Falkner Peak – Winter
It’s 3:40 in the night, I am waking up for fourth time in these last few hours. This time the alarm is really ringing; ridiculously early to get up, but somehow I am already clear with so much anticipation of the day to come.
This winter ascent to Falkner peak was in Seba’s head for years, so I think, following different personal reasons. To me there are just a couple of simple reasons motivating me to get up so early. Firstly, doing winter ascents is just too good: mountains are normally remote themselves, and in winter everything is even more… remote. Secondly, if this is one of those crazy projects from Sebastian, I know I am going to enjoy it.
This expedition mutated through various versions already, as everything we plan with time. Moreover this winter was uncommon, starting late, with a stormy August; and all of us working and not being able to meet to go out. Only two of us were left from the original group; and only one day was left from the original two-day expedition (with the idea of camping somewhere high in the mountain). This, this was why the alarm ringed.
The pack is ready, I only miss heating up the water for the mate while driving. I do not believe in luck (and bad luck), as otherwise I would not have taken this piece-by-piece picture of the equipment to carry. This is the third time I do it this year, after the two previous ones getting cancelled the last night for whatever reason — leaving only the picture as sad memory. As we are going in a day hike, “we go light“, or so we said. The pack was light until I added crampons, piolet and helmet; basic climbing equipment; snow shoes, hiking poles and boots; snow beacon, probe and shovel; sleeping pad and bivouac bag; cameras, VHF, GPS, headlight and 10 or more spare batteries; camping burner, its gas and jug; glasses and goggles; first aid kit, multitool and other small things; lots of clothing layers; lots of cereal, nuts and sweets (because, to go light, I am not even bringing a sandwich).
At 4:10 as agreed I get with my millenium falcon to Seba’s. I did not even cross a drunk one going to the pub because, also, we are in the middle of the week. The trip goes easy, there are no animals on the road either (uncommon). The sky is clear, giving us up: the forecast announces bad weather falling the night (but, after cancelling so many times and seeing the winter almost ending, it is now or never!). At 5:25 we are already walking the start of the Falkner’s trail.
Cerro Falkner is a mountain with several summits between 2000 and 2200 meters high It runs West to East, standing between its homonym lake (North) and Traful lake (South). There is an open trail to the westmost summit, by the national park service.
Seba knows the trail pretty well, fortunately. On our headlights I just see what I can, knowing I am not going to remember any of this next time. Not at least from the trail, but yes I will remember the view: shortly after climbing we see the entire Villarino lake, Peñascoso peak behind, all bathed in full moonlight, while the moon sets in the same direction the clouds are going to come from all day. (Just imagine the picture: my crappy camera just got black rectangles of this).
The first portion of this trail is a bit closed within the always growing canes (bamboo? Caña Colihue), which entangle our big fat packs and the snows shoes hanging from them. A bit later the forest opens up to a shoulder full of grass where wind really blows… remembering we are in winter, and it can get really cold depending on where the wind is going to come from. Later we get into the tall forest. Few references remained in my memory… in the night, without pictures, and half slept. Not long after getting to this forest we start walking on snow, which while still hard and frozen, it is not deep and sometimes sinks to our weights when there are plants and air below it. Time to get into our snow shoes!
It is 7:30 now, good time to get up on a regular week day…. but we got up 4hrs ago, and have been walking uphill for two hours. In snow shows, through the forest, and shutting our lights off as it dawns, it would seem we are going faster and faster. The sky is still clear above us, but further north at home in San Martín de los Andes it looks totally cloudy, and the red sun just hides behind clouds and peaks.
In short time, the lenga trees gets shorter and turns into bush (achaparrado), just getting their heads out of the snow. Turning right the hill we are climbing while snaking through bushes we start heading the first north-facing valley. There we see the “intermediate” peak we are targetting: a big block of rock with almost no snow anymore, which Seba knows can be walked (or crawled) from the West, and we are trying to face from the North, straight into a couloir coming from this valley. (Spotted in color in the next picture).
The valley is not short… we move at good pace with snow shoes inwards and at about 9:00am and 1750m altitude it is time to switch gear. We abandon show shoes and trekking poles, and wear crampons and piolet instead. Snow is hard and there are no signs of recent avalanches, yet the there are rock and small snow falls in slopes facing all directions… signs telling us later in the day or with high temperatures this can get messy. This, and many of the other valleys in the Falkner (not to mention the South face) are land of avalanches in winter, to absolutely avoid. Our timing was calculated (or we tried to) so there is still snow and fun (and couloirs!) but not too much or too fresh snow.
With this gear changing we also put on harnesses — just in case, to avoid doing it later in more complicated terrain. And if harness is on, also is all the climbing gear we brought. We do not expect to use it, but we better carry them in our waists than inside the backpacks, weighing the same but useless.
The summit is still far away, but the difference is now noticeable looking down. We see a long portion of RN40 route, meaning that every time I drive South from now on, I am going to stare at this very spot we are climbing.
With crampons we go up still faster than with the snow shoes. The sun does not get to shine through clouds, the snow is still nicely hard, the valley is saved from the wind so we do not feel cold. At 10am we are at 1900m and can see many of the familiar summits and peaks we know, from a perspective I had not seen earlier. In the picture, the Buque (not its main summit) appears in font ,while Chapelco Grande, Escalonado and Azul are farther away.
