Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Uncharted: Exploring the Hidden Depths of Patagonia's Turbio Valley

The morning sun dances across the valley's peaks filling the sky with purple and pink hues. Spray from the boat's wake clings to our clothes and the wind drives it into our bones with a frigid bite. We are beginning our journey to the depths of Patagonia, but not where you might expect. Unlike the popular tourist area of El Chalten, we’re on our way to a less traveled part of the range known as the Turbio Valley. Inspired by conversations with Argentinian climbing legend Saber de la Cruz, our team of eight relative strangers hailing from the USA, Brazil, France, Chile, Argentina, and the UK - are brought together by a shared love of exploration and discovery.


Arriving at the shores of Parque Nacional Lago Puelo, our boat finds its anchor secured to the weathered jetty. As we step onto solid ground, a gaucho in a worn green tractor approaches us, signaling for us to place our bags onto the trailer hitched to the back. With a collective effort, we load our belongings, ensuring they are secure before climbing aboard and settling amidst the cluster of duffel bags, providing us with a makeshift seating area.

We cling tightly to the side of the ramshackle trailer which shudders and shakes as we make our way through the woods. Light flickers through the trees, and the sweet smell of wood smoke permeates the air. As we approach a clearing, the rhythmic knocking of the motor slowly rattles to a halt. “Estamos Aqui” beckons the driver through the rusting cab window. Glancing around, we could see four horses bridled to a tree, three dogs sleeping in the shade, and two cows bound to the wooden tongue of an ox cart. “Saludos amigos” sounds from behind us. A short man wearing a sleeveless sweater and a Tyrollean style woolen hat stands in the road. It’s Javier, our Gaucho and his compañero who will lead us on the 2 day horse pack up the Turbio Valley. Climbing down, all eight members of our team help transfer the carefully weighed bags of food, equipment, and climbing gear that will sustain us for the next 3 weeks from the trailer to the ox-cart. Before we can begin our journey however, we must first cross a large open section of the Turbio river that separates us from Javier's ranch where we will pick up a further six horses. 

The ox-cart goes first, accompanied by Javier’s compañero on horseback. We watch from the shore as the cows reluctantly pull the cart into the ever deepening water, our bags and their heads barely able to stay above the current. We breathe a sigh of relief as they pass through the deepest section, and emerge on the other side. Using the extra horses that Javier had brought with him, two by two, we mount the horses and take our turn to cross. The water is frigid, even the great height of the horse isn’t enough to keep our legs from getting submerged in the glacial runoff. Once across, we hike a short distance to Javier’s Ranch in the woods where we will complete our final “duffel shuffle” of gear from the ox-cart to the horse packs. 

Constructed with hand milled planks, its faded red paint facade reflects the region's challenging weather conditions, and its aging interior generations of family history. Outside, animal skins of varying origin hang atop the mortise and tenon fence, shrinking and twisting in the relentless summer heat. Unloading our gear beneath the shade of a large cherry tree, we gather on the crooked porch to share Yerba maté whilst Javier fetches the remaining horses. “Maté”, as it is more often referred to, is a traditional hot drink of Argentina. It’s made up of ground Yerba with hot water, and served in a small round cup called a “Gourd”. Using a metal straw or “Bombilla”, each person consumes the cup in its entirety after which it is refilled with water and passed along to the next person. It is the cornerstone of Argentine social culture and a great way to get to know each other. 

After several rounds of maté, Javier returns with our horses and we join him to load our gear into the saddle bags. The process takes longer than expected, and the sun is now at its most suffering position in the sky. Starting so late, our goal of reaching the first Refugio seems grueling and improbable. Making a final check to ensure the horses are loaded evenly, we shoulder our backpacks, and begin the long hike up the Turbio valley.

Despite our late departure, our group sets off in high spirits. Taking turns to ride the two horses designated for river crossings, we follow Javier as he leads us along a faint trail that skirts the river. Our expected journey will take us 2 days to reach a simple Refugio roughly 40km up river. From there, the terrain switches from riverbanks and cobble flats, to dense jungle. Unable to travel past this point, the horses will return with Javier to Lago Puelo, whilst our team will continue the remaining 20 km to a final refugio at the end of the valley. 

Passing through the old ranch gate, I spend the first few hours of our hike getting to know my new friends and enjoying the unique challenges of the journey. From Brazil there was Jose Luis “Chiquino”, a veteran climber who had been to the valley 15 years earlier and was returning to complete the route. Vianney was from France but now lived in Bariloche as a trekking guide, he and his partner Belen had been the organizers of the trip. Belen Prados was from Buenos Aires, Argentina and worked as a biochemist at the national atomic laboratory looking for ways to create power from bacteria. Standing barely 5 feet 5 inches tall, her backpack towered above her but she didn’t seem to mind. Oscar Nicolas and Andrea Caceres Fonfach came from Chile, mountain guides for a living, they had heard about the trip to the valley through the grapevine. John Collis and Mike Coyle were from the USA. They both worked as guides and had shared time together on Denali. I had hired them as safety consultants for a celebrity TV segment I was producing and we became friends. It was shortly after the TV shoot when they told me about the expedition. Hearing about some of the challenges we would face getting to the valley intrigued me. Never one to miss an opportunity, I asked if I could join them which is how I now found myself deep in the Turbio valley.

