Monday, February 26, 2018

El Camino del Hemul! An Adventure on the Campe de Heilo Norte!

Looking south from high the summit ridge. Photo: Willy Oppenheim
In the 1970s, through a series of expeditions, a group of New Zealanders climbed a number of the large glaciated mountains on the 150km long 40km wide Northern Ice-Field of Chilean Patagonia. These multi week expeditions were/are super impressive as the weather on the ice field is often relentless 100km winds and precipitation that can last for days and weeks! Like in El Chalten you are just waiting for the next weather window and hope when it comes you are able to finish your objective before it gets slammed shut and you find yourself drinking mate in your, hopefully, well set up tent behind massive snow walls or your snow cave awaiting the next window to open.

Check out this little video Black Diamond video called "The Window" to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

For me this expedition all started years ago (2007) when I came Patagonia as a backpacker with climbing shoes and chalk bag in toe. I hiked to Laguna Torre, up to Fitz Roy and the circuit around Torres Del Paine. During that trip both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia inspired me to develop my climbing and mountaineering skills to the point that I could come to these mountains again and climb in them.

As life went on my climbing progressed with numerous trips to multi-pitch climbing destinations and adventures into the mountains of Western North America. In 2011 I found myself drawn back to Patagonia to work as a NOLS Mountaineering instructor. I worked 4 32day Mountaineering courses over 6 months and got to travel and climb in these amazing mountains again!
We had just climbed the first ascent of Cerro Meliquina and are on our way to meet up with the rest of the group. Photo Betsy Winston.
With some of my goals achieved I decided to come back and keep working to push my skills and knowledge of traveling in the mountains. In 2012 I came back to work for NOLS in Patagonia and also planned a trip to El Chalten where, with rad friends the late Cory Hall and Luka Vallatta we climbed Cerro Torre via the Ragni Route and with James Monypenny climbed Cerro Chalten (Fitz Roy) via the Supercanalata. Though my trip was cut short do to making a mistake that caused a lower leg injury I was really happy with where my climbing had taken me. More importantly the friendships I had made on these trips trumps the actually feelings of being on the summits because, for me, it is the people that make the experience. The trust you put in each other, the way you push each other to succeed and grow through climbing is hard to find anywhere else.
The Torre Group from the west.
Me and Luka on the Cumbre on Cerro Torre in 2012. Photo Cory Hall
Cerro Chalten (Fitz Roy) and the 1600m Supercanalata.
James on some of the mixed terrain on Fitz.
After that trip to Chalten I returned home to New Brunswick keen to recover and get right back at it. As 2013 developed I got right back out climbing and started planning other expeditions with rad friends to other places in the Americas. I also spent 2 more seasons working for NOLS in Patagonia.
You can find Erik Bonnett's yellow helmet in the center as he works his way up Kooshdakhaa Spire in AK.
As I write and reminisce of these past experiences I also reflect on all the learning and progression I have had as a person. These trips change things about you and it take times to reconnect back when you return to the front country. Life is so simple out there, you carry your life on your back and travel by foot. The simplicity of life on an expedition is amazing! Just think your life consists of sleeping eating and walking around, to be honest.... yes there is the climbing and dealing with weather and that is the simplicity of it.... there are no cars, limited technology, the noises are from the a natural world! it is amazing and you have to go into these lightly traveled parts of world to find this which seems to be an abnormal thing these days. Anyway that was a rant.... back to the beauty of Patagonia and climbing there.

It had been a few years since I had been to Patagonia and it was rad to land in Balamaceda, Chile and jump on a shuttle to the NOLS branch in Coyhaique. Though I wasn't coming to work it has been great to connect with friends I haven't seen in years! I love the feeling of rolling into a place and seeing the same smiling faces from years past and them greeting you with open arms!

On January 27th Felipe Cancino picked me up at the Campo and our expedition planning really kicked off with food planning and gear organizing at the Patagonia Coyhaique House.

Packing and organizing in Coyhaique.
So over the next few days Felipe and I run over maps, organized food, gear and logistics until our 3rd member arrived on January 29th. Willy arrived at 1pm on the 29th psyched to jump right in!
Making sure we have enjoy mate is very essential for a trip to the ice-field. Photo Willy Oppenheim
We repacked our food, finalized our gear, double checked everything and then loaded Felipe's car to head south to Puerto Bertrand and the start of where we would disconnect for an anticipated 20 days.

The winds on Lago Bertrand didn't allow us to travel in that afternoon so we woke early on Feb 1st to load the boat and make our way to Ramon Sierra's campo and the start of our approach by foot. We unloaded all our gear chatted with Ramon and were on our way.
Tyo boating us up Lago Bertrand and Lago Plomo. Photo Felipe Cancino
Walking in with our only day of little packs. Photo Felipe Cancino
The next day we meet Ramon and the horses that carried our gear up the Soler Valley around 11am. After we got everything organized Ramon started the 25km stroll back to his campo and we started slogging and shuttling our gear up onto the ice-field.
Quacho Ramon Sierra unloading our food and gear. Photo Felipe Cancino
During the first 4 days we shuttled our gear across the Nef glacier to just below the ice-field and our main climbing objective. Then during the next 4 days we got caught in the Patagonia winds having a night of holding the tent poles so they didn't snap, taking turns jumping out of our sleeping bags to re-tie our snapped p-cords that were tied around massive rocks and shuttling our last load up to where we planned our high camp would be in a snowstorm.
Pretty rad zone!
Yup we saw a Hemul and it totally hung out with us! Photo Willy Oppenheim
Some glacier stream crossings. Photo Willy Oppenheim
Willy engaged in some moraine travel. Photo Felipe Cancino
We did all of this with the anticipation of the weather window that was coming.... as we walked in it was 9days out and as we continued to move our gear the news of the window holding upped our stoke to get into position to take full advantage of this opportunity.

