Climbing in the Chaltén Massif
When to Come.
Good weather is as likely to happen in summer as it is during the wintertime. Most climbers come between early November and late February, mainly because days are longer and temperatures higher.
Conditions vary greatly from season to season, but more often than not you will find more snow and ice in November and better rock climbing conditions in the second half of January and during the month of February. Keep in mind that later in the season glacial approaches will be more difficult, with many crevasses.
During the month of January and the early part of February the area is flooded with tourists, so for those looking for solitary adventures October or March might be the right time to come.
The jagged peaks of this massif are some of the most striking and inspiring in the world but it is a very small area, hence a very limited resource, one we should tread on lightly. Keep in mind that most of the towers are within a National Park. If we hope to keep having unrestricted free access to this peaks we, as climbers must be leaders in environmental responsibility.
These are some suggestions to ensure the area’s preservation:
Pack it in, pack it out. Make sure you bring down all your garbage.
Be mindful in the disposal of human waste, specially on places that receive a lot of visitation such as Paso Superior and Niponinos. Stay away from water sources and try to distance yourself as much as possible from the camping areas. In the case of Paso Superior the Park has intalled a shovel to shove your human waste over a cliff. Might not be the best solution, but it is a first step towards a solution. Use it.
Avoid shortcutting in the trails. Due to the heavy rainfall and wind the trails in this area suffer a lot of erosion, loosing up to 10 centimeters of soil per year in some cases. The structures you will find in the trails, steps, waterbars, etc are intended to minimize that erosion. Please stay on the trail!
Avoid leaving fixed ropes behind. Nobody likes climbing under them, and due to the wind they become unusable very fast, becoming immediate “wall garbage”. If we hope to preserve the charm of these walls we need to collectively make an attempt to minimize “wall garbage”. Do your part by not leaving fixed ropes or deposits behind.
In his book “Land of Tempest” Eric Shipton wrote, “The chief problem is presented by the weather, which is said to be the worst in the world. Heavy rain falls for prolonged periods; fine spells are rare and usually brief, and above all there is the notorious Patagonian wind, the savage storms which often continue for weeks at a stretch, with gusts up to 130 mph.”
Shipton was unlucky or lucky enough to visit the area before the advent of weather forecasts. Today, thanks to a number of resources available through internet –see elsewhere in this website-, it has become fairly easy to forecast good weather windows. There is no “ready made” forecast for climbing, so you will have to learn to read the information available and come up with your own conclusions.
With fairly accurate weather forecasts it has become possible to climb during even the shortest of weather windows, and to know when it is time to “go big”. That said, weather forecasting does little for you when the weather is constantly bad for one or even two months straight, something that is a fairly common occurrence in this area. Luckily the hiking, bouldering and sport climbing around town are very good, so you will have plenty to keep busy with.
The maritime conditions in the Southern tip of the American continent are key to the weather patterns experienced in this area. The atmosphere has always plenty of moisture. Lack of landmass to the west means less friction, which is why the area enjoys such strong winds. Because of the dominant maritime conditions the temperatures tend to be quite high.
One of the main causes for the constant low pressure is the graveyard of low pressure systems around Antarctica. Unfortunately there is little information available about these systems, about why, how and when they move north. During extended periods of good weather (one week or longer) the low pressure systems that Antartica usually sends north stay south or suddenly stop. There are a number of reasons why this might happen, likely the result of "blocking anticyclones", but as of 2010 there is no available data in internet regarding ocean temperature or other factors than might allow to predict this extended good weather periods a couple of weeks ahead of time.
The primary consideration for most climbers in regards to any climbing area is the type and quality of the rock. Even thought a few climbers will come to Chalten to climb ice or snow routes they are a minority. Without a doubt the Chalten massif’s most precious gift is the rock. Its quality is unmatched by almost any other big mountainous area in the world. The golden granite that can be found in Fitz Roy’s North pillar, or on Pier Giorgio or on Poincenot, to name just a few, is simply fantastic.
On a climb, it is rare when you come across a large section of poor quality rock, or many loose blocks. Sure there are places where you will find some, but if that is not what you wish for, there is a lifetime of routes to climb that are almost completely clean.
As a general rule the golden rock is of much better quality that it’s gray counterpart. Often times the east and north faces tend to have more of this rock than the south or west faces, for the simple reason that due to their exposure the latter have been more heavily eroded. It is also common to find poor rock in the first few pitches of any rock route that starts from a glacier. At times the rock can be sandy, but more often than not small flakes and smears are solid. Complaints about rock quality are almost unheard off.
Having said all of the above, access couloirs to many routes present severe rockfall danger. These include the couloir leading to La Brecha, to the “Bloque Empotrado” on the North pillar, the Supercanaleta, the couloir leading to Desmochada and many more. Be particularly careful if there are other parties on as well.
The edges of the granite area can be easily spotted: to the south in the vicinity of Aguja de la S, to the east at foot of Fitz Roy, to the west near Cerro Rincón, and to the north between Aguja Volonqui and Cordón Marconi and between Gran Gendarme del Pollone and Loma Blanca. This whole granite formation covers an area of approximately 45 km2. There are other granite areas in Patagonia, but none are as beautiful and special as this one.
Equipment is a commodity and not a goal. The richness of a human experience is undeniably in direct relation to the effort set forth. Standing in the summit of Cerro Torre is a rich experience, but is not as meaningful as when stepping off a helicopter. “Progress in technique, training and equipment had made the climber too efficient; as in many other field, technique was in the process of killing adventure. For those who though to define their own nature in the combat of man against the mountain there would soon be no solution but the desperate ways of the solo climber and the winter mountaineer”. (Lionel Terray, Conquistadors of the Useless).
One would like to believe that anyone venturing in these mountains would have a clear understanding of the gear needed for these sort of outings. There are an infinite number of textbooks on the subject and personal climbing style will partly dictate the equipment needs. Light is right, and lightness translates directly into speed and in Patagonia, more than almost anywhere else, due to the instability of the weather, speed is extremely important to be successful.
Conditions vary considerably and even though some routes normally don’t require ice gear, early in the season or after a big storm you might need it. Use your best judgment, and remember that a pair of aluminum crampons and a small axe don’t weight much and could get you out of trouble.
During the summer it tends to be fairly warm but it is still a bit too cold to spend the night out in the mountains without sleeping bag if one is not Slovene or Polish, and hopes to climb well the next day.
Most climbers that visit an area such as this one tend to be fairly competent, aware and capable of coping with the dangers and hazards of their pursuit. However, in the past few years the number of accidents has increased which is a reason for great concern.
There have been close to thirty climbing related fatalities since the death of Toni Egger in 1959. About half if not more of these accidents were avoidable. Half happened during descents and 20% were glacier travel related therefore, just by roping up on glaciers and checking properly all fixed anchors (carry a hammer and a few pitons to replace belay stations) your chances of surviving will be greatly increased.
Any area with peaks as big as Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre deserves respect, but due to its unusual climatic conditions this one, more than others, requires a good understanding of the environment. Many of the moderate peaks provide wonderful summit views, can be extremely satisfying and a good way to gain experience.
Dont forget that your safety if your own responsibility. Be aware that “wall” (technical) rescues are not possible in this area and that the only rescue team is a voluntary group of locals. Behave in a self-sufficient manner. So you know, the closest helicopter is seven flying hours away and the round trip costs upwards of 20.000 dollars.
Keep in mind that during long good weather periods temperatures can raise dangerously high, making many of the slopes and gullies leading to and from climbs a bad proposition. The gully leading to La Brecha is a prime example of that, as are the slopes descending from the Shoulder on the SE ridge of Cerro Torre, and the Supercanaleta to name a few. Be smart when planning your trip. If the forecast shows high temperatures choose rock climbing routes with little objective danger and straight forward access.
The same should be said for avalanches. After long bad weather periods mistrust any steep slope. Two good examples, amongst many, are the concave area entering the Whilans route ramp on Poincenot and the couloir leading to the Standhardt col. The all too common strong winds produce slabs in the most unexpected places. Be careful, beware.
Just because there is good weather does not mean you have to go to risk your life, even if good weather is rare.
Out of necessity due to an alarming increase in the number of accidents, a group of local mountaineers organized through the Centro Andino El Chaltén a volunteer rescue team know as the “Comision the Auxilio Fabio Stedile”. The group is named after Italian Fabio Stedile, a member of the Scorsso Alpino Trentino -a rescue team in Trento-, who died in 1994 while descending from Cerro Torre. After his death the S.A.T. donated a large quantity of rescue equipment.
In the last 15 years the members of the “Comision de Auxilio Fabio Stedile”, with the help of National Park and Gendarmeria (Border Patrol) officials and other local inhabitants have performed successfully numerous rescues from far corners of the massif. Their good will and dedication is praise worthy.
However, due to the often ferocious weather conditions and the complexity of the terrain, no rescues involving any degree of technical difficulty should be considered plausible. In case of an accident on a wall you must rely on the help of fellow climbers that might be nearby or on self-rescue.
Most of the massif is inside Los Glaciares National Park. For any climbs from the Torre valley, any climbs from Paso Superior or to climb Aguja Guillaumet and Aguja Mermoz from the north or west, make sure you swing by the National Park’s office to register. You will need your passport number. The climbing permit is free but it is mandatory.
If you plan to climb in the Marconi/Piergiorgio valley or on the Pollone massif you do not have to register because these areas are outside of the National Park. Same goes for anything on Fitz Roy's north and northwest face, including the Supercanaleta, which are outside the park as well. However if you plan to climb the Supercanaleta and descend via the Franco-Argentine you have to register with the National Park.
If you plan to climb anything from the west side, from the Icecap, accessing via Paso Marconi, you will have to fill in a permit with Gendarmeria Nacional (the border patrol). When you cross Paso Marconi you enter into Chile, hence this requirement. This permit is free but takes 72 hours to process.