The many river crossings on horseback and by foot are both novel and exciting to us all. But as the journey progressed, the trail and crossings became more engaging. The benefits that the horse brought by carrying weight we soon realized, came with their own set of challenges. Ticking off our 3rd major crossing of the day, I crest the bank onto the sand flats above to find the horses tied up and concerned looks on everyone's faces. 

“One of the horses fell, another escaped. Javier has gone to look for it” said Vianney. 

We had barely covered 20km, and whilst I was concerned for the 1 ton animal that had just used our duffels as a crash pad, this is not the start anyone was hoping for. Roughly 30 minutes had passed when Javier returned with the missing horse in tow. Saddling our backpacks, we continued once again on the trail. 

Traveling until dark, we fail to reach our planned destination of the refugio and decide to set up camp alongside the river. The flat ground is inviting, and I welcomed the opportunity to remove my backpack which weighed more than my own body. Laying out our sleeping bags, dozens of goat heads and needle grasses make their way into everything. Spending the last of my energy to remove them from my clothes, I surrender to my exhaustion and accept the remaining spikes before falling asleep.

We awake early to the sound of bridles clanging and horses neighing. The day has arrived sooner than anyone would like, our bodies bruised and our legs sore. Javier prepares the horses with traditional furs and panniers whilst the team fixes coffee. With fewer than 15 km remaining to reach the refugio, we are eager to continue our journey and we waste no time in getting the convoy moving once again. 

The trail from here consisted mostly of river cobbles. With our heavy packs, they’re awkward on the feet, the horses don’t seem to like them much either. We don’t travel far when we come across our first obstacle of the day. A deep and fast flowing section of river that even the horses struggle to cross. Hesitant to risk the horses in the treacherous river after the previous day's mishaps, we decide to ford the river on foot by forming a tripod shape and holding onto each other's bags. We march in unison into the frigid water. The current is strong and the water creeps ever higher above our waist stealing our breath. Even with our strategic group tactics, the water causes us to stumble and for a moment I fear we’re all going down. Step-by-step, we shuffle our way to the far side and escape without swimming. A few hours and several river crossings later, we reach a fork in the river where we decide to stash our packrafts for the return Journey. Hanging our equipment and supplies high in a small grove of trees, we break away from the river and continue uphill into the woods on a narrow and winding trail which leads to the refugio “Don Ropo'' and our destination for the day. Upon arrival, we promptly drop our bags and assist Javier with unloading the horses. Shuffling the bags from the saddles onto the grass, Javier bids us farewell and heads back to the Ranch where we began, now with all 9 horses. From here on out, we’re on our own and must carry our equipment. As the sound of hooves slowly fades into the distance, we make our way inside to get acquainted with the Refugio.

Situated in a small clearing, it was rustic and rudimentary. Constructed with hand made planks and held together with a winch cable. Plastic sheets are nailed to parts of the roof and windows, a hasty repair from a previous winter which had now become a permanent feature. Inside was a kitchen with a sink and cupboards, a dining table with 2 benches, a window bench adorned with animal skins, and a cast iron stove which we were told was carried in by horseback. There are images on the wall of a long bearded man in a beat up old truck smoking a cigarette on the walls. We’re told this is Don Chule, a vagabond pioneer of the valley who was highly respected by the locals. Beside the kitchen was a steep ladder that led to the second floor where old carpets had been laid down to create a sleeping area. It was simple living, and we quickly settled in. We celebrated our arrival with hot coffee and a game of Farkle which would become our main source of evening entertainment. 

That night Vianney and Belen take the first shift to prepare a group dinner whilst the rest of the team pack bags for the following day. We still had a 20km journey through what had been described to us by Saber de la Cruz as dense jungle (Selva), and required the crossing of two Tyrolleans to reach the advanced base camp at the refugio “Don Chule”. Loading only climbing equipment and enough food for a day, we staged the bags on the porch and enjoyed our first group dinner together. We laugh, joke, and nerd out over maps and topo’s of the valley late into the night.

The following day we rise before the sun and prepare cowboy coffee on the old stove. We eat a simple breakfast of oatmeal mixed with honey that we found laying around in the refugio before heading out on the trail. We’d heard that finding the trail could be a challenge as it had not been maintained in years. Setting off into the thick jungle, that soon proved to be true. Less than half a Kilometer from the refugio, we found ourselves completely lost in a sea of cane. Unsure of where we lost the trail, we backtrack only to find ourselves where we began. Confused, we make a second attempt and are able to pick up a faint trail by observing man made cut marks on the tree’s. Crossing a ridge, the trail leads us down to a cliff where we come across the first Tyrollean spanning a gap roughly 40m across a torrenting river. With such heavy packs, we opt to attach them directly to the cable and ourselves to the home made pulley in case we get into trouble and need to ditch the weight. Once safely across, we continue through the dense jungle with a saw in hand. 

