A Traverse of the South Patagonian Icecap
By Eric Philips
Published in Mountain Hardwear catalog, 2001
For the uninitiated, that is, those who have stood at the perimeter of this secret land, or viewed it between the pages of a glossy picture book, the Patagonian highlands are a bizarre mix of many things, a melting pot of contrasts, a mish-mash of breathtaking sweetness and heart-stopping severity.
For the initiated, that is, those who have clawed their way through one of nature's most harsh and unrelenting barriers and stood at the very heart of that same clandestine land, Patagonia is indeed no different. Even the word - Patagonia - is a mirror to the land, asharp beginning with a rounded finish.
A visit to this world beholds realms so starkly surreal and unlike that it leaves no wonder as to why so many have returned deeply affected by their own Patagonian experience. Although I have eaten the Calafate berry, whose juices cast a spell that ensures lastingadoration for Patagonia, I was enamored by this land long before tasting its fruits.
Our plan was to ski traverse the world's third largest ice plateau, the Campo de Hielo Sur or South Patagonian Ice-cap. Like a castle moat, the ice-cap is encircled by a geography and climate so exacting and pitiless that it is by no error that many are stopped in their tracks at the gates of hell, without ever laying eyes on the heaven beyond. Well, a chameleon heaven at least.
My companeros, and friends to fight for, were renowned adventure film-maker Wade Fairley, with whom I had crossed Greenland in 1995, and American ex-pat, Gary Kuehn, an experienced mountain and river guide. Between us we had visited the Arctic and Antarctic no less than twenty times, with major traverses and ascents to our credit, but we knew that here in Patagonia we were to roam upon a land unto itself, where few of our external experiences were relevant.
We would begin with a boat ride from a small and remote Chilean fishing village - Tortel - to Fiordo Calen, where horses would carry our Perception Phat kayak-cum-sleds, and 350 kilograms of stuff, to a small lake at the base of the icecap's northern approach, the infamous Jorge Montt glacier. Above lay the hielo continentale or ice field, whose rolling terrain, coupled with our quiver of traction kites and a healthy dose of Patagonian wind, would usher us past the fairy-tale peaks of Cerro Torre and FitzRoy towards our exit, the massive Upsala Glacier, 200 kilometers south. Below the Upsala, stamped like gems in the arid cordillera of western Argentina, lay a series of lakes across which we would paddle before making what may be the first descent of a remote and charming river.
Arriving at the western bank of the Jorge Montt in October 2000, the Austral spring, we were immediately confronted by the region's eight-meter annual rainfall. Oh, the rain. Not a hammering, pelting type rain, but an insidious, relentless drizzle that spat in the eyeof every waterproofing spiel written and posed a significant threat to our well-being. The Jorge Montt, one of 48 smashed glaciers that radiate from the plateau through thick forests of Nothofagus, is a cascade of plunging ice-falls through which we needed to find a 'safe' route. That alone is nothing extraordinary, only its surface was overlaid with a spring coating of snow that had become waterlogged and ready to slough onto some idiot - the risk of avalanche was significant and ever-present. Yet, if we were to continue, we had little choice but to increase the risk several-fold. Our kayaks weighed around 100 kilograms each, and could only be moved by 'triple-hauling' - dragging a load a few hundred meters through an ice-fall then returning for the next. Including initial scouting sorties, we traversed the bulk of the menacing glacier seven times, often resorting to time-consuming pulleys, and averaged two kilometres daily for the first two weeks. Conditions were no less favorable for Eric Shipton who pioneered the route in 1961, thus staying true to his maxim of: 'He who waits for the weather in Patagonia goes nowhere'.
October 22 proved to be a pivotal day. After fourteen days we had won 30 kilometers of progress and, at 1200 meters above Fiordo Calen we sat lunching under a spotless sky, bare feet propped up on our steaming boots. Below us stretched the Jorge Montt. We were grinning like fat spiders at having cracked one of the toughest approaches toany of the world's mega ice-blocks. Below us lay a zigzag gouge, carved into the deep snow by our kayaks. It was my second ice-cap expedition using white-water kayaks as sleds, my third using Quadrifoil kites to harness the wind and my fourth across one of the world's largest ice-blocks. I have a fetish for ice, and a primeval urge to drag heavy things across them. Should this trip be successful, I will become the first person to traverse the world's four largest ice-caps - Antarctica to the South Pole, Greenland, Patagonia andCanada's Ellesmere Island. Why? Who gives a hoot. Nobody needs a reason to be whacko and when you can travel with people the whacko-calibre of Wade and Gary, life feels pretty normal.
But it was the view to our south that really captured us for we had no longer to glance upward, only forward. Losing no time we heaved into our harnesses to pull up onto the edge of the plateau, where we camped. As would become custom on the exposed ice-cap, we fashioned a protective wall from our three upturned kayaks, tails speared vertically into a trench dug two-meters windward of our camp. Snow-block walls are a nightly ritual by all that venture here, but our kayak wall, assisted by the aptness of our industrial-strength excavation shovel, cut the workload by half and increased the robustness a hundred-fold.
