Mid October

Mid October

As I write El Chalten, Argentina’s newest town is gearing up for its 30th-anniversary celebrations, up and down the high street businesses are reopening after the winter. It’s remarkable to look around; several newly constructed buildings have met the spring deadline, while many others are revived with a fresh coat of paint. Last night I was able to look down on the approach road and see a line of cars driving into town for the celebrations. I was looking down because I was high up on Aguja Guillaumet – one of the peaks in the Fitz Roy range. At a shade under 2600m it stands 800m short of Fitz Roy, but for someone like myself with very, very little technical climbing experience it was a huge challenge.

As always I’m still committed to photography. I’ve no plans to devote myself to climbing, however, I’m living in a mountain mecca so it would be crazy not to go climbing. I can always benefit from more experience in the mountains.

Climbing will, of course, allow me to reach new and incredible parts of the park, however, the disadvantage is that climbers on the whole look for clear weather windows whereas photographers generally prefer dramatic cloud filled skies.

When the latest clear weather window showed up in the forecast my friend Sebastian suggested several peaks before settling on Aguja Guillaumet. I was just along for the ride so I was happy to go anywhere. Gustavo would also join us; he’s another climber originally from Brazil but works in one of the towns climbing shops.

We left Piedra del Fraile at a respectful hour and made the climb to Piedras Negra. It was at this point that I discovered I’d somehow lost my sunglasses. With a cloudless sky, the sun’s glare on the snowfields was extremely strong, it was unpleasant but I wasn’t turning back. Once we reached the Guillaumet pass at 2000m we made our bivouac, 1500m below to the east I could see Piedras Blancas Glacier where I’d camped only last week. To the west, we could see Marconi Pass and the ice field.

At sunrise we melted snow for a quick breakfast and headed off in perfect climbing weather, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind. Sebastian had chosen a climbing route with mixed conditions; to begin we had to pass a bergschrund – basically an area of ice that has broken away from a cliff – then climb a short ice wall. Both Sebastian and Gustavo made attempts to pass this obstacle without success. This was the first pitch and it was taking up valuable time. Finally, they let the gringo have a try and somehow I managed to pass the first challenge. Later I wondered if they’d deliberately faltered at this obstacle so as to give me confidence for what was to come, but I’m no longer a ten year old so perhaps I really did do well. Once past that first wall, we had to climb a 200m couloir – a vee shaped crack. At about 45º it was steep to begin but it would only get steeper, near the top the angle was more like 70º with the crux being the last chockstone with a mix of vertical ice glazed rock.

Once past the couloir, we got a glimpse of the mountains to the west. I got my first look at Domo Blanco, perhaps more impressive was the view of the ice field, higher up the mountain you could look all the way across as far as the Pacific. We stopped for a quick bite to eat before removing our crampons and continuing upwards. The next pitches were northwest facing with very little snow or ice. It was here that my friends really showed their experience and confidence. The climbing wasn’t hard but even easy climbs can be daunting with the potential of a couple of thousand feet free fall!

We reached the summit at about 9.00pm just after the sun had set behind the Chilean mountains; the sky was completely devoid of clouds and the air perfectly still. To the south Aguja Mermoz rose between Fitz Roy, which still had some color from the setting sunlight. Sebastian thought the descent would take around three hours, it would actually take eight.

As all climbers know most accidents happen on the way down a mountain. For this reason, we had to refrain from congratulating ourselves and instead concentrate on the task of getting back safely. My biggest fear was that I would come down the wrong way. Some of the ascents required traversing cliffs and so the descent would need to be followed in reverse. One mistake and you might pendulum off your line whereby you’d then have to climb up the rope. Furthermore, there was the risk that when you pull a 120m loop of rope it might get stuck, this did actually happen but thankfully Gustavo offered to climb back up and retrieve it. There was absolutely no moonlight so whilst the rope was retrieved I gazed up at the Milky Way, which paralleled the mountain range. I was anxious to reach the couloir because I thought it would be a fast couple of rappels but I discounted the length of that section, which required four more rappels. Finally, at 5.00am we arrived at our camp 22 hours after setting off exhausted but safe. It’s at this point that Gustavo admitted he had work in 4 hours, he would actually arrive for work the following day, albeit 10 hours late!

I was asleep before I knew it, which was just as well because I know the events of the day would play over in my mind. Climbing is exhilarating but it’s also incredibly dangerous. I was constantly aware that if you drop any piece of equipment your life could be in serious danger. Even something as simple as the battery running out in your headlight could be life threatening. I remember thinking I probably voided my travel insurance! I tell myself now that I probably won’t do too much climbing, Sebastian has set his sights on the Supercanaleta route of Fitz Roy and thinks I’m capable of making the ascent, whilst I might have the strength I’m not sure I’m prepared for that level of risk.

Despite my reservations, I’m glad to have made that climb, in future when I look at my Fitz Roy images I will look at the lower Guillaumet and have all the memories. All too often I think people flit around the world photographing here there and everywhere without really taking in the travel experience. Landscape photography shouldn’t be about who has the biggest portfolio. I feel if you want to really appreciate your images you have to absorb yourself properly in your surroundings.

Video Link to You Tube for the climb

Guillaumet from Piedras Negra

Guillaumet from Piedras Negra

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Looking west

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Towards more challenges

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GPS track  from Google Earth

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Packing light – don’t think so!

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Couloir approach Guillaumet

30th anniversary celebrations in the town

30th-anniversary celebrations in the town

Teasing horses is a big pastime in Argentina

Teasing horses is a big pastime in Argentina

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