Tuesday, 4 December 2012

PETZL RocTrip 2012 – A gringo on the Piedra Parada

This October I had some amazing news.

I spent around two months of the spring working on a route in El Chorro route called Ace Ventura. It was a vertical nightmare of crimps and technical sequences, but it just appealed to me more than any hard route I had ever looked at. Having only ever done one 7b+, but feeling very confident that I could crack the sequence with enough work, I invested many hours in it. I burnt out my last pair of shoes and nearly gave up several times. Fascination with the route, delusions of my own abilities, and above all a supportive and patient partner (thanks Charlotte!) kept me trying hard and it came to the point of obsession. All I could really think about was that sequence and how I could grow more finger skin to try it again.

We scraped together what few pennies we had and I bought a brand new pair of La Sportiva Cobras which I really got on well with. They gave me confidence using some footholds I had previously decided were too tiny and rubbish and suddenly I was coming up with better ways to do the hardest moves. On the morning we left, after roughly 8 top ropes and 17 tries on lead, I finally sent my first 8a, sharing a beautiful moment with my girlfriend who had been there with me through the whole thing and had tears in her eyes, and then shouting and screaming at the passing commuter train from the top of the route! It was all a bit emotional.

On about the 15th try on lead, when I was really getting close, my friend Patrick Pearce took a few photos, all of which came out looking great. Everyone agreed that one of these in particular was exceptional. It very accurately captured the pain, suffering and determination that was necessary for me to pull through those crux moves. Six months later I entered that image into a competition on UKClimbing.com run by Lyon Outdoor.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Pearce.
For some more great photography or to get an awesome photo done of you go to www.patrickpearce.com

I won a place on the 2012 Petzl Roctrip, courtesy of Lyon, including free flights, accommodation and food! Being a climbing bum with very little income, this was a fantastic opportunity for me to travel further than I could possibly go, and to one of the biggest and best climbing events of the year. People would be gathering from all around the world, including some big names and hard climbers, to celebrate 10 years of the Petzl Roctrip. It was to take place in a newly developed area in Patagonia, The Piedra Parada and the nearby Buitrera Cañón. They were even going to provide me with some new gear.            

Amazing news indeed.

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It was Sunday afternoon, I was well on my way to the Piedra Parada. I lay on my bed in the small town of Esquel looking out of the window at the surrounding mountains and enjoying the peace and quiet after the somewhat hectic city I had just left. On the flight with me were about 20 or 30 other climbers from many different countries all on their way to the same place, and I was so excited about what we would see the following day.

The journey so far had already been amazing, and I spent many hours having every one of my senses bombarded by the crazy city of Buenos Aires. This was by far the furthest I had ever been from home and I was revelling in the sights, sounds and flavours of this new culture.

I woke early, the time difference counting in my favor, and set out to see as much as I could on foot. My accommodation was at a lovely little guest house in Flores, a sleepy district just outside the center, so after some breakfast empanadas I hopped onto the Subte (underground train) for the fast track into town. Knowing barely anything about where I was, where I wanted to go or how to get there, I decided to just get off at the stop that the most people disembarked at and see where it led. Independencia station turns out to be quite a good place to start, and I set off walking from there.

What struck me most in the city everywhere I went was the street art. Stickers, stencils, spray paint and sculpture are there to see in just about every direction you look, with much of it being interesting and original work. Added to this are some daring jugglers and performers running out in front of cars at the lights, street vendors selling everything from 'genuine' Ray Bans (well chuffed with my pair for less than a fiver!) from every angle. The BA buzz is really something to experience!
 The first real landmark I stumbled across was Obelisco, the striking monument to the city's fourth centenary in 1936. Not long after I found the Casa Rosada where the iconic Eva Perón gave her most famous public address, and headed from there down to the newly built up Puerto Cristal. After quite some miles on foot, I finally found the one place I most wanted to see - the creative hub of the city, San Telmo. Unfortunately, just as I arrived there my camera battery died, so a quick trip back to the guest house was needed.

