The One Less Traveled By: a chronicle of my yearlong sabbatical

Peru – Huaraz & Climbing in the Cordillera Blanca Part 1
August 26, 2010, 10:52 pm
Filed under: Peru

So, going back to May:  After about a week in and around Cusco, I took an hour-long flight to Lima, Peru’s capital.  My arrival in Lima marked the first time that I was below 3000m / 10,000ft in about a month (having been in Bolivia’s high desert and La Paz before that).  The oxygen-rich air was thick and rejuvenating.  Lima itself is moderately interesting; probably the best thing it has going is its excellent seafood restaurants, particularly the cevicherias.  I had several memorable meals the two days I was there.

I left Lima quickly, before I lost my acclimatization.

My next stop was Huaraz, Peru – one of the centers of high-altitude mountaineering in South America.  Nestled against the Cordillera Blanca, Huaraz is home to sixteen peaks over 6000m / 19,600 ft and dozens more over 5000m / 16,400 ft, and is close to the Cordillera Huayhuash, an even more impressive mountain range that is best known for being home to the epic survival story documented in the movie Touching the Void.  Huaraz is not a beautiful town, but the backdrop and views are amazing.

Huascaran mountain, the highest in Peru at 22,100 ft, dominates the northern skyline from town

Dusk settles over the Cordillera Blanca and Huaraz

A view from my hostel's terrace

I quickly met several other climbers, some at the hostel where I stayed and others at Cafe Andino, an excellent bar/cafe/library/restaurant that serves as ground zero for alpinism in Peru.  Within a few days of arriving I hooked up with two brothers from England, Sam and Sky, who were planning on doing some climbing as well.  We decided that we would hire a guide to attempt Tocllaraju mountain, topping out at 6033m / 19,793 ft, and then, after a day’s rest, we would attempt another mountain in the same area without a guide.  A jarring 2.5 hour ride, most of it over pock-marked dirt roads, took us to the pueblito of Collon, home to a few huts and donkeys, where we organized gear and loaded it onto donkeys and then embarked on the 8-mile hike to base camp – fortunately it was a pretty gentle grade.

Sorting gear in the pueblo of Collon for the hike to base camp

Hiking to base camp with Tocllaraju, our first objective, in the distance

Relaxing at base camp before hiking up to high camp

We arrived at base camp a few hours before our donkeys, so our plan to make it all the way to high camp in one day didn’t fly.  Instead we relaxed under blue skies, leisurely set up camp, and had a pleasant dinner of ramen noodles.  The next day at about noon we made the steep hike up an exhausting moraine field (lots of large boulders, poorly marked trail) for about 3 hours to high camp.  We set up camp on the edge of the glacier, at about 17,000 feet, at a spot with an excellent view of the next day’s goal:  Tocllaraju’s summit.

Hiking from base camp up the moraine field to high camp

The alpenglow of Tocllaraju mountain as seen from our high camp

Early the next morning, at about 1:30 am, after a perfunctory breakfast, we departed base camp, put on our crampons and roped up, and started the long hike across the glacier and snow fields to the Northwest Ridge, our route.  The first couple hours was of moderate angle, though still difficult because of the altitude, and presented a few spots where the route finding was challenging, especially with the abundance of crevasses.  Then the climbing got steep, and super fun, with 50+ feet of climbing up to 80 degrees or more.  Being early in the climbing season, much of the route was still soft-ish snow, instead of compact ice, making solid placements with ice axes and crampons difficult, and the crux sections exciting.  It was an absolute blast though, being that high up on such steep terrain.  Aside from being short of breath the entire time, I had no problems with the altitude, though one of the brothers in our group was feeling the effects of the altitude in a pretty bad way, but to his immense credit he pushed on, even after ralphing.  Had he been unable to continue, we would have all had to retreat; that would have been a huge bummer.  We reached the summit, out of breath, around 10 am or so and were rewarded with sweeping, panoramic views of the Cordillera Blanca and its playground of big, jagged mountains.  We were 19,793 feet up, the second highest I’d ever been.

Heading up the mountain

We took the middle route, right up the gut - it was steep and fun

Where the going got gnarly

Nearing the top of the northwest ridge

On the summit of Tocllaraju with Sam and Sky

The ridiculous view from the summit

The route we took - the NW Ridge - ascends the left-hand ridge in this photo

The descent was pretty straightforward and we even got to do some fun rappelling on the steep sections.  Back at high camp we rested for about two hours before breaking camp and making our way back down to base camp.  We arrived a little after dark.  My legs were jello and it took all my energy to cook dinner.

The next day we rested, spending the day basking in the sun, playing cards, and having a few beers at the nearby refugio.  We also prepared a bit for the next day’s planned climb of Ishinca mountain, another mountain accessible from the same valley we were in.  Because it would be less demanding than Tocllaraju, we decided to attempt this mountain ourselves, without a guide.  It would be my first mountaineering trip without a professional guide, so I was pretty excited.

The next day we woke up a little after 4:30am, a good 2 hours after we were supposed to wake up.  Coincidentally, my watch battery died that night and we didn’t hear Sam’s alarm.  So, we awoke with a start and made the quick decision that we would have to scrap Ishinca and instead attempt Urus mountain, a similar mountain in terms of difficulty, but which we had heard would not take quite as long to summit.  (We were a bit pressed for time as our mule driver was arriving at 1pm to take us back out of the valley.)  Sky decided to stay at camp and rest since he was still recovering from altitude sickness, so it was just Sam and I.  The first two hours we spent trudging, half-asleep, up a steep, rocky mountainside and trying to find the correct trail in the dark.  Finally we reached the snow fields and, under beautiful bluebird skies, donned crampons and roped up for the climbing.  Sam was gracious enough to let me lead, which was awesome.  The climbing was not too difficult, though it required climbing on both snow and ice.  We reached the summit, 5420m / 17,782 ft, after about 1.5 hours.  The summit was a small snowy field protruding about 15 feet off some rocks and as I made my way, slowly, to the top, I peered over the other side and found myself looking straight down thousands of feet.  When Sam reached the top and gingerly peered over, he notice that the snow field was actually a giant cornice – i.e. a giant overhanging edge of snow formed by wind.   Thus we quickly retreated several feet, slung our rope around a giant boulder, secured ourselves with some other anchors, and only then started snapping the requisite summit shots.

