South Avellano Tower

South Avellano Tower

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Avellano Towers 2014 - Part 3

John and Dave relieved to be off the wall

I was sharing a tent with John. That was cool. I had earplugs.

Once you mitigated against Johns snoring he was a good tent partner. He had brought all the essentials for an extended stay in a stormbound tent.

Ipod speakers with a plentiful supply of drum and base
Kindal with a good supply of pre-downloaded quiz games
The medical kit

John, Dave, Will and Reeve sitting out bad weather

Within the tent I lay happily cocooned, warm and dry. Out tent pitched on a section of abandoned riverbed had done its job during the previous two days of torrential rainfall. My infrequent visits outside, obligatory to perform hasty acts of defecation, had all also included a check on the river levels.

The river had risen to within a few feet of its banks but never seriously looked like reclaiming the oxbow of relict riverbed we had camped in. John and I felt sure we would get advanced warning if it did flood. Will and Reeve were camped far closer to the possible breech, and I was sure I’d hear their cries of distress.

Outside the tent Will and Reeve were mooching about in the drizzle. Roused from our slumbers we peered out to confer. Reeve related to us a sorry story of tent based water ingress.

After his initial experiences with John’s snoring when they had shared a tent, Reeve had not hesitated to bed down with Will. This decision which had seemed a good one on the balmy dry days of our approach began to look less sound when he awoke in the night to a feeling of dampness. Will initially passed off the incoming deluge as being due to slack guy ropes and readjusted the outer. This was not however and unqualified success with a persistent drip onto Reeve being a key feature of the next few weeks. From this point on bivy bags were required in Wills tent.

Reeve enjoying the comfort of Wills tent

Peering out of the tent flaps I could see the base of the wall, our objective, plastered in snow. Success and glory was not happening today so I went back to sleep.

Over the next few days we watched weather forecasts and the snow levels. The face slowly cleared, mini avalanches sloughing off the upper sections of the wall. It was clearly too dangerous, and too wet to attempt to push our route higher.

In the days prior to the storm we had climbed 250 meters of crackline up the prow of the tower. The super slick glacial polished granite had made the climbing much harder than the angle would imply. John and Reeve had done the initial block of leading, pushing a line up some surprisingly complex and devious ground. Will and I had followed the next day in deteriorating conditions.

I had led the last thirty meters of climbing. In the rain I'd pushed upwards, mixing aid and free moves to make progress despite the conditions, before being forced to stop. Lower on the route I'd climbed some obligatory free, run out sections but these had been on the easy angled slabs, now I was on steep ground. The crack I had been climbing had belled out. The pod it formed was devoid of gear, the narrow crack reappearing eight meters above my head. From my position I'd been able to see a good flake at four meters and by tensioning out right I had seen holds. 

Mentally I’d pulled on and climbed the moves, gastoning off the holds to the right of the pod. Rocking up to gain the flake, hastily stuffing in cams before walking my feet up and going for the flatys above. Mantling on the holds led to the good crack and gear. It should go; just not with the waterfall falling down it. Will and I had then bailed leaving the kit up there ready for the big send.

The big send that never came.

Due to their damp living conditions Reeve and Will generally arose earlier. Hence it was Reeve who got to observe the big orange rock scar that later morning. From in my sleeping bag I could hear the conversation as binoculars were sourced and the face examined. From our camp we could see a new orange rock scar at approximate half height on the face. It looked worryingly close to being above the start of our fixed ropes.

John and I investigated.

Reeve scaremongering about rockfall

From the gear stash it was apparent that a huge piece of rock had impacted upon the ledges and slopes at the base. Pulverised granite and smashed snow showed where the huge missing flake system had impacted. What were not visible were our ropes. I scrambled the initial fifty meters of easy ground to the first terrace. From here I peered upwards.

The fixed rope was gone.

Scrambling along the terrace into the zone of destruction I could see no rope. The ledge from which the rope had hung looked different, changed. Below I scanned the slabs and spotted a section of rope, five meters long hanging limply from the debris.  John joined me and we discussed our options. 
John had previously climbed the initial eighty meters of slabs and was not keen to repeat the exercise. Especially not in the wet with the limited gear available. My decision to cash the bulk of the climbing kit at the top of the fixed ropes was looking like a mistake.