As I approached San Telmo for the second time (which, incidentally, is about 5 minutes’ walk from Independencia station if you go the right way!), there was a large crowd gathered and a raucous noise rattling off the walls and down the street. I soon realized it was in fact a Samba band with a crowd of dancers and flag bearers in tow. It turned out to be one of many, and as I explored the area there seemed to be a new procession on every street. Every one of them seemed to be immaculately tight in performance and each was accompanied by its own dancers, flag wavers and other oddballs.

From there I decided to try to get to an area called La Boca, famous for its colourful streets and outdoor Tango dancing, but when I arrived in the district I was not really sure where to go. Unlike San Telmo, it is not somewhere that is just great on every street. After an hour or so of curious strolling down streets I definitely should not have been on at that time of night, I gave in and started heading back toward the Samba party. I’m sure there is some great stuff to see in La Boca but it certainly did not feel like a great place to be after dark!

On returning to San Telmo for the last time, I took a look at the menu at a place called La Popular and decided this was where I would rest my feet and sit down to a long anticipated Argentinian prime steak. I had the Ojo de Bife (rib eye) and it was without a doubt the thickest, juiciest, best cooked and most tasty steak I have ever eaten. Absolutely fantastic and much appreciated after the hours of walking.

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A few more streets and several more Samba bands later, I was on the Subte heading back to the guest house after a long but fascinating day in Buenos Aires, and it was not long at all before I was sound asleep!

Sitting on the bus heading out from Esquel, after a reassuringly Argentinian confusion over when it would depart, I watched the Alpine ranges fade away to desert. A harsh, dusty landscape of sand and scrub stretched out from the road, and for many miles it persisted with no sign of revealing the hidden treasure we had been promised. After a time, the bus pulled off the tarmac onto a dirt road, and as we carried on into the unknown I felt very glad I was not in the driver’s seat. I would surely be worrying I had taken a wrong turn by now!

The bumpy road started to dislodge luggage stowed on the rack and many people began to be wary of what was above them, trying to avoid things landing on their heads. As it turned out that was not an entirely inappropriate introduction to the trip……

Further down the road, I noticed something that I found very interesting. We passed a section of the Chubut River and along its banks, and for maybe 50 meters either side, lush grasses and tall green trees had sprung out of the otherwise quite arid landscape. It was clear to see that the flowing water brought life to this region and was extremely important to the flora and fauna alike. We passed through the small village of Gualjaina, sure enough situated right on the riverside, and as we passed out of the other side the landscape began to get more rugged and rocky.

Every passenger on the bus became fixated with the same pursuit, checking out every bit of rock and rubble to try to spot something climbable. As if all planned out as some kind of introduction to our trip, they seemed to tease us, gradually getting a little steeper, a little higher, a little more compact. The rocks became boulders you might climb on if they were in your back garden, then in your home town, then ones you might even travel for. Soon the boulders became chossy crags, and it was not long before I was comparing them to places I had actually been for a day’s climbing. Then came crags that may have got into the back pages of a guidebook as the ‘esoteric’ ones. The excitement and anticipation in the bus was palpable. Though I did meet a few people through the week who had visited Piedra Parada before, to all of us sitting there right then it was an unknown world full of possibility, and no-one really knew what to expect. With every passing rock it felt like we could expect a little more from our final destination. 

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If anyone was asleep on the bus, they were surely woken up at that moment. There were cheers and whoops and oohs and ahs coming from many mouths and in a multitude of languages. There before us stood the 260 meter piece of egg-shaped rock dominating the landscape, tempting all those who dare to try to reach its summit. The Piedra Parada.

The bus driver suddenly pulled up way short of the campground and some heated words were exchanged in Spanish before he finally gave in and carried on up the track. I got the distinct impression he was considerably less impressed by the whole affair, he had probably seen it all before and didn’t really see why we shouldn’t get out and walk. As we crossed the small bridge over the Chubut and rounded the corner, the Buitrera Cañón opened its entrance to us and showed the way in to one of the most incredible climbing areas we would ever visit. We caught a fleeting glimpse of what lay within its confines and continued on to the Petzl basecamp, only a few hundred meters further.

