Over three seasons in Patagonia, I have made it my mission to tackle as many of the glaciated lakes within reasonable reach of Puerto Natales, the town I temporarily call home. Along the way this journey has taken me to many remote and spectacular places, including lakes never before paddles and a massive month long expedition through the western fjords. You can read about a summary of this so far on Canoe&Kayak Magazine’s website.
The majority of the glacial lakes within reach of Puerto Natales are in the Bernardo O’Higgins national park, those in the Torres Del Paine area being illegal by kayak. Over the seasons I focused mostly on those surrounding Cerro Balmaceda, a 2250m peak which dominates over the Serrano river where I work.
Named after the mountain, Lago Balmaceda lies on the western flank of the mountain. Perhaps the hardest to reach by kayak, it is typically wild and inaccessible and a classic Patagonian adventure. Setting out, late around 4.30pm after a day working on the river with clients, I hoped to observe my final ‘big’ glacial lake in the region. I went with a plan, to re-trace steps of a past adventure to Lago Geike, then continue by foot or portage inland to view Balmaceda lake and glacier.
Going solo on the Serrano was a refreshing change of pace compared to going with guests, what normally would take three hours took just an hour and a half to reach the entrance of the Geike river. I enjoyed putting my head down and paddling hard, the familiar twists and turns of the winding channel passing at my side in silence.
I hoped to reach half way up the river before nightfall, but before continuing I would have to stop, de-pack and seriously scrub my equipment. Sadly, DIDYMO an invasive algae has made it into the Serrano river, in order to limit it’s spread I needed to clean my boat, clothes and gear with disinfectant. Granted, the cattle which roam wild here have likely brought this beast of an algae to far reaches, I didn’t want to be part of it.
Boat cleaned and re-packed, I set off alone along the meanders. In the distance the Geike glacier dominated the horizon in an increasingly golden evening light.
Lining is perhaps the most efficient and satisfying method of portaging a kayak. By tying my tow-line from bow and stern, I was able to guide my boat along the river edge with ease whilst on the whole walking in the dry along the riverbanks.
I remembered the first time I had come here, with Matt Smith a few years before. Now familiar with the route, and where we had made mistakes, I was able to make faster progress, averaging about 3km/h. Occasional ferry glides across one channel to the next gave welcome rest to my arms, which constantly holding the drag of the boat were feeling a strain. As the sun set into a deep pink I enjoyed a nearly full moon rise from the peaks behind me. With a clear sky it would allow me to progress a little further than I had expected under it’s silvery light cast on the water.
I found shelter in the otherwise exposed river plain by pitching camp in a dry meander. Including a full day at work, I had been travelling almost 12 hours and took little time falling asleep. I hoped to wake for sunrise and push on to the Geike before lunch.
Two and a half hours of lining brought me to the entrance of Geike lake. This time the canyon, the final and most difficult section of the river, turned out to be relatively easy due to the low river level. I remembered back to the last time I was here, I could even remember some of the trees which jutted out from the banks, amazingly still here since 2015.
The last time I had arrived at Lago Geike was just on the end of winter, the time when there are most icebergs in the lake. On this occasion, closer to the end of summer there were significantly fewer. Never the less, those icebergs that were here were the size of houses and a sight to behold. Less icebergs, was in fact an advantage, it allowed access to the lake and easy paddling to the next river I hoped to follow on the other side.
2018 (Summer)2015 (Winter)
Crossing Lago Geike took little effort without wind nor icebergs to contend with. Arriving at the upper Rio Geike, I set off with hopes of portaging a tremendous distance to Lago Balmaceda. The river was a constant class II with some sections of passable class III, easy whitewater but less so in a sea kayak and ill advisable solo.
I could soon see that the route I hoped to pull my kayak through was densely overgrown, something that would be largely un-tenable solo with a sea kayak, and difficult if in a team. I knew then that I wouldn’t have the time nor energy to make it by boat to Lago Balmaceda. I turned around and ran the river in a swift and exciting few minutes whitewater. Landing back on the lake shore I decided I would head inland on foot and scout other options or routes.
Emerging from the tree line into wide open moorland I caught a glimpse of my intended portage. Whilst on the whole it was open ground there were several re-emergant gullies with dense forest to pass. Even on foot reaching the lake would take hours, but then I saw another option.
To my south was a large peak with a clearly achievable route to the summit. Although in comparison to the others around it still had almost a 1300m prominence. From there I would not only gain a view of that last illusive lake, but also into the valley to my west evocatively named the ‘Garganta del Diablo’- The Throat of the Devil.
