Cerro San Lorenzo and the Patagonian summer

“We hiked up ready to climb our first Patagonian peak and retreated after encountering 60+ knot winds and generally bad weather. Also broke our tent in the process. Nice hut and nice view, but this peak is temperamental.”
Entry in the visitor book at Toni Rohrer Refugio, Cerro San Lorenzo

Sometimes it’s useful to have low expectations so that when the impossible doesn’t happen, you’re not disappointed. This is particularly important in mountaineering, when you can no more control the weather than you can convince news organisations that most people couldn’t give a toss about global economics.

Cerro San Lorenzo: this peak is temperamental
Cerro San Lorenzo: this peak is temperamental

This is even more true in Patagonia, where the weather is about as predictable as Russell Brand’s sex life. I reported in a post last month that I was expecting to spend a significant part of my Christmas mountaineering holiday cowering inside a tent listening to a storm outside. I didn’t have high hopes of reaching the summit of 3706m Cerro San Lorenzo, a peak in the far south of South America on the border of Argentina and Chile, but I was determined to give it a go anyway (having low expectations doesn’t have to mean you’re going to miss your opportunity if it arises).

We were a small party of three clients, and two guides from El Chalten, the village in Argentine Patagonia which is a Mecca for outdoor and climbing enthusiasts. I booked the trip through the UK mountaineering company Jagged Globe, who in recent years have run a number of unusual two week mountaineering holidays over the Christmas and New Year period. This particular trip was a risk for them because of the unreliable Patagonian weather, and they should be commended for going ahead with it with only three clients, as they can’t have made much money from it.

My two companions were Thierry, a French rock climber and photographer whom I’ve climbed several peaks in Africa and South America with over the years, and Dave, more of a big expedition specialist who has climbed 6 out of 7 of the Seven Summits, and whose mountaineering highlight was a complete traverse of Denali from south to north over the West Buttress and Muldrow Glacier routes. As commercial clients go, we were a pretty experienced bunch, which meant we took the ups and downs and the varying conditions in our stride. But we were mere climbing whippersnappers compared with our expedition leader Tibu, who regularly leads clients up the fearsome rock spires of Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitzroy, and whose big challenge for 2014 is a solo ascent of Fitzroy. Tibu was supported by Leo, a school teacher in El Chalten who guides during the school holidays.

Lago General Carrera is a highlight of the Carretera Austral from Coyhaique to Cochrane
Lago General Carrera is a highlight of the Carretera Austral from Coyhaique to Cochrane

It would be nice to complete the rest of this report without mentioning the weather, but that would be a bit like an Australian having a conversation with an Englishman without mentioning the cricket. The weather dominated our two weeks like nothing else. From our arrival in Santiago Airport we were cranking up Thierry’s iPad to check the outlook for Cerro San Lorenzo on the mountain-forecast.com and WindGURU websites. we checked for updates whenever we could, and even when we were on the mountain Tibu used his satellite phone to call his friend in El Chalten for a report. An enormous amount of detail was provided in these reports, including temperature, precipitation, cloud cover and wind speeds at different altitudes, but the weather could always be summarised in a single word: shit. And if we were to use a second word to describe the forecasts it would be unreliable. Early on it looked like we might get a suitable weather window straight away, with clear skies and no snow on the first Friday we were there, enabling us to go straight up and summit. But Tibu was concerned at predicted wind speeds in excess of 60 km/h on the summit, and in fact we were to experience no clear days at all. Fresh snow was to prove our downfall as much as high winds.

We flew to Balmaceda Airport near the small town of Coyhaique in southern Chile. From there we had a full day’s drive along the Carretera Austral to the even smaller town of Cochrane, named after a British naval officer who was Admiral of the Chilean Navy when Chile won independence from Spain in 1818. This part of Chile is characterised by fiords and ice caps, but there is an area of dry land next to the border with Argentina where a road is able to wend through nothofagus (southern beech) forests beside wide azure lakes and crashing rivers. There are many rolling peaks of between 2000m and 3000m painted piebald with patches of snow, and a highlight is the dramatic rocky citadel of 2675m Cerro Castillo. For most of the route the Carretera Austral is no more than a dirt track and the 300km journey takes seven hours, but there can be few more picturesque roads anywhere in the world. Many of the geographical features here have two names, a Chilean one and an Argentine one, and another memorable feature is the section alongside Lago General Carrera, known as Lago Buenos Aires in Argentina, one of the biggest lakes in South America.

