I spent six weeks in Peru in 1987, aged 19. We trekked, climbed a 5800m peak and ventured off what little beaten path was there then, ending up in the Cordillera Raura, literally off the edge of our map. Hauraz, the main town in the Cordillera Blanca had a frontier feel, un-developed and wild. Having trekked the Inca trail when you still could, we built a raft of balsa wood and spent a fun day on it before it broke up in some rapids. My six rolls of slide film got a bit damaged but my Dictaphone (remember those?) tapes survived. I didn’t know what I was doing in any of it but I learnt as I went along.
Two years later we were in Bolivia first climbing the wrong mountain instead of Ancohuma, then the stunning Illimani, (6438m) overlooking La Paz, sporting jackets made from a new material called Gore-Tex.
A decade later, I returned with a group of ten and was surprised to find Huaraz a bustling town, where almost everyone had a mobile phone and everything was arranged using one. We climbed Huascaran Norte (6655m), finding a remote village en route that reminded me of the earlier visit to the area.
Another decade on to 2006 and I ventured south into Chilean Patagonia. Chile is much more developed than Peru but en route to Cerro San Lorenzo I was struck by the vastness of the Andes not just in length but also breadth. The Pan American Highway opens up valley systems either side, one of which led us to the rime-filled summit ridge of San Lorenzo (3706m) but many others were little visited. And what about the valleys twenty miles east and west that weren’t served by the Highway? Wilderness still exists, it’s just getting harder to find.
And so, another decade to 2017 and with a month off from the Marines I embarked on a very special trip with my 19 year old son, to the very south of Patagonia. I decided this should neither try to be a repeat of my ’87 trip nor attempt anything too difficult. It had to strike a balance between adventurous travel, trekking and climbing.
To start we visited Cerro Torre and Fitzroy, just to see these iconic monoliths of rock and to introduce Cormac to trekking carrying five days food and mountaineering gear. We ventured up onto the Marconi Glacier overlooking the South Patagonian Icefield and were humbled by its monotonous vastness. Maybe mistakenly we attempted to trek in Torres del Paine but it has become a victim of its own success, campsites must be booked months in advance and everything is controlled and it is incredibly busy. We were only allowed to day trip in and out but managed to see the Towers from both sides. They are quite simply breathtakingly beautiful. The alleged preservation of the park juxtaposes with the expensive hotels that surround the towers, giving rich tourists a glimpse of them without the necessary immersion that I love as a mountaineer. I found it strangely sad but acknowledge that it is meaningless to hark back to a previous time when beautiful places were virtually unvisited. The internet educates, advertises and at the same time permits the bizarre booking system that has removed the freedom that I love about trekking, certainly in high season. And now I understand they are restricting wild camping in Scotland…
The main event of our trip was two weeks in Tierra del Fuego. Without the resources or permits to access the Cordillera Darwin, we headed for the expensive, Antarctic tour base town of Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel. We set out into the Sierra Valdivieso in the Argentinian Fuegian Andes, on a four day trek, vaguely described in a guidebook. There were no paths, the map is incomplete and has vague 200m contour intervals and I admit to using GPS as we tramped through stunning, if boggy wilderness. We didn’t see another soul the entire trip.
For evening entertainment, rather than playing mind games or reading a book as in 1987, my son Cormac had brought his tablet and we watched the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy as wind and rain battered the tent. The scenery is strikingly similar to where it was filmed in New Zealand. We had two digital cameras, two phones and a GoPro in contrast to my one film camera and dictaphone in ’87. We recorded so much more of our experience but my memory of carefree adventure in Peru was never far from my mind.
After a short break the Vinceguerra Glacier beckoned, again just a few miles from Ushuaia. Whilst a few day trippers now visit its snout, it seems the rest of this part of the world is in Torres del Paine. We saw no other climbers and were unable to find anything but a crude photo on an internet blog, but had two superb days picking our way up the mostly dry glaciers starting at around 700m above sea level. We summited the third highest peak in the area, un-named on our maps and all internet resources I could find. Whilst not high at 1300m, these mountains overlook the iconic and beckoning Beagle Channel with all its history, mystique and possibilities leading into the higher and more remote Cordillera Darwin. Most of the summits we encountered have loose scramble tops rather than the clean rock spires of Fitzroy, Cerro Torre or the Torres del Paine.
Late one night, half way through The Return of the King, it struck me we had been on our own quest, not to destroy a Ring of Power, but to find some wilderness and we’d come to the right place in Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire. We hadn’t been “Conquering Giants” in the Jottnar tradition but their clothing as ever excelled in the changeable conditions. Maybe we had “conquered some trolls” in a wilderness that is reasonably accessible. I spent a treasured month with my son, thirty years after my first venture into the Andes and can thoroughly recommend the Fuegian Andes. They offer freedom, unconstrained adventure and stunning scenery literally at the end of the world (less Antarctica). But for how long will it remain so? I would have said similar of the Cordillera Raura in 1987. And which trip was better – '87 or '17? Hard to say, society has changed so much and it was a very different time of my life.
Kev Oliver is a serving Royal Marine and the co-author of 'Blokes Up North', an autobiographical account of sailing and rowing an open boat through the Northwest Passage.