The trail continues through the dense jungle, testing our navigation skills and physical endurance. We push through thick vegetation, fighting against tangled branches and swarms of relentless insects. Sweat soaks our clothes, and the humidity weighs heavily in the air. But we persist, motivated by the promise of adventure and the allure of the unexplored.

As we hike deeper into the Turbio Valley, the scenery transforms before our eyes until we reach a clearing alongside the river which grants our first clear view of the mountains. Towering granite walls rise above us, their pristine surfaces glistening in the sunlight. Waterfalls cascade down the cliffs, creating a symphony of sound that echoes through the valley. We pause to take in the breathtaking beauty, our sense of wonder rekindled with every step. 

We drop down from the clearing and continue along the river's edge, arriving at the second Tyrolean late in the day. Slightly larger, it was an impressive 60-meter span over a deep gorge with a log diving board to step from. Equipped with another old pulley, one-by-one we make the difficult hand traverse. As we stand on the far side of the challenging Tyrollean crossing, John tells us that the refugio is just a stone's throw away according to his map. Our spirits soar with the knowledge that our destination is within reach, little did we know that the map John was referring to was an not exact, but a rough guess…

We pick up a faint trail that skirts the river and heads into the woods. Hiking a few miles up steepening terrain, we arrive at where the refugio was marked on the map. Standing in thick jungle, there is no cabin to be seen, there's not even a place that is feasible for a cabin to be constructed. “Are you sure this is the place?” I ask. “Well, it’s a guess from the other maps…” I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Visibility in the jungle was severely limited by thick foliage, we could spend days wandering around here and still not find it. Frustrated by my team for the revelation, and at myself for relying on others for navigation, we drop our bags and begin scouting in the hope that it's hidden nearby.  We searched for roughly 1 hour, but the cabin is nowhere to be seen. In addition, the light is quickly fading and we had not packed sleeping equipment. Hope of finding the refugio had all but vanished, and I called out to the team to regroup and discuss a plan B. 

Returning to our packs, a cheer rings out from Mike. “I found something,” he shouts. Excited to see what he had found, we join Mike at a small mound just a few hundred feet from where we had begun our search “Check it out!” Mike says pointing to a tree stump. Leaning up against an old felled Alerce tree were hundreds of hand cut, wooden roof tiles. I reasoned that if you were to build a Refugio in the woods without mechanical assistance, you wouldn’t want to carry material too far. It must be close, but where?

With time slipping away, and the thought of spending an open bivvy unappealing, I decide its best to examine all of the information we have saved on our shared folder for possible clues to where the Refugio might be. Made up of miscellaneous images, trip reports, and general findings on the internet, it was a mix-match of data and hearsay. Browsing through, I stumble across a hand drawn map of the valley with the Refugio marked further up the canyon, at the confluence of the river. With nothing more to go off and night approaching, we take our chances pushing on through the jungle. We cover roughly a kilometer when tell tale signs of human passage begin to appear. Reflective plaques nailed to tree’s shimmer with our in the last of the day's light, and we frantically bushwack our way over to investigate. As we get closer, another plaque can be seen in the distance, and after that - one more. I’m unsure whether it was excitement or relief we felt, but what I do know is that we gained a sense of hope and we hurried along the faint trail, guided by the shimmers. Finally, after days of arduous trekking and navigating treacherous terrain, we arrive at the advanced base camp as the sun is setting.

The refugio "Don Chule" emerges before us, a beacon of warmth and solace amidst the untamed wilderness. With weary bodies, we ascend the raised balcony, carefully releasing the worn wooden latch and entering the room. The air carries a musty scent, evidence of its undisturbed state. Exhausted and hunger gnawing at our bellies, we scour the house in search of sustenance, as Saber had assured us it would be available. Amidst the exploration, we stumble upon a package of dried pasta, its sell-by date harkening back to 2006. With gratitude for any nourishment, we prepare a simple meal, sating our hunger before we finally surrender to our sleeping bags and drift into slumber. We have arrived.

With the sun's gentle touch, we rise, eager to lay eyes upon the vast expanse of the valley for the first time. It stretches out before us, a distant promise waiting to be explored. In the days that unfold, we become immersed in the climbing paradise that the Turbio Valley provides. Armed with binoculars, we scour the landscape, identifying a potential route that follows a mesmerizing granite crack system, leading towards the summit of Pico Tres Negros. With a collective goal set, we dedicate ourselves both physically and mentally to climb the towering wall. Over the course of the next ten days, we revel in the sheer joy of triumph as we climb challenging pitches, and we grapple with the frustration that accompanies setbacks when routes prove more arduous than anticipated.

