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Up Patagonia

Adventures Beneath the Southern Cross

By: Michael F. McGuffin


The burning diesel is making me sick. I escape the belching bus by crossing the tarmac where I stare down on the watery lights of "the most inhospitable town in Argentina." At least this is how the author of my guidebook remembered the Patagonian town of Calafate. Clinging to the edge of the arid pampas like a later day Dodge City, Calafate marks the end of the road. A tee shirt taped to the window of a locked shop declaring "this isnít the end of the world, but you can see it from here" loses humor when true. The stoic faces and closed doors tell me that I should be somewhere else.

Four months ago my neighbor, friend and occasional mentor Silas Wild proposed a winter climb of the remote Patagonian peak Mt Pietrobeli, one of the Southern Icecapís highest summits. At the time I was marking the final days of a career as an engineer in order to stay at home with my two month old son. Naturally I declined.

Silas is mad about Patagonia and in 1997 I naively joined him on his sixth trip to the Southern Icecap. Joining Silas in Patagonia is a risky venture: one of his literally partners blew away breaking his ankle. On another trip Silas had to wench his companion out of a crevasse into which he had fallen headfirst suffering a concussion. A third cohort impaled his hand with his ice ax a mere two hours into the trip. Two other former partners wonít even speak to him.

Following the 1997 trip I considered myself lucky to have only experienced misery instead of injury and hatred. After a week of ferrying loads we dug a camp into the Icecap only to spend the following four days huddled in dripping sleeping bags as the rabid wind clawed at our tent. The scattered locals call the merciless Patagonian wind the "broom of God," I thought the Rug Doctor of God more accurate. Unable to keep the tent above ground we retreated into the gale, off route and exhausted we stumbled into a crevasse field where the third member of our team, Mark Allabeck, dropped twenty feet into an unseen hole. Struggling to get Mark to the surface I made a promise: get me out of this one and Iíll be a better husband, a better son, Iíll stay at home.

Undaunted by failure, Silas now proposed a winter climb, claiming that June promises low wind and stable high pressure. His unrequited passion for this cruel yet spectacular wonderland wore down my defenses, forcing me to confess that between bouts of misery I too had been enraptured by the majesty of this unspoiled wilderness. Silent promises were never my forte; reluctantly I agreed to go. In truth, however, I never actually agreed; I simply failed to refuse.

Mark's refusal was resolute so I turned to my friend and running partner, Seattle climber Eric Lundeen, who accepted the invitation unconditionally. This would be Ericís first expedition, but his confidence, intelligence and bull-moose strength left no doubt regarding his qualifications. He never questioned the slim odds nor choked on the mounting bills. On the ice Eric would prove unflappable, and his excitement and optimism would frequently prune back my flowering anxiety and self-imposed guilt.

From the bus station we walk through steady drizzle past the darkened shop windows towards the headquarters of Los Glacieres National Park where weíll grovel for permission to enter a seldom-explored region of the Southern Icecap. A few insurgent gray cells hope that we donít get it.

The mute ranger, who meets us at the door of the sparse headquarters, aims his finger towards a pair of kitchen chairs before disappearing into a back office. I vent some tension by flipping through the pages of a small yellow book containing pictures of my wife and newborn son, on its cover Iíve written the prophetic words dinosaur hunter George Gaylord Simpson:

Patagonia seems sometimes to be a personified force, and evil and malignant spirit, delighting in the torture of souls, seeking with unfair weapons a crushing victory over mankind. Yet there is more than this. As in listening to a symphony, as before a great painting, or as in the words of a poem, there is often in the midst of this misery a glimpse of the grandeur of human life. Man is the animal that is above all animals. Something in him is greater than the sum of his days or the result of his actions. After its worst effort, Patagonia falls back abashed before this, and I think it reserves a savage love and an intimate delight for those strong enough to defy it.

I found this quote while searching for an explanation, an easily digestible reason for leaving my wife and infant son for three weeks of trench warfare on the Patagonian Icecap. Regardless of the noble motives we climbers invent for ourselves, mountaineering remains a selfish passion. Summits produce little direct benefit apart from self-satisfaction, which until this trip has always been good enough for me. Today, however I canít so blithely turn aside the knowledge that Iím putting my shallow desires above the very real needs of my family.

