Second Plan A

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Since last September 2017, I have been taking it ‘easy’ on the walking front to allow  recovery for the Iliotibial band injury I suffered on the Inverpollaidh Mountain marathon. Still, I managed a few peaks in Scotland, and some in the US but nothing too big nor ambitious and each time I returned home sore and hobbling. So after 4 months ‘rest’ in the cockpit of a kayak I set off with hopes of a strong return the mountains.

The more time spent outdoors, the greater the range of function that our bodies can take, and it was this over physical training that I relied on as I pushed for a nearly 1600m peak. My pack loaded to over 20kg with hopes to attempt a 40km traverse between two prominent ranges on the Puerto Natales skyline. My first was the conical summit of Tenerife, named after the home country of it’s first conquerers, my current boss Cris also being the first to tackle it in winter, from there I hoped to high camp two nights en route to the 1500m Cerro Pratt.

A straight up 50-70º slope rising unabated from sea level to summit it was a good first push. The final 200m were slowed with cramp, my legs crying on unfamiliar effort. With each push upward the wind slowly rose.

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Stashing my pack behind a long natural wall (a basalt lava dyke) I ducked behind what shelter from the wind it offered and started the slow scramble to the summit. On the wind small rocks and chunks of rime ice clattered over the ridge, bouncing off the rocks and tumbling down to where I had come from.

Slowly and carefully I worked my way to the summit, sometimes choosing to straddle the ridge in wonderfully airy scrambles. 5 hours from the roadside I was on the top. To my north a spectacular vista to a hazy Torres Del Paine national Park was the reward, and to my west the endless overlapping mountains of the Chacabuco ranges. Behind me was the range I hoped to tackle, long and truly remote it looked to be a huge commitment.

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Descending from the summit to return to my pack I set off down a 650m scree slope. Steep and becoming increasingly remote it would not be a place to slip, yet made for a superbly swift and enjoyable descent. I was now on the far side of the mountain and the only person beneath the horizon. A sense of isolation matched that of commitment, should I slip on the loose glacial boulders I would be totally alone with the consequences, somewhere there is a great thill in that.

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The scale of the landscape here was hard to describe, what looked like a small step across the next rocky moraine would take surprising time to accomplish. Headed for the ice cap hanging from the valley beyond I hoped to ascend onto the glacier and cross the large outflow rivers at its mouth. With a constant wind to clear the snow the ice was easy to navigate and what few crevasses were present were clearly visible and avoidable.

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Beneath but safely distant from overhanging ice I passed between moraines and sapphire blue pools. In the valley there was barely a breath of wind, and as the sun beat back from the rocks I grew hot. Often pausing to simply reflect on the view I set my sights on a sheltered looking col some 5km distant to camp.

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Crossing a large plain of exposed rocky slabs I soon reached the col. A wide open space clearly battered by the wind, but for now seemed calm. It was perhaps at this point I should have trusted instinct and paid attention to the building lenticular clouds to the west, a sure sign of impending wind, but instead I trusted my forecast and pushed to the foot of the mountain.
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Ahh, that familiar roar of wind approaching. It was unmistakable, first distant and then in an instant upon me. From zero to 60mph+ in a matter of second, like a punch to the face the wind arrived en force. Instantly the plateau became a poor spot to camp, so without hesitation I turned to retreat 1km back to the last sheltered hollow I could find.

Sure enough, in a dip below the mountain I found shelter and quickly pitched tent. It was with little deliberation that I built a wall and double anchored all the guys, just on the off chance the wind turned a little west and hit me.

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Always have a plan B, when plan B become plan A that is when a story is to be told. This night was to become one of those moments. Without adequate resolution maps, navigation in Patagonia is largely done by GPS and google earth, however there are additional steps to ensure escape if need be. When camping high I make a point to tune my compass to the nearest and safest ‘blind escape’ – a rough on sight bearing to the nearest valley without cliff nor crevasse. I also keep my gear bagged, ready to go on the chance that an emergency de-camp is needed. Until now this is something I had not needed to do but this would change.

By 9pm strong gusts had started to hit, once in a while. By 10pm they were somewhere in the 80mph range, but brief. I knew then that I would struggle to sleep, but trusted the strength of my tent. 11.30pm- the roar came. I heard it from my sleeping bag, building in crescendo off the mountain, and then it hit. The tent flailed so hard the roof was on my nose,  the toughest of mountain tents being bent on gusts I cannot imagine the strength. The anchors were holding, but the summer weight poles were creaking to their full capacity, rocks were picking up and thumping the fabric outside. This gust wasn’t abating, and more rocks flew. I knew instantly it was time to go, a decision of necessity not made lightly.

It took 12 minutes between exiting my sleeping bag to moving. Packing the tent bent almost double to the wind a challenge but made possible through great design. I radioed into Cris ‘moving on, keep watch’ and with compass in hand set off.

Despite being driven to the ground many times by fierce gusts, I followed the bearing down to the valley. Rocks pelting my back and legs and flying past the beam of my torch. It was warm in the air but the roar of wind on rock gave an epic sense of the storm. In an odd way it was superbly thrilling, yes it was an emergency de-camp but I was prepared and comfortable for this. All I needed to do was keep the bearing and go slow to the forest.

By nearly 1pm I had moved several km down into the forest and found a place to re-pitch for the night. Exhausted I pinged ‘safe at camp’ back out to Cris and crashed into bed. I would replan in the morning.

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Hidden in the trees I woke to find I had pitched in a superb spot. Beside the river in a sheltered glade I could hear the wind still thundering on the mountain from my now calm vantage point. I had pitched beneath a sturdy broken bow of tree, in hopes of extra protection from small falling branches in the night and had slept soundly without disturbance.

It was clear that to return up and continue on the narrow and exposed ridge was not an option, the un-forecast strength of the wind rendered that more dangerous than its worth. Instead my option was left with a long 13km bushwhack out, which would take a solid 7 hours effort.

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Between occasional openings in the moors I followed the valley in thick forest. Pushing over bushes, ducking under branches and scrambling steep rocky slopes beneath it all was slow and immensely hard work. Despite the heat I was wearing long sleeves to protect from the thorns, and neoprene gloves to cover my hands. Progress was slow, but occasional glances into the deep canyon at my side gave welcome interesting views once in a while.
Reaching the roadside I radioed into Cris who had offered to kindly pick me up and in the meantime stripped off and dove into the nearest pool in the river, cleansing myself from the forest with great brisk relief. A local chilean family who had come along to the pool for the day stared on with a thumbs up ‘don’t you know that water comes from a glacier’ they said in Spanish….’I know, I laughed I have just come from it.’

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Whilst I hadn’t made the original plan 100% I still had an epic adventure, and with good choice to return will be able to come back and try again. Weather permitting I am now setting plans to re-attempt later in the season from the west going east.

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3 Comments on “Second Plan A

  1. Great video! Of course I always enjoy your stories and photos, but nothing captures the sheer violence of the the wind like a video. Cheers mate.

  2. Will,
    I watched the Tenerife video production on a 20″ computer screen from the comfort of my office chair; however, I could feel the wind, hear the pelting rocks and, to some degree, imagine that I was placed right in the midst of it all.
    Thanks for sharing,
    Mike Hodges 2017 #WildernessScotland

  3. What an exhilarating adventure and decamp! Your video brought things into sharp focus of course but I felt the experience was equally matched by your words. You’ve a great style – and as evocative as any adventure writing I’ve read. Keep it up!

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