The weather, ever capricious in this remote corner of the world, adds its own element of unpredictability to our journey. Rain showers descend upon us, drenching the landscape and turning the once-reliable rock into treacherous terrain. Cold temperatures nip at our exposed skin, testing our mettle and resolve. With supplies dwindling and an impending multi-day storm on the horizon, we come to the realization that our time in the valley is drawing to a close. Though our route falls tantalizingly short, a mere 20 meters from the summit, we understand that safety and prudence demand our descent and exit from the valley.

Leaving the refuge behind, we make our way back to our pack rafts and set up camp by the Turbio IV river for one final night. As the sun rises on the following morning, we prepare ourselves and our rafts for the 40-kilometer journey that will take us back to civilization.

Despite not achieving the summit we had set out for, a profound sense of accomplishment accompanies us, as does a trove of treasured memories. The challenges we faced and triumphed over have left an indelible mark upon us, serving as a poignant reminder of the indomitable spirit of the human adventure. It stands as a testament to the resilience that resides within us, the awe-inspiring beauty of untouched wilderness, and the profound bonds forged through shared experiences. The Turbio Valley has woven itself into the fabric of our hearts, a constant reminder of the transformative power of exploration and the boundless potential it holds.

As we bid farewell to the Turbio Valley, we carry within us the seeds of accomplishment and the nourishment of cherished memories. The challenges overcome and the obstacles surmounted serve as constant reminders of the power that resides within the human spirit. The echoes of our laughter, the imprints of our footsteps, and the enduring connections we forged stand as testaments to the transformative nature of adventure and the profound impact it has on our lives.

Though we may physically leave the Turbio Valley behind, its essence remains intertwined with our very beings. The sense of wonder, resilience, and profound connection to nature and humanity continue to fuel our insatiable desire to seek new horizons, to embrace the unknown. The Turbio Valley will forever hold a sacred place in our hearts, beckoning us to return to its untamed embrace and reminding us that extraordinary experiences await those who dare to venture off the beaten path.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

El Gigante - Standing on the shoulder of a giant

 Standing on the shoulder of a Giant

Hidden deep within the sierra of Chihuahua, Mexico lies a rock wall known locally as “El Gigante”. Emerging almost 1000m from the valley floor, it is the focus of myths and legends. Great fields of marijuana were rumored to grow at its base, and accessing it required days of difficult hiking through cartel controlled lands. It's weather fluctuated at a moment's notice. From 90 degrees and sunny one day, to minus 10 degrees and snowing the next. It both intimidated and captivated me. I called to recruit my friends Will Saunders (a talented photographer) and Sergio Almada (a big wall veteran) to undertake the expedition with me. Equally excited for such an adventure, we immediately booked our flights and a few weeks later, found ourselves in a small mountain town in Chihuahua, Mexico.


My climbing partner Sergio Almada,better known as “Tiny” to his friends, knew the town well. He had frequented this part of the Sierra in the years prior, establishing friendships with the locals who rarely saw visitors, especially gringos. During the early 2000's, this region of Chihuahua had earned a reputation of being dangerous as Cartels and the Police battled for control. After years of bloody clashes in which thousands of people died, normality had gradually returned to the town, but the violent stigma remained.

Entering the small town of Cajurichi, we pass by cattle grazing the shoulder alongside the rough country road, closely followed by children on horseback who usher them along. Shortly after entering the town, we pull over at a small concrete home with a crudely painted blue exterior where Tiny hops out the car and makes his way inside.  

Following him inside, he is greeted with smiles and open arms from the home's occupants. They're overjoyed to see a familiar face from beyond the Sierra and warmly welcome us inside their home which cameo’s as a small store or “Tienda” selling convenience items such as coca-cola, cigarettes and packaged sweet breads.

We're here to seek out the help of a local rancher by the name of Valentine. He is a friend of Tiny and in the past, he has helped shuttle climbers back and forth along the difficult mountain road to the summit of El Gigante, our climbing objective. Under normal circumstances, you would simply call ahead and arrange a time and place to meet, but here, deep within the mountains of copper canyon, there is no cell service and most people do not own a phone. Instead, we deploy the old style way of searching for people which in this case, involves a stop in at each of their family members houses to ask who saw him last. People rarely travel far from home here and it's often just a matter of time until you bump into whoever you're looking for.

The family members inside are eager to hear news from outside the mountains and after a brief catch up of the previous years events, Margarita (Valentines wife) joins our now extra stuffed Toyota Rav4 for a drive through the village to search. We pay a visit to the homes of various family members until finally we arrive at the house of Bertha, Valentine’s mother. A faint voice calls to us from a dim lit doorway, “Buenas tardes muchacho's”. As we exit the car and approach the house, a small lady in her 80's emerges. 