After a silent five minutes the head ranger, wearing heavy hiking boots and an olive drab military sweater, steps into the lobby closing the door behind him. "Hola me llamo es Mario." Silas mumbles "Let me do the talking," and launches into a speech of well-rehearsed staccato Spanish. The rangers have no incentive to grant us a permit, we only represent paperwork and liability; a well-worded plea is our only chance. Stroking his un-cropped beard, Mario listens carefully before informing us that only the Intendente, who is on vacation for the next three days, can issue permits. "Es solomente tres dias," he says holding open the door.

Mt. Pietrobeli rises from the middle of El Heilo Continental Del Sur, the Southern Patagonian Icecap. Our somewhat dubious plan to access this remote section of real estate begins at the spectacular terminus of the Perito Moreno Glacier. The ten mile long Moreno extends from the Icecap like a freeway onramp, finally spilling its pressure-treated ice into the waters of Rico Brazo. Crossing the iceberg-laden lake is our first obstacle.

We decide to visit the home of a local climber and entrepreneur Luciano Perra who runs a small business ferrying tourists across the lake. Two days ago a friend in Buenos Aires had told us that Luciano and his son Jose had made the first ascent of Pietrobeli three months ago; this news hit like a fist and sent my pedestrian hopes for a first ascent swirling towards the drain.

Luciano answers our knock wearing only a bath towel; heís in dangerously good shape. With a sweep of his arm weíre in the kitchen where Jose, already packing a matte gourd, greets us with an unconditional hospitality virtually nonexistent in North America. As we pass around the bitter green tea Jose translates his fatherís account of their success on Mt. Pietrobeli. I force a congratulatory smile, and suddenly empathize with those awkward first runners-up at the Miss America pageant. "I thought you quit climbing," Silas asks, concealing his own bittersweet emotions.

"Pietrobeli era una regalo, a gift for me and my son." Luciano replies.

Luciano and Jose have no photos and can provide only minimal information on their climb, but weíre stunned to learn that they crossed the Moreno during the approach. The Perito Moreno Glacier is a three mile wide train wreck of compressed blue ice, crossing it seemed so futile that we scarcely considered it. Instead we planned to follow a circuitous route up the edge ice, crossing the glacier and aiming straight for Pietrobeli would trim nearly six miles from the approach. Jose sketches a crude map in my diary; "death zone" he says pointing to a crevasse field heís marked with skull and crossbones.

Entering into the fourth round of matte Silas asks if we can book a ride across the lake. Tourist season is over; the boat was dry-docked last week.

We have three days to find a way across the lake. Calafate is nearly falling into Lago Argentino, one of Argentinaís largest bodies of water, but if anyone has, or knows about, a boat they convincingly deny it. Fortunately the owner of a back street hostel boasting the cheapest rooms in town tells us that the Captain of a nearby Coast Guard station lives nearby, surely he has a boat.

Captain Rene Reibel has the manners of an aristocrat and the looks of Omar Sharif. He invites us into his living room and listens patiently as we take turns thumbing through a dog-eared Spanish phrase book. The Captain solves our problem with a single phone call, his boys need a mission and we could leave at any time, provided we have a Park permit of course.

Three days later, bloated on Eagle brand candy bars and insanely bored we return to the Park headquarters where Mario escorts us into the Intendenteís office. He motions to three straight-backed chairs facing a CEO-sized mahogany desk then disappears. "Let me do the talking," Silas says as the Intendente steps in through a back door and settles into an overstuffed leather chair.

"Tell me your story, then I will tell you my problems" he says with the compliant voice of a high school art teacher. Taking his queue, Silas begins a heart-wrenching soliloquy on his passion for Patagonia, especially Patagonia inesplorado. He chronicles each of his six expeditions while continually pulling photos from his wallet. Silasí love for this place is obvious; only the coldest heart could deny him a conjugal visit.

The Intendenteís warm manners belie a frozen center. He listens quietly before responding with a bureaucratic line, something about the burden of responsibility and since he canít rescue teams on the Icecap heís simply chosen to close it down.

"So you can understand why I must refuse your requestÖ"

His lips continue to move, but the words dissolve. Three days ago I saw the Intendenteís denial of a permit as a relief, yet Iím outraged. If I decide to quit I want it to be on my terms, not because of the paranoia a lazy bureaucrat. My mind is spinning, and Eric looks capable of murder, but Silas simply leans towards the expansive desk and calmly gathers his photographs. "What about the guided trekking party that went three miles up the Moreno last April?" He asks.

