Chelsea in FreylandA Subaru with steamed windows loiters in a muddy pullout behind the closed gate of the needles climbing area in California. Inside a group of soggy climbers listen in dismal silence to the increasing rain patter on the windows. The two Argentino climbers in the back calmly sip their maté being used to such crap weather, but the Californian gringa is distraught.
¨Since you guys have guided and climbed everywhere, tell me where the best place for alpine granite is found?" She asks to distract her glum mood.
Noal perks up and leans forward. "The Frey is for you then babe!" He responds with his flirtatious smile.
"Hmmm.....the Frey." Chelsea sits back and closes her eyes to ponder this land now in the opposite season so far to the south. The sound of rain patter is absorbed by thoughts of granite alpine towers in sunshine. The daydream becomes so elaborate that she can almost feel the heat of the sun on her face. ¨Hugh..?" She opens her eyes to the blinding white glare of a rising eastern sun. "How is it morning and how did I get myself in this roasting hot bivy?" and then as her eyes adjust to the glaring granite towering above "And where am I?"
Spires and peaks of granite rise into an endless blue sky lit by a northerly placed sun. "Ahh...I´m in the Frey of course! Let´s hope this dream lasts through that nasty California rainstorm." She sits up to find herself placed in a rock nest of sorts that blocks the westerly winds and overlooks a lake basin bordered in granite architecture designed with the climber in mind. Perched below at the head of the shallow alpine lake before it spills into the next steep valley is the quaint refugio. "How ideal. Alpine camping and climbing with bathrooms, shelter, kitchen, pizza, soda, and worldly company."
The lengthening morning sun incites some movement in a bivy sharing the rock nest. A scruffy beard and tasseled hair emerges. "Buenos Dias Paul!" The combination of hard climber and goofball makes Paul a perfect climbing partner to have in this southern daydream. As Chelsea sips maté and Paul devours bowls of coco-fruitloops they admire the climbing opportunities of the day. "This place is way better than I had imagined." Paul says.
"There are so many spires to climb!"
"I´m thinking we can climb 20 while we are here."
"Yes...that will be our challenge. Twenty cumbres before we leave."
Thus the 20 cumbre climbing challenge is born. Just as Paul and Chelsea are about to leave camp a third bivy stirs. Gerry´s sunburned nose and facial scruff pops out of the cocoon. "Want to go climbing today?" They ask.
"Ehhhhh....no. Think I´ll hang out today." And thus begins Gerry´s marathon of basking, snacking, and reading in lazy sunshine. What an ideal character to have around. Not only is he our favorite topic of conversation and afternoon entertainment, but he also guards our food and space all day while we climb. He is a marvel of a character. Chelsea is stunned at the gadgets this steep-n-cheap addict pulls out of his giant yellow bag. Two giant nikon slr cameras, one point and shoot camera, iphone, bombproof water filter, a first aid kit equipped for surgery, a full length plush pad, climbing harness and shoes, etc.... Day after day Paul and Chelsea ponder how he can laze around all day and resist climbing. But they return to find him completely content in the luxury of the sunny rock nest "building his one pack".
On the way past the refugio, a familiar face appears basking in the sunshine and sipping maté. "Noal! You are right, this place is a dream of alpine climbing!"
He smiles and does not seem too surprised to see her here on the other side of the world. "Let me show you where to climb...now how hard, how long, how far?" He becomes our go to man for questions and recommendations.
Round 1. La Vida Buena.
The gringo climbers continue up the steep trail toward the city of granite towers. So much to choose from. Red granite, white granite, black granite, cracks, faces......maybe they will just have to climb 50!
Cumbre 1. M2. An aesthetic tower that takes one pitch of a clean dihedral to the top. Chelsea wins the ro-sham-bo and gets to lead building her confidence and shaking off the jitters.
Cumbre 2. Torre Principal. New Years Eve 2008. Paul and Chelsea both have a weakness for the most visible aesthetic peak on the skyline. Why wait to gain the tallest view? Gerry is even convinced to accompany the hike and take in the view from the ridge. Many others choose to spend the last day of 2008 on top of a sunny windless chunk of amazing granite and the belays are shared with a variety of friendly parties. A harder variation is chosen by the gringos each pitch yielding an ever expansive view of the Andes. The cumbre is an island that drops off into a deep abyss and overlooks an incredible chain of volcanoes, glaciers, lakes, and pampas. A view worth spanning the world.
