Damian Benegas, the famous Argentinian alpinist, has climbed some of the biggest mountains all over the world: in the Himalayas, South America, and Africa. Along with this twin brother, Willie, they have done numerous technical first ascents. Perhaps less well known is the fact that he was the first to summit the iconic 200-meter high Piedra Parada nearly twenty years ago via the route 'Sueno Lento", with his partner Pablo de la Fuente. On the sidelines of the Petzl RocTrip in Piedra Parada, we got the chance to talk to him about his historic ascent, climbing in the area and the Petzl RocTrip.
What brought you to Piedra Parada back in 1993?
Exploration. Where I grew up there was no rock. The closest rock was about 120 kilometers away. So I was always exploring and driving around, talking to people to see where there was rock. The dad of a friend was a pilot and he told me that everytime he flew to Esquel he saw the shadow of Piedra Parada. In 1990 I moved to the US to climb big walls in Yosemite. Later, I visited home in 1993 and we explored the area.
What was this place like when you first visited?
There was nothing here. Mario, the owner, is a very simple man who had about 400 head of sheep. It was much greener, the river was bigger. But there was nothing. Climbers had been trying to do the Piedra Parada for many, many years but they would always get to a certain spot where it requires climbing on questionable rock without protection. And I was climbing very strong in those days, and I just went for it.
It was just desert and there were no climbers. In 1999 Martine Molina and I drove from Mendoza almost 1100 miles one way and did another route. And then Martin started coming here with his friends. For 14 or 15 years, if I saw someone here it was like, "Wow, there's another climber here." Over the last five years, more and more people have been coming and now, with 1000 people here (for the RocTrip) it's just incredible.
How would you characterize the climbing here?
Adventure. I'm more of a traditional climber, not so much of a sport climber. The rock is really bad and blocky with bad protection and very loose. But I like to climb on that type of terrain. It's volcanic rock. From the first time I came here in 1993, I always thought that it could be an international destination some time because there's just so much rock.
I was just walking in the Buitrera Canyon. It was like a crag in the US. You have groups of people everywhere. And I was like, "Wow, this is happening in Buitrera Canyon!" This isn't Bariloche or Cordova - it's not a crag in the US. It's here in the middle of nowhere in Patagonia that somehow with the help of a lot of people, it created this climbing destination.
What do you think about the Petzl RocTrip coming to this area and trying to develop it more?
I always say that the best way to take care of a place is to use it. If you don't use a place, things happen. In Argentina, we have a lot of problems with developing and mining, etc. So when I heard that Petzl was trying to do this thing here, I was so psyched. But also because I saw the place grow up from nothing. For ten years there was no one here and then suddenly there was a Petzl RocTrip. And one of the things that I love about Petzl RocTrips is that they come here and it's not a competition. It's a gathering of strong climbers and it's the best way to develop an area. From what a I heard, they put up about 200 new routes. Lines that I been looking at for years are being climbed. And that's awesome.
Petzl RocTrip had a million areas to choose from for the event - Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, etc. And you guys chose to come here.
What does RocTrip mean for the future of this area and climbing in Argentina?
You know, climbing in Argentina is not a sport. For the average person, it's something that people do that's really crazy and dangerous. For years, locals haven't been using their natural resources in this way. When I started climbing, there were two climbers in my home town - my brother and I. And today I just ran into a group of 20 rock climbers from my home town. The sport is growing.
I heard there are people here from around 43 countries. And many of them came because of the Petzl RocTrip. But the Brazilians, the Peruvians, the Bolivians, the Chileans - they will start coming here more often now. Because, thanks to the Petzl RocTrip, you guys put it on the spot and that will increase the traffic here in the future.
In the past, whenever I approached the government about the sport, they were like, "No way, it's dangerous." And today the government was promoting it. So that's really good.
Here, the sheep industry died a long time ago. There are a lot of people living here and they need to have some kind of income. They never thought that developing tourism would be important because they don't see that. They see something quick and easy, like extracting natural resources, which isn't sustainable and you can replace it. So I think its important to bring tourists to the area, not just for climbing but also trekking, hiking, kayaking, etc.
The best way to take care of a place is to use it in a responsible way. And if we don't this place on the spot internationally, people will come here and mine it. But now if a mine wants to come here, 43 countries will be represented and will say no to the mine.
The Piedra Parada in the setting sun. credit: Guillaume Vallot
Last question: what was it like to be the first on top of the Piedra Parada?
We came in the winter and there was snow in the area, when it used to snow here. We summited and Mario was washing his car by the river. And we screamed, "Hey, hey!" And he started looking around everywhere and he couldn't figure out where all the screaming was coming from, because no one saw us start the route. So right away, Mario grabbed his horse and went around and a lot of people came to the base. And he actually asked us if we had seen one of his male sheep up on the summit!
Back in those days, it was like the first years when people were doing desert towers, back in the sixties (in the US). For me, I felt that way because it was pioneering and we were in the middle of nowhere.
Everytime I summit the Piedra Parada - and I summit a lot - the views are incredible.
For more information about Damian and his climbing, visit his website.