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Cordillera Darwin, 1987

Geof Bartram, Steve Amstutz, Pete Getzels, and I converged on Punta Arenas, planning to explore the Canal Beagle and the southern fjords of the Darwin Range by sea kayak and to try climbing routes in the vicinity of Monte Darwin. We received tremendous help from the Chilean Navy who generously found a spot for us on the coastal patrol boat Cástor, which transported us from Puerto Williams to Seno Pía. On January 5, 1987, we were deposited onto a beautiful sheltered beach with views of both Monte Darwin and Monte Shipton. We explored the two arms of Pía in search of ways to climb the constantly calving glacier termini and to become familiar with the rush of icebergs which ride the impressive tidal surges. The east arm of Pía proved to offer very poor access to Monte Shipton and so we concentrated on routes up the two main glaciers below Monte Darwin. We spent five days on a ridge of incredible black granite spires which pierce 1500 feet through the icecap southeast of Monte Darwin. We called it Cerro Cástor. From January 15 to 20, we explored by kayak the west arm of Seno Pía and two unnamed fjords farther west up the Channel. In fine weather we climbed the small granite peak on the ridge west of Pía, where we were afforded our first panorama of the Cordillera Darwin, dominated by Shipton and Darwin and other peaks with icy faces and jumbled glaciers tumbling into the sea.

The ice plateau extended above a narrow band of deep green beech forest. Snow-capped islands dotted the view to the south. We selected a feasible route on Darwin and retreated to our kayaks and the comfortable Base Camp. The dilemma with starting a climb from the beach is choosing between hard, blue teetering séracs and impregnable thickets of gnarled beech. In two days of stormy climbing, we reached an exposed bowl at 4800 feet below the summit ridge of Darwin. While waiting for clearing weather, we climbed a rock spire which turned out to be the westernmost of the Cástor group. Darwin peeked through the clouds, exposing its southeast summit ridge, composed of enormous ice mushrooms piled one on top of another. After a stormy morning, we set out for the summit at one P.M. Once on the ridge, we waded through piles of powder snow and bashed up mushroom after mushroom. The summit was guarded by overhanging ice. The moment all of us were on top, the entire ridge cleared and we could see in succession the knobs of other of Darwin’s summits to the northwest. That night we were battered by the worst storm of the trip. We spent the following nine days paddling 150 miles back to Puerto Williams, mostly with the strong incessant wind at our backs. Our two biggest concerns, rough seas and limited load capacity, proved manageable. At the onset of the trip, we could not have fitted all our gear and supplies into the two small boats, so the Navy transport was the key. After the climbing, our volume was small enough. Only on one occasion did the sea toss us onto a rocky shore. It was best to head to shore when the weather turned bad, since the water was dangerously cold — about 38° F.

Michael André

A full article on this climb and a summary of climbing in Tierra del Fuego appears here.