A daily account.
By Eric Philips
We spent almost three weeks in Coyhaique waiting for our equipment. Kept ourselves busy, offering manual labour to anyone who wanted it.
Finally hit the long road and headed west with our drivers, Fernando and Miguel, for two days to Puerto Vagabundo, a tiny hamlet on the Rio Baker. A homecoming of sorts for Wade, who paddled the length of Chile's southern coast in a sea kayak, beginning his journey further upstream on the Baker. Loaded onto a fishing boat and chugged west to Tortel, a remote fishing village on the Pacific coast.
Spent the night in a rain-lashed shed, shivering with fear over what lay ahead.
Boarded the boat again and headed south, plying a weaving course through the forest and waterfall-lined fiords of Chile's Pacific coast. A dark and brooding sky, heavy with rain clouds, sat ponderously overhead. Our guides, Segundo and Max, are so accustomed to the constant drizzle it seems an unworthy topic of conversation.
Reach Segundo's cabin in a hidden lagoon, and after feasting on freshly slaughtered sheep and pasta, he, Max and another ring-in, Eduardo, round up three horses and take them to Eduardo's cabin. We stay here the night, sleeping in the loft under a patchy roof, our sleeping bags strewn amongst decades of cowboy flotsam. Character oozes from the walls, from our three friends.
Day 1 October 8 Distance 7.6km. Altitude 100m
The wind and drizzle abates overnight and we are greeted by a mirror-calm lagoon that reflects the snow-topped, green-sheathed mountains beyond the water. It is our first glimpse of anything 200 metres above the sea and we are enraptured. We travel by boat to 'Juan's Cabin', a cluster of ramshackle huts tucked neatly at the head of a small iceberg-filled bay. Around the corner lies the dismembered face of our access glacier, the Jorge Montt. We will access the ice at 500m elevation, via a steep and rocky valley. Max and Eduardo take the horses to a headland, and, after dropping us off, Segundo goes back to collect them, horses and all, in the tiny boat.
We strap the kayaks - Perception 'Phat's - to the horses and take our first load up the valley to Lago Plomo and return to the cabin for the night.
Day 2 October 9 Distance 1km. Altitude 220m
Complete the second load and bid farewell to our three companions. They think us 'loco'. All the while the drizzle comes down, everything is soaked. Ferry loads across the lake using the kayaks, nice to be on the water, then drag fully-laden kayak-cum-sleds up a flowing creek to a series of cascades. From here we 'triple-haul' each sled in turn, they are diabolically heavy and move with great difficulty. Shreds of purple plastic mark the trail behind us. Will they last the distance? Make camp in an island in the creek. Hope it doesn't rise. Drizzling. Incredibly strong volleys of wind on the tent - a Mountain Hardwear Trango Arch 3.1 (phew!) - overnight but it is like a rock and we slowly relax.
Day 3 October 10 Distance gained 0 km. Altitude 220m
Wake at 6am and get out into the drizzle. Pack our first load and claw our way up the steep gully towards the Jorge Montt. Don't see it until the final 100 metres and we are taken aback by the ease at which we can access it. We always thought the worst, which is not an unwise strategy. Carried three loads totalling 90 kilograms each during the day, covering a distance of thirty kilometres with an overall elevation gain of almost 1000 metres. I do it in my FiveTen paddling shoes. Toes stay nice and warm despite the flow through ventilation. Camp back down in the creek. We are trashed, but happily so.
Day 4 October 11 Distance 5km. Altitude 560m
Snowed overnight and our route up the valley to the glacier has become a white, slippery hell. Only one load to go. My last load is a cow (not literally!). Part of it is the tent which we have rolled up in a two metre long sausage to make it easier and quicker to pitch. I feel like Jesus carrying half a cross.
