Dispatch #5: March 3, 2006 Cajon de Los Arenales/ Cordon Portillo, Argentina
Jess and I just returned to Mendoza after spending a week in Los Arenales. We went in search of what was said to be “the biggest and best granite playground in all of Argentina” we were not disappointed.
The journey began as it usually does, by bus. We took the 7am bus to downtown Tunuyan some 130km from Mendoza, where we caught a smaller bus, one of 4 buses that goes for the whole week (2 on Sat and 2 on Sun) to the “town” of El Manzano Historico, or the Historic Apple tree. I say the word “town” very loosely. Manzano was no more than two buildings, three campgrounds, a historic museum, and a giant statue of Jesus on a cross, and more horses and donkeys than we had ever seen. Manzano was still some 18 km from Los Arenales, where we wanted to climb, and getting there on foot with 100lb packs seemed unreasonable. We were told to inquire in Manzano about a man named Yagua, who would take us to the mountains in his truck for a small fee. That seemed all well and good had Yagua been in town, but he was gone until mid week. We had to find another solution. While taking a little break in the shade and having one of two things from the menu, pizza or a meat sandwich, (we choose pizza of course) a nice couple from Buenos Aires stumbled upon us. They were extremely nice, and lucky for us, Jess reminded them of their daughter, and they offered us a ride as high as 2,500 meters.
In Cajon de Los Arenales there are two refugios. One refuge is actually a military outpost, controlling the regions boarder with Chile only 60 miles to the west. The other refuge sits at 3,000 meters and was built by the Alpine Club of Tupungato, not nearly as nice, but functional. Either way we were going to be sleeping in our tent, but the refugios were nice focal points for our travel, having the only flat ground for miles.
The couple was gracious enough to take us to the military outpost known as Refugio Portinari. We registered our passport numbers and with strange looks from the soldiers we were on our way. Conveniently and lucky for us again, we met a young climber on his way up to the bridge over the Arenales river only 20 minutes hike for the other refuge. Within moments we were transported via the young mans car to the base of a spectacular collection of spires, columns, cliffs, and towers. The weather was warm, and our luck was holding, as we walked to the refuge.
We established our camp not far from the refuge in an area known as Los Grandes Bloques, land of big blocks, literally. Tucked in between huge boulders, we set up our tent and set off to explore this new landscape.
I had been feeling sick in Mendoza, and while I had begun to feel better before we left, the cold had made its way into my chest and was causing a new set of problems. That evening we rested and prepared all our climbing gear for the next day.
The next morning we arose to blue skies and a slight breeze at camp. We trekked an hour up a loose talus field to gain the base of our first huge tower. We had a very hard time getting on route. Unlike some of the longer crack systems we have climbed in the U.S., Yosemite, Whitney, Seneca, Smith, etc. this line was not clear and appeared to wonder all over the place. This, in conjunction with my deteriorating health, and an ever-growing wind that would gust and knock us off balance, forced us to retreat. The rest of the day was spent hiking around the spires, eating a snack by a towering Jesus and trying to find clear and definitive lines to climb in the days to come.
That night the weather began to close in on us as it had done only a few weeks prior in Chile. This system moved fast and within a short time visibility had dropped to 20’. We went to bed with our fingers crossed that the climate would improve. When we awoke we were saddened to see nothing but white outside of the tent. We were still completely socked in and the temperature had dropped considerably. We were held up, AGAIN, and spent the rest of the morning and afternoon reading books. Around 5 p.m. the weather cleared. As usual I was feeling antsy, and found a 5.13a sport problem to through myself on. For those of you who don’t know how hard 5.13 climbing is for me, I can only say, I would be more likely to pick up a car, than climb 5.13, especially while sick. Patiently Jess caught my falls as I repeatedly hurled myself at this rock, and repeatedly I came flying off. The route was steep and felt impossible. Almost 2 hours later I had made little progress and my pride was a withered prune.
Wednesday we opened the tent, as if it was Christmas morning, the sky was crystal clear. Before the sun had crested the peaks around us we ate a quick bit of oatmeal and had dawned our rucksacks and were scrambling up the hillside towards a spire known as Aguja Campanille Alto, one of the many prized summits in this region. The approach was terrible. The sand and small rocks that we ascended on were loose and unconsolidated. It was like roller-skating up hill for 2 hours. We finally reached the base. This route that we wanted to repeat was called Sangre de Eden, or the Blood of Eden. It was rated 5.10- in difficulty and was only 200 meters (600’) of vertical rock.
