Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Shut down but not defeated

Patagonia has hovered near the top of my dream list of climbing destinations for years. The idea of climbing pointy granite spires surrounded by a rugged glaciated landscape on a continent I have never visited appeals to my desire for adventure, mountain aesthetics, and high quality rock climbing. When my seasoned Patagonian climber friends Kate Rutherford and Mikey Schaeferinvited me down to climb with them this winter I booked a ticket immediately, right after Evan gave me his blessing to leave all the work at Valhalla Mountain Touring on his shoulders (or more accurately, quads) for three weeks.

The Fitz Roy Group

The week before I left Canada, tragic news from Patagonia planted seeds of hesitation and doubt that tainted my excitement for the trip. Carlyle Norman, a sister in the extended family of Canadian climbers, a strong motivated woman who I knew but never had the privilege of sharing a rope with had been killed by rockfall while climbing on St. Exupery, a spire in the Fitz Roy group. I was saddened by the loss, and a bit scared too. Events like this force me to ask myself, "is it worth it?". Climbing in the mountains gives me pure, unadulterated happiness. It's something to look forward to, something to reminisce about, something that has brought me a community of friends I love, made me stronger and forced me to recognize my weaknesses. But climbing has also robbed the world of many of my young, strong, healthy peers. And when I hear about another untimely death in the mountains I am forced to face the fact that I am not ready to leave this beautiful earth.

Numerous plane flights and a bus ride deposited me in El Chalten, tired but inspired by the spectacular views of Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and their accompanying spires. Kate and Mikey greeted me with hugs, smiles and news of large natural rockfalls in usually fairly stable zones brought on by prolonged periods of warm and dry weather, which added to the uneasiness that was blurring the edges of my climbing mojo. It turned out I didn't have anything to worry about because Patagonia was setting up to give me a true Patagonian welcome, with wind and rain right through the one week forecast.

One of the only times I could see Cerro Torre was on the bus ride into town from the airport

Rather than give you the blow by blow of my trip: "...and then we checked the meteogram on the slowest internet on the planet and the forecast was still bad so I ate an empanada or three and drowned my sorrows in a bottle of Malbec..." I will just tell you the end of the story.
!!!!!!!!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!!!!!

I did not climb anything in my three week trip. I did not even attempt to climb anything. When it was sunny it was windy and when it was calm it was raining, except for two 6-hour windows during which I should probably have climbed something small but didn't.

But.... (and this is a big BUT, like a big trail-breaking haunches of doom ski butt) I still had an excellent trip. In fact, I can safely say getting shut down in Patagonia was around a hundred times more fun to me than climbing almost a hundred sport climbs in the Red River Gorge. Oh I admit, I cried a few times with frustration that I had spent so much money and left behind some of the best skiing of the winter. But going to Patagonia was worth every wasted cent and every missed perfect powder faceshot, and here's why:


1. The crew. Hanging in El Chalten felt socially like what I remember hanging in Camp 4 feeling like 10 years ago. In a word: FUN! I was staggered by all the people I knew there. In fact, I couldn't really walk down the street without seeing someone I knew. In Argentina, a place it took me 40 hours to get to! The reunions began even before I arrived - while killing time in the Houston Airport I bumped into Yoav and Ilona, an awesome couple from San Diego I shared belays with on Castleton this fall. Turned out we were on the same flight to Buenos Aires and they were heading to El Chalten too. The feeling of being part of the climbing family even though I was travelling alone was awesome! Once I was posted at the Centro Alpino in El Chalten, I was surrounded by folks I already know, folks I wanted to know, and legends of the international climbing world. I am pretty sure that if the weather was splitter, many of us would have been absorbed with our climbing objectives and not had the time for each other. As it was, by the time three weeks was up, I felt like I was leaving a community I had grown attached to behind, with the only consolation being I was more than likely to see many of them again in some other climbing mecca.

Colin and Shane at the Gnocci-making dinner party

Scott and Trout-man showing off the mountain of home-made empanadas

Martin and Pinion, the Czech boys who Kate and I met in
Greenland were also in El Chalten.

Mikey helping out at the Chocolateria

Jumbo and Hanna at Piedras Negras camp waiting for better weather.

Trailside lunch with Josh, Trout-man, Ilona and Yoav

2. The hiking/trail running. El Chalten is surrounded by an amazing network of trails that wind up from the gravel flats of the valley bottom up through tall grass hillsides which give way to forests of weathered and gnarled Beech trees, into rocky moraines and talus slopes and onto blue-hued glaciers. Given good weather, these trails make up the initial approaches to the climbing, long and brutal with heavy climbing packs, so most seasoned Patagonian climbers are not that into running around on them for fun. But from my perspective, the well-established single tracks made great 2 hour to all-day outings with nothing but my running shoes, iPod and houdini weighing me down. The scenery from these runs was absolutely spectacular - all the mountain beauty without the fear and adrenaline of climbing. And there's nothing like that endorphin rush you get from a good cardio workout. I might just have to change sports...

