Patagonian Northern Ice Cap - Cerro Turret and Cerro EscuelaThe night before our scheduled departure for the Northern Ice Cap was the scene of some debate as we considered the forbidding weather report for the coming week. The Aysen region was about to play host to a pressure system so low that it made the Mariana Trench look like a children’s wading pool. Ben, who has nearly a decade of experience in Patagonia and more field days on the Ice Cap than many people have had hot dinners, declared that it was the lowest system he had seen in an area of the world that is infamous for dreadful weather. Deciding that discretion is indeed the better part of valour, we opted to stay within the warm, dry confines of base camp to await a more favourable report.
After a week of cabin fever and an abortive attempt to drive south along the snow covered Carretera Austral, we finally made the six hour journey to Puerto Bertrand. This small, lakeside hamlet is the gateway to the Soler Valley and it was here that we boarded a pair of small boats for the trip across Lago Bertrand. Our skipper smiled at us from underneath his black beret as he casually bailed the water that was slowly spreading across the floor of the boat. Although our arrival on the snowy beach was somewhat late in the day, we opted to begin the trek up the valley that afternoon only to be thwarted fairly quickly by the fading light. Route finding was tricky as the trail was covered by a meter of snow owing to the recent dump, and this would continue to prove true over the following days as we waded up the Soler.
It took little convincing for the group to stay an extra day at Palomar Camp. The pack horses carrying the vast majority of our gear and food were still somewhere behind us, so there seemed little point in leaving the rustic, wooden shack. Here we could savour the luxuries of a dry bivvy and the ability to stand up whilst cooking. With the arrival of the horses, we departed for Puesto Camp where our gear was deposited.
At this point we were introduced to the magical art of Schlepping, the process of shuttling prodigious loads of gear to a more convenient location. The word “schlep” sounds like it should be a curse word. It has a vulgar, uncouth sound to it, and there is a reason behind this. It implies misery. Dictionary definitions are amongst the following:
1. haul or carry (something heavy or awkward).
2. (of a person) go or move reluctantly or with effort.
1. a tedious or difficult journey.
These attractive descriptors give somewhat of an insight into the process. To be fair, the route up to the Keyhole (one of the entrances to the Ice Cap) is idyllic. The valley is bordered by rugged peaks and strung with clear, glacial streams that slide over granite slabs. It does, however, lose some of its shine after multiple repetitions. It took a few days to complete the exercise, with the second being particularly productive despite a mild blizzard and reduced manpower due to various injuries and ailments. The return journey was vastly improved by a couple of interesting occurrences. The first was the upside-down waterfall, where the wind defeated gravity by forcing the stream skyward rather than cascading down the cliff face. The second was a tremendous rockfall in which a boulder the size of a minibus undertook a reckless, tumbling descent.
The inclement weather continued for some days as our tent filled with water, hair and a curious smell. With the freezing level often quite far above us, rain was much more prevalent than snow. Once again, cabin fever began to set in and was indeed running genuinely rampant before the heavens cleared. The sense of enthusiasm was palpable as we once again marched up to the Keyhole. The waterfall, though no longer upside-down, was turned to a fine mist by the slight breeze. It gave the underlying rock face the appearance of a steaming block of dry ice. After ascending the snow slope and rigging ourselves for glacial travel and sled hauling, we were finally on Patagonia’s Northern Ice Cap. Beyond the vast and featureless snowfield loomed the savage beauty of Cerro Cachet. Closer still was the northward running rampart named Cerro Largo. We briefly travelled alongside its glaciated wall as it crumbled before our eyes, icefalls sounding through the valley with startling regularity. The southern sky filled with an incredible gradient of pink and purple as we established camp for the night.
The next day was difficult and disappointing. The soft, deep snow was far from conducive to sled hauling and the rigours of the previous day had left many of us significantly more fatigued than we’d originally believed. Although tedious, the slog failed to diminish the spectacular scenery. The pale blue icefalls broke often, causing avalanches that boomed like distant thunder throughout the day, sometimes engulfing entire faces in plumes of billowing cloud. There were brief views of the odd prominence that is Largo’s summit, a collection of rimey pillows that appear as if made of shaving cream. Most of the group were utterly wracked by days end, despite a pathetic gain of around 4 kms, but our work was not yet at an end. Snow wall construction began in anticipation of a new round of unfavourable weather. Several hours later, a veritable fortress had been constructed, dwarfed though it was by the vastness of the white expanse that surrounded it.
