Exploring America's Southern Tip

South America, Tierra del Fuego and Santa Inés
Author: Jack Miller. Climb Year: N/A. Publication Year: 1967.

OVER the past 447 years all sorts of characters have sailed below the intriguing mountains of the Fuegian Archipelago and it is surprising that until recently nobody has climbed in them. The sea approach to these ranges has always been rough, the weather notably wet, the Indians, while they lasted, especially inhospitable; and so the archipelago has supported an unfavorable reputation that managed to keep out all but a handful of hardy gold seekers, fur hunters, and the rare romantic. An occasional bona fide explorer, like Charles Darwin, poked around the coastline or made a traverse in the lowlands, but mountaineers seemed to have occupied themselves elsewhere in the world, with bigger mountains in pleasanter climates.*

Of course, owing to a persistent cloud cover, a great number of those who sailed these waters never saw the peaks and it seems that the navigators and explorers who waited for them to clear used the peaks only for navigation. As the complex pattern of peninsulas, islands, and canals became charted, separate ranges emerged to become what we now know as 1. the Darwin Range of the island of Tierra del Fuego with its branches: Cordón Navarro, the Monte Sarmiento range, the Monte Buckland range, the lower jagged ranges to the east which include Cerro Olivia, and the Brecknock Peninsula; 2. the island, Santa Inés, which is the same thing on a smaller scale; 3. the lesser but glaciated peaks standing alone or in groups, for example Isla Hoste, Isla Clarence, the peaks of Isla Desolación, Monte Skyring.

Monte Sarmiento (7369 feet) was called "the most sublime spectacle in Tierra del Fuego” by Darwin and "la plus belle montagne de l’Amérique” by St. Loup. It attracted the first climbers, the geologist, Domingo Lovisato, of an Italian expedition in 1868, and the British climber, Martin Conway, in 1898. Both attempts were short-lived. Then in 1913 the Salesian priest, Alberto M. De Agostini, made a more serious attempt on the peak but was turned back by storms. He then explored in Patagonia and did not return to Tierra del Fuego until 1956. With a large scale effort employing secure dry camps in the lowland forests with Alpine-type sorties on the peak itself, they succeeded in putting the Italian “spiders,” Carlo Mauri and Clemente Maffei, on the summit. Making full use of the expedition’s men and resources, Agostini went to the main range where C. Pellissier, I. Carrel, and Barmasse climbed Monte Italia (7710 feet), apparently unaware that in 1937 Teufel and Zuck (A.A.J., 1964, 14:1, p. 222) had made their claim on the same peak. (This may be the first climb of a major peak in the archipelago.)

In 1958 Eric Shipton began the first of his three trips to Patagonia. In combining his wide expeditionary experience with a trial and error approach to cope first with the stormy Patagonian, and then with Fuegian environments, he reached a remarkable competence and self-sufficiency in these mountains. In his expeditions to the Darwin Range in 1962 and 1963, he showed that a small party could exist comfortably for periods of four to six weeks in the icefields to wait for brief hours of good weather to explore and climb to the summits. Shipton reached Darwin I (8700 feet), II (8450 feet), and III (8400 feet), Monte Bove (7546 feet), Monte Francés (7054 feet), and Cerro Yagán (or Yaghan) (formerly Luis de Saboya), (7185 feet)*, among the most prominent peaks in the eastern half of the Cordillera Darwin, and made a complete traverse across the range. Our own expedition drew heavily on his imagination in making its plans.

Paul Dix, Roger Hart, and I sailed with our gear from New York, changed ships and picked up Peter Bruchhausen in Valparaiso, Chile, and arrived in Punta Arenas on December 9, 1965 to face the problems of getting our equipment out of customs and of finding a cutter to carry us near the Darwin Range. After eleven days of searching the town, the only available cutter took us to Dawson Island where a crab-fishing camp marked the outer limits of civilization in Chile. It was still 126 miles to the Darwin Range. We felt uneasy about doing such a long trip in Fuegian waters in our 15-foot 9-inch inflatable rubber dingy, the Zeebird, but we loaded it with our three quarters of a ton of gear and four green seamen and cranked up the 18-hp Evinrude. Rounding the first point, we met three-foot waves that swamped us with surprising ease, but the Zeebird has the agreeable advantage of being unsinkable and we soon learned to handle waves of eight and nine feet. The enthusiastic Magellanic dolphins, seeing that we had no other escort took it upon themselves to guide us through the channels and fjords, and there was always a black cormorant overhead or on its way out to check on us.

