Patagonia

Camping in Circos de los Altares: Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

A final home for a short story I wrote to promote a Patagonia travel and trekking guidebook I had published on Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. It describes a trip I made onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap to view the remote west face of Cerro Torre. (The photos are from a tiny compact camera I used at the time, before I started taking photographs professionally. I’ve included them as I think they illustrate the story well).

The view to Cerro Standhardt, Torre Egger, Cerro Torre and Cerro Adela from Circos de los Altares on a much more pleasant visit to the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

The view to Cerro Standhardt, Torre Egger, Cerro Torre and Cerro Adela from Circos de los Altares on a much more pleasant visit to the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

It's 4am. I put on all my clothes and go outside to help dig our tent out of what is rapidly becoming a snow grave. I ignore the mountains soaring above me - because this is the second time I have been up tonight and because it is extremely cold and very, very windy. This is Patagonia, after all, and we're camping on an ice cap.

The Southern Patagonian Ice Cap is a great ocean of ice that sweeps west from the coast of Chile to the border of Argentina. It is one of the largest expanses of frozen water to be found outside the polar regions, nearly 350km long and at times 90km wide. Home to some of the most extreme weather conditions in the world, the smooth surface of the ice cap allows storms generated deep in the Pacific Ocean to race unimpeded and gather momentum before slamming into the Southern Patagonian Andes with a force generally uncommon in the northern hemisphere: apocalyptic.

Nearly 170km of these Southern Patagonian Andes have been designated as the Los Glaciares National Park, a collection of heavily glaciated, sheer-sided peaks that rise steeply out of the vast semi-arid plains that cover the landscape. Two of the most spectacular mountains in the world, Monte Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, are in this park.

New frontier

Access to these mountains is via El Chalten, a dusty frontier-type village nestling in a small horseshoe valley at the head of the nation al park. El Chalten is 220km from its nearest neighbour, El Calafate, which is itself a three hour plane journey from Buenos Aires. By any standards, the location is remote.

Monte Fitz Roy dominates the area, by virtue of its sheer size and bulk. Standing 3,441m high, it soars above the village and its neighbouring peaks, spouting out rivers of ice and satellite crests that overshadow everything except the Torre Range, a collection of needle-like spires 7km south. Undisputed queen of the Torres is Cerro Torre, the Tower Mountain. It rises vertically for 3,128m and is generally regarded as one of the most difficult in the world to climb. That's not because of the altitude or highly technical climbing, but by virtue of its location: standing sentry for the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. Cerro Torre lies right on its edge. Once described by the South Tyrolean climber Reinhold Messner as "a shriek turned to stone", the mountain receives the full brunt of the prevailing weather. The freezing conditions, coupled with the almost constant high winds, regularly see Torre and its adjacent peaks covered in a maelstrom of moisture-laden, boiling storm clouds and coated in a rime of perilous, and at times unclimbable, snow and ice mushrooms.Cerro Torre presents its west face directly to the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. It is home to one of the most difficult climbing routes on the mountain: 2,000m of vertical - and at times overhanging - rock, snow and ice. Its main defence, apart from the difficulty of climbing and the atrocious weather, is remoteness. It can be reached only by those few who manage the ice cap itself and, weather permitting, zig-zag their way south for 25km around a myriad of crevasses to the Circos de los Altares - Corrie of the Altars.

International: no rescue

Circos de los Altares is a deep glacial scoop, rough-hewn from the west side of the Torre range by many years of glacier excavation. Enclosed on all sides except its front by sheer granite peaks and with its mouth facing the ice cap, it is a spectacularly beautiful and at the same time threatening place - there is no mountain rescue here if things go wrong.

Which is what appears to be happening as, with us committed to the ice cap, and camped deep in the corrie, the weather takes a turn for the worse and we are forced to repeatedly get up in the night and dig our tent out of the snow drifts that threaten to bury us in the ground and result in us being tent-bound for three days.

When we're finally allowed to leave the corrie, it takes us nearly all day to travel the 20km south to the nearest exit to the ice cap, Paso del Viento - Pass of the Winds. It is a strangely quiet place, given its name and the preceding days' conditions.

Despite the weather, we reluctantly turn our backs on the ice cap and head off on the two-day trip it takes to descend the glacier, traverse endless moraine, and climb up and down steep-sided valleys to return to El Chalten.

