Leleque. Even when the word rolls off my tongue now it feels like a magnet is drawing me back to that place. This past Saturday, Dario and the Club Andino (the Mountain Club, more or less) or Cholila organized a rock climbing excursion to Leleque, a group of hills across the lake from Cholila over which the moon rises every night. The excursion aimed to draw women and girls to the sport, so Dario and Laura invited their most experienced female rock climbing friends and their partners, as well as a few of the girls (nine-year-olds!) in Cholila. Miguelina and Jeremiah came from Bariloche, Laura and Rachu from Esquel, and I invited Gabi (my rock climbing friend) and her boyfriend Adrian from Lago Puelo. We cooked an asado the night before, and impressively made it out of the house by 8:30 the next morning with everyone piled in cars and in the back of trucks.
We drove along the southern side of Lago Mosquito and into a more arid area, leaving clouds of dust behind the cars that collected on the eyelashes of those of us in the back of the pickup truck. Soon, we didn’t see even fences or cows on the side of the gravel road, but just desert. We parked the cars in a wide, squared, valley, with red hills growing up out of the plains on the left side of the road. The desert reminded me a lot of Joshua Tree, or the Visionquest desert south of Mono Lake, with stubby trees and bushes planted in sand and rocks all around. What froze our faces in the back of the truck turned into a nice breeze that cooled us off with the sun of the beautiful day.
We set off walking, armed with packs and water containers, towards some rocks planted in the hillside that looked like they were put there for rock climbing. Beautiful, vertical faces, with both vertical and horizontal crevices, and slight overhangs to provide a challenge. We set up base camp under a big overhang that would have been a boulderer’s dream, and learned a little bit more about knots and gear from the pros while the others went to set up the ropes above.
For my first ascent, I attempted a route that challenged me well, with little grips for only my finger or my big toe. Each move made me think – where would be my next four points of contact, where would I have to push or pull to move myself to the next place. Unlike my previous rock climbing experiences, I felt like I was really moving myself up the mountain, not that the rope was pulling me up. I got stuck too far to the left of the rope at one point and had to traverse across to find good grips and to avoid the “pendulum effect,” but still made it to the top, and rapelled down feeling energized. Rock climbing is addicting; once I completed the first route the only thing I wanted to do was climb, even after we had left for the day.
I climbed the first route one more time without the break in the middle, then moved on to two more routes, one with a difficult first move and a nice overhang in the middle that climbed up a deep split between two rocks. One of Dario’s cousins taught me how to belay. For the grand finale of the day, I scaled a route where I put the rope into caribiners as I went instead of having the rope already placed above me.
The best part of the day, however, was the community of climbers gathered there. 9-year-old girls, people from different countries, experienced climbers, people who had never climbed before. We had about twenty people in total. We had enough equipment to run about three routes at a time, so the rest of the group would be either belaying or sitting around on rocks watching whoever was climbing. Thus, the climber had an entire team of people giving encouragement and advice from below. On my first climb, when I got stuck and yelled down that I wanted to climb down, I had about five people yelling for me to keep going. On the final climb, Miguelina, an incredible climber, helped me to choose each move I made, as well as yelling up “Esooo!” o “Va bién! Va bién!” to push me on.
We climbed from about 9:30 in the morning until about 8:30 at night. I think it might qualify as one of my favorite days in Argentina so far: wonderful people, a sport that I have always loved but never had enough time for, and a place with, as they say a lot here, muy buena onda. A place so gorgeous it makes me want to pack a tent and food and go off into the mountains just exploring and rock climbing for a while: condors flying overhead, the afternoon sun bringing shadows to the rocks, the gravel road cutting through the desert valley, and the additional valleys stretching up past more rock formations asking me to explore and climb them.