Pack our sleds for glacier travel and don our boots and skis for the first time. The glacier looks flat and welcoming but all is not as it seems. The snow is like glue and our sleds leave a deep trench behind. On my trek to the South Pole, we took it in turns breaking trail for two hours at a time. Here we can do no more than ten minutes up front before we are leaning on our poles, gasping for air. It doesn't take long before we are surrounded by crevasses and confronted by our first icefall.
The middle of the glacier is completely shattered, a no-go-zone and we are forced into the mountains. Triple-haul into a side gully that overlooks the Jorge Montt and camp for the night. Drizzling. It's nice to have darkness after the constant daylight of the Antarctic. Wade and Gary pitch the tent while I recce a route up over a steep snowy spur. A steep traverse looks preferable to the mayhem and danger of the glacier. As the sun falters we get glimpses of the mountains on the far side of the glacier and are gob-smacked. He had no idea they were so BIG, and they're the little ones. The sun goes down, the moon comes up and we see stars for the first time since leaving Tortel. Heavenly.
Day 5 October 12 Distance 1km. Altitude 562m
Snowed overnight and strange winds blew from every point on the compass. Tripled up the steep slopes to a rocky knoll where we dumped each kayak. Four seasons in one day, in ten minutes. Zip goes down, hood comes off, arms come out, suncream on, goggles out, zip up, hood on, backs to the drift, pit zips open, burnt lips, jumper on, fingers cold, aaaarrrrggghhhh! How can one travel when one does not know what to wear. Enjoyed the glide back down to camp to collect sleds. We are learning the art of triple-haul traversing, a skill we would use daily for the next two weeks or so. Gary has a million and one great suggestions, always thinking. Lunch at the pass is like a mini-hell and we are battered by a ferocious ground squall. As we finish our last mouthful it abates and we spy the non-route forward and are forced to abseil back onto the glacier. A minor epic, interspersed with more blizzards, and we finally camp on in a gully at the edge of the glacier. Above us towers a decent avalanche-prone slope, but, we placate ourselves, the only crevasse between us and the slope would swallow the debris before it got to us.
Day 6 October 13 Distance 1.1km. Altitude 552m
Slept warmly and soundly overnight, fuelled by our high-fat diet. Gary and I rope up and scout a route south up the glacier. A beautiful maze of gullies, seracs and crevasses, rounded and hidden by the fresh falls of snow. In the meantime, Wade films from a perch and packs the tent away. We are making a film for American Adventure Productions. Mostly tripling on our chosen route but never a dull moment. Difficult, dangerous but dang fun drudgery despite the dismal distance. Must have been D day, I reckon. After a final lower of the sleds on rope, we settle for a spot not unlike yesterday - snowy amongst crevasses with flurries of wind-driven snow, ho-hum! I choose a site and Gary asked me to probe it. I did and find no nasty holes underneath it. As we pile the last shovel-fulls of snow onto the tent valances, Wade puts his foot through a nasty hole and I turn red. 'Sorry 'bout that chaps, must have opened up as we were working'. Didn't cut it. We slept lightly under the full moon.
Day 7 October 14 Distance 1.2km. Altitude 592m
Going nowhere fast yet feeling good about our progress. Again Gary and I scout ahead while Wade digs a massive trench with our 'Palla' (the massive garden shovel we bought in Coyhaique) in order to get out of the basin we'd camped in. Top out on a mini-plain heralding the outfall of a subsidiary glacier and ski gleefully across it to a large moraine. Climb the highest mound and find what looks like a good route south. Return then triple through almost everything but the plain. A moist, humid day of stifling heat. Slaps of suncream all round, and a good half-dozen perspiration soaked feet. My polar boots are a tad overkill. On the far side of the moraine the terrain becomes flatter and rounded and we single much of it until blocked by a gigantic jumble of cascading broken ice. Spend the next three hours searching for a route through the mess but all lead to massive caverns and sheer faces through which we cannot pass. We stop and ponder our only option. Directly behind us is an icefall that leads directly underneath a dangerous slope looking ripe to slough onto some idiot. We don't like the look of it one bit but it's that or turn around and go back. The unthinkable is upon us. Wade and Gary try the middle of the glacier while I scout a route through the icefall, treading lightly and breathing in a lot, slowly climbing upward past the horrid slope. A somewhat treacherous recce but I get off on moving quickly over new ground, unhindered by the rope, weighing up the odds and moving cautiously forward if they're significantly better than 50/50. I reach the top of the icefall and spy another little plain in the distance. Success, yes, but I still need to return to camp, then travel the same route another five times to get the sleds through. Gaz and Wade find no joy on the glacier. I return up the icefall again (make that seven times!) with Gary, to get his opinion. He doesn't like it, but there is nothing else.