Cumbre 3. El Abuelo. The gringos are in no hurry hiking up the hill in the heat. The climb is further delayed at the base with the daily spanish session. An Argentino would find them most humorous. "La fisura al derecha del diadro sucio....no la ruta esta en la cara....dame el equipo....no quiero el camalot tres....etc" They look forward to when Paul´s polola (girlfriend), Andrea, can set them straight and clean up their spanglish. Linking the easy pitches gets them to the summit to further bask on a sky island.
Cumbre 4. Piramidal. Soon the gringos learn that the hikes look far more grueling and far from camp than they really are. They make good time to the base of the distant granite piramid, but lose much time in topo interpretation and location of the route. They also soon learn that routes that look mediocre and easy tend to actually be a challenge and enjoyable. Chelsea pulls through her first thin face crux further boosting confidence. The summit block has a capacity of one and they take turns to the top. While Chelsea opts for the knee crushing talus descent, Paul is lured into a snowfield descent. Chelsea is surprised to see Paul still far upslope resting when she reaches the tail end of the slope. "BE CAREFULL! The snow is weak!" Paul yells as Chelsea slides down the last bit of snow. Luckily Paul only lost his hat when the snow gave way dropping him 15 feet into the creek bed below. The only way out was to follow the ice tunnel out the stream exit. Despite the lulling comfort of the Frey they are reminded that the mountain forces are still to be respected.
Cumbre 5. El Tonto. Another blazing day and Paul´s climbing mentality melts on a poorly contrived bolted route. The warmblooded Chelsea thrives in the heat and picks up the sharp end to enjoy the difficulties to the top. A rare moment to finish Paul´s pitch.
Cumbre 6/7/8. Perfil de Muser/Hormiguero/La Vieja. The friendly Idahoan, Cole, joins the sixth summit party. Despite the short pitch that is possible in Cole´s hiking boots, it is still a worthy summit. The Hormiguero also seems like a worthy summit to attain while waiting for a party on La Vieja. Chelsea leads up a dirty and loose system only to find nothing to rapell off of at the summit. First ascent!? Most likely not but the sling and biner left at that top proves they were once there. La Vieja proves to be a cold face, but an amazing climb that follows a crack system with amazing face holds that then traverses out into the sun on the arete. Due to an avarice for combined pitches and a boggle of double ropes, Chelsea suffers horrific rope drag throughout her lead and Paul nearly freezes on the belay. They celebrate the sun and the three cumbre day at the top before rapelling off yet another sketchy anchor.
The descent back to the rock nest is generally a mix of post climbing bliss and knee jarring hell. Upon return Paul and Chelsea bask in sunny satisfaction while Gerry entertains with tales of the days pizza, book progress, annoying new neighbor antics, and his newest travel ambitions. What a priceless piece of tragic comedy. Paul and Chelsea laugh at his bitter gripings with the singing, cheering, and overall happiness of others. Then they all laugh together at the misfortunes of others. The comedy show generally is in the afternoon when large school and church groups attempt to set up a tent city in gale force winds and then in the morning when the rear of the refugio resembles a refugee camp of miserable adolescents. They take turns cooking a communal pot of something for dinner followed by the much anticipated ceremony of sharing a cookie package. Darkness and the star display does not come until late after the sunset show over the jagged skyline. The gringos eventually retire to their own cocoons with a book. Paul has the guidebook memorized by the end of the week and each night dreams up some ridiculous 3 cumbre day before falling asleep. Gerry too falls asleep each night to some great ambition to take sunrise pictures. Chelsea drifts off knowing that the next day will yield the same long leisurely late morning and daily cumbre.
Round 2. La muchedumbre en paraíso.
Beer, shower, internet, pizza, icecream, more cookies.....the lure of the city eventually becomes too much and the climbers descent the hot dusty trail back to Bariloche. By the time they have hit the sandwich shop, ice cream shop, pizza place, grocery store, and brewery Paul and Chelsea are incapacitated and unable to make the return hike back home. The mornings hike is not the quick zip that they had expected. Heavy packs loaded with more cookies along with a traffic jam of feet dragging adolescents slows them up. Chelsea can only laugh at the absurdity of the traffic dodging tactics taken to break ahead of the dust cloud. They arrive to find sentinel Gerry loyally guarding the nest from dogs and would be claim jumpers. He is rewarded with two bubbly pepsies. His blue eyes sparkle and light up at the sight of sweet cafinated bubbles. "I don´t know.....this must be the life." He sits back on his plush thermarest in the sun to sip the rest of the afternoon away.