The route started off beautifully. Although there were many loose blocks on the first pitch the rock quality was mostly solid and refreshing. Jess followed and made quick work of the first 100’. From the 1sst belay ledge Jess and I took a deep breath and enjoyed the view. Linticular clouds (a tell tale sign of a changing weather pattern) were forming on one of the bigger mountains to the west. We continued up. The second pitch began with an eye-opening move. I traversed right on a micro thin edge to a flaring finger crack. Jess belayed me off the anchor; I only had one small piece of gear placed in the crack….when I fell. The fall came as a shock to us both and instinctively I grabbed onto the webbing attached to the CAM, trying not to loose any more ground. The synthetic material of the webbing ripped open my fingers, and beyond scarring the shit out of Jess and causing me a great deal of discomfort, I did not loose too much ground. A fall like that was all it took to light a fire under me, and I climbed the rest of the difficult pitch with a new found since of authority. Jess followed and beyond struggling with the entrance moves, where I had fallen, she climbed with proficiency.
The next two pitches went quickly and only a few hours after leaving the ground we stood on the “cumbre” or summit. We were greeted at the top by two ominous and fateful signs. The first was a 2’ tall aluminum cross, a lightning rod for Aguja Campanille Alto if you will. The second and more disturbing sign of discontentment via the higher power was the snow that began to fall. The clouds had once again encroached on the valleys and began to hide surrounding summits and towers. We knew as long as we got down soon that a little bit of snow would be no problem, that is if we got down soon. We stayed on the summit only long enough to catch our breaths, take a few summit photos, and prepare our rappel.
We brought a secondary rope of a smaller diameter that is much lighter than our climbing rope, in order to lengthen the amount we could rappel in one go. I joined the two ropes together and we descended. We knocked out a big chunk of the route in one long rappel and we felt good about the speed of our descent. This is, however, where our luck really began to run out. In order to descend further we had to pull on the skinnier rope, allowing our climbing rope, bound together via a knot, to follow the path of the rope being pulled, and would ultimately return to us so we could continue the descent. We pulled on the skinny rope, but nothing happened. We pulled harder hoping it was only temporarily stuck, but nothing. We said a silent prayer and pulled harder, still nothing. Shit, shit, shit. This was all I could come up with. The snow was falling harder, we were still more than 140 meters from the base, and the rope by which we could retreat was stuck 60 meters (200’) above us. There is only one choice we thought. I must rope solo. To rope solo means; to free climb with an ascending device, or prussik connected to the rope allowing you to move up, but locking when put into a downward motion, theoretically protecting you from a fall. I needed to climb the 200’ of rock, gain the summit again, quickly free the rope, and descend back to Jess at the belay ledge.
I began soloing up the last pitch and a half we had climbed only a few minutes prior. I needed to move fast and with no mistakes, a fall here would be very bad. Poor Jess could do nothing but wait. She wrapped herself in an emergency blanket and endured the snow, while I rushed towards the top. I summited the great tower again, but this time there was no celebration at the top. I worked frantically to free the ropes whose knot had caught on a small crystal and refused to budge. Once it was freed I reset the rappel and hurried from the summit. When I left the top the snow was blinding and Jess looked like a little baked potato wrapped in foil and sitting on a plate from 200’ above. My descent was quick, like repelling off the TCU stadium in college, and my belay device was hot. When I returned to the belay ledge with Jess we held our breath and began pulling the tag line (the skinny rope) and it came cascading down from the sky swirling and tumbling in the wind and snow. We reset the rappel and this time Jess descended first. She coiled the rope, tossed it over the edge of the rock, and then vanished right after it.
It was my turn to sit and wait it out on the belay ledge, while it became saturated from the precipitation. My patience for the situation was running very thin and after a few minutes of not hearing anything from Jess I began to think we were in “IT” deep. I peered over the edge and asked in an annoyed manner, “what is taking so long?” All I heard was a scream. Jess let out a huge yell, and in the fog and snow sounded like banshees moving in on fresh meat from down below. I leaned over the edge once again and said, in the most loving way possible in this type of situation, “What the fuck is going on?”
