South Avellano Tower

South Avellano Tower

Monday, 19 January 2015

Avellano Towers 2014

In Febuary 2014 John Crook and I were shown the Avellano Towers by the American alpine mountaineering legend Jim Donini.

Jim 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 and he was showing us aerial photos of the towers. With the energy flowing from Lito and Jim the chances of failure were nil. Over dinner we discussed the towers, Jim had been in once and Lito had seen them from the air. Both agreed there was a big granite wall.

The next day we walked in and climbed some amazing routes.

We found the big wall and the big wall was big! Too big for us that time........

We returned convinced we had to return. Which brings me on to this time.

Convinced we were under equipped John and I have recruited two others, Will Harris and Andy Reeve and collected together a huge amount of equipment. Realising the pile of equipment was far too enormous to approach the towers using the route from Buria Murta John and I used in Febuary we concocted a ridiculous plan.
The ever growing pile of my personal gear

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 Ive 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 a ice filled gully might gain the base of the route.
The view down from the top of the cliff band showing the junglebashing and river walking section of the approach from Buriha Murat (Febuary 2014)
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 25km. 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.

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.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

This Changes Everything

The North Face of the South Avellano Tower viewed from the base of the 'Tooth'
In January 20014 John and I were hunkered down in El Chalten. We sat despondent, yet another weather window collapsing before our eyes. The proceeding week of hectic planning, training and getting excited seemed nothing but a cruel joke.

We cracked and took Jim up on his talk of Northern Patagonia and booked bus tickets.

Jim has had a house on the shores of Lago General Carrera for several years and has used it for a base to explore the mountains surrounding the lake and the edges of the Northern Patagonian Ice Cap. Information online was limited. There were a few trip reports, Cerro Choss, The Avellano Towers and Mt St Valentine but all were very vague.

It sounded like an adventure, something totally different far from the Cerro Torre circus.

We took a punt on Jim’s talk of ‘interesting’ objectives and Jim delivered.

In a weeklong spell of immaculate weather we walked into the Avellano Towers. Jim Donini assured us it was a short six hour walk to a basecamp by a lake. We followed as he led up out of the town of Bahia Murta and into the mountains. There must have been something wrong with our watches, as it seemed to take at least ten hours.

To kick things off Jim, John and I climbed the tooth. This shapely summit had previously repelled Jim in 2007 so it was good to see him settling old scores. From the top of this we gazed upon the face of the 'South Avellano Tower'.

This was the largest unclimbed feature I'd ever seen, un-climbed but not un-climbable. From our vantage, our eerie on the summit of the tooth features were visible. Huge dihedrals and ramp lines led the eye upwards. There were even some snow patches so we could make do with just taking a jet boil. Enthusiasm boiled over trumping reality and sensible decision-making.

After a 2 am alpine start we descended the couloir to the base of the wall. We managed to locate the base of our intended route in the nick of time prior to the wall falling into the moon shadow of the range. Congratulating ourselves John set off. In the pool of torchlight at the base I immediately noted Johns progress was slow. He inched up the big corner.

At 12 pm we had climbed three hundred meters. This sounds impressive, three hundred meters of new route up a thousand meter face. Gaining the top in two days was totally achievable. The problem was that our three hundred meters of climbing involved three faltering starts followed by abseils, several diagonal traverses and a short section of down climbing. We were possibly only fifty meters higher than we started.

Reality kicked in, we had climbed fifty vertical meters in six hours. There were another nine hundred and fifty meters to go, even my mental arithmetic told me we needed hundred and fourteen hours to gain the top. Convincing John however to bail was the hardest battle yet but in the end he also conceded that the chances of us gaining the top before starving to death were remote.

A highly forshortened view of the South Avellano Tower from below
It took one and a half abseils to gain the base so we might have made the top in only 60 hours of continuous climbing. Who knows.

Sitting at the base looking up at the wall in the afternoon sun I knew one thing. This unfinished business changed everything.

You just cannot leave unclimbed big walls made of impeccable granite lying around. They get inside you. They challenge you. I was coming back.

Screw commitments; I've an appointment in December.

David Brown hanging out at the bivi spot in the col with the approach from Bahia Murta visible in the background

Jim Donini accending the final pitch of the 'Tooth' with the Avellano valey below

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Crown Jewels

In February, John Crook, Jim Donini, Angela Goodacre, and I spent a week in the Avellano Mountains of Chile. This area is near the northern Patagonian Ice Cap and northeast of the shores of Lake General Carrera. We focused our attention on the Avellano Towers, an area of granite spires at the head of the Avellano River. The lack of accurate mapping, coupled with various approaches to the towers, have led to fragmented descriptions of the region.

John Crook cramponing up on the approach to the 'Crown Jewels'
Our group approached from the small town of Bahia Murta, using the approach employed by John Bragg, Wes Bunch, Angela Hawse, and Brenton Regan in 2005, and used again by Jim Donini and Thom Engelbach in 2008. This approach leads to a valley west of these striking granite peaks. [See AAJ 2008 for Jim Donini’s description of this approach and climbing. See AAJ 2004 and AAJ 2006 for other established climbs.] After establishing a base camp between two lakes below the spires, we climbed to a bivy site in a col south of the smaller, tooth-shaped tower to the south of Avenali Tower, aptly nicknamed the Tooth.