Day 8 October 15 Distance 0km. Altitude 562m
Rained all night and all day. We all woke often through sheer anxiety, contemplating the climb through the treacherous icefall above. The slope is now waterlogged, a face of wet cement ready to fall and set in the space of 3 seconds. Scared the crap out of us so we stayed put, hoping for a freeze overnight. Spent the day reading and listening to 'The Wall' on my MiniDiscman, and eating cookies. Although I agree with the rest day I am concerned by the pace at which we are burning our stove fuel and hedge for a commitment to move whenever and as fast as possible. We all agree.
Day 9 October 16 Distance 2.2km. Altitude 713m
Wake at 4.30am in an attempt to use firmer conditions but they sludge up pretty quickly. Half way through the first portage the drizzle begins again but we were too committed to worry, dragging to safety in less then two hours. Get all the sleds through by early afternoon and kiss the horrid icefall goodbye. Continue in a frustrating process of single, double and triple hauling towards the next plain, on the edge of which we pitch our damp tent.
Day 10 October 17 Distance 0km. Altitude 713m
Pouring rain for over 24 hours and it seems as though the glacier is melting around us. Soon we'll be on our own little mesa of ice, abseiling to the bedrock below! I get a bit stir crazy and offer to scout the route to the other side of the plain. Dress for the rain and head out into the liquid sky. I'm soon squelching in my boots and slurping the drips as they cascade down my nose. The plain is short-lived and the ice is again disturbed by the hidden terrain that sits hundreds of metres below the surface. From atop a razor-sharp and lofty serac I see the middle of the glacier and it seems to be easing. But there is no route to it, only a no-mans-land of shafts, chasms and walls. Again I am forced to the edge of the glacier where I cross a very tenuous and hollow bride to gain 'land' once again. But the land is once again vertical snow and I race underneath it, leaving behind a gouge that looks all too much like a zipper. My sweat mixes with the rain and I get wafts of putrid stench as I open my pit zips and climb to the apex of a ridge. The route ahead looks great and the glacier begins to open up. I return, above the zipper, with my good news, tainted with the sobering news of yet another avalanche slope. I am drenched to the bone and pile my Gore pants and jacket, thermals, gloves and boots into a sodden pile under the vestibule. The rain hammers on the tent. We have covered less than 20 kilometres in 10 days.
Day 11 October 18 Distance 2.5km. Altitude 754m
Rain turned to snow overnight and rocket-like winds scream off the mountains and whistle through the guy lines. Braced out the internal guys of the tent and slept like spiders locked in our own battered web. Peered outside into grey nothingness - ugh! No visibility, just what we don't need. Wait an hour and it begins to lift so we pack and head off into it. My tracks from yesterday have all but vanished and we can't find the route across the tenuous snow bridge on the steep slope. Possibly a good thing, I think. Eventually find another route that is marginally better and go for it, triple hauling the whole way. Wade and I pulley the sleds up the slope while Gary scouts the route again for a line through to the next plain. The weather clears in the afternoon and a beautiful, warm light shrouds the glacier and surrounding mountains. This place is awesome. Continue 'til after 7pm when we camp at the edge of the plain. Twenty kilometres distant we see the 'ramp' that leads through the last icefall and up the final slopes to the plateau. We were breaking through the natural geographic and climatic barrier that surrounds the South Patagonian Icecap and protects it from the marauding hands of humankind. The place into which we are heading is reserved only for those desperate enough to see and feel it. It is our first camp exposed to direct wind and we make our first wall of kayaks. Digging a trench, we tip the kayaks on end, side by side, and bury their tails in the snow. With a few added blocks on the side, we build an indestructible wall, pitch the tent, clamber inside and have the stove going in an hour. We feel pretty bomber and sleep soundly to prove it.
