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First in the Marble Cathedral...

  • Mayan Smith-Gobat


The Marble Cathedral - The end of the earth

An icy wind was howling down the lake, whipping the surface into gigantic waves... It felt like we were in the middle of a raging ocean, with waves crashing over the sides of our boat - not much more than a dingy with and outboard motor. Sam Bié, Jon Cardwell and myself (Mayan Smith-Gobat) huddled down into our jackets, pulled the hoods tighter around our faces and put faith in skills of Francesco, our faithful host and boat driver, to get us safely back to shore. Our life jackets felt far from adequate.

With each bitter moment the reality sunk in deeper - we were in Patagonian Andes, notorious for unsettled weather and high winds. It was late spring/early summer, and our mission was to go deep water soloing/bouldering! Our minds were set on beautiful sunny days and the clear still water shown in all the photos of the Marble Cathedral.

The quick jaunt down to Chile from Argentina had quickly turned into an epic journey simply to get to our destination. The trip to the tiny village of Puerto Río Tranquilo felt like it was a journey to 'the end of the earth'. Now that we had finally arrived, it did not even look like we would get to climb at all. We only had 3 days left, the weather was terrible and we kept hearing conflicting stories on where and whether we were even allowed to climb. Having finally laid eyes on the beautiful features of the fabled Marble Caves did not make things any better - they were amazing! Unfathomably smooth stunning limestone caverns, sculpted by thousands of years of glacial water and adorned with drooping teeth and pillars. If only it was a little warmer.

Waking to another day of rain and howling winds, the team’s patience had all but run out. Sam and I were exasperated and ready to leave, but Jon managed to talk some sense into us. Reasoning that after spending so much time and energy getting to this remote corner of the world, we had to try every last thing to succeed in climbing on these incredible marble features. Grudgingly I agreed and we made arrangements with Francesco to take us out that afternoon. For once, luck was with us, the rain eased off and the sun even showed itself for a few minutes every now and then.

Action and some glimpses of sunshine lifted our spirits instantly. Excitedly, we cruised around in the boat, eyes peeled for the most striking climbable features. Once we had agreed on a line, in a jumbled mixture of Spanish and English, instructed Francesco where to take us. Skillfully he maneuvered the boat into our cave. Then Jon and I took turns precariously climbing out of the boat onto the smooth and often razor sharp marble features. We managed to climb for several hours on a variety of different features and found dozens of amazing lines to climb, yet did not even try to top anything out for fear of falling into the glacial melt and facing the prospect of being stuck on a boat exposed to the wind for several hours - hyperthermia would have been almost unavoidable!

The idea to venture to this remote destination and try deep water soloing on the stunning features of the Marble Caves was Sam Biè’s. It all began from an image he saw posted on Facebook. Beautiful pastel-coloured marble caves above a crystal clear lake, never touched by climbers. Sam was intrigued he went on a mission to find out everything he could about the place.

These Marble Caves, Cathedral and Chapel are part of a huge area of extremely hard limestone (marble) band, located on the western side of Lake General Carrera (in Chile) or Lake Buenos Aires (in Argentina). This lake spans the border between Argentina and Chile, almost equally divided between the two countries. It is the largest lake Chile and the second largest in South America. Because of the size of this lake and the Patagonian winds constantly blowing down its length, the icy water is often whipped up into sizable waves. In addition, Lake General Carrera is glacially fed, so there is an annual rise and fall of the water level of several meters. Where the marble drops directly into the lake, the combination of these two factors have eroded it over 6,000 years into one of the world's most stunning formations - caves, columns, pillars and flying buttresses rising out of crystal clear glacial water.

Even though the distance to get to Puerto Río Tranquilois not very far - a couple hundred kilometres from the Argentinean border - it is an extremely isolated and difficult place to travel to. Getting there was much more time intensive than any of us had anticipated. Immediately after crossing the Chilean border the roads turn to extremely small, winding dirt tracks.

