"In today’s closely connected, heavily touristed world, there are still a few places whose beauty and secrets are guarded by many barriers to entry—strata of difficulty, like the layers of a pearl. One such place is the mountains of western Tierra del Fuego (Cordillera Darwin)."
- Camilo Rada
A collection of thoughts before we begin...
The Cordillera Darwin is a wild place, in every sense of the word.
For true lovers of adventure - and I mean the romanticized definition of old; seekers of experiences untethered by any modern expectations of comfort, communication, margin of predictability, stability & safety - this place is the promised land.
A complex labyrinth of fjords, lined by titans, obscured in mysterious clouds while their tumbling glaciers overflow the icefield from summit to sea. The mountains here are huge, rugged and many are unclimbed. No roads, no trails, it's pristine - untouched in a way that's easier to inherently feel than to explain. The Cordillera Darwin looks much the same as it did when the first explorers arrived over 500 years ago and to the first peoples who greeted them.
Pair this remote, rugged terrain with Patagonia's predictably harsh weather and you have the recipe that creates this dreamscape for those seeking a touch of the untamed.
The following trip report is as much a factual account of our expedition to the Darwin Range as it is our opinions and ongoing reflections of our experience there. It's an effort to discover the deeper, less scientific meaning of living, climbing & simply existing in such a place for over thirty days.
INTRODUCTION & PURPOSE
"Cordillera Darwin is one of the wildest & most remote mountain ranges in the world, maybe. It's mantled by the third largest icefield in South America...up till now all of the research that has been done in the area, has been done in the outskirts of the icefield."
-Eñaut Izagirre, Glaciologist & Geographer
Climbing, Science, Alpine Exploration...
Into the Ice is an ongoing project that seeks to understand how the Cordillera Darwin Ice Field (Darwin Icefield) is responding to global climate change through mixed scientific exploration, glacier research and alpinism.
Cordillera Darwin is located south of continental Patagonia and the Strait of Magellan, on Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). This unknown region is an intricate labyrinth of mountains, fjords and glaciers. It is remote, rugged, unforgiving and due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, is exposed to the elements in a real way. It's affectionately called home to the "Westerlies" - roaring winds from the Pacific that smash through the region with unrelenting force for days at a time. It's rare to get even 24hrs of complete sunshine, without precipitation. It's also relatively unexplored. To say it's hard to get to doesn't even begin to describe the logistical constraints one will encounter when accessing this place. Extreme weather, terrain, access to civilization, modern safety networks and simply having a team with the proper knowledge to succeed in such a bizarre place are all things an expedition needs to consider when spending any amount of extended time here. There are no roads, no trails, so the only way to access the mountains is by foot, or by boat...then on foot. Just getting to the ice field is a full day of humping heavy loads through swamps, epic bushwhacking and careful foot placement up steep, loose, rocky slopes.
So, it goes without surprise, that there is very little known about this area, scientific or otherwise. What little scientific exploration that has been done - is limited - focusing only on the coastal areas of the Darwin Range with only a few notable expeditions (mostly climbing focused) that have traversed into more technical terrain in the upper reaches of the ice field. Therefore, the main objective of our geographic exploration was to gain access to the upper reaches of the ice field to collect snow samples that will improve knowledge of glacial change and snow accumulation. This would open the door to our other two objectives - glacial research & climbing.
It would be impossible to explore Cordillera Darwin without considering many of the unclimbed peaks in the area. The mountains here are epic, mysterious and at first glance, relatively accessible. However, they are neither a casual excursion into the Alps, nor any other "local" mountains we would think of back home. Their close proximity the ocean and low elevation make them approachable on paper, but in reality, they are far from a straightforward adventure - made more alluring by the simple fact that no one climbs here and one cannot just cue up pages of spoon-fed beta on what approach to take, which line to climb, when conditions are best, what gear to bring, etc. Chances are, if you find yourself on a remote peak in Cordillera Darwin you are one of less than ten people to have ever stood there, if not the first. This brings us to the main climbing objective of our expedition - to go for the first ascent of the main summit of Monte Roncagli - one of the last unclimbed 2000m peaks on the east side of the mountain range.