Day 12 October 19 Distance 2.8km. Altitude 761m
No visibility again but cross the plain quickly towards the position of the ramp. Scout thereafter through another maze of gullies, crevasses and walls - the Jorge Montt is unrelenting, particularly in the thick murk that enshrouds us. After a tangle of dead-ends, blind-alleys, cul-de-sacs (get the drift!), we decide to quit for the day and pitch tent smack bang in the middle of the maze. 'Nice protection from the wind', we console. Soaked again, what's new?
Day 13 October 20 Distance 3.8km. Altitude 795m
Oh, glory days! Look through the window of our tent and lo and behold, no visibility. Took awhile to realise our view was the stark wall of a serac no more than 2 metres away. Above it lay patches of blue, crisp sky, hip hooray. Pack quickly while drying our damp gear under the beaming sun, which deteriorates to billowing clouds, fog, then blowing snow and back to blue. Twelve seasons in one day. Scout ahead again and finally break through after an hour. Return and triple to the head of a large, flat basin that sits below the ramp. In the quagmire of yesterday, our direction had been slightly skewiff and we plunged unnecessarily into the disturbed ground we'd camped in. The ramp up to the head of the Jorge Montt is clear as a bell but two approaches are evident. I check out a direct line to it that climbs through a steep but easy icefall while Gaz and Wade check out a lower, circuitous route. Both proved good so we returned through the icefall and found it to be suitable. A great day of hard toil under a blue, hot sky. Mountains, mountains everywhere. Pyramidal peaks, snowy summits, frosty faces, razor ridges and rocky ramps. Totally surrounded by adventure. Our spirits soar with every step skyward and we blitz through the icefall and make camp in 'The Bunker' at the foot of the ramp.
Day 14 October 21 Distance 6.5km. Altitude 1287m
A blue sky with a few drifting clouds, unheard of. 'The Bunker' was an excellent camp and we have made a reservation for next year. We haul on a crisp and fast surface up to the foot of the ramp and are quickly stopped by the incline. Triple haul for a while but soon need to fix an anchor and pulley the loads up. We are again exposed to loose slopes above and all around is evidence of recent avalanches. We negotiate the ramp in a couple of hours and hit the final steep slopes of the Jorge Montt Glacier where we lunch barefoot under the sparkling heavens. Our course over the last 2 weeks is laid before us and we marvel at the complexity of our route. It has been a mammoth challenge and we are on the brink of spearing into another world, that of the windswept plateau. We expect the worst. Triple after lunch until the slope eases off and we edge out of the glacier and onto the cap. The snow is like glue and progress is incredibly slow and difficult. I propose one hour shifts up front but we quickly reduce to ten minutes. I am totally knackered at the end of the day, we all are, and look forward to our massive bowl of butter-enriched stew. Face the rear of the tent west, from where we expect winds, and make our kayak wall for protection.
Day 15 October 22 Distance 14km. Altitude 1520m
A backbreaking but rewarding day. Low cloud and muggy heat. Skis ball up terribly, like skiing on stilts and add 5kg of weight to each foot. Bloody annoying. Gaz the engineer, dabbler, inventor, genius, comes up with the idea of slicking up the surface of our skins with olive oil and it works a treat. We speed up considerably and smile much more but can still only manage 15 minute leads. A great day for our first on the plateau and we are definitely enlivened by the thought of the JM behind us.
