Unfortunately Ross couldn't join us on the trip, but he proved to be an invaluable team member by sending us daily weather forecasts to our satellite phone. These forecasts helped us incredibly to plan our missions and enabled us to make the most of the weather windows.

On our way

Most of the team for the trip arrived in El Calafate, Argentina on the 13th December 2009. Tim, Pete, Donie and me. We immediately set set upon the tasks of shopping for food for a month and finding the best way to get to the mountains. We were headed to a mountain called San Lorenzo, located about 6-7 hours north of El Calafate off the famous Route 40 through the pampas of Patagonia. 5 trolleys of food were filled in the supermarket and somehow we managed to forget 2 of them when we went through the checkout!

A day later, we were on the road to nowhere, heading up the loose rutted gravel road known as Ruta 40, 5 guys, our trusty driver Gustavo, all our equipment and 25 days of food. Gustavo left us at the end of the road with a promise to pick us up again in 25 days. We would see no one else in the entire month in the mountains.

Over the next few days, we carried loads a few hours up to a base camp further up the valley next to an old gaucho  hut- El Puesto San Lorenzo. This quaint little hut would be our home for the next month.  The hut contained a fireplace and a table and a makeshift bed and was mostly watertight. The hut lay in a meadow and was surrounded by mountains, rivers and fields of wild flowers. Not a bad place to spend a few weeks.

The first weather window looked to be a short one so Pete, Timmy and I headed off one afternoon to climb a nearby mountain called Cerro Hermosa (2500m). IT would be a good chance to climb together and test the equipment. After about 3 hours we reached a suitably sheltered spot to spend the night and hunkered down away from the roaring winds, hoping they would abate by morning. It ended up raining all night and all we had for shelter were our bivi bags. I was greeted to an amazing sunrise and still strong winds. Pete and Timmy were still asleep. When they awoke at 8am we decided to have a go at climbing the mountain despite the strong winds. It didnt look too technical but would be about 1000m of altitude gain to reach the summit.

We soloed a wide snow gully to a col, then up another steep couloir to an exposed ridge to gain the windy summit ridge and made it to the rocky summit by about midday. After a fast descent via di=own climbing and bum sliding we reached the bivi around 4pm and were back at base canp by 7pm.

Meanwhile Donie and Ronan (D&R) had explored up the valley and glacier toward the South Pillar of San Lorenzo. It took them 2 days to find their way over the glacier and horrific moraine and setup their advanced camp in the cirque of towers dominated by the Pilar Sur. They arrived back on the evening of the third day thoroughly tired but excited by the prospect of a new route on the pilar sur.

Bad weather and heavy snowfall dominated the next two weeks of the trip but the weather was always better away from the mountain so we were able to go bouldering almost every day on the boulders near base camp. The boulders were amazing, offering beautiful problems of all difficulties on beautiful solid rock with mostly excellent soft landings.

A few days after christmas, the weather report looked good, so all five of us headed up the valley toward San Lorenzo, with the hope of being able to climb. We were rewarded for our efforts by soft knee deep snow covering the ice and loose boulders of the moraine. The going was tough with heavy packs  with the unstable footing underneath.

About 3 hours into the approach, while having a break for a drink and snack, Pete spotted a wild puma up on the  glacier about 40 metres away. It was an incredible privilege to see such a majestic creature in the wild. He continued on his way, not seeming too worried about us and eventually joining our tracks and following them off the glacier. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for all of us.

Upon reaching a previously placed gear stash further up the glacier, we all decided that the amount of snow on the mountain and glacier would make any climbing and approaches difficult and dangerous. D&R returned to base camp and Pete, Timmy and I pitched the tent and stayed the night in the shelter of a huge boulder in the hope of getting some good views of the mountain in the morning. The morning greeted us with stunning views of the mountain and the lower half of the Pilar Sur. Hopefully we would get  a weather window to attempt the Pilar Sur.

