In medieval folk-lore a mythical island known as ‘Ultima-Thule.’ was foretold in the north. It was ‘a land beyond the borders of the known world’ guarded by an element neither sea, nor land nor sky: Icebergs.
Since first learning of Lago Geike in my first guiding season on the Rio Serrano it had become a personal obsession, my own Southern Ultima Thule. Each trip I led I passed the murky brown outwash where trees lay swept from a horizon of rock and ice tantalisingly distant yet seemingly reachable. I had seen the tips of monstrous icebergs roll behind the distant hills, I had heard the rumbles of ice plummet from cliffs in the calm of night. I left last year with the Geike unconquered and as nothing but a distant myth.
Chasing the river into the fading light of a relentless rainstorm I now paddled side by side with a new guide and friend Matt Smith. He and I will be working the river together for the 2015-16 season, together we were at last chasing our Ultima Thule.
Our adventure began in the headwaters of the Rio Grey with a trip Officially labelled as ‘staff training.’ We set out in double kayaks with our colleague Carlos and an eager client. The rain was heavy but brought deep vibrant blues to the several icebergs bobbing amongst the aptly named Grey Lake. Carved into intricate sculptures by waves and wind they had drifted from the distant grey glacier on their own journey from ice-sheet to ocean.
Lingering under the gentle patter of raindrops on the water we drew close to inspect the ice before turning our bows south to paddle downstream. Matt and I paddled hard, with our passengers in the bow, our focus instead was on reaching camp further down the river to place us in a good position to explore the next day. Bitterly cold we all worked hard to keep warm in the chilling showers.
Reaching the end of the Rio Grey we tied the double kayaks back to the roof of the car. From here we would leave Carlos, our client and the double boats and set off together in single kayaks. Cold and eager to make the switch as fast as possible we packed in a rush at the confluence of the Rio Serrano.
Hey dude, where’s your spraydeck? asked Matt just as we watched the truck disappear into the distance. Shit!
I had left it on the back seat.
Contemplating heading 3 days into the Patagonian wilderness without a spray-deck and feeling like a proper idiot Matt broke the tension with a laugh, hey….my deck doesn’t fit. He had forgotten to check his personal gear fitted the new boat. And so as two qualified guides we set out for a committing expedition into the wild of the Bernardo O’Higgins national park without the proper gear. ‘The deck-less canoe shit-show expedition’ as we now joked began in good humour as we paddled hard against the rain and wind, we didn’t know what the conditions nor the new river would bring but we had a pump and I at least knew the way to the start. We would simply have to improvise.
Heads down, paddles forward we pushed hard past the many meanders of the Serrano’s winding channel. Our hopes of running the waterfall now dashed with our lack of deck’s made a good excuse to avoid the freezing plunge. Focusing instead on breaking ‘the windy gap’ and reaching our sheltered camp in the forest on the far side now took over. Matt, like I the year before was experiencing the Serrano for the first time in a wet, windy, cold and mountain free environment. All view was shrouded by cloud and all attention was left to keeping waves from the decks and keeping warm.
Brewing hot Maté to wash down a tomato pasta dinner Matt and I sheltered under a rain-beaten tarp tied between a thick woodland. The air was filled with the gentle scent of cinnamon which lifted from the leaves of the Nirre birch and woodpeckers warbled from the branches nearby. As the light faded dull and grey we wandered uphill to scou tour route. The wide expanse of the Geike delta promised a clear path to the southern end of the outwash plain, our hope of sun the next day seemed faint but eager for adventure we slept early and well.
Relaxing under dappled sunlight cast through the foliage Matt and I packed slowly. The welcome warmth of the sun had arrived allowing us to dry out our soaking dry-suits. I was mentally preparing for a long days portage hard portage with freezing toes in the 2ºC water. Our aim was to simply reach the head of the river before the sun set. 14.2km of lining awaited.
It is a safe bet that when Jonny Cash wrote ‘walk the line’ he wasn’t singing about towing kayaks. Portage sound’s exotic and exiting when spoken yet in reality is a cold clutch on a stiff line, strenuous wading and navigating trees. Following a narrow offshoot channel from the Geike’s main flow I showed Matt the bow/stern lining technique and promptly got stuck in a tree.
Poking from the clouds behind a narrow gap the Torres Del Paine range towered against the horizon. For I it was a familiar sight made special from a new perspective, for Matt it was the first time he had ever set sight the incredible formation and now 8th wonder of the world.