Day 16 October 23 Distance 16km. Altitude 1408m
Very foggy in the morning, with 10 metre visibility but a reasonable surface. I feel like I'm back in Antarctica, slogging through a featureless and barren icescape, so I plug in to Portishead. Then, in the space of minutes, the fog burns off and we find ourselves in a surreal world. Mountains appear in every direction, poking out from the perimeter of this incredibly flat icecap. Ahead we see the elusive Vulcan Lautaro, first spied by Dr. Reichert over 70 years ago and then forgotten until Shipton's expeditions thirty years later, and opposite it, Cerro Piramide. We are privileged to have such conditions. In the distance, Fitzroy looms over the horizon, a brown mass of rock amongst the Cordon Darwin in the foreground. Along the western skyline project a row of sharp peaks that mark a string of glaciers plunging from the icecap to the Pacific archipelago below. To the west lies the Cordon Gaea. Wade's camera is, like him, abuzz, and he makes the most of it - thick clouds sit below us, clinging to the lowlands. We continue in a trance, but before long the fog rolls in from the west, filling the myriad subtle valleys on the icecap until we are once again blind. Was it all a dream? We continue on with the memory of what surrounds us, wondering whether we will be treated to such a display ever again. Not today. Inside the tent we 'watch TV', viewing the footage Wade has shot. It has become a nightly ritual. He is a master with the camera and already we sense that this is going to be some film. This is my second trip with Wade, we skied across Greenland in 1995, making the film Chasing the Midnight Sun. Like Gary, he is a great companion, trusty, dedicated and witty.
Day 17 October 24 Distance 31km. Altitude 1467m
What a day. Wake at 5am and break camp under a perfect sky. The mountains weren't a mirage after all and they stand etched against the cobalt sky. Upon reaching the Antarctic plateau, Amundsen claimed, 'The land is like a fairytale'. Patagonia is one step beyond; it's pure Nirvana. The NW breeze doesn't tickle us sufficiently until we zip up our cockpit covers. Its perfect and we are soon gliding quickly over the firm surface, being towed by our Quadrifoil 2005 (5sq/m) kites. It is my third kiting expedition, I used them in Greenland and on my South Pole trip and I don't hit the ice without them. They turn the drudgery of hauling into the exhilaration of speed. Wade stops to film and Gary and I continue for a while. Without warning, the clouds roll in and swallow us, and we lose Wade as we pass the head of the O'Higgins Glacier. We wait awhile before sledding back along our trail. He appears out of the murk and we are all relieved. We continue kiting but quickly downsize to our #3's as the strength increases and visibility decreaseds My kite becomes inverted somehow and I lose all control. It begins to loop uncontrollably, at least 300 times, and I sit on the ice taking the strain and wait for it to blow itself out. After 10 minutes Gary skis back and jumps on it. I have torn all the internal baffles and it requires a major repair. I take Wade's #3 and tow him, while Gaz tows his and Wade's sled with his 3. We move quickly, dangerously so, but are gripped by the moment and scream on. The wind continues to increase and plates of ice are being ripped from the surface and frisbee'd downwind. Everything is wild and we scream with joyful fear at the wind and each other. I hope nobody falls, there would be damage. We lunch at the foot of Lautaro, it's massive flanks rising and disappearing into the cloud. Try again after lunch but the wind has died. It is with disgust that we shod our skis with skins and haul up the long slope towards Paso de la Cuatro Ventisqueros (Pass of the Four Glaciers) and eventually camp betwixt Lautaro and Cerro Pyramide. We cover over 30km during the day. After stitching my kite back together, we flick on the tele and watch a doco about three nuts travelling at breakneck speed across a large iceblock - ho hum!
