Cerro Castillo fail

Dawn behind Cerro Castillo

Cerro Castillo is one of the few popular and accessible peaks along the Carratera Austral, and it looked like a perfect day on paper, Alpine grade AD with 7000 feet of gain and a crux of UIAA III-IV (5.4-5.5). That would put it somewhere between the Grand Teton and the Matterhorn, both of which I have done. After packing up at my nice wilderness campsite, I rode over the last pass and was struck by a view of Castillo’s steep east side, partly shrouded by clouds generated as it warmed. It was an awesome sight, surrounded by shorter but still impressive neighbors, and I looked forward to climbing it. Passing through the town of Villa Cerro Castillo, I made my way to the appropriate trailhead, intending to scout out the approach and perhaps tag an easier peak to its west.

Nice new signs

Then things turned into a perfect encapsulation of much of what is wrong with Chile. Cerro Castillo is within a national park, but that park is surrounded by bits of private land, and does not even seem to be administered by the government. Entering via the trailhead for Cerro Castillo cost $16 for a single day. This fee was collected by three kids living and working in a large tent for the summer at the end of the driveway leading to a small-time ranch with maybe a dozen cows. Out of that fee, the kids had to pay off CONAF (the Chilean Forest Service) and the landowner, then presumably kept whatever was left over. Because Chile’s “National Parks” are run this way, the fees vary even between trailheads, and there is no annual parks pass.

Cerro Palo

To be fair, the kid I spoke to was friendly and helpful, and commiserated about the cost. I didn’t want to pay, but felt trapped, and was also feeling good for not having to pay to camp the night before. I wrote down my passport number and contact info, signed a waiver, and handed over the cash (no credit cards accepted). I did not mention climbing Castillo, but asked him a bit about the area, and about my guidebook’s suggested approach to the western peaks. He knew a lot about trails and water sources, and knew of the side valley I mentioned, but in classic Chilean fashion, suggested that I get permission from CONAF before leaving the trail. Privado, reglado, pagado, cerrado: it’s the Chilean way.

Lots of choss to climb

Fuming inside, I parked my bike by the guard tent, changed into hiking clothes, and set off up the driveway. I figured strapping crampons and an ice axe to my pack would give the game away, so I set off with just basic hiking kit, figuring I could cross or avoid snow as necessary. I filled up on water where he had suggested, and found the trail pleasant and well-maintained, with older built sections and some semi-recent clearing of deadfall. It was hardly a $16 value, but at least someone is doing something for the money. As I gained elevation, I admired the very difficult Cerro Palo ahead, and realized that I had enough daylight to do Cerro Castillo. If it would go without crampons and ice axe, it would be $16 well-spent.

Palo and friends from Castillo

I left the trail just before Campamiento Neozealandia, aiming for the long left-to-right couloir that makes up the bulk of the climb. The couloir itself being rubble lower down and snow higher up, I stayed to its right, finding a mixture of obnoxious scree and decent granite lower down. I was eventually forced into the couloir, where I had to deal with the snow more intimately. I also met a couple from Chile on their way up, with crampons, ice axes, big boots, rope, rock gear, and I think even a snow picket or two. I said “hi,” then continued skirting my way up one side or the other of the couloir to avoid the snow. Now having people below me, I climbed extremely carefully to avoid killing them with a piece of their own country.

Nothing in the couloir felt harder than third class, and most was just a rubble slog, but a storm in the last day or two had coated the upper mountain with ice, which was falling as the afternoon sun hit the faces above. I had no close calls, but the spontaneous icefall was unpleasant, wearing on my mind. I finally reached the top of the couloir, from which I could see down the other side to the glacier’s terminal lake. My guidebook indicated that one should traverse a “wide but exposed” ledge to the other side of the mountain, then climb steep snow. There was a sort of snow ledge, but the snow itself was a mixture of hard and rotten, and getting to it looked scary. So much for getting my $16 worth.

Mindful of the couple below, I carefully picked my way down the couloir until I met them taking a break. We talked a bit, I showed them some photos I had taken from the notch, and they decided to turn around as well. I thought it would be safer to descend together to avoid knocking rocks on each other, but before doing so, the guy took out a drone and flew the rest of the route. (That’s something you can’t do in a US national park!) I assumed we would just pick our way down the gully, but they intended to rappel, i.e. walk backward while pushing a rope through an ATC. I had seen this technique used on Mount Shuksan, and it was both slow and caused a lot of rockfall. That was enough for me — I bombed down the couloir, happily scree-skiing parts now that I had no one below, then hopped down the rocks to the left as soon as I could. I saw no sign of them looking back, and imagine they had a long night.

