Returning to my fourth season in Chile feels like arriving back to a second home. As ever, Puerto Natales, the town at the end of the earth, hasn’t changed much and I returned to a familiar warm welcome from now close friends. If only the weather was as welcoming, but this is Patagonia after all. Snow still blows off the mountains on the horizon, from a distance it is silently beautiful, but up close it is anything but peaceful.
This year heralds two big changes to my last three seasons. Firstly, I am joined by my lovely partner Jen, who after leaving the stability of a job in the RSPB is doing her best to acclimatise to the chaotic way of life of a kayak company. The second is Chiles politics, which are as upset as a Brexit Britain. Riots in the street weren’t the best way to introduce Jen to what I had promised was a peaceful paradise, but in Puerto Natales at least the greatest affect is being stopped in our cars and forced to do a silly dance in support of the now peaceful protests. The wilder the town, the calmer the people.
October is often the quietest month at the start of the season, so we took our chance to make hay while the sun shines (or snows down here) and tackle a few adventures before the tourists arrive.
Snow, sun, rain and of course plenty of wind all squeezed together between some epic mountains
We started with four days through the world famous ‘w-trek’ as an introduction. Jen and I wandered along the quiet trail with the hardy early trekkers enjoying the mixed weather and tremendous views. Snow, sun, rain and of course plenty of wind all squeezed together between some epic mountains made for a memorable adventure.
I find ‘the w’ to be classic type 1 fun. It is relatively easy walking, zero navigational stress and high visual reward for the effort of traversing. For many it is the adventure of a lifetime and justifiably so as it is the 8th natural wonder of the world. Locally, it is the breadwinner for many families and somewhat of a tourist catchment in comparison to the thousands of miles of empty wild beauty all around it. I could compare it much to the Isle of Skye in the summer, stunningly beautiful and well worth exploring yet bastard busy for a few months each year. While Jen and I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to splurge on the unexpected camp beers and crisps costing 10,000 pesos a pop (Twice flogged, once on horseback then to visitors), we were looking forward to some wilder adventures beyond.
I remembered how I felt the first time, frustrated, tired, nervous yet oddly enthralled. I could see it in Jen…
What excites me most about Patagonia is the sheer scale of the wilderness and once granted permissions to venture off the trails there opens up thousands of miles of genuine exploring. We set our sights on the Bernardo O’Higgins national park which borders Torres Del Paine. At 35,259km square with just four entry points and almost no trails at all it is a spectacularly adventurous playground. It is also where we run our overnight kayak tours.
With the help of Cris and Les (our new bosses and my old time friends), we packed our kayaks on the banks of the Rio Serrano. Our plan was to wind our way south toward Lago Tyndall then return to Puerto Natales on the 21 de mayo ferry. As Kayak En Patagonia has recently secured permission to lead trips to the lake we had two goals: 1. Scout and clear whatever dangerous trees we could safely remove from the river before the guiding season. 2. Attempt to reach a glacier.
Since we first met, Jen has become increasingly competent in a sea kayak. Her confidence has grown with practice between exploring Scotland together and trips with the Inverness Canoe Club. But this was the first time she would take a loaded sea kayak on a river, pushing her comfort zone into something new. Nothing forces rapid learning like a 40 knot headwind whilst trying to work out how edging responds to a heavy sea kayak on river features.
As the snow stung my face, sticking into the wrinkles of my creased gurn against the wind, I looked back behind my numb hands as I lined my kayak downstream along the shore. Even with flow on our side it was too windy to paddle and huge ‘Rafagas’ (Spindrift) burst off the surface like a violently steaming pot. I felt an odd sense of pride looking back at Jen. The conditions were much the same to my first time on the Serrano and I remembered how I felt the first time, frustrated, tired, nervous yet oddly enthralled. I could see it in Jen as she pushed past frustration when the wind pushed her boat ashore, she still carried on. I remember the wind getting my boat stuck like that and then huddling in a bush, waiting for the gusts to pass. I remember feeling panic, Id just kayaked around Scotland, but on my first outing to become a guide I was already stuck and scared. I remember thinking ‘Holy Shit’ I’m out of my depth. Jen hasn’t kayaked around Scotland yet, but here she was coping just as well as I had on my first time, after four years I had become the mentor and now Jen was the learning student of the Serrano.
Thankfully, after a fight against the conditions we made it to Lago Tyndall and day two arrived with rain but zero wind. We spent the day exploring the lake, watching condors glide along the shore, the huge expanse of the southern ice field lining the mountains in a cap of white and blue. As should be expected, the wind turned on in an instant when we were half way up, battering us back to camp as we rafted together on the surf of a force 8.
