Trip: Chalten Massif- Patagonia - Fitz Roy Pillar Goretta Kearney Knight variation
My first time down to El Chalten. Such a wonderful place but so very hard to climb there. I’ve been climbing in the mountains for 15+ years and still felt like a total rookie down there, so much alpine trickery that is particular to that part of the world that would be hard to learn in the Lower 48. For me it was a lot of blunders, learning, suffering and even a bit of climbing mixed in during my 8 weeks there. We made it up a few peaks, here is a TR for our attempt at Fitz Roy.
If anyone has any beta for this route I’d love to hear it. I know there’s a few other people on CC that have been there.
Goretta Pillar goes up the right side of Fitz Roy, highest peak centre right in this picture.
My goal for this trip was Fitz Roy, It is the biggest peak in the range and in my mind is the most beautiful peak I’ve ever seen. Religious. Although I wanted to get the summit, I wanted to do via something on the East or North Faces instead of the popular South Face. (Franco Argentina route) The Franco looks good but involves a lot of snow/mixed climbing and less rock climbing. The East and North Faces have rock climbing up to 4,000 feet long. The scale is hard to comprehend, take El Cap and add the Chief onto to top of it. That’s Fiz Roy.
We settled on the Goretta Pillar on the North East Face of Fitz Roy The Goretta Pillar begs to climbed, a 2,000 foot tower of rock leaning against the shoulder of Fitz Roy. Such a prominent feature you can see it from the road 50 miles away.
At the Lake on our first attempt. The hike up to high camp, (Passo Superior) goes up the glacier behind us
First Attempt. Gear Cache.
After a lot of crap weather we saw a short window the first week of January and rushed into the hills. On this first attempt we jumped the gun and never even tied in, an important learning experience that ended up being a scenic slog and a chance for us to cache our gear at high camp. We hiked in from town to Passo Superior (8 hours from town to high camp at Passo Superior) From town the hills looked dryish but as soon as we got on the glacier and into the sun we encounter thigh deep slush walking without flotation. Brutal hard work that saw us staggering into high camp at Passo Superior near dark where we met a Slovakian team getting ready for an early morning mission. The Slovakians had dug a snow cave as big as a hotel room, we weren’t as ambitious and dug out a tench big enough to get our heads into with our feet sticking out.
Home in the snow trench.
Slogging up to Passo Superior with the East Face of Fitz Roy. If you look closely you can see the Col to the right of Fitz Roy and the bivy block chalkstone
During the night a proper snow fell, we were reasonably dry in our bivy sacks curled up in our half trench but it wasn’t looking promising for rock climbing the next morning. The Slovakians walked past our trench in the early hours, an hour later they walked back to their cave and back to bed. Not a good sign if the Slovakians are bailing. We laid around till the snow stopped falling, got up, packed-up and marched down to the glacier to town. We left as much gear as we could in the hopes that we could come back up the following week for second try. On the hike down my partner took a scary fall down the glacier when she tripped up on a hole and went head first down the hill. She was able to self arrest after sliding for 50 meters in the fog.
*Small weather windows right after big snow storms aren’t good for rock climbing on big faces.
*The glaciers are hard work, do them at night when still frozen.
*You’ll get soaked on the approach slogging up the glacier. Bring a change of boots or some method to keep your boots dry on the hike in.
*Bring a tent. The camp at Passo Superior is just a flat spot between snow drifts and a cliff. The tent would help us sleep better and keep our kit dry.
Second Attempt. The Col from hell.
Two weeks went by before we got another chance at the Fitz Roy. This time the weather window looked amazing. Warm temps, no wind and lots of sun for 3 days, maybe even 4. We re-loaded with food for 5 days and slogged up from town. Surreal experience to be leaving town before dawn, the bars are still open and people are dancing away and we’re walking past with heavy packs and ice gear. We thought we’d make it up to the glacier before the sun hit. No luck, we slogged up the glacier again in a hot sun and suffered. The heat and the work load made me feel sick, every other step sinking in up to my waist in slushy snow. Hours and hours of this crap.
At Passo Superior it was a beach like atmosphere, at least five other parties were lounging about in the sun resting up for next day’s mission. Turns out that three other parties were going up the Goretta Pillar, so much for a wilderness experience. From camp there is a clear view of the route and the glacier approach at the base of route. Looked like about an hour of glacier walking and then onto 1,000 vertical feet of snow/ice climbing in a Col to get to the base of the route. The rock looked dry and perfect, during the day when I touched the rock around camp it felt warm to the touch. Everyone at camp had a different strategy and a different variation up the Goretta Pillar. We chose the Kearny Knight variation (5.11 but mostly 5.10) The Col looked steep and bit gnarly but we assumed there’d be solid ice in there.