Dave jumaring on the lower section of wall

The only gear we had with us was three master cams, sizes 1, 2, and 3 and the grey and purple camalots. John vetoed climbing the slabs so I turned my eyes to alternative options. To our right, an ice slope led up to a dank overhanging crack. The crack turned a lip and widened to an offwidth before continuing to the edge of a ledge system. This had been dismissed previously in favour of dry slabs but now might be the key.

Returning to the mini gear stash John and I assessed our options. One rope, no crampons, little gear, some etriers and the much-maligned stubai ice hammer.  Lurking at the back of the stash was the size six cam. Unwilling to prevaricate I took the lead.

I chopped steps up the ice, good steps as my blown out running shoes offered poor edging capability. The bergschrund grew as I got closer, but the crack above still offered promise. After chopping a sizable ice bollard I was able to cross the gaping bergschrund to the crack and relax with my first real runner in thirty meters. From here I set off upwards, leapfrogging the few cams that fitted. With only a five cams I was unable to leave any behind but was mostly able to ensure I had a constant two points of attachment. Mostly. At the lip I was able to high step my last cam and shove the six into the flared offwidth above. Sinking back down parallel to my last good piece I bounce tested the suspect six, prior to launching upwards, free climbing the last twenty meters of offwidth. As it slabbed out I managed to stuff my second to last cam into the thin seam at the back of the groove. This protected my mantle onto the loose rock strewn ledge. Due to the length of the pitch John was halfway up the steepening ice.

Typical conditions encountered

Scouring the ledge I found a single possible gear slot. Flooded with relief I slammed in the only cam still hanging from my harness and shouted with relief.

I backed up the cam with a dubious ice axe placement and myself. Bracing myself against the rope I prided myself on the speedy set up of the good three point belay. With no ice axe or gear John was forced to jumar directly up the rope whilst I sat, feet planted firmly as possible in the loose rock taking his weight.

From here we traversed passing the top of our chopped first rope to gain the more sheltered steeper centre of the wall and the remaining fixed lines. These appeared to be fine. John jumared these first, belayed by me and placing some gear to arrest his fall should the ropes fail. The weather closed in with rain steadily falling as we worked up the wall. We tagged our high point and descended, pulling each rope through with trepidation. Compared to what had gone before it all went smoothly and we regained the floor hours later with all our gear, thankful to be out of there.

Avellano Towers

John leading on the lower section of the wall
We spent a further few days sitting in our tents before walking out. Christmas day was spent roasting potatoes and chorizo in the forrest prior to attempting (unsuccessfully) to climb rotten trees with ice axes. Reeve was almost washed away by rivers repeatably as we walked down to the lake.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The Avellano Towers 2014 - Part 2

The Avenali Tower and trhe Tooth
Jim and Angela roared off back down the agricultural track in their British racing green hilux. I shut the gate surveyed my gear.

Strewn around me, cascading off a log and festooning a rusting piece of agricultural machinery, was all my stuff. I was attempting to travel light. Every item here was about to be packed into one bag and carried up into and then over the Avellano Towers before I met with John, Will and Reeve who were hopefully already in place.

The town of Bahia Murta from my drop off spot
The end of the road and the start of the "cow trail"

Due to some scheduling upsets I had done no trial pack. I was in a position where everything had to fit in my bag and once this fitted, everything had to be lifted onto my back and I had to walk. Around me lay a plethora of useful things, all in isolation small and light but I feared they might add up to a considerable bulk and weight.

It was 7pm. Jim had made a fast escape as he had a further fifty-five miles of dirt road to his house to drive. Fortunately he was experienced in the dark art of overtaking trucks on blind bends in choking dust clouds so this would not take him as long to dive as it would many others. The late hour was due to TAM airlines unceremoniously cancelling my flight from Heathrow. Jim had already gone out of his way to pick me up from Balmaceda airport, bought me food for my walk, and taken me to the trailhead.

The view back down to the Rio Murta
I was on my own about to embark upon the “short approach” to the Avellano Towers to meet John, Reeve and Will who had headed in a week earlier.

