Expedition 2012: Patagonia, Land of Extremes
Patagonia is the place of legends: the towering, iconic mountains, raging rivers, deep blue glaciers, wild winds, and miles of open, expansive wilderness. There’s a reason the company Patagonia took its name from this corner of the earth. A trip to Patagonia is a dream for most climbers and trekkers, as it was for me. So when the opportunity to go climbing with a couple of friends came up, I jumped on it.
The plan came together nicely: Mike Coote, a climbing friend of mine from Boston, and Marco Perez, a good friend from Peru, who I’ve climbed with in Peru and Bolivia, planned a three week trip where we would explore the classic corners of Patagonia and try to get on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap while climbing a peak. We would begin at the southern tip of the South American continent, in Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and then head up to Chile to Torres del Paine National Park to do the Paine Circuit, one of the top treks in the world. Finally, we would go to Argentinian Patagonia in Glacier National Park, where we would get onto the Patagonian Southern Ice Cap and climb a peak.
Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Despite it’s cruel weather, Tierra del Fuego is an off-the-beaten track prize for any explorer. It’s a place of jagged peaks, remote glaciers, wind-torn forests and bogs. The largest of South America’s islands, it’s split politically between Chile and Argentina, with the border running almost exactly halfway through the island. We chose the city of Ushuaia in Argentina as our starting point. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world and was founded for two primary reasons: as the main port and launching point for trips to Antarctica and as a stronghold for Argentina to repel Chilean claims to territory. The competition between the two countries over Fuegian lands has been fierce over the years, with the most recent borders being re-drawn in the middle of the Beagle Channel, giving Chile the former Argentinian claims on the prized island of Navarino. Argentina, determined not to lose any more of it’s territorial claims, incented people to settle in Ushuaia. As a result, Ushuaia has developed rapidly and lost it’s remote, end-of-the-earth feel as a city, having it replaced with tourist shops, a large port hosting cruise ships destined for Antarctica, and a burgeoning population cultivating the outskirts of the city.
The surrounding wildness, however, preserves Ushuaia as the perfect place to experience Tierra del Fuego. The first place we chose to explore was the harbor, which serves as a habitat for species that can only be found in sub-Antarctica climates, such as the penguin. The harbor, as it often does, shuts down due to the severe wind, but we managed to get out on a boat in a relatively calmer window. We cruised the Beagle Channel (named after Darwin’s famous vessel, the Beagle, which sailed the straights in 1832). We passed Alicia Island, one of the main islands in the harbor before reaching Isla de los Parajos (Bird Island), where we observed the king cormorants, who make the island their home and resemble penguins from a distance.
We circled the Les Eclailreurs lighthouse, symbolically the lighthouse at the end of the world as well as the southernmost lighthouse in the world, and then visited Isla de los Lobos, home to many of Tierra del Feugo’s sea lions and fur seals.
We then toured Bridges Island, which contains more wildlife and vestiges of the indigenous population, the Yaghans, who used to dwell on the harbor islands. The Yaghans, in fact helped give Tierra del Fuego it’s name. Ferdinand Magellan, the first European explorer to visit this part of the world was said to have seen the bonfires of the Yaghans from a distance on his ship and hence gave the land it’s name, Tierra del Fuego or “Land of Fire”. The Yaghans, as with other indigenous populations in South America, were killed off by disease, with the last of the estimated original 3000 Yaghans dying in the early 20th century.
Martillo Island, on the outer banks of the harbor, served as our final port of call on the exploration of the harbor. Martillo Island is home to Estancia Haberton, contains more than 50,000 acres of lakes and forests that serve as home to colony of an estimated 3000 pairs of Magellanic penguins and 16+ pairs of Gentoo penguins. Among the Magellanics and Gentoos, also is one King penguin, who normally is only found in Antartica. The locals believe that the King got lost and is taking refuge among his cousin species. The King is much larger than the other penguins and was easy to spot. While the Gentoos mainly stayed on their above ground nests, the Magellanics had the run of the island and were very curious of our presence. They approached us, curiously gawking asking us what we were doing there, often retreating to their underground nests if we got too close.
We decided to spend the rest of the time in Tierra del Fuego exploring Tierra del Fuego National Park. Part of the original plan was to climb one of the local peaks, Cerro Alvear or Cerro Olivia, which is the highest peak in Tierra del Fuego. In what was to become an all too familiar theme, the high winds, rain and clouds, forced us to change our plans. Tierra del Fuego was particularly raw, with colder temperatures compounded by moisture and wind chills. Climbing in those conditions, particularly up the rocky faces and scree slopes of the Fuegian summits, was not safe nor enjoyable. Instead, we set out to explore the beauty of the lower confines.