In El Chalten I spent two days recovering from a nine-day, 120km round trip to Circos de los Altares. I had followed in the footsteps of Gregory Crouch, an American author and climber who entered the ice cap during the Patagonian winter of 1999 with a party of companions, set up a base in the corrie, and climbed the west face of Cerro Torre. Like his book said, the views didn't disappoint.

A six-day trek: Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

A final home for a short story I wrote to promote a Patagonia travel and trekking guidebook I had published on Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. It describes a trip onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, one of the largest expanses of ice outside the Polar Regions. (The photos are from a tiny compact camera I used at the time, before I started taking photographs professionally. I’ve included them as I think they illustrate the story well).

The remote west side of Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt from Circos de Altares on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

The remote west side of Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt from Circos de Altares on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap

Camping on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap gives me a nervous ache in the pit of my stomach. I've read many, many stories of horrendous weather that can sweep through the region.

Reaching out of my tent, I glanced at the huge expanse of ice we're camped upon. Dotted across the ice cap are huge mountains that sliced out of the ice and soared into the sky. The largest peak in view is the snow-covered Cerro Lautaro, an active volcano. Sulfur fumes rise from its top and mix with the clouds that stream from its summit ridges. The peak is 35km away but seems close enough to touch. Behind Cerro Lautaro there is more of the same - ice and mountains - with no human habitation until the ice cap melts into the Pacific Ocean, 30 kilometres further on.

The Southern Patagonian Ice Cap is a great ocean of ice sweeping west from the southern coast of Chile to its border with Argentina. Up to 650 metres thick and almost 13,500 kilometres square, it is said to be one of the largest expanses of ice outside the Polar Regions.

Icy wastelands such as the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, not without reason, are usually out of bounds to the office-bound adventurer. But short trips here are possible, with the services of a guide, in Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park.

Los Glaciares National Park doesn't have, say, the Himalaya's high altitude to attract the masses. But its mountains rear up out of an otherwise flat landscape. Mount Fitzroy dominates the area, by virtue of its sheer size and bulk. Standing 3,441m high, it soars above its neighbouring peaks, spouting out glaciers and satellite crests that overshadow everything except the Torre Range, a collection of needle-like spires 7km south. Undisputed queen of the Torres is Cerro Torre, the Tower Mountain. It rises vertically for nearly all of its 3,128m and is generally regarded as one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb. That's not because of the altitude or highly technical climbing, but by virtue of its location: standing sentry for the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. Cerro Torre lies right on its edge. Once described by the South Tyrolean climber Reinhold Messner as "a shriek turned to stone", the mountain receives the full brunt of the prevailing weather. The prevailing wet conditions, coupled with the almost constant high winds, regularly see Torre and its adjacent peaks covered in a maelstrom of moisture-laden, boiling storm clouds and coated in a rime of perilous, and at times unclimbable, snow and ice mushrooms.

Most people see Cerro Torre from the east. A feasible 2 day journey takes you from Buenos Aires to El Chalten, where you can step into the famous view found in the postcards all over the park's gateway town of El Calafate. Less common - and a world away in terms of the memories you'll come away with - is to ski out onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap and traverse over the ice cap, to the remote glacial cirque called Circos de los Altares, where you can gape, mouth wide open, right underneath Cerro Torre's cathedral-like proportions.

Not everyone who attempts the Patagonian Ice Cap traverse reaches Circos de los Altares. The biggest obstacle is the weather. Strong winds, known locally as Escobado de Dias, or God's Broom, are generated far out in the Pacific Ocean. Known to gather speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour, they race across the flat surface of the ice cap and hit the mountains with great force. Any visitor to the cirque, or climbing high on the mountains at this time, is at the complete mercy of the weather gods.

Another obstacle to a successful traverse of the ice cap are crevasses, both on the Marconi Glacier on the way up to the ice cap and at the mouth to Circos de los Altares. The largest of these crevasses, 100 feet (30m) across, even has a name, La Sumidero. Crystal clear water arrives into this 'sink; before swirling round and disappearing down a great black hole which would easily swallow a man. Then there’s your pack size. Potentially nine days out from El Chalten requires a lot of food and equipment and you'll analyse the contents of your rucksack like never before. 'Light is right' is the mantra for any such trip but remember, a canny man always keeps his toothbrush in one piece.