Already several hundred metres above Lago Geike with the original intent of scouting, I decided to simply push on. It would be without doubt the highest I had ever climbed in a drysuit, PFD and paddling helmet. Rare are there days in Patagonia without wind and the sun beating down on your back, climbing hard in a drysuit I was soon boiling. For most of the ascent I was stripped into my underwear, carrying the suit on my back.
At my side the throat of the devil rumbled as huge glaciers on the fringe of the ice sheet dropped bus sized lumps of ice into the valley below. Echoing off the vertical walls the avalanches roared through an otherwise tranquil landscape. Far behind me I could see the summits of the Torres Del Paine Massif reflecting amidst the icebergs of Lago Geike, and beyond that the route to which I had come.
Leaving the tree line around 750m, the ground crunched under foot with a metallic chime. These rocks, so fractured and broken with years under ice and recent exposure to wind were extremely brittle. It was amazing to imagine that they had been exposed to the world for only a few decades, before that a few thousand years under glacier. Only the rusting reds of oxidising iron bore tale of their youth.
A final scramble brought me to the narrow summit ridge. At my side a drop plummet hundreds of metres into a deep blue crevasse. The Torres Del Paine massif, usually so impressive was now dwarfed by the spectacular scale of the ice sheet in-front me. Peaks pointed like broken glass were covered in ice which fractured in icefalls like broken china into the devils throat. Long, smooth and curling, the Balmaceda glacier gave smooth lines between an otherwise broken landscape, it poured with such silent elegance toward the lake where lonely icebergs floated in a beautiful final farewell.
I was lost in the scale of the ice, the crevasses seemed to draw the eye deeper alurring that ‘call of the void’ sensation to jump amongst them when surely that would mean instant peril. There are no words to the glowing blue that is glacial ice, nor the heart thumping roars as it cascades from cliffs, it is a might and marvel unlike any other.
Descending back to the kayak I set my sights on getting back home. I had seen my final lake, and more. Thoughts now turned to the forecast of 60knot winds coming overnight, a prospect that in such a calm day seemed bizarre. With luck I would make it back the boat and across the lake before dark, if I could I hoped to pass the exposed river pains and camp near the Rio Serrano. From there it would be an easy escape the next day down to Puerto Toro and the ferry home.
Back in the lake, I perhaps spent too much time exploring the icebergs in the evening light. Try as I might to continue their tempted me to linger, but none the less I made it to the Rio Geike around 9pm. Normally, arriving at the river ten minutes after the sun crossed the horizon I would stop, pitch camp and rest. But with the prospect of wind I carried on, hoping to find better shelter further downstream. I would paddle until I could see no more, then pull off.
Total darkness, I was still on the river and paddling hard to make it out of the braided channels. Keeping low to the water, I could see trunks and rocks which appeared as white waves or dark blobs as they approached in the dark. I preferenced using what little night vision I had naturally over that of a head-torch as this way I could see a little further than just the extent of the beam. Riding through the rapids, weaving through the meanders and aiming for smaller, slower channels, I was somewhat relieved to reach the forest on the far side. I had been travelling from 7am and arrived at 10pm, exhausted, I pitched tent and waited for the gales.
Decamping at first light, I set off into a stiff 40knot wind. The gales had started. Leaving the last stretch of the Geike to re-join the Serrano was epically beautiful, the wind ripped water and dust from the surface which caught the first light in a fiery golden spray. The wind roared over my back, rippling my fabric with ferocity and a welcome push downstream. I would arrive at Puerto Toro in excellent time for the ferry.
Back in familiar waterways on the Rio Serrano I took the chance to explore those narrow short cuts which are too risky to take guests. Seeing new areas of extremely familiar places always opens new ideas and new avenues to imagine on future trips. One such short cut offering an excellent emergency route in case of extreme winds, albeit requiring a few pauses to pass would be clients past fallen trees blocking the channel. For one, the new short cut had some excellent bird life, and a exciting new route which I suspect I will seldom, if ever visit again.
A final hurdle at Puerto Toro- The ferry was cancelled. Hardly a surprise in such strong winds. I settled into the reality that I would be stuck here for what was likely to be two days, but it was a beautiful place to pause so I wasn’t worried.
Serrano Glacier with Clients Just as I was about to un-pack a familiar zodiac arrived, it was Jose and Francis two friends from the 21 de Mayo ferry service, they were re-suppling fuel for the rangers, ‘want a lift’ – Jose offered in Spanish- I would make it home after all.
Three seasons, ten major adventures and one big expedition later, I have now paddled and hiked to all the ‘big’ glaciers on my list within reach of the national park. Keep an eye out of a write up of Lago Blanco soon to come and the next adventure where Seumas Nairn will return to join me as we head south toward Punta Arenas.