Looking back up the approach to Urus, whose summit is on the left

On the summit blocks with Sam. Tocllaraju is visible over my left shoulder.

Giving the climb a two thumbs up from the summit's precarious cornice. This snowfield overhung the rock by several feet and the other side was several thousand feet of air.

We made it back to camp shortly before the mule driver arrived, who, when he did arrive, shared his surprisingly delicious lunch of rice and beans with us.  We then made our way back to Collon, then to Huaraz, and then directly to Cafe Andino to take advantage of the happy hour specials on daiquiris and pisco sours (the best I’ve had).  I slept like a drunken baby that night.


Peru – Cusco, Machu Pichu, Moray & Maras
August 2, 2010, 12:30 pm
Filed under: Peru

After leaving La Paz, Bolivia at the end of April I headed straight to Cusco, Peru, passing (up) Lake Titicaca on the way.  Cusco is a beautiful town with a Spanish colonial feel, nice restaurants, steep cobblestoned streets, gorgeous plazas, and excellent nightlife.  It was, at one point, the historic capital of the Inca Empire and, later, the center of Spanish colonization in the Andes.  Today, it’s the capital of tourism in Peru, if not South America, thanks to it’s proximity to world-famous Machu Pichu.  I stayed a total of three days in Cusco, bisected by a trip to Machu Pichu.

Cusco is surrounded on all sides by rolling hills


Cusco's Plaza del Armas

Festival in the Plaza del Armas

Coricancha, one of the most important temples in the Inca Empires

I arrived in Cusco with some desire, but no set plan, to see Machu Pichu.  The most common way to get to MP is to hike the old Inca Trail, which takes about four days and crosses several mountain passes over 4000m.  Since I hadn’t booked a trek months in advance, and since permits for the trek were sold out through the end of August already by April, I opted for the train – along with foot, the only mode of transportation possible – and was lucky to score a seat for the next day my first day in Cusco.  (Floods and mudslides in January, which washed away portions of the rail line and closed MP to tourists, caused a massive back-up in tourism by the time I arrived.)  The train, which ended up not leaving from Cusco but from an hour away in the Sacred Valley, was a great way to travel – it’s comfy, clean, and has large panoramic windows that provide excellent views of the steep mountains through which the train winds.  The ride lasts about two hours and terminates in Aguas Calientes, a disastrous little town at the base of the mountain on which MP perches – a town that exists only to serve tourists and that takes tourist-cheesy to a whole new level.  From Aguas Calientes, I grabbed a minibus up the steep and winding road that takes visitors up to Machu Pichu.

The beginning of the train line to Machu Pichu

Boarding the train

Probably the nicest train in South America

I had moderate expectation for Machu Pichu because, over the last two months of traveling in South America, I had heard so much about how great it is, and so tempered my expectations accordingly.  I was, however, totally blown away.  It is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and breathtaking places I have ever been.  The ruins themselves are pretty neat, but for me it was the location of them that is most impressive – the Incas picked a most spectacular place to build this city.  I wandered around for about 4 hours before I was finally shooed away by heavy rains, which seem to be a daily occurrence that time of year.

Panorama of Machu Pichu

Machu Pichu with Huyana Pichu mountain in the background


Machu Pichu is well-protected by steep mountainsides

Terraces for agriculture

After spending a night in Aguas Calientes – the only option for staying at MP being a $400+ a night hotel room – I headed back by train to a town called Ollantaytambo, about halfway to Cusco and in Peru’s Sacred Valley.  From there, along with two others from Spain, I negotiated with a taxi driver to take us the rest of the way back to Cusco via some other sights in the Sacred Valley.  That afternoon provided an excellent opportunity to improve my Spanish as the other three spoke no English.

The first place we stopped was Moray, an Incan agricultural laboratory that was used to cultivate resistant and hearty varieties of plants high in the Andes.

Entrance to Moray

Moray from above

Terraces used to grow different crops

The outcropping stones are steps used to move from one level to another

From Moray we drove to the salt plains at Maras, which were built by the Inca and are still used to produce salt today.  Highly saline water from a natural spring is slowly diverted into and around hundreds of small (roughly one square meter) and shallow pools that have been dug into a hillside.  The water then evaporates, leaving little collections of salt.

The slat plains of Maras

From afar

The salt pools

The Sacred Valley from Maras

Getting High and Not Dying in Bolivia – Part 2 (in which I develop an addiction)
May 24, 2010, 8:34 pm
Filed under: Bolivia

I spent about two and a half weeks (April 12 to 28) in and around La Paz.  In addition to cycling Death Road, while in La Paz I, like so many others, found a way to feed what became an addiction.  Fortunately, mountaineering is probably not as dangerous as the addiction that most others come to La Paz to feed, on the cheap, usually in shady nightclubs, for weeks on end.  I fed mine in the Cordillera Real (the Royal Range), which surrounds La Paz and is home to dozens of 5000- and 6000-meter peaks.

I had been carrying, but had not used, my mountaineering gear (technical boots, gloves, and clothing) since El Chalten – which was back in early February – so I was happy to put it back to use.  My first trip out I hired an excellent guide named Teo to attempt Condoriri (aka Cabeza del Condor/Head of the Condor) and Pequeno Alpamayo over the course of four days.  My friend Chrissy came along as well to attempt Pequeno Alpamayo.  Condoriri was by far the more technical of the two, but when I had seen a picture of Pequeno Alpamayo I immediately had an overwhelming desire to climb it – the mountain, and the line up, were both so aesthetically perfect.