Day 18 October 25 Distance 25km. Altitude 1557m
Slog up the remainder of the slope and see a flock of geese glide past us, looking incongruous against the massive icy slopes of Lautaro. Again the conditions are wonderful. Head past the Marconi Range and Marconi Pass and see a lone skier heading towards Lautaro. This person has balls, so to speak. Try the #5's in a stiff breeze but the angle is wrong. Gary and his boat are lifted clean off the ground by the kite and transported almost 10 metres before hitting the ice again. It tears the climbing tape holding his traces (sled poles) to the sled clean through. We ski instead. After lunch the wind picks up considerably and we launch the #3's. Soon we are bullets across the landscape, travelling faster than I have travelled with kites before, faster than I want to. Wade and Gaz are both upright so I continue, pushing the limits of speed and sensibility. It's blowing at over 100km/h and gusting stronger. I have my kite upside down and dragging across the ice (a stalling maneuver!) and yet I am moving at top speed. If one of us falls we will be speared by an 80kg torpedo bouncing across the ice behind us. When the gusts hit, the increase in speed is immediate, breathtaking and fucking scary. I look back. Gary is right behind and I make out a fleeting smile tucked behind his beard. This is his first kiting expedition and he looks very much in control. I look further behind. Wade has bombed and is being dragged across the ice on his stomach, his kite fully inflated and out of control. I wait to see if he can control it but he tumbles endlessly into the growing gloom. I change tack and speed towards him, wondering how I will tackle this problem. As I near him, he releases the kite from his harness and it screams into the air, never to be seen again. I picture a climber on Fitzroy going for some extremely technical move, then thwack. Wade is OK, thankfully. Gaz the tec-head clocks us on his GPS - we have covered 10km in 15 minutes. Wade laments the loss of his kite, but is consoled by the fact that his recently broken collar-bone is still intact. The wind continues to strengthen and we plod on. Soon we are in a ground blizzard and our lower legs have all but disappeared in the drift. Gaz wants to camp but Wade wants to continue to find shelter at a nearby mountain. I agree we move on, it's only 5pm. Becomes a hellish traverse over awkward sastrugi and our runner-less sleds are at right angles to us. We decide to run down to the flat below us and camp. Ahead of us, Cerro Torre is aglow with evening light and a layer of fluffy cloud hovers below its summit. No wind up there. We make a big snow-block wall, pitch the tent in the lee then protect the wall with our kayaks. We expect to be tented in for days. The wind continues to blast past but we sleep like puppies.
Day 19 October 26 Distance 11km. Altitude 1335m
Unbelievably, the day is clear and still, and we are perched on the back doorstep of Fitzroy and Cerro Torre. They seem to wink at us as if to say, 'good onya chaps'. Our tongues and lips are burnt to a cinder from the last few days of sun. We cover our heads completely, zero exposure. A glance at the map and we realise we have passed Lautaro, the Marconi Pass and the Pass of the Glaciers and are about to meet the Mario Moreno Range to the west. We celebrate with a sleep in and a leisurely start. Despite our progress we are constantly on edge and peer suspiciously towards the west, waiting for the big one. Gaz suggests we stick by the mountains and sidle around the numerous valleys and spurs. I disagree and look towards the flat expanse of the plateau below us, sick of the awkward traversing and slipping of sleds. We sidle. After skirting around a massive windscour, we make our way past the Moreno Range, sweltering under the unrelenting sun. The snow basins act like lenses and we fry as if on a barbecue plate. The Fitzroy group slowly recedes behind us as we continue towards Viedma Nunatak. We are now in Argentina. Threading our way through successive passes, we descend a long slope and camp just short of Viedma Nunatak. The Viedma Glacier to the east descends to Lago Viedma below, blue and inviting.
