Saturday, 18 June 2011

And so, home.

Before I went on the HotRock trip somebody asked me if I was nervous about going on such an undertaking with a bunch of strangers, to which question I replied, no of course not. They will, I said, be all of a kind -  anyone who signs up to live on a truck for months, travelling about unwashed, unkempt and under-fed through remote and potentially dangerous terrain, climbing in remote areas, and capable of putting up with the others in the close confines of the truck will be a decent sort. How wrong I was. They were (and, assuming the truck hasn't come off the road above some Peruvian ravine, still are) the most excellent sorts, now good friends, with whom it was a great privilege to share the journey.

Some were on the truck for ever, some only for a few weeks. Some enjoyed a light ale or two (or in some cases, twenty two), some were teetotal (we forgave them this - just). Some were proper climbers, some (like me) bumblies. Some (in fact most) were from Britain, some ( a few) were not (some were Australian, unfortunately, but we forgave them this - just). Some were loud (they know who they are), some (but not that many) were quiet. Some were in pairs (either arrived as such or formed during the trip), some single. Some took every opportunity to wash, some simply revelled in the grime and squalor. Some were tidy and organised, some had all their stuff put in the Shit Box. Some shared their biscuits, some simply ate those of others. But all added something to the group, to the atmosphere (in a number of ways, some of these - courtesy of the lentils - unfortunate), to the expedition, and to my time on the truck. And I am pleased to have met them all.

At one point, I think it was at Serra do Cipó in Brazil, there was on the truck a slightly drunken late night discussion (Hot Rock late night that is, about half nine) about how the Hot Rock experience might change those who go on it, especially those on the truck for a long time. Confidently I asserted that, being an old git, it was unlikely to change me - but I now suspect I was wrong. I suspect also that it is too soon for me to identify any way in which I might have changed, and that (if I have) others will notice it first before I do. I hope any such changes will be for the better.

There are some things that I either took with me or acquired over there but which have been left behind, and similarly there are some things I have brought back with me. These things are listed below, in no particular order of importance.

Things I left behind

- A cheap pair of approach shoes, Karrimor by brand, bought from TK Max, that fell apart after only 10 days.
- A tent, bought from Go Outdoors, that fell apart after about 50 days.
- My then-new headtorch that was lost after 5 days.
- Most of my enormous First Aid kit, the most useful items of which were the Imodium and rehydration sachets.
- An ancient and uncomfortable Karrimat sleeping mat, taken because of the advice from Duncan that Thermorests are rubbish as they are bound to get punctured.
- My best wishes to all still on the truck for the remainder of their respective journeys.
- A very smelly pair of fancy Brazilian trainers I bought by mistake in Rio de Janeiro.
- 'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins. I noticed that nobody else wanted to read it. They were all reading that Stig Larsen nonsense.
- Most of my clothes, donated to Simon and Owen.
- Two camaras, both Sony, one destroyed by mistake, the other pink, broken and shit.
- The oldest piece of outdoor gear I owned, a yellow plastic bowl I bought at college in 1987.
- My single rope, ruined.

- 5.5 kg in weight
- some underwear...

- Some fancy souvenirs, including Rio beach tighty whities and the object of desire.
- A re-affirmed view that for most things in life, less is more.
- A new and very pricey pair of walking boots to replace the crap Karrimors.
- A new and very pricey Thermorest to replace the crap Karrimor sleeping mat,
bought because of the advice from Duncan that Thermorests are rubbish as they are bound to get damaged.

- A small patch that repaired the Thermorest puncture. So Dunc was right after all. But also wrong, as I slept so much better after I bought it, and they can be repaired.
- A sufficiently strong dislike of lentils to make me chuck those I had in my cupboard in the bin.
- A determination to remain (relatively) thin.
- A determination to return to South America to explore those areas I have not yet visited - Equador, Colombia, Paraguay, Venezuela.
- A great respect for the people of South America, who (generally) live lives more difficult than ours with, generally, greater openness and generosity than we have in the West.

- A desire to learn to surf.
- Many new friendships, some of which will, perforce, only be transitory but some of which will, I hope, be enduring.
- A nice new little Panasonic Lumix camera with which I am very pleased.
- A little in excess of 25,000 photographs.
- Having enjoyed writing this blog very much, both a re-awakened pleasure in writing and a desire to carry on doing so.
-An embryonic short story, which may or not get finished.
- A somewhat hairier appearance
- An absence of syphillis (what the hell is this all about, I hear you cry).
- Gratitude to Roger, Simon and Andy for having run the trip so well - we always got there!
- A big credit card bill.
- An intention to purge the Facebook Friends list, an activity that has now been carried out.

And so it is now time to bring this blog to a close. Thank you for reading it, I hope it was an enjoyable experience. I certainly enjoyed writing it. Genuinely, if you have any feedback (good or bad) on its quality, please let me know. Now, off to plan the next adventure...

Hair, beard and poncho
Things I brought back.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

La Paz (2)

La Paz (Continued)

The politcal centre is the Plaza de Murillo, bounded on one side by the Assembly (or parliament building), and on another by the Presidential Palace and Cathedral. The Plaza is a popular spot for the South American sport of sitting, and the paceña (i.e. from La Paz) sport of feeding pigeons, (which are all obese and probably diabetic). Just up and left is one of the remains of colonial times, Calle Jaen (somehow preserved in very good condition, with typical Andalusian pavement designs still present), which holds a number of museums including the house of Murrillo, one of the leaders of the failed independence revolt against the Spanish in 1809. A bit touristy though, this street, with arty shops everywhere. Could be Totnes. Or Hebden Bridge.
The main attraction of La Paz, though, has to be the street markets, even for those who don't enjoy the retail experience. They are everywhere, crammed with people, selling everything, absolutely everything, full of undoubtedly Chinese-produced fake branded goods (favourite brands seeming to be Levis, North Face, Adidas, Wrangler, Puma, Nike - what a globalised world we live in), foodstuffs of all kinds, entire shops or stalls devoted solely to a single product: door fittings, padlocks, gaudy cholita skirts, or what appeared to be popcorn, this latter sold from gigantic bags about three times the size of the average Bolivian. It was really too difficult to take pictures and anyway I doubt these would have given the experience justice. One wonders how all the stuff is cleared away at nights.

La Cuidad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz, to give it its full name - such a amazing, colourful, vibrant place, and (touch wood) so far no experience of the troubles and scams described in the Lonely Paranoia - sorry, Lonely Planet - guide. It was worth leaving the truck in Oruro a couple of days early to experience it. Oh, and I should consider myself fortunate - the bus in which I travelled was involved in only one road traffic accident during the 4 hour, 20 Bolivianos (£2.00) journey.

La Paz (1)

'Paz' is Spanish for peace, and a more inappropriately named place than La Paz it is hard to imagine. From first sight from the descent from the altiplano the city overwhelms the senses. The altiplano, home to the newish city of El Alto, La Paz's poor relation and one-time suburb, ends abruptly at the canyon's edge and the city pours down the steep sides, a landslide of red brick washing up against and around the world's highest high-rise blocks in the city's centre 400m lower. And the mountains Illimani and Huayna Potosí loom over the city, snow-capped and brooding sentinels both.

La Paz is not a rich city (there is, for example, no branch of Betty's Tea Rooms here) and it may not have much in the way of beautiful architectural sites, wide open green spaces, famous institutions or fashionable boutiques (these may be in Zona Sur but I feel no need to find out) but what it does have it has in bucketfuls. It has teeming crowds, dressed in all styles from the traditional women's Cholita attire of the altiplano to the latest (almost certainly counterfeit) designer fashion, sported by the younger generations, thronging its streets; it has a myriad of buses of all sizes plying the busy and pollution-choked roads, their 'conductors' constantly shouting the route from the open doors to drum up business; countless taxis too, mostly shared; it has street vendors of all kinds,with offerings ranging from a few pathetic scraps spread on a blanket by an elderly Aymara lady, to llama-patterned lap-top cases, western consumer goods, and telephone calls; it has more markets than one might imagine possible, with competition fierce, there being many vendors of the same, nay identical, goods all crammed into the same stretch of street; it has innumerable eateries, from the barrow-and-gas ring stalls selling unidentifiable, and possibly noxious, mixtures to outlets of the multinational fast food chains, ubiquitous chicken-and-chips outlets, elegant tea and coffee shops, and the occasional fancy bistro; it has a community of drivers who are pathelogically and perhaps genetically unable to stop to allow pedestrians to cross, so much so that the 'zebra' campaign (running for at least 3 years that I know off) seems to make no difference at all; it has an army of shoe-shine boys and men, all sporting balaclavas to protect them a little from the dreadful pollution levels, who offer to polish, for the equivalent of about 40p, any sort of shoe, even those (such as my Converse All Stars) that their experience should suggest are completely unsuitable for such treatment; and it has police, everywhere, usually in threes, toting great carbines outside banks and other cash-holding premises, from at least three different forces. All of this gives La Paz an air of frenetic and constant activity, a continuous buzz, that if one is to get anywhere at all one must throw oneself into without restraint.  (Continued)

Friday, 10 June 2011

Into Obolivian

Seven of us decided to mount a mountainerring expedition within the rock climbing expedition and so headed off independently from the truck to make their own way to La Paz, from where they would attempt Pequeño Alpamayo and perhaps something else afterwards. Meanwhile the remainder of us, delayed in crossing the border out of Chile by the day trip to Calama (perhaps better named Calamaty, it being a shithole), camped out on the Salar de Atacama about 10 km from San Pedro, with the intention to return to the immigration office as soon as it opened, and thence head up to the Bolivian border. But the Salar was having none of that, giving way under the wheels of the truck on our departure as it did; a team effort of digging, stone collecting (these being needed to increase traction in the flour-like mixture of salt and dust in which the truck was now partly buried), and pushing eventually loosed the truck after two hours effort.

