SKAGIT ALPINISM

Cerro Marconi Central – La SuperWhillans

December 22nd, 2013

Another semi-good weather window arrived in the Chalten Massif this past week. The forecast showed decent weather for the 18th and 19th, so Rolo and I hiked into the mountains on the 17th. This season continues so far to be the “Old Patagonia,” with plenty of wind, plenty of precip, and not-so-warm temperatures (which, in some ways is a refreshing change from the past couple summers of “Patagonia Tropical”). The recent snow and rime accumulations, combined with chilly forecasted temperatures, made rock climbing sound imprudent, so we planned instead for some classic alpine climbing, and headed for an objective that I had been mildly obsessing over for the past year.

In November of 2012 I went by myself to the Circo de los Altares, and after deciding that my planned solo objective looked too dangerous, accepted a long hike home via Paso Marconi. While descending from Paso Marconi (my first time traveling through Paso Marconi), I was blown away by a beautiful line on Cerro Marconi Central. While obviously not a super difficult objective, the elegant ramp of snow and mixed terrain slashing up the east face was such an obvious route that I immediately began scheming. Seven days later I was hiking back up the Rio Electrico valley with Andrea Di Donato to have a go at “la rampa.” Unfortunately, the weather didn’t work out so well for us, and we aborted our attempt early in the morning of our planned ascent day, hardly able to stand up on the Marconi Glacier in the raging winds.

My first proper attempt came this past September, during my solo winter visit to the Chalten massif. On September first I hiked up the Rio Electrico valley, and started up the long couloir that is one of the two good approach options to reach the base of “la rampa.” About three quarters of the way up the approach couloir I decided that the snow seemed potentially dangerous for slab avalanches and bailed. The next day, September 2nd, I soloed Cerro Domo Blanco for a consolation prize. On September 3rd, with the weather still good and now having a bit more confidence in the snowpack, I tried for “la rampa” again. Above the approach gully, I post-holed up the glacier to the base of the route. I managed to cross the bergschrund easily, but my attempt was foiled only two rope-lengths above by the poor conditions. This past winter was very dry, with no melt-freeze cycles, and I found almost no ice whatsoever – just powder snow on rock, which I felt was too insecure for free soloing.

After my solo winter attempt, I figured I would likely have to wait until the Austral spring of 2014 to try again. However, with the current climbing season being quite wet and cold, I got another chance. Rolo and I approached to near the base of the route on the 17th, this time traversing in on the glacier from Paso Marconi, as the approach gully was melted out and looked like nasty 4th class.

Our ascent on the 18th was enjoyable and fairly casual, with awesome scenery. Conditions this time were excellent, and with good conditions the route proved to be quite easy. Most of the terrain was about 60 degrees, with the occasional bit of 70-degree alpine ice, and one pitch of AI3/M3 to gain the summit ridge. In hindsight it would’ve been perfect for relaxed free-soloing, but as we were roped up, and since I refuse to ever be roped up with marginal protection, the greatest difficulty was often finding adequate protection. The rock is fairly compact (and thus pitons are recommended), and also was fairly rimed up, so finding cracks required a fair amount of excavation. I think that our ascent took roughly five hours from the bergschrund to the summit at a moderate pace, and our descent took about five hours as well, as it was time-consuming to make good rappel anchors.

The only previous known attempt on Cerro Marconi Central was in 1966 by Argentine climbers Edgar Köpcke, Avedis Naccachian and Enrique Triep, from the west side. Their attempt ended somewhere at or near the summit ridge, so I believe our climb was the first complete ascent of Cerro Marconi Central. After completing our descent, on the glacier we ran into our friends Carlitos Molina and Iñaki Coussirat, who the next morning rapidly made the second ascent of the route and the peak.

The climb is fun and aesthetic, and I would definitely recommend it to others, but I think it requires careful evaluation of conditions to make it a nice climb. More than anything else, it is worthwhile simply because the seldom-visited Marconi peaks are wild, beautiful, and much more “alpine” than many of the other mountains around. We have named the route “La SuperWhillans,” for it’s strong resemblance in form to Aguja Poincenot’s famous Whillans Ramp, and also a play on the local classic, “La Supercanaleta.” I would estimate that the vertical gain from the bergschrund to the summit is roughly 600-700m, with difficulties of up to 70 degrees, and one pitch of AI3/M3.

