UNCOVERING APPROACHABLE ROUTES FOR THE EVERYDAY CLIMBER IN SOUTH PATAGONIA
This story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Climbing Magazine.
The wind was a phantom, raking across the Central Tower and curling into the grooves of the heavily textured orange granite, haunting every move and chilling us to the bone. It ripped back on itself, building speed through the gap between the North and Central towers.
As the sun began to rise, rays etched an outline of the Central Tower on the enormous east face of Cerro Escudo far across the valley. I could imagine my position way down on the edge of the shadow. Little hairs on my neck stood on end as I contemplated the vertical distance to the summit. I belayed André Labarca up the third pitch of the Central Tower’s über-classic Bonington-Whillans (V 5.10, A1, 800m), wondering if we could climb 15 more pitches in this wind and survive the trip back to the ground again. I mean, we’re just everyday climbers.
Tucked into a corner of Chilean Patagonia, sandwiched between the border with Argentina and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, Torres del Paine National Park is the definition of isolation. Paine [pie-nay] is on the 51° south parallel, making it the world’s southernmost climbing area outside of Antarctica. The massif is a quiver of granite spires, hemmed in by milky turquoise lakes fed by rivers so clean you can drink right from them.
The trio of Paine towers was “discovered” about 150 years ago, but word spread slowly. Alps-trained Europeans started putting up lines in the late 1950s, and the towers have had climbers licking their chops ever since. The 3,000- to 4,000-foot walls are so big and steep that most of the routes were climbed with siege tactics and aid climbing over weeks or months during short spurts of climbable weather. First ascent parties tagged their routes with names like Alfombra Majica(Magic Carpet Ride, VI 5.10, A3+, 800m), La Ballena de los Vientos (The Whale of the Winds, VI 5.10b, A3, 900m), and Riders on the Storm (VI 5.12d, A3, 1,100m) to help us understand what they went through.
When you hear about Paine, chances are you’ll hear how hard-as-nails Belgium climbers freed 30-pitch 5.12 routes or madmen climbed A4+ big walls for a month in winter-like conditions. What most people don’t know is that you don’t have to be a world-class alpinist to put Paine on your bucket list. You don’t even have to be a high-altitude climber because the summits top out at 10,000 feet. Beta trickles out slowly, and it seems like no one talks about the host of shorter and easier routes that can be done by moderately strong climbers with decent mountain sense.
I was just such a climber when I arrived in Puerto Natales, the jumping-off point for Paine, with nothing but a backpack and a dream to live abroad. I scored a job pretty quickly when Baguales Brewpub hired me to manage their restaurant—the best beer and burger joint in town (if I do say so myself). I made a bunch of friends through my buddy Chino Parada and moved into a house with some other dudes in town. Local climber André Labarca and I became regular partners, and soon I was helping him with his project to develop routes on the nearby smaller conglomerate crags.
Of course, I dreamed of climbing in Paine but always doubted I could. I had climbed big walls in Yosemite and Zion but had never done long alpine-style free climbs. André had been making ascents in Paine for more than a decade, and he thought I’d make a great partner for some big routes. By the beginning of the next climbing season he had me convinced, and we came up with a plan. At the end of one winter, we made a frigid approach to the base of towers high in Valle Silencio where we cached a haulbag worth of gear: rope, rack, sleeping bags, stove, fuel, etc. We lived right in town, so we could go about our lives while we waited for the cherry weather to come. The plan was to wait for an opening in the forecast, drive up to the park, do the eight-hour approach, bivy at the base, blast up the next morning, and then return home on day three to be back at work after a “three-day weekend” and an enormous climb. In early January 2010 we spotted a 72-hour period of dry but windy weather coming in on the forecast. Our moment had arrived.
We drove in from across the windswept pampas, and the sight of the towers was terrifying. The sheer walls, the singular granite summits, the wind, the last month of partying instead of training… I kept my mouth shut, but my stomach dropped. The next day at sunrise, partway up the Central Tower, I was struggling to believe our plan was going to work. I was still tired from the approach, and the haunting wind hissed threats about the enormity of pitches left to climb and descend.
