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South America » Argentina » Santa Cruz » El Chaltén
March 26th 2013
Published: November 18th 2013
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I got up at seven to meet Brett, Erin, and Cristian at their hostel for some climbing. After waiting for them, and getting some mediadores (delicious pastries) for breakfast, it was almost nine, so I waited for the climbing shop to open to rent some shoes. After opening fifteen minutes late, I was lucky that this place had my size, and for only $5 for the day. What a bargain!

Wait, what am I doing here??? I've never gone rock climbing. I've gone wall climbing before a handful of times without ever really knowing what I was doing. And the last time I went, I felt like I was going to rip my shoulders from their sockets thanks to some old shoulder injuries that never really healed properly.... which was my own fault, but that's an unrelated story.

But hey, why not give it a try, right? I joined the gang on the wall outside of town. Erin and Brett lead climbed, while Cristian and I were the rookies. Erin had to leave at eleven to go home. Her next shift at work starts four hours after her plane lands in Denver (like I said before, total badass).

We climbed a few progressively harder routes, and it actually went well, and was really fun. I got a chance to belay as well, so that was cool. Brett had met a German and American (Volker and Ivana) who were also into climbing, and they joined us as well right around when Erin had to leave for her flight.

We took a break for lunch and went to the ice cream place for paninis. We didn't have time for ice cream.... Later.

When we went back to meet up with Volker and Ivana, the weather started to suck. It got pretty windy and started to spit rain, but we found a spot out of the wind that was actually pretty sheltered from the rain too, so we decided to keep going. Brett (an experienced rock climber) had told us one of the most important rules of rock climbing was to never climb in the rain. But it wasn't really "raining" per se. Plus we'd rented the gear for the whole day, so....

Brett lead climbed a pretty challenging route, and once it was set up, Cristian gave it a try. There was a pretty challenging part that he couldn't get past, so he took a break and let me give it a try. I made it only a little further before getting stuck at a part where I found the rock just too slippery.

After super climbers Ivana and Volker showed us the way, Cristian stormed to the top triumphantly, and after explaining to me how good it felt to conquer the route, I gave it one last try. The rain had stopped, and the damp rock had dried out again, so I was able to make it past the part that had stumped me before, and made it to the top. Cristian was right. It's a pretty great sense of accomplishment, and that route was pretty challenging for us.

I now understand fully why people rock climb. It's problem solving, and the rock is a big puzzle. It feels pretty good when you solve it.

Brett set up one last route, and I stormed up it. It wasn't as tough as the one before, but it was much more vertical, and it was really fun. The others took turns, and Volker was the last to go. On his way down, we got a big surprise. Somehow a pretty significant boulder came loose and sent us all running... except Brett, who was belaying and had nowhere to go. He managed to dodge most of it, but still took a bit of a hit on the hip from a smaller chunk. The light rain earlier probably helped loosen the rock. So that was fairly scary, and could have been much worse.

And the weather was getting worse. It was much windier now, and getting ready to rain properly. The clips were still up, so someone had to climb up to get them. Brett, volunteered, but took a much different route to the top to avoid the loose rock. He made it ok, and we headed back to return the gear. The lesson here is: don't climb in the rain....

As soon as we rounded the corner from our sheltered area, well, we found out how sheltered it really was. The wind nearly knocked us down, and the rain was coming sideways. It was so windy that the rain hurt. When I returned the shoes, the guy couldn't believe we were climbing that afternoon.

To celebrate our awesome day as well as the thrill of still being alive, we went and got got the ice cream we had to skip at lunch, and it was pretty stellar.

Back at Brett and Cristian's hostel, I found out I was confirmed for ice climbing the next day...

Yeah. That morning Cristian had convinced me to sign up to go on an ice climbing tour with him on the Viedma glacier. Originally I was thinking that I would go ice trekking, but Cristian's rationale was why hold anything back, and to just go for it. It also meant more time on the glacier, so it's better value, right? And I'm easily moved by peer pressure.

So knowing that we were officially registered for tomorrow, Cristian and I went to get some supplies and food for the next day before I went back to the hostel to make dinner. It really started raining hard, and continued to be really windy.

We were meeting up again at (you guessed it) La Vinaria, but it was closed on Monday's. So our streak ended. But we went to a cool brewpub instead. It was busy (probably because most things were closed on Monday's) but an Argentinian woman let us share her table. She had traveled a lot, and we had some good conversation.

Everyone got tired by midnight, so we called it a night. John was heading to Bariloche the next day, so we said goodbye. And since Gonzales, Laura, and Kiera were all gone, I had a hostel room to myself. I was able to get a pretty good sleep before getting up early to go ice climbing!

I met Cristian at the tour office, and we took the bus to the boat, and the boat took us across Lago Viedma to the glacier. Glaciar Viedma is a large glacier that calves into the lake, just like Perito Moreno. But the ice bergs in this lake were much bigger, and there were a lot more of them. It was super cool as our small-ish boat navigated around them.

The boat docked right into the rock next to the glacier and we hopped out. The group was split into ice trekkers and ice climbers, and we were given harnesses, crampons, and helmets.

After showing us how to walk in crampons properly, we trekked across the jagged glacier, around crevasses, and over ridges to our first ice climbing location. These guides are crazy good. Not only were they running past us in their crampons, but the climbed out the ice wall without ropes so that they could set up for us. And it didn't even look hard.

Until we tried it. I'm glad I had a rope. I did fine for the first bit, using my ice axes and my crampons, but it got trickier at the top where the ice sees the sun and it gets softer.

And my shoe started to come off. And then it came all the way off... I was holding it in my hand and the guide said to just drop it, and they lowered me down. Boots would have been better than shoes for this activity. The guide told me he's seen it happen before to other people, so I wasn't the first. I asked him if it had ever happened to him. He said no...