Registration with Petzl was pretty straightforward, though I really did admire the people on the desk dealing with people in at least four different languages with apparent ease. Everyone lined up to collect their bag of goodies and then we were free to pitch our camp and head to the crag. I picked a spot down by the quietly babbling river, my hammock nestling perfectly between two trees and providing me with a perfect panoramic view to wake up to each morning. It was quite simply one the most beautiful places I have ever had the privilege of calling my home.

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With everyone I had met on the buses heading to different parts of the campsite and taking longer to pitch their tents, I decided to pack up my climbing gear and head in to the canyon alone. After the long solitary trip that had brought me here, it seemed appropriate to experience that first walk with my own thoughts for company. It gave me some time to come to terms with where I was and feel grateful to all the people who had made it possible for me to be there.

The trail into the canyon is nothing short of inspirational. The well-managed path constructed by the volunteers is mostly flat, making it easy to wander through in a daze, eyes darting around the walls and mouth gaping wide throughout. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the sheer scale of oh-my-god-I-have-to-climb-that rock that towered over me in every direction.

Petzl did a great job of bolting hundreds of routes on just about every feature that looked any good, so what was once an inaccessible canyon with a smattering of serious, loose and terrifying trad lines has become a veritable playground for the sport climber, with literally hundreds of routes ranging from F4 to about F8c in all styles from juggy overhangs to thin slabs. A good selection of longer routes were established too, with some pretty tough ones and Sean Villanueva’s contribution incorporating two F8b pitches on a stunning six pitch line to the top of the wall.

To accompany all this work, they also produced a particularly professional looking guidebook for the area, easily as good as any I have seen for areas in the UK and Europe, with great photo topos, route information and some interesting history about the area too. This made it even easier to get excited about the rock surrounding me as there were actually even more climbing sectors than I could have guessed just looking around.

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As I wandered through checking out all the potential for climbing, I began to get itchy fingers and set about spotting a partner. The first guy I saw heading down from a sector on his own seemed a likely prospect, so I gave him a friendly smile and ‘Hola!’ and asked if he was looking for someone to climb with.


That was not the response I hoped for and I desperately tried to fumble my pitiful Spanish vocabulary into an understandable sentence but to no avail. I asked hopefully, “Français?”.

“Portuguese. Brasil”, he said with a smile.

Oh. Well I tried. On to the next one.

I began trying to tune my ears to scout out languages I might have a bit more hope with and eventually heard the familiar tones of a Yorkshireman who I had met on the bus on the way out. A welcome line of communication was opened and he was looking for someone to climb with too so I happily pulled out my harness and gave him a belay. We did a couple of nice lines in Sector Ortega and then moved over the canyon to Sector Circo to finish the evening.

As it happened these areas became the two most popular later in the week so I was happy to get some of the best lines done early on. I felt like I was climbing pretty well, but also got burned out as the days of travel and lack of grub caught up with me. I pulled on my sleeping bag and slumped into the hammock a happy but exhausted man.

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Hammocks offer many positive aspects but also some unique drawbacks. Most importantly to me that night was the way in which the heat is conducted away from underneath when it’s windy, and despite having a very warm bag to sleep in I discovered first-hand how far the temperature drops at night in the Patagonian desert. A few adjustments were required in the morning – for anyone out there doing the same I highly recommend a rope tarp in the bum area under your sleeping mat and some thick wooly socks in case your feet end up creeping off the end! With a bit of practice getting in and out and the right insulation though, sleeping in a hammock was a joy, especially when waking up at first light and immediately seeing all the colours of the sunrise.

