Run For the Hills!

Bed is a wonderful place, and I stayed there for days. I‘d made myself ill with our little foray and didn’t have much choice but to rest, but it had been worth it. Some shots in the bag, the mountains formally introduced and a sense, now, of what we’d signed up for. Patagonia was big.

But for me, it was bed rest in the small and pleasant town of El Chalten. It’s a proper end of the world type place, a young town where for every building there is a structure unfinished, or a plot of weedy, undeveloped land. There are caravans and trailers where houses will one day stand and the place has a itinerant feel as if, perhaps, it might blow away in a gale. Which of course it might. But in high summer the town is in full swing, full of outdoor types drawn by the incredible mountains that fence us in on every side. The trekking from Chalten is of a different world order; wild, raw, and insanely beautiful. And the climbing… well, the climbing needs no introduction here.

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In El Chalten, it’s rare that a tree tops ten metres. Rarer still is the fool who builds their door to the west, the direction of the prevailing gale. It’s also a town of many dogs, all of which sport a the odd look of the permanently blow-dried. I’ve wondered about these dogs, trying to work out whether it’s better to be the low-profile sausage dog with squat legs a belly reassuringly close to the earth, or the larger, stouter German Shepherd: heavier, but prone to catching more wind.

My week of illness coincided with a week of poor weather, of which there is an plentitude in Patagonia. Scott – an American Rab athlete who has spent much time here – taught us how to interpret the forecasts and wowed at wind speed figures he’d never seen before. “I’m looking forward to seeing what a 44 looks like,” he’d said. What it looked like was a day when the roof might blow off our well built accommodation; a day when a trip to the Waffleria and Chocolateria might require ropes and belays to move through town. I exaggerate a little, but not much. It still looked like a day where an ill-caught plastic bag could tear off your head as it hurtled down the street.

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Fortunately for the sanity of the others, there were days when the wind wasn’t hoolie-force and the rain wasn’t horizontal, and on these days they made the most of the climbing on the cliffs and boulders around town. And during one of these forays Dave bumped into David Lama, the young Swiss alpinist responsible for the free Compressor route. According to Lama, the jet stream is too far north this year, so we can expect a crap month in Patagonia. If he’s right, our dreams of freeing the Compressor are toast.

It’s impossible not to ruminate on the accuracy of his prognosis. We tell ourselves that anything can happen here, that the weather is a crazy, unpredictable thing, that maybe he’s just wrong, that maybe we’ll get lucky…. and on and on. My fear, though, is that if anyone is well placed to make an assessment on our chances on the Compressor, it’s probably the guy who spent several years of his life on the project.

A few more days of horrendous weather passed, the freezing level dropped and in the rare moments when the clouds parted we saw mountains covered with fresh snow. But there was also a growing buzz in town about the slim window forecast for the end of the week. As the time grew closer, guidebooks were pored over and plans discussed. We decided there was no chance of finding dry rock with the mountains this white, so we looked for hard mixed lines to repeat, or pondered some of the many blanks walls in the guidebook. And then, in hope of getting onto a big route on Mermoz in the Fitzroy group, we packed heavy bags ready for an early start on Thursday morning.

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The walk into Piedra del Praille in the Rio Electrico valley was the first time that all of us had trekked in together, and the first time Dave and Calum had set out into the mountains proper. Dave had surgery on his ankle just a couple of months before and found the walk in tough and  painful, and Calum and I both had blisters. But more worrying than this was that the forecast was already wrong. High winds roared down the valley and heavy snow was raking skies that should have been clear.

The climb to the bivvi spot at Pedra Negra was a climb right into the storm. Snow blew in crazy eddies and the wind harried us in gusts. But somehow, hood up, protected from the elements, it was engrossing to be climbing in such bad weather. There was no view to distract and no visible goal to head towards, so it was eyes down to the path and an interminable, slow plod upwards.

Because we hadn’t taken a tent, we decided to stop an hour short of Piedra Negra and stay beneath the snow line. It looked horrific further up. Instead, in what on a good day would have been an idyllic meadow, we found some large boulders and took what shelter we could. Dave and Calum camped beside a huge block while Ally and I excavated a cave from beneath a very low slung rock. Within an hour we’d created a brilliant, if low roofed hovel, well protected from the wind and snow and with enough space for us to live, cook and sleep. It was dirt-bag living, to be sure, and required an undignified squirm to get into, but it was remarkably cosy inside.

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The original plan had been to use the afternoon to go high, check out our route and shoot some pictures, but the weather precluded all of this. It was snowy, cold and foul. Even so, a long line of alpinists plodded up hill all afternoon, heading higher into the maelstrom to camp in readiness for the weather window we all hoped would arrive in the morning. But it was looking unlikely. If the forecast is wrong for one day, we wondered, would it be wrong for all the days beyond? We just didn’t know.

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