In total, they'd set up three routes for us at this spot, and I tried the most difficult one next. It was a battle, but I made it to the top. Not to brag or anything.... wait, actually, yes, to brag, only one other person out of the group was also able to climb this route. He was also the only other person besides myself to be wearing jeans.

I should qualify why I was wearing jeans. When I first planned this trip, I didn't really plan on going to Patagonia at all, and I didn't pack any proper hiking clothes. All the hikes I did, I did in jeans. When it was too warm, I just rolled them up and kept going. And it was ten to fifteen degrees every day, so it wasn't too hot, except when I was ascending. And again, since I'd just escaped winter when I left Edmonton, the cooler temperatures at the summit weren't going to bother me. And nothing made me feel more awesome than hiking up a mountain in jeans and a t-shirt and going passed people bundled up in full winter gear. I'd always greet them with a friendly “Hola”. They probably thought I was insane. And to be fair, they might be right.

After our first climbing session was finished, we ate our lunches on the glacier before trekking over to our next location. The guides explained to us that this glacier is moving one meter a day in the middle and thirty centimeters a day on the edges due to friction with the rock on the edges of the valley. That's what causes the ice to buckle and form the spectacular jagged landscape we are trekking on. It also changes constantly, and we walked between two crevasses that they said will join together in a couple of days, and that route will be closed. The landscape is always changing, so what we are doing, in a sense, is really a once in a lifetime experience.

At the second ice climbing location, people started taking turns ascending the first two routes, and I waited my turn. Then they set up a third route that involved repelling into a crevasse and then climbing out. After being assured that I would be able to climb out, or they would be able to pull me out, I volunteered to be the first to go.

And let me tell you this: getting your body to lean back over the edge of a crevasse is not something your mind just lets you do. It was pretty thrilling leaning backwards over the edge of the crevasse and just trusting that the slack rope was suddenly going to have enough tension in it once I leaned back to keep me from falling sixty feet to the bottom. I was only a little nervous... I did it though, it was totally awesome.

They told me to let them know before I got to the blue ice at the bottom. Blue ice is much harder, and nearly impossible to get the axes and crampons into. So pretty much it would be impossible to climb out if I went down too far. But it's not like there's a line where it goes from normal ice to blue ice. It's a transition, and one that when you're faced with a decision that will mean the difference between climbing out and not climbing out, it plays some games with your mind. Not to mention the fact that the guides just set up this route by dropping the rope into the crevasse, and they hadn't even climbed it themselves. It was an untested route.

"You're sure you'll be able to pull me out right?" It's a little late to be asking that. "Um, maybe a little further down? Uh, ok, that's good there, I guess?" And I started to climb out. And the harder (but not too hard ice) where I started was perfect. I could dig in, and my crampons and axes weren't gripped firmly by the ice. I made quick work of the lower part, and only had to struggle at the very top where the sun just touched the top and I had to pull myself past the soft ice and over the ridge.

The only other Canadian on the trek (and actually the first other Canadian on that I've met on my trip) was the second to go. And then others started to try. But I was still quietly smug that I was the first. Once we were finished, we trekked out, and stopped at some ice caves to do some exploring. This is something else my mother probably warned me about that I did anyway... but I'm sure ice climbing was on that list too.

Then the tour guides brought out the Bailey's and and chipped off some glacier ice. Cristian packed some whisky (genius), so he shared that with everyone including the guides. He made a lot of friends that day.

On the boat ride back, there were a bunch of old people on a tour that didn't make any room for the ice climbers and trekkers boarding the boat to sit down. Given how tired we all were, this was annoying. But their bags and purses did look comfortable occupying all those otherwise empty seats, so I went out to the back deck and found a place to sit outside, and just stretch out and relax. I enjoyed myself better back there anyways, so there old people!

I was very sleepy on the bus ride back to town, but pulled together the energy to head back to the hostel for a nap and a shower before dinner. Heroic, I know.

I chatted with a couple of Polish guys after dinned. I don't think I've met any Polish people while travelling before, and now I've met two at once, and they didn't even know each other. They were super nice guys who both work in IT. I've met a lot of people who work in IT, and one of the attractions of that profession for me would be being able to work from anywhere, as many of these travelers choose to do. But on the downside, I don't know anything and don't have any interest in IT.... or knowledge... or I'd better just retire super young instead and then I can do awesome stuff all the time and forever. It's a sound plan.

I tried to get ice cream again, but it was closed for the night. So I went to La Vinaria (naturally) to drown my disappointment, and wait for Brett and Cristian to meet me for a drink.

Brett had decided to go ice climbing with Volker and Ivana in preparation for some mountaineering (I should mention that Volker is a relatively experienced mountaineer... Brett's never done it before). The group of them are planning to summit Cerro Solo, so the ice climbing they'll do will serve as practice for their expedition. But they're just going to hike out to a glacier, instead of going on with a tour group.

When registering at the ranger station for their mountaineering expedition, they were told that so far this year they've done thirty rescues on Cerro Solo. But so far there haven't been any deaths for the first time in twenty years. Brett leaned over and knocked on some wood. Then we explained to him what the “Law of Averages” is all about...

And speaking of averages, thirty rescues for a season that's only really open starting in January and ends in April works out to about one rescue every four days. And how many expeditions can there be up there in a year, really?

Still, it sounded pretty awesome, and after my ice climbing and rock climbing successes, I was very tempted to ask "Can I come too?" But I knew I really would have no idea what I was doing when it came to mountaineering, and I'd probably just be getting myself in trouble. Then again, that's what I thought about rock climbing at first. And ice climbing...

The bottom line here is that I should probably leave El Chalten now before I die doing something awesome.

Additional photos below
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So pointySo pointy
So pointy

Watch your step...

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