The road to Bolivia is the same as that into Argentina for 30 km uphill, then heads left. The road to Argentina continues into the distance, paved and smooth and comfortable. The road to Bolivia ceases to be a road some 20m after the junction and degenerates quickly into a rough, bone-jarring track that leads one to the border outpost. Which is a desolate place, windswept, under the slopes of the disputed volcanic cone of Linkankabur. How one can argue over who owns a volcano I'm not sure. Perhaps it will only erupt on the owner's side - or perhaps better still on the other.

Never mind the ramshackle outpost with its ruined bus, tattered flag and two Bolivian women in traditional dress in the building's lee practising the national sport of sitting. The crossing was quick and painless, the border guard pleasant and helpful. And this time no confiscation of lentils - which was a bad thing, probably.

What a place is southwestern Bolivia. A large part of it forms the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Flora and Fauna Reserve, home to vicuña, vizcacha, andean gulls, flamingos and the very rare Andean cat, which is possibly on the verge of extinction. There is almost no habitable land here, there being volcanos, high salinity lakes, almost no fresh water and virtually no rainfall. It is indeed like driving into oblivion. And yet, after a drive to some hot springs where we bathed in the warm pools and were told off for drinking beers whilst in the water, and a further drive in increasingly heavy snow to 5020m where, bizarrely, the Bolivian Customs post is in the middle of sodding nowhere, we arrived at the Laguna Colorada hostal, big enough to accommodate 400 people (apparently) in several buildings, some of which are caves with windows and front doors. Here we spent an unexpectedly comfortable night, having expected a bone-splittingly cold bush camp.

Laguna Colorada is aptly named. Getting very excited by the sight of 5 flamingos, we stopped the truck and all dashed down to the lake, the waters of which were turquoise green with pink tinges here and there. Much frenzied camera activity. We returned later in the day after a detour (during which we suffered a puncture to one of the front wheels) to see the árbol de piedra (a rock in the middle of sodding nowehere - not worth the effort) to see the lake almost totally red, with more flamingos in sight than you could shake a stick at. More rushing about with the cameras.

Uyuni is a dusty town of 20,000 people with no apparent reason for being. But it did have a restaurant in which some of us lunched on Pique a lo Macho, a bizzare dish of beef, onions, sliced hot-dog sausages and chips all mixed together, served by the most laidback waiter I have ever seen. He followed the admirable policy of never clearing a table unless a new customer wanted to eat, and everything he did appeared to happen in slow motion. Welcome to Bolivia, where I read in a newspaper than Bolivian time officially has a built-in delay.

Uyuni has, for the visitor, two main attractions. The first, and by far the smallest, is the railway graveyard, a collection of rusting locomotive hulks and containers surreally and inexplicably abandoned in the desert just outside of town. We caught a dramatic sunset here, boilers and stacks sillouetted against a firey sky. The second, and somewhat larger, reason for Uyuni is that it is the gateway to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world, some 12,500 sq km. of salt. And nothing but salt. In all directions. For miles.

The crossing of the Salar de Uyuni is an amazing journey, surreal, awe-inspiring, impossible to describe. And threatened by the fact that the salt is part of Bolivia's immense lithium reserves, reserves that are beginning to be exploited to satisfy the world demand for lithium in batteries, particularly those in electric cars. So go soon, before it's too late, and see if the waiter has speeded up his performance, and don't forget to ask the price of the pollo a la brasa (spit-roast chicken) in Uyuni before buying otherwise you too will be stung as a dumb gringo by the 'ladron de los pollos', as Ee Fu and I were. £8.00 for a chicken in Bolivia, I ask you. He's probably now enjoying an early retirement.


Tierra de roca, sal y fuego

So, an unexpectedly early return to San Pedro from the excellent canyon of Socaire

(Can't get the bloody picture to line up as I want)


(where I managed two days easy climbing in the fierce heat of the high altitude sun) meant I had a day to fill, which I chose to do by accompanying Martin and Marese on the tour of the Salar de Atacama lakes. This, at a bargain price of 12,000 pesos, included a swim in a lake fed by hot springs of lithium salts, a look at the Ojos del Salar de Atacama, and pisco sour cocktails at sunset at a lake whose real name eludes me but it translates as 'The lake where we feed the llamas'.  The first of these experiences was moderately iinteresting for about 10 minutes, the second for about 10 seconds. We were, therefore, somewhat sceptical about the last. But how wrong we were. After an inauspicious start, the sky began to colour until it was aflame, fire streaked across the gathering darkness, so much so that we thought "That's it, it can't get any better", but again how wrong we were. I think it was, and remains, the most dramatic sunset I have ever seen, and (given that we drank about 7500 pesos worth of pisco sours) it made the net cost of the tour (about £5.00) a real bargain.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

San Pedro de Atacama

What an incogruity San Pedro de Atacama is, in the desert of sand, gravel, multi-coloured rock, wiry desecated plants scarcely clinging to life, close to the Salar de Atacama, a dead salt plain with upwellings of water so saline that one can float in them unaided by artificial means, surrounded by volcanos some of which have wisps of steam and smoke, reminders of their deadly intent. There are endless open spaces threaded by scarce water, yet here is a town with trees, squabbling dogs and chirping sparrows, small boys playing football in the whitewashed square with its formal garden.

Visitors throng the narrow uneven main street of Caracoles, beset on all sides by offers of all kinds: food and drink in the many smart cafes and restuarants; tour companies offering excursions to all sorts of places; activities of desert mountain biking, sand boarding and skiing, trekking; boutiques offering indigenous multi- coloured handicraft at extortionate prices, ponchos, jewellry, artworks, tat; money changers raising suspicions; a North Face shop selling expensive Western goods; and somewhere to stay, from cheap hostels to expensive luxury hotels, all flattering to deceive with their rough adobe exteriors hiding well appointed interiors. And the plaza, simply called The Plaza, with the Church, the town hall, and, of all things in this the wilderness of the driest desert on Earth, free WiFi (which, in the best South American tradition, doesn't work).

These visitors, mainly young, travellers from all parts of the World, come to see the amazing wonders of this inhospitable place. For don't let the patina of civilization fool you, this is an inhospitable place. The scare water is toxic really, thanks to the arsenical deposits in the surrounding hills and volcanos, and to the mines high up in the Andes, and those who can afford to do so buy bottled water, leaving the poor to the effects of the poisons. Travel beyond the confines of this little marvel to smaller, more remote, settlements such as Tocanao and Socaire and the evidence of long-term consumption of the local water, combined with in-breeding, become very evident indeed.

San Pedro is an odd place in an odd place; it is a fusion of chic and sham, Chamonix Mont Blanc fused with Totnes and Sitges, an oasis of cool in a hot place,
¡que guay del Paraguay! but you come here, play and move on, leaving the local people dependent upon the next wave of tourists, for there appears to be little else for them to do.

Iglesia de San Pedro de Atacama
Caracoles, San Pedro de Atacama

Monday, 30 May 2011

To and over the high Andes

Three drive days from Los Gigantes to Tuzgle, with the first overnight stop in the northern town of Salta, where we partook of the eponymous beer, camped next to the largest swimming pool anybody had ever seen. It must have been 500m long by 100m wide. We would have done some lengths, held a swimming gala, a diving competition - but the pool was empty and the only activity  we managed was Rolf pitching his tent in the deep end.  Durng our second overnight Bob 'Dancing Master' Barnes held the highest swing dance lesson in the world, pirouettes at 3500m.  And it was cold that night: -10C inside the tents.  But those sleeping in the truck enjoyed balmy, almost tropical, conditions at -2.5C.  I know because I was there.  Somebody spotted the fresh paw print of what was undoubtedly a large cat...

