Matt Van Biene: Chalten Portraits

Posted on: March 18, 2015

Recently, while browsing through Instagram, I noticed about a half dozen images by Matt Van Biene—climber portraits taken in El Chalten, Argentine Patagonia. The black-and-white portraits, shot very close to the climbers, caught my eye. I sent him a quick message stating that we were interested in showcasing his work on

A few days later, Van Biene called from the Peace Tree Cafe in Moab, Utah. "I'm passing through to Indian Creek, hanging out with old friends," he said. "I haven't missed a year here in the past seven years—I've always made it for a fall or spring season." Van Biene lives in a van: "Yeti; my mom named it. The van allows me to stock up for five to six days. I'm out here doing my thing to spread the psyche.

"I just turned 30. I'm probably in a transition—climbing is still my entire life. I have a lady now, and we're talking about settling down in the Northwest. [And] I'm working on an Index guidebook: A Guide to Washington's Premiere Climbing Crag—name in progress—which I'm coauthoring with Chris Kalman. We hope to have it out this coming winter."

In the pages that follow, Van Biene shares his images from Patagonia, snapped as a personal project during the 2014/15 season. Because he sent more than thirty photos, this slideshow has been split into two parts. This is Part 1.

—Chris Van Leuven


During my stay in El Chalten this past austral summer, I was struck by the vibrancy of the climbing community in town. There is so much passion, talent, motivation and wisdom among these alpine pilgrims who annually return. With a desire to document this cast of characters, I slapped on my 50mm—the so-called "honest lens"—and began corralling every climber I met into doorways around the tiny hamlet of Chalten (so as to create a series of similar images). New friends, old friends, veterans and first-timers—I intended to photograph as many as I could. These images are in no way comprehensive of everyone climbing in the Chalten Massif this season; I hope to add to the series over the coming years, including both current climbers of the range and those from years past. As Rolando Garibotti said while I was running around pestering potential subjects, "These will be valuable someday. Not monetarily I mean, but people will want to know: Who was climbing here during this era? Who were the alpinists?" I couldn't agree more.

The cadre of characters climbing in El Chalten ranges from professional to amateur, seasoned alpinists to wide-eyed up-and-comers. Some have made Patagonian climbing their career, and others are figuring out if this form of adventure even suits them. Many are gaining experience on the trade routes, while a small and dedicated contingent are earning their Domo Blanco (the locally made ice cream) by putting up first ascents and linking summits into long traverses. Long days, longer routes, rugged terrain, fickle weather: whatever the objective, terror and bliss mixed into one characterize the climbing here. Chalten may be cozy, but the fangs of the Andes can still deliver a high dose of adventure, and this contrast is perhaps what is most alluring about the area. Whatever the accomplishments, these faces are members of a tribe, all drawn down to the southern tip of the western hemisphere by the common commitment to a life of climbing.

Jenny Abegg: Jenny is a former special-education teacher who quit her job to climb and travel for a year and then "see what happens next." Climbing in Patagonia was a dream of hers, and she made it happen this winter, adventuring alone to Frey and Cochamo in northern Patagonia, and then arriving in Chalten to a partner and amazing weather. Jenny arrived with the attitude that the chance to have just a moment up high on a peak would be a success. A succession of weather windows brought her to four summits, and made her eyes wide and hungry for her return next year.

[Photo] Matt Van Biene

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