Most people will require the services of a mountain guide for the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. You can use one of the local companies or hire one direct. In 2005, I used Pedro Augustina Fina of Argentina. He's a nice bloke, greyhound fit, with a naturally friendly smile. The trick is to slow him down with much of the gear, and to use your gas canisters first. He'll be wise to that now though. Pedro travels each year to El Chalten early, from Buenos Aires, to do some mountain climbing before the guiding season starts. He's been up both Aguja Poincenot and Aguja Guillaumet, serious peaks either side of Mount Fitz Roy and once spent 2 days under the ice cap hiding out the weather, after an ascent of Cerro Lautaro. On a different trip he took me on a partial circumnavigation of Mount Fitz Roy. But that's another story.

I spent 7 days in 2005 traversing a part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. Despite Patagonia's reputation for bad weather, I got superlative weather all week and spent two days enjoying the views in Circos de los Altares. Unfortunately I can't guarantee you'll get the same.

A four-day trek: Fitz Roy Supercanaleta (Argentina, Patagonia)

A final home for a short story I wrote to promote a Patagonia travel and trekking guidebook I had published on Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. It describes a trip I made to circumnavigate Monte Fitz Roy - still one of my most fun trips to date. (The photos are from a compact camera I used at the time, before I started taking photographs professionally. I’ve included them as I think they illustrate the story well).

The remote west face of Cerro Fitz Roy in Argentine Patagonia. (The big cleft on the right is the Supercanaleta, aka Super Coulouir)

The remote west face of Cerro Fitz Roy in Argentine Patagonia. (The big cleft on the right is the Supercanaleta, aka Super Coulouir)

It’s called the Guillaumet pass. It’s generally used by climbers. There’s a little crevasse danger but as long as the weather holds it’d be fine. You’d be right underneath Monte Fitz Roy.
— Pedro Fina, Chalten-based mountain guide

The e-mail I'd opened was from a 29-year old Argentinean mountain guide, Pedro Fina. I'd first met Pedro in 2004, when he was one of two guides I'd had on a 4-week trekking expedition in South America. During that trip, we'd climbed a glacier beside two of the great peaks of the Patagonian Andes, Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, and traversed a small portion of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, a flat expanse of thick ice - 13,000km2 - that flows west from the mountains and down into the Pacific Ocean.

My objective this time was to get much closer to the mountains, to scratch an exploratory itch I have for Patagonia and to research new treks for a guidebook I was writing to Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park. With the help of Pedro and Rolando Garibotti, a US-based Italian-Argentine mountain guide and an expert on Patagonia climbing, I'd settled on a shorter expedition around Monte Fitz Roy, connecting small cirques and climbers' trails with pocket glaciers and high bealachs to create a trek that I hoped would offer me the finest views possible of the Fitz Roy massif.

"I'll pick you up at 7am. There's a 3-4 day good weather forecast and we should take advantage of it whilst we can."

I'd only been in Argentina a day when Pedro suggested we should leave the following morning. Neither of us had any desire to be caught out in a Patagonian storm. The weather in Patagonia is commonly said to be amongst the worst in the world. Gregory Crouch, in his book, 'Enduring Patagonia', describes how dark storm fronts that begin life deep in the Pacific Ocean rampage across the sea uninterrupted, the cold and wet air picking up moisture and gaining in speed as it heads towards a thick belt of low pressure, termed a circumpolar trough, ringing Antarctica. When this trough has expanded over Patagonia, as is all too often the case, the storms are dragged kicking and screaming over the Andes first. It is not uncommon to encounter wind speeds of 160 kph. When this is the case, the last place you'd want to be is up in the mountains where, as Greg quotes US climber Jim Donini in his book, "survival is not assured".

View from Paso Cuadrado over the Fitzroy Norte Glacier and Filo del Hombre Sentado (Sitting Man Ridge) to Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt

View from Paso Cuadrado over the Fitzroy Norte Glacier and Filo del Hombre Sentado (Sitting Man Ridge) to Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt

It was this sobering thought that occupied my mind when, two days later, Pedro and I stood atop the 1700m high Paso Cuadrado and prepared to descend 400 m of blue, translucent ice to reach the remote and heavily-crevassed glacier we could see far below us. We had climbed the 200m to Paso Cuadrado that morning, after ascending 1000m the day before from a private campsite just outside Los Glaciares National Park and spending a dry, cold night beside a huge, black rock called Piedra Negra. Two of Pedro's friends spent the night with us, shivering without sleeping bags as they waited to attempt a nearby peak, Aguja Guillaumet.