Progress is still fast. We climb without zigzagging, straight uphill following the edges of snowy slopes and next to the rocks, to avoid avalanche or rockfall spots. One does not realize how steep the walk is, until your calf muscles burn and ask you to climb in “duck steps” or stepping sidewards, or when the walking piolet gives place to front pointing plus stabbing the snow from the axe’s head (pied troisième? I had to look it up in the books…), and it gets faster and safer and crawl using four support points, using your axe as a knife.
To my surprise, I still feel very safe in crampons and anchored to my axe. Although, every time I look back (and downwards), I wonder how much of this feeling is just illusion. We keep climbing straight up each nevé, and cross-traverse them quickly, one by one, when needed: hoping nothing happens. From one of these slopes and right after crossing, mid sized rocks run down in circles like racing car wheels — just as fast too. A good reminder that we are not safe anywhere here, not at all.
Quite nervous we finally started the couloir. Seba leads, so I take the big responsibility of… using the GoPro helmet and record the ascent. Going up was quite pleasing. Snow was still hard, steps carved deeply and firmly with crampon kicks, and sinking the entire 60cm piolet was an anochor to be trusted. The progression of this about 50 meters took about 20 minutes of concentration… and tense muscles where I could not tell if I was tired of if it was cold: every muscle doing its job getting some energy from the small bites we had during the ascent…. but mostly, from the adrenaline. I only stopped to breath, to create more space between Seba and me, and to look back very timidly, just enough for fear to force look ahead and anchor more strongly to snow.
This sweet progress lasted until a point where this couloir turned left… and ended. To the left, a small shelf with just enough room for one person, where we two had to fit. Climbing this deck showed to be tricky; every rock was loose, there was not enough snow for the piolet to help. To the left of this platform, a big fall. Upwards, a steep rock for which we had no gear or experience. To the right, the couloir closed under a snow cornice, which was behind next to the rock and forming a randkluft (if that’s the proper term). We did not dare to touch it.
So that’s the furthest we got. We improvised an anchor, as the only good thing of this exposed place was a big round rock accepting a loop to hang from there. After some deliberation we set up a rappel and started the descent: half rappelling, half downclimbing with piolet. With so much tension, there was not a single picture from up there. The next one was about 15m ropes down, when the couloir got less steep, showing the cornice that blocked our way. We started to talk and laugh more, and estimated the steepest portion at 65 degrees.
So technically, we did not summit the peak. But if feels like we did. We were at about 10-15 meters of altitude below that summit, and maybe 20 or 40 meters awaty. And we could have perfectly reached it, if we walked from the Western face of this rock, that Seba had already climbed. But the experience of having climbed up (and down) that couloir is totally unique. We wondered if we have been the first in that route: who else would climb this long peak in winter just to get into a couloir leading to nowhere?
Just that this “nowhere” became a precise point in the world for me. It is no longer nowhere. That small platform, the rock from which we rappelled. Although I will not see them from the distance, I will always believe I can distinguish them from any other peak in the area when looking South. And although we never got the 360 degrees view, the landscape from here paid all the effort too:
After leaving the couloir and storing the rope, I say on a rock and laugh of myself, feeling so safe as in a lawn chair on the beach, while I was still 2000m high, in a slope perhaps 40 degrees (which I felt like flat), hours away from home and with weather getting worse every minute. Relativity.
The first nevés down were fast, enjoying the snow which had transformed already and allowed sinking our heels and lose altitude very fast. The cold wind was blowing from behind us, inviting us to rush our way down.
That lasted maybe half an hour, just about what takes for the adrenaline to disappear. What followed was, first, to understand that our legs hurt; and even if we were going down fast, the spot where we left the snow shoes always seemed to be one kilometer away. The snow was too soft, we sank one entire leg several times when the snow was hollow. So tired, steps started to be sloppier, and crampons left several marks in our pants.
At the snow shoes we took out all climbing gear, reassembled the backpacks with everything on it, and adding the wet rope that was my turn to take down (it was time already!) it felt like 40 kg. This switch took quite a while, again, and we took the chance to continue lying our stomachs with small bites. It started to snow and the summit now far higher hid in the snows, and was the right time to run away.
Moving the snow shoes in this wet and soft snow was costly. I felt all the fatigue of the day exactly at this point. I wanted to have skis to go down, and snow shoes were sinking in the snow, and heavy. I remember this soft snow and the slopes and sometimes even the snow shoes skied down… at least for a couple of meters.
After surrounding some hills and taking the way of the traditional summit trail, and walking what felt like 10 more hours (and were actually two), we got to the end of the trail. The last hour, with the snow shoes on our packs (even heavier!) was a relief for the feet, and an agony for the legs which did not want to act as brakes anymore. It started to rain at some point, though we did not feel it much. Down there the view was so different. I finally met the start of the trail which I had not seen in the night ascent, and got my eyes used to see this landscape again.
The experience left a strong mark on me and it could be the first of many. Seba says we graduated as “rookie alpinists”, whatever that means. I have not graduated, in anything. I have so many things to learn yet, including the exceptional and flexible maneuvering of technical equipment my climbing partner has:
Back to the car and after twelve hours of marching, we reflected on how seamless was (almost) everything. All the hours running this year paid off for the legs who never complained (going up at least), and took us in 6h to the “summit”. The gear we used was just right, everything got used (except emergency equipment). Planning the time and weather matched perfectly, and it was totally worth to get up so painfully early to be able to do all the climb in hard snow (otherwise, we probably had been unable to climb the couloir), and getting us back to the car before the worst of the storm.
Max elevation: 2049 m
Total climbing: 1266 m
Total time: 11:40:19