“Es una mierda” Gabo says with a thinly veiled cough while trying to suppress a smile. Next to him Cristina is telling Rodrigo that there are so many better places to take me than Escudo. I just sit and take it all in. Earlier Greta had told me about how Rodrigo had gone up there with Brett and her. She related stories of manky pitons, loose rocks, hollow flakes and poorly placed bolts. Gabo’s coughing opinion and Cristina’s attempt to dissuade Rodrigo from going up there with me seem to be supporting Greta’s horror stories.
Several of us are sitting in the NOLS staff house, the Casa Comun, in Coyhaique, Chile. I have just arrived at the branch and as per usual at any NOLS branch around the world, have immediately fallen into a slanderous comraderrie with the various instructors and in-town staff that are either coming in from the field, going into the field, or between contracts. I fit none of those categories and am spending a week at the branch after a personal expedition and before heading back to the States. I am excited to sample some of the local climbing and as to be expected, I stumble across someone pysched to go climbing.
Having spent over five weeks helping develop a NOLS rock camp at nearby cliffs, I have a good idea of what type of rock and climbing exists on the cliffs that surround Coyhaique. Recently I have been hearing a fair amount of talk regarding the amount and quality of climbing near the branch. Of course everyone is partial to their “home” crag, so I am trying to reserve judgment until I can crimp, jam, and smear for myself. Developing what has become Cerro Agula six years ago left a somewhat dirty taste in my mouth, both from the absurd amount of dirt, rocks and grass that required cleaning and the quality of climbs and area that we would be using to teach a skill and activity about which I am extremely passionate. In many ways I felt we were cheating students and I did not entirely feel that we were living up to our tag line “the leader in wilderness education.” Part of education is having excellent classrooms and at the time I did not think Cerro Agula fit the bill. Maybe I was just bitter about having lost the ability to work in Frey. Regardless, I wanted to keep an open mind.
Rodrigo showed up the next day at noon. We hopped in his little red Suzuki and drove five minutes down the road. All around us escarpments jutted out of the hillside in dark brown, almost black, chunks. Rising out of the green fields and hillsides, they provided a beautiful backdrop to the various sprawling industrial and agriculture development that has spread south out of Coyhaique. We stopped the car next to the Abastile propane plant. We walked the barbed wire topped, concrete wall to the back of it’s property, hopped a couple of fences and started walking a vague trail up a steep, dead grass and scree covered slope. Neneo, a small spiky shrub and the occasional virreina, a bright orange flower, reminiscent of a solid colored daisy, dot the hillside. The power lines, propane tanks, highways, cell towers and other industrializations on the valley floor began to fade into memories as I hiked higher. A couple times Rodrigo stopped to point out the route we were going to do. I squinted and strained, but had a hard time getting any visual details. Mostly I just nodded, hiked on and tried to keep an open mind.
We cut across a bit of scree and soon are standing on a steep slope at the base of a fifty-five meter wall. “I’ll take the first pitch” Rodrigo says and he starts racking up. I unsuccessfully try to find a good stance in the loose scree, give up and just sit down. Above us is a well gardened and traveled hand crack. Rodrigo points out some pertinent details about the route and where he will go. The second pitch is apparently the cash-money pitch. It appears to start with a traverse then up a 25 meter splitter thin hand, hand and fist crack, passing a couple of overlaps on the way. Our position almost directly underneath gives it an imposing feel. It looks good anyway. Lets see what all these horror stories were about, I think to myself.
Rodrigo makes his way up the initial easy, though hollow rock riddled hand crack, placing a few cams en route. He traverses right, clips a few pitons then makes a few difficult face moves look easy. Above, it is another cam followed by more edging and smearing with thin handholds. One more time, he makes it look fluid and graceful, though I wince at the rope positioned behind his leg. He pulls out of sight and I feed out the rope by feel, but it is not long before he is back in sight, dragging the rope up to the top of a clean corner, that ended just left of the splitter second pitch. “BELAY OFF, JERRY” he yells down. I take him off and get set to climb.
I find the climbing to be engaging and fun. I pass a few pitons that probably have seen better days and each hold receives a solid thump from the heel of my hand prior to me latching on. Most of the thumps don’t inspire confidence. I pass an intermediate set of bolts and true to Greta’s word, the rock that they are in sounds hollow and vibrates with my thoroughly dependable pound. I tip toe and pull gingerly, then climb up to the more solid two bolt anchor to which Rodrigo has secured himself. “Nice lead” I offer.
I clip in and we swap gear. A thin, perfectly parallel , less than double zero crack, shoots up from the belay. After a couple of minutes of finagaling I am able to work in a #4 stopper high up in it. I clip a draw to it, then the rope and step back down. “Ok, I’m climbing” I tell Rodrigo.
He looks down at his belay device. “The carabiner is locked, the rope is threaded correctly. You are on belay.”
I reach over, unclip and start by stepping down. A few crimps made easier by good feet allow quick passage to the right. Good feet and wide fingers greet me as I peer into the fissure. It only seems to get wider, so I fiddle in a slightly tipped out purple Camalot and clip it with a long draw. A few wide finger moves lead to tight hands and a green Camalot but those don’t stick around too long. It quickly becomes #1 territory and then #2 which, despite being “on belay” as Dean Potter was once quoted as saying when soloing a hand crack, I am glad that I have tripled up on the size. The almost flawless crack cleaves beautiful, clean, solid stone and I can not help but wonder why his friends were giving Rodrigo so much shit about the route as I feel like laughing all the way to the bank. I work through a few overlaps, squeeze in a tight Black Diamond #3, then enjoy the final few feet as it diminishes to perfect hands and then smaller before ending on a big ledge with two bolts. The only noticeable flaw on the pitch being that I only made it twenty or so meters before reaching the anchors.
I arrange some slings into an anchor, clip myself to them and tell Rodrigo that I am off. “Hey” I yell down. “You can go tell all your doubters to go screw themselves. That thing was awesome. Worth every hollow flake down low.” I lean back and start pulling in the rope while this blog posts starts concocting itself in my head. I stare outward, at the orange roofs, highways, hay fields and industrialization and think that it would not be a stretch to say that it is the best hand crack that I have ever climbed in Coyhaique.