Cruising some glacier fins on the approach. Photo Felipe Cancino
Storm day activities.... Yatzee! Photo Felipe Cancino
The 15hr days of shuttling our food and gear up over dry ice and through the moraine covered glaciated terrain was all worth it when the skies opened up and the Patagonia winds died on Feb 9th and we were ready to go!!
Enjoying a freshly baked Calzone! Eating well out there is important!
Moving up to high camp. Photo Felipe Cancino
We quickly ate some food and were climbing out of our base camp and approaching the east face of the unclimbed Pta. Pantagruel. After our 3 hr glacial approach we navigated the bergshrund and continued up the face linking snow slopes with short steeps of rock and after 5 pitches, with difficulties up to M5, we reached the summit ridge. From here we made our way up through some rimmed up cracks and traversed east under the gendarme using a few points of aid and some thin mixed climbing. We the climbed one more beautiful mixed pitch to the summit and the first ascent of Pta. Pantagruel. We called our route "Brisa Suave" M6 C1 70Degrees 350m. Brisa Suave comes from an inside joke because the forecast often said brisa suave and the wind was ripping at 80km!
Heading out of camp.... behind me is just a Splitter Nunatak...
Climbing lower down on Pantagruel. Photo Felipe Cancino
Felipe and the average view of the Nef glacier behind.
Sweet rimmed up mixed climbing!
Climbing the last pitch on Brisa Suave. Photo Willy Oppenheim

Taking in the amazing views and standing on a previously unclimbed summit was/still is pretty surreal! We took a few summit shots and then started scrambling down the north ridge and with 1 full 60m rap we were soon back down to the glacier and making our way back to camp.
Cumbre!!! Pta Pantagruel! Photo Willy Oppenheim
After rolling into camp we quickly started cooking and planning our next day. There were 2 unclimbed peaks to the northwest of Pantagruel so we decided to head there.

The next morning after mate we were on the move. We arrived at the base of the route in 4hrs. Willy took off up the beauty steep glacial ice pitch which lead to lower angled snow covered glacier for a few more pitches. Then Felipe took us up a series of short steep steps to the summit ridge.
Tough living on the white desert.
Approaching the SW Face of Cerro Fantasma (Peak 2252m).
Willy starting up the steep glacial ice. Photo Felipe Cancino
Swimming up the southwest face. Photo Felipe Cancino
Climbing up the southwest face of Cerro Fantasma
Felipe working his way to the ridge.
During the approach the weather seemed to be moving in, though our forecast was saying different, so as Willy took off up the ridge we started to get rained on, the wind picked up and visibility decreased to almost zero by the time we hit the summit. Soaked, we descended quickly to the shelter of a crevasse just below the ridge where we fired up the stove for food, drink and re-energizing before making our way down. After a few hours of walking in the ping pong ball we dropped below the cloud and made our way back to camp tired and psyched on our accomplishments of the past few days.
Cumbre of Peak 2252 aka Cerro Fantasma Photo Felipe Cancino
Psyched on the hot food and drink! Photo Willy Oppenheim
Rapping into the white zone. Photo Willy Oppenheim.
Finally exiting the ping pong ball. Photo Willy Oppenheim
After a big dinner we started chatting about the last day of our window and if we wanted to stick it out for a few days to see if we could squeeze one more route out. After hearing from Frank and the updated forecast we decided to head down. With the anticipation of 100+km winds and inches of precip an hr we made our way down over the next 2 days and into the forest just in time!
Heading down off the Campo de Heilo Norte. Photo Felipe Cancino
Moraine Travel with heavy packs on the way out. Photo Felipe Cancino
A little moraine caving. Photo Felipe Cancino
The view is amazing and the winds that were blowing cannot be captured here!
The Patagonia weather returns in full force!
Willy and Felipe during the wild sand/gravel wind storm we had.
We had a few of these on the way in and out! Photo Felipe Cancino
Climbing in Patagonia is like playing dice..... sometimes you just have to take the chance and go for it! Whether you're exploring some new terrain on one of the massive ice-fields down here or in El Chalten climbing on some of the most spectacular granite towers in the world the Patagonia weather will always have an influence on your roll.

HUGE THANKS to my climbing partners Felipe Cancino and Willy Oppenheim for working hard, being amazing friends and expedition partners! To Tyo and Ramon for all there help with getting us in and out of the area! To Patagonia for the rad clothing and accommodation! And NOLS for supporting there instructors to push personal limits! And to all the people that support us on our adventures! You're all rad!

Drying out at base camp before heading down! Photo Felipe Cancino
Campo de Hielo Norte!

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