We felt good, our plan was to leave at midnight, dispatch with the 1,000 feet of ice climbing in the dark, climb the Goretta Pillar to the top of the pillar 3/4th of the way up, bivy, and on day two we’d summit Fitz Roy and do the raps down theFranco Argentina. Seemed doable, thousands of feet of 5.10 crack in one day, sure why not. We carried one pack for the follower, the follower would jumar as needed. Other gear included one shared sleeping bag, one shared bivy sack, 2x tools, light boots and pons for the second, heavy boots and steel pons for the leader.
The Slovakian team starts up at dusk, they'd spend most of the night battling through the Col to reach the bloc.
We woke up at midnight with mild temps and rushed onto the glacier, in the dark the glacier was solid, you could run across it in trainers. Ahead of us we could see a pair of headlamps at the Berghrusnd that guarded the entrance to the Col and we both got really nervous. The headlamps looked like they were inside an arena of ice, we suspected the bergschrund would be big but looking at the headlamps bob around we could tell that they were looking up at a wall of ice. An iceberg. We roped up front pointed up steep snow to the bergschrund and confirmed that the bergschrund was huge and over-hangging. The other party (Boulder boys) had moved off far right and were direct aiding a thin crack to try and bypass the huge wave of ice. Holy shit, direct aiding a crack with crampons on in the dark to end up on an unstable snow field with who knows what for an anchor? Seemed like a bad idea but turns out this is probably the best way. Normal Patagonia bullshit as it turns out.
We were about to bail as we had no ice screws and could’t wait for the Boulder Boys to sort out their mystery aid line but then another party of Germans cruised up to us. Without much of a rest the German leader starts climbing directly up an over the bergschrund. The guy had no pro and his feet were popping off, his tools pulling through the slushy ice as he battled up over the lip. I was so sure that he’d fall that I stepped away from his belayer worried that I’d get caught in the ropes when they both went flying down the mountain. No fall occurred and shortly after the second German offered to fix our rope over the bergschrund. A lucky break for us but I realized that the only way to fix the rope was for us to give them our tools and use our tools as an anchor above to fix the rope. We couldn’t say no and sent up our ice tools and soon heard “rope fixed.” Maybe ice tools in the snow are a solid anchor? I have no idea but I was scared, very scared while jugging that line.
We jugged the ropes and ended up on a steep snow slope as the sun rose. The race was on to get up this Col before it got any warmer. Carolyn took on a heroic lead block and sped up hundreds of feet of steep snow and ice while I jugged behind here. (mercifully on good anchors in rock now) After an hour of direct sun the entire Col came un-glued. Slush avalanches ran non-stop, not the light weight spindrift type stuff but heavy, fast moving slush and water racing down the Col. Somewhere around pitch 3 rockall from high on the Fitz came down, a plate size rock missed my head and punched through my pack. There was nothing we could do, we couldn’t bail and rap as the snow slopes below us were too unstable now nor could we speed up as the climbing suddenly became a heinous mix of slush, wet rock and ice with water running under it. I wasn’t nervous but logically concluded that it was very likely we’d be injured or killed in this Col.
I took over the lead for a bit and tried my best to keep us away from the gullies of slush and instead on the rock. Kitchen sink style of climbing, direct aid for a few moves with rock shoes on, few moves of slush covered rock with tools in hands and then back to climbing with boots and pons on. All in one pitch. Finally up high we started encountering better ice but a garden hose of water and falling rock was coming down the right side. Nothing to do but push on. At this point we joined up with Boulder Boys, they had as many or more close calls and were frazzled. As we were all getting soaked a quick decision was made to have one leader go through the next few pitches and fix lines for the rest of us to jug up to the top. We rushed through the last few pitches in this method with one more close call as the cornice guarding the exit collapsed and nearly wiped out the leader. At 3:00PM we topped out on the bivy block with warm sun to greet us.
Looking up one of the mixed pitches in the Col, heinous slush climbing.
Looking up the last two pitches of the Col, Fitz Roy on the left.
A member of the German team on the way down.
One of the Boulder Boys flopped onto the bivy block and mentioned he had seen God while climbing in the Col. I think we all felt the same way, a feeling of wow I’m lucky to be alive mixed with a how could I be so stupid to climb something like that? No discussion was needed, we decided to stop there for the night and hopefully push on the next day. We were already behind schedule but felt the worst was behind us. 3,000 feet of rock climbing, that would be the easy part.
