Woman lead climbing in Piedra Parada climbing area in Patagonia.

words and photos (unless otherwise credited) by Sarah Johnson ::

Javi was doing a handstand in the middle of the highway when we finally caught a ride. He, my boyfriend (Thibault), and I were hitchhiking from Bariloche, Argentina to Piedra Parada, located further down Route 40. The area, which means “Standing Stone” in English, is one of my favorite climbing areas in Argentina. 

When a pickup truck finally pulled over, I muscled my heavy packs into the back and settled in for a long ride, enjoying the wind on my face after baking under the hot Patagonian sun on the side of the highway. We’d met many kind strangers as we traveled around Patagonia in this fashion. 

Río Chubut — the Chubut River running through the climbing area at Piedra Parada, Patagonia.

Photo: Rodoluca // CC3

We finally turned onto Route 12, finding ourselves in the Argentinian pampa and overlooking miles of lowland plains, sheep, and the winding Chubut river. With the amount of time we spent waiting for rides in the middle of nowhere, we had read the area’s guidebook from cover to cover. Now arrived, we had a good idea of what we were getting into.

The massive piedra (stone) is one of the most mystical places I’ve been. Its views take on a fracture in the landscape that forms the La Buitrera canyon, a feature with 600-foot volcanic walls that extend over three miles. Smaller canyons split off like veins from La Buitrera, and archeological sites within it exist where ancient peoples used to cook and pray.

When the birds aren’t calling within its walls, the silence makes it feel like a cathedral.

Watching her climb, I realized it was that kind of mental ease that I wanted while climbing. 

We started at the easier crags at the mouth of the canyon since I wasn’t comfortable leading harder climbs. Though I’ve climbed for ten years and can follow almost anything, physical and mental barriers held me back from pushing further in leading. I became frustrated by my fear when I led. I remained stagnant while friends grew stronger, confident in putting up harder lines.

In the back of my mind, I wondered why I bothered climbing if I never tried to improve.

Arriving in Piedra Parada, I wanted to start from a clean climbing slate with the intention of rediscovering why I climbed. With that in mind, I decided to spend six weeks in the area reteaching myself, both mentally and physically, to climb.

Woman lies back on a hold while lead climbing in Piedra Parada, a climbing area in Argentina's Patagonia region

One evening, an unfamiliar car pulled into the camping zone. Two girls hopped out and started setting up camp under a nearby willow. They were both soft-spoken and we didn’t interact much before crawling into our tent. I was interested in making friends and, having been stuck with a couple of dudes for three weeks, I was excited to have other women around. Little did I know that these two girls would leave a definitive mark on my experience in Piedra Parada.

As I put on my harness and sipped a maté the next morning, Thibault nudged me and pointed. One of the girls who arrived the night before had begun leading a 5.13d called After Gula. She seemed familiar with the climb, moving precisely and methodically up the wall. Her movements were fearless.

She was well above a bolt when she fell from an invisible hold. Whooosh. It was the smoothest whipper I’d ever seen. Her partner caught her without a flinch.

I had never seen a woman climb so hard.

A few days after they arrived, we helped them with a flat tire and got to know them. Both were from Santiago, Chile. The climber on After Gula was Belén Villalón and her belayer was Daniela Espinoza. Daniela was working on her own route, a 5.13c. Each morning, the duod warmed up on a 5.12a before spending the rest of the day alternating their projects, falling over and over again on the same moves.

Without thinking, I moved my feet up and reached for a pocket just left of the anchor. My fingers grasped, then slipped.

Their cries of frustration occasionally echoed off the canyon walls. Although they were unassuming, Belén was trying for the hardest route a Chilean woman had climbed at the time. They worked the projects as a team, and their support for one another, spending hours belaying or encouraging each other to keep working one move, was absolute.

Studying those girls reminded me why I fell in love with climbing. The beauty within their movements, the meditation, the process of self-improvement — it was inspiring.

At this point, I had made progress in my climbing, but I still tried to avoid falls instead of pushing myself. Belén seemed to not even think about it. She was dedicated to each move. When she slipped, she actually made the fall look enjoyable. Then she began again. She climbed like she cared for nothing else in the world and loved every minute of it.

Watching her climb, I realized it was that kind of mental ease that I wanted while climbing. 

There are a growing number of female climbers in South America, but there are few women who climb harder than 5.12, and even fewer who partner up with other women and push the bar together. Belén and Daniela do just that, climbing and camping around Europe and South America for months at a time, living off the grid while on the search for increasingly more difficult projects to work on. 

Seeing their determination and receiving their advice made me want to push my own limits.

Their focus on footwork, breathing, and rest kept them calm and controlled in their climbing. They told me that improvement meant learning to separate subjective fear from objective fear. For example, if a climber stops falling, the fear of it returns, making it important to keep moving out of comfort zones and take falls.

Instead of rushing through moves, frustrated when I couldn’t get something, I began to take a different approach, viewing each climb like series of puzzles to be solved between the bolts.

Climbing a 5.12a, the hardest route I had ever lead, I was struggling between the final bolt and the chains. Pumped and shaking, I didn’t want to take the fall.

Suddenly, I heard Belen scream in frustration from a mile down the canyon. She had whipped again. For a moment, I was distracted from my own fatigue. Without thinking, I moved my feet up and reached for a pocket just left of the anchor. My fingers grasped, then slipped.

I fell.

This time it was my cry which echoed, but the fall was clean. I felt myself let go of all the pressure I held to appear strong. I understood that, in that moment, that fall was part of my journey, it was part of what I was here to do. The rush of adrenaline and clipping the anchors were the only things I needed in that moment. I immediately wanted to try the move again.

Studying those girls reminded me why I fell in love with climbing. The beauty within their movements, the meditation, the process of self-improvement — it was inspiring.

I left my fear behind. On the next try I sent the route.

Falling became enjoyable.

I celebrated this evolution in my climbing. After years of doubt, I felt the pride of improvement. It wasn’t necessarily improvement in the grade that mattered; instead, it was improvement in myself, in my ability to push my boundaries and rediscover the sport I loved for so long.

My time in Piedra Parada was transformational. It was a place for introspection. It provided an opportunity to be honest about what I was feeling with an activity that had been a part of my life for over a decade. And though I started that realization process on my own, climbing in the midst of those two female climbers, Belén and Daniela, gave me the direction in which to focus my personal progression.

. . .

Sarah Johnson, outdoor woman and author of Outdoor Women's Alliance piece, Falling is Progress: Lead climbing lessons in Patagonia's Piedra ParadaAbout the author

Sarah Johnson was born and raised in Montana. Her lifelong love of nature and culture has led her to many mountains and rivers around the world, spending the past several years exploring Patagonia. She now works as a canyoning photographer and lives in France, with plans to return to Chile this fall.

Find her online

Instagram: @sarahellen406