While the increasing crowds are a bit alarming they continue to provide afternoon entertainment. Each morning the neighbors pack up and each afternoon a new round comes in. The transitory neighborhood comes from all over the world and one never knows what language is appropriate. Attempting to communicate with Isralis in Spanish before discovering a common English is comical.
Cumbre 9/10. La Tapia. Aguja Cac. The pursuit of 20 cumbres eventually takes Paul and Chelsea into the next basin over. La Tapia has a worthy first pitch that yields some bail booty and then a wandering easy two pitches to the top. Each summit comes with a new view that yields more enticing towers. Aguja Cac appears as a good number 10. From the ground and topo there is nothing to suggest the wonderful challenge of their route up the Cac. Chelsea´s pitch is a wonderful variety of awkward difficulties including a bombay chimney roof thing. Then Paul is lost from sight in a system of squeeze chimneys. After scraping and squeezing through the pitch she finds Paul beaming at the top. Another reason Paul is such a great climbing partner......he loves and thrives leading awkward climbs. The summit has a two person capacity and they enjoy the alpineglow of the sun slowly setting and the full moon rising. Suddenly 20 cumbres seems too few.
Cumbre 11. Paredes de la Tierra. Chelsea lucks out on leading the fun crack pitch and Paul is stuck to ponder the runnout thin face to the top. He earns Chelsea´s respect as she clings to micro edges with fingernails that Paul lacks.
Cumbre 12. Campanele Esloveno. After Torre Principal this chunk of prominent distant rock had been on the top of the climber´s minds. The slog through the next basin and back up the the summit ridge leaves the climbers tired and a bit intimidated as they look up at their recommended route. The runnout leaning offwidth gapes above and Chelsea imagines it munching then spitting her out in a long whipping pendulum. "Well, I feel fine leading whatever, but I would prefer leading the crux face pitch over that monster." She probes to see where Paul stands. Luckily Paul has a fetish and fascination with off-width and easily takes the bait. Anybody else she would be scared for, but Paul she has seen countless times pull through sketchiness. "Man, my head is not there today." He says as he anxiously makes his way up the the gaping mouth that does not accept gear.
"It will get there soon Paul." Chelsea gives her light hearted worry free support as he liebacks his way through the mouth.
Chelsea declares the summit to be the best place on earth at that moment. The wind picks up and condors begin the soar below them. How wild and magical to be surrounded by volcanoes and collossal birds. They soon discover the rapell to be the crux. The wind increases as they reach the end of the first long rapell over a roof only to discover the stubborn knot refusing to budge. Every trick in the book is tried as they become increasingly colder and more alarmed. "Perhaps the next climbers up this route will find our bones in this condor cave!" Chelsea is half serious. To great relief the knot cooperates after the two combine both body weights in a leap off the side. Every fantastic day needs some epic and this route remains their favorite.
Cumbre 13/14. Tres Marias/Bodoque. Paul is confident that they can rack up 3 to 4 cumbres along the ridge in a day despite the long steep approach. Chelsea leads the middle maria only to find a worn weathered rope to rapell off the summit block. Paul is equally dismayed to find equally worn cords dangling from the other two marias. "Well, perhaps leave a biner and back it up with a nut?" Chelsea offers.
"Ummm….I'd feel better with at least one more piece." Paul responds. Another reason Paul is such a good partner; he is an engineer and a bit more conservative when it comes to trusting equipment. Unwilling to leave behind more gear, they dismally head back having gained only one pitch and losing a tri cam, nut, and sling. Number 14 might be a stretch, but they needed some redemption. Bodeque is the large beautiful boulder settled at the basin floor at the head of the lake. It was not like they were cheating themselves since it was on the topo and required an element of challenge and a technical move or two……right?
Cumbre 15/16/17. Aguja Frey/Yan Pipol/Diedro de Jim. Without the 20 cumbre challenge, the gringos might not have been motivated to explore much further than the magnificent backyard spire. It is amazing they were able to hold off on its summit for so long with it towering over camp every morning. Perhaps it began to lose any mysterious appeal after watching countless parties crawl all over it for days on end. At last they are the climbing party for the refugio's peanut gallery. Paul is in the mood for another climb after cruising the route, so they bump over to Yan Pipol and find its summit to prominent enough to earn number 16. Then their definition of cumbre begins to flex. The summit of another nearby climb done the first day of climbing now also seems worthy of number 17. With tired legs they continue to creep toward their goal.