The Martial Glacier served as our first stop and was the first of many glaciers we would see in Patagonia. To reach the glacier, we climbed through blasting winds and a rain/snow mix, where we got views of the glacier snaking its way up the peaks as well as panoramic views of the Beagle Channel in the background. Laguna Esmeralda (Emerald Lake) served as our next destination—a short 4 hour hike across Fuegian bogs and forests—where we reached the emerald green, subalpine lake that rested at the base of Albino Glaciar. The final point of exploration was the Senda Costera in the Tierra del Fuego National Park, from Bahia Ensenada to Bahia Lapataia. The four hour walk took us along the coast, visiting the homelands of the native Yaghans, who used to eat the plentiful mussels along the beaches and build homes in the chilled forests.
Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Our entry into Torres del Paine National Park began in the gateway town of El Calafate in Argentina, about 350 miles north of Ushuaia. The environment is noticeably warmer in El Calafate, with more greenery. El Calafate still retains the wild Patagonian weather, particularly when traveling westward to the town of Puerto Natales in Chile, which served as our base for entering Torres del Paine. Along our journey to Puerto Natales, we visited the Perito Moreno Glacier, which is one of the few glaciers on earth that is not receding, but in fact, advancing. The glacier is also one of the few in the world that you can easily access and watch icebergs calve off into the lake. Perito Moreno cuts Lago Argentino, Argentina’s largest lake, into two by spanning a three mile stretch from one shore to the other, all while standing an impressive 240 feet above the surface water (ice depth reaches 558 feet) and spanning 20+ miles towards the South Patagonian Ice Cap. Standing in front of Perito Moreno is one of the most breathtaking experiences one can have.
Puerto Natales is a dusty, remote port town in Chile, mainly serving the many tourists who venture here every year to enter the National Park or take one of the many ships that explore the maze of fjords and islands along the south Chilean coast. Our plan was to hike the Paine Circuit, one of the classic treks in the world. The full circuit was closed due to landslides, leaving the shorter, more scenic “W” circuit as the main option to travel. We stocked up on 5 days of fuel and food, got great info from our friends at Erratic Rock, a local hostel run by an American expat from Oregon, loaded up our big backpacks, and headed into the park.
Fires ravaged the park in 2011, scorching 2 million+ hectares of land. While it’s not known exactly how the fires started, it’s largely attributed to someone’s lack of care with a campfire. Consequently, camping was only allowed in designated spots and campfires forbidden.
Day one began with a boat ride across Lago Pehoe, where we got dropped off at a very windy spot at the northwestern part of the lake. We climbed 4 hours north to campsite at the Grey Glacier, all while getting views of the Paine Grande massif, including the appropriately named Cerro Castillo (Castle peak) and Cerro Catedral (Cathedral peak), both of which resembled their namesakes. These peaks captured my imagination as I stared in wonder at the massive walls jetting out 7000-8000 feet straight up into the air and thinking about the climbers who had scaled these monsters with sheer athleticism and advanced technical skill in the past.
We set up camp in a meadow situated between Paine Grande and Lago Grey. We got our first glimpse of the Chilean refugios (huts) along the circuit, which were surprisingly luxurious compared to the huts of the White Mountains in my native New England or even the huts in other mountains I’ve visited in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nepal.
A short walk brought us to Glacier Grey, whose snout forms the northern end of Lago Grey. We watched the unstable, 600 foot thick wall ice calve off into the lake as the sun set. Strong winds send the huge icebergs across the lake and scour the glacier, hardening the ice. Glacier Grey stretched all the way to the South Patagonian Ice Cap, the main engine for feeding the glaciers, along with immense amounts of moisture and wind.
We retraced our steps the next day, hiking 7+ hours until we reached Campo Italiano, a main crossroads to Valle del Frances and the eastward arm of the “W” trek. Campo Italiano reminded us why its so important to act responsibly in the mountains, with its overuse and transient population.
The next day provided us with one of the highlights of the trek, bringing us the Valle del Frances, sandwiched in between the Paine Grande massif to the west and the Cuernos Massif to the east. We observed avalanches breaking down the impossibly steep slopes of Paine Grande until we finally reached a high point overlooking the peaks on both sides. The Cuernos (“Horns”) are a series of sharp towers that rise vertically straight upward from the valley floor. These are some of the most coveted prizes in the big wall, elite climbing circuit, so I felt privileged to be in their presence. The approaches alone to the walls would be a challenge enough for most, but to spend days scaling the walls—particularly in the harsh conditions of Patagonia—is quite an impressive feat.