After passing many glacier-carved and glacier-covered peaks in the first week — whole ranges were without names — we arrived at Cordón Navarro, which was to serve as our testing ground during squalls and without our seeing it. However, our air photos showed us an ice system containing rugged nunataks of about 6000 feet well worth our time. Turn- ing into a hidden fjord which revealed three huge tidewater glaciers, we camped on a small beach beside one of them. Fuegian ranges are approached either through brushy but pleasant forests, the brush and rock fjord sides, or the broken twisting glaciers. In this case we encountered all three. Reconnoitering the high ice plateaus and glacier basins, we established a high camp at the base of the rarely unclouded crystalline-white peaks. We attempted "Pico Escondido” ("Hidden Peak,” 6000 feet) at two different times only to wander along the summit ridge in moaning winds and white-out fog looking for the top. A long day got us into the heart of the range and atop the second highest peak (6100 feet), which we named Cerro Ahnikin after a notorious Yaghan Indian. We found that although De Agostini had once described Fuegian climate as "300 days of storm and the other 65 not pleasant” and cannot really be accused of exaggeration, he failed to mention the occasional afternoon or the off-hour or two between squalls when the sun is a delight and every ice crystal sparkles.

Our experiences in the Cordón Navarro showed us we could probably handle Fuegian weather and we headed south for the Cordillera with new optimism. On January 6 we cruised into dark, calm Hyatt Sound, pushing through a dense iceberg pack the last mile. There was room for our camp between the beach and the cliff-end of the rock ridge that divides the two ponderous glaciers that empty into Seno Hyatt. After the first night of interrupted sleep there was no doubt about naming the larger one "Roaring Glacier.” We relayed loads up the ridge and onto the glacier above its icefall and in five days had our camp set right in the center of that massive and complex system of ice and rock known as the Darwin Range. The glaciers from this ice plateau squeeze their way in all directions through bulky, white and black peaks to flow down into the dark fjords. At all camps we put a snow-block wall around our Bishop tent. We had taken a chance on this tent, which was much flimsier than Shipton’s 60-pound Antarctic pyramid tent, but its lightness gave us considerably more mobility. With what must have been rare luck, we had clear afternoons for four days which enabled us, by splitting into two parties, to climb six summits and thereby to survey a large area with Brunton compasses, altimeters and cameras. One of the peaks was 7500-foot “Cerro Ona” named after the Ona Indians in the tradition of Shipton’s naming Cerro Yagán, several miles east. Cerro Ona may have been the highest unclimbed peak in Tierra del Fuego.

On January 15 we moved camp west to within an hour of Cerro Mayo, a prominent peak on a ridge dividing our ice plateau from a similar one to the west — which we were never allowed to see. Storms moved in, eliminating visibility for eleven days, reminding us what the usual weather must be like. On the fifth day we ran out of food and started down — happy in our success on the plateau but disappointed at not having seen more new country. A miscalculation in our navigation during this storm took us down the wrong glacier and we were soon lost in an icefall. It was a nearly foodless five days before we reached Seno Hyatt. Again secure in Base Camp, a baccanalian feast ensued and four loud voices, punctuated by calving ice, sang late into the dark night.

We again took up the routine of the boat, shivering in the rain as the coastline slowly slipped by. We stopped frequently to photograph glaciers, mountains, an occasional sea lion, and the delicate white kelp geese, always in pairs on a rocky point. Because we had used more gasoline than we had planned, we were expecting to portage our equipment and boat the four miles from Keats Sound to Canal Cascada, but early on January 27 a shout from the beach brought us out of our tent to find a boatload of Italians who had come to climb the difficult Monte Buckland. We visited with this jolly crowd for a couple of days, eating spaghetti and drinking red wine while talking excitedly of the mountain ranges of the world.

The Italians offered us the use of their cutter which was to depart in four days and so we left them to their task and sailed to peaceful Escandallo Bay at the base of Monte Sarmiento. Here we found another camp that turned out to be Japanese climbers and geologists — the third group in Tierra del Fuego in a single year! Again, we all exploded into a natural intimacy and talked of mountains: they had reached Cordón Navarro a couple of weeks after we had from the opposite side, finding the summit of our "Pico Escondido” but were turned back on "Cerro Ahnikin.” All too soon the cutter came for us and carried us back to Punta Arenas.