Looking back, I don’t remember the details of the first few pitches aside from a funky traverse, bad rope drag, and a lost cam. The wind and I squatted together on the ledge for half an hour, giving slack and fighting the urge to pull down and yell to André that he should lower and we should bail. Nothing made sense in my mind, and I struggled to pull away from the sticky gloom in my head. A sickly feeling swelled in my throat. The wind was right: I was wrong to be here. I felt weak. The rope came tight; I cleaned up the belay and started moving.
When I arrived at the next anchor, André mentioned that I had followed the pitch muy rapido. I had no sense of time and hadn’t noticed. I looked up and for the first time could see the route sweeping up the wall above us. A big slab led to a roof that was topped by a sexy red-orange corner. The wind was demonic, but the chill had been cut by the morning sunlight. André’s comment about climbing fast was like an enormous eraser, wiping clean the chalkboard of my mind where I had been scrawling self-defamations in overdramatic scribbles. Maybe I could do this.
I took the rack and ran out the delicate slab above (images of a tiny cam and a rusty pin still stick with me). Before I knew it, I was clipping fixed pins in the roof and then pulling into the red-orange corner above. The rope came tight, and I had climbed 60 meters out of mental darkness and self-doubt.
The first ascent of Central Tower had been more than 50 years ago in January 1963. Chris Bonington, British mountaineering superstar, was in his early 20s when he and Don Whillans, who would go on to design the first modern sit harness, tagged the summit after months of battling wind and snow. It was a time when climbers wore woolen knickers and hobnailed boots, an era when twisted nylon ropes were state of the art. In the Red Dihedral pitches above the roof, I placed perfect gold Camalots next to Bonington’s two-inch wooden “pitons” that still adorn the line.
One pitch higher, we stopped to refuel on a sunny ledge with a view of vertical miles of orange granite and miles of glimmering glaciers. We checked the topo, noting the difficulty of each coming pitch. There were many remaining, but we kept telling each other, “Facil, es todo facil.” (It’s all easy from here.) Recharged, we swung leads from the ledge to reach the shoulder of the tower by early afternoon.
In 1973, the same year Yosemite Valley rats were putting up sunny lines likeMescalito and Tangerine Trip, a team of South Africans attacked the 4,000-foot virgin east face of Central Tower. At the time, it was the largest pure rock route ever climbed. It took them months of effort and thousands of feet of fixed rope to arrive at the shoulder of the tower. Whillans had advised them, “Don’t be deceived; when you think you have gotten to the summit, you still have a few more hours to go.”
From the shoulder, we simul-climbed through icy sections and long runout slabs. We climbed up to the first summit and were destroyed to see another higher point to the west. The wind hissed Whillans’ words in our ears. Simul-climbing with the wind wringing tears from our eyes, we followed historic footprints past a second false summit and then to the true top. Somehow this average climber had managed to top out one of the greatest rock climbing objectives in the world. I’d been digging deep to shed layers of looming self-doubt, and the wind was filling its place with something soul-nourishing.
For André it was a special moment. He had completed the trifecta. Fifteen years earlier, at 20, he’d climbed both the North and South towers in a single season. On top of Central Tower, he had become one of the few to climb all three spires.
André often told me his favorite quote: “Don’t go to the mountain with intentions to conquer her; allow her to conquer you.” Conquer but not destroy you, I say. The wind was picking up, and we could see low-pressure clouds moving in from the west. We needed to go down.
An hour into the descent, we got the ropes stuck before we reached the shoulder. I climbed back up twice to free them while André collected a liter of water from melting snow—huge bonus. Two raps later, we pulled a rock down and badly damaged the tag line. Stars twinkled overhead. The ropes flapped like sails in a gale as we fought our way down.
While on the slab pitch, still hundreds of feet from the ground, the wind dragged the climbing rope off into the night when we pulled it. Forced to make short rappels with shreds of the tag line, we fixed many intermediate anchors to the base. We reached our bivy after 26 hours in the wind with the gray pall of a fresh storm obscuring the starry sunrise, tired but content.
