New Routes and First Ascents

The alarm went off at 4am and I looked out of the cave to see stars. There was hardly any wind. We were going climbing after all. I felt the funny mix of the alpine start – the contrary pulls of adrenaline and exhaustion – and shoveled cold, watery oats into a body that was indifferent to breakfast at this hour. I had a second cup to make sure I wouldn’t repeat the low-cal experiment of the last trip, then crawled out through the dirt of the cave mouth and took in the first glow of dawn on the mountains. Spectacular. There were already headtorches on the path as others began the slog up to the col, but we weren’t to be much behind.

It was two hours of hard graft to reach the pass, but the climb was so beautiful in the morning light that the effort barely registered. The only frustration was not being able to stop and take photos. Since this was the first climbing day of the trip and everyone was bent on getting something done, all I’d be able to do is catch what I could as we went.

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We reached the col around the same time the sun began to fade behind the high stratus stretching across the sky. The weather was already changing. But it was spectacular, with the glacier falling away beneath and the immaculate granite walls of Guillaumet rising up to our right. We roped up to cross the glacier, then Dave and Calum set off. A few moments later they came back. There was so much fresh, unconsolidated snow that going anywhere without a track meant wading through thigh deep powder, which is both slow and exhausting. More critically, Cal had dug a pit to test for avalanche danger and found the layers of snow completely unbounded. It was far too dangerous to try and go anywhere.

Our plans had to change and so we looked up towards the immediately accessible walls of Guillaumet rising above. Being amongst the few routes in the whole of Patagonia that were in condition and accessible, the classic easy ice gullies around the Amy- Vidailhet were absolutely packed with teams. But around these lines, completely untouched, was an awful lot of unclimbed rock and ice.

Dave and Calum looked around for the most imposing line and set off for a wall to our right. It was perpendicular to the main ridge, meaning that the best pictures I could shoot would be from section immediately left of the Amy, on the ridge itself; a section, excitingly, with no routes in the guidebook and where a series of incredible mixed lines ran. We would have to go new routing, ostensibly, for work.

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We were all pretty excited to finally be getting climbing, and headed off to our respective challenges. And ours was amazing. The climbing was perfect, never too hard and never too run out, but always engaging and fun. The rock was perfect, the ice runnels ran just where they were needed, and it culminated in a crux move right at the top. For me, it was a rare opportunity to get stuck into some proper winter mixed climbing, which I love. And at the end of it, we had what we think is a new route. It’s unnamed at the moment, but goes at around Scottish VI, 6.

Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky on the photography front. Ally and I had positioned ourselves on the face for dramatic, wide shots of Cal and Dave on an enormous wall with Patagonia stretched to the distance, but the mountain had other ideas. I was hoping for the sort of shot you’d make a poster out of, or a sizzling advert, but the vagaries of new routing pushed Calum and Dave into a corner beyond our view. It wasn’t their intended line either, but when the route goes one way and not the other, you really don’t have much choice. They had a fantastic time with some top quality climbing up to Scottish VIII, 8, but it wasn’t what I’d hoped for on the image front.

Ally and I reached the top of our route as the weather began to turn. We’d had a remarkably wind free day, and although it began to warm as we climbed, there was nothing too threatening in the sky. It was when we reached the ridge that the wind began gusting for change and the clouds started to engulf us, so thoughts of the summit of Guilliamet were abandoned in favour of a swift retreat. But this was what I wanted – conditions on the turn. I want to depict the reality of Patagonian mountaineering, and that reality is often one of dramatic weather. So with Ally tugging at the leash to get down and me wanting more time for photos, we negotiated our way back down the empty mountain. We got some dramatic stuff, but we were nearly the last people off.

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The wind at the col was high and the clouds were descending. Whirlwinds of spindrift whipped along the glacier, warning of things to come. We hurriedly packed our bags and descended, scampering from the forbidden realm just as the gates began to snap shut again. We’d been lucky and had an incredible day.

I reached the bivvi late after taking some timelapse sequences of incoming clouds, and Calum and Dave had scarpered. Their site was more exposed than ours and, with the youth keen to further indulge his habit for the local condensed milk, they’d waited for Ally to tell him they were leaving. Ally and I had a few moments of deliberation before deciding that our bivvi was actually rather nice and we’d rather another night in the mountains. It’s not like we are granted much time up here anyway, and I’m a sucker for time up high.

The next day we headed back down and into town. It was a long walk but the difference couldn’t have been starker to my previous return from the hills. My body may have ached and my feet and shoulders may have burned, but there was no staggering, no corpse-like expression, no preference to die rather than take another step. Patagonia may be big and hard on the body, but it seems I’m getting fitter. Fit enough, I don’t yet know. It all depends on what the next weather window brings…

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