We exited the Valle del Frances and finished the 7 hour day in the rain at the Los Cuernos campground. Our tent and clothing got drenched in the pouring rain as we made our usual evening dinner of pasta with tomato sauce and tuna. Los Cuernos had a refugio where we were able to take some shelter from the harsh conditions and socialize with others who were also passing through.
The fourth day brought us along the rolling forests on the north side of Lago Nordenskjold, around the famed Torre Massif, ending at Campo Torres, a beautiful campsite at the base of the Torres. The Torres are four sister towers (Torre de Agostini or Torre Sur, Torre Central, Torre Monzino or Torre Norte and Nido de Condor), the most famous peaks within Torres del Paine National Park. The Torres are legendary big wall peaks in the climbing world and are considered some of the most difficult in the world to climb. Stories of week-long blizzards in the summertime and 70 mile an hour winds picking up haul bags during ascents of the Torres are quite common.
We settled for watching the sunrise over the Torres in a fortunate brief window of clear whether. The alpenglow from the sunrise lit the rock on fire with color. Watching the sunrise over the Torres was a highlight of not on the trip, but of the year, and indeed of my lifetime.
We ended the trek on the fifth day with a long walk from Campo Torres to Hosteria Las Torres, where we began to renter civilization. The large hotel provided a nice refueling spot as we awaited the buses that would take us back to Puerto Natales for our departure to our next leg of the journey—Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park, Argentina
The starting point for visiting Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy and other classic peaks in Glacier National Park is El Chalten, a small, backwater town about 2.5 hours south of El Calafate. El Chalten, as was the case with Ushuaia, was established by the Argentinian government mainly to fortify its claims on its western Patagonian border. El Chalten thrives on tourism, with the town of about 1000 people comprised mainly of hotels, restaurants and guiding companies.
We arrived in El Chalten around 10pm, just was the sun was starting to set. The night was clear and beautiful, which would turn out to be the only day that would be so for our entire stay in El Chalten.
We decided that we would try to climb Gorra Blanca, a relatively remote peak that normally takes 4-5 days to climb. Gorra Blanca is a glaciated peak that sits on the eastern edge of the South Patagonian Ice Cap. The peak was not challenging technically or because of altitude (the highest peak in Patagonia, Fitz Roy, is only about 3500 meters), but rather because of one thing: the Patagonian weather. Since the peak is directly exposed to the westerly flow of weather off the Pacific and onto the Ice Cap, it gets notoriously windy, foggy and rainy/snowy once crossing over the higher passes. Our planned route was going to take us over the Marconi Pass, across the Marconi glacier to the edge of the ice cap, where we would set up a camp (or go to a nearby refugio on the Chilean side) for a summit attempt. The biggest risk, aside from walking head first into an 80 mile an hour wind, was getting pinned down in white out conditions on the middle of the glacier. Since we did not have a GPS, we would rely on a map and compass. We also needed to make sure we brought our snowshoes and a shovel to build a walled space for our tent. The shovel could be our lifeline on the glaciar.
Aside from our rope and other climbing gear, we also packed enough food for 5 days, one additional day of food than we thought we’d need. We monitored the weather on a site called windguru.com, which we were told was the best site for Patagonia. The site did a somewhat reasonable job estimating wind, cloud cover and precipitation, but was far from accurate. The only way to understand the weather in Patagonia was to experience it.
With our packs fully loaded and weighing a lot more than any of us were used to carrying (estimating about 20-25 kilos), we retired to bed at our hostel in El Chalten, ready to leave the next morning. The entire night the wind howled, ripping down the valley and blasting El Chalten. Our hostel in particular seemed susceptible with its shoddy construction, letting wind in through all the cracks and absorbing the wind in it’s porous nooks and crannies. Upon checking the weather first thing in the morning, we saw that Marconi Pass was being blasted and was receiving substantial rain. The same was expected to the next day. We decided to postpone our start until the next day, preferring to sleep in a bed rather than spending an assured night with 3 people crammed into a tent in the rain and wind. Leaving the next day would also presumably allow us to avoid that days bad weather since the first part of the climb was mainly in forests and along what we assumed were rocks not exposed to the wind.
The following day proved to be equally windy, but we headed out. We got dropped off by a taxi at the starting point at Puente Electrico at Rio Electrico. We knew it would be windy, but we did not expect full-on hurricane force winds at the start. We struggled to get to our feet and move up the path head first into an estimated 75-80 mph winds. It took all we had with the heavy packs to remain balanced. We huddled together, backs to the wind, and checked the map. The map showed that once we turned a corner, we should be protected by the winds blasting in from the west by a large rock formation and trees. We prodded along. Fortunately, our prediction held true and we proceeded to head up the path towards our goal, Campo Playita, about 5 hours away.