Climbing the Bonington-Whillans taught me a lot about reading the forecast. We had nailed the window perfectly. After crashing at our bivy for a few hours, we woke to light snow and a very low cloud ceiling. Our opportunity had been very precise. We had approached in fine warm weather after a short period of bad weather. If we had climbed a day earlier, it’s likely that the snow from the previous storm would have been melting and sloughing off loose rocks and ice on us. If we had been any later we would have gotten shut down completely.
The wind was fierce on the climb, but we knew it would be from the forecast. What I didn’t know was how deeply the wind would erode my psyche with its constant nagging buffets and nay-saying whispers in my ears. I should have visualized that before the climb to have a better experience. We also should have known to make shorter rappels in the wind. When we lost the rope, we not only lost the use of it, but we also left a piece of trash high on an alpine wall—it still bothers me.
Over the next year living in Puerto Natales, I became close friends with another local, Tomás Marucic. Tomás’ dad Pepe was a local horseman who had worked closely with two decades of climbing expeditions in Paine. Tomás literally grew up in Torres del Paine National Park in the shadow of the towers—Pepe homeschooled him in a tent at basecamp. Tomás met most of the world-class climbers of the 1980s and ’90s, and his training reflects their style. The barn behind his house has a wickedly steep wooden bouldering cave with large granite blocks for free weights, and old tapes of Russian heavy metal blare from an ancient stereo.
A year after climbing Central Tower, André and I teamed up with Tomás to climb the Aste Route (VI 5.10 A1) on South Tower. We bivied in a tight little nook known as the Bonington Cave about three hours from the base of the route. The week before the climb, Tomás had left his gear in his garage, and a tomcat had pissed all over his sleeping bag. The cramped cave was suffocating with the stench, but we laughed and joked and fell asleep with burning eyes. At 2 a.m. we woke up and set out, picking our way through the moraine by the light of the moon.
We were on the route just as the first orange rays began to light the summits around us. As a team of three, we shared the loads and passed the time at belays chatting and joking. The air moved around us gently, like a kind hand giving us right-of-way to the top. We reached the shoulder before noon and stripped down to base layers under a blazing sun, laughing and gagging as little whiffs of cat piss came off Tomás’ clothes. The upper pitches were beautifully clean orange cracks and steep, super-textured slabs. Exposure, teamwork, weather—all perfect.
At the top, Tomás led us up the yellow-orange summit block. The view was amazing. The late afternoon sunlight glistened off the icefields to the west, and Fitz Roy was clearly visible 100 miles to the north. Tomás had climbed his first tower—a powerful moment after growing up in the shadow of the mountain. André relived the summit he’d visited 15 years earlier, and I’d just climbed all three towers in two years—not too shabby for a guy who grew up in New Jersey doing 5.10s for most of his climbing career. It was a long moment of pure happiness for all of us.
We rappelled in the dark, dozing for 20-second spells with a hand on the rappel line, waiting for a partner to unweight the rope. At dawn, four pitches from the ground, we snagged a rope in a chossy chimney and were left with just one. For the next rappel I made a garbage intermediate anchor in blown-out flakes that somehow held all three of us long enough to re-thread the rope and get to a ledge below. We touched down at the base in full daylight, happy to change out of damp climbing shoes. Finally at 8 a.m., we rolled back into the cave, greeted by the lingering stench of Tomás’ sleeping bag.
A week later, Tomás held an asado at his house. We drank white wine from a honeydew melon and feasted on lamb roasted on a spit over an open fire. A real Patagonian celebration. At the party, André showed us the original report by Italian Armando Aste, who in 1963 had made the first ascent of South Tower by the route that bears his name. The story mentions a hanging bivy at the top of pitch five where he and his partners shared a can of beer. All three of us recalled having seen the rusted beer can stuffed into the back of a crack. On the descent, I had plucked a soft iron piton from a crack and snagged a steel carabiner from another pin. Photos of the expedition show Aste wearing a bandolier of the same pins and biners. I was in awe. Having those old pieces of iron in my home in Puerto Natales kindled an interest to learn about those that had passed before me.
There is a rich history of climbing in Paine, but I found it scattered across the world in thousands of pages in journals and magazines. Over the years I began to assemble a catalog of the routes. Turns out that the majority of routes have never seen a second or third ascent. Topos are scribbled in the margins of the climbers’ log at Torres del Paine National Park headquarters. There are topos without descriptions and descriptions without a topo. Threads of stories dead-end. I started to track down the leads, digitize the topos, and assemble the timeline to paint a full picture of the place I love so much.
When I started collecting beta, I found the well-documented routes were mostly enormous aid climbs. Very little was documented on routes that could be done free in a day. Maps were printed for hikers. They didn’t show the climbers’ trails, bivies, or route locations. Details on permits, where to stay, how to get around, and what gear is best weren’t easy to find. So I decided to create a guide. I’ve been researching it for years and will publish Climb Paine: Routes, History, Potential. It’s part love letter, part history, part guide for the everyman climber, and it’s loaded with beta, maps, and topos. Whether you’re a hardman or just a normal guy like me, I hope it inspires you to go experience it for yourself.
Patagonia Tick List
The best moderates in Torres del Paine National Park
West Face, Aleta de Tiburon/Shark’s Fin
(III 5.8), 1,000’, standard rack
La Aleta is a gem. From the very center of Valle Frances it offers quality rock and choose-your-own-adventure climbing that never gets harder than 5.8. It is the easiest and most straightforward pure rock climb in Paine. Combine that with the serene seclusion high in the French Valley and you will find a truly classic alpine climb.
Approach from the trail to Campamento Brittanico and cross several rivers to gain an elevated, wooded plateau. Set up basecamp on flat ground under a canopy of lenga trees. Hike toward the west face and rope up at the highest point of moraine against the wall. The face has various routes—pick your line and start climbing.
Southeast Ridge, El Gemelo Este/The East Twin
(III 5.10-), 1,300’, standard rack
One of the last formations to be climbed in Paine, the twin peaks sit at the very back of Valle Frances and are only seen by climbers who venture high into the valley. El Gemelo Este is the higher of the two peaks, and the Southeast Ridge offers great climbing with short cruxes. Gain the ridge by three pitches of low-angle climbing on the right side of the face, and then scramble for three pitches to the business of four vertical pitches to the summit. Rap to the west into the col between the twins; you should find anchors every 30 meters.
Approach as for Aleta de Tiburon but stay in the valley floor, working over dry glaciers and moraine for another hour to the base of the route.
Regular Route, Cuerno Principal/Main Horn
(III 5.8), 1,500’, standard rack
You will see Cuerno Principal in almost every photo of the park (see p. 32); the iconic black horn towers over azure lakes across the valley from the glaciated east face of Paine Grande. Though the climbing is easy, the circuitous route took decades to be unlocked and repelled some of the best climbing suitors to visit Paine in the early years.
Approach to Campamento Italiano and hike directly uphill. At treeline find a low-angle couloir on the right side of the southwest flank. Ascend this to where the granite meets the dark shale band and traverse left on fourth class terrain to the north/northeast aspect. Here, find your way up somewhat loose mid– to low–fifth class terrain for 800 feet to the summit. Rappel or downclimb the route.
Monzino Route, Torre Norte/North Tower
(IV 5.10-), 1,200’, standard rack
The Monzino was the first ascent line on the North Tower. Climbed in 1958, it is perhaps the most traveled route in all of Paine. Three pitches of technical climbing are separated by lots of fourth class terrain. The granite is impeccable.
Approach to Campamento Japonese and set up basecamp. Hike into Valle Silencio via the climbers’ trail. When directly below Col Bich (the saddle between the North and Central towers), scramble up the talus to the left of the snowy couloir, steering clear of the smooth slabs. Continue uphill to the base of the North Tower and traverse right 200 yards to an abrupt ridge. Climb to the top of this ridge and continue along its crest until you are forced into the couloir, then continue uphill to the col between the North and Central towers. Here, follow fixed pins for two short pitches (5.8 and 5.10-) to the loose shoulder. Work uphill, staying to the left of the main ridge and ascending a few short 5.6 corners. At the summit block, climb runout 5.8 for 40 feet to old pins and then to the top. Rap the route, glissade the snow couloir (also a debris funnel), or reverse the talus approach.
