A Short Walk in Tierra del Fuego

This essay first appeared in the online adventure magazine, LEGEND, in 2018

Looking northwest from the summit of Cerro Tonelli, Argentine Tierra del Fuego

Looking northwest from the summit of Cerro Tonelli, Argentine Tierra del Fuego

Just before dawn, I’m woken by a gust of wind that sounds like a low-flying fighter jet with engine failure. 

In southern Patagonia, the legendary wind is a constant companion, but this was something different altogether. Shearing off the icecap with a preternatural ferocity, this particular gust didn’t just howl.  It visibly impacted the world. For fifteen seconds, the entire superstructure of the Torre Glacier appeared to shudder violently at its foundations. A billion tonnes of ice and granite became suddenly unhinged, for a terrible moment, by the unearthly Patagonian wind. As the gust subsided, the primeval boom of an enormous chunk of calving ice echoed around the mountains, sending a series of micro-tsunamis across the silty brown water of Laguna Torre. 

I unzip my lightweight tent and peer out into the half-light. Squinting through the gap in the pines just above my lonely camp, which is perched in a solitary sheltered enclave on the edge of a ravine high above the moraine, fast-moving strands of altostratus make strange, serpentine shapes in the monochrome air. I glance up the ravine. On the limit of the tree-line, which is perhaps a thousand feet above me, the stunted pines bend double under the force of the wind. 

Somewhere up there in the dark air of early morning, Cerro Torre and Cerro Standhart are lost in cloud. The decision is not so much reached, but rather presented by the unavoidable logic of circumstance. I’m not going climbing today. As so often in these mountains, the weather is the expedition leader.

Six hours later I’m back in El Chalten, looking at the weather forecast with moral assistance in the form of a strong black coffee in a half-pint glass. It’s not good. In fact, it’s so far from good it could be accurately described as terrible. A succession of fronts pushing in from the Pacific for the next five days, picking up energy as they cross the ice-cap before slamming into the Chalten massif. On the spur of the moment, I check the forecast for Tierra del Fuego, eight hundred miles south at the end of the American continental landmass. It’s looking much better: a seventy two hour window of reasonably high pressure. Sometimes, particularly when on a solo mission, the best ally in the world is spontaneous improvisation. The decision is quickly made: I book the next flight to Ushuaia, which rivals anywhere in the southern hemisphere for big adventures with quick and easy access.  

The dark and jagged sweep of the Cordon Martial guards the northern edge of the Beagle Channel, the stretch of open water that separates Tierra del Fuego from the much smaller Isla Navarino to the south. The Channel takes its name from the ship captained by Robert Fitzroy that took Charles Darwin on his celebrated voyages south in the mid nineteenth Century, and provides the last safe passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific before Cape Horn.

I leave the still-sleeping streets of Ushuaia by taxi at dawn, bound for Valle de Andorra, the last outpost of civilisation before the wilderness of the Tierra del Fuego national park rises up to the west. I jump out at the chosen point, and watch the battered Mercedes disappear back down the dirt road in a cloud of dust. I glance around. I’m alone at the base of a wide valley that extends westwards towards a great cirque of steep and craggy peaks, the tallest still freaked with traces of snow from the recent storms. Early sunlight sparkles from the numerous icefields that remain on the upper slopes throughout the year. 

Following a sinuous trail through the dense Patagonian forest, I cross and re-cross several rivers that flow down this valley from the small lagunas in the glacial basin to the west. By mid-morning, after navigating a mile-long flooded glade of desiccated pines straight out of Lord of the Rings, I’ve travelled more than fifteen kilometres, and strike up the steepening slope to the south, gradually breaking free of the dense and waterlogged foliage and into the barren terrain of higher ground. 

The trapezoidal volcanic bulk of Cerro Tonelli, the highest point of the Cordon Martial, rises above the col of Paso de la Oveja that defines the southwestern head of this valley. Not unlike the Cuillin of the Isle of Skye in northwest Scotland, it makes up in Gothic drama what it lacks in height. Despite that fact its summit stands at only just over four thousand feet, the craggy ramparts that defend every approach to its knife-edge summit ridge give it the look and feel of a much bigger mountain.