A moderate storm arrived in the early hours of the morning. Dig shifts began, though not truly in earnest. It began with low winds and moderate precipitation but shifted the following night to high winds with low precipitation. Unfortunately, the freezing level was quite high and this precipitation took the form of rain, which proved disastrous to the integrity of our windwalls. In these conditions there was little point in rebuilding them, but also little point in continuing to dig as the snow had more or less become ice. Now devoid of protection, our tents flapped maniacally as the the wind continued to increase. A new forecast also revealed that after a brief respite, another storm of increased magnitude was about to hit. Given that Erik had been suffering for many days with the mysterious illness we’d been passing to each other like the Olympic Torch, the decision was made to bail from the Ice Cap post haste.
The escape started well with quick travel down a moderate downhill with a hard snowpack. However, the endeavour was lengthened slightly by the onset of whiteout conditions and significantly halted by Dan’s entry into a crevasse. Not only was this our second crevasse fall in two mountaineering courses, but the second full length crevasse fall in the entire history of the Mountain Training School. The narrow terrain ensured that extraction was a diabolically difficult exercise, necessitating an awkward direction change, an improvised haul device, and the implementation of yours truly as a human progress capture. The persistent snow and rain, coupled with the need for many to self-arrest, ensured that everyone was thoroughly soaked by the completion of the exercise. Tired, wet and guided by the light of headlamps, we returned to Puesto Camp at 9pm.
We were, however, now safely ensconced within the protected confines of the valley as the storm raged on the Ice Cap for the next three days. A truly ridiculous amount of rain fell, causing new waterfalls to appear spontaneously on the valley walls. The path that ran through the middle of camp turned into a stream and threatened to engulf our tents. The nearby creek was swollen and frantic.
Morale was ebbing fairly low before the storm broke and our return to the Ice Cap was underway. We began the ascent to Keyhole under a theatrically gentle dusting of snow. The situation was greatly different on the Ice Cap, where the wind whipped across the frozen waste unhindered, blowing fine snow into our faces as we progressed further into the maw. With the whiteout and the swirling winds, watching the rope team ahead of me was like a scene from a science fiction movie. The following day was much the same and ended with our arrival at Escuela Camp.
The next day dawned with perfect, bluebird conditions, though bitterly cold. Cerro Turret and Cerro Escuela were resplendent in the morning light. We split into two teams, roped up and skinned up to our respective summits. My first ascent was of Cerro Turret, another shaving cream mountain that looks a lot like a horny toad from a certain angle. It was sunny and warm during the climb which consists of two pitches followed by running protection across the summit ridge. The view from the summit is simply exquisite. Just on the far side of Turret is an impressive knife blade of rock that reminds me of a Siamese Fighting Fish fin. Beyond that lies the vast majority of the Ice Cap, an implausibly large expanse that continues to the horizon. Rather than fading into misty obscurity, the horizon is formed by a ragged ring of snow covered spires. We topped out on the 2147m peak at 3:30pm.
The following day equalled its predecessor in clarity and beauty. My climb for the day was Cerro Escuela where I lead each of the four pitches and the descent in their entirety. From the summit, we could see the tiny figures of Jaya’s PMS crew traversing the ice, further impressing upon us the immense scale of the environment. We summited at 12:25pm and made it from camp to camp in a total of 5 hours and 34 minutes. It was a truly awesome day and the stoke factor was soaring, helped greatly by the fact that we were able to spend half the day loafing around at camp in the sunshine, drying our clothes and sleeping bags.
After these two glorious days, our time on the Ice Cap was approaching its end. Due to the limited timeframe of our course and the extent of our rations, it was time to leave. All that remained was a 3 day, 44km journey down the Soler with 38kg packs. I feel exceptionally grateful and relieved that Patagonia finally capitulated and allowed us to realise the goals of our expedition.