Thanks to the experience of prior expeditions and the wisdom of Eñaut & Ibai - who are no strangers to this place - we hoped we had all the tools necessary to succeed in our climbing and research goals. Our basecamp, an 18.5m sailboat named Kotik. Her captain, Igor, grew up a few day's sail from the mountains in Puerto Williams, Chile - a military outpost turned town, that is quite literally, at the end of the world - or at least as far south as one can commercially fly. His expert navigation skills, knowledge of the area and it's various safe inlets and approaches were vital to our success. Not to mention, he can fix anything using the recycled garbage that washes up on the beaches.
The rest of our team is as follows (photos: left to right, top to bottom) - all friends, colleagues, climbers and accomplished explorers in their own way. Ibai Rico - Alpinist, mountain guide, geographer. Eñaut Izagirre - Glaciologist, Geographer, has been researching glaciers in Patagonia for most of the past decade for his PhD program. Jon Inoriza - Climber & Alpinist, ultimate stoker and an absolute gazelle on the approaches. Jon Artano - accomplished writer, journalist and reporter. He is currently writing a book on the influence of Basque explorers on the early exploration of South America. Andrew Opila - photographer, filmmaker, alpinist - the dude chasing everyone and everything around with a camera. Adriana Enriquez - the queen of everything in Kotik. She is the most amazing chef, musician & smiling face to return to after getting pounded by the elements on the icefield. Carmen - a cat that most likely holds the record for most feline trips to Antarctica, yet is petrified of all things cold and wet. Ada - really a dog, trapped in a cats body. Will go get toys for you to play with her and has a concerning addiction to yogurt. Finally, Kotik our trusty Damien class sailboat and her captain Igor.
Our expedition began in Punta Arenas, Chile. We spent a week gathering supplies, testing gear and any last minute "stuff management" required for one month in Tierra del Fuego. We flew to Puerto Williams, Chile - the southern most city in South America. There we met Kotik, Igor, Adriana and their two cats before sailing west, into the Beagle Channel and Cordillera Darwin. From there we used a variety of locations and methods to gain access to the ice field to climb & conduct our research.
"Glaciers in Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego are some of the fastest retreating glaciers in the world - and this is a really interesting laboratory to try to understand how they are responding to climate change."
- Ibai Rico, Alpinist & Geographer
To gather snow samples where no one else has gathered them before...
The Cordillera Darwin is an interesting laboratory to study the affects of climate change on glaciers in the wild, remote, mountainous areas of our world. Unless you deny fact-based evidence, or live under a rock, it's universally accepted that most mountain glaciers are receding all over the world - especially in places like Alaska, the Alps and continental Patagonia. This isn't to encourage the current 'alarmist' attitude found in the mainstream media - it's sad to see these glaciers shrink so rapidly, but we are lucky enough to be able to research these places, understand them and encourage individuals and policy makers that our environmental decisions do matter - we can mitigate the effects of melting glaciers. But, we are not all in eminent danger of drowning from 16ft of sea level rise and any over-sensationalized media talk of 'Doomsday Glaciers' or otherwise is not helpful to the discussion of climate change and how it will affect humans. Better to live in a word of facts, focusing on what we are seeing right now and drawing clear conclusions what there. Still, very little is known about the impacts of climate change on glaciers in more remote locations like Cordillera Darwin. Do they respond more to changes in precipitation or temperature - or is it some combination of both? Given the constraints of traveling to such places, this is no surprise. But, in order to collect the samples to gather data from, one must first "get there" so to speak.