The climb up to Refugio Piedras Fraille was relatively flat, with on and off again rain—the typical weather pattern of the lower elevations in Patagonia. We arrived at Fraille, where we met another group who had just climbed Gorra Blanca. They had been fortunate enough to take advantage of the window of nice weather they were presented, which corresponded to the night we arrived in El Chalten and into the next day. They told us that the climb is a “lot further than we thought” and quite taxing. Crevasses did not seem to present an issue, except at the beginning, where there was a gap between the forward moraine and the start of the glacier. The real challenge was as we expected: the weather, namely the role it could play in route finding. While they were fortunate enough to summit and climb out in relatively calm weather, they did indicate weather forecasts were not looking like those conditions would repeat themselves. For that reason, they had decided to head out, abandoning their original plans to go onto the ice cap.
After an extended break in Fraille, we moved on towards La Playita camp, nestled on the shore of Lago Electrico, where we would spend the night. La Playita was an estimated 3 hours away, but it would take us about 4 with our heavy packs. The path was a lot more challenging than we expected, taking us over large moraine fields and through a river crossing that required us to get our boots soaked. Towards the end of the hike, the rain came down at a very steady clip, soaking us and all our belongings. I had lined my pack with plastic, so my sleeping bag and other items inside remained dry. However, I had not put on my gortex pants, so my shoeller shell was pretty wet. Arriving at camp tired, we set up camp and covered ourselves in gortex head to toe. Making dinner with 3 people jammed into a 2 person tent is challenging, but we made it work.
The rain pelted the tent all night, with the wind behaving itself. We awoke to the rain subsiding to a sprinkle, but with the mountains completely covered in clouds. We could hear the wind ripping through the higher elevations. We were told that the conditions at La Playita are indicative of what you could expect to find in Marconi Pass. A party in the tent next to us had spent 3 nights in their tent waiting for the weather to subside. Their original plan was to head to Lautaro, a remote peak that normally takes 8 days to climb. With 3 days gone and an additional fourth day planned to stay in La Playita due to the current weather conditions, they would need to modify their goals.
Similarly, we decided to modify our goals. The Lautaro party also had a satellite phone with them that was reporting in weather forecasts. They were told the weather was expected to continue to be stormy today and for the next 3-4 days. Given that forecast and the fact that we only had about 5 days left on our trip, we decided to head down and turn our sites to some of the other peaks that would be more sheltered from the weather (or so we hoped) and not require lugging a heavy pack. While we did not mind climbing in bad weather, it was the combination of the possibility of being trapped in bad weather for day son the glacier with limited food and summit possibilities, few views and little time for anything else, that sent us down. This decision turned out to be the correct one since a few days later we learned from other people who had been in other parts of the range, that they experienced terrible weather. In fact, one party who had gone across the ice cap, reported not being able to see anything and having to make dangerous river crossings up to their chests, including one where 3 members of the party were swept away by the fast currents. They had to be pulled out and continue their journey completely soaked and cold.
Regrouping in El Chalten, we watched weather conditions and decided against an attempt at a couple of other peaks that we were considering: Cerro Solo and Vespiangni. Instead, we decided to complete a 3 day trek around Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy, which would let us experience all that the park had to offer and get us great views of the peaks.
From El Chalten, we headed towards Laguna de los Tres, about a 4 hour journey. Along the way we passed what normally would be spectacular views of Fitz Roy, but the clouds prevented us from seeing. We passed the glacial lake, Lago Capri before reaching Camp Poincenot, where we set up camp for the night. We made the 1+ hour climb up to Laguna de los Tres, where we were greeted by a stiff wind, snow and clouds. The view of Fitz Roy was obscured, but we did get great views of the deep glacial lake, Lago Sucia. The final part of the journey included hiking to Piedras Blancas, where we saw the Piedras Blancas glacier, a hanging glacier that left a field of boulders, many of which serve the local climbing community.
The next day, we attempted a hike to Lago Sucia, but the trail abruptly ended at a very difficult, if not near impossible river crossing, forcing us to turn back. Instead, we took the 3+ hour journey to Laguna Torre, where normally fantastic views of Cerro Torre could be had. Because of the clouds and wind, the views were obscured. However, we did get spectacular views of Glacier Grande, Cerro Solo and the surrounding peaks. The camp at Campo di Agostini was our last camp of the trip.
