Terra Australis was the name early modern geographers gave to an unknown southern continent stretching around the base of the globe. Landmark voyages by navigators like Captain Cook and Robert Fitzroy finally disproved any lingering notions of its existence. Yet something of this place remains fixed in the imagination of those prepared to explore the edges of the map. In this special two part feature on Patagonia, LEGEND editor David Pickford ventures into the wilderness at the end of the Americas
When a traveller enters an unknown land, what is it they first notice? The new shape of the horizon? The strange tang of the air? The sense of being somewhere completely different to where they were before? If a psychogeography of exploration exists at all, it has been better described by sailors and aviators than by terrestrial travellers. And there’s a good reason for this. Without the land to get in the way, as it were, the mind’s eye has an unrestricted reign: the sea or the air might more readily offer a fresh comprehension of the world. Mountaineering, by contrast, is arguably not such a good route to enlightenment: the path to the summit can often become too fixed, or too all-important, to permit the insights required for transformative experience.
The full force of an incoming Patagonian storm
Of all the places I’ve been climbing, southern Patagonia is the ultimate landscape of the mind; a region where imagination holds sway in the search for almost everything. This must surely have a lot to do with the legendary weather, which changes so continuously, and with such extreme effect, that any fixed plan is likely to fail as soon as it is created. In an environment like this, an expedition with a more flexible, agile approach is likely to be more successful than one with a specific objective.
Looking up towards Aguja Guillaumet from Piedras Negras
After our intended ascent of Aguja Guillaumet, one of the classic spires of the Chalten Massif, didn’t get off the ground due to very high winds, my partner and I traversed the ice fields above Piedras Negras to the Paso del Cuadrado, the col that separates Guillaumet with the northern side of Monte Fitz Roy. Partly sheltered from the severe winds up high by the bulk of Fitz Roy itself, we enjoyed the spectacular view west across to the ice-cream cone spire of Cerro Torre and the lonely pinnacle of Aguja Pollone.
The spectacular view of Monte Fitz Roy from Paso del Cuadrado
"By the time we got back down to Rio Electrico, the mountains were cloaked again in cloud; we’d stolen a few hours of storm-lashed sunlight in a wild place"
Blessed by the brief warmth of the midday sun in this lonely place, there was no one else around. It was one of those special moments where just being among the mountains was enough. Sometimes, side-stepping the necessary quest for the summit allows for a more holistic - and ultimately more meaningful - experience of a mountain environment. It was certainly true that day up on Paso del Cuadrado: there was simply nowhere else I would have preferred to be. By the time we got back down to Rio Electrico later that afternoon, the mountains were cloaked again in cloud: the door had closed, but we’d stolen a few hours of storm-lashed sunlight in a wild place. It was more than enough.
A very icy Cerro Torre in the storm-lashed 2016-17 Patagonian summer
After my partner headed home, I had a week to spare in the Chalten Massif. But what to do, given a forecast that promised stable conditions below 2000 metres, but high winds and bad weather up high? Paso del Vientos links the most southerly mountain in the Chalten Massif, Huemul, with the eastern edge of the Southern Patagonian Icecap. The round trip from El Chalten normally takes larger parties 4-5 days. I pack food for 2 nights, which seems more than enough given that super-alpinist Colin Haley once ran the Huemul circuit in a continuous push, and set off for a fast and light wilderness quest to take advantage of the pseudo-weather-window.
The impressive Paso del Vientos guards the route to the Southern Patagonian Icecap
I rise at dawn the next day to strike my first camp at Laguna Torro. The indigo sky is striped with cloud, and vagrant gusts blow down from the moraine above the lake, the tell-tale signs of strong winds at higher elevation. It takes four hours to reach Paso del Vientos, with some intricate route-finding along a section that jumps between the glacier and the scree; I forget how many times I have to cross the bergshrund. On the summit of the pass, a frozen world extends north and west beyond the horizon's limit. As the writer Steve Waters puts it, “Below [the pass] is the white expanse of the Campo de Hielo Sur. This is a wild, primeval place of incredible beauty, starkness and isolation. The landscape is minimal and the ocean of white is only briefly broken by distant nunatuks on the Chilean side.”