The pass over the eastern Andes to the altiplano took us up to 4500m, then down to 3800m to the elegant, spacious, almost regency-like town of San Antonio de los Cobres, which has endless facilities for the discerning visitor, cafes facing gracious tree-lined avenues, fashionable shops, manicured public lawns, blazing flowerbeds rioutous with colour. Or not. Seldom had anybody seen a more desolate wasteland in which to build a place to live.  Passing through this hell-hole we carried on to our climbing venue, a canyon in the altiplano at 4200m, under the dark brooding cone of the Volcan Tuzgle after which the site is named. The first climbs had been put up by the Petzl Climbing Team and by virtue of its isolation ('s in the middle of sodding nowhere) it's very likely
we were only the second team to visit. So it's very likely the routes we did in traditional style were all new routes.  So when you go look out for such new classics as 'Gibson's Corner' (HVS 4c) and 'A bridge too far' (6b), both new routes by Nathan 'Ginger Lanky Bastard' Gibson.  Lots of bouldering too, on huge pink boulders scattered by some giant hand. And llamas, loads of them, herded by llama-dogs, running across the plain with only one thought in their minds: "Llamas, llamas, llamas". Only to round a corner to see a bunch of gringos: "Mierda, people, what the hell do I do now? ... I know, bark ... Mierda, they're not going anywhere ... I'll bark some more ... Nope, no good ... " and so they disappeared to get their llamas by some other route.

Tuzgle was distinguished also by the cold and the wind, the former being intense at night with hard clear skies letting the temperature drop to -10C, and the latter being ever-present and strong, strong enough to drive us away from the cliffs and boulders.  So four days here was enough, and we headed back to San Antonio and thence the Chilean border, seeing the occasional group of the rare vicuña and a single lonely rhea, prepared for a lengthy border crossing.

And we got one.  There is, at the Argentinian side of Paso de Sico, a whole series of canyons lined up one after the other, about 12 in all, all destined to be unclimbed as the isolated border outpost makes this sensitive territory.  Now, we all expected the entry to Chile to be difficult and time-consuming and the exit from Argentina to be swift and trouble-free.  Not a bit of it.  Consider this: you are a bored and career-frustrated immigration officer in the middle of sodding nowhere and a red truck full of grimy gringos turns up.  You are forced to interrupt your busy afternoon of doing sod-all to process them.  Do you:

A.  stamp them all through without delay - after all, once they're out of Argentina they're no longer your problem, let those bloody Chileans deal with them

B.  be really officious, read your immigration regulations and seek to delay the border crossing for as long as possible; after all, they've ruined your afternoon so why shouldn't you ruin theirs?

You are about to select option A when you spy, hanging from its hook in the corner, your peaked cap.  This decides you: option B it is.

And so it took us 2 and a half hours to get out of Argentina.  The wait did, however, give us a chance to watch the Northern Branch of the Argentinian Amateur Desert Watering and Flattening Society practice their activities in preparation for the next National All-Argentinan Desert Grooming Championships. It was either this or God knows what.  But they're very good at it - hardly a ripple to be seen under the desert sun.

So into Chile in the early evening, the setting desert sun turning everything pink around us, and a bitterly cold wind driving sand and dust ahead of it.  The first few kilometers passed without incident until we arrived at the SAG post of El Laco.  Which really is in the middle of sodding nowhere.  SAG is the Chilean organisation responsible for the defence of the Chilean Nation against all things malign related to plants and animals.  And so the chap practically emptied the truck, conficating such things as feathers, untreated wood, raw dried beans, and lentils.  When these last were confiscated a resounding cheer went up from the team, huddled in a shed out of the bitterly cold wind, a cheer that you might have faintly heard in Britain and thought "What was that? Was it lentils being conficated in Chile?"

The final hurdle in crossing the border was to pass through Chilean immigration and Customs some miles inside the Chilian border in the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, a reasonably swift process nearly ruined by Sam the Really Aged Canadian being too polite about pushing in front of a crowd of dwarfish Paraguayans who all made Gareth 'Stumpy' Thomas feel tall for once, something he was enjoying hugely.  Once through we headed for the hostal, which turned out to be a somewhat rustic affair made from (well, parts of it anyway, those parts not being part of the organic growth made from practically anything she could get her hands on) adobe brick and run by an enterprising middle-aged Chilean lady called Monica who called me 'hijo'.

Exam answer

And the answer to the exam question posed in the last entry:

"What is the colour of this post?"



Bonus point for those who know why.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

There might be giants...

(There is an exam question at the end of this blog entry).

Los Gigantes is a high and desolate place, a barren place, a place far from towns and peope and roads.  It is a cold and treeless pace, a place of thin bitter soils, of tough grasses, of thistles, and of rocks exposed to the harsh mountain sun. It is a wide place under giant skies. And yet, incogruously, there is here a church, white and stark against the black and grey of the unforgiving granite, a man-made outpost in this harsh and
unyielding land.

Like the squat square tower of the church the grantite also reaches for the sky, great rounded spires scored with grooves and cracks, slab-sides blotched grey and green with lichen and moss. Small shrubs, twisted and low, dark green, manage to survive in the shelter of the narrow confines of the few  riverbeds that seek refuge from the heights by wending their way down to the busier plains below.

To this place few come.  Farmers herding the few cattle able to survive here, hardy thick-fleeced sheep, birds with plaintive cries that get lost on the wind. And climbers, seeking adventure on the granite, battling their way upwards in cracklines, on slabs, in chimneys and on walls, seeking the protection of widely-spaced bolts, and of distant cam placements, small sharp holds torturing finger tips, tense feet, balancing.

The rains and mists come too, enveloping the spires, dampening all, and the white morning sea laps against the ramparts of the high land, submerging the lowlands beneath. The sun, blood-red, rises angrily behind its  ramparts of cloud, harbinger of dire forebodings, chasing the interlopers away. But when the rain is not there, in the full heat of the mid-day sun, these dark hills can be hospitable, green gullies hidden between great towers of rock, mica crystals catching the sun, limpid pools sparkling, hares starting from shelter and birdsong filling the air.

Now, here's the question: what is the colour of this post?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Review of Rio de Janeiro newspapers

I noticed some newspaper headlines and stories from local papers during our time in Rio, and I've reproduced some of these below.  The details are limited, possibly inaccurate, and my translation from Portuguese is poor but hopefully you will get some feel of what life in Rio is like.

Crack international climbing team hits town.
Today, Easter Sunday, a team of renowned crack international climbers honour Rio with a visit. Whilst some decide to stay out of the limelight on the edge of town, others less shy take up residence in the very heart of the beach district, in bustling downtown Copacabana.  The 14 distinguished visitors, including 2 Swiss, 2 Australians and  10 British, intend to scale the heights of some of the many morros {these are the steep rocky outcrops and peaks that Rio is famous for - Steve} that are dotted throughout our great city.  As we all know the most famous of these are Corcovado, crowned with the great statue of Christ the Redeemer, and the Pão do Açucar, and I am sure these will be among their targets. Indeed, when interviewed Rolf, one of the Swiss climbers and a man apparently renowned for his laconic delivery, simply replied 'Ja, ja, I will climb dese.  I can do it'. Story continued on page 6.

Rio City Council Trading Standards investigate local hostel for rules infringements
After receiving complaints by visiting travellers, Rio City Council Trading Standards division are to carry out
an investigation of the so-called 'Best Rio Hostal' on Avenida Ministro Alfredo Valadão in Copacabana.  Some of  the complaints made against this hostel include:

- housing guests in inhumane conditions (for example cramming 4 into a windowless room with no air conditioning and measuring just 2.5m by 3m);
- providing insanitary facilities (specifically, providing toilet facilites for which the doors fail to fully close, and showers that, although warm enough, are too small either to dress or undress in);
- causing stress through sleeplessness due to the need both to leave bedroom doors open due to the lack of windows or air-conditioning, and to have a portable fan blowing all night simply to make conditions in the cell-like rooms tolerable in the warmth of the tropical nights;
- breaching food hygiene regulations by failing to clean the guests' kitchen, itself a laughable description of the room provided for self-catering having as it did a total lack of useful utensils, crockery, space or furniture;
- failing to provide any public space for relaxation, beyond the 2m by 3m foyer area, thus contradicting the statement on the  hostel website saying that a guest sitting room was available;
- giving poor customer service, with staff being uninterested or unable to provide simple standard services such as recommendations for eating places or even a city map.

Don Alonso de Paiva, Head of Rio City Trading Standards, say he is very grateful for the complaints made as establishments of this kind give the city a bad name, and he is determined to stamp out such rogue practices.  More details on page 4

Naked man found dazed and confused on beach
Police this morning found Owen Phillips, 22, a visiting British tourist and and member of a visiting crack international climbing team, naked and confused on Copacabana beach, preserving his modesty with a small plastic shopping bag. When interviewed he claimed to have been 'skinny dipping' - an English term for swimming in the nude - after having, at seven in the morning, run back from Lapa where the previous evening he had been attending the weekly Friday night street party with his friends, and that somebody had stolen his clothes from the beach. The police were understandably sceptical of this blatant tissue of lies as when asked further why he had run back he claimed to have run out of money; what sort of friends, Sargeant Coelho, the investigating officer, argued, would leave a friend in such a situation, given the taxi fare back is a mere R$25 {about £10 - Steve}?  It is believed, but official sources have not yet confirmed, that these so-called friends could not raise the small sum of R$1,000 {about £400 - Steve} for police bail. Story continues on page 16.

