Report from our expedition to the Patagonian Icecap in November 2016 which was beset by unsettled weather and enforced route changes due to unseasonal warm weather.
The plan was to access the Patagonian Icecap via Paso Marconi as usual but then head off across the icecap to climb the remote and rarely climbed peak of Cerro Mariano Moreno. Due to the collapse of the Marconi glacier a new access route had to be found NW of Playita up to Laguna de los 14 and onto the lower Glacier Gorra Blanca Sur. The warm weather gave unusual conditions. As well as soft snow, lagoons had formed of knee deep slush over vast expanses of the icecap. Clearly too dangerous and arduous for venturing over to Cerro Mariano Moreno.
As neither a suitable weather window nor colder conditions were clearly not arriving we reverted to the standard icecap traverse, coming off by Paso del Viento. An enjoyable and interesting trip nevertheless. Great scenery and interesting situations and problems. Only 2 other people were seen between the 24th November and 30th November.
Guides Gabriel Fava Richard Hartley Gary Hodgson
Team Viola van Baardwijk Claire Hartley Gill Howarth Trudy McLaughlin Kriston Renshaw Kiersten Rowland Stewart Thomson David Woods
We started arriving in El Chalten on the 19th November and enjoyed some day walks in very hot and windless weather for the first few days. Tent erection practice, kit checks and registration with the authorities also took up time during these initial days. 2 local porters were hired to carry loads (approx 3kg per person) up to a drop off near Marconi pass.
Wednesday 23rd November - Piedra del Fraile
The start! We got a local bus to the start at the bridge over the Rio Electrico and followed the delightful and well marked trail to the refuge at Piedra del Fraile. Due to predicted high winds on the 25th there was no rush to get to La Playita so we stayed the night at Piedra del Fraile and enjoyed pizza and local Malbec for the last time in 10 days.
Thursday 24th November - La Playita
We made our way over the moraines and hills to La Playita. Due to the high temperatures the crossing the Rio Pollone was quite difficult, especially for those of us with shorter legs! Once over we made our way easily through the boulder fields around Lago Electrico and over the small pass to La Playita, situated at the eastern end of Lago Electrico.
Friday 25th November - Weather enforced rest day
High winds over Paso Marconi meant no possibility of ascent to the icecap today. We sat around camp or did short local walks. Gabriel organised some ice climbing on the lower Marconi glacier and some rock climbing adjacent to camp.
Saturday 26th November - Glacier Gorra Blanca Sur
The big day, as we were hoping to get onto the icecap at Paso Marconi. The Marconi Glacier had collapsed and left a vertical rock wall along it’s right hand side. Local guides were trying to make a new route up to the icecap via a valley to the NW of La Playita towards the Laguna de los 14 and onto the lower Gorra Blanca Sur glacier. They had built a rough bridge over the river coming from the Marconi glacier but this had been destroyed a few days earlier by torrential snow melt. Bad luck, which meant for us a longer trip onto and across the snout of the glacier itself.
Very rough and loose ground followed. Consequently after 3 hours of tough going we were only 1km from our previous camp, but of course on the other side of the river.
We ascended the steep ground beside gushing rivers and waterfalls and into the bowl containing the Laguna de los 14. Some short rock steps had to be protected by a rope but eventually we arrived at the base of the glacier. Although the glacier is very tortuous here an easier line to the left was found leading up onto the glacier proper. Some initial crevasses and steeper mixed ground gave some difficulties but it wasn’t too long before we were on easier ground.
Some in the party were by now tiring and it was evident that we were not going to reach Marconi pass that day. We set up camp in a fairly sheltered situation near La Morra with superb views to Mt Fitz Roy which came out of the cloud as we were installing our camp. A great day. We crossed loose moraine, rivers, coped with some roped rock climbing, crossed heavily crevasses areas and made a difficult glacier ascent. Finally a sheltered camp with unbelievable views.
Sunday 27th November - Onto the Icecap
An early start. After an hour of fairly easy going we managed to locate our porter food and gas dumps at just under 1500m. With heavier loads we started across the wide expanse of the upper Marconi glacier, making for an entry onto the icecap to the right of the base of Cerro Marconi Norte. As the afternoon wore on the icecap gradually and imperceptibly came into sight. As awesome a sight as any mountain lover could hope to see! Huge expanses of ice stretching to every horizon. A slight descent and we were on the icecap. We walked south for another hour before making camp.
The weather forecast from Steph Ball at Weather4Mountain was received at 6pm each evening. Today’s forecast still indicated that storms, heavy precipitation and very high winds were expected starting on the evening of Wednesday 30th. Unfortunately we had to cancel our trip across the ice towards Cerro Mariano Moreno. We had to be off the ice and in a sheltered position by then.
Gabriel Fava, our Argentine guide has climbed Cerro Torre & Fitz Roy but never Mariano Moreno. There’s a reason its only climbed once or twice a year. It’s remote and you need good conditions and a weather window of opportunity. Not to be this year I’m afraid.
Monday 28th November - Circo de las Altares
Today we moved south down the icecap towards Circo de las Altares. Weather not great with poor visibility and some strong wind gusts. Stewart unfortunately went into a crevasse as we entered the Circo, but was quickly extracted. We found some reasonably sheltered sites to put up camp close to the lateral moraine coming out from the valley.
This is a magnificent place, but unfortunately Cerro Torre didn’t lose it’s cloud cap during the whole time we were in the vicinity.
Tuesday 29th November - Viedma Glacier and Laguna de los Esquis
We packed up camp early intending to go to the Laguna Ferrari that day. As we set off south we met very strange conditions. The upper 30cm layer of snow had turned to slush in the warm weather. There was no consolidation of the icepack. It was almost like wading ankle deep through shallow lagoons. Difficult conditions not only arduous to walk through for hours on end, but also the constant cold and wet in the boots made life very uncomfortable. Hidden dangers too with no idea what lay beneath the water. Solid ice or lurking crevasses?
Needless to say the morning was extremely difficult. Hard to appreciate the beauty and magnificence of the surroundings under these conditions. We came off the icecap at the upper Viedma glacier exit. Trudy had a fall here and injured her ankle. This made life harder for her for the remainder of the trip. The complicated series of moraines and glacier leading off the icecap were safely negotiated. Wind gusts were increasing so we made camp at Laguna de Esquis.
Wednesday 30th November - Paso del Viento, Lago Toro
The day started warm and sunny with light winds. We crossed the small hills and moraines leading to Laguna Ferrari and ascended easily to Paso del Viento to cross the ridge line and start our descent east towards the lush green of the Tunel Valley. Magnificent views as normal although Cerro Grande was hidden in the cloud all day.
The usual time consuming crossing of the snout of the Tunel glacier gave some problems, but we all ended up at the Tirolean Traverse across the Rio Tunel. Infinitely preferable to the river crossing as our feet were just drying out from the wet experiences of the icecap.
Camp was in the forested shelter of the headland at Lago Toro. During the night winds increased and it rained heavily. You could hear the wind coming down the valley like a steam train. We had just made it in time.
Thursday 1st December - Weather enforced rest day
Rest and recuperation day sitting out the bad weather
Friday 2nd December - Return to civilisation
Back to civilisation. A return to El Chalten via the Tunel valley and over the hill to town. Nice to see colour again and especially the fields of dandelions. Some welcome beers and pizza were followed later that evening by various cuts of fine Argentine beef steak and rich Malbec!