Trekking in the San Lorenzo Valley with Cerro San Lorenzo up ahead
Trekking in the San Lorenzo Valley with Cerro San Lorenzo up ahead

Cochrane is a pleasant town of wide tree-lined streets in a lovely setting between a ring of hills, but to call it quiet would be like saying an anteater has quite a big nose. We could only find one bar that was open, and there also appears to be a shortage of decent plumbers. We managed to break the toilet and flood the bathroom floor in our hostel without even doing anything particularly unpleasant. South of Cochrane a very rutted dirt track leads through an increasingly arid landscape to the remote estancia of Fundo San Lorenzo. Here Don Luis Soto and his family run a farm that has become the jumping off point for trekkers and climbers heading off to the high peaks around Cerro San Lorenzo. It’s a green oasis in the middle of a wide valley of dusty brown peaks and scrubby beech trees.

From there we had a three hour walk to our base camp at Toni Rohrer Refugio, a mountain hut at the foot of Cerro San Lorenzo, and what a beautiful walk it turned out to be. We completed it underneath perfect blue skies, across wide open grasslands and through pleasant southern beech woods beside the broad flood plain of the Rio Tranquilo. The final hour of it took us round a corner and up a hillside into the secluded San Lorenzo Valley. The act of cresting a rise to be greeted by the vast East Wall of Cerro San Lorenzo, with its sheer granite cliffs, tumbling glaciers and long, severely corniced summit ridge, is a moment that will live long in my memory. It was a considerably more impressive peak than I ever imagined it would be. The valley floor was at an altitude of only 1000m, which meant the mountain rose more than 2000m above us. I was so entranced by the East Wall, which buttressed the Cumbre Norte, or North Summit, that it was a while before I noticed the more intricate main summit rose even higher beyond it along a jagged ridge of ice.

Thierry and Dave admire the view of Cerro San Lorenzo from Toni Rohrer Refugio
Thierry and Dave admire the view of Cerro San Lorenzo from Toni Rohrer Refugio

A party of Australian trekkers were staying in the hut when we arrived, but luckily most of them seemed to be talking in German, which meant they weren’t the sort of Australians who were interested in telling us about the cricket. The Toni Rohrer Refugio turned out to be a comfortable log cabin standing on stilts, with two sizable downstairs rooms and an upstairs dormitory. There was a wood-burning stove for cooking and heating in one of the downstairs rooms, and two external long drop toilets. Somebody had even carved a water spout out of a log and inserted it into one of the side streams, which meant we had an inexhaustible supply of fresh drinking water. The hut was set on the very fringes of the forest before the trees gave way to glaciated boulder fields, and an open wetland area in front opened out into a magnificent view of the mountain. We didn’t know at the time, but it was to be our home for several days, and it was as comfortable as anywhere I’ve stayed among mountains.

One advantage of Patagonian peaks is they are all of a relatively low altitude, which means you don’t have to spend long periods acclimatising and can begin climbing straight away. We left early the following morning, Christmas Day, with 25kg packs on the first of two summit pushes. At that point we were still hopeful that Thierry’s weather forecast, that predicted clear skies in three days’ time, would allow us a shot at the summit, but Tibu took his satellite phone along for updates in case the situation changed. We scrambled over rough boulders for about half an hour, and had to cross sizable glacier streams by jumping across rocks on several occasions. Soon the terrain began rising abruptly and we found ourselves trudging up a long steep ridge of loose scree towards an area of smooth rock slabs. We had no intention of climbing the precipitous East Wall that we gazed up at the previous afternoon. The normal route up San Lorenzo, known as the Agostini Route after the Italian missionary who first climbed it in 1943, led across these slabs and around the right hand side of the wall over two high snow passes. Beyond the second pass, on the western side of the mountain, a high glacier presented a more straightforward route up to the col between the north and main summits.

Ascending a scree ridge on Cerro San Lorenzo
Ascending a scree ridge on Cerro San Lorenzo

The scree ridge was the sort of exhausting terrain that slides you one step backwards with every two forwards, and it was then I discovered I was the slowest in the team. I already knew Thierry was quicker than me. His alpine style of climbing demands speedy one day ascents before the sun has chance to melt in the afternoon sun, whereas my high altitude mountaineering has turned me into more of a slow plodder. Dave does more high altitude stuff as well, but he is also a madman who trains three times a week with the British Army on army assault courses and is fitter than I am. The slabs were much easier to ascend, and there were several patches of snow to cross, which presented no difficulty at all. At the top we found a suitable area to camp where somebody had built a wall to provide some measure of protection from the wind. It was noticeably windier here, and although our intention was to press on over the first pass, Paso del Comedor at 1960m, we knew we could come back here if it proved too windy to camp up there.