The following day we climbed the east ridge of the Tooth. This tower had previously been climbed, as we found abseil tat on the summit, but due to the lack of written evidence it’s suspected that this prior ascent was via easy, broken terrain to the north. There was no evidence of any ascent on the route we’ve called Tooth Arête (300m, 5.10). After descending we bivied again at the col.

The next day John Crook and I set out to climb the east ridge of the tower just north of Avenali Tower and south of a summit assumed to have been climbed by Dave Anderson and party (AAJ 2004). We first gained the hanging glacier below the towers by dropping from the col between the Tooth and Avenali Tower, then crossed under the northeast face of Avenali Tower before gaining the east ridge of the unnamed tower just to its north.

Jim Donini and David Brown on the summit of the 'Tooth' with Avenali Tower and the Crown Tower in the background
The ridge was easy for several hundred meters until it narrowed to form a classic knife-edge. Several steep pitches (up to 5.11-) allowed access to the upper portion of the ridge. From here we made progress up steep ground (5.10) to gain one of the twin summits of this tower. The climb took approximately 10 hours from the bivy. We descended the ridge, which took seven hours and involved a complex mixture of abseiling and downclimbing. Fortunately the upper section was descended in the daylight with no significant rope tangle issues.

This was a high-quality route, ascending mostly very good granite to a fantastically sharp and pointy summit. We called the formation Crown Tower and the climb Crown Jewels (800m, 5.11-).

In addition, John Crook scrambled to the top of the two highest summits (both 5.6) south of the Tooth; the left of these had some abseil cord indicating a prior ascent while the right-hand one did not.

David Brown high on the Crown Tower

Anotated aerial photograph of the Avellano Towers taken from the south east

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Actual Rock Climbing

Weather wise the 2013/2014 season is not like the preceding few by most accounts. Few rock routes have been climbed due to short variable weather windows preceded by generally heavy snowfall. General mountaineering, mixed climbing and ice objectives have been going down but less so the rock routes.

As I eyed up the meteorgram I was optimistic enough to suggest rock climbing. Actual rock climbing with rock shoes and bare hands. Elemental contact with the Patagonian granite. A heady feeling comes over one in the days prior to a Patagonian Weather Window. Anything is possible.

I teamed up with Drew, an American down from Colorado who also had tired of axes, crampons and snowy faffing. We egged each other on and generally shot our mouths off across town. We were going to climb the Pillar Goretta on Fitzroy, Hell we were going to traverse Guillaumet and Mermoz to get there to save us having to walk through snow.

Inevitably after we had told everyone we knew the weather window deteriorated and a sheepish "morning after" feeling crept in. Had we really said the things we said? We walked in not to climb the Pillar Goretta but just "to have a look".

The walk of shame.

We walked past Piedra Negra. To maintain some dignity we were still aiming to bivy at the base of the Pillar Goretta to "see how it looked in the morning" and had accordingly only brought one sleeping bag with the 1.5 person Patagonian special modification. This simply consisted of a triangle of fabric to be zipped into the bag. Instant intimate comfort assured. Arriving in the early afternoon we were on time but the sight of the rime plastering the top third of Marmoz stopped us firmly in our tracks. This indicated that basically the entire pillar would be rimed up.

Reality was firmly kicking us in the face by now so we retreated to Piedra Negra and the tent Drew had stashed there. Here we pondered the ridiculousness of sharing a sleeping bag in the most accessible bivy spot in the mountain range. Lets just save ourselves blushes and spare the details. We both took turns at being big spoon and their was certainly not enough room for us to both lay on our backs at once!

Dawn saw us commit to climbing the Comesana-Fonrouge up the Northwest Ridge of Guillaumet. In an attempt to preserve some dignity we tacked on the Giordani "sit start" and we had an amazing climb. Sunshine, rockshoes, bare hands and actual climbing moves on amazing Patagonian granite. Due to our comparatively late start (to give the day time to warm up) we saw none of the hundred thousand people who climbed the ice and mixed routes on the east face that day topping out in solitude at 6 pm to a tempestuous sky and snow moving in.

Walking back down the glassier by moonlight with head torches not required was a privilege.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Arguably the best route on the Old Man of Hoy

South Face of the Old Man of Hoy photo courtesy of Adam Long
James, guardian of the Burnmouth Both in Ratwick, probably has the best idea of anyone of how many teams a year climb the Old Man of Hoy. His estimate is one hunndred and fifty per year. Of these we mused, how many were by the original route? Eighty percent? Ninty percent? Ninty nine percent?