She informs us that Valentine is in the woods close by harvesting lumber. Piling back into the car, now with both Margarita and Bertha, we make our way down the narrow and bumpy 4x4 roads in search. Arriving at a small abandoned house in a clearing, we exit our cramped rav4 and listen for the sound of chainsaws but hear nothing. Margarita has a hunch to his location and takes off on foot into the woods. Not wanting to get seperated (or lost), we hang around the abandoned shack and hear stories from Bertha about life in the Sierra whilst we await for word from Margarita. 

An hour or so passes and we begin to wonder whether to send out a search party for Margarita when suddenly she appears from the dirt road. “Yo eschuchar los moto sierra, pero es un poco lento, vamos a manejar” She informs us that she can hear the sound of chainsaws but we would have to drive down a difficult 4x4 road to get there. Regrouping, we squeeze back into the car and slowly scrape our way down the small forest road until we are forced to stop by a horse in the middle of the road.

Just past the horse, we find Valentine along with a group of men rolling giant logs down a hillside onto a vintage flatbed truck. They don't have any fancy machines for the job, just gravity and ingenuity to save their bodies from the laborious work. After exchanging our customary greeting, Valentine agrees to help us in our endeavor and we arrange to meet at his home later that evening to pack up our equipment and prepare to leave the following day.

With a plan now formed, we head back into town to drop off the family members who had assisted in the search and use our free time to purchase essential items from the local stores. Selections are limited in the sierra, and so our main food source for our planned 6 days on the wall will be a combination of tortillas, frijoles, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Completing our underwhelming food shop, we make our way to a small concrete house atop a hill that overlooks the town where we rendezvous with Valentine. Pulling up outside, his warm smile greets us from the doorway. We unload the car and arrange our bags into manageable loads which we plan to leave strategically at ledges along our 1000m descent of El Gigante. In my mind, this is one of the most  critical tasks in climbing a big wall. For anyone who has had to empty the contents of their bag to access something buried in the bottom, you'll understand how difficult that task becomes when you have nowhere to place the contents and thousands of feet of air all around you. My preferred set up for handling this situation is to place three liter bottles filled with water at the bottom, evening and breakfast food on top of them, sleeping equipment on top of that, then snacks and one bottle of water at the very top should we run out of what we have currently out in our climbing backpack. Once happy with our haul bag layer cake, we lift them onto the back porch in preparation for the morning and make our way into the kitchen to talk with Valentine.

Crouched alongside a cast iron stove, Valentine places kindling into it's sooted doorway, the flames licking at his hands. Gesturing for us to come in, we each take a seat around the dining table. Margarita serves us homemade tortillas whilst Tiny and Valentine catch up on life. A native of Chihuahua, Tiny is well known by the locals. Though born and raised in the city some 200km away, he has spent more time in the Sierra than anyone I know from the outside. He is in tune with their way of life, their humble demeanor, and subtle mannerisms which often say more than their words. He has frequented this area for years, establishing new routes on the walls of copper canyon, often with assistance from friendly locals such as valentine to accomplish these feats. Valentine is a farmer of sorts. He has lived in the Sierra his whole life, planting crops (sometimes less than legal ones) and harvesting lumber. He is quietly spoken and humble. Living in a small house perched upon the hill, he lives a modest life for Mexico. Tiny and Valentine talk for hours whilst Will and I welcomely devour the steaming hot tortillas that Margarita keeps conjuring. Tired from our travels, I announce I am going to bed. The others soon follow suit and we settle into the small back room of Valentines house. Climbing into our sleeping bags, we goof around with excitement and anticipation. Tomorrow, the adventure begins.

At 4.00am, the alarm sounds. Peering over the lip of my sleeping bag, I can tell from the slow rustling of the others that the morning came sooner than any of us were ready for. Climbing from the bed, I make my way to the back porch. Looking out over the dimly lit town, the night is still. Roosters can be heard crowing in the distance, welcoming the impending sunrise. As I begin maneuvering our bags onto the old ford truck, the others arrive to help and we load them strategically in the back. Valentine informed us the night prior that the road is rough and the journey will take around 2 hours to drive.  From where we park, we would need to hike a further 2 hours across a ridgeline to reach the summit. Making a final check to ensure we haven't left anything behind, we head out into the dark.

The old ford truck grumbles along the bumpy dirt road. Tiny rides up front with Valentine and his son Octavio whilst Will and I ride in the back with the haul bags. The road seems to wind endlessly through large open fields, sparse pine forests, and up steep rock. After several hours of being tossed around like a salad in the back, we arrive at a small clearing in the woods from where we must continue on foot. Octavio jumps out the cab and assists us with unloading the bags. They’re heavy. Some of the bags weighed more than we did and lifting them onto our backs was a team effort. Though not ideal, this was nothing out of the ordinary. Just about every expedition I've ever embarked upon has involved some level of grimness with overweight packs. It's the adventure initiation.

