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.