Over the next couple of days I spent many happy hours exploring new areas of the canyon and climbing with many different people from all around the world. Whilst climbing with two guys from the Tirol, Paul and Daniel, I tried a few harder routes and it was fun to work on some hard sequences, but I came to the conclusion that trying a route more than once was to miss out on other things. The rock there had some unique and very interesting formations and I wanted to sample as many of these as I could to really get a feel for the area. As it happens many of the best looking pieces of rock go between 6a and 6c, so I was able to get a good few done first go.

Though all the routes were pretty good, and some downright amazing, none were really what you might describe as ‘immaculate rock’. Helmets were most definitely needed and I don’t think I climbed a single route where nothing fell off. People stopped shouting ‘rock!’ (or ‘piedra!’) for anything smaller than a fist, as it was just assumed that stuff up to that size would be coming down all the time. Onsighting quite often took on an adventurous feel since you had to not only find each hold, but also brush it off and test it before committing your weight to it. I don’t think any of this really detracted from the trip though, if anything it added a bit of adventure and character to the place, and helped to keep the authentic feel of climbing newly established lines.

Fortunately, the lovely people at Lyon Outdoor had looked after me very well and sent me some great new gear to replace the tatty old stuff I was using. This included a Petzl Meteor III helmet which has to be the comfiest, lightest and least distracting helmet I have ever worn. I was never really aware of it whilst climbing or belaying so it was always an easy decision to put it on and keep it on and it definitely caught a good few lumps of rock for me. Even the pro climbers were wearing helmets there, something I would not have expected on single pitch sport routes. I noticed most of them had opted for the new obscenely light Petzl Sirocco, and it seemed like opinions may be shifting toward using helmets even on bolted routes when there are such unrestrictive ones now available.

They also sent me the Petzl Sama harness which seems to get the balance between weight and comfort just right for me, and the Reverso 4 belay device which handled every rope I tried exceptionally well both for belay and abseil, and came into its element when used in guide mode on the multipitch routes. I felt very co-ordinated with the matching helmet, harness and chalkbag going perfectly with my shorts and shoes, so I guess orange and orange are my colours now!

The star pick though had to be the 80m Beal Diablo 9.8mm rope, this is a great rope and seemed to handle well in every situation - slick enough to give slack fast but still grabby enough to feel confident about making every catch. I used it a lot in the Gri Gri 2 but tried a few other devices including an old school Fig 8 and it always seemed to pay out and lock off perfectly. Beal say they have a new Unicore technology to bond the sheath to the core providing better handling and durability, and I have to say it really does work!


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By the time the event had its official first day, there were over a thousand climbers there and more on their way. The Petzl team had done a fantastic job putting up so many new routes but even so it began to get very busy, with all the best lines being snapped up for most of the day. I decided now was the time to get on a longer route so that we would be guaranteed at least a few pitches of climbing, and also because I really do love to get up high on a multipitch.

The obvious and most alluring objective was without a doubt the Piedra Parada itself. There are only two independent lines that go free, a bolted 7b+ and a 6a+ requiring trad gear. I could not find a partner for the bolted line (and was not too sure about a pitch at that grade on loose rock!), but I was also quite captivated by the idea of placing gear on a big route again since I have been clipping bolts for quite some time now.When Mike Smith approached told me he had brought a rack and wanted to do the same route, I jumped at the chance and we set off early and catch the sun on the east facing wall.

The route commenced with a nasty squeeze chimney which Mike seemed in his element on. I followed rather too quickly, only to find myself wedged tight in a ridiculous position struggling to get my bag off my back so that I could continue. I am definitely out of practice on gentleman’s climbing techniques and it seemed to turn into a pitch of uphill caving. I actually managed a no hands no feet rest at one point, using only my slightly over-compressed ribcage for support. Not the most graceful of starts but I found it all hilarious!

Just before we left the ground, another familiar Yorkshire voice had floated through the air and this one turned out to be none other than Steve McClure. We waited for a few minutes at the first belay and sure enough his partner Mayan Smith-Gobat came zooming up with no trad gear, clipping only the old bolts and dubious pitons and running the first two pitches together – “if it’s free-solo it’s free-solo right?”. We thought it best to let them through. Steve came by shortly after, affable and modest as ever and taking great efforts to make the 5c pitch we were about to get on seem like he had to engage more than one of his fingers to climb it.