“The rope is stuck” I heard rise like a balloon from Jess’ position below. “What the hell do you mean the rope is stuck?” I asked. Jess replied, “I can’t free (grunt) it, it is (grunt) stuck BAD!” With much frustration and borderline anger I shouted, “find a place to anchor yourself in, unweight the rope, and I will rappel down and see what I can do!!” Within moments I descended into a living nightmare. Jess looked like a crumpled piece of paper. Her spirits had been broken. The emotion she had been fighting so hard to keep under control in this stressful time were boiling over and it could no longer be contained. All her anger, fear, and distress lay on top of her like an iron blanket. She sat on a small ledge and wept. When I saw what she was looking at (the rope, stuck in a two inch crack, wedged on top of itself and unmovable) I almost began to follow suit and cry. However, my countenance quickly turned from sad and nervous to cold and emotionless. If this rope would not be freed, it would have to be cut. The point at which the cord would have to be severed would give us only small increments of rope to manage, making our descent very slow and very dangerous. “FUCK” I yelled, “THIS SUCKS!!” and with that I began to work the constriction. Jess interjected feverishly with comments of a macabre nature. “SHUT UP!” I exploded back. For 10 minutes I worked the Rubik Cube of a knot, my fingers cold from the wind and water. Finally with one last doubtful tug, it came free. With no more time to waste, Jess clipped into my harness and together we descended the remaining 20’ to the final rappel station.
At this point the weather was waining, and felt like a house of cards waiting to crash down and show us its real power. Jess and I reached the belay ledge and pulled on the rope. To our amazement, with in one clean jerk the tag line moved freely. I pulled and pulled, and the knot that joined the two ropes crept towards us slowly. Then the tail end of the climbing rope freed the anchor above and then came racing down towards us. And then it stopped. “Only caught on a little ledge, no worries”, I thought! So I began to pull confidently. Nothing. I had almost all of the rope sitting at my feet only 40 meters of our climbing rope still remained high in the sky. I pulled again…. and again…nothing. The rope was seriously stuck, again. This time because the rope was stuck in a crack and not actually through an anchor, the line was not fixed, therefore to rope solo up it would be an act of suicide. If I had chosen to chance its degree of “stuckness” and rope soloed up, entrusting that if I fell it would hold my weight, and the rope became free, I would be dead! I didn’t want to go down this road. You can imagine the words that came out of my mouth!!!
After ranting and raving in the new fallen snow, Jess rocking quietly, as if she had been mentally saying these things all along, tenderly leaned over and said, “can we make it with only one rope?” I untied the knot that bound the two ropes together, and with our skinny little tag line we made two rapid rappels down the base. We were home free. We did have to descend the loose talus in a white out, but at this point the experience would not have been complete any other way. We turned our backs on our climbing rope, hanging like a tattered flag some 100’ off the ground. We reached our base camp in the dark, fixed dinner and went to bed.
The next morning we went into the refugio to see if anyone would be climbing in the same region we had the day before. If so we wanted to ask if they would help retrieve our rope. This was a hard favor for us to ask, neither of us like others to clean up our messes. We only had our tag line, so reclimbing the route and risking a fall on a thin little rope seemed down right unsafe. One group had agreed to retrieve our rope on their descent of the same route. That evening they returned, rope in hand. We were relieved and thankful.
The next morning, Thursday, we had decided to climb further down in the canyon, but weather kept us at bay all day. Rain and sleet kept us tent bound from 3 am to almost 8pm. That night it rained hard and kept its pace through the next morning. We were forced to take up cooking in the refugio were we met two Argentineans who were in the same boat. These guys turned out to be RAD and we all became quick friends. We collectively decided that if the weather had not cleared by 6 pm that evening, that it probably wasn’t going to, and we would all leave for Mendoza in their little car called “the rocket”, that was parked only ½ a mile down the canyon.
We all waited eagerly to see what the weather would do in the hours that followed. The weather continued to get worse and worse. The temperature dropped rapidly, the snow and fog made a permanent home in the valley and at 6 pm we walked to “the rocket”.
Two and a half hours later we were in Mendoza eating tacos and laughing as if the last week had only been a dream.