A trip report, photos and video links together with some personal thoughts, recommendations and musings after this years expedition to the Patagonian Icecap in November 2014 (by Richard Hartley of Spanish Highs)
The original plan to visit the “nunateks” of Witte and Viedma had to be cancelled due to warm and dangerous snow conditions. Instead we reverted to the normal traverse down the icecap from the Paso Marconi to Paso del Viento. This was completed in generally good weather and light winds (for Patagonia!) with the loss of only 2 days to the weather.
Google Earth Fly Through of the Route
Taken from our GPS track. Thanks to team member Ian Tupman for the video
YouTube Video (also embedded below)
Access to the Icefield
Day 1 - To Piedra del Fraile
The normal drizzle greeted us on day 1 as we had an afternoon walk to the Piedra del Fraile. With 25kg packs containing all our gear for a 10 night outing this makes a convenient 3 hour initiation to the joys of Patagonia! At the end you have the benefit of camping in the trees and a refuge selling beer, wine, pasta, pizza etc.
Day 2 - to La Playita
We headed up the Rio Electrico valley in reasonably good weather. Fitzroy was not showing its spectacular NW face but there was clearing skies and light winds. Warm temperatures meant a lot of snow melt was coming down the Rio Pollone, which we found quite difficult to cross. Quite a few of us had wet feet by the time we reached the far bank and continued our journey to La Playita, sheltered and protected from the winds behind a huge rockface.
Day 3 - Gear carry/recce. Return to La Playita
The weather report we received via our Yellowbrick Tracker (See Weather and Communications below) warned of high winds on Paso Marconi but easing the following day. We decided to make a short gear carry to the base of the Marconi Glacier. This not only made the following days start easier but also allowed us to recce the way onto the lower glacier. During the afternoon we had amazing views of Mt Fitzroy as the clouds cleared.
On the Icecap Itself
Day 4 - to Icefield Camp 1 via Paso Marconi
This was the “crunch” day. Nearly 1000m ascent up a tortuous glacier with the elements all working against you the higher you got. In addition we could hear avalanches and serac collapses occurring throughout the day. The lower Marconi went easily. We crossed the medial moraine and proceeded to to the crux section, a steep corner passing below overhanging seracs. I have never seen this so intimidating! Stepping delicately over thin snow bridges we made our way carefully round the corner section to reach the relative safety of the upper glacier.
Then it’s the same old hard plod up gradually easier gradient but interminable snow slopes to the Paso Marconi. The wind acts as a huge funnel here but gradually the peaks on the far side of the icecap reveal themselves. And then …. you’re there. The Southern Patagonian Icecap stretches before you in all it’s glory. 300km long and 50km wide. The view takes your breath away!
We dropped onto the icecap itself moved a little to the south to move away from the “tunneling” effect of the wind, and started to build snow walls and erect tents.
It was apparent to me now, that we had to change our nunatek route and revert to the normal traverse. Large crevasses existed on the western side of the icecap and I just wasn’t prepared to play russian roulette given the state of the snow.
Day 5 - To Circo de las Altares
We had intended a rest day at Icecap Camp 1, but an improving weather forecast suggested a move to the amazing Circo de las Altares would pay dividends. This 5-6 hour walk is mainly flat, but it is not easy, especially in deep snow. Snowshoes helped but we lost the advantage of having the pulks with us. The weather was grey and overcast but immediate visibility was pretty good.
We navigated by GPS and compass to the cirque, which is situated at the entrance to a shallow valley surrounded by jagged peaks. The peaks themselves are a who’s who of some of the hardest and most spectacular peaks in the world including Cerro’s Torre, Standhardt, Egger and Mt Fitzroy.
We were lucky to find pre built snow wall recently vacated by another party so quickly moved in! The weather remained grey and dull with the peaks staying behind a wall of cloud. Our weather forecast suggest light winds for 3 days before changing to 100km+.
Day 6 - Rest day at Circo de las Altares
What better way to spend a rest day, than sat among these great peaks? At 6 am an excited shout from someone visiting the nearby toilet got us all out of our pits. Yes, we could see the sun popping through the cloud to the east. The sky showed patches of blue and the cloud was slowly clearing. This continued throughout the morning as we were treated to glimpses and then subsequently to full views of this spectacular and unique landscape. A treasured day that will live long in the memory!