Taller del Sol, North Tower
(IV 5.10c), 1,200’, doubles to #4, one #5, two 60m ropes
A direct, sustained crack and chimney system splits the north face and deposits you at the base of the summit block. It’s the best free climb I’ve ever done. Bring a few large cams and kiss your guns for good luck at the base. Excellent protection throughout and bolted anchors make for a straightforward rappel.
Approach as for Monzino until you reach the base of the North Tower. Locate the wide crack on pitch four and begin at the base of this system. Beware that Ultima Esperanza (5.10+ A2) follows a line just to the left, and it’s easy to get off route into this harder terrain.
Regular Route, Almirante Nieto
(III 5.7), 2,500’, nuts, small cams, 60m rope
This was the first technical climb done in Paine way back in 1937. It is a mountain route with lots of scrambling and a 100-foot pitch of 5.7 midway. You only need a light mountain rack, and the reward is the best view of the massif you can get. Fun, fun, fun!
Approach to Campamento Torres and hike up the trail toward the Mirador Base de Las Torres for 20 to 30 minutes. Find a climbers’ trail on the left where the path crosses a faint stream. Follow vague but discernible paths through low bushes for five or so minutes to a sandy gully. Hike up the slope to the left and aim toward the wide couloir on the northeast aspect of the mountain. Ascend this couloir to a ridge and move right uphill. Rope up at the base of a low-angle wall and follow the path of least resistance to an anchor just above a short right-facing corner (sometimes there is a fixed rope here). Hike farther to a short scramble in a narrow couloir and continue to the top, finding your way over short rock steps and open snowfields.
Descend the route the same way you came up.
Getting to Torres del Paine
Fly to Punta Arenas, Chile. Make a reservation online for a transfer from the airport to Puerto Natales (go to bussur.cl for rates and schedule). Failing that, you’ll need to pay for a taxi ride to downtown Punta Arenas and catch a bus from there. Spend a night in Puerto Natales, and then catch a bus to Torres del Paine National Park. Tip: Hire a van for the flexibility to go to headquarters for your permit and back to the trailhead; this could save you a day. Contact Hernan Jofre at Antares Patagonia to arrange ($280).
Torres del Paine Climbing Season
Our winter is Chile’s summer. December through February are the best times to climb. The days are long, with as many as 18 hours of daylight. March through May are wet but slightly less windy.
Torres del Paine Climbing Regulations
You need a permit to climb in Paine (free and easy to obtain). Before you travel, request permission from the Chilean Foreign Ministry. You’ll get a response in two weeks via email. Once you enter the park, go to headquarters, or administración, for a permit. You need a copy of your DIFROL permission, passports, and proof of rescue insurance for each climber. Become a member of the American Alpine Club (AAC) and get automatic insurance; your AAC card is proof enough. Beware that if you do need a rescue, the AAC insurance will only cover you if you call them first. Consider bringing a sat phone for this reason.
Where to Stay Near Torres del Paine
While you’re in the park, you’ll be camping at your basecamp. Some paid campsites, however, offer hot showers, warm meals, staple foods, and beer. In Puerto Natales there are more than 100 hostels. Prices range from as low as $7 per night and up. Reserve a night at Erratic Rock, the sister hostel Base Camp, the Tin House Patagonia, Lili Patagonicos or Spacio Kau. Spacio Kau is a Climbing mag favorite; it’s above a coffee shop/gear shop/restaurant/tour service. Each place can help arrange your transport to the park and will hold a bag while you’re off climbing.
Where to Eat in Torres del Paine
Stock up in Puerto Natales before you head to the national park. You’ll find supermarkets, pharmacies, fruit stands, and butchers. Many stores sell gas canisters and white gas (bencina blanca). For replacement gear and freeze-dried meals, go to Alfgal. On the main plaza (Plaza de Armas), get a microbrew beer and a burger at Baguales Brewpub, a killer pizza at Mesita Grande, or delicious sandwiches at Masay. Base Camp has great slow-cooked food every evening. Visit Spacio Kau for real coffee (not Nescafe).