As we peered upwards into the mist enshrouded heights of the rock tower we knew one thing; there were five people climbing the original route and none on the GMB West Face route. Congratulating ourselves on our originality we gently mock the numpty cluster fuck taking place around the corner. Assuredly we tease in a couple of optimistic wires as a ‘belay’. I settle back to watch Reeve dispatch the first 5c pitch. Half-jokingly I suggest we might beat the other teams to the top.

Twenty minutes of total failure later we were again both still stood on the starting ledges. Damp, sand generating slopers, indifferent gear and fragile footholds with a propensity to crumble had defeated all upwards progress at a height of less than five metres. Daunted we swapped lead; additional RP’s were nestled into cracks, holds rigorously brushed and good jams on the lip of the overhang gained. Having stuffed the break with the largest cams I ran it out to the belay. Confidence slightly knocked we muttered something about there being no point in retreating yet and continued on.

Over the next few hours we both, backed off, traversed off, prevaricated and split pitches at additional belays. The guide description quickly became mere optimistic guidance.

Struggling to progress upwards I forced a wafer thin traverse in desperation. A unique crouching experience, stooped below an overhang, smearing sandy foot holds and pinching a horizontal wafer thin flake. Walking never felt so exposed and gear never felt so far away. Had this been included in the original ascent I’m sure it would have had a prominent write up.

We quickly realised our double set of wires were nothing but ballast whilst our double set of cams were woefully inadequate. As we climbed higher it became clear that bailing off this route was going to be a costly exercise.  I favoured building a good belay, tying both our ropes together and worrying about the consequences tomorrow whilst Reeve was eyeing up a diagonal abseil across the North Face to the sanctuary of easy ground. As both of these plans seemed worse than continuing upwards we kept going. The forth pitch stretched on forever with its thirty five metres (really?) eventually broken down into three pitches with us finally gaining the terrace thirty metres below the summit at about eight pm. A mere half hour prior to sun set. We used the terrace to bail onto easy ground, topping out in time to watch the sun set. As we descended into the gathering darkness we agreed that tomorrow we would return to finish it off.

Needless to say there was no sign of the party of five.

Another late start saw us looking down from the landward cliff top behind the old man. A slow moving team on the first pitch of the original route filled us with horror. Our plan of blasting up the trade route and abbing into the final (crux) pitch of the GMB looked optimistic. Luckily they headed left up the South Face in a shower of loose holds and fulmar vomit, leaving the way clear. One pitch of overhanging offwidth, two pitches of ledge shuffling and one good corner led to the top. We abseiled and traversed into position below the final thirty metre, overhanging corner system, of the GMB. At this point I declared that having led the lion’s share of the lower section it was only fair to let Reeve have first refusal. He almost bit my hand off.

This last pitch was epic in position and quality. The final capping buttress overhung the North West arête and the climbing was steep and athletic with enough gear to provide comfort but long enough run-outs to focus the mind. A section of wafer thin flakes added spice with the specialty being good breaks with a subsidiary fragile flake above. This left one with no option but to trust the fragile higher surface. When weighted these often held for a while before dropping you, unexpectedly half a centimetre lower onto the solid hold below. Logic flew out the window on these occasions and I’m sure I heard whimpering floating down from above along with the sandy debris.

This time we topped out with plenty of time to enjoy the summit. Three tops in two days seemed quite good going.

Having only climbed the West Face GMB route and the East Face Original route I’m possibly not in a position to argue that the GMB is the best route up the Old Man but I do know that if I head back again I’m taking less wires, a triple rack of cams and going for the one-day speed ascent. Although as Dave Turnball always insists, the best thing to take on routes like this is John Arran.

Monday, 3 September 2012

I'm bigtime

I'm bigtime

Chasing an indian summer or post monsoon season window of climbing opportunity plans were made for the South West.

Targets hatched. An unstoppable team assembled. Routes quite literally crumbled before us.

Staggering under the weight of a million small wires, a rigging rope, 100 meters of static, two 8mm half ropes and other gear we gained the top of Dyres Lookout.

I was psyched. This feature was epic, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Walk of Life and The Earth Sea Trilogy part 1. All amazing lines. All climbable by the strong and the talented. The Earth Sea Trilogy possibly climbable by me.

I was going to stack the odds in my favour. The new job and house renovation had led to the quietest spell in my climbing since 2003 so I needed all the help I could get. I abseiled in for a quick look.

Don't be mistaken. I was ticking holds, ticking gear placements, pulling on and trying moves. Onsite this was not. I unlocked moves downwards, penduling  across the slab to clip directional runners then nothing.......

Blank rock. I pondered. This looked hard and bold. I swung across to the walk of life for a comparison, it had holds and gear. Swinging back I continued downwards passing a hold. I pulled on and the hold came off. Then I got to the bottom third, there was holds and gear a plenty. It looked piss. Reeve and I sat at the bottom comparing topo photos and route descriptions.

The middle had fallen down. The Earth Sea Trilogy part 1 was no more.

In consolation next time someone asks:

"So you go climbing do you?"

"er yes"

"do you go abseiling as well?"

"hell yes, I've abseiled the hardest trad route in the country, I'm bigtime."