"I donít know anything about them, maybe my assistant gave permission."

"Your assistant told us that only you could give permission, weíve waited here three days."

"Well yes this is true, I think maybe there was a special reason for this team, I donít remember."

"What about the team on the Mayo (a neighboring glacier) right now?"

"Well theyíre special, they have a Ranger with them."

"What about the German kayakers (in 1996 two hard adventurers paddled in from the Pacific and drug their kayaks across the Icecap in hopes of paddling out to the Atlantic. They made it to the top of the Moreno before running low on food. In 1998 they returned to complete the traverse), who went up the Moreno last month?"

"They went to retrieve gear, but I told them no more, this would be their last chance."

Silas seizes the opportunity. "We also have gear up on the Moreno, an equipment cache from last yearís expedition." This is a true statement, more or less.

The Intendente, realizing that he has underestimated his opponent, takes the bone. "Well thatís different, you can go for your equipment, but I will only give three weeks and nothing more."

Permit in hand, we hire a driver and arrange to meet the Coast Guard the following morning. The five sailors, punctual to the minute, arrive with a Zodiac and speed us across the lake. We agree to meet them in three weeks and quietly watch the tiny boat fade into the morning mist. Only the dull moaning of the dying glacier breaks the breathless silence.

We decide to ferry a load three hours up glacier to a sheltered stand of tortured trees we nickname Beechwood Camp. Feral cows stumble through the thick forest. Castaways from some forgotten estancia, these clowns of the wild kingdom have miraculously managed to survive their freedom. Green parrots and yellow parakeets relay a musical alarm as we weave along the crumbling moraine and undulating edge ice. Bruised clouds roll over the Icecap, but here, low on the glacier, the air is dead calm.

From Beechwood camp we begin the seemingly impossible task of crossing the glacier. At the surface, the glacier is a splintered maze of frozen fins, canyons and dead ends. Our methodical pace of looking for a twenty foot run, moving forward and then searching for another is painfully slow.

Our steel crampons merely etch the surface of the jeweled ice, but link by link we manage to chain together a three mile route across the glacier. Impassable cliffs and icefalls bound the Morenoís northern edge so we turn west towards a stadium-sized nunatak at the head of the glacier.

Ground conditions worsen and soon weíre moving ahead ten feet at a time. After a week on the glacier we navigate the narrow ridges and runways like a high steel crew, but our newfound confidence is useless at a ridge so sharp that our crampon points fall uselessly to either side. Undeterred, Silas front points down the wall of the crevasse and hand traverses around a corner. I roll my eyes at Eric before grabbing the fan and begin inching across. My front points are only scratching the blue ice; if my feet slip these token handholds will do nothing to keep me out of the yawning crack. "That sucked," I say rounding the corner to relative safety, but Silas is twenty yards away front-pointing up a second ice shield.

Silas pushes on, each obstacle dodgier than the one before. Eric seems to be taking the whole mess in stride despite my commentary, "Damn I canít believe this." "Whereís he going now?" "This is crazy man, crazy." Finally we catch up at the edge of an impassable gorge.

Weíve wandered into Joseís death zone and with the sun resting on the horizon we rope up and begin retracing our steps. Weíre moving too slowly to get back to flat ground before sunset, and as the light fades we begin chopping a tent platform on a runway the width of a sidewalk. Thirty minutes of attacking the ice with our axes yields a barely suitable flattened bump. We sleep straddling two crevasses, Eric, in the middle, acts as ballast while Silas and I hang like counterweights off either side.

The next day we inch our way out of the death zone and scout out a route to the nunatak. With the puzzle complete we make the final trip back to Beechwood Camp to dry out and wait for better weather.

During the evening we decide that the weather is good enough to try for the Icecap and weíre on the glacier at sunrise. Frost feathers shatter like broken glass beneath our crampon points. Midway across the glacier my crampon falls off. As a structural engineer Iíve studied metal fatigue, even witnessed it in a lab, but scientific knowledge doesnít ease the shock of a broken crampon. My step-in has fractured across the rail. I manage to fashion a makeshift strapping system from a spare length of perlon chord and we hobble back to Beechwood Camp. By the time we get off the glacier the broken crampon is barely usable, we didnít bring a spare pair and taking what I have back out onto the ice would be suicidal.