The very crevassed Fitzroy Norte Glacier beneath the Gran Germane on Cerro Pollone

The very crevassed Fitzroy Norte Glacier beneath the Gran Germane on Cerro Pollone

By 11.00am Pedro's friends could be a world away. Having carefully descended the ice slope we'd swapped crampons for snow shoes and headed uphill towards the Fitz Roy Norte Glacier. A huge jumble of ice towers, or seracs, spilled out of a higher basin as the glacier broke up and made its way down valley. Giving this icefall a wide berth we traversed instead beneath a jagged bergschrund that had formed as the ice had torn itself away from the huge granite walls of Aguja Mermoz. Rock-fall was a distinct possibility and more than a few deep breaths were taken before we passed the seracs and could cut back onto the upper part of the glacier. As we did so, everything underfoot turned to pristine white.

Perhaps it was the uncommon lack of wind and the resultant silence or more likely my jangly nerves, but the further I walked into this glacial cirque the more the surroundings began to affect me. It wasn't just that we were far from civilisation - a 2 day walk to the small town of El Chalten unless you could climb expertly - but that if you had seen us we would have been impossibly small. Behind us was the 400m ice slope we had just descended. We had to climb it again later in the day. To our right was a vast wall of ice-clad cliffs, 200 m high, which made up the southern side of Cerro Pollone and Cerro Piergiorgio. Beyond these cliffs was the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, beyond that only the Pacific Ocean. In front of us was the fourth 'wall' of the cirque, the Filo del Hombre Sentado, or Sitting Man Ridge. At the top of this ridge the ground dropped 700 m to the Torre Glacier before it rose up the other side again to form a 3km long incisored skyline of agujas, or needles, that culminates in three of the most recognisable and difficult to climb mountains in the world - Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt.

View over Filo del Hombre Sentado (Sitting Man Ridge) towards Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt

View over Filo del Hombre Sentado (Sitting Man Ridge) towards Cerro Torre, Torre Egger and Cerro Standhardt

Clearly visible from the ridge is the most popular route up Cerro Torre; the so-called Compressor Route, named after the Italian climber, Cesare Maestri, who drilled over 400 bolts into the mountain as he climbed it in 1970. Despite the prevailing weather, and the outcry of many a traditional climber, the bolts are still there, as is the drill itself. It is tolerated by many of today's climbers as an opportune place to stand on an otherwise blank vertical wall. Maestri's original claim to have summited the mountain in better style, in 1959, up the far harder north-east ridge, is still a subject of much debate. This route was not climbed without suspicion until 2005, by the afore-mentioned Rolando Garibotti and two Italian friends, Ermanno Salvaterra and Alessandro Beltrami. Rolando is one of many people who believe, not without reason, that the first people to climb Cerro Torre were a team of Italians, in 1974, via the west face.

The north-west face of Chalten, aka Cerro Fitz Roy, split by the Supercanaleta or Super Coulouir

The north-west face of Chalten, aka Cerro Fitz Roy, split by the Supercanaleta or Super Coulouir

All views however paled into insignificance by the massive, 1600m high cliffs of granite that rose up on our left. Monte Fitz Roy's huge west face is split in two - as if by a mighty axe blow - by the majestic Supercanaleta, or Super Coulouir. If you're the late American climber, Dean Potter, this 60 degree, ice-filled couloir is regarded as an easy way up the mountain. In 2004, Potter raced from the bottom of the couloir to the summit of Fitz Roy, all 1600m of snow, ice and rock, in a mere 6 hours 29 minutes. He then descended the other side of the mountain the same day. In 1965, the first ascensionists of the couloir, Argentineans Jose-Luis Fonrouge and Carlos Comesana, took a more realistic 2 days, before they descended on their third day through a storm that raged around the mountains for a staggering 36 days. You can be sure this thought wasn't far from my mind as I considered the meagre two days rations I had packed in my backpack.

"The next bit's got the crevasses", Pedro said, as he handed me my obligatory fix of morning coffee. "Great", I said, but I didn't really mean it. Although it was possible for us to have abseiled the Sitting Man Ridge and descended the Torre Glacier back to El Chalten this was way outside the realms of my experience and we had chosen instead to return to Piedra Negra. It was from here that we were headed for Paso Guillaumet, a small notch in the mountains that enabled access across the east-west divide, and from there to another high mountain pass, Paso Superior, that lay right in front of Monte Fitz Roy. Both Pedro and Rolando had told me in their e-mails that the view between these passes was spectacular.