Pequeno Alpamayo


The first day we hopped in a taxi for a two hour ride to a tiny village named Tuni, population like 25, to load up the donkeys – that’s right, we had donkeys carrying our gear and food – and commence the two hour walk to basecamp.  We set up camp on the edge of a lake with perfect views of Condoriri.

The tiny town of Tuni, with Hyuana Potosi mountain in the distance

Our beats of burden

After almost no sleep (thanks to an obnoxious group of trekkers who must have thought that being incredibly loud was what the outdoors call for), Teo and I awoke at midnight, suited up, had breakfast, and headed out at about 1am.  The approach to the climb was fairly brutal, including about an hour or more up a very steep moraine field.  Then, after an hour and a half crossing a glacier, we finally arrived at the business of the climb – a 300-foot, 60-degree, snow, ice and rock canaleta (gully).  It was super fun and involved true mixed climbing, using the rock and the ice at the same time (the conditions were pretty thin; later in the season there’d be more snow):  while I found purchase in the ice with my right crampon and right hand, which had the ice ax, I used my left hand and left crampon on the adjacent rock.  Teo did an excellent job leading even though minimal protection was available.

The second pitch of the 60-degree canaleta/gully (as photographed from the rappel)

The canaleta -- the obvious snow gully on the left -- viewed from the summit of Pequeno Alpamayo

We reached the top of the canaleta just in time for sunrise

Upon reaching the top of the caneleta, we gingerly climbed over a knife-edge ridge and began to climb up the north ridge, which was snow and rock, to gain the summit ridge.  The ridge leading to the summit was unbelievably cool and exposed.  For about the two hundred feet that it ran to the summit, it was very narrow, with steep, see-you-on-the-other-side drops of hundreds of feet on both sides.  We reached the summit (18530ft / 5648m) at around 7:30am.  We stayed for twenty minutes enjoying the sweeping views of the Cordillera.  The altitude made the steep climbing tough, and breathing was always a challenge, but overall I felt pretty strong and had no problem making the summit.

Teo leading the southwest ridge

Dawn sweeps over the Cordillera as we continue to climb

The remarkable summit ridge, steep on both sides, massive drops. That's my ice ax.

Me on the narrow summit. At the time, this was the highest I'd ever been - 18,530 feet.

Teo on the summit with the Cordillera Real unfolding behind him

Our base camp, at the far side of the lake, from the summit.

The blister-inducing hike down was as brutal as the hike up, and we finally arrived back at base camp at 11:15 am, I with a massive headache either from dehydration or the effects of descending from altitude, or both.  I immediately fell asleep for an hour and, totally exhausted, I ate and remained horizontal the rest of the day.

We had considered having a rest day between Condoriri and Pequeno Alpamayo, but we decided instead that, since the weather was looking good, we should carpe diem etc.  And, anyway, after resting all day, I felt ok.  So, the next day, we woke at 2am and headed out by 3.  The approach to Pequeno Alpamayo was much more gentle, though there were some steep parts on the glacier and a challenging 4th class rock descent to reach the start of the climb.  The route we chose, the normal route, follows the awesome, aesthetic ridge all the way to the top.

Pequeno Alpamayo at dawn from our approach. The ridge -- which ascends from left to right -- is just visible in the light.

Sun rises over the Cordillera Real as we approach the climb

Most of the ridge was of moderate angle, but there was a fun section of about 100 feet of 55 degree climbing, before reaching the summit, at 17618ft / 5370m.  It felt awesome to get two summits in two days!

Teo cruising where it gets steep

The last few steps to the summit...

A bit blinded on the summit

Descending the ridge

Oh yes, there were plenty of crevasses

We arrived back to base camp at about 1 and again spent the rest of the day relaxing, eating, and hydrating.  The next day the arrierro (donkey driver) showed up at about 9am and we hiked back to Tuni for our ride back to La Paz.

Back in La Paz I rested for a few days before heading back out to the mountains, this time to attempt Huayna Potosi, just shy of 20,000 feet high (6088m).

Huayna Potosi from the miners graveyard

I went again with the same guide, Teo.  We did the climb in the normal three days.  The first day we drove to base camp, which this time was a comfy refugio, in the morning, and spent the afternoon ice climbing on a nearby glacier. The next day we packed up and left in the morning to make the 2.5-hour hike to high camp, another refugio, situated at 16830ft / 5130m.

Hiking to high camp with Huayna Potosi obscured by clouds in the distance

High camp refugio at 5130 meters

View from high camp toward La Paz, obscured by clouds

Having an early dinner at high camp

After lunch and an early dinner, it was off to bed by about 6 pm as we had to wake at midnight to start climbing.  It’s true that it’s difficult to sleep at altitude:  I slept for about an hour, from 7 to 8, then laid awake checking my watch every half hour hoping that it was time to finally go.  And then it was.  There were about six or seven other groups of two or three, but we felt like we were the most fit, so we let them all go first up the glacier while we took our time getting ready.  Teo did a great job of setting a slow, steady pace – one step every second or second and a half – which soon took us past the other groups that regularly had to stop for breaks.  We minimized breaks to two because it was just too damn cold to stop moving.  Our route was the normal route but with a direct variation that took us straight up the east face to the summit (the normal route winds around a bit more to an exposed ridge to the summit; this was our descent).  The face climbing was super fun, with 800 feet of climbing at an average grade of around 50 degrees, and with portions up to 60 or 65 degrees.