Day 20 October 27 Distance 27km. Altitude 1412m
We ski skinless for most of the day, the surface is perfect and our loads are beginning to lighten significantly. Another clear day and we move fast. After a few climbs and descents we have passed Viedma Nunatak and begin the long but gradual climb towards the top of the Upsala Glacier. Again the weather is fine most of the day but begins to deteriorate at around 4pm. Threatening clouds build to the west and a brisk wind sweeps across the plateau. We are in for a big storm, lenticular clouds hover overhead like flying saucers. We try the kites and I get a good glide ahead of Wade and Gaz until it drops off again. Fickle weather. Two km to our west is a marked protected spot and we make for it. I set up camp in the lee of a knoll and Gaz and Wade join me in our grotto. The storm never eventuates. We are on the verge of completing our crossing of the Southern Icecap and feel pretty elated despite our long, tiring day in the saddle - a walk of 27km, much of it uphill.
Day 21 October 28 Distance 24km. Altitude 865m
A blustery and overcast morning see us dressed in full Gore. The cool weather is a relief and I feel snug wrapped up against the wind. But it doesn't last and soon we are amongst the same old good weather we've endured for much of the trip. Are we blessed, or what? It's all downhill from here and we ski skinless over the solid surface, skating at times. Cerro Murallon is dominant on the western shore of the glacier, a massive granite slab of a mountain, not unlike Asgard on Baffin Island. Shipton and his team had climbed to within 10 metres of the summit in 1961. As the day progresses the wind eases and the sky clears, again, and we are soon cruising effortlessly down the gentle slope. Lago Argentino appears in the distance at the end of the Upsala Glacier and we can see small bergs floating in the water. Try the kites for one last time but the wind is too light. Crevasses and icefalls begin to appear and we are soon amongst broken terrain again. We find direct but difficult route through the mess, tripling across dodgy bridges and serac walls. A beautiful lake appears on the eastern shore of the glacier and we make for it, knowing this is our exit point from the ice. As we approach it we realise the magnitude of the terrain - what look like small rocky knolls in the distance are in fact massive bluffs. We have well and truly crossed the divide and the lush vegetation of the Chilean Pacific coast has given way to an arid, bare rockscape of spectacular reds and yellows. We are entranced by the sheer beauty and contrast. By evening we are pitched on a patch of glacial sediment 700 metres short of the lake and rejoice in the success of our ice crossing. I have become the first fool to ski across the world's four largest icecaps.
Day 22 October 29 Distance 3km. Altitude 655m
A lovely night, warm and still. After an awkward relay down to a small glacial pool, we find a smooth ice ramp leading down towards another larger pool. We carry then lower the kayaks over a final rock buttress and then launch our kayaks into the water and allow the breeze to push them to the other side. The 'small' creek flowing from the pool into the lake turns out to be a raging torrent and we portage down its side to the lake. We drag the boats over a silted flat, by far the most difficult towing of the journey, and camp on the northern shore of the lake. The air is dry, the sky friendly, life is easy.
Day 23 October 30 Distance 5.7km. Altitude 615m
The morning dawns clear but a brisk, cool wind is blowing off the glacier. We tie the boats together as a raft (we are still carrying too much to paddle the boats individually - we still have 20 days food!) then Wade and I paddle it with the wind to the southern end of the 4km long lake. We are pretty low in the water but stable enough in the small chop. It is magical floating past the walls of the Upsala Glacier dipping into the western shore of the lake. Meanwhile Gary carries a load around the lake's edge. We paddle the raft until we are stopped by a mass of bergy bits hemmed against the southern shore. We anchor the raft and climb the ridge above. We see Lago Pascale 5 kilometres beyond and below us, surrounded by treeless bluffs and cliffs then find a dry outflow leading from our lake to Pascale. We cannot paddle the raft through the bergs to it so decide to tie the boats together like a row of little ducklings and pull them through the ice, walking along the bank. We lose a paddle amongst the icebergs and I have an epic trying to retrieve it. Meet with Gaz and eventually get the boats to the outflow. Relay three loads to the edge of Lago Pascale and are gobsmacked at the colour of the water, an irridescent inky blue that looks positively fake. Wade and I again paddle the raft 2km to the SE shore of the lake while Gary walks. There is a small hut - Refugio Pascale - above the shore somewhere and after an hour of frustrating searching we find it. The hut is a comfortable change from the cramped confines of the tent and we sleep like logs.