Reflections on Climbing in Patagonia
Patagonia is a land of extremes. It’s got the most extreme weather and the most extreme climbing terrain of anywhere I have ever been. I’ve always read about the weather in Patagonia, particularly the wind, but it was another thing to experience it first hand. The wind is just relentless, with gusts merging with sustained winds, which easily bite into your core. Clouds seem to form out of nowhere in a matter of minutes. One minute you see blue skies, and literally minutes later that same sky is shrouded in clouds and snow is falling. While precipitation is not voluminous in short spurts, it is more sustained over days. The combination of the wind, clouds and the rain/snow is what makes Patagonia famously known for its weather and climbing in this part of the world extreme.
The topography of Patagonia makes the climbing extreme. There are very few peaks that don’t represent an extreme challenge (ED or TD is the normal rating on most of the peaks). The big wall climbs in particular are daunting. Patagonian climbing is designed for the extreme climber, mainly for experienced rock climbers who are comfortable climbing difficult (5.10+) climbs, many of which require multiple days, long approaches and dealing with unpredictable and harsh weather. There are of course less difficult climbs in the lower valleys (mainly as day outings) as well as upper elevations for those willing to search them out, but for those climbers looking for less technical routes in a classic alpine mountaineering setting, Patagonia is not the best place to climb. Those climbers would be better served in places such as the Cordillera Real of Bolivia, the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, the volcanoes of Ecuador, the Khumbu of Nepal or other similar regions that offer a greater variety of climbs with more predictable weather.
As a student of mountaineering, I found it exhilarating to be in Patagonia. I stood among the giant peaks of the mountaineering world where legends were made– from Lionel Teray and Guido Magnone’s first ascent of Fitz Roy via the Southeast Route in 1956 to Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk’s speedy 13 hour ascent of Cerro Torre in 2012. While I did not climb what I had hoped in this trip to Patagonia due to weather (and joined the long list of others who had done the same before me), I left Patagonia with a newfound respect for any climbers who climb in this part of the world. I’ve always said technical mountaineering at altitude is the toughest sport in the world, and climbing in Patagonia without the altitude but the harshest weather on earth, falls into that same category. Climbers who venture off to climb Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy, the Torres or any of the smaller towers surrounding these classics are true warriors. Those who succeed in climbing them are in another level above that.
The great Southern Patagonian Ice Cap is an extreme adventure in itself. While not technically challenging, it requires strong route finding skills and a willingness and ability to deal with harsh winds and weather conditions. A traverse on the ice cap requires at least an 8 day journey, including pulling heavy packs, crossing raging rivers up to your waist and of course traveling head first into the wind and rain without seeing where you are headed.
The best advice I can offer to anyone looking to climb in Patagonia, whether it be across the ice cap or up one of the classic towers, is to pick a single objective and give yourself plenty of time (2-4 weeks) to achieve that objective. Be willing to wait for the right window in the weather. Patience and luck are your biggest allies.
Reflections on the People, Environment and Future of Patagonia
The Argentinians and Chileans who inhabit Patagonia are an adventurous, hardy type of people. Many come from the big cities, such as Buenos Aires, and have decided to look for greater economic opportunities in Patagonia, as well as enjoy the rugged and beautiful terrain of their country. While both countries are developing countries, they are better off than many of their neighbors that I have visited, such as Bolivia and Peru. The standard of living was higher, with better roads, more reliable transport and greater access to natural resources, including the purest water on earth.
The Patagonians very much view themselves as stewards of their environment. The locals in Ushuaia, for instance, who have lived there for decades, resent the expansion of the cities to accommodate political ambitions and even resent the greater impact of tourism. They prefer to see the Ushuaia of old—one that had a more contained population and blended more seamlessly with the local environment. Throughout Patagonia, particularly within Chile, there was a strong resistance to altering the environment to fuel the energy needs of the northern part of the country. Patagonia is blessed with one of the best systems of river in the world, which many would like to harness for its hydroelectric potential. Dams and power lines are regular parts of conversation, most of which has not come to fruition due to the desire to preserve Patagonia’s natural resources. I fear in time that this will change as population growth and economic ambitions will outweigh the desires of the Patagonians.
Climate change also presents a serious challenge to Patagonia, particularly its vast array of glaciers and the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. While some glaciers in Patagonia are defying logic and advancing, many are retreating. Just like in other parts of the world, the impact of human-induced greenhouse gases present the biggest threat to the future of Patagonia. The signs of this threat are not as drastic as I observed in places such as Nepal, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, but nonetheless are altering the landscape and the culture of the region.
The future of Patagonia not only lies with the people who live there, but people like me, who have visited this region, and will use the lasting impressions of its beauty to influence my actions on a daily basis and the conversations I have with my kids, family and friends on the importance of protecting this land and others like it around the world.