We reached the summit well ahead of the other groups and well ahead of sunrise, too – about 20 minutes ahead.  We planted ourselves on the precarious summit cornice for an extraordinarily cold half an hour to wait for sunrise and allow some of the others to gain the summit and clear room on the narrow ridge that we would descend.  (It was so cold that I debated for 15 minutes whether to take out my camera and off my gloves to snap some picks.  I’m glad I did.)  The wind was blowing fierce and it was already well below zero and as soon as my toes went from being totally numb to tingling with needles of pain I knew it was time to start moving.  The descent was quick and uneventful; we were back in La Paz by 1 pm.

On the summit, a knife-edge ridge with a 3000ft drop on the back side, at about 5:30am

Detail of the summit - an Israeli girl fell over it a few days before, but lucky for her she was still on rope so she only went about 10 feet, out of a possible 3000 feet.

Frozen on the summit

Sunrise over an ocean of clouds, from the summit

A look back at the summit of HP, which is on the right barely poking its head above the foreground ridge

While not out climbing I mostly just hung out in the city, enjoying the various gringo cafes that have a monopoly on good coffee in the city; eating regularly at a Mexican (finally!) and an excellent Cuban restaurant; and exploring the various eclectic markets that spill into the streets of La Paz.  I did get one day of rock climbing in on fantastically crappy rock; I had one hold bust on me slicing open my finger pretty good.  Unlike many people I met, I was fortunate not to get mugged or robbed while in La Paz – a regular occurrence, unfortunately, and often at knife- or gunpoint.  Overall, I had a great time there and left with wonderful impressions of La Paz and Bolivia, too.  Next stop:  Peru.

Getting High and Not Dying in Bolivia – Part 1
May 22, 2010, 9:21 pm
Filed under: Bolivia

After two months in Argentina I finally bid it adios and headed north to Bolivia, a country about which I knew little and had few expectations, but which soon proved to be fascinating and wonderful.

Crossing the border into Bolvia

Among its most immediate charms are the women (and, less often, men) dressed in traditional clothing, complete with llama-wool leg warmers, pleated skirts, sweaters, throws, and bowler hats – no matter how cold or how hot the day, the dress was always the same.  Nearly 60% of the population identifies itself as indigenous, making Bolivia immediately and palpably different than Argentina, which itself feels much more European.  Another charm:  Bolivia is very cheap, so is an excellent place to be a traveler and climber.  Whereas a 15-hour bus ride in Argentina might cost 80 USD, the same ride in Bolivia cost 10 bucks or less.

I traveled into Bolivia with four others that I had hung out with in Cafayate, Argentina – Chrissy, Silvia, Susan, and John – as well as two British girls I had met weeks earlier in El Bolson – Emilie and Sara – and their Dutch friend, Hanneke.  Our first stop was Tupiza, in southern Bolivia, a few hours’ ride along a dusty, bumpy road from the border.


Tupiza is a hot, sleepy town in the middle of gorgeous red-stained mountains and cliffs. The second day there we went horseback riding around the quebrada and saw the most incredible red rock formations – the looked like massive stalactites.  My horse was a competitive bugger and every time another horse would gallop ahead, he’d race and try to cut it off.  After riding horses twice here in South America, I have concluded that it’s fun – for about 15 minutes.

Headed out into the quebrada

Our guide and his donkey

The main reason we stopped in Tupiza was to do a four-day Jeep tour of southwest Bolivia, from Tupiza to Uyuni.  The highlight of the trip would be a day on the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, at 4,086 square miles. I was a bit skeptical at first of spending four days in a car – not exactly an adrenaline rush – but the trip proved to be a highlight of my time in S. America so far, in large part because of our awesome group.  The eight of us — Chrissy, Sylvia, John, Susan, Emilie, Sarah, Hanneke and I — piled into two Jeeps, each with a driver and cook, loaded our bags on top, and headed out into the high desert that makes up Bolivia’s southwestern flanks.  The first day we spent driving up, up, up into the alitplano, a high desert-like plateau, at about 4000m/13,000ft, and enjoyed an excellent lunch of dried llama jerky, salad, corn, potatoes and fruit prepared by our skilled cooks.  Perhaps the best part of the meal was the super hot fresh salsa they provided – the first spicy dish in months, as Argentina has an allergy or something to anything spicy.

The eight of us, very high

Interesting rock formations as we head up into the altiplano

We spent the first night in a tiny town, population 250, hours from anywhere, and standing tall at almost 14,000 feet above sea level.  Fortunately we had bags of coca leaves to munch on (well, masticate and suck on) to combat the effects of the altitude.  That night I spent well over an hour just laying outside being blown away by the incredible number of stars visible.  I had never seen anything like it – billions and billions and billions, so clearly visible thanks to the high altitude and complete lack of light pollution.  It was very nearly overwhelming.

Stopping for the night

San Antonio de Lipez, pop. 250

The next day we woke up at some illegal hour, like 5am or something, to get an early start on a long day.  We visited a number of sights – lakes and lagoons (often full of extractable minerals), small salt flats, volcanic geysers at 5000m/16,4000ft above sea level, rock formations of petrified lava, and an abandoned gold mining town.  But the highlight of the day was a stop at a natural hot springs for a swim and lunch – that, and drinking a couple of bottles of rum with the others that night and having some laughs (drinking at altitude makes everybody a cheap drunk).

Kicking back in the hot springs

The long and dusty road through the antiplano

Bolivia's beauty

The next day was surprisingly hangover free and we continued our drive north, passing by more lakes – red and full of flamingoes – and incredible painted landscapes with bizarre rock formations.  We spent the night on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni in a hotel made entirely of salt and enjoyed a drunken game of cards with out drivers.

Packing up and getting going on day three

Laguna Colorado full of flamingoes

Having coca tea in the salt hotel

Finally, the fourth day, we woke up early again to make it out onto the salt flats for sunrise.