I signed out at the guard tent, then rolled back toward town, contemplating my next move and looking for a camp spot out of sight of the road. I finally found a lousy but adequate space, a mile or more from the tent, shoveled in dinner, then schemed a bit. I did not want to pay another $16, and could not explain away crampons and an axe. But the guard station did not open until 7:00, and I could just trespass up the river a mile or so, out of sight of the guards and house, to join the trail. I am mostly a rule-follower, but my frustration with Chile had finally boiled over into contempt.

Armed for snow and ice, I biked back to the guard station the next morning. There was a rope across the driveway, but it looked like someone might be awake, so I passed without stopping. At the river, I handed my bike over the fence, crawled under, then locked it hidden behind some trees. Cross-country travel toward the trail was easy, but unfortunately plagued by all sorts of burrs. I eventually realized that it was best to simply plow through them, then remove them all at once when I reached the trail.

Tower below Castillo summit

I repeated the approach, taking a more efficient line once I left the trail, then entered the couloir earlier. With crampons and axe, and ascending earlier in the day, the couloir was safe and faster than the sides. It was also colder and windy, forcing me to put on all my clothes when I reached my previous highpoint. Looking up while putting on my crampons, I saw a group of two rappeling into the notch from the rock to the left. I explored the traverse a bit, but really did not like the first few moves on rotten snow mixed with rock.

Glacier on the east side

Retreating, I saw that the rock the others were rappeling, covered in ice the day before, looked solid and not too difficult. The first guy said that they had summited, and that it had been miserably cold and windy. I talked to the second guy before he rappeled, and he helpfully pointed out and roughly explained the route from there, which is mostly rock. He also asked for my contact info for vague reasons having to do with my inevitable injury or death from foolishly scrambling up Cerro Castillo solo.

Monte San Valentin

The route climbs left from the notch, rounds the corner, traverses along a wide ledge, then climbs a sort of dihedral or chimney. It seems much preferable to the guidebook route in most conditions. The pitch from the notch to the rappel, and another from there back to the ridge, had some moves that felt 5.4-ish, enjoyable and thought-provoking but not scary. Pleased with myself, I emerged into the sun to find myself sheltered from the wind. I took in magnificent views of the glacier below, and sheer pinnacles along the ridge. In the distance I could see the Northern Patagonian Icefield peaks, culminating in Monte San Valentin, the highest mountain in Patagonia at around 13,000′.

True and false summits

Making my way up easy terrain toward the apparent summit tower, victory seemed assured. There was a bit of tricky climbing toward the top, but that was supposed to be the crux, so I was dismayed to see a slightly higher pinnacle farther north, with a mass of rappel tat around a boulder. Its left and right sides dropped into the chossy abyss, so the only practical route seemed to be the south face. I retreated, wrapped around the west side of my non-summit, and started up the most likely route. I found two pitons, confirming that I was where I should be, but the climbing felt much harder than 5.5, a steep traverse with thought-provoking exposure as the ground dropped away. I tried a couple of things, then backed off to eat and think in the sun. I was not optimistic about my chances, but tried once more without my pack, making it a move or so farther. The climbing felt vertical, with decent holds which were not jugs, and none of the frequent rests one normally finds in low-fifth-class terrain. Not having climbed in awhile, I did not have the strength and confidence to hang out and explore, so I backed off and consoled myself with the view from an excellent perch.

Summit climb, start at notch and move left, then up

I expected the others to be long gone, but I caught them partway down the couloir. We talked for a bit, I told them I had failed, and they asked if I was the crazy gringo in the green t-shirt from the day before. Indeed I was, and they were almost as surprised by my antics as they were by the fact that I couldn’t climb harder than 5.9. Though they had apparently had no trouble with the summit block (I probably would have led it in rock shoes, since there was good protection including a fixed piton above), they were rappeling the loose couloir, just like the couple the previous day. How someone can be so good on rock, but so bad at everything else to do with mountains, remains a mystery to me. In other words, we had complementary reactions to each other’s skills. I cramponed quickly down the couloir, rock-hopped to the trail, and fast-walked back toward my bike. Cutting across the burr-fields, I narrowly avoided being seen by a guy driving his pickup around off-road. I returned to my bike, picked out the burrs, then rode back to my lousy camp for another night. I had plenty of time after dinner to sit and scale back my ambition.

2 responses to “Cerro Castillo fail

  1. Dan says:

    I’m cheering for the round #2 avoidance tactic! Yea! F U fees!

    Sounds like that peak has #Hardcore #Real Mountaineers flexing advanced rap tactics. Too bad Kim wasn’t there in her skirt and running vest to show them her freakish downhill gazelle tactics.

    Seriously though, the terrain is getting beautiful. Summit or not, I’m psych’d for you!

    1. drdirtbag says:

      No kidding! She would have been running down that stuff. As one might expect in Chile, mountaineers seem to come up through a particular school that teaches them the One Right Way.

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