Rainbow over Laguna Torro
I meet an Argentinian guide and his Swiss client who’ve made a six day crossing of the icecap from the Chilean border, forty odd miles to the north; they’re the only other people I see all day. The next section of the journey leads along the edge of the icecap from Paso del Vientos to Paso Huemul; it drifts by in the kind of existential haze that lone ocean sailors sometimes recall of hours at the helm in high seas. When alone in a place like this, the boundaries between the self and the world often blur, sometimes vanishing altogether on waves of shifting light, ice, and wind.
"On the summit of Paso del Vientos, a frozen world extends north and west beyond the horizon's limit"
The awesome expanse of the Campo de Hielo Sur seen from Paso del Vientos
By evening, I reach the quiet shores of Lago Viedmar, where I make camp. Without touching an ice axe or pulling on a pair of rock shoes, the twenty miles I’ve just travelled has formed one of the best days out in the wild I can ever remember. It just goes to show that sometimes simply being in the mountains is as good - if not better - than climbing them.
Looking down to Lago Viedmar from Paso Huemul
With twenty-four hours of the partial weather window left, I decide on a quick ascent of Cerro Solo. It doesn’t take long to reach high camp at Laguna Torre. A few hours later, and just before dawn, I’m woken by a gust of wind that sounds like a fighter jet with engine failure.
"just before dawn, I’m woken by a gust of wind that sounds like a fighter jet with engine failure"
In Patagonia during the austral summer, the wind is a constant companion. But this was something different altogether. Shearing off the icecap with unreal ferocity, this particular gust visibly impacted the world. For perhaps fifteen seconds, the entire superstructure of the Torre Glacier appeared to shudder violently at its foundations. As the gust subsided, the boom of an enormous chunk of calving ice echoed around the mountains, sending a series of micro-tsunamis across the silty brown water of Laguna Torre.
A storm blowing in above Laguna Torre; the mountains normally visible above are lost in cloud
I unzip my lightweight tent and peer out into the half-light. Squinting through the gap in the pines just above my camp, which is perched in a solitary sheltered enclave on the edge of a ravine, fast-moving strands of altostratus streak the monochrome air. I glance upwards. On the limit of the treeline, the stunted pines bend flat under the force of the wind, as if pressed down by a great weight from above. Cerro Torre and Cerro Standhart are lost in cloud. The decision is not so much reached, but presented: I’m not going climbing today. As so often in these mountains, the weather is the expedition leader; it’s the one with the final say of whether you go or you don’t go.
The termination of the Southern Patagonian Icecap in Lago Viedmar
Six hours later I’m back in El Chalten, looking at the weather forecast with moral assistance in the form of a strong black coffee in a half-pint glass. The forecast is not good: a succession of fronts pushing in from the Pacific for the next five days, picking up energy as they cross the icecap before slamming into the Chalten Massif. I’ve got just under a week left in Patagonia. But how to make best use of the remaining time?
Looking back towards El Chalten from Paso del Vientos
“If you remain in a state of continually becoming”, Bob Dylan wisely suggested to Martin Scorsese, “then you’ll kinda be alright” . For me personally, that statement is the most distilled expression of why I’ve dedicated much of my life to the pursuit of adventurous activities.
The author on the summit of Paso del Vientos with the Southern Patagonian Icecap in the distance
On the spur of the moment, I check the forecast for Tierra del Fuego, six hundred miles south at the very end of the South American continent. It’s looking much better: a forty-eight hour window of reasonably high pressure. Sometimes, particularly when on a solo mission, the best ally is spontaneous improvisation. The decision is quickly made, and I book the next flight to Ushuaia.