American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Sea Kayaking and Climbing, Chilean Patagonia

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1992

Sea Kayaking and Climbing, Chilean Patagonia

Rick Ridgeway

FOR YEARS Yvon Chouinard and I have speculated about journeying into the labyrinth of canals, fjords and islands of the Magellanic archipelago—that remote region of Chilean Patagonia north of the Straits of Magellan. Speculation might have remained just that if Yvon had not happened on a magazine photograph of a rime-crusted cluster of spires with a caption that read, “From the fjords of northwest Tierra del Fuego.” He called the magazine and located the photographer, who told Yvon that he had taken the picture from the ferry along the inland passage between Puerto Natales and Puerto Montt. He sent us a map circling the spot where he thought the spires were located. It was in the heart of the area that had long fascinated us.

We organized a trip there in November, 1988. Two more friends were signed on for the adventure: Doug Tomkins and Jim Donini. There was no question but that we would have to approach the peaks by boat. We decided to take collapsible sea kayaks: two single Feathercrafts for Yvon and me, and a double Klepper for Doug and Jim. Research turned up hardly any information about the area. The only climber who had been in the region, Jack Miller, had never seen so much as a break in the low clouds the entire time he was there.

In Punta Arenas we did discover that the locals called the rock spires Grupo La Paz. In the fishing village of Puerto Natales, we hired a local fisherman to take us to the outer archipelago and to drop us off in the area where we thought the spires were located. We would try to climb them and kayak back.

The boat journey took us two days, and the fisherman let us off along the coast of the uninhabited Fiordo de las Montañas, 35 miles southwest of Puerto Natales. There were no mountains to be seen through the rain and sleet, and we could only hope that we were in the right place. The next day brought a five-minute break in the cover. Through a hole in the clouds we glimpsed a rime-crusted spire, possibly 1500 feet of very steep rock on the eastern side of the fjord.

We decided to wait for a day of reasonable weather to be able to pull it off in one long alpine day. We waited … and waited. A week, then two. We were all past the stage in life where we could afford the luxury of waiting out Patagonian weather; schedules were ticking away back home. We decided to try the peak, weather notwithstanding.

There was a short glacier leading to the start of the most likely route, but at the base I thought the wind was blowing too hard to make an attempt feasible. Everyone agreed, except Donini. He convinced us to belay him while he tried a pitch. As he climbed, he had to place protection, not so much in case he fell but to take pressure off the rope that was arcking madly in midair from his waist down to us. Suspended by the wind as though under the spell of a Hindu snake charmer, it threatened to pull him off. When Jim got to the top of the pitch, Yvon decided to follow. Doug and I stayed behind; we didn’t think they were really serious. They climbed off into clouds scudding off the summit.

Doug and I waited until dark and felt they must have rappelled off the other side. We returned to our camp on the shores of the fjord, fighting thick beech forest. We got back around midnight. No Yvon or Jim. We wondered if they would ever turn up. Doug and I got desperate, fearing the worst. About daybreak, they got back, exhausted. It had been hard climbing, 5.9 and 5.10 with cold rain, sleet and gale-force winds the entire way. On top, a brief break in the clouds let them see that they were indeed on the highest of the three spires. As night fell, they began to rappel. For the rest of the night, they felt their way down the glacier and crawled through the beech thickets.

The epic was only half over. We paddled north along the Fiordo de las Montanas and portaged to the east to the Fiordo Resi. The paddle home was a thriller. Williwaw gusts capsized Yvon and held him down. He had to bail out of his boat into the frigid water. Another day, we had to raft our boats together to stay upright. Going downwind, without paddling we were doing four to five knots. On edge the whole time, it took five days to paddle back to Puerto Natales. I can still relive every hour. We all made it back in time for our pressing meetings, but if you ask me what they were about, I can give you only the foggiest answer.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Patagonia, Chile.

First Ascent: P 1190, 2904 feet, Grupo La Paz, Cordillera Riesco, First

Ascent, November 25, 1988 (Chouinard, Donini).

Personnel: Yvon Chouinard, James Donini, Richard Ridgeway, Douglas

Tomkins.

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