Editor’s Note: And now, for the third and final installment in our Women into the Wind series. In part one and two, we follow Anno Davis and her crew of Argentinean mountaineers as they attempt to become the first all-female team to summit Volcan Lautaro—the highest peak in the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. In this final edition, these self-proclaimed “Mujeres al viento” grapple with every mountaineer’s toughest decision: should we stay or should we go?
By Anno Davis
There we were, staring at the now-clear summit of Volcan Lautaro, faced with a difficult decision: should we risk it and make a second attempt or pack up and head home wasting months of preparation?
Reaching a consensus between five women with differing minds, perceptions, experiences, emotions, fears and ambitions was now our foremost challenge. One perspective: make the most of the now-clear day and head back up the mountain as far as we could. The opposing view: play it safe since conditions weren’t optimal, and take advantage of the relatively stable weather to return to the eastern side of the ice cap. Although we were wary of summit fever, we had spent months of preparation for this moment. We also had to consider the need to be conservative due to our remoteness, and the energy we would spend going up Lautaro would mean diminishing margins of error. But one thing was clear: if we couldn’t all agree, no one would convince others to go up against their desire. And so we continued back to the tent, deeply saddened and disappointed by the circumstances.
There was little time to loose. Solemnly, we broke camp and crossed the ice field again, this time taking advantage of strong, favorable winds that pushed us as we used our benefactors’ banners as makeshift sails. We turned around periodically to watch lenticular clouds form over Lautaro’s summit which, at around 4 pm, turned into a dark cape, quickly sweeping over the peak from the west; we were glad not to be on the mountain. Four miles past our first campsite on the glacier we reached the Chilean glaciology hut, Refugio Gorra Blanca at 9:30 pm, having skied at total of 16.25 miles from the base of Lautaro. We rested that night and the following day, listening to the howling wind outside, waiting to descend Paso Marconi at the right moment to avoid low visibility and gusting winds that could complicate our return.
The next day, we got an early start and skied all the way down the Marconi ramp, this time with just enough snow to make some delicate moves over thin snow bridges and reach the bottom of the ramp without removing our skis. There, we stashed our gear and food in hopes of making another attempt at Lautaro. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision; almost as soon as we started hiking down the rest of the glacier, the wind accelerated through the valley causing us to brace ourselves against the gusts. We laughed at the awkward feeling of being tossed around. But we would not have been able to take the situation with such humor if we had been carrying our sleds and skis on our packs.
We descended all the way to the trailhead—13 miles and 3,200 vertical feet below—back to Chaltén where we celebrated our safe return with a rich dinner and dancing until the wee hours of the morning.
Over the following days we discussed and debriefed our experience trying to eliminate lingering frustration and disappointment. We anxiously checked the forecast for the possibility of a second attempt. But as much as we wanted to summit Lautaro, we were starting to realize it wasn’t going to happen—this time around.
We decided that we would attempt the neighboring peak (Gorra Blanca), a more accessible mountain standing at 9,200 feet on the eastern flank of the ice field, on our way to pick up our stashed gear. Unfortunately, after reaching 7,600 feet, we started fighting strong winds before the clouds moved swiftly across the ice cap toward us. We could see these weren’t just passing clouds and, once again, decided to turn around. We headed down Gorra Blanca enjoying some of the best turns of the trip.
Reflections: Post Lautaro
I find the saying, “hindsight is 20-20,” to be partially true. The lessons learned through the direct experience of carefully meditating and executing a plan are quite clear, like the importance of being in the right place at the right time, especially in Patagonia where the weather can make or break your success. Our trip reinforced our invaluable teamwork skills, like the need for clear and respectful communication at all times. We learned about mind-over-matter, realizing how important our initial motivation was in helping us reach the base of Lautaro faster than our original plan and quicker than any other past expedition. And we learned about the physical recuperation process, since we did not anticipate the lingering fatigue when considering a second attempt.
Something that I’ve learned over the years in the mountains and was confirmed on this trip: success is determined by your ability and willingness to return. And we will summit Lautaro—some day. In the mean time, we’re satisfied with our first “Mujeres Al Viento” adventure. It has reinforced our desire to continue to grow and learn by pushing our limits, and enjoy ourselves in this endless playground we call the outdoors.