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. 


  1. That "boogies with hounds" climb sounded a bit hard!!
    To be frank it all sounds hard including the diet, lack of washing and decent bed...I guess you are getting used to it by now.

    Keep your gri-gri clean and let those prussiks hand free.

  2. typo!

    should read "hang free" !!!

  3. I've been on the truck now for exactly 6 weeks and it seems like I have been a climbing scumbag for ever! In a good way though :-)

  4. The climbing sounds, and looks, amazing (photos of most areas available on google images). Have just had my first day outside this year, a VS, 2 HVS' and 2 E1s - not all on lead but still not bad for a first day.