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Ragni di Lecco in Patagonia: into the unknown

Text & Photo Luca Schiera

There is a balance in the world: every action produces a consequence to restore it. Newton explained it with his principles of dynamics but I believe that this concept can be extended much more: you get back what you gave, sooner or later. 

Summarizing, it can be said that after things have been going well for you for a while, good luck will end. It is a very simple and fatalistic way of thinking, but even planning everything down to the smallest details will not give you the ability to predict everything that will happen. Taking advantage of the unexpected is often the right key.

This time the unknown part was much more than the known one, that’s why, when everything was going exactly according to plan, I began to be suspicious: everything was going too well.

On February 17th, Paolo Marazzi, Giacomo Mauri and I left Italy and flew to Patagonia. Over the years I have spent long hours on the computer scanning tens of square kilometers of satellite images of that area. I was looking for beautiful mountains to climb, I didn’t always find good images but sometimes a shadow or an irregularity was enough to sense the presence of a wall. One day, to my amazement, I came across what looked like a 800m high granite tower on the Hielo Norte, in an area that was completely unexplored and difficult to access.

For some time that idea had remained there, on the long list of projects. It did not appear on the maps, I had no photos nor know anyone who ever passed through those areas.

Then a photo from the English expedition led by Eric Shipton in 1964 came out. By pure chance, on the background of the pic taken during the crossing of the glacier you could see a beautiful granite tower, with snow at the summit and a large ice mushroom top: it was definitely it. The risk would have been that until we had reached that place we wouldn’t have known if the whole project would have been possible or not, but if we had stayed home we would have certainly never found out.

With few certainties and a lot of hope we decided to try. We first needed to find out where to access the glacier, there seemed to be various options but in the end the only possibility looked like sailing by boat from Caleta Tortel, the last inhabited village, then enter the right fjord, go up the river with a motorboat and start our trail a few kilometers from the Steffen glacier.

We started to imagine various possible scenarios and what kind of terrain we could have encountered, we didn’t have any other information except the ones given by our assumptions. Then we faced the first real obstacle: we had no idea who could accompany us. A “virtual” friend came to my help, Camilo who knows Hielo very well and being Chilean has many contacts in the area. He gave me he number of  Paulo who lives in Tortel and organizes boat tours. Paulo came to pick us up at the airport, we got some supplies that would last for a month and we left. As soon as we arrived in Tortel we sailed.

Everything was going smoothly, on March 18th a rare window of good weather that should have lasted 3/4 days appeared. It would have been a tough challenge but the more everything ran smoothly, the more a little voice inside started telling me that our luck would have ended soon. After a couple of hours of rafting we arrived in a lake with some icebergs indicating the beginning of the glacier. Paulo said goodbye and left us alone in the valley.

I was still dizzy from the journey, only a little while ago I was at home in Italy and now we were alone in the middle of an uninhabited valley without having had time to adapt to the new situation; we made a few jokes about the fact that maybe Paolo wouldn’t come back anymore and we should have survive the winter and then we decided to explore the place. After two hours and a short distance walked we got back, went to sleep a little discouraged but happy to finally be able to lie down.

When we woke up the sun was rising. With a great effort we reached the beginning of the glacier and arrived in the afternoon on the last flat ground before climbing on the ice. At the end of the day, consulting the map, we noticed that in a whole day we only had covered just eight of the forty kilometers that separated us from the wall. We still had two days of good weather remaining, that meant that the following day we would have had to climb and the day after we should have come back: impossible, we had to give up. We decided to take advantage of those two remaining days to understand what would be the best access to the mountain, this preventive tour would also have been essential.

We climbed a long rocky ridge that rose for a few hundred meters just above the Hielo in order to get an excellent aerial view of the entire trail that we would have to followed. Only after passing the last peak we could see the wall for the first time, it was really beautiful even if we couldn’t see its highest side. It seemed possible to reach it but we would have needed five days of good weather to get there, climb and come back.

In the following days we set up a large wooden hut where to sleep, collected wood for the fire and worked out a bit. Then our chance arrived. We had been uncertain until the end, once again taking a decision was not easy, but then we decided to try, if it had worked we would have made the right choice, if it hadn’t we would have had to go back as soon as possible because then we would no longer have had food.

The first day we would have had to reach the same place that the previous time had taken two days, from there we would have had to go on walking on the glacier avoiding the most insidious areas up to the mountain, on the third day we would have had to climb and then think about how to go back based on what would have seemed better.

Day 1 went well, the glacier was very demanding but after 10 hours we got on a rocky island which was excellent for bivouacking. The second day was not that good, tied in a rope we met ever increasing difficulties. Crevasses were hidden under the snow and we began to walk zigzagging while  looking for the less visible parts of ice and avoiding the longer snow bridges. After a few hours with increasingly poor visibility, a simple flat white area appeared in front of us and we stopped.

Some holes and slight undulations on the surface made us notice huge crevasses. We made some timid attempts but in all directions snow bridges collapsed under our weight, from there on we would have gone on with the risk of falling together in the same crevasse. We stopped for a second to think. We couldn’t see any possible alternative, we had already invested a lot of energy to get there and we were now close to the wall, we didn’t know if we would have had another opportunity to come back but the risk was truly incalculable. In the end we decided to go back, it started snowing and that facilitated our decision.

On the evening of the next day we were back at the hut. We had no alternatives, we called Paulo to pick us up and we spent a good part of the following day with our ears ready to hear the hum of the boat that never came, he had forgotten.

The following day everything went as planned and we set off again on our journey to southern Patagonia, until the epidemic also reached South America.

The upside of the whole story is that if we had stayed in the valley for the further two weeks that we had planned we would actually have had to go back walking, Paulo had been put in quarantine.

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