The fickle Pacific was not to pamper us and we woke to a cloak of thick cloud that seemed to absorb every ray of heat reflecting from the surface. To make matters worse the surface turned to porridge in which our skis and sleds became horribly bogged. From my suggestion of one-hour shifts up front, we reduced them almost immediately to ten minutes, at the end of which each leader would slump on ski poles, gasping for breath. Already we longed for the cool and frictionless waters of the Argentine lakes, still 200 kilometers distant.
By mid-morning we had scored a deep, meandering gutter into the surface that seemed to split the ice-cap in two. In all my years of sled hauling I'd never felt so debilitated and wondered if this was our lot for the remainder of the journey. To exacerbate the problem our ski skins were balling badly, adding 20 centimeters to our height and ten kilograms to our weight. 'Olive oil anyone?', offered Gary. Still recovering from the exertion I declined his offer of fuel. 'Not for you, for your skins', he chuckled, already smearing the grease over the purple fibers. Wade and I needed no further prompt and did likewise until our skins wore a healthy veneer of melted oil. The effect was immediate and we never again suffered from balling skis. Gary beamed with pride.
A couple of hours later we pulled up again and sat astride our kayaks on a disc of gray snow that reflected the brooding sky. It was as though we were in a giant ashen-colored tent, so enclosing was the effect. Peering into the murk I caught a glimpse of angular shapes, like one of those funny floating things that hover in your vision when looking into blankness. I spun around and there were more, floaters everywhere, pointed things that peaked into the blue sky. Peak! Blue sky! Within seconds the fog dissipated, transforming our world into a realm of mystical beauty and spaciousness. Brilliant sunshine and an arcing blue sky exposed our surface as a sweeping disc of dazzling white and juxtaposed against its eastern perimeter, the horizon, lay a string of acute mountains. To the south, rising like a chimera from the ice, stood the heaving bulk of the elusive Vulcan (Volcano) Lautaro, and beyond it, standing above the Cordon Darwin, projected the massive granite face of FitzRoy. Eastwards lay a deep, dark void that heralded the clammy fjords of the coastal archipelago and behind us, snaking towards the head of the Jorge Montt, lay our godforsaken track. When Roald Amundsen first reached the Antarctic plateau on his journey to the South Pole in 1911, he commented: 'The land is like a fairytale'. Patagonia must surely be one step beyond. What we could see, perched as we were on the spine of the Andes, was pure, unadulterated nirvana.
Although the afternoon saw us once again immersed in fog, the following two days were clear and still and we made steady progress over the slop. Day 17 was one that normally lived only in my dreams - cool, clear and windy. One usually equates wind with discomfort and dread, but for us, it was a tonic sweeter than wine. I unfurled my large Quadrifoil kite (five square meters) and launched it in the face of the steady nor'wester. Within two swoops of the kite I was twenty meters ahead and hollered my approval with a resounding woohoo. Wade and Gary followed suit and before long we were skitting across the firm ice, the weight of our kayaks no longer a burden. Leaving entire mountain ranges in our wake, we yelled and screamed with joy at our good fortune as the kites cut superb figures-eights 15 meters ahead.
But the South Patagonian Ice-cap is no place to become complacent and our right eyeballs never strayed far from the western horizon, waiting for that mass of black turbulence that lived in the darkest recesses of our consciousness. We were warned of the almost instantaneous approach of foul weather and remained paranoically vigilant, and anxious, for the remainder of the expedition.
Despite this we had no shortage of epics. Later that day Wade became lost when a bank of rolling cloud fast-tracked in from the west. He'd stopped to lash his video camera to the deck of his kayak and by the time Gary and I had halted, over a hill and far away, the dark cloud had swallowed us whole. A tense half-hour lapsed as we packed our kites and retraced our tracks, before Wade emerged from the gloom, calm and collected, ready to continue kiting. By the time we hunkered down in our cozy tent we had covered 31 kilometers.
Over the next five days we amassed over 120 kilometers of distance, blistering from the wide expanses of the northern fields, through the constriction between Volcan Lautaro and Cerro Piramide and onto the Paso de los Cuatro Ventisqueros - Pass of the Four Glaciers. Adjacent to the FitzRoy group, this 1750 meter-high pass is exposed to thebrunt of the Pacific and is notorious for gale force winds and choking drift. Many expeditions have either lost their tents or been buried for weeks in this region and it wasn't long before we felt a portion of its awesome power.
In an attempt to kite in winds too strong for our 5's, Gary and his kayak were launched into orbit and re-entered ten meters downwind. Reducing to our 3's, we were soon hammering in convoy across an undulating plain as the wind tore plates of glazed ice from the surface and frisbee'd them into the sky. Boy we were fast, too fast. No sooner had I completed a short appeal to the gods of tempest, I glanced over my shoulder to find Wade tumbling headlong over the ice, dragged by his kite. I feared not only for his six week-old broken collar-bone, but for his life. After a few minutes of acrobatics to be proud of he managed to unhook the link-line from his harness and came to an abrupt halt as the kite launched into the volatile sky, never to be seen again. I raced over to check on his condition and found him firmly jammed between relief at scraping through intact and anguish over the lost kite. Gary joined us a moment later, holding his GPS and grinning from ear to ear. It recorded 10 kilometers in 15 minutes and clocked a top speed of 45km/h.