Sunrise on the Salar

It was gorgeous.  And cold.  The Salar de Uyuni is immense and stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction.  It contains something like 60% of the world’s lithium reserves and locals harvest its salt in small plots. Incredibly flat, the average altitude variation is only one meter over the entire area of the Salar.  After marveling at all this, we spent the afternoon walking around a small island dotted with centuries old cacti, and then taking the obligatory “photos locos” on the Salar before being dropped of in Uyuni.

Las chicas

Detail of the Salar

On the Isla del Pescado with Emilie and Hanneke

Our cooks were giants...

Disproving the notion that you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose

Salt being harvested

In Uyuni our group split, some heading to Potosi, others to Sucre, and I to La Paz via overnight bus.  Arriving in the morning and seeing La Paz for the first time was amazing.  It’s a big, chaotic city that comes tumbling down some seriously steep mountainsides into a small valley, with immense Illimani mountain (6,438m/21,122ft) standing like a sentinel over the city.

La Paz, the world's highest capital at 11,943 feet, with Illimani in the distance

Downtown La Paz

The first order of business in La Paz was cycling down what the Inter-American Development Bank dubbed The World’s Most Dangerous Road, and which is known in town simply as El Camino de la Muerte, or Death Road.  This two-way dirt road descends over 12,000 feet over about 38 miles, in most places is no wider than 10 feet, and despite miles and miles of sheer drops of over 1000 feet, there are only about 20 feet of guardrails along its entire length.

Performing a safety ritual before departing: pouring pure grain alcohol on the bike's tire..

... and touching it to the lips before departing

World's Most Dangerous Road

For years – before a new, paved road was built in 2006, but which regularly closes due to mudslides – there were on average close to 300 deaths a year on this road.  While Death Road is no longer as heavily used by motor vehicles, it’s popular with bicyclists as it’s almost all downhill and is totally rad.  But it’s still very dangerous:  an Israeli girl died, biking of the edge, four days before I went.

The remains of a truck the plummeted off the edge

Crosses commemorating those motorists and bicyclists who took the plunge

My group made it down safely. We ended to ride in a jungle town called Corico (strange starting in the mountains and ending in a jungle) and spent a few hours at an animal refuge playing with monkeys and other animals before returning to La Paz.  Despite having to ride on the outside of the road, closest to the massive drops (vehicles drive on the left side of this road so the downhill driver can stick his head out the window and check to see how close his wheels are to the cliff edge), the scariest part was driving back up Death Road in the van.  Almost as scary is when I hit a rock on the downhill and came close to losing control on a turn where there was a 1000 foot drop, having to put my foot down to regain control.  The dude riding behind me told me I scared the s*** out of him.  Imagine how I felt!

One particularly gnarly turn


The bus/support vehicle. The driver was a former rally car driver - no joke

Monkeys at the animal sanctuary

Hiking, Biking, Boozing and Busing Through Argentina
May 16, 2010, 11:27 pm
Filed under: Argentina

Now that it’s months and countries behind me, I figure it’s high time I update my blog with the rest of my trip through Argentina.  So….  After Bariloche, where I hung out until March 14, I headed a few hours south to the town of El Bolson.  El Bolson is situated in a ridiculously picturesque valley, with beautiful lush mountains on either side, and is probably best known for its hippies and microbrews.  It didn’t disappoint as to either.   (Picture, for example, barefooted, knotty-haired toddlers running around the organic section of the supermarket, and a weekend market with nearly a dozen vendors selling homebrew.)  I stayed at a fantastic hostel called El Pueblito whose innumerable charms included two proprietary beers brewed by the owners, a barn converted into a bar, and delicious nightly dinners prepared with ingredients from the organic garden.  It was the type of place where people stayed for weeks and, in the case of two dudes I met, months.  I stayed for about a week.

El Pueblito

Marcel, one of the owners of the hostel, tending bar

During that time I made two trips to the mountains – one for a day, the other for three.  The day trip was to Mount Piltriquitron, the highest peak on one side of the valley.  The hike passes Refugio Piltriquitron and winds through El Bolson’s “Carved Forest” where artists have carved figurines and objects into the trees in an effort to bring life back to this area which had been racked by fire.

Refugio Piltriquitron - this place served excellent homebrew

Dude who carved this one must have been on something strong...

Hands from the Carved Forest

On the summit of Piltriquitron with the Andes in the background

Two days later, along with another American girl named Chrissy, who had attended the same Spanish school as me in Bariloche, I hiked to Refugio Cerro Lindo.  Unfortunately it was the day after Saint Patrick’s Day:  all of the drinks and all of the not sleeping did not make for a particularly pleasant hike up the steep trail.  Nevertheless, we made it in about 4.5 hours when everybody told us it would take 7, so we were happy.  The next day, the man who runs the refugio – the refugiero – took us on an incredibly beautiful hike around the area and up to the top of Cerro Lindo mountain, where we were rewarded with panoramic views of the Corderilla de los Andes.  The next day, after a trip to a nearby waterfall, we headed back down the mountain and back to El Pueblito, just in time for an incredible Argentinean asado (BBQ), where the quantity of meat cooked and served bordered on the obscene.

The lush forest through which we passed on the way to Refugio Cerro Lindo

The refugio

The refugio's 5-star accommodations

The refugiero pausing for a moment of reflection

The Chilean Andes from the top of Cerro Lindo

Lago Tres Colores

More of the beautiful scenery around Cerro Lindo

Sledding down the snowfield on the way back to the refugio

Not having any plans of any sort, after El Bolson I decided to head back to Buenos Aires (~20 hours by bus; Argentina is huge) to see some friends, check out the city some more, and decide where to go next.  I stayed about a week, during which time I ate ridiculous amounts of steak and walked a ton (like Argentina, BA is massive).  I mulled over heading to Brazil next, but decided I didn’t want to deal with the headache of applying for a visa — which is required for US passport holders — and waiting for it to be issued, and also realized that I needed more mountain adventures.  The beach would have to wait.