It's important to link the data on climate change and glaciers from the Andes, down through Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego - the Darwin Range - with Antarctica. Antarctica (and Greenland) are big questions for the next decade, but right now - mountain glaciers - like the ones found in Cordillera Darwin, are the number one contributors to sea level rise. Linking the affects on climate change across these glaciers will help the international community understand how these areas (and larger ice sheets like Antarctica)might respond to climate change in the future. Since this is an area very few people have been before, it's important to get a data set from this wild and remote place to add to this chain.
The main objective of our expedition was to gain access to the upper sections of the ice field as often as possible to obtain snow samples. This meant leaving Kotik anchored in an inlet, safe from the roaring westerly winds for a few days at a time. Any approach to the ice field always began with swampy peat moss, as is customary in this part of the world. This gave way to the mandatory bushwhack through forest so dense, it felt overcast even on a sunny day. Once on the glacier or icefield plateau it is refreshing to be in a "normal place". Navigation was usually straightforward and the terrain, refreshingly flat, crevasses easy to spot and avoid.
At each research site, the team dug snow pits up to 2.4m (8ft) deep to collect snow samples for isotope measuring and additional samples to test for the presence of black carbon. These samples were gathered in the elevated areas of the Roncagli, Hollanda/French and Italia glaciers - locations so remote, we doubt anyone has gathered samples there before. By obtaining these samples we want to know where the snow falling in the upper sections of the Darwin Icefield comes from, how much falls and how often. The data is still being analyzed in Basque Country, but it will give key information on the mass balance (how much mass (water) does the glacier gain yearly vs how much of it melts) of these glaciers.
Research was often conducted in true Patagonia conditions. That is to say, zero visibility & strong winds slapping us in the face.
"The weather in Cordillera Darwin is characterized by storms, just continual storms, really. It's rare to get long periods of good, high pressure weather. You're usually snatching ascents of mountains in very small, good weather windows."
- Simon Yates, English Mountaineer
To do this, we take the snow samples gathered on the ice field, hike them back down to the sailboat, let them melt and then transfer the melt water into test tubes to take to the lab. In the lab, we measure for the presence of environmental isotopes. Isotopes are variations in the same element by having a different number of neutrons. By studying the subtle changes in the concentration or type of isotopes present in snow or ice, scientists can reconstruct an accurate climate history - wind speed, precipitation, greenhouse gas concentration, etc. This is a similar process to taking a ice core in a polar place like Antarctica - but here, we use snow. It's a process that allows scientists to look back at past weather, to predict what the future weather might do. This is one of the most important tools scientists use to study climate change - and it relies on samples collected from the field.
In addition to isotope samples, the team collected more than half a dozen 1 kg (2.2lbs) snow samples to analyze the presence of black carbon (incomplete combustion of fossil fuels - aka soot) in a remote location like Cordillera Darwin. These samples are still in the lab, but this will be an interesting indicator to measure the pollution produced by human beings, and its effect on the different terrestrial systems. Basically, are the on goings of a fossil-fuel based society, thousands of miles away, affecting the environmental systems in a remote, untouched place like Cordillera Darwin.
At the moment, all samples have been safely returned from Chile and are being analyzed. We hope to present the findings and what they mean as soon as possible. Stay tuned!
This scientific aspect of the Into the Ice project, supported by the Hydro-Environmental Processes Research Group of the UPV/EHU, has the collaboration of glaciologists Sérgio H. Faria of the Basque Center for Climate Change (BC3) of the Basque Country, Camilo Rada from the University of Magallanes (UMAG) in Punta Arenas (Chile) and Francisco Fernandoy from the Andrés Bello University in Viña del Mar (Chile).
Research and exploration in the Beagle Channel and surrounding areas
In addition to our research in the upper sections of the ice field, it is worth highlighting additional exploration and scientific work carried out within the Beagle Channel and surrounding areas.
