Scarpa North America Blog

Jim Donini’s Patagonia Adventures {Part 1}

Mar. 7th 2012

Jim Donini’s climbing and exploration resume is impressive with first ascents from Patagonia to Alaska. Among climbers, he is also known for his culinary brilliance and his ability to capture a campfire audience. Donini let us in on a glimpse of his experience in Patagonia this winter, proving once again that his spirit for adventure is alive and well.

Adventure, it has been famously said, begins only when things start to go wrong and “wrong” is never a part of someone’s itinerary when they set off. Real adventure, then, is rarely planned but must be fully embraced if a reasonable outcome is desired. Throw in the solo aspect and the stage is set for a few fun filled days traversing some of the least visited terra firma on our crowded planet.

A recently completed road gets you to within 20 minutes of the terminus of the Exploradores Glacier tumbling down from Patagoniaʼs highest peak, San Valentin. Why not do a solo traverse up the Exploradores and up over some rarely, if ever, visited glaciers, rain forests and lakes, finishing with some paddling in my 6 lb. pack raft on the swift Leones River out to Lago General Carrera? About 45 or 50 linear miles but I should be able to do it with two bivouacs…yup!

Now, I’ve done my share of bushwacking; in fact I’m sort of renowned, and definitely envied for my ability to slither through the thick rain forests of the area. Little did I know how extensive the forests would be or about the swamps that weren’t on the map. The first bit was on familiar terrain; an hour threading my way through the loose scree covering the terminus of the Exploradores Glacier followed by four miles of smooth sailing up the icy, but relatively flat, glacial surface. As the surface began to undulate, I put on lightweight crampons. Now in new territory, my climbing skills were put to good use exiting the glacier onto a moraine that funneled into a stream bed that climbed steeply for several hundred vertical feet. There I should find a plateau housing a small lake and my first bivy….at least the map and Google Earth showed a lake. Just below the plateau a very fresh looking 30 foot deep gash evidenced a recent cataclysmic event and a flat ten acre mud flat existed where a lake had once been. Tired, but elated that I was on schedule, I pitched my tent next to the footprint of the now deceased lake and went to sleep serenaded by a chorus from unseen rain forest frogs.

I should have recognized the first sign of a longer-than-expected trip when, ten minutes after leaving camp, what looked like an easy thirty minutes on the map turned into a two hour slugfest ending on a precarious perch three hundred feet above the glacier. This was the first of several encounters with heinous bushwacking (HB) en route to the southwestern arm of the Exploradores Glacier. The climbing beta for such routes will surely be enhanced by inclusion of this new classification: HB. An unforgettable R/X descent down terrifyingly steep and loose scree deposited me on the moraine of a jumbled glacier whose surface looked anything but inviting. An injury, even a minor one, was not an option here, I mused as I threaded my way through the tortuous terrain hugging the glacier’s right flank. Three hours later the glacier’s center smoothed and allowed an easy crossing to what I hoped would be an uneventful romp up and over the low col to the river valley that would lead me to Lago Leones.

A brief respite by a beautiful lake and I was off for more battle with nearly vertical, and all but impenetrable, forest. Strange place this is; most people are familiar with areas where rain forest approaches usher you onto a glacier… the reverse is the rule. Then again, a few miles to the West of me the two mile wide face of the San Rafael Glacier plunges into the Pacific Ocean, in a temperate region-only 46 degrees of latitude south of the Equator. Hours of pulling, scooching, feet rarely touching the ground, my pack now my worst enemy, patience ebbing, hope fading when suddenly, I pop out onto a grassy meadow at the top of the col. I was hours behind a schedule I no longer cared about, but it looked like clear sailing with meadows extending all the way down to the shore of Lago Norte.

An otherworldy place of pristine meadows and strangely sculpted trees bleeding into the intensely blue waters of Lago Norte that, in turn, reflect the dazzling, unnamed glacier wrapped peaks looming above. I was in the precise middle of a wilderness that showed absolutely no evidence of the disruptive hand of man. Exhilarating…and lonely. I knew that I was entirely dependent on my own actions and judgement. No partner, no way to call for help that didn’t exist anyway. Very empowering; true freedom in an otherwise crowded and connected world.

Now was the time to utilize the 6lb. Alpacka raft and the paddle that had managed to catch countless roots and vines at the most inopportune times. It would only be a two mile paddle but would avoid another secsion of rain forest that once again crowded out the meadows. What a relief. The scenery was breathtaking and I even had a little tail wind. But this is an adventure, so stay tuned for when things begin to go really wrong…

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