<- The view from Aguja Guillmet
The climbing chapter of my gap year (yah?) took place in Argentina and began, as so many things tend to, on the internet. Having no climbing partners this side of the Atlantic, I took out some lonely hearts ads on as many climbing web sites as I could and within not too long a time, the itinerary for the next two months had unfurled itself. And so it was that just after the new year, near Mendoza, I met up with Erik and Bill, two New Yorkers who work in film, and then a couple of weeks later to Buenos Aries to meet Alex, a... geography teacher from... Sheffield.
The climbing split into three parts, the first was with Bill and Erik in a place called Los Aranales, near Tunujan. The area is not that well known outside of South America, but offers some great adventure climbing in a valley on the border of Argentina and Chile. The refugio we stayed next to was guarded by two kittens, who had been introduced to deal with the mouse infestation but were so successful that they had now moved on to the unfortunate bird population. All climbers food was also considered fur game.
The second part was in El Chalten, Patagonia, with Alex and later Bill. An intimidating and upside down world where waterfalls fall upwards, snow follows you up the mountains and the wind blows so strongly that tying your shoelaces becomes a major ordeal.
Lastly Bill and I headed up to The Frey, near Bariloche. The walk in is long, about 5 hours uphill with a 25kg backpack in the hot hot sun. But it's entirely worth it. A beautiful place with equally great climbing. There is a refugio set on a lake and many climbers camp nearby. The refugio sells delicious, wholesome food and plays reggae music to those climbers and walkers taking a lazy day by the lake. The bohemian atmosphere is encapsulated in the hippies walking the slack lines over the lake.
One of the climbers I met there and climbed with was the least likely Doctor in the world. A crazy, hard drinking Czech guy called Fred. His equipment looked like it was made during WW2 (in some of it fact it was made by his brother who is a 'blacksmith' as a hobby). I climbed with him one day on a difficult route near the refugio. Half way up the final pitch (a long crack on an otherwise blank face) I was running out of steam and shouted down to him to ask if his gear was safe? 'Yep. Don't worry!' came his response. After I'd finished leading this crack, a couple of hundred metres in air and he had climbed up to meet me, I thanked him for his reassuring words, his response? 'Well, I don't trust it but telling you that wouldn't have helped you climb the route'
In Patagonia the highlight was climbing the Amy Coulouir route to reach the summit of Aguja Guillemet.
Climbing's a strange fish. You spend thousands of pounds on equipment to save your life. But to save your life in situations that you intentionally and unnecessarily put yourself in, despite common sense screaming at you not to. You lug equipment across continents and up mountains, and then down again, through hour after hour of tortuous moraine fields. You eat rehydrated food that you wish tasted as good as cardboard, 'food' that is only given any texture by the grit that inevitably sneaks its way in. You 'sleep' in a tent not big enough for one, with complete strangers, battered by the wind and rain. You have blisters on your blisters, aching knees and arms and pain just about anywhere you can think of. Every trip is a mix of frustration, elation, terror, panic, boredom, ecstasy and panic. When you think you're about to die for the umpteenth time that day, you promise yourself NEVER AGAIN.
Then you get back, you shower, have a cup of tea and before it's had time to cool, you're planning the next outing, oblivious to pain you've just put yourself through, recalling only those isolated moments of unbridled peace at the belay and the astounding beauty of the mountains... Come to think of it, those blisters weren't that bad were they?...