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Uncharted

Posted on: November 24, 2015


[The following story, from Alpinist Magazine Issue 52—Winter 2015, is about ascending the tallest named and unclimbed peak in North America, Mt. Malaspina (3776m), by its East Ridge (TD: AI2 55-65 degrees, 1900m). Read the NewsWire "Martinez and Rada Climb Yukon's Mt. Malaspina" from September 8, 2015—Ed.]

The author and her team on the first ascent of the Volcan Aguilera (2478m). [Photo] Evan Miles

Into the Night Countries

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DARKNESS OVERTOOK US. In the midst of absolute night, in the heart of the Cordillera Sarmiento, Camilo and I returned from the summit of Cerro Alas de Angel. The fog closed in, and a white wind filled the gloom, deepening our blindness. Gusts unbalanced our steps and turned our breath to ice. Each of us could only see the small lit spaces beneath our feet. By the time we returned to our tent, we'd traced another intimate map of shadows and mist, hope and fear.

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On the Open Road

OUR ADVENTURES BEGAN with a feeling that arose from forgotten places—lands that were silent in modern cartography but populated by names of bygone mountaineers who traced their dreams across snowy summits, dense forests, peat bogs and intricate fjords, each footfall struggling against the relentless beat of the Patagonian climate. We immersed ourselves in the classic prose of Eric Shipton, Alberto de Agostini, Robert Fitz Roy, Sir Martin Conway and Rockwell Kent, until we felt as though we'd struck up a timeless friendship with those men. At last, their love of the unknown launched us forward to discover the corners that eluded them. And thus, no longer following in their footsteps, we walked beside their spirits, sharing the longing and adventure of the open road.

Camilo Rada is a graduate student from Chile, and I'm a mountain guide from Argentina. We both realized that the history of climbing in the isolated regions of Patagonia was in danger. Even though we continued to retell the old stories, nobody knew for certain where the past explorers had gone, which summits they'd reached or which valleys they'd entered—because of a lack of accurate reference points. So we went on new expeditions to create detailed maps of the areas with the most mysteries. We climbed during the austral winter, when the snow cover made the tangled lowlands easier to travel, although the ice cap was swept by night and cold.

In August 2012, we headed toward the unclimbed peaks of Cerro Alas de Angel and Cerro Trono. After days of slogging through blizzards, we grew accustomed to a monochrome world. We installed a high camp at an insignificant point amid the clouds. For a few minutes one morning, sunrise leaked between the endless fog and the distant pampas. Two white pyramids appeared in the orange light, adorned with petals of rime like magnolias in flower. We quickly memorized the lines. Afterward, enveloped in mist, we followed the remembered pathways to the top of each mountain. About a year later, I saw an aerial photograph of Monte Sarmiento that showed a direct, delicate line along the white blanket that covered the north wall. I knew that I wanted to try it, although the summit had only been reached once in fifty-seven years. Camilo and I set out in August 2013—without any grand illusions. But after climbing through a long winter night and a furious wind, beneath the comfort of a brilliant moon... we found ourselves, nearly worn-out, at the apex.

The Southern Icefield conceals infinite treasures, mountains unnamed and untrodden. In August 2014, we were back again with four friends from Chile and the United States, to make first ascents of four peaks, including Volcan Aguilera—the highest unclimbed volcano in the Andes. We portaged our loads through a frozen wildwood of southern beech and across an untouched valley of ice.

On those summits, I felt as though I'd reached the epitome of nowhere. I was grateful to be allowed to stand there for an eternal instant.

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To the North

WITHOUT A DOUBT, Mt. Malaspina is thousands of kilometers from Patagonia, its summit a scarcely noticed banner of ice and rock in the backcountry of the Canadian Yukon. But for several years, Camilo and I worked for the University of British Columbia (where he's getting his PhD in glaciology), installing instruments to take the pulse of the glaciers. At the end of our stay, we ventured toward the white masses of the Saint Elias Range. We chose Mt. Malaspina because we could find only limited information about it, because it was unexplored and it fit our ideals.