A wide snow field led up to the pass, gently to begin with and more of a plateau, but gradually becoming steeper. We chose to cross it without putting on our crampons, and using sticks instead of an ice axe. This helped with the load on our backs, but meant we would be unable to arrest in the event of a fall. We were on snow rather than glacier, and we continued unroped. As we approached the pass we were blasted by significant gusts of wind which nearly knocked me off my feet. Every so often we needed to stop still and plant our feet and poles firmly in the snow until the gusts relented and we could proceed. Just below the pass a rock band projected into the snow slope, and Tibu led us across to it for some shelter, and to pull out our axes and crampons.

Crossing a snow field below Paso del Comedor
Crossing a snow field below Paso del Comedor

After a short rest we continued into the teeth of a gale. At the pass I was struck by a significant icy blast and it seemed madness to proceed, but I could see Tibu, Thierry and Dave were already descending a steep section of loose talus to a second broad snow basin surrounded by rocky peaks. I followed them gingerly, and at the bottom of the rocks it was more sheltered, but still as cold as hell. Tibu continued for a further 100m up the second snow slope, but it was clear we weren’t going to be able to camp anywhere around here in this wind. We returned to the campsite we had identified at the top of the slabs, caching our technical climbing equipment in the rock band below the pass for when we returned.

By 2.30 we had pitched our tent among the rocks and built the wall a little higher around us to provide some protection from the wind. The forecast was for more wind the following day, and it was obvious we wouldn’t be going any higher tomorrow until it relented, but the forecast Tibu received at six o’clock suggested it would last longer than that. We decided it would be more comfortable waiting down below in a hut in the forest than here in a tent, just 800m higher, so the following morning, 26th, we packed up the tents, stashed them under a rock and descended. A light snow was falling, which had become a light rain by the time we reached the valley. The slabs were more hazardous than I remembered them coming up, and several times we found ourselves descending narrow rubble-encrusted chimneys, being careful not to kick loose rocks onto those below. Back at the hut we found the trekkers had left and we had the place to ourselves, but we needed the space to dry our wet things over the stove. Heavy rain which hadn’t been forecast continued all afternoon, and we knew that meant deep snow higher up.

Crossing a patch of fresh snow between rock slabs on the second summit attempt
Crossing a patch of fresh snow between rock slabs on the second summit attempt

We left for our second summit attempt at 8.45 the following morning, 27th, carrying much lighter packs. There was a four inch glossing of fresh snow on the slabs, but even so we made good time and were back at our campsite two hours after setting out. We had a short break and a sandwich, reloaded our packs with the tents and continued onwards. It was apparent things had changed a lot since we came by two days earlier. Tibu was breaking trail through fresh snow a foot or more in depth, and at the rock band I had to dig through six feet of it before I could find my crampons and ice axe buried underneath.

At the pass the icy blast was arguably even worse than it was the first time around, and this time I found the others standing there waiting to see whether I was OK to carry on. I gave the thumbs up and we continued. The steep talus was much easier to descend with its coating of fresh snow, but down in the snow basin it had become shin deep. We roped up to continue up a steep slope to a wide snow plateau. The conditions had become thoroughly unpleasant, and the others were continuing at breakneck pace despite my tugging on the rope behind them. Several times I screamed at them to slow down, but it was difficult for them to hear me above the roar of the wind. A gap appeared between rock peaks across the plateau and we headed towards it, though it was difficult to get a sense of distance across the broad swathe of white. The 2000m campsite on the Agostini Route was usually pitched on the second pass, but clearly that wasn’t going to be possible in these winds, so we stopped short and pitched our tents in a flatter area of snow just beneath it.

Ascending towards Paso del Comedor
Ascending towards Paso del Comedor

We had been climbing through what can reasonably be described as a blizzard, but worse was to come. We were soaked to the skin by the time we had our tents pitched, secured with ice axes and trekking poles, and were settling inside. All our clothes were wet through, and although some items would dry inside our sleeping bags, the majority would remain wet for the rest of our summit push. Thierry had been landed with the upwind side of the tent, and he realised it was leaking, but at least Tibu and Leo were able to light the stove in the porch of the tent next door, and they passed us a flask of hot water.

But there was more bad news with the six o’clock weather report. Tibu squeezed into the porch of our tent and explained that snow was forecast for the next three days. We knew immediately what that meant. Even if we were able to stay up here and sit out the storm, the summit slopes would be laden with fresh snow, an avalanche risk, and it would not be safe to ascend until it had a day or two to consolidate. We didn’t have enough days, and this meant our climb was over.

