T H E W H I T E L A K E – L A G O B L A N C O
W A T C H T H E F I L M
At the end of the Ultima Esperanza fjord, otherwise known as ‘Last Hope’ there are two valleys. One goes north west toward Lago Azul and beyond that the icefield, the other goes south west to another lake named after a colour, Lago Blanco- the white lake.
Taking the usual access route via the Rio Serrano, I hoped to reach and explore Lago Blanco alone. A now familiar paddle along the committing and exposed coast fringing Cerro Balmaceda would bring me past spectacular waterfalls and the mighty Balmaceda glacier which calves off the mountainside. From there a short but demanding portage would lead to a lake, after which I could continue along the river feeding it to reach Lago Blanco and the ice flows which grant its name.
Passing the Cerro Balmaceda, I paddled hard against a characteristically strong wind. Whilst waves were low at around 1m for the severity of the gusts which were blowing between 25 and 30knots, they were steep. The air pulled on my blades even set at 60º to slice through it, I was ducked low, my head amidst the spray from my bow as I pushed toward the end of the fjord. Despite the effort, it took as little as two hours to paddle the 16km from Puerto Toro to the edge of the Ultima Esperanza. Typically, just as I landed the wind died completely, leaving in its wake a calm and somewhat warm day- ideal for portaging over a small hill.
Stripping my kayak down on the beach and beginning the disinfection process to remove any risk of Didymo algae introduction, I brewed a lunch of noodles and coffee whilst waiting for the equipment to dry. As I waited I begun the process of scouting a route. Whilst no more than 120m in height and 1km in length, the portage promised to be brutal on my own. Any hope of lining the river between the first lake and the sea was void, it was a continual class III-IV stretch of committing whitewater- excellent fun in a river kayak with a team but far too treacherous solo in a sea kayak.
Loading my gear into a 90L duffel bag, I took the first leg across the portage. Progress was slow and arduous, but before long I had made it over the summit. Now to return for the kayak. An empty plastic kayak weights about 30kg but the challenge is more in bulk than weight, loaded on my shoulder with the wind blowing against it was exhausting and agonising. Moving in just 100m paces I wound up the hillside before at last lowing back to the far side with a rope. The 1km pass took a whopping three and a half hours of constant hard portage. As I went I was circled constantly by massive condors, their 3m wingspan cutting the with enviable ease and grace, perhaps they were waiting for me to make a mistake, more likely they were curious, people don’t come here often.
Can you spot the kayak…(hint…it isn’t in the water).
Finally I was back in the lake. It was already close to 4pm and if wanted to reach Lago Blanco I hoped to make it far up the river, if not all the way by darkness. Setting off alone, I paused only to snap a quick photo for scale and to watch the many salmon and trout surface curiously at the side of my boat, I wished I brought a fishing line.
The river leading to Lago Blanco bore the characteristic tale of glacial presence, it was cloudy grey with the dust of recently ground rock and toe numbingly cold. Tying my line bow and stern I started to ferry the kayak upstream. I was now racing the daylight.
It took far longer than I had expected to pass the three kilometre route up river. Toward the final kilometre the river had worsened to a constant class II-III making progress slow and difficult. Often I found myself wading up to my chest, thankful for my Kokatat drysuit to keep me dry but struggling to stand against the force of the flow. I had ferry glided from one bank to another until I lost count, dragged hauled and lifted my boat around rapids and paused only once to devour some trail mix for emergency energy.
This was the Patagonia I was used to, the challenge I seek so hard to find for a reward equally as worthwhile. As I emerged triumphant at the lake on the brink of night, I was greeted by an amphitheatre of ice and rock. I would explore further the next day, for now I was too exhausted and hungry.
Overnight the lake was whipped with strong winds. My tent, pitched on the sand, flapped wildly to roaring gusts and spray torn off the water, yet pitched strong it help defiant as a comfortable reliable shelter. I was glad to have weighted my kayak down with rocks before bed, for had I not it would have surely blown into the forest behind me.
As quickly as it came the wind departed, I woke to calm and the promise of sunshine. The last trails of cloud were curling like silvery webs from spires of icy rock I had had no idea existed the night before. A short paddle along the lake brought me to the face of the ice. Two tremendous glaciers plunging from the ice cap above across vertical rocky walls and down to the lake where they met barely kissing each others faces before calving to icebergs.
It’s funny how so much effort is spent for such fleeting moments, yet every bead of sweats, grazed finger and numbed toe is worth it in the end. I didn’t linger in the lake much more than an hour, I knew that the next big front of wind was on the way and hoped to escape back to Puerto Toro and the ferry home before the end of the day.
Returning back downstream was far swifter than it had been to come up. What had before taken five hours now took little more than one. On some of the larger more technical rapids I chose to line my boat rather than run it, mostly as I was solo and the sea kayak would struggle to be nimble enough to make the course. Looking back to the spectacular mountains were a wonderful distraction.
Returning back over the portage was equally hard work. This time I chose a slightly different route, which although saved perhaps 40m of ascent took just as much time and effort to achieve. By the time I reached the ocean I was just as exhausted, muddy and sweaty as I had been on the way in. This time however, there was little wind to contend with so I chose to venture along the more exposed southern shore on the way home.
Reaching Puerto Toro on the brink of darkness I pitched camp and said hello to rangers. The next morning I would have to wait until 12 before the ferry returned and so set plans on pushing on foot through the forest to a sub-glacier and it’s lake a little above the camp. I had long since wondered if it had been possible to reach, and just 400m above it seemed accessible.
Two hours of dense bushwhacking, climbing trees to pass rocky ledges (pictured below) and pushing through spiky vegetation finally brought me out to the lake. A quick view and a few photos later I turned and raced back, I arrived just in time a few minutes before the boat departed. After a quick catch up with my friends from the ferry I collapsed absolutely shattered and slept most of the way back to town. When I returned I would be packing to work on the river the next day, thankfully they were strong clients.