Today, many climbers focus on making ultra-technical ascents and setting records, usually on the most well-known mountains or the tallest. What's obscured in the shade of iconic peaks becomes hard to see, consigned to oblivion. The modern approach rules out some of the Romantic side of mountaineering, the path less traveled, the game of unknowns. I don't think this is a permanent shift: alpinism is reinvented continually, and there are simply periods in history with different trends.

At the base of Malaspina, in August 2015, I didn't just marvel at the mountain's slender form; I was surprised by the complicated labyrinth we'd have to decipher. Crevasses and fallen ice blockaded the north face. The glacier appeared like some mythic battlefield, strewn with the broken bones and crystal skulls of giants. We placed an advanced base camp below the fortified wall and waited for the right conditions.

While we were sharing some mate, a burst of wind and noise shook our tent. Gusts blew over us like a stampede of specters. I didn't dare breathe. I forced myself not to close my eyes. Instead, Camilo and I stared at each other. I waited for the snow to bury us. That moment contained a separate voice and language, revelations and secrets; we listened without speaking a word. Then the stampede became lost in silence.

We went outside. A serac had fallen, multiplying into large projectiles. One had landed by our tent. I shivered. "We have to get out of here," I said. Camilo insisted it wasn't safe to move right away; we should wait for the cold of night to freeze the ice and snow. But a clear and perfect vision had formed in my mind: another gust of wind or swerve of fate would hurl more seracs, releasing more slides. And so we left, groping for the safety of base camp. Brief clearings in the mist revealed the path. All around us we heard the diffuse and deep echoes of falling rocks, snow and seracs.

The author [Photo] Camilo Rada

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Drawing Lines

AT DAWN, WE STARTED our summit push from base camp. As we tiptoed over the glacier, the serac bands and debris cones still seemed asleep. More seracs hung suspended from the east col, above the only line that seemed to approximate our definition of acceptable risk. Rays of light spiked behind dark silhouettes of peaks. The mountain was waking up; its cracklings filled the silence. Another avalanche devoured the glacier. We tried to read the slopes, searching for the paths of old slides to avoid new ones. At the col, Camilo's face looked grey and worn. He asked if we should turn back. "Are you crazy?" I said. "Now, after all that we've gone through? No way."

Ahead, a fragile cornice became our next point of orientation. It seemed to grow ever more distant as the evening turned the ice to gold. Stars lit the sky like the lamps of a great temple. Sounds muted, and the contours of the mountains dissolved in dusk. We left our last strength behind us on the white steps of the cornice. Just after midnight, we reached the shoulder. While we built a small cave, the green glow of the aurora borealis danced in the dark. As we settled in to sleep, a snarled mess of ropes and gear separated us from the icy ground. I remember vaguely the sound of Camilo's voice. I closed my eyes and abandoned that place.

After a few hours, the cold interrupted my sleep. The light of the stars paled, and the patina of frost dimmed. Dawn spilled gold over our faces. Its rays lit the wrinkles that spread around Camilo's eyes when he smiled. Bit by bit, I regained the warmth I'd lost during the night. In silence, just past noon, we climbed the last meters of snow to the summit. Two colors dominated: the white of the glaciers and the blue of the sea. Place and time vanished—as if I'd entered one of the worlds in my dreams. I let my thoughts fly out across the vastness.

Below us, the walls still roared. There were long hours of fear left to endure. Fifteen rappels got us to the base, among clouds and spindrift, darkness and insecurity. After fifty-five hours, our packs loaded with emotions, we returned happy and exhausted to the shelter of our fabric castle.

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Across the Silent Lands

ON MALASPINA, I encountered hidden senses that I hadn't felt before with such intensity. One of them was the ability to draw energy and will from constant fear. Yet shades of uncertainty add color to journeys across these silent expanses of ice. The first explorers also went heavy with doubt, buoyed by purpose and strength. This is the kind of story I choose to live in: one that weaves past and present together into new worlds replete with new dreams, emerging amid the murk of snow and darkness, enchanting my path with their strange luminescence—even as I return home, back to the warmth and the day.

Translated from the Spanish by Pam Ranger Roberts

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