Silas remembers seeing a box of crampons in Lucianoís lakefront cabin; I light out the following morning to borrow a pair. Yesterdayís marginal weather has deteriorated into blowing rain, weíre fortunate to be low on the glacier and not out on the exposed nunatak. At Lucianoís cabin I take my pick of a dozen crampons and by the time I get back to Beechwood Iím wet, exhausted and ready for some rest.

After a relaxing day waiting out the storm weíre back on the glacier, this time beneath clear windless skies. I lose the outside points on both crampons within the first two hours, and when I finally limp onto the nunatak Iím down four points and both crampons are broken across the rails. I can scarcely bear thinking about the situation, the skies are seamless blue and Iím sitting on a rock in the middle of a frozen desert with two dismembered crampons. Over dinner we decide to return to the lake carrying nothing but sleeping bags and a dayís ration, grab another pair of crampons and then go full throttle back to the nunatak. The round trip will cost us two days.

The good weather is holding, and the next morning I tie on what remains of my crampons and head out across the ice. Points break off like rotten teeth. Walking the tightrope ridges between crevasses makes my ears ring. When I kiss solid ground at Beechwood Camp Iím riding on the rims and what once passed as crampons are now random shards of too-brittle steel knotted to my soles.

Eric, who is suffering from a quintet of blisters, loans me his crampons and settles in for the night at Beechwood while Silas and I continue down to the lake. The next morning weíre moving before dawn, and are crossing the glacier at sunrise. Three South American condors, Americaís largest flying bird, circle overhead like the vultures they are. Soaring on six-foot wings these harbingers of good weather are a welcome sight. Eric is beginning to doubt our horror stories of furious storms and mind numbing wind. My third pair of crampons survives the trip intact; back on the nunatak we boil up a hasty meal and collapse into our sleeping bags.

We spend the next two days on the Icecap establishing high camp. The high pressure system wonít quit as we inch across the white desert. The daily flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas passes overhead at precisely 3:30, our only connection with Earthís other six billion inhabitants becomes increasingly marvelous with each sighting. The anxiety of our total isolation swims just beneath the surface, occasionally bumping the boat.

As Pietrobeli grows from a distant hope to a looming threat we begin searching for a route that doesnít end in an ice cliff or rock band. Approaching a mountain without a route description is a new experience for me, guidebooks, as questionable as some are, at least offer a hint on where to start and provide the occasional comfort being on route. Down here weíre on our own. After crossing into Chile we discover the western flanks to be even steeper and more severely fractured than eastern slopes so we double back and set high camp beneath a large but possibly passable face.

In the dying light we chose a route that begins up a wide ramp, slaloms through a series of gaping crevasses then traverses beneath an ice cliff before finishing up a steep snow slope. The crevasses appear to be the greatest menace: a missing snow bridge or an impassable crack could dead-end the route.

Eric forfeits his share of dinner for the second night in a row, what little he does eat runs through him like water in a hose. Eric easily outweighs me by thirty pounds and stands two inches taller making my concerns over his health seem misplaced. I hand him my two packets of GatorAid, make a comment about the hidden cost of canned fish and zip into my sleeping bag. The sun set over two hours ago, but talked out and in the dark we have nothing to do other than sleep, my watch reads five minutes to seven.

I fall asleep immediately, but within two hours Iím wide-awake silently reciting my elementary school math tables. After the third time at nine times nine is eighty one I try making smoke rings with my vaporized breath, it doesnít work. Frustrated and anxious, I squeeze out of the tent; the clear night sky is a cloud of stars and the waxing moon floods the Icecap in serene blue light; instinctively I search for the Big Dipper. The realization that Iím beneath an alien sky arrives with a jolt, and then I see it. I see the Southern Cross for the first time.

We leave the tent as a new day sparks the eastern horizon. The breathless predawn air freezes my nostrils closed as we crampon up the wind-packed Styrofoam. Over the Pacific the domed silhouette of Pietrobeli is cast in purple shadow. Suddenly Iím hit with an electric shock as I drop into a crevasse cleverly disguised as solid ground. Fortunately I only go in waist deep, both Silas and Eric will share this experience before the day is through.