The winds that night were in excess of 100 km/h, and at 2am I dreamed I was suffocating. I opened my eyes and removed my ear plugs. Either side of me Thierry and Dave were wide awake and the tent was still standing, but outside it sounded like Gandalf was wrestling a Balrog. A moment later we were struck by a gust so violent that the roof of the tent came down and pinned us for five seconds in a nylon sandwich. I could feel the poles pressing against the sides of my face, but remarkably as soon as the gust ended the tent sprung back into position. This happened three or four times more, and each time the tent held its shape, but for how much longer would it be able to withstand the blasts? Clearly one of us needed to go outside and check the anchors, but we were all quite cosy. Luckily Thierry hadn’t brought a pee bottle, and his bladder was the first to crack. He started putting his clothes on, and Dave and I breathed a sigh of relief. How Thierry would be able to relieve himself in that wind without pissing all over himself was a problem we didn’t need to concern ourselves with, but when he got outside he discovered Tibu and Leo were having a worse time of it than we were. One of their tent poles had snapped, ripping the nylon, and Leo had to spend the next three hours holding it in place above them in order to prevent the tent being engulfed in snow.

Abandoning camp below Brecha de la Cornisa during a blizzard
Abandoning camp below Brecha de la Cornisa during a blizzard

The blizzard we descend into on the morning of the 28th was immeasurably worse than it had been the previous afternoon. The gale lashed snow into my face, and it was as much as I could do to look down and follow the footprints ahead of me. Visibility was only a few metres and my sun glasses had fogged up completely. Heaven knows how Tibu was able to navigate a route across the snow plateau. He later told me his snow goggles had also become fogged, and he had to keep taking them off in order to see. He kept to the right until the line of rock peaks came into view, and then was able to keep alongside them until we reached Paso del Comedor. Here visibility improved, but the snow was melting and sliding down our legs. By the time we reached the rock slabs where we pitched our first campsite, all of us had boots that were squelching like a hippopotamus in quicksand. Below this the snow became rain, and as we limped through the fringes of the forest back to the hut our packs were several kilos heavier with all the water they had soaked up. I believe Edmund Blackadder would have described our clothing as wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume.

A lone Chilean hiker had made himself at home in the hut when we arrived. I’m not entirely sure of his feelings when we rolled in and turned the whole of the downstairs into a drying room, but he soon retreated outside to light a camp fire and pitch a tent. If ever he reads this then I’d like to say sorry.

Dave dries out his wet things over the stove at Toni Rohrer Refugio
Dave dries out his wet things over the stove at Toni Rohrer Refugio

For the next three days Toni Rohrer Refugio became our home, and I will retain fond memories of it. We found the visitor book and read very many similar stories to our own and one entry, quoted above, which could have been written by ourselves. From this evidence it would be no exaggeration to say Cerro San Lorenzo has only a 10% success rate. England beat Australia at cricket more frequently than that. We discovered some photo scrapbooks put together by friends and family of Toni Rohrer, an Austrian climber who died in an avalanche on San Lorenzo in 2001. Over the years since his friends have made several visits there and improved the hut as a memorial to him. In doing so they have performed a great service to all the climbers and trekkers who have stayed there.

Thanks to Thierry our stash of red wine ran out very quickly, and we had only a few mouthfuls of pisco left to celebrate the New Year with. It rained most of the time we were there, but on one occasion Dave, Tibu and I ascended the ridge above the hut that forms the border with Argentina. Most of its 900m of ascent comprised loose rocks which made the Normal Route on Aconcagua feel like one of the world’s most pleasant hikes, but at least we got some exercise. By the time we left after nine days we had not seen Cerro San Lorenzo since we arrived. Throughout the time we spent there it remained firmly hidden in storm clouds, but I enjoyed those days and don’t consider them wasted. It’s good for the mind to spend time away from civilisation, with nothing stressful to occupy your thoughts.

The sons (and grandson) of Don Luis Soto entertain us back at Fundo San Lorenzo
The sons (and grandson) of Don Luis Soto entertain us back at Fundo San Lorenzo

We trekked back to Fundo San Lorenzo and had a barbecue and belated New Year’s party sitting round a camp fire. They killed a sheep for us and roasted it over the fire, and we drank plenty of beer and wine while the three sons of Don Luis kept us entertained with their guitars and accordions (well, with their guitars anyway). The weather remained crazy. There were several snow showers with sunny intervals throughout the afternoon. This was a typical Patagonian summer, and I wouldn’t like to be there during winter when I assume it must hail cricket balls.

Even after we left Patagonia the weather hadn’t finished with us. En route to London we had a ten hour stop over in New York City, where the temperature was -15° C. Yes, that’s right, -15° C. It was warmer in our blizzard up Cerro San Lorenzo. If ever they build skyscrapers in Antarctica I will have some idea what it will be like.

Yes, it’s important to have low expectations when mountaineering in Patagonia, but the weather can’t change some things: that it’s a beautiful part of the world and I was very happy to be there.

You can see all my photos of the trip here. And here’s a short video telling the story of our aborted attempt.

Watch on YouTube

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