Virgin Stone: Journey to El Hermano

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By Niels Tietze
Editors Note: We are posting online this article from Issue 7 in remembrance of Niels Tietz, who passed away a few days ago in Yosemite National Park.
The Holy Grail of rock climbing, the Kaaba to be worshiped, is a spanking new route on an untouched, beautiful, difficult mountain. It’s sort of like a mountaineer’s version of winning the World Cup.  With resources far beyond its famed copper, Chile is one of the last places in the world where there is still an abundance of Virgin Stone. The well-known Cochamo Valley in Chilean Patagonia just tickles the iceberg at what awaits those climbers and hikers willing to search further along.
Doug Tompkins knows this. The renowned and controversial conservationist holds many of these places in his back pocket after bringing acre upon acre of Patagonian wildlands under protection. Flying around in his single engine Cessna he has near limitless access to the remote lands otherwise guarded by a fortress of bamboo, mud and sanguijelas. Perhaps in a gesture to the mountaineer’s version of the creation myth, he gifted a photo of such a monolith to our friend, the late great journalist Mike Ybarra, with the implied message, “Go South, Young Man.”
Words like expedition, explorer, voyager, adventurer are a thousand times more likely to refer to pavement princess elite SUVs and trucks, garage cradled and waxed, than their honest original namesake. And although we are surrounded by an emasculated and dull world of car euphemisms, many climbers and the curious venture forth, taking a bite of the apple - still hungry for the unknown and uncertain.  When an offer and an image of that foreboding granite face gave its Mona Lisa smile, I knew there was little power in me to resist.
Being blessed with a strong back and weak mind, I was selected to join a team that had been derailed by tragedy for the past three years. Two of the original members had died high in the mountains and the final member had suffered a 90 degree angulated tib-fib fracture to narrowly avoid the mountain reaper. Orphans Preferred. Death Likely. I don’t remember these ever-present warning signs when I began this life of mine. Superstitions ignored. Eye sockets wrung dry. It was time for better luck and hopefully redemption. It would take some work.
Expedition to El Hermano
We dubbed our destination “El Hermano,” as it looks almost like a brother to El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. My preparations for the rock climbing expedition to El Hermano, which is near Rio Correntoso in Chile’s Palena province, involved purchasing: a full yellow fisherman’s suit, bamboo resistant rubbered trompabout boots, an umbrella, heavy duty garbage bags, an army of dry bags, 16 pairs of socks, a full anti-footrot kit, emergency whiskey, and of course two full Shakespearian plays. With a moody Hamlet holding my hand, I sauntered into the soggy doggy nightmare that northern Patagonia climbing had promised to be. Yes, you guessed it. We saw exactly three drops.
Distance is a funny thing when moving through virginal land. Beyond the chipper chimes of my two lovely teammates, Libby Sauter and Althea Rogers, I also started to hear other companions in my head. My favorite Johnnies: Cash and Lennon. They had started whispering their one liners in my ear as the days went by: “Sweat baby sweat, only two more swings” and “Booooyy, You’re gonna carry that load, carry that load…..”.  These are the parts that most magazine pictures miss. The solitude of deep rainforest bringing forth the voices from within own mind. One more machete stroke for my carpal tunnel clenched hand. One more narrowly avoided impalement on bamboo turned Vietcong spikes. Miles went by. Endless bamboo walls converted to vertical incisors marked our slow progress up the vegetation rich valley where our granite grail lay. Ten days have passed since we were left at the mouth of Rio Correntoso by our boatman Jaime.
Glaciers eventually reach the sea, raindrops fall to the earth and we inevitably opened those bamboo curtains and gazed on the granite face of our divine. A familiar 4,500-foot tall white cliff that matched the photos we’d stared at for years. Whoot, whoot, but, jubilation aside, now what?
“What the hell am I doing here?,” that was the question I asked my self three days later while being needled by biting tabanos, long out of sight of my climbing partner, and digging my fingers deeply into the moss bed that occupied every conceivable part of climbable crack on the rock face. Annoyance was followed by fear as I tried to excavate pseudo solid steps out of the now vertical slime that called itself vegetation. Hammered pitons mockingly jumped out of their placements. Little green rivulets trickled down my fingers and covered the rubber of my shoes guaranteeing every inch I gained was fraught with sphincter puckering concern.
The day ends. We’re nowhere near where we wanted to be. So, like the brave mountain climbers we are, we courageously returned to camp. Brooding on the honest difficulty of what we were up against meant we opened up the emergency whiskey. Then the weather report came in via satellite phone. Three Days. That’s all we had before the Noah’s never ending spigot would baptize our mission out of existence. Predictions of 40 milliliters of rain were followed by 30 were followed by 20 for the next few weeks. Gulp. That’s like a death sentence to this trip, and certainly a dangerous amount of rain to be stuck in without an ark. Our tent was secure but surely would not float.
Weary yet determined, we returned after only a nights rest to our high point and pushed a few rope lengths further, taking turns on fear gardening our way toward the promised land of the cumbre. A ledge was found that night and we settled down for what is optimistically called sloped napping. The next day a heavy mist rolled in but gradually, the jungle gave up its hold on the cliff face and we found ourselves legitimately climbing on rock. The ghostly white and bullet hard stone of our Palena peak whispering to us the story of what it must have been like at our usual favorite climbs at Yosemite Park in California some 50 or 60 years ago.
There is a truth few climbers like to admit. That is, climbing is a bit slow and boring. But rather unlike a politician’s speech, we eventually arrived at the point. We reached the summit. Stretching out beyond sight are the green embraced glacier ridges of Patagonian granite. Tucked under the summit rocks we find ash from the Chaiten volcano, whose eruption six years ago nearly destroyed its namesake town. The view of Corcovado volcano erupts through the thick clouds blanketing the waters to our west. It takes two days to return down by rappelling, but beyond the few drops of worry that came in the form of drizzling rain on the second day, we pull it off without a hitch. Terra Firma. Safety. Success. Exhaustion.
Still, it wasn’t the triumph of a first ascent or any feeling of laying the dead to rest that has stuck with me as I look back on it all. Far more so, it is the mystery of walking in a land rarely touched by humans. The same sensation of treading on hollowed ground that is becoming more and more rare in this world.



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