Visiting crack international climbers scale the heights of Corcovado to Cristo Redentor and Pão de Açucar
Stealing a window in the current spell of unsettled weather here in Rio, a team of crack visiting climbers have
successfully conquered the dizzy heights of not only the Pão de Açucar but also Corcovado upon which, as the World knows, the famous Cristo Redentor statue stands gazing out over our great city.  Various routes have been successfully overcome, including K2 (a 150m climb that ends at the very feet of Christ), Dos italianos/Secundo (270 m long, that ends at the very top of the Pão de Açucar), and Coringa/Cartão, a classic combination leading also to the airy summit of that great Rio icon.  Visiting tourists at each of these world venues were taken aback as the intrepid climbers appeared as if by magic at the barriers erected to keep us more mortal beings safe. One, Rolf Arnold from Switzerland, a man renowned for his laconic style, said "Ja, ja, I knew I could do it" when asked in awestruck tones by our own reporter how it was.  Others among these brave men and women were heard to mutter darkly about 'slabby shit' but it isn't clear what was meant by this.  More details in the sports section on page 24.

The return of true style, by our fashion editor
This season sees a remarkable and long-awaited return to true style, with the re-appearance of that 1980's
iconic piece, the lycra tights. Many, including me, regretted their disappearance in the early 1990s, but I'm
delighted to say that they have been seen once again on the vertical catwalk of the city's morros, in
particular on a climb to the very top of the Pão de Açucar.  The models were two visting Britons Nathan and
Owen, members of a visiting crack international climbing team, who were sporting zebra stripe and electric
orange vein patterns respectively, and others styles available and in use are, notably, DPM (or camoflage) and floral pink.  These great statements of confidence and brashness will, I'm sure, be seen again in the coming months.  Story continues col 1, page 2 of the Fashion pull-out section.

Vice squad to raid Balcony Bar, by our religious correspondent
Imagine if you will - if you can - the tawdry scene: visiting middle-aged businessmen, corpulent to a man,
surrounded by, nay draped in, scantily-clad dusky-skinned young ladies of all shapes and sizes, voluptuous and provocative and shameless, all drinking strong liquor late into the night whilst decent, law-abiding folk like you and me try to block out the noise from this carousing assembly.  Such is the scene that would greet you - as it greeted a team of crack international climbers who innocently wandered into this pit of ordeal - were you unwise or unlucky enough to find yourself in that den of iniquity called the Balcony Bar on the Copacobana beach front, against which this paper has campaigned for so long on your behalf.  You can be sure that we will not rest until we have rooted out this evil from amongst us and so you, right-minded and God-fearing citizens that you are, will be able to rest more easily in your beds, to which you rightly retire both early and sober.  To that end we have urged the Vice Squad to raid the premises and we will keep you informed of the results.

Visiting Britons offend fellow travellers with offensive odours
Tourist chiefs are investigating claims that some guests at one of the city's many hostels so offended the
sensibilities of other travellers by their smell that the latter refused to move into their allocated hostel
room due to the overpowering stench.  It is reported that the offending guests were members of a ck
international crack climbing team visiting the city to scale the dizzy heights of Corcovado and the Pão do
Açucar, and the offensive odours were a combination of body odour, climbing shoes and long-un-washed towels. The hostel refused to comment on the reports beyond saying that all guests were welcome, even those who smelled as bad as these. More details in the Health pull out section on page 3.

Swiss visitor sets new record
Rio de Janeiro is rightly known as one of the great cities of the world, the scene of many triumphs and tragedies over the years.  This year the city of Christ the Redeemer has yet again been privileged to witness a supreme effort, an Austerlitz, an apoteosis of personal achievement.  One member of a crack international climnbing team, Rolf 'The Party Tiger' Arnold set, through a gigantic effort of will and perserverance, a new record in the consumption of the famously toxic caipirinha coktail.  The previous record, a paltry 10, was smashed by this Swiss hero, this latter day William Tell, who reached the unprecedent number of 15 of these potents brews.  When interviewed after the event he said "Ja, ja, I knew I could do it.  It was easy" before asking some local black citizens to "Turn the music up Brothers".  Reports that he suffered immediate liver failure have yet to be confirmed.

World class - Serra do Cipo

Serra do Cipo is apparently a world-class limestone venue, and is split across 4 sectors, two of which are traditional and two (sectors 1 and 3) of which are sport.  The area is a tourist hot spot, with numerous campsites and hotels, known locally as 'pousadas'.  When we arrived, in the run up to Easter, the campsite, overlooked by a waterfall and frequented by a family of big-yellow-beaked toucans, was clean, deserted and idyllic.  By the time we left at the start of the Easter holidays it was thronged, noisy and resembled nothing so much as one of the famous favelas of Rio De Janeiro.  This change was not due to our visit, let me assure you.

Sector 3 is spread out across a number of buttresses each with its own characteristics. Technical walls and
juggy overhangs predominate, with many routes being one-move wonders.  Sector 1 is very different, having been quarried in the past; here there are impossibly smooth slabs, technical 'crimpy' routes that demand much from the fingers, and tall pillers offering fine exposed climbing looking far across the campsite and beyond.
It was a frustrating place for me to climb, finding as I did many of the routes to have a single move that I
was unable to do at first sight. Most of these I managed after a few attempts but nevertheless I left Cipo with
a vague feeling of dissatisfaction with my performance.   It is a small comfort to know that these failures
were on routes at about 6c/6c+, which is generally my limit and therefore hard to climb on-sight.

The Pousada Curumbe just along the road from the campsite offered a welcome distraction from the truck and campsite. Cold - yes, cold! - beer, elegant surroundings, manicured gardens, helpful and friendly staff; the only wonder is that they let us scumbags in to use the place!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Hair. And beard.

Hair. And beard.

O Morro do Cuscuzeiro

The Morro do Cuscuzeiro is a prominent sandstone tower standing alone in a landscaope of farmland interspersed with patches of remaining rainforest. Along a bright-orange muddy track we found a really nice campsite but with, as usual, too many mosquitos. It was teeming down when we arrived, a real tropical downpour with a dramatic lightening show and thunder roiling through the cloud-laden skies.  Fantastic, if a little inconvenient for pitching one's tent.

Come the morning the rain was still with us, but thankfully not as heavy as the evening before. We determined that we should at least investigate the Morro; the rain was persistent but four of us (me, Nick, Didier and Rich) kept the weather faith and so managed the excellent leaning but juggy Manga com Leite at F6a, and, when the sun returned, a three pitch route to the top of the Morro the main pitch being the fantastic and well-named 'Let's go space trucking', F5+/6a.  This turned out to be one of the best sports climbs I have ever done anywhere; clearly not for its difficulty but for the excellent and varied moves that included a small overhang, slab, steep wall on crimps, worrying moves left to airy moves up the left arete to arrive at an eyrie stance where the passing vultures kept their hopeful eyes on us. We enjoyed the vista from the plateau at the top, somewhere that reminded me of the 'Land that Time Forgot' that features so frequently in the old 1930s Tarzan films with Johnny Weismuller. There was a small iron spike that had a label reading "Not suitable for abseiling. Do not use. Danger." So - what else? - we abseiled from it back to the rucksacks.

On the second day we tried to find other routes from the Plato do Bundão but as we didn't really know how to get to it we gave up and so went back to the previous area. I was climbing with Didier again and we enjoyed Mosquitos Go Home (F5+), and then its variation (F6a+, to all accounts but probably easier). Then it all became too hot so we hid in the shade and watched many attempts at Sunday Bloody Sunday, Br 7b (F6c+). Nobody managed a clean ascent so I determined to do it the next day.

So, Gareth and I were there at the foot of Sunday Bloody Sunday at about half nine ,having hoped to climb in the cool of the morning. Some hope - it was already boiling.  I found the moves reminiscent of those on a good climbing wall and so they weren't really all that difficult and (a little mischieviously) I wondered what all the fuss had been about the previous day.  I have to admit I did come off on my first attempt but only because I had listened to all the complaining about a long reach and so was suckered into a wrong move thinking it must be that long reach. It wasn't and when I found the right way it proved to be easy.  My second attempt was the first clean ascent of the route among the HotRockers, and I judged the climb to be no harder than F6b.  Martin and Nick also managed the route later. Later in the evening I enjoyed the company and conversation of Beto (Bruno, a local climber) who was climbing with us and who was proving to be an invaluable source of local knowledge, and an interesting and nice chap to boot.

