The return to the Southern Patagonian Icecap

The southern Patagonian icecap is the largest icecap in South America, and lies in the Andes between Chile and Argentina.

This is a wild area, few people, no maps, extreme weather and with glaciers cutting through the giant Andes mountains on the way to the pacific. I have been here before, in 2003, when Thomas Ulrich and I did the first unsupported crossing of this 500 kilometres long icecap. Memories from that expedition told me to prepare for wet and windy conditions and countless crevasses.

This time we were five; Hallgeir, Ola, Thorleif from Norway, and Vincent from France. The plan was to ski up the Jorge Montt glacier on the west side, up to the plateau and then exit out eastwards into El Chalten in Argentina. We chartered a boat from the small village Tortel, on the Chilean west coast, and sailed south towards the Jorge Montt glacier.  At a freshwater lake close to the coast we made the first camp and also did some fishing. Several nice trouts served us well for dinner that night.

Vincent Colliard capturing the main menu for the evening.

The weather can be pretty extreme in Patagonia with heavy rain for days and weeks, and along the coastal area of Patagonia there are large areas of (cold) rainforest. This forest is almost impenetrable without machete. Just to cover a couple hundred meters can take hours. Higher up, vegetation gives way to barren rock with dark coloured moss and lichens. It’s a two days trip to carry through the forest and up to the glacier.  With about 60 kg of equipment each it’s a bone-breaking exercise on slippery rocks, but finally, on the third day, we were on solid ice.

The trail to get through the wilderness and up to the ice can be rather compact with bushes.

However, upon arrival we discovered that the entry to the glacier I had used in 2003, simply didn’t exist anymore. The glacier has melted a lot in ten years and at the lower parts I would estimate that it has sunken 70-80 metres and retreated around 500 metres. This meant that we had to find new routes since the landscape had changed so much. Crevasses were many and deep, and it was a chaos of ice since this is a quite rapid moving glacier. On one campsite we had in the crevasse field, we moved 9 metres during the night.  The only way ahead was close to the mountains, but ice-stream flowing in from the sides made it challenging to get through.

Ambassador Borge Ousland back in Patagonia

In these parts of the glacier we were on crampons the first two days, there was no snow for skiing. Crampons and ice axe are necessary on steep icy slopes, but skis are much safer when it comes to crossing snow-bridges because of better weight distribution. Crampons are also sharp spiky things, and can cause severe damage to people and equipment. The second day on the glacier, Vince got stepped on with a crampon that perched his foot. It looked quite bad; we put him on antibiotics, took his sled and continued up the glacier. (When we came to El Chalten and Vince had his foot x-rayed, we learned that his foot actually was broken).

Ambassador Borge Ousland back on the ice

It took us ten days to reach the plateau at 1500 metres altitude. With clear sky and in great skiing conditions we could finally get some progress. This is a different world altogether. It is these sharp jagged peaks rising up from the ice, some of them up to four thousand metres high, which makes Patagonia so wild and special. Last time I was here these mountains were hidden in clouds, so this was also a new and lifting experience for me. However, good weather seldom lasts long in Patagonia, and when we were hit by more than 20 metres per second gusts we remained in the tent for one day. The next day was almost as bad, but we were through the eye of the storm and with the wind from behind, we continued skiing. Here we navigated blindfolded on satellite maps, which is the most reliable way to do it since no conventional maps exist of these areas. I simply buy satellite photos, with degrees and minutes, and with the rough GPS coordinates we can still ski in bad weather, roped up of course.

Surrounded by the white. Borge Ousland in his element.

The last night on the glacier we had camped in total whiteout, only to wake up to clear sky and Cerro Torre towering above us. We were now close to Marconi Pass, and soon we could also see Fitz Roy, another famous hotspot for hardened climbers. Both are beautiful granite mountains, and in many ways the landmarks of Patagonia. Paso Marcony was easy, only a steep snow slope going down towards Lago electric. Also here the glacier has retreated big time the last ten years, and made the pass a bit dangerous to exit. Large seracs were now hanging directly above our route, and in such areas you move quickly to get out of the danger zone as fast as possible.

Patagonia

The last day we were again on backpack, moving out a valley towards the east. On this side of the glacier it is much dryer, and without the thick jungle you can find on the east coast. Gradually life increased, from tiny pieces of grass and flowers to old forest with huge trees further down the valley. Now that we had used most of our food and fuel, we could do it all in one go. Reaching the road we were happy to get the load off our sore backs, and get into the waiting truck. We ended the trip in El Chalten, a small town which is famous as a climber’s haul out, and could finally dig into that Argentinian steak we had dreamt of for so long!

For your outdoor adventures check out: