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

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


El Calafate, Argentina
February 26, 2010, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Argentina

I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina on the morning of February 6.  I checked into a great hostel called Hostal Tita, located near to the Palermo neighborhood, one of the best and trendiest in BA.  I spent a bit of the day exploring the Palermo neighborhood before escaping the humidity back in the hostel.  Argentina is quite famous — rightfully so — for its beef, so for dinner I ducked into a small, nondescript local parilla (grill house) for dinner, and had an unforgettable  hunk of bife de chorizo, a cut similar to a New York Strip, that was seasoned with nothing more than salt and rivaled the best steak I’d had in New York, and only cost about ten bucks.  That and a bottle of Malbec and I was good to go.  That night I went out with another American and a group of Colombians.  I fought through the jetlag from my overnight flight and managed to party until the sun came up.  The next day I slept in until about 3, and then two locals I met at the club the night before showed me around Puerto Madero, another nice neighborhood, and we had a few beers.  I went back to the same parilla for the same dinner that night and got ready for my flight the next day to El Calafate.

El Calafate international airport

View from the terminal

El Calafate is a smallish town in southern Patagonia, near the very bottom of Argentina, which exists primarily to serve the ton loads of sightseers who visist Glacier Perito Moreno (and, for me, served as meeting point with my buddy Alex and transfer point to El Chalten).  I was there two days.  The first I paid a visit to the glacier and did the “mini-trekking” tour, that involved a two hour walk on the ice.  The glacier itself is fascinating: its one of — if not the — fastest advancing glaciers, moving on average 1.5 meters per day.  It is also a stable glacier so that while it cleaves huge chunks of ice into the surrounding lake, it grows up top at the same rate.  At one point I was a chunk the size of a 10 story building thunderously cleave and crash into the lake.  Quite a sight.  The next day I met up with Alex, my climbing partner for the trip to El Chalten, and we spent a leisurely afternoon at the local bar/bookstore/cafe sipping microbrews.  (There are some incredible beers being made in Patagonia – reason alone to make the journey.)  Both of us were antsy to get to El Chalten and the next day we were on our way.

Lago Argentino - the largest freshwater lake in Argentina - from the I Keu Ken hostel in El Calafate

Glacier Perito Moreno

The passenger ship on the right holds hundreds, to give you an idea of the scale of this beast

It was a rainy day...

February 11, 2010, 2:09 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Now that I’m back on the road (in Argentina), I figured this was as good as time as any to finish recounting my travels in S.E. Asia.  So…. From Vietnam, I traveled by boat up the Mekong River into Cambodia – straight Apocalypse Now style, minus the guns, bombs, drugs, and The Doors.  My first stop was Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s colorful and charismatic capital where I spent two and a half days, primarily just walking about and visiting the Tuol Sleng/S.21 military prison-cum-genocide museum.  Tuol Sleng was a school in the middle of Phnom Pehn that Pol Pot turned into a prison where thousands of Cambodians (and some foreigners, too) were tortured and killed.  Out of those thousands who passed through, less than a dozen were known to have survived.  Most of the “guards” at the prison were young kids, in their teens.  The prison/museum has been left in virtually the same condition as when the Vietnamese army liberated it, blood stains and all.  A very sobering experience.  On the opposite end of the cultrual spectrum, a friend of a friend living in Phnom Penh took me out, along with another friend of his, for dinner at an excellent local joint and for a night of boozing at various types of bars that populate PP, which range from sleek to shady.  All good fun.

The Royal Palace

The riverfront area of Phnom Penh

Tuol Sleng military prison, formerly a school

Classroom turned into a torture room

My next stop was Siem Reap, jumping off point for exploring the Angkor Archaeological Park.  This area is most famous for Angkor Wat, which may be the single largest religious structure in the world, and probably the most photographed building in S.E. Asia (and was also the backdrop for the movie Tomb Raider).  The Park contains dozens and dozens of old temple and palace ruins from the 9th to the 15th centuries, the height of the Khmer Empire.  At the time, Angkor had a population of a million, making it the largest preindustrial city in the world.  Today, the ruins of most interest are spread over approximately 30 square kilometers, though there exist hundreds of ruins scattered over a 1000 square kilometer area.  I spent three days biking around and exploring the main temples — incredibly, there are very few restrictions on exploring the ruins, so I was basically free to wander all around and scramble over them.  Many of the temples are enormous and labyrinthine, making it easy to lose one’s way.  Three days was a lot of time to spend visiting old buildings, but it wasn’t even enough to see all of the main sights.  Enjoy the pictures.

Crossing the enormous moat that surrounds Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

South entrance to Bayon temple

Bayon temple

Inside Bayon temple - one of several concentric passageways

Ta Prohm temple - in front of a silk-cotton tree that has overgrown the temple

Another tree dominating the temple

The faces of Bayon temple

A little buddha somewhere in some temple

Sunset from Phnom Bakheng temple

From Siem Reap, I headed back to Bangkok by bus for a day of getting bizarre on Ko Sahn Road (the backpacker ghetto) before heading back to Los Angeles on a 30 hour journey, which included an 11 hour layover in Seoul.  Made it back just in time for Christmas with the family.