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Climbing in Torres del Paine

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For as long as I have been climbing, the sheer granite faces, spires and cliffs of Torres del Paine have played a scary, intimidating yet fascinating role in my imagination. Climbing the awe-inspiring granite cliffs is the stuff of legends and not something that should be attempted by mere climbing mortals. The history of climbing in the area is full of adventure, daring and inevitably death. Difficult multi day climbing, remoteness and phenomenally sudden and violent changes in the weather combine to create some of the world’s most exposed climbing. Expeditions have been known to carefully plan, stock and ship everything they need for a particular route only to be imprisoned in their tents by the weather for weeks on end.

Even though it is the big, intimidating granite faces that Torres Del Paine is famous for that doesn’t mean that there aren’t smaller and more accessible cliffs for the more timid, like myself. We had reconnaissanced an area the previous day and found some easy slabs followed by a pitch of vertical rock. Being tired from our arduous walk in we did nothing more than look at the cliff. But Clyde and Geoff got about 4 pitches done and their reports were positive – the rock was easy angled, solid and well protectable.

Finding someone keen to do the climb with me was a problem because just about everyone was either too tired or disillusioned with the exposure or lack of access to their chosen routes and were starting the walk out the following day. Finally Gary and Ross agreed to give it a shot and we decided to set off once the sun had risen over the cliffs the following day.

Long before any sane person wakes, at about 6 am, a muffled shout of my name woke me from a deep sleep.

- Sssh Caelen, it’s Gary and Ross
- Yeah?
- We are going to help Rachel and Mike go down today, so we won’t be going climbing
- Ok

I immediately went back to sleep and when I finally woke up at about 8 am I could only vaguely recall the conversation. Did they say they weren’t going to climb or did they say that they’d be climbing after they’d helped Rachel and Mike?

Geoff was standing around looking fidgety, as is his habit in the morning. Enquiring of him what his plan for the day was, he replied that he was vaguely thinking of joining our little party. Geoff, at 24, is already an accomplished rock climber, and one of the best in our expedition. Pairing him and me would be akin to Magic Johnson and Stephen Hawking being teamed together in a 400-meter relay race. I told him that two thirds of the party had already scurried down the hill, but if he didn’t mind climbing with a bumbling idiot then I would be happy to head up with him.

Not only is Geoff an excellent climber he is also supremely fit. The walk to the base of the climb is over steep scree slopes - two steps forward and slide one step back. It is the worst possible type of terrain to walk on as not only do your thighs burn with lactic acid but you have to concentrate so hard on your footwork that you forget to look at the scenery. The walk in had taken us over 3 hours the previous day, but Geoff had us bounding up in under 2. I felt like I’d run a marathon and I hadn’t even started the climb.

We ate a little and chose a likely line up the rock. Having no guidebook we had no idea if it had ever been climbed, but that didn’t really matter. We alternatively led up the first 4 pitches, each a minimum of 50 meters, dodging the sections of snow and ice. The climbing was easy, in fact a damn sight easier than walking up a scree slope. We moved quickly, placing protection every 10 meters and only slowing to set anchors.

By the end of the fourth pitch I was tired, not too tired to climb but too tired to lead without making stupid mistakes. “You can go on,” I panted “and I’m happy to second you but I’m not leading any further pitches.” Geoff looked dejectedly at the top of the ridge, seemingly just one easy slab and one vertical short pitch away. We examined the time. Geoff was well capable of leading the rest with me seconding but it would be a close call to do it before our turn around time of 4 pm. My eyes joined his fixed on the ridgeline – I had never done anything like this before and who knew when I’d get the chance to do it again. “Come on, lets do it,” I said and Geoff let slip a quick smile before starting up the rock with new vigour.

A pitch and a scramble later and we were still had a good 30 meters of vertical rock short of summitting. This was turning out to be much longer than I had been expecting but I was enjoying the experience. Geoff started to lead the vertical rock, it didn’t look too difficult but for some reason he was taking for too long, like each move was uncertain. His moves were unconfident and tight - totally at odds with his normally elegant style. I slowly paid out rope and kept glancing at my watch. It had passed our turn around time and although it was extremely conservative one I was still anxious.

The 30 meter point in the rope passed through my belay plate and looking at Geoff barely a third of a way up the cliff I suddenly realised that we were going to be out a lot longer than I had anticipated. Twenty meters further up Geoff anchored himself and I hurried to follow, but no sooner had I gone 5 meters I stopped. I could now see why Geoff had been going so slowly; the rock was rotten with bits breaking away under foot. Reaching up to grab a hold the rock moved and a chunk the size of a microwave threatened to dislodge. I changed handholds and tentatively moved upwards, never trusting anything I touched, desperately trying to spread my weight out over as many holds a possible. I was scared but exhilarated.

Distances proved to be deceptive and despite thinking we were all but finished the next pitch used up the full 60 meters of rope. Sitting on top of the ridge and feeling on top of the world we felt a real sense of accomplishment. That didn’t last long though, we still had to get down and our descent route wasn’t obvious. Looking at our options Geoff decided that it would be best if we traversed to the end of the ridge where hopefully there would be an easy descent to scree and we would be able to walk back to the base of the climb.

By Geoff’s reckoning we should remain roped to each other for the traverse because “in theory if one of us falls the rope should snag on something”. I wasn’t particularly keen on his use of “in theory” and “should” but recognising the need for speed I started the traverse. It was simple enough but the exposure was high and I made slow and nervous progress until I reached a point where our descent proper could start. I anchored myself into the rock and Geoff joined me.

It was about 60 meters to the start of the scree and the first 30 meters looked pretty vertical. Our choice was to either abandon gear or to reverse lead the first 30 meters. In reality it wasn’t so much our choice as Geoff’s choice given that if I was in no condition to lead up a pitch I was certainly in no condition to down climb one. He decided on the safety of an abseil and made an anchor out of our least expensive and oldest gear. The remaining 30 meters was an easy downclimb and had us on the relative safety of the scree.

As much as walking up scree slopes is painful, it is nothing compared to walking down a scree slope in rock shoes three sizes too tight. Toes, already squeezed against the front rubber, were crushed like grapes as each step squashed them against unforgiving rubber. Things got so bad that Geoff took his off and went barefoot, ignoring the risk of cuts and bruises. When finally we made it back to our bags and the roomy comfort of our hiking boots - after descending over 500m of painful scree, slabs and snow - I was well and truly exhausted yet immensely happy with my day. I just wished I didn’t have a two-hour hike back to camp

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of the gang Torres del Paine - Chile travelogues
Photograph of some serious cliffs Torres del Paine - Chile travelogues
Relaxing the previous day
Some cliffs for the more serious
Picture of the horns Torres del Paine - Chile travelogues
Photograph of Caelen's climb Torres del Paine - Chile travelogues
The climb was on the lower cliffs
The Route we climbed

Picture of Nick Torres del Paine - Chile travelogues
Picture of our campsite Torres del Paine - Chile travelogues
Nick looking cool
Sitting round the camp fire