Following our vague plan to skirt the smaller channels along the edge of the floodplain we aimed toward the brow of a thick forest to our south. Paddling where we possible and towing the rest we found our bow/stern lining technique an effective method of quickly covering ground with relative ease.
Predictably unpredictable Patagonia’s schizophrenic climate delivered a feisty flurry of intense wind and hail. The sudden blast moved quickly as we moved slower against gritted teeth but passing as quickly as it had arrived we were soon in blazing sunshine once again.
Pausing in the warmth for morning Maté whilst scanning our poor map we discovered a small shack built by the ‘hermit of the Balmaceda’ (the local gaucho named Pekein.) Sat in the sun staring out at an expanse of open shale ahead we were but at third of our way up the route, it had taken 3 hours to reach here and our camp still looked close behind. Scale in such a wilderness is hard to gauge leaving our senses to trust on our two maps, both different both showing a long way to go. Our biggest hope was to find a navigable path through the narrow gap in the hill far ahead, here the river would be squeezed and surely move swifter, only time would tell.
Heading into the southern bend of the river we watched the ice sheet hanging ahead once again be swallowed by an ominous dark wall of cloud. A second blasting wave of wind and snow approached.
Knowing that whatever the weather threw at us it would pass before too long the harshness of the weather seemed somehow more bearable and dare I say it enjoyable. Moving as swiftly as we could we waded, hauled and dragged the boats between channels, often heaving over open shingle as far as possible before it hit. Swallowed into a world of cold grey with our hoods down and teeth gritted we pushed on into a heavy snowstorm. Thick wet slush squeezed moisture through my dry-suit quickly saturating any warmth, there was no longer feeling in my fingers and my cheeks burned red against the wind. The wall of elements now punishing our path held long enough to feel that it would never pass but just short enough that we could find hope in a light band of would-be sunlight slowly drawing closer; our silver lining. In some strange masochistic way this to me is the most fun moment, that moment when the end of the hardship is in sight but still not quite there allows you to for a brief moment appreciate the element you beforehand cursed.
‘I finally truly understand the pleasure of type two fun’ Matt beamed as we watched the last flake of snow whip into the sky behind us. Our second passing gale now sweeping into the outwash plains behind had left blazing sunshine in its wake.
The intensity of the weathers force seemed amplified by the strength of the sun which now melt warmth back into our hands. The dark surface of the outwash plain covered in soft pillows of moss and shrub now steamed in a low band of mist. The pointed summit of Donoso swept by cloud now dominated the horizon at our side like a Kamchatkan volcano.
Estimating to be two thirds of the way up the river we approached the ‘narrows.’ Here the river banks grew tall and steeper than than our individual lines could stretch. The current now rose in small breaking waves around lone boulders in the channel, together progress grew difficult. Working as a team we clipped our kayaks side by side and tied the lines to double their length. Taking turns to heave the boats against the flow from the top of the bank we made effective progress past the hardest section and to our delight after ferry gliding past an iceberg found a current free channel to paddle. Our maps inaccuracies now evident we had figured how to locate ourselves on the poorly detailed chart. One last small paddle past the terminal moraine was all that was left, we had almost made it into the mythical Lago Geike. Emerging around a final corner and paddling hard against the current we were finally there. A land dominated by thousands of icebergs, surrounded by mountains and viewed by few before us. Arriving under the last few rays of golden light the sun crept into the ice-field beyond, tentatively we snuck into a world guarded by neither sea, nor land nor sky. Radiating blue the ice reflected against the golden mercury surface of the lake greater than any jewel. Enthralled we drifted through a sea of ice, ahead the clouds parted in rays leaving curtains of falling snow lit like golden veils against the cold blue of broken glacier hanging over the blackened cliffs all around. In the distance the mighty Cerro Balmaceda emerged for just a few precious moments between the cloud to reveal a terrific pointed spire in the mist.
Leaping between the icebergs we enjoyed the victory of reaching our goal, yet as the light slowly faded behind cloud and Ice we knew we had to find a camp. Hauled the kayaks onto our shoulders for a short scramble to the top of a nearby moraine we found a small level rocky shingle amongst a chaos of boulders to pitch. Perched above the icebergs we cooked bacon, brewed Maté and watched our mythical world descend into darkness.
