The Lost Valley
When I was 21 Paul McSorley told me about Rio Turbio. Paul, Patagonian veteran with a half-dozen trips under his belt, had seen a photo of the valley in the old Frey Hut outside Bariloche, Argentina. "Where's that?!" he inquired the locals at the hut. Notoriously tight-lipped to outsiders, the Argentines refused to tell Paul. But, blessed with a charismatic, gregarious nature, fluent Spanish, and perhaps a bottle of licorice flavoured booze called Fernet, he eventually pried it out of them. The mythical Turbio valley was first explored in earnest by Swissman Pedro Lutti and involved wine-guzzling gauchos (Argentine cowboys), endless bushwhacking through dense jungle, giant virgin walls and a raft ride down the river when to cap it off. Hearing this tale in Squamish as a wet-behind-the-ears youngster had me enthralled. I felt as if I was being let in on a big secret. And the biggest prize? Paul showed me a shadowy photo of a wave-like sweep of granite capped by a glacier, guarded by an alpine lake: Mariposa, Spanish for butterfly. Despite the butterflies I felt in my stomach, there was no question: We had to go.
In January of 2009 Paul McSorley, Andrew Querner and I arrived in Bariloche and started amassing supplies. Organizing an expedition like this, without any sort of internet info, is decidedly old fashioned. We consulted the local map maker who drafted us up a map. We wandered the streets looking for any type of rafts that could be considered remotely river-worthy, eventually settling on a few Technicolor dinghies that were essentially kiddie-pool toys. Alas, it was the best we could do. Most importantly, we gleaned beta by sipping the mate gourd with local Argentines who had been there before, or who at least knew those who had. After a few rounds of the stimulating, caffeine-esque herb, stories began to spill out: one local Argentine team had a terrifying epic when the leader dropped his drill, skewering his belayer’s leg. They stitched him up as best they could, but capsized on the raft out, nearly drowning. Other tales said that Cerro Mariposa, because of the glacier hanging off the top, was constantly raked by rockfall. Others said the wall was completely blank except for micro-aid seams. Talk was one thing; I had the niggling sensation that one day I'd have to see it with my own eyes.
Our trip began in earnest with a motorboat ride across Lago Puelo, near the hippy-farming town of Bolson. It was a jarring ride in a Zodiac-style boat, piloted by a man named Garibaldi, a self-proclaimed pirate with a handle-bar moustache and chiseled, leathery features buffed by years at the helm, staring into the sun and spray. Garibaldi dropped us off, sped away, and we were left in silence. 6 hours later, the gauchos appeared at the shore of the lake; they too, were leathery, gruff guys, who ate and drank next to nothing on the two day horseback ride up valley. Rumor had it that once a year, during their branding festival for the cows, the gauchos would go on a legendary red wine bender, and they are very much incommunicado for the length of the festival. The gauchos live in this remote valley year round, heading into the town of Bolson perhaps once a year for supplies.
After two days on horseback, the gauchos dropped us off at a decaying wooden hut built by Gabriel Rappaport. That served as our basecamp for the rest of the trip. From here we whipped out our machetes and began hacking through the dense rainforest towards the walls. We encountered endless bamboo thickets and a subtle, bramble choked path through the woods. Occasionally we would happen upon an old hack mark in one of the giant alarce trees, which look a lot like coastal western Canadian cedars. We got lost again and again, slowly gaining familiarity with the terrain.
On that trip we opted out of attempting the Mariposa, mostly due to the rumor mill surrounding the glacier atop the wall. We were just too intimidated to try it. Instead, we opted to venture into a different valley, and climbed two new routes on beautiful, golden-granite towers, called The Piritas. From the summit of the Piritas we had a glimpse of the upper ramparts of the Mariposa. But, lacking the time and energy for a foray into that different valley we left without ever giving it a proper look.
On the way out of the Turbio, after rafting down the river, we stayed in Garibaldi's horse stable for the night. Garibaldi, the gregarious pirate, cooked us fish stew and we chatted late into the night. He continuously rolled cigarettes from a little pouch of tobacco with a butterfly logo inscribed, "Mariposa." It was then, riding a nicotine buzz late at night that I knew we would have to return to the mythical valley and attempt the wall we had come for.