When Sam first showed me pictures, we had no idea about any of these logistical issues, it looked like an amazing place - and not far from the Esquel, Argentina (where we were for the Petzl trip anyway). So without much more thought or planning, Jon and I agreed to go. The day after the Petzl RocTrip finished Sam, Jon and myself found ourselves in a rental car driving south through the endless deserts of Argentina.

For eight hours we drove as the roads slowly degenerated.

Slow… Yes. Boring… Far from it. This was actually one of the most beautiful and fascinating drives ever. There was an amazing amount of wildlife and variety in the endless flatland.

Eventually we arrived at the Los Antiguos and the Chilean border, only a couple hundred kilometres from our destination. Little did we know that this is where our problems would really begin. When hiring the car we heard that the laws had just changed and that it was no longer possible to take a hire car across into Chile. At the border we found out that there really was no way we could take the car. So, after a couple hours, a bunch of paperwork and a lot of stamps we were back in Argentina, utterly frustrated and with no clue what to do next…

After a crammed taxi ride with a ridiculous amount of luggage, a lot more paper work and stamps, we finally made it into Chile. Our initial excitement soon dissolved as we found ourselves stranded, sitting in front of a corner store waiting for a bus, which never arrived. The owner of the store eventually informed us that it was not coming today; the next one would be there (maybe) in three days. My patience was in shreds! I needed action and only two options remained: #1 - bail back to Argentina where our car was waiting and try for a different objective. Or #2 - try hitchhiking. So the three of us ended up sitting on a corner with our thumbs out.

Almost an hour passed and we were about to give up on this crazy mission, when a truck pulled over. Hastily throwing our gear in the trunk, we piled in and were pleasantly surprised that one of the guys was actually from England. He was working at a self-sufficient farm near a tiny village an hour around the lake. An hour later, this is where we ended up - again, sitting on the side of the road, yet this time, truly in the middle of nowhere. To our surprise, another truck stopped for us after a relatively short time. After two more rides we ended up at the last intersection, with only 40 km to our destination. It was getting dark, but we were beyond caring - we were as good as there and here we even had a small bus shelter (somewhere to sleep) and a boulder to play on!

Luck was still on our side and in the last faint glimmer of light we got the most unlikely ride of all - a truck transporting a digger. Without hesitation, Oscar, the driver, welcomed us on board and for the next several hours we travelled at about 10 km per hour. I have never been so happy to drive at this pace. After far too many days of travel, we finally knew that we would make it to Puerto Río Tranquilo

Following the partying to celebrate our arrival, the poor weather dampened our spirits. But finally, on our last day there, the sun showed itself. Our faithful driver Francesco dropped us on the shore and I rappelled into one of the lines which had struck me on our first trip in the driving rain. It turned out to be a beautiful climb - a fun roof section with big holds, which then turned into a delicate and airy slab. It felt amazing simply to be climbing again, after the epic journey to what felt like the 'end of the world'.

Moving around the coastline, Jon prepared to climb a stunning prow we had also found the previous day. Out of the boat we had played on this line and Jon had succeeded in deciphering an awesome three-dimensional sequence of moves, involving a toe hook above his head, to navigate past a blank section on the horizontal roof. However, unfortunately just before Jon was able to attempt to climb this prow, a very official looking boat rounded the corner and headed straight for us. As it drew closer our fears grew, they carried guns, had a camera pointed at us and once close enough proceeded to order us (in Spanish) to come down to the shore. In my imagination I saw us being handcuffed and landing in a Chilean prison, but also could not imagine what we had done wrong. Fortunately, the three officials were actually very friendly and in our broken Spanish we made out that they believed we were not allowed to climb there after all and they told us not to do it again.

This was the end of our last day anyway, so after they departed, we packed our bags and, with some trepidation, began our long journey back to Argentina.

This trip was a new experience for the entire team. Despite all the odds being stacked against us, we made it to the destination, Puerto Río Tranquilo and discovered the phenomenal beauty of the Marble Cathedral and caves. Jon and I braved the harsh Patagonian weather and, as far as we know, were the first people to climb in these fantastic marble caves. Exploring these unique features on these untouched and incredible formations, with absolutely no information and in one of the most remote locations ever, was totally worth all the frustration.