We scramble down through some pine tree’s and out onto the open ridge that leads to the summit. After around two hours of bushwhacking and load shuttling up steeper sections, we arrive at the summit of El Gigante just in time to witness the sun rise over the canyon walls. The view from the summit was magnificent and the moment surreal. You see, normally you spend days or weeks hanging off the side of the mountain in order to enjoy the summit view. It is in many ways the only reward for your endeavor. But for the first time ever, we were approaching the mountain from the top and rappelling more than 3000ft down to the ground in order to begin. Though not a traditional approach to big walls, the alternative option involved a multi day hike with even more gear which no one seemed keen to do.

Collapsing to the ground under the weight of the 145 litre haul bag which felt as though I'd just carried a small elephant, I removed my equipment and laid it out in front of me for inspection. From this point onwards, we would all live day and night in our harnesses. Once we made our way over the edge of the wall, it was untreatable. The only way out was up and any equipment forgotten could be the difference between returning to the summit or becoming stranded in space. Racking the gear to my harness and uncoiling the ropes, we make a final group check to ensure we’re all ready. I thread the anchor and toss the rope down the face. Clipping the haul bag to my harness, I nod to the others and take one last look over the canyon before making my way over the edge.

There is nothing quite like stepping out into the abyss. Regardless of how many times you do it, tethered by a single strand of rope above 3000ft of air, it is a daunting feeling. We began rappelling down the face, systematically leapfrogging for time efficiency. Arriving at the “Critter Bivvy” at the top pitch 18 some hours later, we strategically stash one of our haul bags which has enough food and water for 2 days. The amount of time we anticipated it would take to go from this ledge to the summit. With gear securely fastened to the ledge, we continue down to the “Tower of Power” where we plan to spend our first night. After several hours and one hairy haul bag traverse, we arrive at the ledge at the top pitch 8 and unfold our portaledge. If you’ve not seen one of these before, it’s a kind of collapsible camping cot that hangs from the wall. It’s barely wide enough for two people to lay down and standing on it feels a little like surfing a giant kite. It takes a plethora of circus tricks and often physical persuasion to unfold whilst hanging in the air but once ready, it’s like living on a magic carpet. Now comfortable on the portaledge and Will sitting directly on the large ledge below, we settle in to make dinner and peer down over the hundreds of feet of wall that we must rappel and climb in the morning. The wall below doesn’t seem so bad in terms of climbing difficulty. Eight pitches no harder than 5.11c (F6c), a goal fairly non-chalant for someone climbing this route. Switching our glance from below to above, the wall leading to the summit was both huge and intimidating. From where we were, we would need to climb a further 2000ft feet of consistently difficult, sparsely protected and strenuous 5.12 and 5.13 began. This was where the true challenge lay. Not wanting to get too far ahead of ourselves, we finish up dinner, climb into our sleeping bags and turn on our customary Bob Marley playlist. His songs have become somewhat of a big wall anthem for Tint and I during our adventures, and there is not a morning or night that goes by without his positive vibrations. Settled into my sleeping bag, I gazed up into the sky. I had never seen so many stars. With the absence of light pollution from nearby towns or cities, the night sparkled in brilliant beauty. 

The familiar ring of my alarm shakes me awake. It’s 10am and a light breeze circulates around the wall. Today, Tiny and I will rappel the 8 pitches to the ground and then climb back up to our portledge. Will is going to stay on the ledge and shoot images from above. Motivation is high. After weeks of planning and travelling, we’re finally going to get a chance to try ourselves against the wall. Fishing the Jetboil from the hualbag, Tiny begins our morning ritual of coffee, a smoke, and of course Bob Marley music whilst I begin breakfast. Options are limited on the side of a mountain and you won’t find any gourmet meals. After availability, taste comes 2nd or possibly even 3rd to calorie value and density. There's also a finite amount of space available for food and on this expedition, breakfast was the school yard favorite peanut butter and jelly accompanied by a handful of sour chilli candies. Not exactly a Michelin restaurant experience, but that’s what we could find. I hand out sandwiches to the boys and we enjoy the sweet, gummy food experience washed down with coffee and candies. Making the last hard swallow, I rack up our gear for the day and prepare to descend to the ground with Tiny.

Arriving at the base of the wall, the smell of Marijuana permeates the air. “The rumours must be true” I think to myself. Not wanting to miss out on uncovering the truth, I take a short walk from the base, following my nose until I can see the fields. They’re small plots, maybe a ¼ acre in size dotted around the valley floor. It was something to behold and gave a strange sense of being inside some kind of hollywood movie. I decided to not stick around too long for fear of drawing any unwanted attention and returned to the base to begin the climb. I uncoiled the rope on the floor and double checked my gear one last time. From this point onwards, our only way out was 3000ft above. We had just 5 days to get there or risk missing our flight, or worse, running out of water. Tieing into the rope, we exchange our customary fist bump and I begin to climb the wall.