On our last day here, guided by Beto we looked at another local crag, set nicely in a wooded valley with a waterfall and abounding with butterflies and bright emerald-green humming birds flitting and hovering among the leaves, seeking the delicate thin red trumpet flowers to feed at.  A construction of wooden walkways along the base of the crag allowed easy access to the three sectors that offered a series of short sharp routes. After some initial hesitation Gareth and I decided on a steep bouldery route at F6c, very short but quite pumpy for the weak. Annoyingly I again took two goes but only because I failed to find the two-finger side pull first time. Not really not much harder than F6a+ or maybe F6b.  Gareth also managed the route on his second attempt, and then lots of thrashing about from others followed.  After a spot of lunch an easier (about F4+) with Didier, and finally a really nice F6b up a groove, very varied.  Having watched Aussie Chris first I was a bit psyched out at the outset as he made a bit of a hash of things, and so I was expecting difficulties. It thankfully turned out to be easy - no harder than F6a - and very enjoyable.

This was one of the best venues so far and it would have been great to have stayed a few nore days, but the schedule demanded otherwise so we headed off at 06:00 the next morning for the Serra do Cipo, allegedly a world-class limestone sports venue.

São Luiz do Puruná

We arrived  at São Luiz do Puruná mid-afternoon and decided to camp at the foot of an abandoned tourist statue of Cristo Redentor in somewhat worse condition than the one in Rio, pitching our tents around its foot like so many penitients at His feet. This metaphor proved to be most unsuitable as, unsurprisingly given the levelness and remoteness of the site, the ease of road access, and the impressive outlook across the plain to the city of Curitiba, it is a favourite locale for local types to hold all-night raves using what was for me quite the loudest car sound systems I have ever heard. Good tunes though.  As we had been warned by the police about such 'wild camping', there being (not unexpectedly, to my mind) some baddies about who wouldn't think twice about stealing everything - except (perhaps) our underwear from us - we all hid in our tents expecting the worst but thankfully nothing untoward happened. This experience gave Roger (our Glorious leader) such concern that he determined only to use either private land or official campsites in future for the remainder of our time in Brazil.
We spent two days climbing at Sector 1, an excellent steep sandstone venue with good bolting and some hard routes.  One of these stands out - steep but juggy moves to a bulge, then a really bad sloper for the right hand, feet high, dropped left knee and a long reach to a poor and therefore fierce side-pull crimp, pop for a flat and shallow 'chicken head' hold, re-arrange the feet and another pop for the jug at the top.  Fewer attempts (4) to success than our even best climber Swiss Rolf, so really pleased.  About F6c+ I'd say; Naomi the strong Aussie climber reckoned F7a - but only because she couldn't do it!
Day 3 - Hot sunny day and an abortive search for sector 3. I think motivation levels were low in general as it didn't take much to persuade everybody it wasn't worth carrying on when we were (very slightly) lost.
Day 4 - Rain.  Heavy rain.  Walked in the heay rain until couldn't be arsed any more, went to the motorway service station to dry out and, together with Welsh Chris and Swiss Didier ate my own weight in Brazilian snacks, something everybody should try at least once in their life. Especially the Cuxina de Frango. Weather improved but by this time I was too heavy to anything but eat yet more food. Which I did.  And it was only the reticence of Chris and Didier that stopped me going to the all-you-can-eat buffet.  Bastards.  Pumpkin and chicken soup for dinner, delivered up by Martin and Marese.

Córdoba and beyond

Three hour drive from La Ola to Argentina's second city of Córdoba, only to find the agreed hostel was fully booked. Thankfully the alternative - Cordoba Backpackers Hostel - was only a short walk away.  After settling in off for a typical Argentinian lunch of a parilla, very similar to the one we had had in Mendoza but with added 'papas al caballo' - chips with a topping of scrambled eggs. Thoroughly recommended. The next day Manuel left the truck, an unusual occurrence as Córdoba wasn't an official staging point.  It was a bit like a royal visit: we all lined up in turn to shake his hand, give him a hug, say a few words. Must have been terribly embarrassing for him!

There followed a three-day drive across the endless plains of scrub and nothing that northen Argentina comprises, a mosquito-infested lake-side campsite that I suspect we didn't pay for, another long drive day of nothing to another mosquito hotspot, where Nathan spectacularly fell out of his hammock and had his hand swell up from the number of mosquito bites he suffered, and finally late on day 3 a surprisingly quick border crossing into Brazil to a late shop and a random campsite outside a local community clinic, much to the bemusement of both the police who visited us overnight and the clinic employees the next morning. Dinner with meat in - wow!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

La Ola

Day 1:
We set up camp in a small farm by the side of the road, at which you can buy stuff for sale: sheep and goat skins, ceramic pots, stones gathered from the hillside by the farmer's many children,freshly-made goats' milk cheese. We shared the site with a number of goats, chickens, turkeys, dogs, and the many children. Unfortunately I was struck down by illness on our first morning at La Ola, the sort of illness one doesn't want to have to deal with the encumberance of a climbing harness, for the comfort of all.  So I took the morning off, chilled out in the sun and chatted in bad Spanish with three of the farmer's children: Jonatan, Azul and Ailen. They were fascinated by my Spanish dictionary and we had great fun translating Spanish words into English and then learning how to pronounce them.

Towards the end of the afternoon I decided I was probably well enough to risk a visit to the crag, at which I did two routes with Chris from Wales, at 5+ and 6a.  La Ola is all about either very steep overhanging rock or slabs (otherwise known as slabby shit) - rock at a gentle angle but with few holds for the hands or feet and so demanding balance and technique from the climber; as the former were rather hard and perhaps a little risky I stuck to the slabs, something some of you will know is not my favoured terrain.

Day 2:
Sadly still a little ill but much improved, so Some climbing from the start, at La Ola sector, a venue comprising a horrid-looking slab topped by an overhanging wall. Martin and I warmed up on a couple of slab routes at about 5+ - teeter, balance, trust those feet on the that minute granite crystal when using another to pull up on with a finger held in place with the thumb, feel really brave doing this way above the bolt (well, maybe a couple of metres anyway), why does this slab feel like a wall?, arrive at the top having forgot to breath for the last 10 minutes, clip into the top with a sigh of relief.

We then attempted to follow Manuel up Thor, a 7a up the upper overhang.   Unfortunately he was unsuccessful on the final moves; Martin had a go and then I managed to complete all the moves necessary to retrieve the gear - but this involved many rests and lots of grunting and cursing.  Then across the road to the Ultimo Sol de Marzo sector to complete an easy 5+ and afterwards the return to the truck to pretty much chill out for the rest of the day - too hot, then  (inevitably) couldn't be arsed.

Day 3:
Feeling much improved again I returned with Martin to the Ultimo Sol de Marzo sector to have a go at a couple of routes - 6a (yeah,right, really off-balance move followed by a rightwards leap to a three-finger side press), 6a+ (if one is tall - mega egyptian then full stretch with the right hand to a small sloper along whihc one had to finger right to a better purchase - but only if one had that extra reach) and then finally (a properly-graded) 6a.  Once again the heat drove us off the crag so back to the truck then back onto the rock with Ee Fu for three more slab routes in the evenig before returning to the truck for cook duty, from which I was banned due to my recent illness and so ended supervising from the truck.  Macoroni Cheese with cheese.  Took ages.  Troops restless but appreciative in the end.

Day 4:
Back to La Ola with Martin for some more slabby shit.  Following advice to do stuff I am averse to.  4 routes, actually quite good, between 4+ and 6a(+?), all somewhat precarious and again I felt really brave teettering above bolts on microscopic fooholds and slippery rounded handholds.  Too hot again, back to the truck for guard duty and cook duty, from which I was again banned.

Day 5:
Breakfast was an experimental pasta milk pudding - some ill-placed complaints from the customers I felt, but also some positive feedback.

So, despite illness, 17 routes in 4 days with 4 different climbing partners.  Not too bad a visit.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Mendoza is a cool place.

The hostal, La Cava, was awful. Too few showers that were combined with the toilets, inconveniently.  The windows were old and completely transparent to the slightest noise and so the street racers (and the car alarm set off by their wakes) were highly audible throughout the night.  The 'desayuno completo' ('full breakfast') turned out to be a couple of dry biscuits each. And it was too far from the centre for comfort.  But apart from that it was quite the best.

