On November 11, 2015, Becca, Justin, 6 “young adults” and I got on a place in Denver and then, a day later, de-planed in Coyhaique, Chile. This was the final section of the inaugural semester of HMI Gap, the new climbing and conservation course Becca and I have worked for years to develop. When we got on the plane, we’d already spent 8 weeks with this group, backpacking in the Colorado Rockies then climbing around Moab. Becca was Mom; I was Dad. What was supposed to be a “strong, intentional course” community was more like the typical Thanksgiving dinner with relatives. But then we got to Patagonia, mythic, raw, expansive enough to let each family member go crazy in their own way. Which coincidentally, allowed us to function more like an expedition rather than continue wallowing in our dysfunction.
We then, by bus, then ferry, then bus again, traveled south, through the quaint and still off-the-map Chile Chico to Valle Chacabuco in the heart of what’s left of the Patagonia frontier. We trekked for ten days through the Valle Avilés in the future Patagonia National Park, the latest effort by Conservación Patagonica. It rained, then it snowed, then it rained and snowed more. The students loved it; they loved this authentic Patagonia experience (i.e. getting pummeled by the weather) the way tourists love getting drenched in the mist of Lower Yosemite Falls.
The final leg of our trek was the “big day.” More than 10 miles of hiking, over superbly rough land, with thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, ended with crossing a river, surging with milk chocolate water and boulders like beach balls. We followed the gaucho for much of the day. He hadn’t seen anyone else up there for twenty years, and the last person he’d seen had a broken leg.
The “big day” brought us to a basecamp below Cerro Colorado where we spent five days climbing among the geometric columns of basalt. The wall was only “discovered” in 2009 and is still only partially developed. Between the thin seams with little protection, the limited development and lack of bolts, and the wind, the howling, hard-to-stand-up-in wind, Cerro Colorado is not quite “student friendly.” But we made the most of it; this is Patagonia, remember? Owen, one of the students, was very psyched, and so we climbed the friendliest looking crack system we could find, two pitches of sustained – and kind of burly – 5.11. He handled the pummeling as gracefully as one could in these kind of circumstances. And he stayed psyched.
The course ended, and the kids – err, students – went their separate ways. The three of us – Justin, Becca, and I – went to El Chaltén for some big-kid fun. We arrive in mid-December. Considering that none of us do anything resembling ice or snow climbing, we knew that climbing anything big that early in the season was highly unlikely, which we hoped would make it easier to sit around town for three weeks, since the weather probably wouldn’t be good enough to climb anyway. But it’s really hard to look at those mountains and be okay with not climbing them.
But the weather was pretty bad. Even pleasant, sunny skies in town belied the savage storms tearing through the mountains. So we went sport climbing. It’s only slightly known that there is actually decent sport climbing and world-class bouldering surrounding El Chaltén. I think folks are reluctant to talk about it. It just feels a little pathetic to be psyched about little rocks when Fitzroy is towering over you. One day while we were clipping bolts at a totally adequate sport crag behind someone’s house in town, some other gringos sauntered up to check out the cliff. They didn’t have climbing gear, clearly there out of sheer boredom. They asked about the climbing, and we gave an honest appraisal. One of them said,”Well, I didn’t come to Chaltén to sport climb.” Well, I don’t think he did much climbing at all then.
One thing became very clear to us: We are wusses. We first met the team of Bulgarians on their way up to attempt Cerro Torre. Maybe it was their air of confidence or the slick logo patches on their clothing, or maybe it was the way the cigarettes hung from their lips as they hiked, but we were sure they were bad ass. They bailed on the Torre that time, but to their credit, they did say they climbed most of the day through neck-deep snow before retreating. We saw them again bouldering. For the record, it took them falling from the lip of this boulder several times onto the gravel before they considering letting us place this pathetic cushion below the top out.
Just before we left, we did get a two-day weather window. We spied what looked to be a long splitter up the north face of El Mocho, a line so beautiful and obvious we couldn’t understand why no one had climbed it. On the second pitch, we figured it out. What looked in the photos to be a perfect splitter was actually just a mossy groove with no crack and no way to place protection. We ran away, tails between our legs. The next day, we tried a different line, a series of steep seams leading to a geometric dihedral with an obvious handcrack. On the second pitch, less than fifty feet from the bottom of the dihedral, the seams shut down, choked in mud. Even if there were a crack in there, it would’ve taken hours of gardening to get to it. And thus, much like our students reveled in the authenticity of raging Patagonia weather, we accepted the authenticity of our epic failure.
So we went bouldering and sport climbing some more. And it was really fun. Yes, I went to Patagonia to sport climb (and boulder, and do a few amazing trail runs). And it was awesome.