While we waited for the deep snow to clear of the mountain, Tim Pete and I made the most of a nice weather day and climbed a new route on an astounding basalt tower perched on a hill to the east of base camp. With an approach that was becoming familiar on this expedition, we left the puesto at 10:30am and arrived at the base of the tower after about 3 hours of constant uphill hiking on scree and snow, finding some guanaco footprints high on the hillside. No idea what a guanaco was doing up so high on a mountain devoid of vegetation. Upon inspection of the rock and finding it prone to breaking off in chunks, we decided to climb a new line on the unclimbed west face which offered some protection for the belayers in the form of little overhanging pods. Leading was precarious and time consuming. Every hold needed to be tested to check it was solid before trusting it. 3 long pitches got us to the top of the tower and 2 rappels later down the snow filled south gully and we were back at our packs. We decided to descend a different valley and ended up in a steep canyon, unsure whether it would cliff out or provide a way out. eventually we made it back to the base camp hut around dark.

A few days later with the huge mushroom cloud still enveloping the mountain, we headed up to climb a new route Pete had spotted on a big granite buttress high above the glacier.  Pete, Tim and I led a pitch each on perfect featured granite to the top of the buttress with 3 condors circling overhead, sometimes no more than 20 metres away. These majestic birds with massive wingspans just seem to soar in the winds of the Andes with seemingly little effort. Tim was the smallest of the 3 of us so we figured he would be the one carried away if they were to attack. Pete and I were quite content to watch the action. A short scramble down a scree gully led us back to our bags.

The weather and conditions on the mountain had dictated much of our activity and decisions. A huge mushroom cloud covered the mountain for most of the time and the wind seemed to blow incessantly. With some previous Patagonian experience, I had expected this to be the case but San Lorenzo seemed even more intense than other Patagonian peaks I had tried.

The weather for the last week of the trip didn't look promising with high winds and precipitation but it would be our last chance for an attempt on the pilar sur, so after a morning of rain we packed and headed up the glacier with the aim of reaching the advance camp before nightfall. The snow had all melted off the glacier which made the going easier than the previous trip. About half way up the glacier on the blue ice, Pete managed to step into a deep glacial pool of freezing water while gazing at the huge east face of San Lorenzo. I was just behind him at the time and wondered why he hadn't seen the pool . He lunged forward and managed to scramble out thoroughly wet and rather pissed off.  After the blue ice, we had to negotiate some horrible moraine for a few hours to reach the advance camp. About 8 hours, we reached the advance camp and began digging a hole and building a snow wall for the tent to protect against the ferocious winds.

The approaches in Patagonia always seem to test one's resolve, whether it be cold river crossings, marshy wetlands, rubble covered glaciers, deep snow or horrible loose moraine with loose boulders toppling under one's weight. Combined with a heavy pack, these approaches always seemed to weary the body, knees and feet. Its all part of the experience and most of us had some sort of niggling injury of another. We usually just taped up the offending sore appendage and popped some ibuprofen and kept going. We were all in the same boat.

The rain started about 11pm and continued for the next 30 hours unabated. I was sharing the tent with Tim and Pete, while Donie and Ronan were in the other tent. The bad weather provided a rest day that was almost welcome after the previous exhaustive day. We became quite good at killing time on this trip by reading, and playing chess and sleeping.

The next day dawned clear and bright. It was on. We packed and headed up for an attempt of the couloir  on the pilar sur. We didn't really know exactly where we were going but we tried to find the line of least resistance to surmount a ridge and access the big ice couloir on the pillar. The fresh snow was getting softer and wetter and in danger of avalanching as the sun hit it. Our crampons bit into the hard neve underneath in a hurry to get onto the steeper less avalanche-prone rock buttress above. A few hours after we had climbed the initial snow slopes, they completely avalanched  and left the hard snow and rock beneath completely scoured and devoid of snow.

After 4 pitches of mixed climbing up snow and rock, we reached the crest and committed to an abseil down the other side of the ridge and into Chile. The climbing was time consuming and the afternoon was getting on, but the couloir beckoned so up we headed. The rock on the upper section of the pillar was completely coated in rimed ice and a few centimetres of verglas. It looked unclimbable  and incredibly hard but we headed up anyway, Simul-climbing and pitching our way up the couloir using ice screws in the blue ice to protect our passage.