Our camp at the top of the river was well hidden in the trees and sheltered with a tremendous view and made a good spot to wait it out. By day three the conditions returned to perfection. This time we made it to the end of the lake and took the chance to scramble through the ice to wander on Jen’s first glacier. In the rapid retreat of the face, the landscape is left looking a lot like the surface of the moon, lifeless and black. Even in four years I have watched the ice go back here, there is even a lake that never used to be there now. All climate change deniers should be made to regularly inspect glaciers for a hobby.
Day four was equally as sunny and calm allowing a smooth descent to the end of the river. Our final morning we spent taking a quick paddle along the stunning Lago Serrano, bouncing through icebergs. To wash off the sweat I went for my traditional ice bath before the ferry and our triumphant to return to town for a few days r&r before the next adventure.
Battered by the elements the sedimentary rocks were fractured into razor like shards which had ordered into a dense scree on the wind, under foot they clinked like broken ceramic
Another four day window arrived at the end of October, our last before the start of the seasons chaos. This time Jen and I returned to the Tyndall with a mission of climbing Cerro Donoso, a 1438m remote peak which dominates over the Rio Serrano. After three years staring at it beyond the bow of my kayak, I had long wanted to give the summit a crack.
Stashing the kayaks, we loaded our backpacks with camping gear and set off from the same camp on Lago Tyndall as we used before. This time our approach had been equally as wild and windy, but Jen was far more confident than the last. It was wonderful to see such a progression in such a short space of time. Our plan for the summit was to camp high, and go for a summit push in the morning when the weather was better.
The initial approach was surprisingly forgiving. Normally Patagonian mountains start with a few hours of injections via spine covered bushes, but Donoso had low shrub no higher than our knees, perhaps a testament to the normal ferocious winds which roar off the nearby glacier.
Reaching a bluff at 350m the weather closed in on us. The wind stayed calm, but visibility dropped to less than 100m as thick wet snow started to fall. The steep vegetation now became slippery and treacherous to traverse so we ventured into an ascending line of mature forest.
By the time we reached the tree line the snow was 20cm deep, an unexpected addition to what we were expecting to be a snow free ascent. Discovering a level plateau in the forest we bunked down our tent for the night. It was only 3pm, so for the afternoon we spent time doing what any sensible person might do…building an igloo.
To our surprise at sunset the cloud cleared. We were treated to a spectacular view across Lago Tyndall, Lago Geike and Balmaceda (both filled with icebergs) and the greater ranges of peaks along the ice cap. A promising lead for the next day.
An alpine start at 4.30am had us ascending just after first light. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind. We quickly left the tree line and wandered out onto frost shattered rock. Battered by the elements the sedimentary rocks were fractured into razor like shards which had ordered into a dense scree on the wind, under foot they clinked like broken ceramic.
Jen opted to chill out and enjoy the view around 1000m while I pushed for the summit, less used to the terrain she was a little uncomfortable with the icy conditions given our remoteness and chose to make the sensible choice for her. Moving upward, I was soon in the sunshine. A spectacular vista across Torres Del Paine, which was under a small cloud inversion, was spread out before me. I picked my through the scree avoiding snow patches and sticking to the rock where possible. A breeze through the night had cleared the ridges from snow, but the scree was frozen together to a solid slab.
Toward the summit I followed a wonderfully alpine arete, which had wonderful exposure either side. Far below, the lakes and icebergs spread out in a tremendous panorama. I revelled in the knowledge we were probably the only ones in it at the time. Around 50m below the summit, I came across a barrier which was to be my turning point. A short scramble was cut off by a sheet of verglas, below which lay 600m of 60º slope. The verglas was unwise to pass solo over the scree and the scramble far too loose and broken to make a safe passage. While in summer or true winter conditions it would be easily passable, in what was presented it could not. This would be my top. The final 50m was sorely tempting, but a mountain view is remembered better alive. Of the Patagonian foothills which I have ventured in my time I have summited approximately 75% of them, most of which the final 100m has been the turn off. Sometimes for avalanche risk, others rock fall. Either way, the view from here was truly incredible. 50m off is close enough for me.
Returning to Jen, we packed up and headed back to the lake together. Descending through the forest was a wonderful winter wonderland. Reaching the kayaks by 3pm, we repacked and set off for a late evening descent to Puerto Toro with hope to remove a few trees on the way. We arrived at 7.30pm, just in time for sunset.
Returning the next morning via the ferry, we arrived in Puerto Natales tired, muddy and ready to start season four. If October is anything to go by, this year is going to be the most adventurous one yet. . .