Finding sheltered coves and inlets are a vital safehaven for local fisherman and boat traffic when the westerly winds can howl for days at a time. For the first time, a sailboat (Kotik) captained by Igor Bely was able to gain access to the sea inlet of Caleta Alemánia. Our first attempt intentionally ran Kotik aground on the beach because the tide was too low - exposing a sandbar that runs the length of the opening except for a small weakness a few meters wide just off the beach. So, during high tide at midnight on March 26, we accessed what we call Caleta Alemánia - named after the glacier that terminates just a thirty minute walk up the inlet. The depth gauge on Kotik read 1.1m as we glided our way over the sandbar. Although difficult to gain access to, it proved to be a safe place to drop the anchor for our work at the terminus of the Roncagli Glacier (has two names, also Alemánia Glacier).
Originally, meteorological knowledge for the southern end of Patagonia lacked an extensive network of meteorological stations. Seeing a need for this, well-known climber and navigator Charlie Porter (1950-2014) established a remarkable network of such weather stations around Cordillera Darwin and along the western fjords of the Patagonian Andes. Since his death, very few of these stations have been revisited for repairs and data collection. As a part of an ongoing effect to repair and utilize these stations, INTO THE ICE visited several stations on Isla del Diablo and Fjord Pía to assess their condition, gather their data and repair if necessary.
"The climbing in this area is still in its infancy. I imagine that more mountains are waiting to be climbed than have actually been climbed. There's that little been done, there are still possibilities for genuine exploration even, probably to go and even see some mountains that nobody's even seen before, let along climbed and walk up a glacier that nobody has every walked up. Really, very few people have bothered with the Cordillera Darwin - and it's a little puzzling..."
- Simon Yates, English Mountaineer
FIRST ASCENT: Monte Roncagli (2252m, 7388ft)
Tucked away, deep in the upper elevations of the Darwin Range stood one of the last great alpine challenges in the Cordillera Darwin - the first ascent of Monte Roncagli.
When combined with Patagonia's severe & unpredictable weather, Roncagli's high prominence, intricate geography & technical alpine terrain make it an epic ascent into the Tierra del Fuego of the highest form.
There was a lot of mystery surrounding Roncalgi for us - a peak that already had several attempts, by well-known, accomplished climbers. It's a summit that has been described as the most desirable unclimbed peak in the Southern Hemisphere (Hillebrandt, 1991). We are not the first team to attempt to reach the summit of Roncagli - in fact there is a long lineage of climbers and explorers who have set their sights on the overhanging, snowy, mushroom cornices of Roncagli's main summit; and to determine which of Roncagli's three peaks (North, Central & East) is indeed the highest. In total, there have been five attempts made on Roncagli since 1971. The first attempt was by a New Zealand team in 1971 up the west ridge. Perhaps the most notorious attempts are those of Dr. David Hillebrandt and his team in 1988 and 1990. They made a remarkable, historic first ascent of the north ridge, to the north summit. However, the central peak of Roncagli and indeed the true summit was still unclimbed. The most recent attempts were made by Simon Yates and Andy Parkin via the NE Ridge in 2007 and again by Simon Yates and Andy Cave in 2013 via the Southern Slopes. It is in large part thanks to the extraordinary work of these expeditions that we were able to be successful in reaching the summit of Roncagli. Using satellite images, the logistics of access by sailboat and several days of route scouting by foot before attempting entrance to the ice field, our team was able to reach the base of Roncagli just 3 days after departing civilization in Puerto Williams.
Hoping to take advantage of a short, but promising weather window, the team left Kotik early on the morning of March 22nd. We approached Roncagli from the south, via Caleta Olla up the eastern edge of the Holanda Glacier to the upper basin below Monte Francés, Bove, Sharki's Fin and many other minor, unclimbed peaks. The air was dark, and the sky stormy - remnants of the previous days' storms that we hoped would only linger into the afternoon. By 6pm we reached the moraine on the edge of the Holanda Glacier, making slower progress than expected with our heavy packs over the swampy, loose, rainy, windy, rugged & steep terrain. A lesson in the brutal, deceivingly complicated nature of approaches in this landscape. They certainly add to the charm and the romance of the place, but at times can also be very frustrating. That night the weather forecasted a short window of high pressure, low winds.
