In early 2009, leading Italian alpinist Herve Barmasse and his team-mates left Europe for Patagonia in search of the ultimate wilderness adventure, combining alpinism and exploration. The objective of their expedition was to make an east-west ski-traverse of the Hielo Continental Sur, by a new route, and also to attempt to climb the as yet untouched summit of a relatively unknown and isolated mountain, Cerro Riso Patron South. The Hielo ice cap is the third largest in the world, an enormous continental glacier straddling the border between Chile and Argentina. Huge unexplored areas and numerous unclimbed mountains await those prepared to venture into this vast wilderness at the bottom of the globe.
Looking up the Estero Falcon Fiord towards the empty wilderness of the Hielo Continental Sur. Photo: D. Bernasconi
In Italy, we have a saying: “Luck is blind but bad luck sees us perfectly.” At times on our expedition to the Patagonian ice cap, it seemed like the bad luck would never end.
For my fourth trip to Patagonia I chose an ambitious objective that united alpinism and exploration. Our adventure would combine a 120 kilometer ski traverse of the Hielo Continental Sur, the third largest glacier on the planet, and a first ascent on a remote peak. Though the ice cap had been explored before, our route, beginning in Argentina in the east and ending in Chile in the west, was untrodden. Half way across the ice cap lay Cerro Riso Patron South, and our proposed climb. The easier east face of this mountain had been climbed in 1988 by an expedition led by the famous Italian alpinist Casimiro Ferrari, but our objective was the unclimbed 1600 meter north pillar, a steep granite wall. After the climb we'd have to ski out to the Chilean coast, via Falcon Fjord. My partners were Daniele Bernasconi and Giovanni Ongaro; Giovanni and I had shared, in 2008, the first ascent of the northwest face of Cerro Piergiorgio, which also rises from this remote ice cap.
The best-known peaks of Patagonia are Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy and the Torres del Paine. All are easily accessed, and popular with climbers. Our peak, however, was so isolated and racked by infamous Patagonian storms, that few people had ever seen it. I probably inherited my desire for exploration and discovery from my grandfather, Luigi Barmasse, a climber and explorer who in the 1950’s pioneered ascents from Greenland in the planet's north to Tierra del Fuego in its southern tip. In Patagonia, grandfather joined climbing expeditions led by Father De Agostina, to Cerro Sarmiento and Cerro Italia, and he'd been with the esteemed climber Monzino on Chile's Central Tower of Paine.
Grandfather's expeditions sometimes took six months. They would arrive at their destination by boat, not jet, and there were no jeeps to transport them, so horses, mules and long footslogs were the mode of transport. For food, they often had to hunt and fish. That was true adventure, and it’s always been in my blood.
We began our traverse of the ice cap - known to locals as the Hielo Continental Sur - at the climber's village of El Chalten. This first phase of 40 kilometers would take us to a camping spot called the Passo del Viento Refuge. Because we were toting all our food and gear for two months, we ferried our loads in our packs until all the gear was stocked on the edge of the snow. At that point we'd load our sleds and pull them on skis for another 70 kilometers to the Riso Patron area.
Given good weather, the approach to the mountain could be done in a few days, but in Patagonia storms may last 20 or 30 days, and winds can blow constantly at 130 kilometers per hour. Such weather keeps alpinists cooped up in ice caves dug into the glacier, or in tents or huts. Good weather last only a few days. For our venture we needed at least two windows of calm of at least three days each: the first was to cross the Hielo Continental Sur, the second was to climb Riso Patron. Oh, and a third would be handy, to make our escape to the Chilean coast.
But bad luck began dogging us right away. As we carried a load of gear from El Chalten to the Passo del Viento Refuge, thieves lightened our loads by stealing some climbing equipment and provisions. It was a setback, but we pressed on.
Then, as we set off on our skis, on February 2, we discovered that global warming had melted much of the snow on the Hielo Continental. After only a few kilometers, we couldn't ski or tow sleds, and were forced to march on in trekking shoes! One look at Google Earth, at Latitude 49°32.35, Longitude 73°22.53, reveals the shrinking ice cap.
Pulling the sleds across the melting, snow-free ice of the Hielo Continental Sur: the astonishing conditions the team experienced were clear evidence of the effects of climate change in one of the world's most important wilderness regions.
But the worst of the bad luck struck that same day, when a sled containing our Colorado 300 GPS and our compass plunged into a crevasse. When we hauled out the wreckage, we discovered that our navigation equipment was smashed.
On February 3rd, the second day of our traverse across the Hielo, fog reduced visibility to zero. Without instruments, we traveled by dead reckoning. Somehow we didn’t get lost - remarkable, considering that we were crossing a flat expanse of ice that sprawled around us for 30 square kilometers.
On the morning of February 4th the weather cleared. The view was wild. In the distance the steep-sided Chilean fjords framed dark oceanic water, speckled with stark white icebergs, and forests glowed green on the western edge of the Ice cap. A few more kilometers of trekking with our sleds brought us to a view of Cerro Riso Patron South. It was at that point that the bad luck struck its most terrible blow, for we saw then that the wall we hoped to climb was entirely ringed with a death trap of seracs and crevasses, ten kilometers long. There was no possibility of approaching the Cerro Riso Patron. We had been defeated even before attempting our climb. None of us were able to open our mouths, not even to curse. We simply stared, though in all our faces it was clear to see the mix of anger, disappointment, and sadness.
I never thought that I would have to quit the ascent of a mountain because it was inaccessible, but the landscape of the Hielo Continental Sur had changed so radically in only a few years, shrinking, settling, and collapsing into itself to create a barrier of jagged ice cliffs and bottomless holes that made any approach impossible.
We brewed some hot chocolate, nibbled some Grana Padano cheese from Italy, and salvaged our senses of humor. There remained nothing for us to do but continue to the Estero Falcon Fjord before the next storm.
On February 7th, after three more days of traversing, we arrived at the tip of a peninsula within the Estero Falcon Fjord. Sea lions lazing on a rock shelf roared a welcome to us. We had reached the end of the traverse, but our adventure - and our bad luck - was far from over.
The following day we were picked up by a fisherman who brought us to Puerto Eden, a fishing village, population 150, located halfway between Puerto Mon and Puerto Natales. As we disembarked, the local police took us into custody. Soon, local cops were joined by state police, then international police. All were concerned that we'd entered Chile illegally.
“Why did you pass where no one ever passes? Why did you cross the glacier? What were your intentions? Why didn’t you cross the border by means of a road? Why didn’t you advise us of your arrival? Do you have your embassy’s phone number? ...Ok, come by tomorrow to make a deposition and then we’ll see.”
They took our passports and placed us in a sort of house arrest for the next ten days. During that time we were questioned endlessly about the reason we ended up in Chile. Finally, after some help from the Italian Embassy, and following a long interview with the governor of the province of Ultima Esperanza, we signed a document prohibiting our return to Chile for the next three months, and we were set free to return to Argentina, and home.
Although our climb was foiled by the fates of global warming, and despite all our bad luck, we were able to go deep into the terra incognita of the Hielo Continental Sur, crossing it by a new route. The unbelievably wild landscape we travelled through and the moving experiences we shared make it certain that we'll return to Patagonia for another objective in the future.
Herve Barmasse's expedition was supported by The North Face: www.thenorthface.com
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