Day 7 - Glacier Viedma and Laguna Ferrari
We headed due south from Circo las Altares with the amazing rime ice walls of the Cordon Adela group to our left. A white prominence on the horizon (huge crevasses) marked the slope change signifying the start of the upper Viedma glacier. After 3 hours we arrived at a complicated section of ice and moraine which took us off the glacier and onto the moraines near Laguna de los Esquis. A tiring ascent followed to our bivouac site at Laguna de Ferrari.
The Return Journey
Day 8 - to Laguna Toro
A steep but quick ascent to Paso de Viento, the key to the exit from the icecap. Behind us lay the black and white landscape of the icecap but in front of us lay the Tunel valley, an area of glaciers, streams, lakes and with tantalising glimpses of green forests in the distance.
We had greater than usual difficulties in getting across the loose moraines and onto the Tunel Glacier snout. A dangerous and unstable place! Coming off that glacier a section of track had been obliterated by an avalanche and navigation was very tricky. Eventually we arrived on the welcoming sands by Laguna Toro. It was too late to cross the rushing waters of the Rio Tunel in afternoon spate, so we camped here
Day 9 - the return to El Chaltén
Up early to catch the Rio Tunel at it’s lowest. The predicted high winds had arrived. We waded across in tightly knit groups of 4, most of us carrying our boots. After circulation returned to our feet we made a brisk 6 hour march through the woods and forests back to the welcoming comforts of El Chaltén. Along the way our senses exploded with all the colour of the Patagonian forest. Wild flowers, birds, full of life! The beer never tasted so good though!
Weather and Communications
There are two major requirements for a visit to the Patagonian Icecap!
Getting the correct weather Information
The ability to judge how to act on that information
Fortunately this expedition had the assistance of professional weather forecaster Steph Ball. She would send a detailed weather report to our Yellowbrick Tracker every evening. With her we developed a short code system that allowed us to see both morning and afternoon conditions for the next few days together with a further 2 day longer term forecast. Steph knew (via our website tracker map) where we were so could send detailed analysis for a specific area. This is invaluable information.
Armed with this we could make balanced judgments about whether to move or stay put. The crunch day is always the day climbing up onto Paso Marconi. Based on the weather we waited for lesser wind speeds before doing this. The longer term forecast for high winds also influenced our decision to cross over the Paso del Viento when we did. When the high winds came we were at valley level and somewhat protected by trees and forests.
Life in a Tent
The first few days of an expedition always seem strange. You mess about erecting tents, the cooking is awkward, and the tent is usually a chaotic mess of dis organisation. But gradually this changes and things get slicker and slicker. By mid expedition everybody is comfortable and at home with the environment.
In fact, life becomes very simple. You sleep, eat, drink, move, travel, find shelter, eat, drink and sleep. In between we take photographs of our incredibly stunning situations. I slept the sleep of gods with many many hours of dream like quality sleep. Mind totally clear and focused.
And of course you do enjoy the return to “civilisation”. The “Quilmes” beer, the malbec wine, the bed, a proper toilet, the home comforts. But I find myself very quickly wishing that I was back up in that magical place of perfect peace where the only criteria was survival.
There is no room for individuals if you plan to visit the Icecap. Every day has it’s own difficulties. The terrain is tough and the weather can be extreme. When the going gets tough then you need team players and cool heads. And everybody can have an “off day”, when the rest of the team need to assist. Fortunately we had a great team with us.
Thanks to Chiz and Reu Dakin, Clive Fenn, Mick Mcgregor, Peter Syme, Ian Tupman and of course my partner, Kiersten Rowland.
The town of El Chaltén
It was our fourth visit here. Once again we enjoyed the hospitality of our friends Jorge and Claudia at Hosteria Confin Patagonico, especially the traditional Argentine lamb barbecue!
Thanks also to Patricia and Nicolas of Hosteria Kau Si Aike for the good conversation and friendship.
The people here are some of the friendliest on the planet (as are their dogs!). We shall return!