On the way to Laguna Torre

Colin approaches NiPoniNo camp

Self portrait on my fave run - a 1000m hill straight out of town with amazing views.

Beautiful single track above town

Wondering if the 5 hr run was a solid plan in the rain and sleet at Laguna de los Tres

Basking in the sun below Guillamet

3. The bouldering and sport climbing. In case you are worried all that trail running is growing your legs disproportionately to your arms, El Chalten is surrounded by fantastic bouldering and fun sport climbing. Gathering a huge posse and heading up to the solid and featured stone of the boulders was another trip highlight. Staggering around in the wind like a human sail with a bouldering pad on your back between problems keeps it real, Patagonia style.

The Madsen Boulders above El Chalten

Josh, Mark and Joel confirm my suspicious about what bouldering is really all about.

Kate takes it to the next level, with cookies on the bouldering pad.

Sport climbing 7 km out of town.

Kate and Rolo heading out of the sport crag Calamar

4. The Chocolateria. This place has more cosy charm than anywhere I've been in awhile, with wooden tables, big stacks of climbing magazines and the amazing smell of melting chocolate wafting from the open kitchen. Whether you want to drink beer and eat the best pizza in town, or sip espresso and munch an Alfajor (Argentinian version of the oreo with dulce de leche in the middle of two cookies and covered in chocolate!!!), the Chocolateria is the place to fester.

Artisinal yumminess

Lincoln samples a "submarine" - chocolate bar dipped in hot milk

5. Learning Spanish. Prior to arriving in El Chalten, the sum total of my Spanish lexicon was the numbers from one to ten which I learned in Mexico when I was six years old. I found the locals in El Chalten friendly, patient and willing to teach even a total novice like me.

The produce guy at Gringitos Market was especially helpful in giving me some Spanish vocabulary

6. Sietes Venas. This is El Chalten's favorite local band. Actually, I am pretty sure they are the only local band, so good thing they rock! I was lucky enough to catch one of their shows, which didn't start until 2AM. The music was great, kind of punky, and the place was absolutely jam packed with what seemed like a mostly Argentinian crowd. The moshing was a bit intense, but exhilarating. I was proud of myself for staying out until 5AM.

7. Senyera. The best restaurant in town for Bife de Chorizo (giant hunk o' beef) and Locro (bean, meat and pumpkin stew). Reasonable prices, awesome service.

Colin and Hayden enjoy some pre-dinner complimentary bread and butter at Senyera.

With views this good, how could the beef taste anything but delicious?

8. Wine. No shortage of tasty reds at around $10 per bottle. Cheaper than BC, I'd have been silly not to enjoy it every night.

9. Empanadas and facturas. Sweet and savoury little pastries, which are warm and fresh if you get to the bakery at just the right time. Almost as convenient a pocket snack as an energy bar, and way more tasty! We even had a few empanada-making dinner parties.

The empanada factory

10. Scenery. It's just as beautiful in Patagonia as the photos lead you to believe. Go see for yourself, there's nowhere like it!

Looking to Lago Viedma from the Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

View up the Torre Valley, with the Cerro Torre group hidden in the clouds. Fitz Roy on the right.

The wall of hate hitting the mountains... perfect bouldering conditions in town, BTW.

Cerro Torre almost popping into view on the left

Sunrise and rainbow over El Chalten

Wind buffets Fitz Roy.

Laguna Sucia - the icy dip is highly recommended.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Ski envy

I’m sitting in El Chalten, Argentina, under the shadows of the majestic spires of Fitz Roy and Poincenot. Well, truthfully, there are no shadows being cast on this windy, rainy day. Since I arrived a few weeks ago, the weather rapidly disintegrated from hot and summery, to super windy, to the present state of socked in and sideways rain. Don’t get me wrong, I’m having an amazing time. I’ve been on some absolutely spectacular hikes, caught up with old friends and made some new ones, imbibed more than a few bottles of delicious Argentinian reds, and am spending time in the boulders and catching up on reading.

Stepping out of ski season gives me a new perspective on the people I know who love to ski, but whose lives make it impossible to get on the snow regularly in the winter. Suddenly all those spiteful seeming comments on my status updates referring to “another 30 cm of fresh” and “endless faceshots” make sense. Suddenly I’m the one jonesing for the snow!

Sifting through a bunch of images our friend Chris Christie took on an early January week at VMT certainly doesn’t help matters. Chris, an accomplished adventure photographer and great skier, brought along Tobin Seagal, a Squamish-based ski fiend to ski with Evan and I for a week. The four of us skied everything from DEEP powder to wind pressed snow in dumping snow to clear and sunny conditions.

Below are some of Chris’s images from the week.