The features of the rock are fragile and the protection spaced. I try my best to maneuver purposefully and efficiently up the rock, not wanting to waste energy or take a giant fall. Reaching the first anchor, I fix the belay and Tiny climbs up to join me. “The bolts are really spaced dude!” he tells me. “That was fucking scary” I reply. Though the climbing wasn’t technically difficult in the scale of things, the potential for a big fall was very real should you have any troubles. With the tone of the route firmly scarred into our minds, Tiny sets off on the next pitch. We continue upward and onward, alternating who leads until we arrive back at the portaledge some hours later to find Will preparing dinner.

“How was it?” Will asks. “It’s runout and spicy” I reply with a giant grin. He laughed, he knew I got a kick out of it. Removing our climbing shoes which by this point felt like foot bindings, we spend the remainder of the evening discussing what was ahead. Dinner that night was a little more appealing than breakfast. Whole wheat tortillas with frijoles, chilorio de soya and salsa. Not bad for a kitchen 1000ft in the air. We ate like kings with our burrito feast and sang Bob Marley into the night, finally turning in around 8pm. Earlier in the evening, Tiny confessed to me that he might not be able to free climb the pitches above. Due to having a full time job prior to the expedition, he hadn’t had much time to train adequately and found some of the lower pitches difficult. I appreciated his honesty and reassured him it didn’t matter. We were a team and I didn’t care who did what, just that we did it together. That night, I meditated on how the next few days would unfold before finally drifting off to sleep.

The alarm sounds at 5.30am. Scrambling to find my phone which somehow made its way to the bottom of my sleeping bag in the night, I hit the dismiss button and sit up. The air is cold and although it is still night, a faint glow emanates from over the canyon walls. I begin our morning coffee ritual and try to decode the movement of the rock above us. Today we must climb and haul all our equipment over 1000ft up the wall to our next camp at the “Critter Bivy”. There are 10 pitches of climbing to get there, 7 of which are 5.12b (F7b+) or harder and one which is 5.13a (F7c+). A difficult task for any climber when not on the side of a big wall. I feel tense with doubt but choose not to share my apprehensions with the others. I know that I am the strongest climber in our group, and as I look to them for help with hauling, they look to me to get us through the harder sections. It would serve no good to share and would more likely diminish morale. The nerves accompanied by the coffee fire up my bowels, it’s time for my first poo on the wall. This delicate act involves holding a double lined paper bag as close to your bum hole as possible whilst hanging in your harness and avoiding making a mess on your hands. I call this endearing adventure, “a poo with a view”. First time air squatters often struggle with bag alignment and it is well worth practicing at home with the luxury of hand sanitizer than on the side of a mountain where if you’re lucky, you’ll have wet wipes to clean up any unfortunate mishaps. 

Completing the process, we pack up the portaledge and ready our equipment for the day ahead. The plan is for me to lead the harder pitches and Tiny will lead the remainder. Tying in to the sharp end, I begin to climb.

The wall above is technical and considered the most difficult part of the route. Grasping to the small edges, I maneuver my feet back and forth around the tiny edges. The day begins well, I manage to climb the first two pitches free and Tiny takes the next 2 pitches to the top of the “Lichen Traverse”. Four down, six to go. Taking the duct tape laden nalgene from the haul bag, I take a sip of water and inspect the next pitch. It’s another hard section and I'm feeling spent. The day is growing hotter and the sun's rays beat down on us. My fingers are sore and my muscles ached. Feeling this drained so early in the day was not a good sign when we were less than half way to our goal. I push the thought to the back of my mind and we execute the next 4 pitches. Arriving at the belay at the top of pitch 15, I clip the chains and slump onto the anchor. Between climbing and hauling, I’m destroyed. It’s getting dark by now and i’ve not eaten much since breakfast. When the boys arrive at the belay shortly after, they can tell I'm not doing so well. “How’d you feel about camping on the portledge tonight?” I asked. “I think it would be better to continue to the next rock ledge so that we can all sleep well” Tiny replied. Will agreed. “I need to rest and eat, who wants to take the next pitch?” I asked. No one seemed keen. It was a desperately hard pitch and we were all tired. Movement had become painfully slow in the darkness with the increased difficulty of route finding. After some deliberation, Tiny decides to take the lead while I rest. Deploying an assortment of climbing tricks, he reaches the next anchor in complete dark and we climb up to him. The temperature has dropped greatly and we’re beginning to shake. I pull out my down jacket and finagle it under my harness. I’m still feeling too out of it to lead, and borderline hallucinating with tiredness and fatigue. “I’m sorry boys, but you might need to lead the pitches to the ledge” I tell them. They know I’ve given everything. “We got you mate” Will replies. I smile. We eat some snacks and take a minute to rest. The moon lights up the canyon around us and everything is silent. Not wanting to sit too long for fear of getting cold, Tiny and Will execute the final pitches to the “Critter bivvy”. Progress is difficult by headlamp and we arrive at 2.30am, some 21 hours after beginning our day. Unfolding the portaledge and readying our sleeping equipment, Tiny and I climb onto the bed and Will takes the rock ledge below. We don’t talk much. The day had been a long one and all of us are completely spent. Tomorrow would be here soon, and we needed all the rest we could get.