The higher we climbed and the later it became, the colder it became. Wind and blown snow  seared our faces and nipped at our fingers. Upward we climbed until we had a good view of the upper pillar. It was obvious that we weren' t going to the top that day and spending the night out without a stove and sleeping bags wasn't an option. I was wearing every piece of clothing I had with me and I was still on the point of shivering. We decided to descend with still a few hours of daylight remaining at  around 8pm. Timmy led the way, drilling v-threads in the ice as rap anchors. I went 2nd to test the anchors and Pete came last after removing the backup ice screw.

As we descended, we passed Donie and Ronan who climbed on past us. Ronan was powering on like a machine, the fire in his eyes and looking strong. An image that will stay etched in my memory. A few hours later we saw their headlamps slowly descending the couloir behind us.

We reached the bottom of the couloir just before dark to find our water bottles had frozen solid allowing us only a trickle of fluid. We continued the descent in the dark, trying to find a way back over the ridge back to the advance camp in the cirque. After 5 abseils down a steep gully and a descent across the avalanche scoured slopes, we made it back to the tent at about 4am in the morning. We had been on the go for about 20 hours and slept the sleep of the dead.

Donie and Ronan arrived back at their tent about 10am after a long descent. Ronan had seriously frozen his fingers rigging the abseils down the couloir so they had to go the long way around to get back to the tent. He said fingers were bad, but the reality of how bad probably hadn't sunk in because of the tiredness of the last 24 hours efforts.

By morning, the mountain was shrouded in cloud and strong winds were battering the mountain. I packed up and began the long walk out back to base camp around midday, arriving around 9pm. The camp site was relatively sheltered but as soon as I hit the glacier, the wind battered me and threw me around, threatening to push me into the clear blue glacial pools that covered the glacier. Pete and Tim followed shortly after and decided to climb a nearby peak the next day called Cerro Penitentes.

Donie and Ronan arrived back around midnight the following day after a 12- walkout from advance camp. Ronan showed me his frosbitten fingers and I was shocked at how bad they were. There wasnt mch we could do except keep them clean and dressed and to prevent the blisters bursting and the risk of infection. It would be 4 more days till we got to a hospital for any advice and treatment.

A few days later, after carrying a few loads of gear out and eating the lst of our food, we met Gustavo at the pick up point and began the 7 hour drive back to civilisation. Ruta 40 was littered with a few 4x4 trucks on their roofs and one with a broken axle, testimony to the savage nature of the roads in this area of Patagonia. At one point, I was jolted awake (as usual I was sleeping in the car) by the van fishtailing on the loose gravel. We all braced for a potential roll over but thankfully Gustavo was experienced on these roads and kept the power on to pull us out of the fishtail. Could have been nasty.

I accompanied Ronan to the hospital where we had his finger redressed and checked by a doctor. Only time would tell how well they healed up. Not many doctors in the world have experience treating frostbite so good advice is sometimes scarce.

Over the next few days, Donie and Ronan caught their flights home and Pete Tim and I did some fantastic climbing and bouldering around El Calafate......And ate lots of BBQd meat, courtesy of my amazing Argentine friends Paula and Manza.

With an extra week to kill and the weather not looking favorable, I decided to head down to Chile to the Torres del Paine for a few days of trekking and taking photos. Somehow I managed to forget my sleeping bag and spent 4 cold nights sleeping with all my clothes on and my feet in my pack. All good training for future missions. In 5 days, the weather dished out glorious sunshine, 70km/h winds and driving rain, delivering astounding beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and rivers in the national park.
The last few days of the trip were spent idly packing, climbing with the locals and fantastic asados (BBQ) every night. A visit to the Perito Moreno glacier where Paul and Manza worked provided a welcome outing and some great photo opportunities. With the business end of the trip done, these downtimes can be some more relaxing parts of a trip and an ideal time to wind down and reflect on a great trip. The mountains and the landscape were simply incredible.  The 5 of us made for a dynamic team of good friends, great humour and great climbing partnerships and some truly memorable adventures... Thats what its all about. ..


  1. what happened to Ronans fingers?

  2. Looks like you guys had quite the adventure down there! I'm heading in to Cerro San Lorenzo in about 6 months and was wondering if I could pick your brain about the mountain some, especially if you have any high res shots of the east side of it. My email address is colin.bohannan@gmail.com.