I set about trying to sort my gear. Compounding my problems were the following items: John’s new mountaineering boots, and the three piton hammers.

John always had epics with boots; it was a familiar aspect of trips with John. There had been days tramping the streets of small South American towns chasing rumours of boots. Boots abandoned by previous mountaineering expeditions, which John hopped to buy to replace his boots, which had turned out to be critically uncomfortable for the long Patagonian approaches. When this failed the boot saga revolved around a mercy package of boots being passed through a network of informal curriers in the UK to be delivered by the next group of hopeful Brits heading down.
On this trip his new boots were due to be delivered on the morning of Johns departure. Due to the complex nature of Johns address he had arranged a sign on the main road with a number of high visibility bibs hung from bushes along the small road up to his house to guide the way. Needless to say neither the sign, “Johns Delivery this way” nor the bibs resulted in success and muggins here was carrying them for John.

The river proved to be the easiest route but easy is a reletive concept
Piton hammers were another big-ticket item. There were three of them for a start. After careful consideration we had calculated that three was the minimum we could get away with. Two hammers for the lead team and one for the hauling and stripping team bringing up the rear. The hardware suppliers let us down at the last moment so I set off on the blag to borrow some gear in the last few days.

My friend James Rhodes was good for a nice shiny pezil hammer, all I had to do was go fell running with him when I picked it up.

James Turnbull also said he was good for a hammer so I headed round to pick it up from him in Outside. As he handed it over he mentioned that it had been hand made by Yvon Chouinard and personally gifted to his dad. I was welcome to borrow it but I better bring it back or there would be serious trouble.

“you’re welcome to it, its no problem, but its got to come back! Its precious with huge sentimental value.”

I was not sure about this; I generally loose a good percentage of my gear so this was a bit heavy. We discussed options and in a moment of inspiration James’ eyes rose to the ceiling. Attached to the ceiling of Outside was a veritable history board of antiquated gear. Some of this gear was of historical note, Jo Simpson’s terradactil axe, Malory’s underpants and other such equipment. Lurking above out heads were at least three piton hammers. One of which had no label connecting it to any past notables so it was quickly removed.

The treasured Chouinard tool was handed back and borrowed a Stubri piton hammer of uncertain vintage replaced it.

The third of the three hammers was a stubri ice hammer I had borrowed from Leeds University Mountaineering Society in 2005 for precisely a moment such as this.

The volume of these three hammers was less of an issue than the weight. I’ve yet to find a functional lightweight hammer!

The offending hammers
Eventually all was packed. I got everything into the huge metanoia rucksack with the exception of the rope and my smaller rucksack. Placing the rope in the alpine attack day sack I strapped it onto the outside. Getting upright was involved. First I wriggled into the straps whilst lying down. Next came rolling onto my front, and pushing up into a crawling position. From here verticality was attained with the aid of trekking polls. I was now able to stagger off up into the mountains.

I managed to stagger upwards for a couple of hours, following the vague cow trail. This trail linked cleared cow pastures cut out of the temperate rainforest. The Chilean government had enacted legislation similar to the Americas Homestead Act to encourage settlement of this region. The remains of huge burnt trees lie at award angles, left as reminders of the slash and burn techniques of a hundred years ago. Only the flattest areas of the steep valley sides had been cleared, and flat were a relative concept. The path was clear between pastures but hard to follow where the pastures allowed the cows to wander at leisure. The occasional gap cut through fallen trees to allow cows past offered encouragement.

David gaining the top of the tree ramp guarding access to the mountains in Febuary 2012
I guzzled my water in the evening heat and pushed on. I was keen to travel high enough to gain a stream that fell direct from the mountainside above the pastures before I drank. After two hours I was spent. I was feeling the effects of travelling for days without rest.

Mindful of the over inquisitive horse and frisky cows I had passed an hour before, I bivied on a flat spot with an old tree stump arranged to hopefully prevent trampling. In light of the small distance I’d covered my food supplies looked meagre; cheese, tuna, crackers, pita bread and chocolate.