Five years later, we got our chance to return. It's funny: for me, 5 years had been a long time. Life moves at a rollicking pace; girlfriends had changed, I had travelled loads, I had been injured, I had recovered. In Turbio, nothing much had changed. Only a handful of expeditions had been in there, the faded hack marks on the trees being the only hint at their passage. The river still placidly snaked through the valley, the mountains and walls were still huge and foreboding. Storms had come and gone. The seasons changed. But other than that, the Turbio stayed remote as ever- a relic, autonomous from the hustle and bustle of the world. The same gaucho from five years earlier picked us up on the shores of Lago Puelo, six hours late, just like last time. Aside from a few extra lines on his face from the South American sun, he looked the same too. This time, as he warmed up to us a little, Paul caught his name: Bahamundo, which translates to bottom of the earth.
This year we had brought along Marc-Andre Leclerc, a young gun from Squamish that WHO excels at both free and aid climbing. Also on board was Matt Van Biene, a talented young filmmaker from Seattle WA. After cinching up the caballos with everything from rope to wheels of cheese, we were on our way: a deja-vue experience for Paul and I. As any semblance of rescue helicopter was non-existent, we opted to bring no SAT phone.
After five days of travel we crested the final hill that lay between us and the first full glimpse of the Cerro Mariposa. It was a breath of fresh air to see, with my own eyes, a mountain that I had spent years dreaming about. This time we were equipped with burly rafts to cross the high alpine lake. It was, without a doubt, the most out-there spot any of us had ever been. Never have I felt so small in the grand scheme of the mountains. So far from civilization, feverishly paddling to gain any momentum, on a lake with giant ice-fall periodically ripping from the mountains above.
Spying the wall we found a line more-or-less unthreatened by rockfall: a slender pillar to the left of the steepest section. Our dream line, the steepest and wildest section of wall, was routinely peppered with icefall from the glacier above. Marc and Paul fixed a few pitches while Matt and I retrieved another load from down the valley. We sorted gear the evening before our ascent on an absolutely flat 50 square foot boulder, behind us a blazing orange sunset: a spectacular natural amphitheater.
We arose in the pre-dawn cold, the groaning of the glacier above echoing across the stillness of the valley. nerves flickering in our belly we made our way through the labrynthian rocks and tottering pillars, silent as we each contemplated the heightened consequences of our remote location. Soon the familiar rhythms of the jumar began to pacify our nerves as muscles woke up and quieted our whirring minds. Two pitches up we were abruptly shaken out of this when disaster nearly struck. Matt was jumaring a static when it core shot. He fell a heart-stopping ten feet before his jumars jammed. Shaken, and one rope short, we continued following a corner system on stellar, glacially-buffed granite for most of the way. Near midday Paul was leading, when a pair of condors, giant birds common in Patagonia with a ten foot wingspan, swirled around him. A good omen, we decided. The weather was uncharacteristally perfect, with not a cloud in the sky.
Near the top, the corner system that we had been following blanked out. We sent up young Marc, the Squamish protégé, to take us to the rim. He slowed to a caterpillar pace, and eventually called for the knifeblades. He pounded one in a horizontal break and gingerly stood up on it, grimacing at the consequences of a bad fall, so deep in the middle of nowhere. The micro piton mercifully held, and soon we were strapping on crampons, plodding up the final snowslope to the summit.
We crested the final slope at sunset to a virgin summit. All around us, as far as the eye could see, were huge valleys with monstrous granite walls. Suddenly the remoteness that had seemed so sinister and looming became the prize that we had been striving for. Grinning, we pointed our fingers at other cliffs in the distance, overjoyed to be in such a spot under perfect blue skies. After a shivery open bivy we began the descent, crossed the alpine lake, and hiked for two days. As we placed our rafts in the river an onion skin of dark clouds began forming. We hustled to inflate the boats as heavy rain could turn the river into a raging torrent. While floating down to Lago Puelo we cast worried glances behind us and the sky intermittently spat fat raindrops. Arriving at the shore of the lake we flagged down a boat and made our way across- finally able to relax.
We clinked Heinekens on the shores of Lago Puelo just as the downpour began in earnest. Staring across the lake towards Turbio country there was only sheets of rain and billowing clouds. As always, there's a slight melancholy of turning dreams into trip reports: the unknown into the discovered. Hence the need to scour old maps, looking for another butterfly-inducing wall, somewhere on the horizon.
FA of Cerro Mariposa via "La Veulta de los Condores"
Paul McSorley, Will Stanhope, Marc-Andre Leclerc, Matt Van Biene