Jim Donini: First Ascent of Cerro Chueco, Patagonia
At 74 years old, the legendary American climber Jim Donini is still out there putting up adventurous new routes. He just finished a new one with Tad McCrea down in Aysen, Patagonia, an area with a wealth of still-untapped exploratory climbing potential. Here, Donini gives us all the nitty-gritty details.
In the Aysen Region in Chilean Patagonia there has been very little climbing activity. Fortunately, this has allowed me to climb a half dozen virgin peaks in the last few years. A couple of weeks ago a good young alpinist, Tad McCrea, arrived fresh from guiding Aconcagua to join me for a go at another.
My wife Angela and I had already explored the approaches to a nice unclimbed granitic peak—called Cerro Chueco—that is clearly visible from the Carretera Austral, the main road in Aysen. Though not a giant, even mountains 7,100-feet high entail real climbing in an area where glaciers come down to the sea and tree line is 3,500 feet.
Approaches in Aysen can be very trying depending on the nature of the rain forest. Fortunately the forest below Cerro Chueco was more open than some other areas and blessed with an intermittent, overgrown gaucho trail that severely tested my route finding capabilities.
After the initial foray with Angela I made two subsequent solo trips on which I established a solid path and left a cache above tree line, directly below the peak. All was ready for Tad’s arrival.
On February 1, I picked Tad up in Chile Chico and the next morning we arrived at the trailhead eager to take advantage of one of Patagonia’s rare, good weather windows. Seven hours later we reached the cache, which became our rather luxurious basecamp.
The next morning greeted us with crystalline blue skies and a gentle breeze. In perfect conditions we ascended several hundred vertical feet of easy slabs to a glacier. Another 1,500 vertical feet of unroped glacier and snow climbing led us to the northeast ridge of Cerro Chueco.
Once on the ridge we soloed the first couple of hundred feet until increasing difficulty called for roping up. Nine pitches of ridge climbing on good quartzite interspersed with sizable sections of spicy choss led us to a beautiful virgin summit replete with stunning mountain scenery spread out below us. We had a perfect view of the eastern part of the North Patagonia Ice Cap and next year’s objective. The day was perfect and a condor circling above us seemed to approve of our efforts.
We were loath to rappel the circuitous ridge we had climbed, so we were pleased to find a direct line down to a small glacier on the west side. Four 60-meter rappels
got us down safe. Tad went first and did an admirable job of finding bombproof anchors—five nuts and one pin did the job.
A short traverse on the glacier led to a col that brought us back to our approach and two hours later we were back in basecamp warming up some tasty empanadas. I couldn’t imagine a better thirteen-hour day in the mountains. Caveat emptor: you need to be comfortable with sizable runouts on moderate choss; the harder climbing, up to 5.9+, was on good stone.
If exploratory climbing where the approaches are often the crux is your cup of tea, this relatively undiscovered part of Patagonia awaits you. Another caveat emptor: no beta!
Jim Donini has been climbing for decades. His many historic ascents include the 1976 first ascent of Torre Egger in Patagonia, with John Bragg and Jay Wilson; and the near-first ascent in 1978 Latok I’s North Ridge, in Pakistan, with Jeff Lowe, Michael Kennedy and George Lowe. Donini is a past president of the American Alpine Club.