After about five days in BA I boarded an overnight bus to Cordoba, in north-central Argentina.  There wasn’t much to do there so I stayed only a couple of days.  I did meet some great people at the hostel where I stayed and walked around the city blah blah blah.

From Cordoba, I traveled further north in Argentina to Cafayate.  Cafayate is the type of place that does not get much press – thankfully – but is an absolute gem; the type of place where a Canadian couple came for a few days and immediately looked into buying a house there.  I was nearly swayed in the same direction, too.

Cafayate's main church in the small's town's diminutive central plaza

Cafayate, like all of Argentina, relishes alfajores - a snack that's a cross between a cookie and a cake

In Cafayate I met up with Chrissy again – with whom I had hiked in El Bolson – as well as a couple from Ireland, Susan and John, and a girl from Switzerland, Silvia.  Together, we took a bus 50km out of town and then biked back through the gorgeous countryside, which looks like a cross between the red rocks of Arizona and the badlands of South Dakota.  There were several wineries along the way (the area being a principle wine making region, though less well-known then Mendoza), so we stopped and indulged in several bottles of excellent wines, including the regional specialty, Torrontes, a beautiful white wine I had never had before.

On the road

Working hard for our reward...

... which was several bottles of Torrontes..

... at this fantastic winery...

...where they grow their own grapes.

The countryside which we passed through on our ride

At last, back in town, 50km later, at the last winery

Sylvia and I contemplating the first of five bottles from Bodega El Esteco

Back at our fantastic hostel, Rusty Ks, we had a delicious barbeque prepared by the staff and enjoyed more of the fine local wine – until, that is, we delved into the 5 gallon jug of rot gut that the hostel provided, probably more for their entertainment than our own.  After a few more days hanging out in Cafayate and enjoying its laid back vibe, the five of us headed north to Bolivia.

Climbing and Classes in San Carlos de Bariloche
March 24, 2010, 7:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

After two weeks of climbing in El Chalten I decided to make the long journey north to Bariloche, in Argentina’s beautiful Lake District, the northernmost part of Patagonia.  The most direct, though not necessarily quickest, land route to Bariloche travels the famed Ruta Cuarenta (Route 40), which traverses the length of Patagonia and remains for the most part unpaved and completely wild.  It is considered a feat to successfully drive its length oneself; the hardcore do it on motorcycle.  I opted for bus.  The ride lasted a mere 28 hours, not including an overnight stay in the sad little town of Perito Moreno.  The majority of the trip transverses the Patagonian steppe and, aside from some guanaco here and there, there is nothing to look at except the beautifully massive, flat, arid landscape.  We stopped every few hours to stretch our legs; a few times we were lucky enough to pull into an estancia or a miniscule town (if 10 houses, max, make a town) to grab some food.  One estancia in the geographical middle of nowhere was aptly named Siberia.  We finally arrived in Bariloche at about 10 PM on February 24 and I promptly checked into a great Kiwi/Argentinean-run hostel called 41 Below and made friends with some beers.

The much-abused bus making a pit stop.

Estancia La Siberia - the kid playing soccer appears to live there.

The Patagonian steppe

Bariloche is a beautiful city perched on the edge of Lago Nahuel Huapi.  It’s a — or perhaps the — favorite vacation spot for Argentineans of means and is an excellent place to be in summer (now) or winter.  There is hiking, biking, climbing, kayaking, and windsurfing in abundance as well as South America’s largest ski resort.  Bariloche is also renowned for its obscene number of chocolateria (chocolate shops) and heladeria (ice cream stores).

Me on a hike to a local mountain, Cerro Otto, with the lake in the background

Lago Nahuel Huapi from above Bariloche

Bariloche's catedral

Bariloche centro

El centro civico

After a few days hanging out in town I decided to go backpacking in the nearby mountains and brought my climbing gear with the hopes of meeting a partner with whom to climb.  Argentina has an excellent system of backcountry huts, called refugios, which are roughly a day’s hike apart and, at a minimum, provide a place to sleep.  They also generally have food available for purchase and,  at some, sell local microbrews and wine.  My first stop was Refugio Frey, a four-hour hike in on a trail that starts at the bottom of Cerro Catedral ski resort, and which serves as the launching point for some of Argentina’s best rock climbing.  I hiked up with a friendly girl from Colorado named Christine who was working at the Refugio for the season.  Somehow I have been blessed with fantastic weather nearly every day I’ve been in Patagonia, a real rarity, and that day was no exception – warm, blue skies, and only light wind.  Frey is perched on the edge of a beautiful lake and upon arriving we headed straight for it to cool off.  I’m glad I did because I saw a girl paging though the local climbing guide and soon discovered that she, too, was looking for a partner with whom to climb, so Noelle and I made plans to climb the next day.  I was happy that I had not humped my climbing gear up the mountain in vain.