* * *

The flesh pots of civilization were agreeable enough but we now saw our chance for the long-dreamed of trip to Santa Inés Island, a mysterious place known to have mountains and an icecap, but because of its especially awful weather had not been explored or, until 1964, photographed from the air. Our experience in the Zeebird showed that we could get there without the traditional cutter support. Our gear was in good shape and we had enough food. Only Roger’s enthusiasm for Tierra del Fuego had been "dampened” and he returned north to his job; the rest of us were eager to return.

There has been a notable amount of interest in Santa Inés. Mariners in the frequently traveled Strait of Magellan have noted its more visible peaks and have used Yacht Bay as a refuge from storms. In 1944 a French writer-explorer named St. Loup arrived in his own yacht with a party of European and Chilean climbers. They put up with the storms for two weeks before abandoning the island (it is said that at that time they ran out of brandy). They had progressed only four miles inland and saw nothing the whole time. Tilman, in his cutter Mischief, stopped in Butler Bay, on the Strait, and commented on the virgin peaks. In 1964 Paul Dix and I arrived in Punta Arenas with a party intending to go to the island. We were not able to get a boat and instead arranged for an airplane and waiting a month for good weather, made two flights over the island. The first flight was low in order to scrutinize the fjords for approaches and the second was at 7000 feet over the entire northern third of the island, and resulted in 80 photos, giving us a good familiarity for the 1966 trip. In the meantime, in 1965, and before he was known to us, Peter Bruchhausen with a party of Argentines made the quixotic crossing of the Strait from the mainland in two hissing life rafts (A.A.J., 1966, 15 :1, p. 185). They were on Santa Inés ten days and succeeded in reaching the icecap before turning back. This happy group was carrying 20 liters of red wine but had forgotten to bring one man’s boots.

On February 16 a truck carried us to Otway Sound, a large inland sea north of Punta Arenas. We waited three days for favorable seas and set off once more in the Zeebird. The weight of cargo and men came to almost one ton, Roger being replaced by more than his weight in gasoline.

Headwinds, thick seas, and strong currents were discouraging, but Peter had developed a remarkable finesse with the boat and we shipped very little water. It took two days to make the 65 miles to Carlos III Island in the Strait where currents and headwinds prevented our crossing the demarcation between Atlantic and Pacific tides. Sailing in the morning on slack tide, we finished our crossing of the wild strait and at long last camped on Santa Inés, in Butler Bay. We left a large cache of gas, food, and skis for later explorations on the icefields and continued west, sailing into peaceful Yacht Bay at the base of Monte Wharton, a peak we had photographed from the air in 1964. Storms on this 4353-foot peak prevented our seeing more than the glaciers flowing out beneath a dense cloud cover; so we climbed it under its own conditions, using the air photos to find the summit, where we arrived in a full-blown storm. We did not see this peak at all until weeks later as we crossed the Strait heading home.

Sailing into little-known Seno Nevado, we found that our charts (made from U. S. Air Force air photos taken far to the north) decreased in accuracy toward the south. Near the head of the fjord we camped in "Gloomy Cove” and wondered what lay to the south; we were on the edge of the map, the edge of terra incognita. Splitting up for a day of reconnaissance, I climbed a prominent peak and saw land to the south and east, while Paul and Peter found a portage to a "lake” that was saline, and actually an arm of the sea. Because of a fortunate miscalculation we had brought too much gas, giving us a chance to explore these new waters. A day to portage and we were off down the "lake.” After 14 miles on this fjord, an arm opened south into what the map showed as solid land and we followed it, entering a complex system of fjords and mountainous islands. We continued through passage after passage until, rounding one point, a thin line marked the horizon — the Pacific Ocean! We sailed into the gulf on a calm sea — a rare event for those waters — and beyond saw the famous Breaker Islands that make this coast unapproachable from the south. At an outward island just half of our gasoline was used, so we landed to climb to a high point, which Paul christened "Darien” and we roughly surveyed the complexity of islands and channels surrounding us. The following four days rare luck with the weather allowed us to move from island to island, climbing three hills and surveying an area of about 450 square miles.

