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Postcards from Patagonia

Päivitetty: 8. maalisk.

Dramatic. If you must pick only one word to describe Patagonia, this is the one. The golden granite walls of the Chaltén Massif, located in the south of Argentina, soar out of the earth like fireworks on an Independence Day evening. The surround steppe, a flat, broad grassland that is wiped nearly bare by the relentlessly strong winds (commonly referred to as the “Broom of God"), sits nearly 3000 meters below, stretching to the horizon in every other direction. The colors of the landscape, while not numerous, are aggressive – the vibrancy of the blue glacial melt lake water almost hurts the eyes to look at directly. It is as mesmerizing a landscape as it is intense.  

This wild and unique natural environment led my climbing partner, Aniek Lith, a La Sportiva sponsored athlete, and myself, to leave our homes in the Nordics and travel from midwinter to midsummer, with the plan to spend five weeks immersed in these enchanting surroundings.  

The Ground Under Our Feet 

Being based in El Chaltén, a small village nestled at the foot of the mountains and in the heart of Los Glaciares National Park, the options for outdoor recreation were limitless. As one friend said about his time there, “it’s like summer camp for adults”. Just minutes from the porch of Fresco, El Chaltén’s most iconic watering hole, numerous well maintained hiking paths stretch out, leading to incredible vistas. With crystal-clear streams that you can drink straight out of, these paths are a perfect playground for early morning trail runs, or long day hikes in the forest that always seem to end with tummies full of fresh-picked berries.  

The village of El Chaltén. Photo by Aniek Lith (@anieklith) 

One of the season's favorite runs was our first, the nameless 8-kilometer loop that traverses Cerro Paradon. After lacing up our Jackal IIs and donning our Racer Vests, we gingerly hopped our way over the single lane bridge that spans the grey waters of the Rio de Los Vueltos. Once across, we followed the winding dirt road. Sandwiched on the thin strip of land between mountain and river, we soaked in the sun and marveled at the remaining bright green colors of late spring that still showed on the mountainside. Soon, a small trail led off and right, zig zagging up an ever-steepening slope. With each meter of elevation gained, the views improved and with that, the legs kept turning. Before we knew it, we were at our first summit of the season, our eyes drinking in the awe-inspiring view of Cerro Chaltén just as fast as they could manage.  

Admiring the view. Photo by Alan Goldbetter (@mamuallu) 
A Visit to the Steppe 

As a narrowing thread of land that reaches down nearly to Antarctica, Patagonia is woefully exposed to the often brutally intense west winds that race, nearly unbroken, across three oceans. When the winds hit the mountains of the Chaltén Massif, climbing there becomes impossible. It is times like these when we escape to the lowlands and journey into the steppe, seeking warmer temperatures and shorter rock climbs on leeward-facing cliffs.   

It was on one such cliff that we spent three days enjoying some particularly fine crack climbing. Line after line of splitters, formed by the natural contractions of a cooling volcanic plug, stretched put before us. 

While all beautiful, one line stood out from the rest. A thin lightning bolt on an otherwise blank, mud-red face. Armed with a rack of Z4 Camalots, I nervously finger jammed my way through an unusually tough start. The Vibram XS Edge rubber soles of my La Sportiva Miura Laces bonded my feet to the tiny face holds and provided a much needed shaking out before launching into what appeared to be the crux. Out and left I worked, desperately hoping to find some secure finger locks, feeling the pump clock running. One move, two move, three move, the panic began to set in and my vision narrowed. Over gripping, I tried to breathe, to calm down, but it was too little too late.

Poof. I was flying. The shallow placed micro cam flexed easily over the edge and, along with my attentive belayer, stopped my fall. All that was left to do was lower down, rest, and try again.  

A quick shake before the crux. Photo by Aniek Lith (@anieklith) 
The Greatest Show on Earth 

With a rich and varied climbing history, the peaks around El Chaltén are of mythical status. In a class of their own, these jagged peaks have captured the imagination of climbers across the globe and have become a place of pilgrimage for many alpine climbing enthusiasts. 

The route we chose to climb, while superb, is also one of the smallest in the entire range. It has its own summit though, even if it is just the first bump in a ridge that leads onward to summits of much grander proportions. The guidebook description said to bring big cams, so racked with two #4 Ultralite Camalots and a recently redesigned #5 Camalot, I quested up the first of the wide cracks. Riding the crack’s granite edge like a horse, I only just managed to reach the anchor without having to call “take”. I hoped and prayed that the coming pitches would be easier.

Thankfully, they were. We were soon greeted with pitch after pitch of flawless crack climbing. With my jamming skills honed, I lost myself in the rhythm of the climb until suddenly, I ran out of rock - the summit!  

Summit celebration. Photo by Aniek Lith (@anieklith) 

As any good climber will tell you, the top is only halfway, and it was a long way back to town – not a moment to lose. Ten rappels got us back to the base, where we quickly changed into our TX Guide approach shoes. The added stiffness and support proved welcome on the dreadfully long scramble back down to our high camp, where we gathered our remaining goods and made a desperate push to get over the glacier before nightfall. As the hours rolled by, the packs felt heavier, and our legs grew more sluggish.

Darkness caught us caught as we navigated the glacier’s lower half, and out came our Storm 450 headlamps. With one press of the button, the dusky world began to dazzle and sparkle around us. Even in my tiredness, I was impressed by its otherworldly appearance. With the warmth of the day now gone, the surface beneath our feet began to refreeze. My trusty Trail Trekking Poles, two noble companions that have braved every approach with me during the last eight years, once again helped to keep my head up and my feet down, as we navigated multiple river crossings and finally exited the glacier. 

A long way till home. Photo by Aniek Lith (@anieklith) 

With hours of hiking still left to go, we decided to admit defeat - we were just too tired to go on. Pulling out our sleeping bags and using our backpacks as sleeping pads, we curled up right there on the rocks and began to settle in for a fitful sleep. It was New Years Eve, or rather more accurately, now some hours into New Years Day. Tired yet warm, successful yet beaten, and in the middle of a great adventure, I will fondly remember welcoming in 2024.

Written by Alan "Allu" Goldbetter, who is part of the OAC team

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