A helicopter approaching with supplies for Refugio Frey, which is visible at the far end of the lake

Refugio Frey in the morning

The next day we did two incredible routs on Aguja Frey, a large granite pillar adjacent to the refugio.  The first route was a beautiful dihedral climb called Diedro de Jim, which Noelle led.  Next we roped up for the ultraclassic Sifuentes Weber route, a four pitch climb up the looming face of Aguja Frey.  I led the first pitch up a steep dihedral hand crack which ended up being scary when I ended up 10 feet above my last piece of protection with no chance to place another piece and serious decking potential.  I was happy when I arrived at the first belay bolts unscathed.  The rest of the climb was beautiful and at times quite intimidating; it had everything from hand and finger cracks, to steep face climbing, to an airy and unprotected traverse, to an ultra awkward and insecure move under and around a hanging flake.  Not having done a ton of lead climbing, and not having lead trad in at least a year and a half, this definitely felt like the hardest lead climbing I’ve done.  For you climbers out there, it’s rated a 5+ on the French scale, which converts to about 5.9, though some of the moves felt like 5.10.  We climbed for three more days but learned that the area is all about hard climbing.  There were very few climbs in the range Noelle and I were comfortable leading, particularly given how intimidating portions of the Sifuentes Weber route was.  Nevertheless we got in some fun climbs and great adventures (having to bail a few times after getting off route, which is not uncommon in the alpine environment).  At night I hung out in the refugio with the dozens of other climbers and trekkers making their way through and drank the local mircobrew, which is brought up by horse in pony kegs (naturally).  After five days in the mountains I hiked back down to town.

Aguja Frey with the classic, fun Sifuentes-Weber route traced in light blue.

Aguja Frey in profile

Some of the surrounding granite spires that make Frey such an alluring place to stay

The view from on high our second day

Watching the moon rise over Frey from my campsite

I decided to stay in Bariloche for another week to take a Spanish language course and also take advantage of the local rock climbing near town.  The weeklong language course was through a great school called La Montana.  After taking a placement test I was placed in an intermediate level with three other students and an excellent teacher, Flavia.  Our small class jived quick and had a blast.  It was great to be back in school, if only for a bit.  After class, which lasted from 9am to 1 pm, I either went climbing or, more often than not, napping, having had to recover from late nights partying, listening to local jazz bands, or just hanging out with others at a local microbrewery, Antares.  I split my time between two great hostels, 41 Below and Penthouse 1004, where I met heaps of good people.  Penthouse 1004 is a unique hostel in that its on the 10th floor of an apartment building and enjoys what is probably the best view of Bariloche, but 41 Below had a real homey vibe so I spent most of my time there.

On the Saturday after our last day of Spanish class, I went horseback riding out on the steppe with three others from the Spanish school.  One of the women in my class, Deanna, had three horses she boarded at a ranch outside of town that also had about a dozen other horses.  So the four of us went on a two-hour ride guided by the gaucho who owns and runs the place.  According to Deanna, my horse was a true gaucho’s horse because while all the other horses walked, mine always insisted on trotting.  Apparently gauchos train their horses to trot — not walk — in order to make good time over the vast expanses of Patagonia.  Anyway, I was super sore when that was done.  But it was a blast and the countryside was beautiful and rugged.

Our guide, what's-his-name

Jack, Jessica and I getting adjusted.

Getting in touch with my inner gaucho.

Riding like the wind...

Feeding my horse a carrot

After over two weeks in Bariloche and with the weather starting to turn cold and rainy (really, my first bad weather in a month in Patagonia), I was itching to move on, so I doubled back and headed a few hours south to El Bolson.

Climbing in El Chalten
February 26, 2010, 2:06 pm
Filed under: Argentina

My buddy and climbing partner, Alex, and I were incredibly fortunate to have blue skies for the bus ride into El Chalten.  We were rewarded with incredible, rare views of the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre ranges – two reasons the best climbers from around the world make Chalten home during the summer.  Even though these granite behemoths tower over Chalten, they go shrouded in clouds, rain and fog for weeks or months at a time; it is common for visitors never to catch a glimpse of them, even though they are the main attraction.

Fitz Roy and Torre ranges from the drive to El Chalten

Alex and I on the way into El Chalten. Fitz Roy is the massive central pillar and Torre is shrouded in clouds on the right.

The snow-capped peak of Cerro Torre pops through the clouds

We had hired a guide for five days to tackle Aguja Guillamet, a peak that would require three days to summit – the two days being a hedge against the weather.  Turns out we didn’t need them.  Upon arriving in town, we checked into a great little hostel run by Marcelo and his son, William, and headed over to our guide, Manuel’s, office.  He told us that that day was the first without rain in over 40 days.  We checked the weather forecast and models to learn that the next few days would be, for the most part, excellent weather.  The first weather window in nearly two months.  We had arrived at the perfect moment. That evening we sorted gear and food, packed our bags, and had a big meal of a local stew.  The next morning we hit the trail.

The tiny outpost of El Chalten

Aguja Guillamet is the closest peak - the one with the puma head on its upper-right summit. Fitz Roy looms, capped with unseasonal snow, in the distance. This was the view from our base camp.

Aguja Guillamet is one of the bookends of the Fitz Roy range.  Our base camp for 5 days/4 nights would be Piedra Negra, a climber’s camp at the base of a glacier that serves as the approach to the climb as well as many other climbs on neighboring peaks.  The hike to camp was about five hours, the last three of which went straight up a steep mountainside replete with loose rock and scree.  I was worked by the time I dragged myself into camp.  Fortunately, the next day was a rest day due to unfavorable weather – snow, wind and cold.  We spent most of the rest day eating and hydrating, trying to stay warm, and chatting up the other climbers who were beginning to descend on Piedra Negra.  (At one point we counted 16 tents – the mass migration due, no doubt, to it being the first climbable weather since mid-December.)

Our guide, Manuel, and Alex and base camp

Trying to stay warm the day before the climb


We decided that the best route up Guillamet would be the classic Amy Coulier route: several hundred feet of a 60 degree snow and ice gully, followed by several hundred feet of rock climbing on quality granite, to reach a steep snowfield to the summit.

We woke at 3 AM and departed camp around 4.  From 4 to 6 we hiked up the glacier and steep snowfields to take us to the mountain pass that provided access to Amy Coulier.  As this was my first time on a glacier and only the second wearing crampons, I was glad it was dark during the approach or else the steepness of the approach would have likely frayed my nerves.  Fortunately, at that hour I could see only a few feet ahead of me, so I just focused on putting one spiked foot in front of the other, planting my ice ax, and hoping that I didn’t lose my balance and go careening hundreds of feet down the glacier.  We made it over the pass just as the sun was rising over the distant mountains in front of us – quite a sight.  Manuel, Alex and I roped up and began the 45-minute hike up another steep glacier to the start of the Amy Coulier route.

