A wilderness adventure in Patagonia

Angela Pownall

A lifelong ambition to visit South America takes Angela Pownall on a wilderness adventure unlike any other.

It’s close to 11pm and darkness has long since fallen over Patagonia’s vast and uninhabited southern icefield. We’ve been walking for 14 hours, leaping over crevasses and trudging through deep snow with our heavy backpacks.

The day’s ambition has been to get to the Garcia Soto refuge near Chile’s border with Argentina but our hopes of success are fading fast.

We’re cold, wet and exhausted. The weather has worsened with the arrival of darkness and we struggle against blizzard conditions.

Still, the five of us, roped together at 8m intervals in case one falls into a snow-covered crevasse, push on.

Suddenly a huge gust catches us side-on and three of us are blown clean off our feet into the snow.

Carrying full packs for the 10-day traverse of the remote and seldom-visited Southern Patagonian Ice Field, it’s hard to find the strength to get up.

Rafael Baro, who manages to stay on his feet, decides enough is enough.

“That’s it,” he yells above the wind. “We’re not going on. We have all the gear to camp here.”

We’re with two of our experienced guides Mario and Celeste, who are carrying huge backpacks filled with food for everyone and camping equipment.

Both are incredibly strong and used to trekking with heavy loads but they, too, are spent.

We can see the warm lights of the refuge twinkling invitingly atop the 300m ascent of a steep rocky outcrop.

We stumble 100m to camp next to the rocks where it’s a bit sheltered.

On the Patagonian southern icefield. Picture: Jacky Coglan

Now we’ve stopped moving, it’s a race against time to get our emergency camp set up before the cold sets in.

Our lead guide, Pascual Diaz, returns to help us quickly pitch our tent.

Before long, we’re relieved to be in our sleeping bags, drinking rum and eating cheese, meat and chocolate.

We sleep deeply despite the howling winds shaking our tent all night.

The five others in our expedition group make it to the refuge, having gone on ahead with Pascual.

They’re in no better state, collapsing through the refuge door, shaking and nauseated.

Argentinian trekkers, also staying in the refuge, rush to give them hot drinks.

By midnight we’re all resting and warm. We realise we made the wrong decision as a team to try to make it to the refuge that day.

We underestimated the unforgiving power of the region of Patagonia, where the distances are long and conditions quickly change.

The warm and welcoming Garcia Soto refuge. Picture: Angela Pownall

This is part of an adventure that Rafael, who runs a language school in Perth, has long dreamed of giving his students in his home continent.

But this is no ordinary language- learning trip. With the help of Pascual, a renowned mountain guide in the region with 15 years of experience, this is a real and raw sample of the area’s landscape and culture.

We are traversing Patagonia’s southern icefield from Chile in the north to Argentina in the south — an expedition not offered by any commercial tour company.

For me, South America has always been a dream destination, having learnt and loved Spanish since I was a schoolgirl.

The opportunity to visit Patagonia on a trip that combined language learning, genuine cultural experiences and a physical challenge was impossible to resist.

Brushing up on my Spanish at Rafael’s City Beach language school Oniria ahead of the trip, I could not have imagined the wilderness and raw beauty of this other-worldly place.

I quickly learn Patagonia does not give easily. You have to earn the privilege of experiencing it.

Our trip begins in Balmaceda in Aysen, Chile’s most isolated and least visited region, with five million hectares of unexplored native forest.

We will make our way south along Carretera Austral, the road through Chilean Patagonia’s wilderness, to get to the southern icefield.

Breathtaking scenery is at every turn; snow-capped mountains, lush green dense forests, beautiful lakes in dazzling hues of blue and powerful waterfalls.

We reach picturesque Puerto Ibanez on the Ibanez River, where we stay at Mary Sandoval’s renovated old country house, Hosteria La Casona, and enjoy a homemade meal and potent pisco sours, made from Chile’s national liquor, lemon, sugar and egg white.

Bridge over a river in Aysen region. Picture: Angela Pownall

We next head to General Carrera Lake. At 180km long and nearly 600m deep, this spectacular lake of glacial origin is the biggest in Chile.

At Puerto Rio Tranquilo, we take a speedboat across General Carrera Lake to see where centuries of erosion have created remarkable caves, holes and formations in the marble, lapped by startlingly blue waters.

That night, we stay in quaint Puerto Guadal, where Pascual lives with his wife Ana and daughter Claudia.

Torrential rain cuts our three-day camping trip on horseback to just a day. Leaving from Puerto Guadal, I ride Palota, a gentle horse that puts up with the terrible weather to take me through Aysen’s spectacular, wild countryside.

Pascual has planned a two-day trip to Los Leones glacier in Chile’s northern icefield as a practice run for our big traverse of the southern icefield.

He gives us our ice gear: crampons, harness, ice axe, helmet, snow shoes and the plastic snow boots, adding 5kg to my now- weighty 17kg backpack.

It’s less than 10km along the valley floor to Lake Leones. As we near the lake, the terrain becomes more challenging. We’re wading through water and mud, scaling the steep sides of the valley and striding over waterfalls.

Leones river, Aysen region, Chile. Picture: Jacky Coglan

After several hours, we reach Lake Leones and it’s another cold boat ride to the glacier, where we’ll practise ice climbing.

We whiz past icebergs before the sight of the colossal glacier emerges out of the mist.

