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A foray into the 'Never-Never Land' of Cordillera Sarmiento, Chile
Posted on: April 25, 2017
A view of Cerro Trono from the east side of the Cordillera Sarmiento. [Photo] Whitney Clark
In March, Tad McCrea, Jon Griffin and I spent two weeks in the remote, wild Cordillera Sarmiento, a range located in the far reaches of southern Patagonia, in the fjords of Chile. Few people have climbed here, as the peaks are guarded by dense swampland and ferocious weather. In 1976 Americans Jack Miller and Dan Asay sailed through the fjords for three days until they reached what is now called Fiordo de los Montanas, where they set up base camp and waited for the weather to break. For three weeks, the mountains were veiled in clouds, not even offering them a glimpse. It became apparent to us that seeing the peaks might be the biggest challenge.
The Cordillera Sarmiento runs north to south with the Fiordo de las Montanas to the east, and Taraba Sound to the west. Most parties have approached from the more accessible glacial valleys in the east because the west side of the range is characterized by dense marsh and forest. While studying the map, Tad took notice of an unexplored star-shaped valley in the Taraba Sound, which branched off toward numerous lakes, unclimbed peaks, and our main objective, Alas de Angel Sur. Visions of Never-Never Land and The Lost Boys flashed through my mind.
After a 12-hour ride on a fishing boat, we arrived in a lush, green bay surrounded by mountains. Towers of rock and ice thrust into the sky while glaciers tumbled toward the ocean below. Although Jack Miller and friends sailed into all the major bays of the Taraba Sound in 1992, to our knowledge they only climbed in the bay to the south of where we were. We shuttled loads of duffels to shore and got to work by clearing a space in the thick forest. Tales of sideways rain and fierce wind had us eager to build a shelter where we could comfortably pass the time. Armed with a chainsaw that was borrowed from our boat captain as well as a machete, shovel and hatchet, we spent the day chopping, sawing and binding plastic until our little house was complete. We laid wooden pallets on the ground to sit on, and made a table from two crates and a board we scavenged from our friend's barn. It felt like home.
Finding our way to the other side of the valley was our first challenge. Going up the river was not an option as the water was too fast to paddle upstream in our pack rafts and too deep to skirt along the edge. We opted to hack a path through the jungle to gain a ridge that led up to the nearby peaks. Our feet sunk with each step into the thick green moss, and vines hindered progress as we went farther into the forest. Rain fell and dripped through the layers of trees. We gained the ridge and retreated back to our plastic house where we waited. The days blended together, and we became accustomed to the howl of the wind and sound of waves crashing the shore. We were bound to our shelter for days through a ferocious Patagonian storm.
McCrea and Griffin make a path through the forest. [Photo] Whitney Clark
The pitter-patter of rain stopped at 12:30 p.m. We were out the door and made quick work of the trail we had cut through the forest. We planned to scope an access point for Alas de Angel Sur, but it was farther than we had hoped, leaving us unsure of the terrain we would encounter. Once onto the ridge, the ground steepened, forcing us to climb mossy steps and weave through the breaks in vertical rock. Waterfalls plunged into turquoise blue lakes a thousand feet down. An icefall hung in suspension on the dark rock, slowly giving away to the water below.
As we climbed higher, jungle gave way to barren land and we arrived at the base of a steep glacier. Fingers of blue ice clung to the rock. We climbed up, navigating our way through crevasses heading toward the col, where we could scope the path to Alas de Angel Sur. Moving toward the apex of the glacier, I peeked my head over and soon realized it was a dead end; a steep ice cliff loomed on the other side and the terrain became a maze of obstacles. We would have to approach from the east.
With limited time left in the day, we shifted our focus to an unclimbed peak across the glacier. Tad eyed a striking line of ice and snow cutting through the rock, snaking toward the sky. As darkness fell, we began our ascent, climbing around 200 meters of mixed terrain up to M6. Thin layers of ice covered the emerald rock, forcing us to climb with a delicate precision. A final pitch of steep neve led us to the summit. I could vaguely make out silhouettes of giant towering peaks in the distance and an expansive glacier below. Despite standing on a summit, the darkness kept the Cordillera Sarmiento cloaked in mystery.
This photo shows the peaks that were closest to the team's camp with their approach ridge in the foreground. Their route, Estoy Verde (M6 200m) climbs the obvious corner system on leftmost peak. [Photo] Whitney Clark
Clark and Griffin follow McCrea upward through the night on what would become Estoy Verde. McCrea wrote, "Suspiciously good rock with unimaginable, almost static texture." [Photo] Tad McCrea
McCrea and Griffin hike down the ridge after climbing the new route. [Photo] Whitney Clark
A storm was fast approaching as we rappelled our route through the night. Retracing our steps, we wandered down in the wind and rain, finding our passage off the glacier. After down climbing the steep ice, we searched for a place to set up the tent as the wind whipped our cold, soaked bodies. A soft light was cresting the horizon by the time I crawled into the shelter. The storm was getting worse, so we only spent a couple hours huddled together and rewarming before packing up and heading down the ridge to camp.
Griffin hikes toward Alas de Angel Sur on the team's last attempt. [Photo] Whitney Clark
Over the next few days, we rested and listened to the tempest thrash the plastic walls of our camp. We made one more attempt to access Alas de Angel Sur after the storm subsided. Tracing our steps back up the ridge and onto the glacier, we found a passable col that gave us entrance to the east side of the range. The Fiordo de las Montanas lay thousands of feet below with its shades of blue glinting in the sunrise. We descended the saddle, watching the morning light glow gold on the hard ice and spent hours navigating up and down the glacier toward Alas de Angel Sur. The terrain was often complex, forcing us to climb up fins of ice and scurry under seracs. Soon the path ahead no longer made sense and we turned around. Dark clouds swirled as we made our way back toward the col and down to our home. Our time was up.
I saw the boat coming toward shore and slowly packed my bags, reluctant to leave our shelter. I'd become accustomed to the simplicity of life and the wild beauty surrounding us. Piece by piece, we stripped the plastic, leaving the structure bare, returning the jungle to the way it was. I stared at the mountains as we left, feeling fortunate to have even gotten a glimpse of the mystical peaks. Yet they were soon shrouded in clouds, hidden once again deep in the Patagonian wilderness.
Looking down into the Fiordo de los Montanas. [Photo] Whitney Clark
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