While lounging in the sun a team high above us on the Goretta Pillar started rappelling down toward us. We were a bit confused, were they bailing. Yep it was the German team that had fixed our lines. They had encountered ice clogged cracks a dozen pitches higher and were bailing. Seemed impossible that the cracks could be icy given that we were shirtless at the bivy. That’s how it is. I was heart broken, all that effort for nothing. We went to bed and made a new plan to wake up the next day to have a leisurely crag day on Fitz Roy. We’d leave all the ice and bivy gear at the bivy block and climb light and free just for fun, when we hit ice we’d bail and head down.
A good night sleep was had by the four of us in the most fabulous of all bivy sites. World class. A chockstone block the size of a house is wedged between Fitz Roy and Val Bois with big exposure on two sides looking right up the Goretta Pillar. Climb up onto the chockstone and take a nap.
View of the route from the bivy. Quality.
Bivy is kinda tight, Carolyn slept tied in.
Morning with the Boulder Boys
The next day we slept in until the sun warmed the rock. I’ll skip the pitch by pitch details but we climbed around 900 feet of glorious cracks and flakes before we hit ice and bailed. 5.10-5.10+ The rock on the North side of Fitz Roy is some of the best I’ve ever touched. Take a look at the pictures. Reminds me a lot of the Incredible Hulk or some of the classic pitches around Squamish. The French grades have always confused me however I can say that what is supposed to be “5.10” by the French Grade felt rather mellow. Think miles and miles of perfect hand cracks. Magical.
The last pitch I lead ended up being an 80M long lead with some simul climbing and a bunch of icy rock. I had to direct aid moves and knock out some ice with hands as our tools were down back at the bivy. Icy 5.10+ free climbing, not much fun so we bailed from there. The Boulder Boys kept going but they stopped a few pitches higher and bailed.
Took us a bit of time to locate some tat anchors for the descent and we ended up leaving a few bits of gear. We took a long break at the bivy block with hopes of letting the Col cool off and re-freeze before we rappelled that shit slide. Smart move as the Col was much less active when we went down it at dusk. Sadly the descent turned to shit and we went for an all night rap adventure. Our rope got stuck and had to be cut, and on two occasions I had to climb up after stuck ropes. Memorable moment there was coming across a fixed pin while climbing up after a stuck rope. I thought I’d French Free a move using this fixed pin, as soon as I pulled on the pin it came out in my hands and I almost pitched off. 3:00AM saw us staggering across the glacier and back to our tent at Passo Superior. I so desperately wanted to sleep in but at sunrise Carolyn was prodding me to get up and pack-up so we could hike back to town before the glacier turned into a swamp. The glacier was a slushy mess but we ran down it and took a three hour nap laying in the dirt at the lake before finishing the hike out to town.
So how does one climb the Goretta Pillar?
Good question. A few thoughts on this. Some of this might be obvious but it was things I didn't know.
* We were too early in the season. Almost everyone we talked to encountered icy rock during that window. (20th of Jan)
*The Col del Bloque on the North side of Fitz Roy really needs to be frozen up to be safe. Climb it at night or early in the season when it is “white.” The problem is that if you go late in the season when the rock on the Fitz Roy is ice free, this Col could be impossible.
*Come from the East side and climb the Mate Porro route. This seems to be the new popular way up Goretta Pillar. Several parties went this way and reported dry rock, rad climbing, and a mellow glacier approach. Only downside is a long hike from Piedra Negra and there is no fixed gear so bailing would be expensive.
*Climb on the snow when it is cold, climb rock when it is warm. Seems simple but this is make or break for so many of the routes there and it isn’t widely talked about. The sun is so strong there that approaches/Cols that are mellow in the cold become completely unsafe once the sun gets on them. Plan your day around it. Same goes for the raps. Rappelling onto a glacier or Col in direct sun is a good way to get hit in the head with falling ice.
*The Cols are sandbags. This isn’t the Bugs. The guidebook says very little about the approach Cols but I found many of the Cols to be serious undertakings and if they were in the Cascades they’d be classic mixed climbing. These aren’t the kind of Cols you ski down.
*Gear caching at high camp is awesome, makes it so much easier to rally if you only have a light pack to carry into high camp.
Eight hours from town, could be done in six if done when the snow is hard.
Really hard to get the gear figured out as there is no "perfect" set-up for this type of route. You want to Free climb as much as possible but how do you free climb with a heavy pack on? Before going there I would have never thought of jugging a free route, but that's very normal. We took one light 40L pack for the follower to wear and the leader would wear nothing and tag the rap line. The follower would free as much as he could and would jug the rest while wearing the pack.