We drive close to the wall of ice. The countless lines, shapes and colours are mesmerising. Suddenly there’s a huge crack and massive chunks of ice tumble into the water near us.

We watch agape as Pascual deftly puts the motor on full throttle and speeds us out of the way of the wave heading our way.

As darkness falls, we head to Pascual’s camp on a nearby ridge overlooking the glacier.

As the rain pours, the guides cook a hearty meal of lentils and bread over a single gas stove. We drink neat rum chilled with glacial ice under the tarp of the “kitchen”, happy to rest after a long day.

During the night, I hear Los Leones glacier stirring and cracking — it never sleeps.

Our next destination, the Baker River, is Chile’s biggest in terms of water volume.

It’s a beautiful day’s walk along the river through rugged landscape, boggy pastures, fields of cows and past spectacular rapids to Rene Munoz’s farm, where we’ll stay for two nights.

Rene opens his farm, which was built by his father 70 years ago, to travellers as a home-stay. It’s a modest three-bedroom wooden cabin, with a big kitchen and living area, where the only communication is a two-way radio.

Our journey continues to the picturesque town of Tortel, which sits where the Baker and Pascua rivers meet to flow into the Pacific Ocean. Stilt houses line 13km of riverbank connected only by 17km of wooden walkways.

After 13 days, we reach O’Higgins, where we’ll finally begin our trek to the southern icefield.

There are nerves and excitement as we wait for the weather to improve enough so we can cross O’Higgins Lake to Puerto Candelario Mancilla.

A traditional Chilean barbecue in O’Higgins. Picture: Angela Pownall

Our guides welcome us with a traditional Chilean barbecue of a whole lamb.

We rise early the next morning to begin five days of trekking before we even get to the icefield.

The terrain is challenging but the scenery, as always, makes our efforts worthwhile.

We are slowed by high water, which forces us to zigzag to find a passable route, and deep river crossings.

On day four, Pascual finds part of the trail to Chico Glacier, where we will get on to the icefield, has been destroyed by a landslide.

This means many more hours of climbing, descending, twisting and turning as we try to find an alternative route.

After 12 hours of hiking, we meet a wall of almost-impenetrable thick, thorny bush, which we have to force ourselves through. It’s exhausting and I’m tired out before we even reach the icefield.

Pascual Diaz and Rafael Baro overlook Chico Glacier. Picture: Angela Pownall

We camp for the night on the edge of Chico Glacier, a wondrous sight.

The following morning, we strap on our crampons to walk on the glacier, with the aim of reaching the refuge by the end of the day.

Our passage is slowed by snow cover on the glacier, which means it’s hard to tell where the crevasses are. It takes several hours to cover just 13km, but the thought of a bed in the refuge keeps us going.

At 7pm, Pascual gives us the option to camp at a sheltered spot between the mountain and glacier or continue for another three hours to the refuge.

Those who want to get to the refuge are more vocal and see us plough on but it’s to the detriment of the less strong in the group and the guides carrying the heaviest packs — and ultimately the whole group. The fatigue brought on that day affects many of us for the rest of the trip.

After a day of rest inside the refuge, we spend the next few days exploring our snowy home on the icefield. We climb the nearest ice wall and build a quinzee, a shelter made of compacted snow.

Mountain guide Pascual Diaz looks into the quinzee we built. Picture: Angela Pownall

Our surroundings constantly change as the weather moves swiftly over the icefield; mountains appear, glaciers disappear and, at times, it’s a white-out.

The refuge is cramped and run-down, with mouldy bunk-bed mattresses but it’s our haven.

There is no toilet, so we have to go outside and take an ice axe to bury our waste. It’s an unpleasant experience, especially when the icy winds pick up.

Our guides’ culinary ingenuity with scant supplies and little fresh produce is amazing. We enjoy homemade gnocchi in a tomato sauce, lentil stew and even pancakes for breakfast.

After a few days, Pascual gets word on his satellite phone that bad weather is coming. We leave the refuge within a few hours, trekking south to get off the icefield. [|] Roped up, we walk across the snow-covered ice.

After a few hours we reach Marconi Pass, marked on the map as a “very dangerous area” and the part Pascual later tells me he was most worried about. We successfully and slowly sidestep down this steep face of rock, snow and ice by holding only a rope for balance. As we set up camp on the edge of a lake next to the Marconi glacier, freezing gale-force winds from the icefield hit us. Pascual says we got off the ice just in time, as conditions would have been worse at the refuge.

Patagonian southern icefield. Picture: Angela Pownall

As it is, we struggle to pitch tents in 60km/h winds. Lying in it is the only way to keep it on the ground.

The winds howl all night and into the next day as we begin a perilous trek over rocks piled high and steep above the lake.

A huge gust picks up Javier, one of the guides, and throws him to the ground. I’m blown over twice, as are others. We all hang on to rocks when the big gusts come.

Pascual tells us to stop and squat low when a gust comes, exclaiming he has never seen such strong winds here before. “Puta, Puta, Putagonia,” he mutters in a play on the Spanish word for “bitch”.

We arrive back in civilisation after nine days. Patagonia’s southern icefield spat us out in one piece, tired, bruised but feeling honoured to have been where we have.

As we recover in the small Argentine town of El Chalten, I wonder how many people know — as we now do — the extraordinary place behind those mountain peaks.