Tuesday, 13 December 2016


Circo de los Altares, The Southern Patagonian Icecap

On the 17th November I flew out to assist Richard Hartley of Spanish Highs on a trip to The Southern Patagonian Icecap. The expedition comprised of a team of 8 folk with guiding from Richard , myself and our local guide, Gabriel Fava. This 12 day expedition was to gain the icecap and climb the third highest peak in Patagonia, Cerro Mariano Moreno. A tough expedition to a remote part of the icecap. It's tough because it's remote so all our provisions including tentage has to be carried, no Alpine huts here. To make it even tougher there is a mixture of rough terrain and snow/ice/glaciers. On top of all this is the notorious Patagonian weather.

The views from above El Chalten
The team all met up in El Chalten. Every time I visit this brilliant wee town it just gets bigger and bigger. This was the teams base for a few days before heading into the wilderness. Plenty of bars, restaurants and gear shops to keep everyone happy and stocked up. Some terrific walks straight from the town with stunning views of the mountains and wildlife. The most famous mountains in the area are Mount Fitzroy and Cerro Torre. They shouldn't need identifying! The icecap lies behind these mountains. The Ice field is the third largest chunk of ice outside of the Polar regions. With a total length of over 3000km including many glaciers pouring down from the ice sheet.
We had a few days in El Chalten with some great days of weather, very hot and hardly any wind. This is really unusual!
Cerro Torre
Wonderful wildlife in the area, male Magellanic Woodpecker below Fitzroy
A short bus ride from town took us to our start point at the entrance to the Rio Electrico Valley. Stunning views from the word go. All nice and easy on good trails and almost flat. We took it slowly with our 20kg rucksacks. It is just a few hours to our first camp on the expedition at Piedra del Fraile. There's even a wee cafe here for the last taste of civilisation! Today was hot but a nice breeze.
The Rio Electrico and Cerro Electrico
More up and down today, rougher tracks with  lots of fantastic, wild scenery and a rather deep river crossing to cool the feet down. The hot weather causing the glaciers to melt and water running off these into the numerous rivers in the region. We reached camp in a steady 4 hours. The campsite at Playita lies on a beautiful rocky beach and enjoys wonderful views out to the mountains and lake with a glimpse of Fitzroy.

Our campsite even has some climbing crags

Evening beach walks at Playita
As you can imagine, the Patagonian Ice field has no mobile phone signal. With the wonders of modern technology we were equipped with the means to get very accurate weather forecasts via Weather4Mountain. Every evening at 6pm we got the latest forecast for 2-3 days in advance. Unfortunately today it was forecast high winds and some precipitation. The expedition had taken this into account and we had several spare days to sit out bad weather. This was one of them. Some of the team had a play on the glacier with Gabriel , there was rock climbing at our camp and others just potted about on the beach, waiting for a glimpse of Fitzroy.

Boulders and steep ground below Cerro Marconi
This was the big ascent day, gaining the icecap via some amazing scenery. The usual way up onto this end of the icecap is usually up the Marconi Glacier and up to the Passo Marconi. With a very dry winter and warm Spring, the Marconi Glacier is now a much tougher and potentially a more dangerous route. The start of the glacier has collapsed and the seracs higher up far too unstable. So we were forced to make a long detour and gain the icecap via the Gorra Blanca Sur glacier. This was a long 12 hour day. It involved a big walk to get round the river flowing out of the glaciers. Fantastic scenery and a wonderful mix of terrain. Moraine, boulders, waterfalls and a steeper glacier ascent than anticipated. The lower section of glacier was a mix of mud, moraine and ice, nice! But the views were absolutely stunning. Once we got onto the cleaner glacier it was much easier.
Scrambling up toward the glacier, Fitzroy behind
Kriston, Stewart & Dave on the 'G' Team rope
Seracs on the Gorra Blanca Sur
Time for a breather
Not a bad campsite
Our campsite was nicely sheltered and with amazing views of Mount Fitzroy's big, steep West face. We had a wonderful sunset and light winds. Our first camp on snow and ice. This was the toughest day of the entire expedition. 6pm and our much anticipated weather forecast. Not good, it was still unsettled. With only the odd half day of decent weather window. It was at this point that we knew our summit bid was over. From this evenings camp to the top of Cerro Mariano Moreno requires at least one day to get to the foot of it and a big 12 hour summit day the following morning. A further full day to get off the icecap, so that meant 3 good days of weather. It wasn't going to happen.

