Editor’s Note: The much-anticipated part two of our Women into the Wind series is here. In part one, we met Anno Davis and her intrepid crew of Argentinean mountaineers. In part two, we follow them as they attempt to become the first all-female team to summit Volcán Lautaro—the highest peak in the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap.
The Expedition by Anno Davis
The weather: it’s the limiting factor for anyone who plans an expedition in Patagonia. The area is dominated by strong winds and moisture which accumulate over the vast Pacific Ocean and empty on the protruding Andes. Since our mobility on the glacier depended on the crevasses being entirely covered by snow, our particular expedition relied on ideal weather conditions. This also meant that we had to be incredibly adaptable and develop an alternative strategy based on the conditions along the way. In addition, once we ventured into the mountains we would need to be completely self-reliant since our only contact with others would be through spotty satellite phone service. And since there weren’t any helicopters in the vicinity, a quick rescue would be out of the question.
After three days of portering our gear to the base of the glacier and one day to rest and pack, we decided to go for it; the next 3-4 days presented a decent weather forecast. We carried our skis and sleds on our packs through the lush Lenga Beech forest. At Piedra del Fraile,we re-strategized since our planned six days in the mountains didn’t fit with the forecast and re-rationed our food to lighten our load. Our first night was at La Playita, a rocky beach on the west back of Lago Eléctrico with spectacular views of the north face of Mt. Fitz Roy. The next morning we picked up the remaining gear, now carrying well over 60 pounds each, and mounted the glacier first by foot where the ice was covered with rock and wound our way around gaping holes and cracks. We eagerly put on our boots and skis and roped-up to ascend the ramp of North Marconi Glacier, where the ice pours over a steep section fracturing into many crevasses, luckily still sufficiently covered with snow. Once over Marconi Pass and up on the expansive ice field (4.5 miles and 2,800 feet higher than La Playita, now at 4,800 feet in elevation), we were on relatively flat terrain and were able to ski comfortably un-roped since the crevasses were completely concealed by a solid layer of snow.
Now in Chilean territory, we left the granite spires of the Fitz and Cerro Torre ranges behind us. The great white expansiveness ahead was an astonishing moonscape. We were ecstatic. Roughly 12 hours and 8.5 miles from La Playita, we set up camp in total solitude. By sat-phone email/text message a friend confirmed the weather conditions would hold up just enough to permit our plan to cross the ice field the next day (Tuesday), try to summit on Wednesday (the last day with a somewhat stable forecast) and return to the eastern side of the glacier on Thursday as conditions deteriorated.
We enjoyed a perfectly calm night and were setting out again as the sun rose painting wispy clouds pink. Lautaro, whose summit protruded18 miles to the northwest, could be seen in the distance, but slowly started to cloud over by mid-morning. As we moved out into the middle of the ice field, a constant head-wind picked up. The landscape warped all parameters of space and time as we skinned in as straight a line as possible for nine solid hours. Surrounded by more and more magical peaks, we stopping only briefly to change layers, take pictures, hydrate and eat small bites of gorp, crackers and cheese. Not far from our anticipated campsite, the cloud finally reached the base of Lautaro, enveloped us in a dizzying yet calm grey, and we decided to pitch the tent (13 miles from our previous camp and around 5,450 feet in altitude).
Once we set up camp, we consulted the forecast and weighed our options. At midnight the skies would clear and the day would stay relatively calm until winds picked up at 6 pm and continued to increase the next day, with worsening conditions developing. The girls appeased my worries of being entirely isolated with weather permitting very little margin of error, so we stuck to our plan of a summit attempt the following day. It was our only foreseeable opportunity. The summit lay 6,500 vertical feet above us and about 4.5 miles in horizontal distance over glacial terrain and we estimated a minimum of 12 hours round trip. Since clouds inhibited us from studying the mountain up-close during the approach, we aimed to leave camp between 4 and 5 am to avoid searching for a route in the dark.
The next morning we awoke to lingering clouds spitting snow and began to wonder how much we could rely on the forecast. But we started up anyway. It was 5 am. Low clouds came and went. We made it a couple of hours up the gentle slope (an estimated 1.25 miles and 900 vertical feet) before punching our skis through the first crevasses hidden under a thin layer of snow and stopped to rope-up. Increasing wind and diminishing visibility added to our uneasiness. Should we risk the weather and go on? After debating briefly, we decided that the present conditions wouldn’t allow us to get very far. With knots in our throats and bellies, we turned around and began to ski down to camp.
Much to our dismay, within an hour of deciding to return, the peak slowly began to clear. It was one of the most difficult moments of our entire trip; had we made the right decision? Should we turn around and head back up the mountain? While the now-clear conditions appeared favorable for ascending, snow blowing off the long summit ridge indicated wind up high. Was it worth the risk of being caught on the far side of the ice cap in a storm the next day? Seeing our present summit possibilities fading fast, we wondered: should we try to make a second attempt?
Stay tuned: in part three of our series, find out whether Anno and her team decide to risk it and make a second attempt or pack up and head for home.