We arrived in Mendoza sufficiently early to do all the settling in  stuff in the hostel and so headed out for a dinner in Mendoza. It was a holiday weekend - a commemoration of the 'Desaparicidos', those many people who disappeared during the days of the Argentinian Junta, and so the central square - Plaza de Independencia - was seething with people out for a fine evening.  We - me, Manuel, Yvonne and Didier - had splendid 'tragos' - cocktails - on the square before heading off to the Estancia La Florencia (recommended to us by the La Cava hostel guys) for a typical Argentinian dinner - steak or parrilla (mixed grill).  A parrilla isn't so much a mixed grill in the good old UK sense of steak, kidneys, sausage, chop, egg and chips.  It is simply a collection of bits of meat, many of which would not ever be seen on a British dinner table, and nothing else. And lots of it.  More than one could possibly eat in a month of Sundays.  This took us about 3 and 1/2 hours to get through.  

The next day was taken up with trying to find a laundry willing to undertake the slightly daunting task of cleaning our clothes, having second breakfast, buying the object of desire, walking miles to the climbing shop to find it closed, buying lunches for the next climbing phase, having a huge lunch of fideos con salsa for 13 pesos in the 'Manso  Pancho' (where Aussie Chris had the world's largest burger - about the size of 4 Big Macs), and collecting the laundry from the much more cheerful Señora who had by this time relieved the grumpy one there in the morning. 

Once again I chose to eat out and so it was with Manuel that I headed out again into town.  Being only two of us, it was much easier to make decisions and so we found ourselves in the local games hall for a game of pool. What a great place.  Three great domes made up the ceiling, under which there were many different  types of pool/billiards tables, some with pockets and some without.  I saw at least 4 different games being played, none of which I recognised, and one of which involved five small skittles being placed in the centre of the table and had the object of knocking these over with one's opponenent's ball. This, according to one of the old boys playing it, was an Italian game but I failed to get its name.  The great thing about this games place was that it was being patronised by customers aged from 14 to 74, something relatively unusual. An hour's worth of excruciatingly poor pool cost us 12 pesos, cash well spent, and we headed off to the 'tenedor libre' ('free fork' - i.e. all you can eat) place I knew from my previous visit to Mendoza in 2004.  It hadn't changed a bit and is clearly a Mendoza institution.  It was busy when we arrived and became increasingly packed as the evening wore on.  It was nice to eat salad again.  And two crepes suzette with ice cream.  The pub singer was fantastic.  Dressed in a tight-fitting (due to his girth rather than to any tailoring intent) sequined white suit and a huge orange sombrero, it was clear that in his mind he wasn't in a cheap Mendoza restuarant but in Las Vegas, best friends with Tom Jones and living the show-business high life.  But he took requests for birthday songs and danced with some clearly star-struck ladies, so all was good.

And to complete a Mendozan eveing we went bowling until 02.00 in the quaintest of bowling alleys, completely manually operated (it made me wonder about the number ankle injuries among the staff). 30 pesos for a big bowl and ball line, 20 for small.  We took the 30 peso option but we soon noticed we were the only ones who had done so.  For our second game we chose the small skittles option and discovered that this gave one more throws of the ball for the lower price.  Oddly this information hadn't been voluntarily forthcoming from the chap behind the desk.

What a splendid evening - taking in three Mendoza places that generally probably see little 'gringo' traffic, and feeling the real heartbeat of the place.  I have been to Mendoza twice now and this second visit confirms the opinion I formed during my first - that Mendoza is a recommend cool place and I would recommend a visit to anybody.


Some of you may be wondering what the catering arrangements are on Ernie, as the truck is called; this is only to be expected.  The first  part of the arrangements is the cooking rota, which is compiled by our glorious leader Roger according to some mysterious and arcane  process known only to him. This process produces a list of pairs whose responsibilities are to buy the ingredients necessary and to cook two successive dinners and breakfasts for the 25 of us now on the truck, on a budget of US$1.00 per day per person.  To some of you this may seem like not very much money; how, I hear you cry,  can 25 hungry climbers be fed on such a low sum of money?  The answer is simple - very badly!  If we are to eat anything other than 'Cheap veg slop a la mode' we generally have to supplement the budget from our own pockets.  One gets to know quickly those who are prepared to do this and those who are not...

Another aspect of the arrangements are the truck's stores.  There are certain basic staple foodstuffs that are available without erosion  of the budget: rice, pasta, lentils, sugar, flour, oil, spices, chickpeas, and various types of beans.  Pretty much all else has to be purchased from the budget.  Because the levels of 'can't be arsed' are generally quite high on the truck we normally only use the spices, rice and pasta, with some folk venturing into bread-making on occasion.

The infrastucture arrangements are the cooker, installed under the main body of the truck, and the attendant gas supply, two gas bottles one carried under the truck in a locker and the other strapped to the rear of the truck.  The stove's burners are rubbish, meaning that it is nearly impossible to heat the enormous pans we use, meaning it is effectively impossible to produce pasta or rice in the normal condition for eating.  Fine for those with no teeth, a tad on the soft side for the rest of us.  Another typically HotRock thing is that the gas regulator is broken.  Now, you might think the sensible thing would be to acquire a new regulator, and so reduce the risk of an accidental fire, quite apart from wasting the gas as it gently leaks away at the bottle head.  Well, you'd be right - but of course we just carry on in the HotRock way, leaking propane/butane mix into the atmosphere.  Ho humm.  (Ahh, I've just been told by Simon it was the bottle and not the  regulator.)

Now, given these arrangements, I expect you're wondering what we actually eat.  Here follows a typical daily menu:

Breakfast:  Porridge, with an additive of some kind. The worst of these has undoubtedly been mixed nuts, that was a culinary experiment too far.  Or sweet rice, which is almost, but not completely, unlike rice pudding.

Lunch:  we buy our own lunches.  The canny (or tight, take your choice) try to use any remains of the previous evening's meal for lunch; this explains several things: the careful selection of the dish or plate for the first sitting at dinner, so that one can get first place in the second; the proliferation of plastic food containers; and the high risk of injury when trying to beat Andy the driver to second helpings.  Otherwise, we eat cheese, paté, tortillas, bread, crackers and salami, all of which stays surprisingly fresh in Ernie's wooden lockers.  Nevertheless, it pays to be not too concerned about 'best before' dates...

Dinner:  Dinner normally takes about two hours to prepare and when ready is announced in traditional High Society style by beating the gong, which in HotRock's case is acheived by smashing the pan lids  together like cymbals.  The menu varies from vegetable curry (quite popular), vegetable soup, and other vegetable stuff to more adventurous dishes such as Macaroni Cheese (without the cheese, as this is too expensive), Risotto (a cunning way to hide the overcooked rice), and (once) a beef stew (although I suspect the meat for this was paid for by Gareth and was an attempt to erase from our memories the lower-than-average quality of the previous evening's vegetable thing.  I may be wrong).

Ee Fu is our Master Chef, and we can always be assured that he will make the best of any kitchen circumstance.  The problem with this though is that, if one is partnered with Ee Fu, then one has to conjure up the same enthusiasm as his for the task, and with the levels of 'can't be arsed' being quite high, this can be a challenge the failure to respond which results in one being Eu Fu's kitchen bitch for some hours.
Dinner is enhanced by a couple of standard accompaniments: Vino de Cartón (the best of which seems to be Vino Toro from Argentina) and one of the several 'danger'sauces that circulate around the truck.  Occasionally some generous soul will arrange for cheese and biscuits (unlike the Macaroni Cheese, with cheese), and we always enjoy cake (either from a shop or, better, made by Marese, that kitchen Goddess) when it is somebody's birthday.

So there we are.  When I joined the truck Roger said we eat well; I think the best way to interpret this is that we eat lots, and the 'well' bit is variable.  But, being Hot Rock, the quality doesn't seem to matter somehow and a spirit of tolerance pervades matters culinary. Even towards my experimental Sweet Pasta Pudding for breakfast. Just.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Climbing at Los Arenales, Mendoza Province, Argentina

Whilst the majority of others decided to break themselves in gently with some single pitch sport, Gareth and Owen set off for the multi-pitch route behind the incogruous statue of of the Virgin Mary (presumably Our Lady of Los Arenales, named for the time she presumably visited and flashed an 8a+) set high on the hill behind the truck, and Manuel and I set off for Patricia, apparently one of the best routes in the area for its variety of climbing styles demanded. Pitch one, being a 6a+ hand-jamming crack, I graciously left to Manuel to lead, he being an excellent all-round climber and snappy dresser, normally attired as he is in home-made clothes. Hard indeed the crack was, and I rested at least twice.  This was not unexpected, hand-jamming not being one of my preferred techniques. Pitch 2 was an excellent chimney at the somewhat easier grade of 5+, up which I swarmed with relative ease to a comfortable stance in which I was clearly visible to the black
Andean eagle that came to investigate me a couple of times.  Pitch 3, a little harder at 6a, was an excellent layback pitch, and 4 an airy traverse to an easy corner.  Now the crapness of the Mendoza guidebook came to the fore, for Manuel spent some considerable time wandering about looking for the right way to go, despite my suggestions that it was bloody obvious that the route continued up the slabby corner before stepping right. Time was now slipping by and the possibility of being benighted, previously probably non-existent, was becoming a remote possibility. Eventually  Manuel screwed his courage to the sticking
post, made an airy and scary step aound, and completed the pitch to a stance that was spacious but best ignored from security point of view.  A scappy  pitch took us to the top, from where we summited at 2805m, a major Andean peak. The descent, via a steep gully and 30m abseil, and walk-back (via the foot of the route, where we had left our bags) took forever as it was now the gloaming and we failed to find the path, thus meaning we had to traverse the boulder- and thorn bush-strewn hillside in the gathering darkness.  We arrived back some 10 and 1/2 hours after setting out, tired but pleased with our day.