Pedro Fina climbing up to Paso Guillaumet

Pedro Fina climbing up to Paso Guillaumet

The ground up to Paso Guillaumet was similiar to the previous day; long, steep ice slopes broken up by the odd rock outcrop that we took advantage of for snack breaks. Higher up, we entered a gully system until a large, angular rock blocked the way and we were forced to move out onto a buttress for a few easy pitches of easy rock-climbing.On reaching the pass the view opened out to the east and we could see far below us, out over the glaciers to the dry, brown Patagonian steppes and the stone-gray waters of the enormous Lago Viedma. My eyes kept darting back and forward between the contrast of the brown steppes in the distance with the whiteness of the ice cap we could see over to the west.

Navigating between seracs and crevasses as we crossed the glacier from Aguja Guillaumet to Cerro Fitz Roy

Navigating between seracs and crevasses as we crossed the glacier from Aguja Guillaumet to Cerro Fitz Roy

Once we crossed the watershed we headed up towards a rock apron that made up the lower eastern face of Aguja Guillaumet. Traversing the base of this mountain we passed the Amy Coulouir, a narrow ice hose that offers a popular way to the summit. It was this route that Pedro's friends had taken the day before. The jagged rent of a bergschrund and other crevasse danger eventually caused us to head away from the mountains and descend towards a large, snow-covered plateau that is only hinted at from the usual treks near El Chalten. As we neared the plateau, Pedro wasn't happy with the route we had taken and he walked back towards me, motioning for us to find another way to descend. As we did so, I looked back up to our right and could see our footprints on top of a huge, overhanging ice cliff. The gap that had opened up beneath it was big enough to swallow a house.

Once on the relative safety of the plateau, I could finally appreciate the view. The magnificent east face of Monte Fitz Roy was only half a kilometre away. It's impossibly huge and I still can't imagine anyone having the courage to climb it. Even to reach the bealachs either side of the peak involves 300m of technical climbing - and the summit is still another 1,000m higher. It was first reached in 1952, by the Frenchman, Lionel Terray, and his partner, Guido Magnone. It took their expedition many weeks to reach the top and a lot of time was spent burrowed underground in snow caves waiting out bad weather.

Aguja Poincenot and Cerro Fitz Roy

Aguja Poincenot and Cerro Fitz Roy

At the far end of the plateau, making up the southern end of the Fitz Roy skyline, was the huge granite tooth of Aguja Poincenot. The English mountaineer, Don Whillans, was the first person to climb this peak, joining a team of Irish climbers in 1957 who attempted the mountain on a Guinness sponsorship. Their descent of the mountain was hampered by strong winds and it was 20 hours before they reached the safety of their high camp at Paso Superior. When they did so they were exhausted - Pedro said this reminded him of when he and his friends had climbed the mountain in 2003; they were so tired they kept sitting down and falling asleep during their descent.

Our own traverse to Paso Superior was uneventful, if nerve-wracking. Dropping off the plateau onto a steep snow slope, we traversed above an intermittent line of blue-black crevasses that threatened to catch any fall. It was easy terrain but after two days of steep ice slopes, seracs and crevasses my nerves were frazzled and I just wanted to be on solid ground. I got my wish when, just below the pass, we encountered a 10m rock wall with a flotsam of old fixed rope and a rope ladder that hung loosely down the rock. With no desire to put any weight on the trashed ropes I cIimbed a mixture of rock and ladder and pulled myself up over the top and out onto Paso Superior. It was empty, except for a large climbers' haulbag sitting on the snow.

The plan had been to stay at Paso Superior for one night, using one of the existing snow caves or digging a new one, before descending 1,000m down the glacier the following morning to reach Laguna de los Tres. This small lake at the foot of the glacier is the usual high point for trekkers in the national park. It has great views of the Fitz Roy mountains, especially in the early morning. I should have been looking forward to it. But on the plateau I'd decided I'd had enough. Enough steep snow and ice slopes. Enough thoughts of falling into a crevasse and dying a cold and unpleasant death. Turning the sight of some grey, wispy clouds I'd seen forming over Fitz Roy into the leading edge of a storm, I asked Pedro how long it would take us to get down to Laguna de los Tres. "2, maybe 3 hours?" he replied, "then another 30 minutes to Campamento Poincenot. Oh, plus another hour to get back to the car." "What's the ground like?", I asked, immediately deciding it was worth it, regardless of the terrain. "Do you want to leave now?" he replied, giving me that quizzical look talented folk give you when they just don't understand. "Yeah, I've got a book to write", I said, adding "And the weather's got to turn sometime". "Okay" he replied, "let's get moving. If we hurry we'll make it all the way to El Chalten." And with that, we packed up and headed for home.