Sharing stories while the icebergs gently drifted in circles through the water Matt and I talked about how we had both come to such a peaceful place. I mentioned that I had arrived in Patagonia the season before on almost a whim on just three weeks notice and how I was thankful for a guide who I had never met who had pulled out at the last minute. ‘That was me’ Matt laughed. He had decided to delay a year and without knowing had full responsibility for my being in Patagonia. Without him I would never have been sat on that rock watching ice on the southern side of nowhere and to some certainty nor perhaps would he. It is funny how the world works sometimes.
Deciding that the morning mission would be dragging the boats over the ice in hope of a distant glimpse of the Geike glacier we rested early. As the new day dawned we woke to a surprising present. The gentle wind had changed to sweep a perfect channel between the leviathans, our way to reach the glacier now led mirror calm and ice free in a pristine passage. We would not only have the hope of sighting the ice-field but perhaps we would be able to touch it.
The scale of the Patagonia’s vast open spaces is one that I am still unable to quite compare. At our bows a vast sweeping tongue of deep blue swept inland to distant snow coated nunataks far upon the horizon. The Geike glacier seemed a short and simple paddle ahead, yet an hour of constant rhythm later still left a considerable distance between us and it. Dwarfed by the mountains and open expanse all around our progress seemed eternal along the waters edge. Hugging a shoreline of bare rock freshly scoured by receding ice and towering waterfalls we landed upon the very edge of the glacier. A tremendous wall of ice it seemed to draw every fibre of our soul to draw closer and explore.
Unable to resist temptation and taking into account the frequency and severity of what ice we had seen move I chose to take a balance of probability. A fleeting paddle at the very edge of the ice. It is a ‘sport’ which I will rarely do, the rush is immense, the consequence severe but in doing so a special relationship is born. Knowing as you paddle heart in mouth just a few blade lengths from a 6 story ice wall that at any moment without your choosing your entire existence could be extinguished in the explosive end of a thousand year process gives an incredible sense of the glaciers silent power. Turning from the wall with a rush I felt I had pushed my luck for just enough time, and returned to a safe distance on land.
Back on land at the edge of the glacier Matt and I wandered together along the freshly scoured rock to reach a low ‘safe’ zone where we could reach out and touch the ice. Venturing onto the the edge of the glacier we peered awestruck into a deep abyss. The crevasses seemed to radiate an unearthly blue glow and although strangely inviting the words of the famous mountaineer/survivor Joe Simpson sat in the back of the mind. ‘This is not a place for the living.’
Resisting as best we could not to be pulled close by the eternal draw of deep blue cracks Matt and I paddled slowly along the face of the Geike. According to our maps which were printed just a decade before we were paddling 100m under the ice flow. Our regret at the speed of the receding spectacle was in the moment somewhat conflicted with awe for the giant icebergs and frequent clatters of falling ice that subsequently were forming.
A beep on my alarm struck the silence. It was 1am; turnaround time. To reach our camp far behind Cerro Balmaceda at Puerto Toro we had to start paddling again. Turning our backs to the ice-field we paddled instead to gaze up at the rare sight of Balmaceda’s cloud free summit. Rarely does this shy mountain poke from the mist but when it does the views are spectacular.
Wishing I had remembered my deck and laughing as Matt and I bounced together down the gentle rapids of the Geike river. Large enough to cast waves over our bows we found our technique tested by a lack of spray-decks, ‘the great canoe expedition’ was in it’s prime. Taking regular stops to tip icy water from my cockpit I chased Matt down the flow as he darted to and fro from the many small channels which we had lined.
Having taken a tough 8 hours to ascend Matt and I were surprised to find our journey back to the Serrano lasted little more than an hour. Under sunshine and with a relaxed pace we set out sights on reaching the coast. Turning our bows south on the outflowing stream we drifted down toward the end of an epic journey.
Reaching Puerto Toro under heavy wind and rain we hadn’t quite escaped the last kick of a weather front which had crept across the landscape behind us. Sheltered under the trees listening to a roar as gusts pushed along the coast like a passing express train we settled in for our final night. We were not alone at camp, along with the usual rangers another 8 paddlers had arrived from a standard Serrano tour. Sharing wine we enjoyed telling our own tales of adventure whilst a fox crept slyly through our tents in search of food. For Matt it had been a familiarisation which would prove hard to beat during his tenure as a guide here, for I it had been as much an adventure as a good time with a new friend. Our goal to push our boundaries together throughout the season and reach new places with new sights was now firmly cemented after our first successful expedition together.
Until the next journey. Cheers.