Day 24 October 31 Distance 1.5km. Altitude 213m
We spend the glorious morning paring down our equipment to an absolute minimum and leave a hefty swag of gear in the hut. Someone will enjoy the find. Just over one km to our east, and 400 metres below, lies Lago Anita. We spend the day lowering our boats down the cliffs and enjoy the change immensely. Condor circle overhead, trees become visible on the distant mountain flanks, moss and scrub appear underfoot and insects crawl about. We are amongst life again. Cerro Norte dominates the northern skyline and other snow-capped peaks abound. It seems that every mountain has its own personal glacier. A strong and gusty wind blows all day and the lake below is aspew with white-caps. We hope for calmer conditions when it comes time to paddle the 10km stretch of water. We drag our battered but intact kayaks over the lower reaches of the cliffs, often kicking them over the edge of some rock then sprinting madly behind them so as not to be catapulted by the harness traces. Scrub and low trees provide a final obstacle but we push through, comically so, and finally arrive at the edge of Lago Anita, hands blistered and red from the ropes. Spend the afternoon toying with configurations of kayak, gear and paddler. We succeed, but our decks are loaded high and the boats sit low. It's borderline - one big wave and we're over. And of the river flowing from Anita to Lago Argentino beyond we know nothing about. Our camp on the sandy shore is so incredibly idyllic. There is such a plethora of magical and unspoiled places on this earth, it's a matter of finding them, then leaving them as they were found.
Day 25 November 1 Distance 24km. Altitude 865m
The wind abates completely overnight, not before blasting the tent with a few rockets, and we wake to a mirror-calm mill-pond. Break camp and squeeze ourselves into the kayaks. We glide out onto the water and compare the flotation of our respective boats. The water laps just below the combing of our cockpits. We quickly move along the water and stay reasonably close to the western shore, lest the wind comes up again. Approach a massive waterfall spilling from a bright orange cliff, the outfall from Pascale, and Wade paddles ahead to get out on shore and film. The dominating snow-capped mountains behind provide the perfect backdrop and we are in no rush. After a couple of hours of cruising we reach the Rio Catalina and are relieved that it is wide and gentle. However it provides us with a lot of fun, some heart-stopping moments and the opportunity for a new descent. The river struggles to reach grade 2 but that's enough for us, even the pressure waves of the gentle rapids are enough for our overloaded crafts. After 10km we reach Estancia Cristina and lunch on the shore under a warm sun. We know nothing of the inhabitants and of the National Park HQ across the river. We have decided to abandon our attempt to paddle across Lago Argentino. We underestimated the size of the massive lake and our boats are too small for some of the crossings so we hope that there may be a boat to take us to El Calafate. The HQ has been abandoned for many years and lies like a ghost town amongst the low scrub. We cross the river again and walk to the estancia. A door opens and a large group of people spills out, we are in tourist country. The estancia has been taken over by a tourist operation that takes people from El Calafate out to look at the Upsala and they greet us warmly. What a severe and unexpected interface for us - extreme wilderness to commercialism in one abrupt moment - and we reel in shock. It can't be over, not that quickly. Via the tour operators, then the NP, the military are onto us and we are ordered onto the tour boat and taken to Punta Bandera. We are met by the carabineros (police) and militar and taken in the back of a truck to Calafate, where we arrive covered head to toe in dust. Spend the next three hours in a hollow room, dozing to the sound of questions in Spanglish, clacking typewriters and a tinny radio playing hits from the 70's. But we are treated with respect and released just before midnight with 10 days to leave the country. We are taken to a Hostel where we eat pizza, drink beer and sleep the sleep of very happy kings.
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