From The Fjord To The World Above
Mental checklist after checklist preceded loading the packs and pulks (snow sleds) into the dinghy off The Nanook’s stern. In the dawn’s cold drizzle we rugged up and Jordy ran us to a small strip of beach - our access - adjacent to the intimidating looking Patagonian forest. Once the entire team was assembled, we split loads and made our way towards the dripping wet, menacing green mass of trees guarding our ascent from sea level.
I remember my first uneven step into the muddy bog as I ducked into the gloom under the forest’s canopy, it was unstable, unsafe and with the loads we were carrying threatened ankle break or strain at any moment. The gnarled logs and wind-twisted looking trees were all covered with wet moss in all shades of green, purple and black, contributing to the foreboding and unwelcoming feel of this incredibly dense living obstacle. For an hour and a half, we hefted sleds over logs, crept under dead trees and hauled packs across sinking bogs, all the while grabbed at by thorn laden vines. Steep slopes required us to set up hauling lines upwards, working as a team to get our gear upwards out of this ancient forest.
Finally light shone dully through the undergrowth and we popped into a muddy clearing that then led towards our first foothills. For the next 8 hours we tried to navigate a way through a maze of slopes that never ran straight upwards. Often forced to haul our gear up sheer cliffs, only to descend the other side and do it all again. Undulating ridges required us to gain and lose elevation multiple times, all the while running into cliffs and having to back-track to search for a new route. It was slow going.
Finally we reached the broken snow line and decided to let the crew (Al, Jordan and newest addition Dom) go so they could get back downhill across the same challenges and make The Nanook before nightfall. With some sadness we offloaded our human mules and gave them a hug goodbye, promising to be safe and to check in daily with status and position reports as we progressed towards Argentina.
Camp One was a small mossy flat at approximately 1900 feet above sea level looking directly down on the killer ridges, menacing forest and stunning expanse of Exmouth Fjord where The Nanook was anchored at the base of Bruggen Glacier, awaiting our safe return. Exhausted, Kit and I put up our little red tent and crawled inside, unsure what the next day would bring.
Day 2, we awoke and forced a positive internal attitude, curious to see what rigours the day would bring. During the entire prior day, in a straight line distance we had covered a mere 1.1 kilometres in 10 hours, and that was with help. Today we had two full loads each to get up to the plateau, with no outside assistance. We ate breakfast and set out, a lightly packed pulk each and a heavy pack on our backs. We climbed, grunted, cursed, but made steady progress upwards. Occasionally meeting snow laden slopes so steep, that to progress we set up a hauling system to get our loads to the top of the ridge. Working well as a team we got half our gear to the point where we had unbroken snow vertically above our position, then returned to camp one to shoulder the heavy hauling bags up to the same point. Leaving our mountain boots in a GPS marked cache we put on ski boots, put skins on our skis, and headed upwards once more. In 12 hours we managed to climb 2200 vertical feet and despite only being 1.3 kilometres from camp one, we had all our gear lifted to camp 2 within sight of the polar plateau cornice or edge. The final hurdle of the day stood as a 40m high corniced ridge. Kit climbed up, testing the snow pack and burrowing his way through the lip to a small snow pad on the ridge above. Once again we collapsed into the little red tent perched on a small peak that we both agreed was safe from surrounding avalanche corridors whilst we slept.
Day 3 began with the roar of the MSR stove and the aroma of good coffee, the source of predawn moral boost in a wet, cold tent anywhere in the world. Confident we could haul on snow all day, we merged our hauling bags and sleds into one load and lowered these off our high perch (camp two) into a small couloir or gully below us. From here we managed to haul our load in one lift upwards toward the ice sheet. With no clear knowledge if access would be safe or even possible, we pressed on, fully expecting we may be turned back by an impassable obstacle at any point. To our surprise we managed to link 3 separate valleys, managing to haul, drag and heft our sleds slowly skywards. Till we came to a dead end, high on a peak with a sheer drop between us and the ice plateau. With no way forward that way, we retreated down to the valley floor on the other side and studied a complicated crevasse field between us and the plateau. Caching our hauling bags, we roped up together and agreed together on an approach through this potentially deathly maze. As the plateau ice bent and entered the valley above us, it flexed, cracked and rent huge tears in itself. These were visible as large gaping mouths in the ice sheet, whilst ugly these visible holes were not the dangerous ones, the adjacent snow covered ones were. The crevasses we couldn’t see but knew were underneath us we simply had to trust the snow bridges to hold our weight and our sleds as we crossed over them as carefully as possible. The visibility luckily held out as we navigated our way, with Kit ably in the lead across a zig zag complex of stern choices, all the while madly hailing our load upwards. In one tense moment Kit was isolated above a particularly ominous snow bridge and I hauled both sleds alone to allow him to properly investigate the snow bridges safety without the dead weight of his sled. We both yelled, got animated, vented then cleared the bridge safely, apologised and hugged once back on safe ice. The absolutely memorable isolation of this incident for me illustrates how incredibly well we worked together as a team. Father and Son in complete sync in a very tense environment, teamwork increasing our chances of success from start to finish. Two strenuous hours later, light was beginning to fade and we crossed the last crevasse making our way to the very edge of the Plateau. Looking down in front of us now, we could see a vast flat expanse of safe ice stretching all the way to Argentina beyond the far horizon.
Having relied on Kit’s mountaineering skills to stay alive all day, I now felt my skill set kick in as we unpacked a kite each and very quickly utilised wind power to ski laterally down onto the plateau.
Dropping our kites to the snow, Kit and I grinned at each other madly, the realisation of the dangerous nature of the broken ice we had crossed, the understanding that we had made it atop the Southern Patagonian Ice Field dawned on us. A proud moment, after over 65 days at sea, fighting severe weather, fatigue and sundry obstacles, here we stood as Father and Son on a piece of incredibly fragile ice very few human eyes get to see.
We set camp three, turned on the stove to dry our gear and savoured a nip of whisky to celebrate making it to objective one of two, now for the crossing…