A rest day followed.

Manual had, during the rest day, scouted out a potential new route up a slab and a couple of perfect-looking layback cracks. So, after an hour or so spent placing a bolt on the slab, Manuel set off, up the slab and first flake, difficult move right into the second flake (well, difficult for Manuel; when I was following, just as he was saying 'this is the crux' I nipped nimbly across and he then suggested he didn't want to climb with me again, having himself taken four goes at this move), a bit of down-climbing and lowering off to retrieve cams for use higher up, a bit of faffing about blindly placing big cams on the second layback, and the potential new  route was done, only to find a bit of abseil tat at the top, signifying that somebody had been there before. Shit. The abseil tat was around a 70 cm-high spike that rang with a note of C when struck lightly.  Hmmm - a bit hollow then. Not a good sign. To the right was a larger flake-like spike, around which as part of the
belay stance we already had a long tape.  This appeared a little more solid - until it vibrated when I (2m away hanging on a couple of cams, a sort of climbing protection device) shifted my position slightly.  Hmmm - not very securely attached then. But we had no choice and down we went, slowly and carefully, the shortest distance possible.

The plan was for the following day to be an easy one.  I was to climb with Tall Rob (so called to distinguish him from Young Robbie and Bob the Beard) and take him up his first multi-pitch route.  We had in mind a simple 5-pitch sport route on the side of the Mitre Buttress, the aim being to experience multi-pitch climbing and abseil descent rather than to push ourselves on technical climbing.  This well-conceived plan was scuppered by the appearance at the Mitre Butress of about 50 members of the Argentinean Army, who promptly covered the slab in top-ropes, and so we resorted to plan B, a 3 pitch route at 6a called
'Danzas con lobos' ('Dances with Wolves').  A bit harder than we wanted but what the hell.  Well, let me tell you that climbing 6c on indoor climbing walls is no preparation for Los Arenales 6a granite moves!  The rock features were all vertically aligned, and slippery and rounded to boot. Much struggling and a bit of dogging (climbing speak for resting equipment ) ensued and the crux was done.  The crack and groove above were more of the same, regrettably, but no more dogging was needed to get to an airy and comfortable stance from which I could survey the world below.  Rob followed, struggling in the same places, to arrive at the belay stance rather knackered.  Pitch two got off to a false start to the left, meaning both a bit of faffing about to reverse and head off the correct way to the right and a bit of rope management nightmare for
Rob on his first multi-pitch, which in turn resulted in me being completely unable to move upwards as the ropes were now completely transformed into a bunch of bastards.  The final pitch was great, an easy slab leading to the lower-off and Rob's first abseil descent.  All went smoothly with this, with both of us on the ground, until it came to retrieving the ropes, which of course became stuck. Bollocks. So I was now faced with three options:

1.  Prussik (i.e. climb the rope using loops of string, rather in the manner of James Bond in the film whose name regretably
eludes me but set in Greece and featuring the parrot and the nymphomaniac Russian ice-skater) 50 m to retrieve the ropes.

2.  Persuade Tall Rob to do this instead, as part of his multi-pitch introduction.

3.  Get Bob the Beard to do the route, as he had already top-roped it and it would be good to try the lead.
Option 1 was definately out, requiring as it did from me some effort and exposure to some risk.  Did my conscience allow me to try option 2? Yes - but unsurprisingly I failed to persuade.  But Option 3 was a winner and so I ended up climbing the crux pitch twice in the same day, the second time following rather than leading and without resting but still finding it somewhatbtaxing, hence my enfeebled state the next day where I took advantage of feeling knackered and some overcast and cold weather the first of our trip, virtually) to rest a wee bit and start the writing of this entry.

Another rest day followed.

For the last day at Los Arenales the plan was, and (at least for me) it was an audacious plan indeed, to have a go at 'Fuga de Cabras' ('Goat Escape'), 6b on its hardest pitch.  Now, I had already found 6a to be nails here, as you will have all astutely realised from above, so the prospect of 6b was a bit daunting.  The consolation was that Manuel could always haul my sorry backside up the cliff, something I warned him was a distinct possibility.  By the time we slogged, and I mean slogged, 800m up the horrendous scree slope to the foot of the route 5 Argentinians had already bagged it and, if we carried on with Plan A, the prospect of a long wait and possible traffic jams on the route made us decide instead to attempt the adjacent route, 'Encuentros Cercanos' ('Close Encounters'), also 6b (but also /A0). 

What a palaver. 

Manuel, who has been known to climb 7b at his limit, took 2 and 1/2 hours to lead the 50m first pitch, the majority of this time aiding a 10m stretch at about A2.  For those of you who don't know what this might mean,consider this:  he could only make progress up the rock by placing equipment including microwires (pieces of aluminium approximately 4mm sq and 2mm thick threaded with 1 mm steel wire) and trusting his
(considerable) weight to these whilst placing the next.  Not only this, he then had to remove lower wires for use higher up. So, when he eventually managed to crawl over the ledge at the top of this pitch our motivatation to go any higher had somewhat evaporated, and time was running a little short.  Shame really, as it was the last day at Los Arenales.

We ran down the scree slope in 20 minutes and the next morning went to Mendoza for a shower. And not before time I can tell you. 

Monday, 21 March 2011

In Argentina

Previous experience of crossing the Chile-Argentine border spawned a competition to guess
how long it would take to get across the border when travelling from Santiago to Mendoza.
Thankfully the Customs Official, upon whom all depended, couldn't be arsed and so we were
through in the speedy time of 50 minutes, thus allowing us to wild camp just beyond the
Aconcagua Base Camp drop-off point and then continue our journey to Los Arenales in the
province of Mendoza.  This area, access to which is controlled by the Gendarmeria Nacional
de Argentina (which seems to be a paramilitary police force of some kind), is high up in
the Andes and is virtually on the border between Argentina and Chile.  A scruffy fellow
with 'Colonel' written on his jacket took all our details and I wondered what military
crime he has committed to be assigned to such a middle-of-bloody-nowhere post with so few
staff that a man of his apparent seniority has to do such menial tasks.  Probably passed
the port to the right. In which case he deserves it.

Cultural differences are so important.  We arrived in the town of Tuyunán (with us
actually having no idea where we were, due to the excellent communications skills of our
glorious leader Roger) at about half twelve, with an instruction to be back at the truck
for half two. Two hours, plenty of time to get some cash, have a civilised lunch and then
shop for the next few days' lunches.  Halfway through enjoying a cool beer and waiting for
the already-ordered lunch we were give the information that the shops close for a siesta
between one and half four. It was now 12:58.  Shit.  So six of us rush off to the nearest
supermarket ony to find the manager guarding the door rather in the manner of Gandalf
barring the way to the Balrog on the Brigde of Khazadoom (a Lord of the Rings reference,
for those of you who don't recognise it - and shame to you too!).  Suitable pleading in
inadequate Spanish secure access for one of us, so there I was playing Supermarket Sweep
for six peoples' lunches for 6 days.  So much for the relaxing lunch.  Anyway, back at the
Cafe Colón lunch had arrived and, due to the crapness of the woman who had taken the
order, nobody really knew what they had ordered.  This, combined with the loss of the
original order, my refusal to pay (expressed in Spanish as well, always an enjoyable
thing) due to mouldy bread, and the random comings and goings or various members of the
now 25-strong HotRock team, brought a whole new dimension to the bistromatics, that branch
of mathematics concerned with payment of group bills is restaurants, one of whose tenets
is that no matter that everybody pays more than his or her share, the total is never
enough to cover the bill.  Much argument ensued.  So much for the relaxing lunch.

Now, some random observations:

It was an act of purest optimism to bring to South America my TK Max special Karrimor
approach shoes, which have now been replaced at vast expense by a local purchase of a
proper pair of boots by Salomon.

I believe 'gestalt' means 'the total is greater than the sum of the parts'.  If so, then
porridge with mixed nuts in for breakfast is an anti-gestalt thing, the combination being
very worse (to my mind) than the two separate parts.  Try it for yourself and see.

The hopes that our route was a new one were dashed when we found some tat (bit of tape or
string used to abseil from) at its top.

Abseiling from a big flake which is balanced on another loose block and that vibrates when
somebody 6 feet way moves slightly is a somewhat nerve-racking experience.