Chelsea and Paul make their way down the last leg of the scree trail by moonlight. The lake shore resembles a circus as they wind through a maze of tents. The crowd of hikers has become a constant flow and Chelsea estimates over 100 people in the neighborhood that night. What a difference in National Park regulations! This place looks more like a city park with dogs everywhere, tents wall to wall, garbage, and fecal remains everywhere. Chelsea begins to question the wisdom of drinking the tap water that is pumped straight from the stream. How is it that she filters high sierra water, yet has no qualms to drink from this Argentian cesspool? "Well everybody else seems to be fine and what doesn´t kill me will only make me stronger...right?" Gerry wisely filters and counts down the days until Chelsea shows symptoms of "the G" giardia. Paul is distraught and caught between the two philosophies.
They arrive in camp to find Gerry in a foul mood after a day among trying crowds of idiots and the delayed dinner. He plans to recharge back in town the following day. Paul and Chelsea also consider a return since Paul´s 10 year old boots are disintegrating and Chelsea would like a break from the scree slopes.
Round 3. Al fin del sueño.
It is 3 AM and Chelsea is once again hiking up the steep dusty trail. Just miserable, exhausted, menstruating, sore, and stuffed with a day of junk food gluttony in Bariloche, she asks herself "Why in the hell?" Paul may be enduring the death march to pinch pennies, but Chelsea just wants to go home to her caccoon in the rock nest. She curses herself for giving into the temptations of the town once more that prove to be only transient pleasures and not worth the hassle. After two weeks the Frey feels even more like a home to return to. With the count at 17, the gringos anticipate to zip through the remaining three cumbers easily.
Cumbre 18. Philippe Herron. The gringos remain optimistic about the weather as they set out for the distant tower. They are accompanied by another friendly gringo climber, Nate, passing through the area. The rain begins to fly just as Chelsea is getting into the first lead and it begins to dump and hail as Paul begins his. The cold belays are more tolerable with company, but the climbing gets scary with slippery snot rock. Just as the three reach the summit the clouds break up and blue sky gains ground once again. If the Frey was testing their commitment to the climbing, then they proved worthy today.
Cumbre 19/20. El Hachazo/La Estilla. Paul and Chelsea had been plotting for weeks on how to convince Gerry to climb with them. At last it seemed they had found a worthy summit for the picky climber. He preferred a single pitch climb with mostly face climbing and a good view. La Estilla stood out on the ridge as the perfect final cumbre to have Gerry accompany. On the way up, an enticing wide crack on El Hachazo is led by Nate. The summit pitch is led by Paul who once again finds himself stranded on top with no rapell and technical downclimbing back down to a worn sling belay. They would definitely need to buy some more webbing if they were to seek more than 20 cumbres. Further slogging brings the crew to La Estilla. Chelsea finds it to be a fun lead and a cumbre that is worthy of the endless slogging and number 20! Gerry is stoked to take in a summit view at last and try out his brand new climbing shoes.
The gringos awake to the tarp whipping free in the gale force winds. The weakness in the construction proves to be the cord that wore through while the tri cams and #1 nut still hold up strong. Cloud shrouded mountains begin to drizzle stinging rain. There will be no climbing today. The day drags on and on as they toil away the idle hours snacking and loitering in the refugio and rock nest out of the wind. Once Chelsea finishes El Hobbit, they are all left bookless and a bit desperate. Chelsea can't help laughing at the miserable situation of them silently hunkered down as the wind whips up dust devils in the rock nest further coating them in dirt. Luckly Paul is a fascinating specimen to observe and pass the time with. He could fiddle with his climbing gear for hours as if they were toys. Chelsea recalls her first impression of Paul on a car ride to the South Platte. Paul spent most of the ride sticking cams and hand jams in every car crevice within reach. Yep, nothing like hanging out with a nut ball. He misses the tri-cam left behind. "Yeah....tri-cams are sweet." He keeps repeating. At last after eating through all the cookie rations and a warm meal, they are able to retire to the warm bivy cacoons to dream of the sun´s return. It is not supposed to rain and storm in this South American dream. Chelsea zips close her bivy thinking that perhaps the Frey was telling them to leave or her dream had just gone sour. The roar of the wind takes on a strange new tone. Chelsea opens her eyes to find herself back in the soggy Subaru. The roar is just the gentle purr of the engine that Noal had turned on to roll down windows.
"Sweet dreams?" He inquires.
"Yes, of the Frey in fact."
"Oh yeah, have I convinced you to travel there?"
"I'm sold, but who knows when that will actually happen."