South America, Tierra Del Fuego, Monte Sarmiento, West Peak

Publication Year: 1996.

Monte Sarmiento, West Peak. The twin peaks of Monte Sarmiento had been climbed only once before. Italian expeditions made both ascents, the first in 1956 (East Peak) and again in 1986 (West Peak). With the objective of new routes on both peaks, our team was composed of Stephen Venables (British), Tim Macartney-Snape (Australian), John Roskelley, Charlie Porter and me. Taking a roundabout route, we spent six days in Porter’s 50-foot sloop Gondwana, reaching the Sarmiento area from Puerto Williams on the Beagle Channel. After securing the boat in a sheltered cove on an arm of the Cockburn Channel on April 13, we explored different approaches to the mountain for several days in foul weather before finally deciding that the Southwest Face of the West Peak offered the best possibility. After two camps were established on the mountain, we were ready for a summit dash on April 21. But two separate accidents thwarted our plans. The first mishap occurred when a sudden wind gust blew me off a ridgecrest. I managed to arrest the fall but badly sprained an ankle in the process. A day later, while traversing a patch of ice, Porter was blown off his feet in almost the same spot. He suffered more serious injuries when he dislocated and broke a bone in his shoulder after jabbing his arm in a crevasse to stop the fall. After the entire team retreated to basecamp near the beach, Porter chose to sail directly across the Strait of Magellan to Puerto Bulnes, the nearest roadhead from Punta Arenas, where he could receive medical treatment. I accompanied Porter, as our only means of transportation was about to disappear. He piloted his boat in considerable pain with his arm in a makeshift sling. By the time I returned to the Sarmiento area in a fishing boat five days later, our three companions had been able to complete the anticipated new route to the West Peak’s summit. On April 26, the almost constant wind and snow ceased for 10 hours, allowing Roskelley, Macartney-Snape and Venables to climb the southwest face's steep snow with underlying ice and 70° to 85° serac ice steps. The typical Patagonian summit ice mushroom was turned easily from the southeast. Extreme winds hit them on the descent with zero-visibility conditions that made it difficult to reach camp. We were out of time so had no chance to tackle the East Peak as originally planned.

Jim Wickwire