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The Springs of Enchantment — Climbing and Exploration in Patagonia

The Springs of Enchantment—Climbing and Exploration in Patagonia. John Earle. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1981. 191 pages, black and white illustrations, maps. £7.95.

Though written in 1980, The Springs of Enchantment is like a book from the past. In character it belongs more to the now classic group of climbing autobiographies and expedition narratives published in Britain in the 1960s, than the super-glossy expedition portfolios so in vogue today.

Interesting indeed. The book describes two expeditions to Tierra del Fuego that are separated by sixteen years. In the first, in 1963, the author, an aspiring young film maker, accompanied the legendary Eric Shipton on climbing and exploration trips to two areas of that remote and mysterious land. They set off, with Jack Ewer, by boat and foot to explore and climb the elusive Mount Burney, rumored to be a recently active volcano. In actuality, they were able only to circumnavigate the mountain, gaining tantalizing views of its upper reaches through the clouds; yet, Shipton seemed as pleased with this journey as with any summit. Returning from that arduous trek, they moved farther south to the Darwin Range near the Beagle Channel where, accompanied by Peter Bruchhausen and Claudio Cortez, they continued the explorations begun a year earlier by Shipton, and recorded the first ascents of both Monte Bové and Monte Francés.

After Shipton’s death in 1976, the second expedition covered in this volume was conceived to be both a tribute to him and a continuation of his explorations of the Fuegian wilderness. Earle, by then a seasoned world traveller and documentary film producer, returned to Tierra del Fuego in 1979 where, accompanied by three young rock climbers from England, Iain Peters, Dave Harbor, and Don Sargeant, he hoped to continue where Shipton and he had left off in the Darwin Range: exploring the untravelled glaciers east of Monte Bové and climbing the unclimbed Monte Roncagli, an impressive peak first sighted from the summit of Bové.

Interesting contrasts are provided by these two expeditions to the same area, but widely separated in time. The first, inspired by Shipton’s genius, produced seemingly marvelous discoveries at every turn. The second, lacking that unifying vision, was, in a more modern mode, almost splintered by the disparate goals of its members. These contrasts highlight some of the profound changes that had occurred in mountaineering in the ensuing years and bring into focus the consequences of mountaineering’s ever-increasing professionalism: wonder and awe at the great mountains and wild places of the earth seem steadily replaced by career pressures and hard climbers’ insistent needs for success.

This book is suffused with nostalgia: for one’s own youth and its limitless horizons and for the youth of mountaineering when the blank spaces on a map were a call to an explorer’s spirit—the romanticism so embodied by Shipton, who emerges from this brief portrait as a fascinating and unique individual. A veteran world explorer, he remarks to his companion during the takeoff from London for Patagonia, “By the way, have we any tents? I think I may have left one down in Punta Arenas.” Shipton, Earle remarks, had more important things to think about when planning an expedition than his tent. What those things were, however, we are left only to guess.

In this age of the “in-depth psychological school” of expedition reportage, Earle’s style, born as it is of the “British Understatement School” of mountaineering prose, feels at first like a breath of fresh air. Men are, after all, only men and will at times act unpleasantly or disagree, and Earle seems to accept this in himself and others with maturity and equanimity. He writes clearly and concisely of his adventures in the wilds: whether investigating the background of some of the hardy early settlers in the area, observing the Stone Age Alacaluf indians, watching the spellbinding flight of an Andean condor, or experiencing the hell-born fury of a fullblown Patagonian storm, he shows both a sharp eye for detail and humor.

Yet, it’s typical of this genre of writing that its strength is also the source of its weaknesses. The insistence on understatement, brevity, and stoicism leaves one at times wishing for more: more detail, more motive and more involvement from the author in the people and things he passes over so quickly and precisely.

Nevertheless, Earle tells a good yarn, that is at times witty, funny, gripping, and poignant. He emerges from his second journey to Tierra del Fuego as a fellow romantic to Shipton, not a modern-day careerist type. His love is clearly for the mountains and wild places, not for his own accomplishments there.

John Bragg