The wind continued to intensify and by late afternoon we were snared by an intense ground blizzard that had us angling windward, our flat-bottomed kayaks skewing perpendicular to our skis. Drift snow, dazzling like a sheet of miniature rubies in the setting sun, howled past our ankles, building fields of angular sastrugi in minutes. I slipped on mittens for the first and last time. To our left, above the shrieking wind, Cerro Torre speared from the plain and harpooned a glowing cloud that hovered motionless around its summit. Nirvana indeed.
A double wall kept us snug for the night and we woke to an unexpectedly pristine day that burned and blistered our tongues and mouths. Actually, the weather remained disturbingly calm for the remainder of the crossing, but we never trusted it. September and October record the highest precipitation and strongest winds in Patagonia and we expected the worst. Nervous energy sparked from our skin and we put it to good use, almost sprinting as we sidled the undulating flanks of the Mariano Moreno Range. Topping out at the head of Patagonia's largest glacier, the Upsala, new vistas of distant snow-capped cordilleras unfolded, and below, freckled with icebergs calved from Upsala's massive terminal face, lay Lago Argentino. We could feel its magnetic pull.
Our kayaks slithering obediently behind, we skated and strode down the Upsala for 30 kilometers, toying unsuccessfully with a final sail, before the surface deteriorated into a field of yawning crevasses. From the edge of the plateau above the Jorge Montt we had covered almost 150 kilometers in seven days of nigh -flawless weather. No other expedition could boast such luck and we could only put it down to our incredible handsomeness.
Not to be let off too lightly, our transition from ice to rock to water proved rigorous, and the final triple-haul through shattered ice-falls, a distance of 1.5 kilometers, took an entire day. In stark contrast to our soggy start, we now found ourselves in a stark and alien world of barren rock and sparkling lakes. Argentina!
Finally we could unload the kayaks and rearrange them for their intended purpose, moving over liquid. Still carrying too much gear, and not keen to prematurely dispose of unwanted items, we bound the kayaks into a raft, and launched it into the first of three lakes that had never felt the dip of a blade. Wade and I commandeered the wind-assisted vessel using split paddles while Gary carried a pack-load to the lake's ice-choked southern shore. Our passage took us past the imposing wall of Upsala's eastern flank, which plunged 40 meters into the cold water. The thick pack of rocking icebergs at the lake's leeward edge proved problematic but after some wading, rock climbing, and towing we met with Gary at a dry outflow that led to the rich, inky waters of Lago Pascale.
After rafting across this sublime lake we found, with some difficulty, a small refugio where we abandoned a sizable stash of equipment and stayed the night. The third lake, Lago Anita, lay only 1500 meters from our camp but could only be reached by descending a 400 meter-high vertical rock-wall using our climbing rope. The descent was a hoot, made all the more enjoyable by a pair of condor circling overhead. After a final steep sprint attached haplessly to our runaway yaks, we would drag those boats, or they us, no more, and made a final camp on the lake's edge. Lago Anita was alive, its surface whipped into a frenzy of whitecaps from the glacial-fed volleys of wind that charged down the valley.
Overnight the wind abated completely and the surface reflected the surrounding magnificence in flawless mirror-image. To use the boats as sleds we'd removed all the guts back in Australia. Now, sleeping mats replaced the seat, a camp chair doubled as a backrest and the tent made a great foot support, and with our decks loaded high we slid into the tranquil water. Gliding silently along, the water lapping at our cockpits, we were surrounded by pristine wilderness: snow-capped mountains festooned with hanging glaciers; barren, craggy hills; the giant rock-buttress down which we had lowered and the wide, forested river valley through which snaked a beautiful, untouched river - the Catarina - that would lead us to our journey's end.
Two hours later we entered the flow and were relieved to find it fast but manageable. Anything above Grade 2 and we would have been in serious trouble, surely capsized, with all our belongings bobbing rapidly downstream. With enough pressure waves to have us whooping in delight, and the odd one or two to give our hearts a healthy jolt, we paddled the ten kilometers in a heady state of euphoric bliss and emerged from our mountain wilderness into the aquamarine blue of one of the world's largest lakes, Lago Argentino.
Sitting on the shore of the lake, awaiting our departure for Calafate on a tourist launch, I couldn't believe it was all over and scrolled through the wealth of events that branded our 25-day traverse. Our journey embodied the contrast that is unshakably Patagonia: Pacific to lake, Chile to Argentina, perverse wetness to crystal aridity, depressing stagnation to blistering movement, boot to ski, kayak to kite, ice to rock to water, all within a postage stamp of extreme wilderness. Surrounded by the lavish warmth of unflinching wilderness companionship, one cannot want for more.
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