The next morning brought a fiery sunrise and clear skies. For once, the forecast was correct. Ibai Rico and Jon Inoriza left early to attempt the summit, while the remaining members of the team (Eñaut Izagirre, Jon Artano & Andrew Opila) moved base camp further up to the glacial plateau to collect snow samples and support the climbing team. At approximated 4:30pm on March 23rd, 2022 - Ibai Rico and Jon Inoriza made the first ascent of Monte Roncagli via the South Slope and for the first time were able measure the true elevation of the summit (2,252m, 7388 ft), using a high precision GPS. The summit was previously thought to be lower, at 2,226m (7303 ft). During the descent they dug several snow pits to take measurements and collect snow samples. This was an incredible success, because data points this high on the ice field are extremely difficult to get, making an accurate measurement of Roncagli's true summit and that samples collected, keystones of our research in Cordillera Darwin.
FIRST ASCENT: Cerro Sara (2072m, 6798ft)
In addition to the main summit of Mount Roncagli, Jon Inoriza and Ibai Rico made the first ascent of Cerro Sara (2,072m) on April 2nd at 1:30pm. Two previous attempts were made in 1990 and 2004 by a German and New Zealand team. The name Sara - a nod to the Bob Dylan song - was given to the peak by the first team to attempt it. The ascent route followed a steep gully of boulders from West Pía Fjord to the glacier. The climbing route followed the SW Ridge up to the summit all while getting pounded by "Scottish" conditions of snow, wind and low visibility.
Let is snow, let it snow, let it snow...
Following the summit of Cerro Sara, a 4-day Antarctic storm entered the region and dumped over a meter of fresh snow on the ice field, hindering the remaining scientific and alpine activities that we had planned in the Pía Fjords. We attempted what would have no doubt, been an epic traverse up Porter Glacier to the base of an unclimbed peak, then up the main ridge to Jemmy Button, York Minster, Fuege Basket and then down to where Eñaut & Jon Artano had planned to do some research. But snowy conditions travel slow, exhausting and many slopes from to Avalanche so we made the prudent decision to bail. Wanting to make the most of our remaining time, we sailed east back towards Caleta Olla & Monte Francés (2,261m).
NEW VARIATION VIA SOUTH FACE: Monte Francés (2261m, 7418ft)
On April 9, 2022, the team left the Kotik in two groups to access two parallel glacial plateaus on opposite sides of Monte Francés. Eñaut, Andrew and Jon Artano accessed the Italia Glacier Plateau through unknown terrain to carry out the last of our scientific work gathering snow samples. They hoped to carry out the necessary research and climb some unclimbed peaks in the area. As usual - Patagonia's infamous weather only allowed for digging snow pits, gathering snow samples and enjoying white-out, spindrift conditions for 48hrs. Those unclimbed peaks will, for now, remain untouched by known human travel. Meanwhile, Jon Inoriza and Ibai Rico scouted a direct ice line up the south face, but after a deeper assessment of conditions and the exposure to building-sized, overhanding seracs above the route - bailed to an alternate route up the south face to the SE Ridge of Monte Francés (2,261m). Some short pitches of ice and several sketchy traverses under exposed seracs allowed them to gain the SE ridge and from there, a straightforward walk through some exposed crevasses to the summit on April 10, 2022. The summit was characterized by ice mushrooms and frosty snow of moderate difficulty. This is the sixth officially document ascent of Monte Francés, making it the the most frequently climbed peak in the Darwin Range...it's really getting busy down here.
"We explore these places because we are curious, because we are climbers and we want to climb, because we are scientists and we want to understand the changes that happening to this region...but not because we want to conquer anything. In fact, it's mostly the other way around. We're not here to conquer anything - we are here to be conquered by the mountains and the place here. We hope this place can be as it is...wild."
- Ibai Rico, Alpinist & Geographer