I awoke at three with stomach cramps, squirming out of my bags I stumbled off a few meters before voiding my bowls. Not a good sign! After a couple of false starts and return visits to the bushes I regained sleep. I woke at six troubled by my nocturnal experiences. I was unsure if pushing on into the mountains on my own was a clever decision. It felt like a big deal as it was, let alone if I was coming down with some illness. I nibbled crackers and contemplated. The options were poor.

If I bailed I would end up back at the village miles from anywhere with nowhere to stay and with no transport. The boys in the mountains would presumably start to worry when I failed to arrive in a few days and we had no ability to contact them. I pushed on.

The two rucksack mega bag with Johns boots and the borrowed Outside peg hammer visible.

The best map avalable. Unfortunately it was not avalable until after we left the mountains.

The Avellano Towers 2014 - Part 1

The unclimbed North East face of the South Avellano Tower. (Photo John Crook)
Jim Donini had offered to show us cool unexplored mountains and we were hooked. After two months of bumming around in Chalten the blast of enthusiasm provided by Jim and Angela was phenomenal. From the deck of their house by Lago General Carrera we plotted.

Jims next-door neighbour, Lito Tejada-Flores had climbed Fitzroy in 1968 with Yvon Chouinard, Dick Dorworth and Doug Tomkins. From Yosemite, the crucible of granite big wall climbing, they had driven south in a van surfing and climbing until reaching Fitzroy.

After succeeding in climbing Fitzroy, the third accent of the mountain and the first accent of the “fun hogs route”, they all made it back to California. All however were highly influenced by their experiences. This trip and Patagonia more generally changed them and remade the rest of their lives.
Lito now lives in Northern Patagonia for six months of the year. From the house he built, perched on a marble headland he has an unbroken view of unclimbed mountains surrounding the lake. Lito, whilst no longer climbing mountains, maintains a huge passion for mountaineering and was doing a good job of making John even keener than he already was.

The Avellano Towers from the South.

Lito was showing us aerial photographs of the Avellano Towers, which his wife Lindi had taken whist documenting Lago General Carrera as part of the campaigns against Patagonian dam building. The photos clearly showed a big granite wall and Jim who had climbed there previously vouched for its existence.

Aerial photo of the Avellano Towers from the east

With the energy flowing from Lito and Jim the possibilities of failure were low. As we had a few more drinks and discussed the logistics the possibility of failure fell to nil.
Unfortunately the possibility of failure when we sobered up was higher than nil.
Add the long approach and big wall things were less certain.

Jim shamelessly sandbagged us into a “short approach” which left us panting for breath as we wallowed in the wake of the seventy year old. In our defence we had heavier bags.
We found the big wall and it was big. It proved too big for us on that occasion. After valiant failure we retreated licking our wounds.

There had been three major problems:
1.         Not enough food;
2.         Not enough gear;
3.         Not strong enough.

I returned to work, which was quite frankly duller than Patagonia. My resolutions to never return evaporated like the morning dew to be replaced by psych.

The South Avellano Tower at the head of the valley
The first step was recruiting Reeve, this hopefully dealt with problem three.

Applications for MEF and BMC funding were submitted and John after briefly wavering threw his hat in with us. A chance encounter with Will at Beaston Tor saw us up to the target number of four participants, suckers, marks or willing victims.

My personal kit seemed to take up a worryingly large amount of the house
Things came together, we begged borrowed and stole a huge amount of kit. Rab went out of their way to sort us out with a load of their gear, which solved problem two. This ensured we could devote our money to arranging boats and gauchos to carry all our food, solving problem one.

Realising the pile of equipment was far too enormous to approach the towers using the route from Buria Murta John and I used in February we concocted a ridiculous plan.

Step 1 - Boat across Lago General Carrera

Lago General Carrera is big with over 1,850 km squared of surface area. It is also deep, 850 meters deep at the western end and always windy. How hard could finding a boat across the lake prove to be?

Step 2 - Access the Towers by travelling up the Avellano River valley.

