On October 23 and 24 of this year, we had a 36 hour weather window and managed to make an ascent of one of the unclimbed ice-covered mushroom peaks in the Cordillera Sarmiento in the West fjords of Chilean Patagonia. It was not possible to ski from the mushroom summit but we found our way from approximately 10 meters below. The summit altitude is 1626m and we named it Cerro Tigreli.
Our 2016 Patagonian campaign started in early October when Arc’teryx ski alpinists Cornelia Zamernik, David Sanabria and myself, arrived one by one in the Lago Argentino zone of southern Argentinian Patagonia.
We didn’t find the best snow conditions and what we found was quite close to our conservative predictions after a dry southern winter. Before leaving, our entire team was faced with ordinary life issues like knee surgeries, family illness, education and non-stop work. With heavy baggage like that in one’s head, Patagonia doesn’t seem to be the right place to add to the agenda: for us it was different. With more than 40 trips in common to this part of the world, going to Patagonia feels more like going home to a beautiful, peaceful place full of inspiring, rough adventures and old friends.
We stayed upstairs at La Brecha in El Chalten, a newly opened Mexican restaurant owned by Max Odell. From there, we kept an eye on the weather forecast for different targets in three different areas edging the Southern Patagonian ice-cap. We got to ski some days around El Chalten with the always-motivated local community before the first sign of a weather window appeared on the Windguru weather forecast.
Out of our three targets, the Cordillera Sarmiento (a four-hour boat ride from the Ultima Esperanza) always has the worst weather. We double-checked weather conditions with Dorthe Beldal, a danish friend living in Puerto Natales who can view the Sarmiento range from her house, and she confirmed our suspicions that this was our shot. We all had the same opinion that was a chance we couldn’t resist: a once in a lifetime opportunity. Cordillera Sarmiento is a name I have carried in my head since 1998 when the Chilean ambassador in Ushuaia gave me a map of the southern part of the Chilean west coast.
We basically ran away from Chalten with a short stop in Calafate before heading over the border to Puerto Natales in Chile. Hector Diaz, the owner of West Patagonia expeditions and Patagonian Fjords Boat Company, was the most important piece of our puzzle. We arrived with a plan, but after our first meeting with Hector, we had some doubts. We wanted to take advantage of the weather window on the mountain, but Hector needed one of those good days to get us there and more good weather to get us back. The four hour boat ride from the Ultimo Esperanza fjord to the Fjord of the mountains (Fiordo de las Montañas) is not possible in bad weather.
Finally, we met Saturday morning at 6:00 at the pier in Puerto Natales and went to sea an hour later. It was a rough ride out of the fjord. We were hitting waves non-stop before entering Canal Morla Vicuña the connecting channel to the Fjord of the mountains. It was low tide, so navigating the channel felt like floating on a shallow river. It was a quiet moment with some time to warm up with a warm yerba mate before getting back out in the waves again. We disembarked our boat, soaked from head to toe, at a beach below the big rock around one kilometer south of the Bernal glacier.
After 30 minutes repacking and scouting for the right direction we moved on. Hector returned to Puerto Natales and left us with a jungle style forest for the next step of our journey. We found only tight forest on the coast. The machete was our tool of choice. We looped the bottom forest two times before we had our Alpha FL 45 packs, skis and boots at a big rock 30 vertical meters up from the beach. The trees were still tight so one was scouting and clearing the way and the others in the back bringing all the gear forward until we finally got to a steep treeless slope taking us below the hanging glacier. The ground covered in moss was soft and wet. A narrow terrace with lenga trees led us to our camp between two hanging glaciers. Before setting up the tent, we went on a short reconnaissance to understand the direction for the next day. We found a ramp to take us straight across the glacier, over and below the breaking serac areas.
The reward of the first day was pole position and a great dinner sponsored by Lyo Food before squishing our 3 bodies in to a two person tent for some hours of sleeplessness. We named the camp, Campamento Esquiadores.
A warm coffee fired up our bodies in the morning for an early start. We hoped to make it across the hanging glacier before temperatures would rise. After a few hours of booting and skinning up steep terrain we arrived at a small frozen lagoon below the Cinco Amigos peak. The lagoon is also the access to the southern accumulation area of Glacier Bernal, the direction we were heading. We skinned across a huge glacier plateau before the terrain got steeper and the wind picked up. Getting around and over the crevasses on the upper part of the mountain took time but we kept a high motivation and arrived at the base of the summit mushroom. We were very exposed to the strong wind gusts from the Pacific Ocean. Conny and I fixed our skis to an ice screw and left them behind. David was more positive than we had been about the approach and brought his skis to the summit. It was a beautiful climb up the mushroom-shaped, frozen rime and we were given options of two different summits. We chose the western one, which seemed to be the highest and was later confirmed to be quite a bit higher than the eastern summit. We arrived at the highest point of Cerro Tigreli after 6,5 hours of skinning and climbing. A short break before descending to our cache and David finally decided not to try to ski on the ice and followed on foot.
Once below the summit, we skied perfect corn snow to the end of the glacier ramp 10 minutes from our tent, where we found a small creek running straight under it.
That night I slept under the stars in the Cordillera Sarmiento, the place i dreamed about for almost 20 years, with a first ascent in the pocket, done with skis, with Conny and David. It was not easy to realize how much luck we had. When we reached the beach the next morning and met Hector with the boat, it became clear that this was a great score and in a different style than the few other visitors in the past. Light and fast, in absolute alpine style with a rough boat ride.