The collection of fetid shoes in the shoe box is beginning to get a bit smelly.

If you can't find something it will probably be in the random shit box.

We are in need of soldering flux as the truck radiator is falling apart and is currently
being held together with a seat belt.  Simon intends to do something mysterious with the
flux to fix this problem.  Will he succeed or will we be marooned in a cloud of stream in
the middle of nowhere?

My new camera is both pink and shit.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

A Santiago Sojourn

One month gone already!

We have spent the last two days or so in Santiago, a city of 7 million (so I'm told) people with the grime and smog to prove it.  I toyed briefly with the idea of taking in the sights but quickly realised I couldn't be arsed as I had so much else to do that was more important - washing, laundry, buying yet more stuff (thermorest, replacement camera, drybag for my sleeping bag, and last but not least and, because we don't seem to get to internet cafes with the regularity I expected, a crappy little netbook computer (on which this blog is now being written) for the princely sum of £205), drinking, saying goodbye to the leavers at the end of stage 1 and, finally, saying hello to the newbies for stage 2.

We have been staying at the Hostal Plaza de Armas the centre of town, a splendid establishment about 25 minutes from the truck park where Ernie is taking root - or is it a rest - from the rigours of the Chilean road system.  Simon is desperately building more cupboard space to handle the increase in numbers from 14 to 24.  If we thought the levels of chaos were high before I think we will be in for a shock later when we pack ourselves in sardine-like.  The hostal is quite nice, with (most importantly) all day hot water in the showers; I have been showering not because of layers of accumulated filth but simply because I can.

The newbies seem like a good lot, if with too few names.  Three Robs, two Chrises, a Nathan and a collection of johnny foreigners from Australia, Germany, and Switzerland.  It will be interesting tracking their descent from perfectly decent people into HotRock scumbags over the next few days.

A couple of observations on Chilean people.  Firstly they are somewhat chubby.  No, that's a lie.  They are, generally, enormous.  Each with their own gravitational field.  This seems to be due primarily to their high quality diet of, mainly, hotdogs with vast amounts of guacamole, salsa and mayonaise; carne or pollo a lo pobre (i.e. meat or chicken with fried onions, fried eggs and chips); and generally gargantuan portions polished off in double-quick time.  Secondly they have been so friendly and welcoming it has been a real pleasure  being here.  Think the opposite of the good folk of the better end of Surrey ("What are you doing here on my land?") and you'll get the picture.  I would recommend a Clilean journey to anybody.  Take the road from the South to the North, on a road parallel to the Pan American Highway, and you are sure to have a great time.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Much has happened...

The Climbing Bit.
So, we left Cochamó and spent a couple of days driving up to the Valle de los
Cóndores, where a series of 30m high pink basalt walls on both sides of a river in
spate offer a number of sport and trad routes. These walls seemed, on first
inspection, rather intimidating and impregnable. On closer inspection, using digital
photos of a topo (a sketch of the crag with routes marked on), we found, over the
next three days, a number of routes of sufficiently amenable grade that we managed to
do perhaps something like 15 established routes from 5.8 to (allegedly) 5.11b (5 to
6c+ for those of you who prefer French grades).  Much to my surprise I found I was
climbing with more facility than many others, so I enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude
(wrong of me I know but ...)
The Cajón de Maipo is an area of the Andes close to Santiago, where there are a
number  of climbing areas of varying degrees of scariness and difficulty.  The pueblo
of Baños Morales is a bit of a centre for trekking, horse riding and climbing,scruffy
though it undoubtedly is.  A cool campsite with, perhaps, the most ramshackle toilet
facilities offering quite the coldest shower imaginable accommodated us very nicely
for two nights whilst we investigated the climbing in the La Mina and Hitchcock
sectors.  We chose to ignore Sector Punto Zanzi due to the walk-in of death required.
 This is no joke - people have died when trying to find the walk off in the dark.
Sector La Mina is that rare thing in Chile - a steep limestone crag.  It does however
resemble the Black Gate of Mordor, and I expected an immenent attack from the Dark
Lord at any time.  I climbed a couple of routes with Manuel, a German chap who joined
the truck at Baños MOrales; rather, he climbed them and I flailed my way up
afterwards. But given that we had no real idea of the grade, I was not downhearted.
Sector Hitchcock was, on the other hand, sun-baked and slabby, with a few routes that
turned out to be excellent, especially a 6b+ line that took in some steeper terrain
and so played more to my strengths.
We were assured that Las Chilcas was the best sport climbing area in Chile.  Well, it
might have been, but the Pan American Highway runs right through the middle of it
which just took the edge of the rural idyll it might otherwise have been.  Oh hang
on, the madman living in the shade of a rock on which was painted 'Christo viene'
('Christ is coming'), his pack of feral dogs, and the nasty little ticks that
dispense Malde Chagos all also took the edge of things here.  But there were one or
two good routes to be done and we managed to keep ourselves entertained for a couple
of days, despite these drawbacks and the failure on my and Manuel's part to find the
135m multi-pitch route that alledgely went up the highest part of the crag.
So,just before arriving in Santiago we spent a couple of days at the beach in
Zapallar, which turned out to be the rich (and I mean rich) set's playground, doing a
spot of bouldering, and another couple at La Palestra, one of Chile's oldest
developed climbing areas.  Manuel and I took the opportunity to climb with some local
guys, who took us to a deep granite canyon for a spot of crack climbing.  Hmmm.  Well
haed.  Lots of crying like a baby, with Tim's remarks about board-lasted shoes
ringing in my ears.  But Manuel climbed better than the all Chileans and I better
than most, so we didn't disgrace ourselves.  For me the day was what HotRock should
be about - making contact witjh local climbers and having good days out with them.
So that's the boring bit out of the way.
Santiago Cathedral is playing Beetoven's Ode to Joy on its bells.
The non-climbing bit.
Now, dear reader, here is where you come in.  It's competition time.  Below you will
find a list of things, and your task, should you choose to accept it, is to assign
them to one or both of the following categories:  A good thing; A bad thing.
The opportunity to use a comfy toilet.
Sweet rice for breakfast, made not with pudding rice but with long-grain.
More lentils.
Even more lentils.
The effect of lentils on Simon's digestion.
The No Hands Rest, which is the truck bar.
The Hermanos Carrera wine found in the No Hands Rest.
Mulling the shit out of the Hermanos Carrera wine to make it drinkable
Pasta cooked HotRock style - best described politely as a trifle soft.
The availability of meat.
The general absence of meat in our diet.
The food budget of US$1.00 per day.
Hot water.
The smell of Richard's feet.
Fresh drinking water.
The drinking water from the jerry cans, which aren't really jerry cans but industrial
food flavouring containers that were bought on the cheap and that still retain strong
memories of their previous contents.
The company of other HotRockers.
The welcome extended by pretty much all the Chileans I have met.
Niño, the allegedly fierce guard dog at La Palestras
The opportunity to practice Spanish.
The truck fairy, who constantly hides stuff you just put down.
The need to carry toilet paper everywhere.
A sewerage system capable of handling toilet paper.
Belting out Tom Jones's 'Delilah' during the kareoke evening in Los Chicos Malos in
Baños Morales.
The offer to be taught salsa by Maurice.
Space to store stuff.
Cold showers.
Freezing showers.
Hot showers.
Finding a scorpion under the tent.
Cook duty.
Pollo a lo pobre
Dancing the night away in The Jammin' Club in Santiago.
The pre-expedition advice to not take a thermorest as is is sure to get punctured.
Buying a thermorest in Santiago because one followed the pre-expedition advice.
Dropping one's camera down the crag and watching it explode into a million pieces.
Cutlery moments.
MOre grime.
Even more grime.
Personal hygiene.
Clean clothes.
The state of Simon the Mechanic's work clothes.

So, that's about it for now. Entries to be submitted at your convenience and the
winner will receive a box of Hermanos Carrera wine. There's incentive for you.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Final preparations...

Message received from the guys in South America - they will be at Cochamó on 15th Feb and I should hike  into meet them at the crag when I get there.  So - how to get from Cochamó to the campsite? There's no way I can carry the 30 kgs or so that my kit weighs so I expect I'll have to arrange the services of some chap with mules once I get to Cochamó itself.  Some research to do methinks.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Departure looms - slightly

Departure for Cochamó, Chile, in 38 days.  This will be the first stop of the South American journey I am taking with HotRock in 2011, a journey that will pass through Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia, a journey that will  last 117 days, a journey that has been designed to take us to some of the best South American climbing venues, a journey that will combine the three interests of travel, climbing and Spanish.

I look at the large pile of kit, I recall the swinging extra baggage charges I experienced on a previous trip to South America, and I wonder how to avoid a repeat of that frankly painful experience.  I obsess about dengue fever and I worry about the possibility that I will be the expedition climbing numpty.