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Chile: The Crusade for Virgin Rock

The Brujo team, from left to right, Joao Cassol, Wagner Machado and David Trippett. [Photo] Wagner Machado

In my short time climbing, I have learned that The Alpine has a way of making you pay your dues, regardless of your intricate schemes to circumvent what you know is coming. I have rarely, if ever, gotten what I wanted; in time, though, I have learned to appreciate what I get. My experience in Torres del Brujo was no different, although the suffer-learning came in new flavors.

Wagner Machado leading high on A Ultima Dama (The Last Lady: IV 5.10+, 320m) with Joao Casol Belaying. [Photo] David Trippett

Climbing expeditions materialize slowly; the desire is always there, but then there are always details: who, where, when… The “who” part is easy, particularly when your good friends are Brazilian. Someone once said that “Brazilians are the kind of people who can make a party from nothing; they have an uncanny ability to show up anywhere, and within minutes, there you are, having the time of your life.”

I met Joao Cassol on a trip to Frey and Wagner Machado in Yosemite, where we managed to convince his friend, another Brazilian, who had never climbed in his life, that joining us for three days on Lost Arrow Spire was a good idea. Soon after, we were plotting our next party.

But the “where” is more difficult. We carefully considered Paine and Chalten, but as Wagner had only fifteen days away from his job on the oil platforms, the thought of blowing it all in a tent lacked appeal and, to be honest, those towers in southern Patagonia are sorta scary, and certainly cold. Joao mentioned a place in Chile that neither Wagner nor I had heard of: Torres del Brujo (The Sorcerer’s Towers). As soon as Joao sent a few photos, I started packing.

Sorcery indeed: long periods of high pressure, steep granite, moderate glaciers, “short” approaches from base camp and 500-meter virgin walls seemed the norm in Brujo. And since the towers were only 120 kilometers south of Santiago, I was looking at a direct flight from North America and a short drive to the trailhead. The more research we did, the more we convinced ourselves we had found El Dorado.

Wagner Machado crossing the Rio Azufre by horseback. [Photo] David Trippett

Joao, Wagner and I met up in Santiago at the beginning of January. We had the good fortune to meet Julio, an itinerant Argentine auto mechanic, in the hostel where we were staying. Julio immediately took interest in our adventure and agreed to deliver us to the Azufre Valley in his 1968 VW Kombi. On the morning of the 9th we set out, or tried to: the transmission disconnected from the engine, so we drove the last 30 miles in first gear. We eventually met with the muleiro (mule guy) and sorted our plans for the next day.

On the approach to the towers. [Photo] Wagner Machado

That next morning we left for Brujo, mules heavily laden. Several blisters later (the next day), the muleiro deposited us at the base of a giant moraine that appeared to have several false summits. After assuring us that the base of the towers was a short twenty-minute hike away, the muleiro took off. Carrying four massive loads took the entire day; by the end we were calling for blood. My partners managed to accept our condition in the carefree way typical of Brazilians. I, on the other hand, was wondering where I had put my receipt.

We established a beachhead on the outwash plain below the Brujo glacier, and eager expectation began to set in. Weather conditions could not have been more idyllic; during our twelve days, we rarely saw the slightest hint of a cloud. The Brazilians made themselves at home on our little beach, and we hedged our bets on good weather–a safe wager in Brujo, unlike much of Patagonia. But the high pressure did not set us at ease, as our success would depend on the condition of the glacier and the accessibility of the walls.

David Trippett on the First Ascent of Prima Feia (Ugly Cousin: 5.11-), a one pitch route established during the trip. [Photo] Wagner Machado

On January 12th, we made plans to warm up on Uno Poco de Patagonia (IV 5.10d, 300m, Uhlig-Veit), a route on Aprendiz de Brujo. We also had planned to use this climb to scout the glacier. On the 13th we soloed through the icefall before the sun arrived, somehow safely navigating the maze of teetering seracs. It quickly became apparent, however, that any ideas we had of reaching the Brujo Falso, the 500-meter main wall, with significant loads would be hopeless with the glacier in such a rotten state.

Uno Poco de Patagonia, perhaps one the easiest routes in Brujo, turned out to be a route of Rostrum-like proportions and quality, and we climbed it team free in a long day. Because the rock is so steep, most of the climbing starts at 5.10–with stiff grades, long pitches and physical climbing. Brujo sports 5.13 bolted adventure fests like Clandestino, A3 nail-ups like the 5.11 A3+ route Gandalf and Sauron, and everything in between. But we were hunting for something new, something big.

The 65-meter first pitch of A Ultima Dama (IV 5.10+, 320m). [Photo] Wagner Machado

Carrying multiple loads through the icefall to get to Brujo Falso would have been too dangerous due to the instability of the ice, so we turned our attentions to establishing a route on the smaller, unnamed walls across the glacier in alpine style. That was when we realized we had lugged enough gear to outfit another expedition, or six.

A knee-wrecking approach the next day led us to our new goal, but we found the lines already climbed. Quickly running out of new-routing options, we were beginning to feel desperate. We descended to camp, leaving our gear at the wall, with hopes that somewhere above, on the last decent-looking wall, we could find a line when we returned the next day.

Joao Cassol near the end of the difficult climbing on A Ultima Dama (IV 5.10+, 320m). The car sized blocks from the icefall that threatened the start of the route are visible below. [Photo] Wagner Machado

We arrived at the base of the wall on the 17th, grabbed our stash and continued up the glacier. Where we had hoped to climb, we found yet more evidence of previous passage: bolts, pins, tat, various flotsam. Despite deteriorating rock quality, we pushed upward and found one last line–threatened by a serac-strewn hanging glacier. The start was still far enough out of harm’s way that we were probably safe if we got off the glacier quickly, but more importantly and more enticing: there was no sign that the route had been climbed.

Cassol and Machado on the summit after completing A Ultima Dama (IV 5.10+, 320m). [Photo] David Trippett

The start was sandwiched between two waterfalls. From below, the pitch looked impassable, but soon we found ourselves on a stunning 65-meter hand and finger crack. We climbed several long pitches of quality cracks–of every size, from fingers to chimney–that led to a long, convoluted lower 5th class ridge with the occasional step of 5.9. Climbing on the lower portion of the wall was always in the 5.10 range, fun and never desperate, and belay ledges always appeared when we needed them. We managed to climb the route, as a group of three, all free in a long day, summiting under blue skies.

The same wall has two other routes. There’s no reason to believe that our ascent was the first of the peak, but it follows an independent line that probably had never been climbed, save perhaps the final summit ledge system of 30 meters or so. We saw no previous sign of passage on-route. We established our modest route without any protection bolts, though we placed two single-bolt rappel anchors on the descent.

Sometime during the climb, when we knew it would go, Wagner said: “I felt like we were about to go home from the party alone, but we finally found our girl. She’s a bit loose, but pretty classy.”

–Joao Cassol and David Trippett (Portuguese translation by Cacau)

A Ultima Dama (The Last Lady: IV 5.10,+ 320m, Cassol-Machado-Trippett), Torres del Brujo, Chile. In addition, this party established several single-pitch routes from 5.10-5.11 in an area they dubbed “Gato de Brujo” (the Sorcerer’s Cat).

A Ultima Dama (IV 5.10+, 320m). [Photo] David Trippett