The route in from Buria Murta involved a hideous cow trail, which gained and lost approximately 600 meters of height in the first 7km. This was followed by 5 km of the most exerting jungle bashing and river-walking I’ve ever encountered. This nicely warms one up for bypassing a 70 meter cliff band by clinging to tree roots on a vegetated tree rake. Following this some nice granite slabs, polished and impassable when wet lead to death moraine screes and a high coll. From here a short romp down an ice filled gully might gain the base of the route.

Areal photo of the mountains with the Avellano River running down to Lago General Carrera
Having perused google earth I knew the following: The Avellano valley only gains 500 meters in total from the lake to the base of the route; there are signs of agriculture and habitation as far as the confluence at 25 km. Using copious amounts of optimism we decided there would be someone willing to packhorse equipment up the valley in exchange for cash.

In December 2014 we returned with a huge amount of optimism and a plan involving boats and horses.
The route from Buria Murta involved river walking up the valley below

Thanks to the BMC and the MEF for helping to meet the cost of this expedition.

Thanks to Rab equipment for helping with the gear we required.

And finally thanks to Outside for providing all the kit we had forgotten we required at incredibly short notice!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

La Pirámide, Patagonian desert towers

When it rains in the mountains ones options are limited.

If your in North Wales you can sometimes avoid the rain on the coast at Gogarth or go sport climbing on the Orme. If you are in the Lakes and the weather's bad its harder.

Around Lago General Carrera however things are different. Looking out from the balcony the promised mountains were cloaked in cloud. Somewhere out there lay Mt St Valentine and its great unclimbed face. There was to be no climbing in the mountains today. Today we would have to go with Plan B.

This was Plan B.

La Pirámide above Chile Checo
Anywhere else Plan B would be Plan A.

After paying a trespass fee of a bottle of tequila to the local Gaucho we abandoned the pickup and strolled into the Jeinimeni National Park and up towards the geological feature dubbed la pirámide. We were not the first to climb here. Jim had brought others before and was keen to pit his new recruits against the route they had put up in 2010.

Our experiences carrying loads to the Torres Glacier made this feel like a path. The tussocks of grass and Huánuco paths proved preferable to mobile moraine and glacier and we soon crested the rise to the camping spot by some springs below the pirámide. After we erected our tent the setting sun caught the prow of the feature, a clear master line and enticed us into running our gear up the final talus slope to the base of the crag. In the fading light we peered upwards. This was amazing.

The next morning it seemed appropriate to repeat the existing line. It would be a nod to those before us and more importantly it would allow us to scope the cliff, to view those other cracks from above and below. Four pitches of steep jamming later we made easy ground and scrambled to the top in time to watch two condors catching thermal soar around us. We were impressed, the rock was good, the lines were good and the situation was amazing. Even better some new lines had leapt out at us.

John climbing on the Ultimate Basault Experiance
The main prow we had seen highlighted by the deepening shadows looked possible. It would involve escaping from the deep cracks and getting onto the faces of the hexagonal features. There did appear to be small seams between the columns to allow trad gear. The prow flowed upwards, slabby to start but steepening. The first proper ledge was at sixty meters height. After some debate we swung in and bolted a belay at thirty meters on a small foot ledge, the only possible stance available. I abbed down checking the gear and decided it would be protectable.

There was some talk of pre placing some gear to ensure a successful outcome but we decided that this would take something away from the route. John led the first pitch, this thirty meter pitch weighed in around E3 and was excellent with the slightly runout crux coming just prior to the belay. I then took over and managed to gain about five meters before pulling off a small crimp and taking the lob. Slightly spooked I continued upwards towards the crux moves guarding the wider upper crack. My nerves got the better of me and after fiddling in tiny wires I found myself again hanging on the rope. I pushed on ‘french free’ to the second belay.

John seconded and then offwidthed to glory and the top.

We returned a few weeks later and swapped leads, I led out pitch one and John dispatched pitch two leaving a three star offering weighing in at around E4 6a.

Many thanks for Jim Donini for taking us to such a phonominal crag X.

John leading the second pitch of the Ultimate Basalt Experience with David belaying. Thanks to Jim Donini for photograph.
Topo of routes on prow section of La Piramide

Topo of ledge section of La Piramide showing routes climbed. This area is distinguished by the prominent ledge at a quarter height.