Returning to the Strait, we picked up our cache at Butler Bay and continued on, racing tides through Canal David and into Ballena Sound, then into a fjord that we had discovered from our 1964 air photos. It was surprising that this large fjord and other smaller ones remained uncharted although the nearby Strait of Magellan has seen so much traffic. This new sound, or "West Arm,” led us nearly to the center of the island (again cruising over what the maps showed as solid land) and opened to an exciting scene: a large bay flanked by steep mountains into which crashed tremendous glaciers from the island’s icecap. We camped on a gravel spit across from "Snoring Glacier”: it calved off huge chunks of ice, snoring all night, while we lay awake and watched the shock waves roll across the bay and up the beach to our tent door.

Climbing rock outcrops next to the glacier, we reached 1400 feet, where we set up camp. We had carried skis to Santa Inés, planning for rapid traverses of 10 to 20 miles on the icefields but the discovery of "West Arm” allowed us to approach within seven miles of the backbone ridge in our boat. From our high camp the weather lifted a while and allowed us to locate (again with the aid of our photos) what we know as the island’s highest peak at 4590 feet. We climbed again in bad weather, but there were just enough holes in the clouds to let us realize when we had reached the summit, and to give us glimpses of the magnificent icefalls rumbling off the south side of the ice plateau into black, unknown fjords. We sailed into other extensions of Ballena Sound, discovering a "Middle Arm” and finding new fjords branching off the "East Arm” that does exist on maps. Here were three glaciers that did not reach tidewater and we surveyed them as indicators of trends in glacial movement. Also in "East Arm” was a recently abandoned campsite, similar to the ones we found in nearly every large bay. Whether these were the camps of the Alacaluf Indians, half-breed seal and nutria poachers, or escaped criminals — as suggested to me by Chilean Navy officials — is open to question.

We rolled down Otway Water in the last days on a long west fetch and big seas, dolphins leaping high out of the water to see us home. We’d been out 36 days and traveled 362 miles in the waterways. (On the Darwin Range trip we were out 45 days and covered 192 miles in the Zeebird). We were tired and our gear was getting thin; the boat, with a broken keel, threatened to fold up with each large wave. How to measure the success of a trip? Perhaps by the ground we covered, or by the fact that the whole thing was done without any injuries, that we returned fatter and stronger than we started. I think the major discovery was that a small party, similarly equipped, can travel easily and safely — and cheaply — long distances into the otherwise inaccessible waterways and coastal mountains of the world.

Other climbs, new mountains — whole ranges — await the climber in the archipelago, and north of the Strait is a vast unexplored region containing Mounts Wyndham, Inaccesible, Ladrillero, Muelle, Burney, etc. And if you plan a trip, let me know!

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Cordón Navarro and Cordillera Darwin, Tierra del Fuego; Isla Santa Inés, Chile.

First Ascents: Cordón Navarro: "Cerro Ahnikin”, 6100 feet, January 1, 1966 (Dix, Miller).

Cordillera Darwin: "Cerro Ona”, 7500 feet on maps but 6975 feet by aneroid barometer, January 12, 1966 (Hart, Miller).

"Dientes de Tiburón”, (two summits) 5730 feet*, January 12, 1966 (Bruchhausen, Dix).

"Cerro Vela”, 5850 feet*, January 12, 1966 (Bruchhausen, Dix).

"Filo Helado”, 5990 feet*, January 14, 1966 (Bruchhausen, Dix, Miller).

"Cerro Casi”, 5450 feet*, January 15, 1966 (Dix, Miller).

Isla Santa Inés: Mount Wharton, 4353 feet, February 25, 1966 (Bruchhausen, Dix, Miller).

"Backbone” (high point of island), 4590 feet, March 11, 1966 (Bruchhausen, Dix, Miller).

Personnel: Jack Miller, leader; Paul Dix, Roger Hart, Americans; Peter Bruchhausen, Argentine.

*For a list of climbs through 1960, see A.A.J., 1963; 13.2, pp. 449-450.

* Altitude by aneroid barometer. Other altitudes appear on existing maps.

*Andean expert Evelio Echevarria gives us the following information: the Chilean government has given the names Monte Luna to Darwin II and Cresta Blanca to Darwin III and it has officially approved Cerro-Yagán. The matter of altitudes is a difficult one and different authorities give quite widely varying figures.—Editor.