The third pitch provided the crux and I was on the sharp end. Only 6a+, but a wandering and devious pitch that quickly became harder every time I went the wrong way, which I managed to do several times. Not really having any idea where I was going next, worrying about pulling rock off on all but the slopeyest holds and placing cams for the first time in well over a year all combined to make this quite exciting, and I was certainly awake by the time I reached the anchor.

A small shuffle down a chossy ledge led to the next pitch, a very enjoyable chimney with a bit of jamming, some back-and-footing, a smattering of face climbing and a good old fashioned udge. I was a bit apprehensive though as any falling rock would be channelled neatly down in a direct line to Mike’s probably quite unappreciative head. Trying to climb delicately and gracefully on a pitch like that presented an interesting challenge. Mike led the slab above, and soon we were on the belay for the last pitch being met by Steve and Mayan on their way down. A nice chat and a couple of photos later we nipped up the last easy pitch and ditched our gear for the scramble to the summit.

From the final anchor, there is a long walk around a spiralling ledge all the way to the south face. Here an easy to miss chalky arrow (I say that because we did miss it at first) points the way up to the next ledge system, so we cautiously picked our way up a couple of meters of vertical rock. The climbing is easy, but a fall there could easily be fatal and we were very much aware of it. A series of cairns led us up through some easier scrambles, and about 20 minutes after leaving the last anchor we finally sat down to sign a scrap of paper for the summit log.

The view from the top was breathtaking. This was to be my first desert tower summit, something I had wanted to achieve for years, and I have to say I was not disappointed. Despite the intense wind ripping across, we stayed for quite some time up there taking pictures and exchanging few words. There was no doubt this was a special place and we 
both wanted to savour it.

Getting back down to the rappels was every bit as hairy as we knew it would be, but we made it back in one piece, still ecstatic about the summit, and began zipping down the rope. A horrific traffic jam had built up behind us and we felt very lucky to get on when we did. Though they started at the same time on the alternative first pitch, the group after us had really struggled with the style of climbing and there were now five people on the anchor with another following up and six more people below with no idea what was going on. We escaped swiftly and moved away from the rockfall zone as quickly as we could, happy to be heading back for hot empanadas and cold beer.

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Each evening there were films, slideshows and bands to check out – we saw footage from the previous Roctrips, a great new film starring Nina Caprez on a super classic multipitch in Austria called the Silbergeier, another great new film about climbing in Columbia, and some local people performing their traditional flamenco dance routines. It was actually one of the local acts I enjoyed the best, a mixture of tap dancing, poi and percussion in which guys dressed like tango ninjas created amazing rhythms as part of an almost capoeira style battle. Definitely something I had not seen before!

The next day I headed into the canyon with a new bunch and there were people everywhere. The numbers stood at somewhere around 1500 and waiting was obligatory on all but the hardest and least attractive routes. Fortunately the weather was lovely, so it was easy to sit taking photos and chatting in between climbing great lines. It was also getting easier and easier to trust the holds after so much traffic!

I hatched a plan for another multipitch the following day, with a keen Norwegian named Martin. We headed in at 8am feeling pretty pleased with ourselves to be leaving before most people were even out of bed, only to find the Petzl team filming on the route and two teams queuing for it. This turned out to be not such a bad thing since the rest of the canyon was empty and we took the chance to climb a much talked-about line on the Gruyere sector. It was as good as everyone said, with fine technical moves on small protrusions out of an otherwise blank face leading into a wonderful section of jug pulling on rock that looked like it should be on a coral reef. We went on to have a few tries on a lovely little line nearby with all the crimpy technicalities I enjoy in a route, but my partner injured his hand so we cut the day short and headed off to watch the Petzl pro team display on the steepest wall of the Piedra Parada. A great afternoon in the sun with some of the strongest climbers on the trip giving it their all right in front of us.