Evening light on Fitzroys West face
We reverted to plan B and a traverse of the icecap via the wonderful viewpoint of Circo de los Altares. This is a magnificent spot to gaze up at Cerro Torre's western side. Today started bright and clear. By mid morning the clouds were looking ominous and by the time we reached the Passo Marconi we were walking into a bank of misty, grey cloud and a few snow showers. The Pass mars the true start of the icecap. From here the going is virtually flat. We donned the snowshoes at this point, despite these it was hard going in the very soft snow. We decided on two short days to reach Altares. So another 4 hours and we set up camp. It started snowing quite heavily as we got our snow walls dug out to protect the tents from the sweeping winds across the vast expanse of the Helio Sur (Icecap). This was the only time on the icecap and on the lower glaciers that we saw any other human beings. Just two of them, passing through the whiteness.
Fitzroy about to become engulfed in cloud

Nearing the Passo Marconi

Cerro Marconi
A grey morning but winds quite light. We made our way across the icecap and another short day in the tiring, soft snow and just a few light snow/sleet showers. We set up camp at Altares
Flat and white
The odd glimmer of blue skies
Making walls for shelters, Cerro Torre behind us

A lean looking icecap
The latest weather forecast were indicating strong winds of 60-100kmph by late afternoon/evening. It was time to get down off the icecap. Another long day and shortly after packing up and setting off we encountered one of the strangest sights I have ever seen on glacial terrain. We were up to our ankles and sometimes beyond in slush and water! A very strange feeling and what lurks below? In these conditions you can't see any crevasses. But the clouds parted and gave us some wonderful atmospheric clouds with blue skies and an our of sunshine. The best weather we got on the icecap. Cerro Torres summit and famous ice mushrooms didn't clear but it was a wonderful setting. Thankfully the water and slush gave way to ice lower down the glacier as we made our way off onto the moraines. The winds increased just before we left the icecap behind. Camp tonight was on the moraine and with some pretty powerful gusts it made interesting tent erecting conditions!

The clouds parted, as we walked across a sea of slush!
Glacier, rock and water
Cerro Torre
After a wild, windy night with moraine dust sweeping across our campsite at 1200m it dawned calm and quiet. An update on the latest forecasts and we were in for another stormy evening plus even stronger winds the following day. Our decision to get off the ice was a well made one. But today we enjoyed fantastic, warm weather. By mid morning we were down to base layers under a beautiful sun and blue skies. It's another tough, long day with some awkward moraine, boulders and a brilliant river crossing before getting down to our campsite at Lago Toro. It's a 300m climb to the Passo del Viento. Unusually the pass didn't live up to it's namesake (Pass of the winds!).

Off the icecap, our mountain was laughing at us! Mariano just out of the cloud
The climb up to the Passo del Viento
No wind, lunch on top
Cerro Grande and Cerro Solo from the top
The long descent to Lago Toro
An exciting end to the day, The Tirolean traverse across the river
We definitely made the right decision! A very wild night but we were well sheltered in the campsite at Lago Toro. At a low altitude of 650m and in the safety of the trees, it was nice to see the green meadows, flowers and birdlife again. We even saw other human beings! A day of resting up, finishing off the free dried grub and just chilling out!
Ladies Slipper (Patagonian variety) just outside our campsite

Journeys end and a lovely walk through meadows and trees back to El Chalten. It was a very leisurely pace for some and a joy to walk in warm sunshine. The cold beers and pizza at El Chalten could wait an hour longer than our fast advanced party!
Green meadows and sunshine
Flower filled fields
A fabulous trip and despite the weather and the many obstacles that kept confronting us it was just amazing. Well done to all the team, for some this was the biggest challenge they have ever made. Truly life changing and an experience of a lifetime. A special well done to Claire who raised over £1500 for her charity, The Altzeimers Society. She doesn't usually do much walking! Well done to all. A few days of R&R in El Chalten. Some more walks, some more wildlife and a drink or two to rehydrate!

Richard Hartley, Tent photogrpher!


Gabriel Fava said...

Nice story and really good pictures, thanks for sharing!

Gary Hodgson said...

Thank you Gabriel! Hope you are enjoying Life. Have a great Christmas!