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.