 

Looking up at "la rampa" from our bivy, the night before my brief attempt with Andrea, Nov. 2012.

Looking up at “la rampa” from our bivy, the night before my brief attempt with Andrea, Nov. 2012.

 

Andrea on the Marconi Glacier, just before we decided the weather was too bad for an attempt. Nov. 2012.

Andrea on the Marconi Glacier, just before we decided the weather was too bad for an attempt. Nov. 2012.

 

Getting freaked out by big crevasses on the approach to "la rampa," during my solo winter attempt. Sept. 2013.

Getting freaked out by big crevasses on the approach to “la rampa,” during my solo winter attempt. Sept. 2013.

 

Nearing the base of "la rampa" during my solo winter attempt. In this photo you can see how much drier the conditions were compared to now. Sept. 2013.

Nearing the base of “la rampa” during my solo winter attempt. In this photo you can see how much drier the conditions were compared to now. Sept. 2013.

 

Bailing two pitches up, during my solo winter attempt. Sept. 2013.

Bailing two pitches up, during my solo winter attempt. Sept. 2013.

 

Rolo near the base of Cerro Marconi Norte on the 17th, just before starting the traverse across the glacier towards the base of Marconi Central's east face.

Rolo near the base of Cerro Marconi Norte on the 17th, just before starting the traverse across the glacier towards the base of Marconi Central’s east face.

 

Rolo starting the traverse across the glacier, approaching on the 17th.

Rolo starting the traverse across the glacier, approaching on the 17th.

 

An awesome sunrise on the morning of the 18th. The low peak on the far left is Cerro Trente Anniversario, and the high peak on the right is Cerro Chalten (aka Fitz Roy).

An awesome sunrise on the morning of the 18th. The low peak on the far left is Cerro Trente Anniversario, and the high peak on the right is Cerro Chalten (aka Fitz Roy).

 

Looking up "La SuperWhillans" shortly before beginning the climb.

Looking up “La SuperWhillans” shortly before beginning the climb.

 

Looking down from the start of the ramp.

Looking down from the start of the ramp.

 

Looking up from the start of the ramp. Photo by Rolando Garibotti.

Looking up from the start of the ramp. Photo by Rolando Garibotti.

 

Lots of sixty-degree neve, low on the ramp.

Lots of sixty-degree neve, low on the ramp.

 

Rolo about half-way up the ramp.

Rolo about half-way up the ramp.

 

Rolo arriving at a belay about two-thirds of the way up the ramp.

Rolo arriving at a belay about two-thirds of the way up the ramp.

 

Traversing from near the top of the ramp to the AI3/M3 gully which gives access to the summit ridge.

Traversing from near the top of the ramp to the AI3/M3 gully which gives access to the summit ridge.

 

Looking down the summit ridge.

Looking down the summit ridge.

 

Rolo on the summit ridge. Behind is Marconi Norte, and several smaller but wild summits in between.

Rolo on the summit ridge. Behind is Marconi Norte, and several smaller but wild summits in between.

 

Rolo on top of a rime pinnacle just below the summit.

Rolo on top of a rime pinnacle just below the summit.

 

Tagging the summit of Cerro Marconi Central. Photo by Rolando Garibotti.

Tagging the summit of Cerro Marconi Central. Photo by Rolando Garibotti.

 

I'm not generally a fan of simul-rappelling, but in this case it made sense.

I’m not generally a fan of simul-rappelling, but in this case it made sense.

 

Looking up at the rime mushroom from which we simul-rappelled.

Looking up at the rime mushroom from which we simul-rappelled.

 

Rolo rappelling.

Rolo rappelling.

 

Colin about to start one of the rappels up high. Photo by Rolando Garibotti.

Colin about to start one of the rappels up high. Photo by Rolando Garibotti.

 

Rolo on one of the upper rappels.

Rolo on one of the upper rappels.

 

Colin back down on the glacier, pleased to have finished the rappels, and happy to have finally climbed the route. Photo by Rolando Garibotti.

Colin back down on the glacier, pleased to have finished the rappels, and happy to have finally climbed the route. Photo by Rolando Garibotti.

 

The east face of Cerro Marconi Central, showing the line of "La SuperWhillans."

The east face of Cerro Marconi Central, showing the line of “La SuperWhillans.”