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The final day of the trip had come and I wanted to make it count. I found another willing partner for the multipitch and headed in even earlier. The air was crisp and still, the sky blue and clear and the sun was gently warming the wall. We could not have had better conditions. On the way in I heard a whoop from the top of the wall and turned to see two paragliders descending into the canyon from 100m or so up the other side, taking less than 10 seconds to reach the floor. Quite a sight!

The first pitch turned out to be more of a challenge than we had thought, and Brian handed over the lead. A slightly scrappy start brought me to a long slab dotted with tiny crimps on flakes that flexed when I pulled on them. Struggling to find the mental fortitude to commit to such ground at that time in the morning, I picked my way delicately up to the belay, holding faith that what lay ahead would be more solid. Slightly put off by the first pitch, Brian was happy for me to lead the rest and I was more than happy to keep my bold hat on so I psyched myself up and carried on.

The second pitch was a joy to climb. Just slightly steeper than vertical on big holds, with the odd sloper thrown in to keep you pushing. I wore a beaming grin right up to the anchor. The holds were all covered in dust and loose bits, but by then I had become well used to just squidging my hand into the dust and squeezing on so I ploughed through regardless. The next pitch turned out to be even better, continuing the theme but with harder moves and some tricky holds to work with, testing the onsight part of my brain against my resistance to getting pumped very nicely. There are two hanging belay on those pitches so the new Petzl Sama harness I had been given got a good test, but fortunately it was very comfortable and I was able to just enjoy the view. After that was the crux 6c+ pitch with a great little boulder problem finish that landed us right at the top of the wall.

I think with a bit of traffic to clean the holds off this will become a super-classic route and it was probably my favourite of the trip, so a really great one to do on the last day. We sat at the top for a little while basking in the sun and waiting for the next party to top out so we would not be in their way on the abseil, then zipped down quickly and easily and headed for to the Ojos de Buda sector to climb hard stuff ‘til our hands hurt.

That day came to an end with the best social gathering of the entire event. By this time there were over 1600 climbers and probably more than 500 locals and Petzl had promised to feed every single one of us. There were doubts held by a lot of people as to whether this could be done, with many expecting to have to make their own food as well, but as they returned to camp and saw what was in store they all changed their minds. There was what I can only describe as the biggest barbecue I have ever seen and between the two separate feed stations they managed to feed every last person, many went back for seconds and there was still some left when nobody could eat any more. It was truly a feed of epic proportions.
There were many acts lined up for our entertainment, from Patagonian Gauchos on bucking broncos to local bands, a great slideshow by Sean Villanueva and DJs and Flamenco playing well into the night, with some getting to bed well past six in the morning.

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I had been missing my love throughout the trip and was longing to see her, and on that morning I was well and truly sick of the dust, aching all over and filthy and smelly to boot. But even after all that I was still very sad to leave that place, and will always think back with fond memories.

As I packed up my things, I tried to look around and take it all in again to imprint it on my mind. I took some time to appreciate what I had seen and done, the people I had met and the friends I had made. I don’t know if I will ever return to Piedra Parada but it would be nice to think that maybe I will get another chance one day.

The Petzl Roctrip will undoubtedly remain in my memory as one of the greatest trips of my life and I am very grateful to Lyon Outdoor for awarding the prize, to Petzl for putting on such a great event, to my friend Patrick Pearce for taking such a great photo of me, and to my fiancée Charlotte and my family and friends who helped me get everything together for it. Thank you all so much!

gotta love the 30 peso Ray Bans.....

There are a few videos to watch on this page


  1. Great report tom! I gotta get down to Patagonia one day.

  2. Nice blog Tom.It sounds like an absolutely awesome trip and awild place to go! Will have to hear more about it in El Chorro, if you're out there again this year!


    1. Thanks Leo! We are here in the Olive Branch in El Chorro til sometime in the Spring, always happy to waffle on a bit more....... :D