Patagonia is an intense place. Intense because of its extreme and capricious weather. Intense due to its disproportionate dimensions, both vertical and horizontal. And intense because of the experiences that are lived out there.
With such an intense atmosphere, it is hard to say now, when returning from an expedition without achieving the intended goal, if it has truly been a failure, or not.
We first attempted this expedition ten years ago. As soon as we looked at the Marconi Pass and saw the immensity of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, we were forced to admit that the mission was too big for us. However, it was also at that moment that I became committed to navigating that deep, frozen sea and seeing the Pacific Ocean from the highest peak in the area: the Lautaro volcano.
A few years later, with a better idea about where I was going, and with a local partner who had extensive experience in the area I thought I had a better chance. But, as is often the case in Patagonia, bad weather put a stop to our plans as we approached the peak. This time I was at least able to complete the classic traverse from Paso Marconi to Paso del Viento, which I knew would be great experience for future attempts.
So here I am again, back in El Chaltén in mid-October. This time I am accompanied by my friend José Allende. This is his first mountain outing outside of his native Picos de Europa and as a photographer, he has joined me in search of the photograph of his dreams; a night shot of the West face of Cerro Torre. With him is Pedro Cifuentes, a well-known solo climber, who it is not difficult to convince to travel to his beloved Patagonia.
Lautaro volcano (3,623 m) is a seldom-visited mountain despite being the highest point of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and it’s also one about which there is little available information. Its remoteness and position, to the NW of the Marconi Pass (the usual access point to the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap from the Argentine side), means that it’s often necessary to fight against the prevailing winds in order to reach it. So even more than normal in Patagonia the weather conditions are decisive on this peak and at least three good days are needed for a successful summit.
We are told when we arrive at El Chaltén that a three-day weather window is something that has hardly arisen so far this year. In fact, it’s one of the worst years for a long time. The weather during the first two weeks in El Chaltén follows the tone of the year so far: rain and wind, with a few hours of clear weather that only allows us to stretch our legs and not much more.
Everything changes suddenly when all the weather sites start to forecast, incredibly, a full week of stable weather; sunny and calm. We can hardly believe it and, just to be sure, we get in touch with our friend at the Spanish Meteorological Agency, who confirms the reports. The next day we leave with equipment, food and gas for 12 days in the wild, to tide us over if the forecast is wrong and the good weather doesn’t last as long as expected. In Patagonia, the good weather rarely lasts, so it’s probably a wise plan!
The first two days, when we have to gain more than 1,000m of altitude to access the ice field, we go slowly due to the weight of our backpacks. Each of our packs exceeds 30kg. We are not exactly going ‘alpine style’.
Eventually the slope of the glacier allows us to move the loads to the sleds and swap our shoes for skis. With good weather up on the glacier, we are like children in Disneyland as Fitz Roy and Piergiorgio welcome us with an impressive reddish sunset. From here, about 40 kilometers separate us from the base of Lautaro; it’s a long and somewhat monotonous day that makes us realise the enormity of the task ahead.
On the way to the base, we meet Emma and Jesse, a couple of Canadians who share our goal of summiting Lautaro and, unlike us, to ski the descent. We are travelling with Nordic style skis but only for the approach, so while we share the same objective, we have quite different approaches. They opt to head up the peak the next morning while we wait for a few more hours, hydrating well and recovering strength. We are preparing for a long day, knowing that our descent will be a much more arduous affair than theirs.
After 11 hours of climbing and 4 hours of descent, the Canadians arrive back in Basecamp in the middle of the afternoon. They tell us about an important bergschrund halfway up the route which they crossed by a dubious snow bridge on the left-hand side of the slope on the way up and on the other end on the way down. Descending on skis they passed it quickly but tell us that both ways hold significant risk. With their advice, we leave shortly after dinner, around 11 PM. A full moon means good visibility during the first part of the night and little by little we climb on, avoiding the initial crevasses. Following the directions the Canadians gave us, we go to the right side of the slope, expecting to find the famous bergschrund. Then, just as the full moon passes behind the summit and the darkness becomes complete, the wind begins to get stronger sending snow showers from the upper slopes, reminding us forcefully that we are not in Disneyland.
It was at that point that I saw the dark crevasse, about 20 meters wide and stretching across the slope in front of us. This was what our friends had told us about and it was worse than we had anticipated. We looked to cross at the place they had descended, but it would mean spending a lot of time under a menacing serac that showed the remains of recent avalanches at its feet. We stopped to evaluate the situation. On skis the Canadians had passed this area quickly but without them it seemed too risky to us. With heavy hearts we made the difficult decision to turn around.
It is hard to make these decisions when you have come within reach of your dream but, as the first rays of the sun began to illuminate our descent, the roar of falling seracs confirmed that we had chosen the right path.
Back at camp, Emma and Jesse receive us with coffee and cookies and we share the last ‘alfajor’ of ‘La Chocolatería’ that we had saved for the summit. It’s a precise operation but we somehow manage to cut it into five pieces!
We are tired and a little deflated, but the expedition is not over yet. We still have more than 80 km of ice field to get through to reach the Paso del Viento. Two more days in the middle of one of the most spectacular mountain landscapes in the world, enjoying the simple pleasures of skiing, pulling the sled and admiring the views of the West face of Cerro Torre. But all good things must come to an end and when we leave the glacier, we transfer the load from the sleds to our backs again and the accumulated fatigue finally hits.
Another two days is spent crossing the mythical Paso del Viento – without a wisp of wind – to bring us back to El Chaltén, where we arrive late in the evening. Everyone is heading out for dinner and enjoying the artisanal beer festival and we, broken with fatigue ‘close the loop’ of 145 km by heading straight to bed!
At the end of it all I still have not seen the Pacific from the summit of Lautaro, but I have enjoyed some of the best moments of my mountain life in the attempt. José didn’t get the night photo he dreamed of due to the full moon, but he returned home with many other spectacular, award-winning images to add to his portfolio. And Pedro? He returns with batteries recharged and a new mission; to make the first solo traverse of the Fitzroy skyline, convinced now, more than ever before, that he prefers to drag a haul bag up a wall, than carry one on his back…
Success or failure? I am still not sure. But was the attempt worth it? Absolutely.