Great Patagonia Ice Cap Expedition
15:55 p.m. EDT Sep 26, 2003
02:58 a.m. EDT Sep 12, 2003
Borge Ousland just
recently came down from Mount Everest. So, he spent the summer
chilling out and enjoying the greenery, right? Wrong! The Norwegian
polar veteran barely touched sea level before he was off again.
This time, for a thrill that will keep us all spellbound for
some time ahead. Borge and German adventurer Thomas Ulrich are off
to cross the world's third largest ice cap.
So what's the
big deal about that, if you already (like Borge) crossed the other,
much bigger ones? Well, this one includes a serious ice fall and
some good mountain climbing.
Many have tried, but only one
party finally succeeded the quest. Just to get up on the glacier is
a challenge. But before we continue, let's lose some rumors in media
casting a shade on a tremendous adventure:
The headlines have it that Borge and Thomas - if
successful - will be the first to complete the crossing.
ExplorersWeb contacted some Chilean pioneers who reportedly already
hold the prize. Pablo replied fast:
-"Thanks for getting in
touch with us. Yes we did the first ever full crossing of the
Southern Patagonian Ice Cap between November 98 to January 99 in 98
days. Sadly, we didn't get much recognition for this outside of
Chile. It was however published in Desnivel climbing magazine, the
American Alpine Journal and High Magazine.
I got in contact
with T. Ulrich a few months a go and I made it very clear that the
first crossing was made by us, 4 friends from Chile on our third
attempt. The first was in 95 together with Mr. Arved Fuchs
(Fuchs-Messner Antartica crossing), later in 96 where we only
completed 2/3 of the 400 km ice cap, and the last, successful, in
1998 to 1999 (Oct-Jan).
We started from the Jorge Montt
glacier, the most northern part of the ice cap and exited in the
very last part the Balmaceda Glacier. A film was made about it. A
book is just about to be published. Sadly, the ice cap is not well
known outside Chile-Argentina, so this great sports success was not
extensively published. But the first crossing was done in 98-99."
Neither of the parties use/used
resupplies, dogs or other external help. The Chileans however placed
a cache in the icefall:
-"Our depot was placed through the
forest, close to the Garcia glacier (part of the ice cap), by
ourselves earlier in the trip.
56 days later we reached the
Garcia glacier again, and made camp on the ice. We then moved to the
cache and fetched the replacement gear. We never left the ice. We
felt this was unsupported, as we didn't use machines, dogs or sails,
nor change of team members or got gear from other people or team
Strictly technically however, the expedition did
in fact become supported - even if by its own members only - as the
members used the easier terrain of the forest to place out the spare
Borge and Thomas instead hope to complete the crossing
without a pre-placed cache. That is more difficult. The reason being
that their sleds will be much heavier in the beginning, and actually
throughout all of the first half of the trip.
according to Thomas website, Borge and Thomas packed sails as an aid
to pull the heavy sleds and to cover the distance faster. Sails are
- again strictly technically - a support. The reason being that a
daily distance covered by sailing is up to four times greater than
skiing/walking. In addition, the pull of heavy sleds is
significantly eased by the aid of kites (much like the aid of
So what we are ending up with here is a first
that goes to the Chilean Pioneers. In addition, both expeditions
were/are supported, even if the definition is made in its most
strict meaning. It is simply harder to ski a glacier without caches
and sails. The one who manages that, will earn the term
The Facts and the History
that we have settled that, let's jump right into the action:
There are large icecaps/glaciers on earth. They all pose a
serious challenge to cross, due to difficult travel on ice,
generally bad weather and dangerous crevasses. The three largest ice
caps in the world are (at their widest point):
ice cap 5800 km
2. Greenland ice cap 2500 km
ice cap 400 km
The Patagonia ice cap, or Hielo Patagonio
Sur, is 400 km by 80 km.The cap is long and narrow. It has been
crossed several times east/west and west/east, as this direction is
shorter and the main difficulties of the glacier can be avoided. But
only once before has the cap been crossed in its full length.
There are two main obstacles on the route: The first
obstacle consists of a wall that must be climbed to reach the
Glacier. The second - and worst - obstacle is a big rift with a huge
ice fall right in the middle of the glacier.
of the most notable ice cap crossing expedition attempts is this:
1960/61 British Eric Shipton made the first partial N-S
1992 Italians led by Paolo Cavagnetto completed 2/3 of
the route, incl the Chilean corridor and the icefall.
Spanish-Argentineans narrowly missed completing, went out Tyndall
1995 Arved Fuchs and Chilean friends incl Pablo Besser
had to abort after 250 km and finish in the Peel Fiord.
Chileans returned with Pablo Besser, Rodrigo Fica and Jorge
Crossley, but failed again.
1998 The Chileans return a third
time with Pablo Besser, Mauricio Rojas, Jose Pedro Montt and Rodrigo
Fica Perez - and succeeds, in 98 days, the first complete North to
A Hellish Trip Ahead
and Thomas have a hellish trip ahead. The guys have a very heavy
load, in a difficult terrain. Says Pablo: "We took 30 days to cross
the icefall only. First you reach the 2000 meters plateau, then fall
700 meters to a col of 1300, next climb up to 2225 meters, then
rappel 700 more, half overhanging ice with pulkas and all. In the
generally nasty weather... you can imagine".
At this point,
the men have already kayaked for three days, cut their way through
the forest and they started on the glacier September 2. Pablo
reccounts his own trip to leave us a clue of what to expect:
-"Fifty days after the start, we arrived at the Reichert
Fall, the most important obstacle in the traverse. A 900 meters ice
fall, much like the Khumbu on Everest but without porters or
sherpas, a chaos of seracs. We down-climbed to the bottom of the
Fall, took our loads in the cache and made the first (and
obligatory) ascent of East Bastion, climbing it because it stood in
We climbed up 2300 meters, to face the worst, a 600
meters vertical face. Near the summit, we spent nine terrible days
in a snow cave waiting for good weather. On January 10th, we started
the longest and most dangerous rappel of our lives, 18 hours with
sledges. Finally we were able to rappel 620 meters (150
overhanging)down the virgin south face. We became the first humans
to cross the Reichert Fault, which in itself took 30 days.
Low on food rations and really weak, we walked the last 160
kilometers across broken glaciers in 21 days to finish on January
30, 1999, at Seno Ultima Esperanza, the Pacific Ocean, after 98 days
on the Ice Cap, finishing the First Complete Crossing of the
Patagonian Ice Cap."
The question now is how Borge and
Thomas will fare in these conditions. The cap is smaller than
Greenland and Antarctica, making it easy to underestimate the
challenge of it. The expedition is heavy loaded and it's only their
first attempt, compared to the Chileans three shots at it.
First or not, the Patagonia Ice cap doesn't really care:
It looks for the tough and the brave among us. Borge and Thomas
had the guts to take on the challenge. Now, Mother Nature will
Image courtesy of Pablo Besser and the Chilean