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  • Kim Ladiges

Ascent of Pillar Rojo on Aguja Mermoz, Patagonia


After two days of travel we stepped off the bus to a windless, sunny El Chalten. We had arrived at the end of an unusually good weather window. There was no way to get a climb in before the weather deteriorated so we got to work the following morning, carrying a load of gear into the mountains. On the walk in we crossed many climbing teams, all of whom wanted to know why we were going in to the mountains rather than out as the weather had completely packed it in by this stage. After attempting to explain ourselves in rapid fire bursts of any Spanish word we knew (gear cache was not among them) the climbers would give us the forced smile reserved for the clearly insane or mentally deficient and continue towards the comforts of Chalten.



A small possible weather window presented itself. The standard Patagonia scheming began, obsessive checking of the weather forecast like some kind of religious ritual, reading through the guidebook and considering every possible route in the country and how it could be done plus a few in Chile as well just for good measure. We finally settled on the Pillar Rojo on Aguja Mermoz. We hoped that the east facing aspect would mean that we would be sheltered as the forecast was still calling for strong westerly winds. East faces in patagonia often have the problem of ice in the cracks but the weather had recently been dry so we hoped for the best. This meant we would have to go straight back into the mountains.


The plan was to hike part of the way in but sleep in the forest in the valley rather than at higher bivvy as overnight winds were still forecast at around 100km/h until they dropped at midnight. This would make for a very long approach the next day, but better than spending the night in a tent destroyed by wind. At 1 am we awoke to a particularly aggressive alarm. Liz let me know that it’s possible to change the alarm tone. At 1.30 we began the long approach to Paso Guillamet. The wind had definitely began to drop and the stars were out. At sunrise we were standing at Paso Guillamet; Fitzroy, Mermoz and Poincenot radiating proudly in the morning sun. By 8 am we were standing below the steep slopes leading to the Pillar Rojo uncomfortably warm as always happens 10 minutes after the initial joy of the suns rays hit you on a glacier. The next stage of the ascent did not go flawlessly. Having chosen to go as lightweight as possible I led over the schrund and slope above with the two toy ice axes we brought with us. Liz, who was only wearing approach shoes and strap on crampons would then ascend the rope. Ten meters short of the rock, the familiar call of ‘no more rope’ sounded. Perched on rapidly warming snow too soft for a T-slot with a ski touring axe I asked myself “Is it still called deja vu if you feel as though you’ve been there before but infact you KNOW you have?”



Some alpine shenanigans and a false start meant that we only joined the top of the first pitch of Pillar Rojo at 11.30. At this point it felt very unlikely that we would succeed but after 10 hours of approaching it was amazing finally to climb some perfect granite. Liz managed to lead through the first few 7a(24) crux pitches before the sun left the face. The sudden drop in temperature was expected but still unpleasant and we kitted ourselves up for a long day in the cold, Liz donning her pulsar plus (Macpac’s warmest synthetic jacket) and down vest which were destined to not be removed until 9am the following day. Liz was able to free most of the route in gloves which was impressive, possibly spurred on by the fact that an older climber we met on our first day in town had doubted Liz’s ability to climb the route. ‘It’s very technical’ he explained condescendingly ‘cracks, you know, they are different.”





Despite the cold the route was incredible, the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s as if someone travelled the world to find fourteen of the best granite cracks then stacked them on top of each other. Well protected and sustained but never extreme, whenever the crack narrowed too much for fingers a foothold or crimp would appear and I started to expect this, occasionally thinking “excellent route setting” as I passed through a crux. We had been sure we would not reach the top but at 9.15pm we slithered our now exhausted and cramping bodies over the final 6c+ pitch. The sun was still lighting up the west faces around us and we realised we might make the summit. A hundred and fifty meters of moderate simul climbing with a very ungraceful ‘au cheval’ had us on the summit at 10 pm with the last light beginning to fade from the sky. Who likes rappeling through the night? Not me. At least we had our rock shoes to keep us warm. The sun rose for a second time as we hiked back across the glacier. Red sky in the morning delivered and we were treated to intense winds and light snow and rain as we descended to Piedra Negra. We wolfed down a quick radix meal then made the final five hour trek back to the road, arriving in El Chalten about forty hours after waking up. Very stoked to have climbed such an amazing route after only four days in Patagonia. Waiting for the next window!












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