Eric is undoubtedly ill but could win the award for best actor in a dramatic role for his portrayal of a healthy mountaineer. Methodically stitching through the upper crevasses we reach the ice cliff at noon. A ten foot wide bergshrund separates us from a narrow shelf leading to the upper slope. The only way across is to jump onto a manhole cover-sized chunk of ice connected to the far side by a sagging snow bridge. Silas volunteers, and we set as good an anchor as two snow pickets allow and he eases across. The next pitch is mine, after traversing beneath the ice cliff I start up the final face; itís incredibly steep and the bottomless snow falls away like sugar. Five steps up, four steps down. Yelling for Eric to anchor into the ice wall, I continue upward finally breaststroking through a cornice and onto the summit plateau.

Itís 1:30 and the summit is still three false ones away. We take turns kicking steps in the knee-deep snow and by 3:15 are ten feet below the top. "Take us home" I say motioning for Silas lead the final few steps onto the summit. The views are unobstructed; north to helmet-shaped Fitzroy, east to the khaki-colored Pampas, south to the black needles of Torres Del Paine and west to the winding fjords of the Pacific.

"Look at La Iglesia, I think that ridge would go," Silas says pointing to an impossible looking steeple-shaped summit.

"Next year weíll set camp at the base of that glacier, do La Iglesia and maybe that other peak over there."

Neither Eric nor I take the bait.

Three days later Eric and I, lagging behind Silas, are following moraine near the glacial terminus when we spot a dark figure standing alone on the ice.

"Silas! What the hell are you doing out there?" Eric yells.

"Yaíall speak English?" returns a female voice. "Come over here and have your picture taken!"

Eric does a full turn and mouths, "what the Ö"

If I ever run into Bill Clinton in an all night doughnut shop Iíll be less surprised. We click into our crampons and go out to meet our unexpected company.

The middle-aged lady dressed in a fir trimmed parka, lightweight hiking shoes and strapped on crampons extends her hand, "Hi Iím Barbara. Boy are we glad to see guys."

Surveying the scene, Eric and I are struck stupid; a dozen well-dressed photographers, models and fashion consultants, are literally crawling across the ice in Nike hikers and taped-on crampons. A stubble-faced model wearing a black parka emblazoned with Polo Sport thoughtlessly tosses a butt onto the sapphire ice. The only two people wearing climbing boots stand in a natural ice cave cooking steaks on a grease-blackened sheet of flat iron.

Politely ignoring our eau de glacier, Barbara explains that she is supervising a fashion shoot for Esquire magazine, and that they had neglected to bring any props Ė would we be so kind as to allow her the use of our equipment. Eric and I say that weíre waiting for the Coast Guard, but that they could use our gear until they show up.

After a few minutes of small talk Silas strolls up acting as though he were expecting this elaborate welcoming party. Barbara steps back to take a head to toe sweep of our gray-bearded partner. "Hey we could use another model. Interested?" she asks with practiced inflection.

"Who me? Well I dunno. Uh OK." Silas responds.

"Jees I must look worse than I thought," I whisper to Eric.

Soon Silas and Barbara are cackling like old school chums while Stefan, the style consultant, strips a peroxide blond lackey of his Tommy Hilfinger coat and hat, "Letís see how this looks" he says holding open the coat. As Silas is groomed, two non-models begin tossing my possessions onto the glacier. Holding my breath, as well as my tongue, I watch as three crampon-clad models confuse my inflatable pad for a doormat. Eric isnít so gentle; "Hey get off that!" he yells; the trio slowly steps off, appearing more annoyed than apologetic.

Four months later my son and I are riding out a downpour in a Barnes and Noble when I notice Fred Rodgers beaming at me from the November cover of Esquire. Flipping to the Esquire Style section Iím hit by a full page photo showing a model bedecked in a $490 turtle neck and $580 Armani ski pants hacking his way out of a crevasse. Passing several pages of "climbers" engaged in "glacier running" I come to a black and white group shot. To the left, looking exhausted and self-conscious stands Silas captioned as an "errant Seattleite whoíd been trekking in the Southern Andes for three weeks without seeing another human being." My scratched ice tools and bent ski poles lie at their feet. Laughing out loud I turn to a stranger, "see all that gear, thatís my stuff, I was there."