I wake reluctantly around 1pm. The sun has crested over the horizon and the rising temperatures are cooking me inside my sleeping bag. Climbing from my bag, I dangle my feet over the side of the portaledge and look to see if Will is awake. Shaded from the sun underneath the portaledge, he’s still enjoying the rest. My movement wakes Tiny up and he sits up alongside me. Preparing coffee, we joke about how fucked up yesterday was. We had both surpassed a state of tiredness and fatigue which few people have the pleasure of enjoying in such remote circumstances. And though neither of us said it openly, I secretly knew yesterday was what we came for. We wanted a challenge, and that was what we found. 

Smelling the aroma of coffee, Will emerges from his sleeping bag. Today we’ve decided to stay at the ledge and rest. Thanks to the haul bag we had stashed here on the way down, we now had an abundance of food and could afford to eat a little better than the days before. This meant we now had the luxury of two moisture sucking pb+j sandwiches instead of just one. On the upside, we now had two bags of sour chilli sweets which I later found quite filling if you ate enough. Climbing down off the hanging bed onto the ledge below, I huddle in the shade with Will. Tiny fires up our Bob Marley playlist and we discuss what the plan of attack will be to reach the summit over breakfast. We figured it would take another two days to reach the top. Not wanting to haul any weight further than needed and to give ourselves more time to rest, we decided that tomorrow we would climb just 4 pitches, fix lines back to our ledge and haul half the gear to the high point. The following day we could then climb to the top of our fixed lines and continue up the final 7 pitches to the summit. In doing it this way, we hoped to grow a little skin back on our fingertips and distribute the efforts evenly. With the plan decided, we went about our rest day as we pleased. Confined to a ledge no wider than 2 people and roughly 15ft long, our activities mostly involved sleeping and eating. I took the time to jot notes in my diary and dream up elaborate expedition ideas, a thought experiment I quite often get lost in. As night arrived, we made burritos and set to bed early. Just two days to go, and we would reach the top.

The next two days went by quickly. Feeling replenished from our day lazing on the ledge, we woke early in the morning and executed our plan to fix lines before returning to the portaledge for a fairly mellow evening. Though the day was largely uneventful with the exception of being regularly terrified by the fall potential, it was another day on the wall and for us, another day in paradise. Tomorrow would be the final push to the summit, and I could finally eat something that wasn’t the texture of turf.

On the morning of our summit attempt, we woke before sunrise and packed away our equipment. This would be our final day on the wall if everything went to plan. During packdown we realized we had a surplus of food remaining. Rather than hauling the extra weight out or chucking it down the wall, we decided to pound as much as we could and save a marginal amount should shit hit the fan. Now buzzing from the ¼ pound of strawberry jam and a powdered double latte, I shoot up the fixed lines and haul the equipment up to me. By the time the haul bag arrives, Tiny and Will have reached the belay. Tying in, I execute the pitch above and Tiny and I begin exchanging leads to the summit. Things go smoothly and we’re moving fast. Arriving at the belay for pitch 24, we assemble our gear and take a moment to snack. This is the final hard pitch before the summit. If we can climb this, we will sleep on solid ground tonight. Chalking up using the crumbs left in my chalk bag, I climb what might be one of the best 5.12b (F7b+) pitches anywhere in the world. A hanging arete more than 2000ft off the ground, devoid of texture and with just a handful of pockets that tie it all together. It was perfectly my style and the exposure below made the experience all the more exhilarating. It was as though climbing through a wall of braille. Clipping the chains, I give out a “HEEWWWWDEY HEEEEEEEW!” to the boys so they know we’re out of the thick of it. They cheer!  I fix lines and they join me at the anchor with giant smiles. We all know that from here, we can make it to the top. With our biggest fear now firmly overcome, morale is at an all time high. We climb the final pitches to the summit with ease, arriving at the top as the sun begins to set. 

We scream, we hug, and we scream some more. I want to puke with relief. We had overcome something which we all secretly doubted possible at one point or another. The experience had tested us mentally and physically. It had forced us to expand our limits, problem solve and push through our fears.

As the last rays of light disappear over the horizon, we watch in awe as the sky illuminates with hues of purple, red, and blue. The view was a fitting prize for our struggle, especially from where we were.


Standing on the shoulder of a giant.

Fortitudine Vincimus - Through endurance, we conquer

El Gigante survival kit:

25 quickdraws

2 x Jumars

1 x Lightweight ladder

1 x Petzl Connect Adjust lanyards

1 x Petzl Grigri

80m dynamic rope

200m fixed ropes

3 liters of water a day

Wet wipes

Toilet paper

Toilet bags



Food + Snacks