The approach from base camp to Amy Coulier, which takes about 2 hours at a steady clip. The coulier starts on the other side of the rock and then traverses the face to the snow ramp.

Sunrise, about 6am, from the pass that serves as access to Amy Coulier

The climb does not start gently.  The first obstacle is crossing a bergschrund — a crevasse that forms where the moving glacier ice separates from the stagnant ice above.  Because of the massive snow build up around the bergschrund, Manuel had to spend nearly 20 minutes digging through snow to find solid footsteps and reach a solid enough portion of the glacier in which to plant the ice axes.  The move over the bergschrund still ended up being slightly overhanging with tenuous ax placements, forcing an insecure and scary move up and over a yawning crevasse.  From there we ascended the several hundred feet of the narrowing snow/ice gully – the coulier – kicking with the crampons and trying to find purchase with the ice tools in steady succession, all the while trying to avoid the shower of dislodged snow and ice from the person climbing above.

Me ascending Amy

At the belay after the second or third pitch of Amy

A view up Amy to the exciting exit over the granite blocks

Upon reaching the top of the coulier a couple hours later, we shed our mountaineering boots for our rock shoes and began the four pitches of rock climbing.  The exposure was significant – thousands of feet of air between my feet and the glacier below – which ensured that I gripped the rock way too hard with my fingers that had become numb from the cold.  After some exciting climbing and an airy traverse, we reached the final and, to me, intimidating obstacle: the snowfield to the top.  The snowfield extends for several hundred feet at a fairly steep angle – steep enough so that climbing down is done facing the mountain with ice ax in hand — and the bottom is an abrupt drop-off of several thousand feet.  Thing is there is nowhere to place protection, so the three of us attached ourselves to a single rope, about 10 meters apart, so that if one person fell, the other two would use their crampons and ice tools to arrest the fall.  Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary and we made it to the top without incident.  As Manuel noted, we were halfway there – now we just had to get back to camp.

Loving the weather and views

Alex on the rock route with the continental ice cap in the distance

Alex and I on the summit of Guillamet

The snow ramp to the summit of Guillamet

We hiked back down the summit snowfield, rappelled several pitches (with one sketchy rappel off wobbly old pitons), and descended back to camp, arriving at about 6:30 that evening to congratulations from the other climbers.  I was exhausted and exhilarated and a good bit relieved to be back safe at camp.  We celebrated with the finest dehydrated camping food money could by and an excellent bottle of fresh glacier run-off water, a 2010 vintage.

Descending the Amy - the obvious horizontal line is the bergschrund

Back at camp after climbing Guillamet

A little skeptical about this meal - I think the rehydrated peanut thai curry had mixed with the remnants of the rehydrated apple cobbler that was left in my bowl from breakfast

The next day we rested again and this time had the pleasure of sunny skies and relative warm.  Manuel’s girlfriend, Pas, had hiked up to base camp and was so kind as to bring us homemade alfajores from a little gem of a chocolate shop in Chalten, so we munched on those, took naps, dried and aired out our clothes, and otherwise did a wonderful lot of nothing.

The next day, facing excellent weather but still feeling a bit exhausted, we decided on a moderate rock climb that follows a ridge for about 8 pitches to the beginning of another route up Guillamet, a climb Manuel had never done before.  From camp, the ridge looked almost like little more than a scramble, but it ended up providing some excellent vertical and very exposed climbing.  In particular, there was one airy traverse under a big, precariously perched bloc, with nothing but air between my feet and the glacier a thousand feet or more below.  The last pitch of climbing was the most exciting and scary.  It went up a straight vertical dihedral (or open book corner) and then traversed right via a balancy, super exposed, very scary move.  Then, after a bit more exciting climbing, there is a challenging chimney that was so narrow we had to remove our backpacks and sling them off our harness.  I was super stoked to reach the top alive and kicking.

Approaching the ridge climb

Manuel leading another super fun pitch

Me on one of the fun ridge pitches

Me carefully moving across the airy traverse

The snowfield traverse to the first rappel anchor from the ridge. The closest notch in the ridge in the distance is the pass to reach Amy Coulier.

By the time we rappelled back to camp it was close to 6, so we quickly packed up camp, drank a bunch of water, and ate a bunch of cliff bars, then began the long hike back to town.  We arrived in El Chalten at about 11 that evening.  The hike down with the heavy packs again broke me off; my legs were sore for about four days.

Alex and I spent another week in El Chalten mostly just hanging out.  The second night back, however, we went to an excellent asado (BBQ) that an American climber was having for his birthday.  It was an interesting, motley group of about 20 American climbers, most of who were down for the whole season, and were probably some of the best in the States (the type of guys who know all of the Yosemite park rangers by name because they have been living in the valley for years, climbing).  A local chef tended the grill and turned out some absolutely delicious chorizo sausage, a few gigantic chunks of beef, and tender, moist cordero (lamb, a Patagonia specialty).  During the day, Alex had work to do for the Antarctic program, so I read, enjoyed some El Chalten microbrews, and used the slowest internet on Earth (Chalten being the middle of nowhere; the type of town with only one ATM, which is more often than not on the fritz or out of cash).  However, we also made it a near daily ritual to, in the late afternoon, drink some yerba mate and get after some evening climbing and bouldering on rock around town.  It was perfect.

The hostel where we stayed

William tended desk at the hostel

Fitz Roy dominating the view from town

Heading into the local chocolateria for some excellent homemade alfajores