Pausing for a brief rest on the lonely plinth of Paso de la Oveja, I check my watch. It’s 2pm. Despite the forecast deterioration later on the day, pressure is still stable, the wind light, and the signs generally good. All the summits to the north remain free of cloud. I decide to go for it. 

The climb up to the summit of Cerro Tonelli from the pass is technically easy, with just a few short sections of moderate rock climbing. It’s mainly arduous scrambling for over a thousand feet of jumbled scree, interspersed with deteriorating rock terraces between boulder-filled gullies, steepening with height. In the final few hundred feet becomes steeper still, culminating in a seventy-degree chimney stuffed with tottering blocks. At the apex of the gully, I press eject and land just below the crest of the summit ridge.

Here, right in front of me, is one of the most astonishing panoramas I’ve seen in more than two decades of climbing and mountaineering all over the world. The crystal air sparks with snow and light. The shining mountains of the world’s most southerly inhabited place disappear in every direction, at first into the deep blue of the Beagle Channel and the waters the surging Southern Ocean not far beyond. Being up here reminds me of every single reason I started to climb as a teenager on the gritstone edges of northern England, of all the reasons I continue to climb today. For a few intoxicating minutes, I’m swept away by the wild that surrounds me. 

After a while, threatening cloud begins to obscure the upper icefields of Monte Sarmiento; forty miles to the west, this is Tierra del Fuego’s highest and most inaccessible summit. In the moments before I strike down from the summit of Cerro Tonelli, the white air shifts to grey, and the austral sky grows wild with the approach of another Patagonian storm. 

For the sake of speed, I descend the mountain by a different route than the one by which I ascended; a fast fifty-degree scree run results in a rapid altitude loss of five hundred feet, landing me on the narrow col that separates the twin summits of Cerro Tonelli and its southerly companion, Cerro Martial. By the time I reach the col, the tops of both mountains are shrouded in cloud. The wind shifts in a weird game of fitful, powerful gusts followed by eerie lulls. It’s time to get out of here. 

In a few short minutes, I descend a steep gully that’s one of the most efficient ways off any mountain I’ve ever climbed.  It’s a perfectly smooth and deepening chute, steepening beneath the col to a casual 65 degrees, and marbled with treacherously fine scree. All this means that once speed is built up it’s almost impossible to stop, so I half-run, half-scramble, half-fall down the gully, which promptly spits me out at the top of a gargantuan cone of rubble: the mountain’s natural waste disposal system.  

By the time I’m jogging down the spectacular Canandon de la Oveja, the ten mile long alpine valley that extends from the shores of the Beagle Channel up to the pass, the storm has swallowed the mountains entirely, and cloud base hovers a few hundred feet overhead as I continue my descent. 

By the time I reached Ushuaia in the early evening, a chill breeze was blowing. The entire Cordon Martial was lost in a great bank of low cloud. White horses began to rise on the waters of the Beagle Channel. I’d been given a precious gift, I began to realise, in the short window of stable weather I’d used to climb Cerro Tonelli, the craggy, lonely peak at the very limit of the inhabited world. 

For reasons that remain hard to articulate, there was something strange and unusually thrilling about this particular day, and this particular climb. It wasn’t a technically difficult one, but something about the mountain and the process of the ascent itself has stayed with me more than many far higher and more outwardly impressive summits. The long approach through that enchanted forest; the steep climb to that deserted summit commanding centre stage amid one the more spectacular places in Patagonia; the approaching storm; the fast descent back to civilisation.

Climbing, at heart, is a journey into the hinterland of the human mind as much as an exploration of the wild. If that’s true, then Cerro Tonelli was one of those rare quests where the hinterland is clarified suddenly and all at once, like the flash of sun against steel.