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Aguja Poincenot and Fitz Roy from the road to Rio Electrico
Photo by Marcello Sanguineti
Dry tooling at the start of pitch 19
Photo by Damiano Barabino
Just below the summit, view onto the final pitches
Photo by Marcello Sanguineti
Supercanaleta, Fitz Roy West Face (1600m, 6a+, 85°)
Photo by D. Barabino
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Supercanaleta Fitz Roy, Patagonia

09.12.2011 by Planetmountain

Some climbs seem timeless due to their importance in the history of alpinism. One of these is certainly Supercanaleta on Fitz Roy in Patagonia. The story by Damiano Barabino, Sergio De Leo, Marcello Sanguineti.

In January 1965 the Argentines Carlos Comesaña and José Luis Fonrouge, hitherto unknown beyond the borders of their country, established Supercanaleta up Fitz Roy and entered into the elite of world alpinism. Supercanaleta represents a masterpiece of intuition and route finding. After 1000m up a snow and ice gully the route searches for a line of weakness through the rocky face, resulting in a winding line which is far longer than the 1600m vertical height difference which separats the bergschrund from the summit.

We reached El Chaltén on 23 November and the poor weather forced us to rest for a few days. Time passed in a nerve-wracking wait, interrupted by continuos weather check on the internet. A short window of "less terrible" weather allowed us to transport our gear up to Piedra Negra and this was followed by another couple of days of bad weather. Stress levels began to rise but then a "ventana" sufficiently good enough for an attempt was forecast.

A strategy game began: should we first climb up to Piedra del Fraile and then, instead of bivying at the base, attempt the climb in a single day? Or stop at Piedra Negra and set off the next day and perhaps bivy above Bloque Empotrado? There were three of us and we were worried we wouldn't be quick enough, so perhaps this latter idea might be the best solution. It meant, however, that we'd need a longer spell of good weather.

After considerable doubts and second thoughts we opted to ascend directly to the base of the face on Tuesday 29 November so as to then attempt the route the next day. From El Chalten we walked up to Piedra del Fraile and then to Piedra Negra, crossed the col Passo del Quadrado and traversed beneath Fitz Roy to reach the west face. From Piedra Negra we were helped enormoulsy by the trail which Mario Castiglioni had broken shortly before us. He and his group shared our same goal, scheduled for the day after us. They had infact decided to spend a day longer transporting gear to set up a proper camp at the base of the wall. Instead of sleeping in a tent like they did, we bivied beneath the stars.

During this approach we met Daniele Fiorelli and Fabio Salini who had more comforting weather news than ours and consequently they had planned a fast ascent on 30 November, without bivy gear. We on the other hand chose to climb with heavy sleeping bags, bivy, stove, pan, gas canisters and food for a day and night just in case we failed to climb the route in a day. This weight would obviously slow us down considerably.

All five of us set off at around midnight on Wednesday. Daniele and Fabio, faster and with less gear, broke trail. As soon as we set off we realised that we'd chosen the wrong day to attempt the summit: a relentless wind, far stronger than expected, stunned us all night and all through the next morning and it only died down slightly in the afternoon. Although visibility wasn't the best either, we were determined to continue.

Finding the route in these conditions proved tricky and we joined forces with the other two. A bit later Fabio and Daniele, once again faster than us, steamed ahead and we eventually caught up with them struggling on the 17th pitch. A section of rock and mixed terrain proved taxing and they descended after having failed to find the way through to the upper section of the route. We made an attempt together and then our two friends, worried about their lack of bivy gear, decided to abseil off and go for the summit in the future.

Up to this point our sleeping bags, bivy, stove, gas, pans and food had slowed us down. Now though they transformed into precious allies and enabled us to continue. We managed to locate the passage upwards and after a couple of pitches we stopped to gather our thoughts. The day's incessant wind had taken it all out of us and we decided it simply wasn't worth battling up the final three pitches, especially since the belay on pitch 19 offered an excellent bivy site. No sooner said than done: we settled down on the fairly comfy bivy and the next morning we refused to set off before 8:30am!

As soon as we woke up we realised that weather conditions were completely different compared to the day before. We climbed in perfect visibility and almost complete wind-still and summited in excellent conditions. We abseiled off from the col beneath the summit, 36 rappels down to the bergschrund and celebrated the next day with our friends in Mario Castiglioni's group; three of them had successfully shouted "cumbre"!

Had we set off a day later we would certainly have enjoyed our climb more: it would have been a "sunny ramble" up Fitz Roy, instead of a sort of boxing match during which the wind packed its punches... But we certainly can't complain. Once again Patagoina gave us an adventure which, far more than just the climb up ice and mixed terrain, was a test of determination. As such, it was a true interior journey.

Damiano, Marcello and Sergio


Thanks to Trango World, Grivel and Alpstation Montura in Aosta.

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