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South America, Argentine Patagonia, Hielo Continental Norte, Traverse, and Cerro Pared Norte and Peak 2970m, Ascents

Hielo Continental Norte, Traverse, and Cerro Pared Norte and Peak 2970m, Ascents. Between November 26, 1998-January 5, 1999, Paolo Cavagnetto* and Lorenzo Nettuno (Italy) and Nigel Topping and I (U.K.) traversed on skis with pulkas a ca. 200 kilometer, north-south route (mostly following the route of Shipton’s 1963 expedition) across the Hielo Continental Norte from Laguna San Rafael to the Baker Channel, exiting via the Steffan Glacier. Of our five weeks on the ice, we got just four days of decent weather; the remaining days sat (more toward the latter half as we gained elevation) on a spectrum with moderate winds, low visibility and rain on one end and full tempestuous conditions with driving, frozen sleet or snow on the other. Despite challenging conditions, we completed the traverse and our scientific objectives, failed in an attempt on Cerro Largo and made two first ascents, which were snatched in the only weather window available: Cerro Pared Norte (3005m) (Shipton’s original objective), and an unnamed 2970-meter peak* some two kilometers to the south. Neither peak (both involved snow and ice up to 60°) was overly challenging from a technical perspective, but the latter peak was climbed in fairly hostile conditions (on the summit, we were bombarded by coffee-table-sized airborne windslabs ripped up from the windward slopes) marking the onset of a storm that had us pinned down on a nearby col at ca. 2000 meters for five days (up to and including Christmas Day) with an accompanying snowfall in excess of three meters.

The delay put pressure on the final 45 kilometers out via the long and arduously broken and crevassed Steffan Glacier, which was concluded successfully but, in fine epic tradition, without food. From the end of the glacier, which terminated in a large berg and brash-strewn lake with two large rivers flowing from it, we waited for a further three days (living off the “fruits of the forest” and expending much energy waving ice axes and chasing any local wildlife that had the misfortune to chance upon us) for our pre-arranged boat to show up and take us on to Tortel via the glorious Baker Channel.

During the traverse, we took 55 radio-echo sounding measurements of ice thickness and snow cover to compose a climate change/glacier retreat modeling investigation and gathered samples for analysis of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the region. To conclude (and with the added luxury of hindsight) all I can say is that Wilfred Noyce’s 1969 quote from The World Atlas of Mountaineering seems as true as ever: “Most of the glaciers are still untrodden and the area offers a splendid field of new mountaineering possibilities to anyone willing to face the severe weather conditions which prevail.”

Alun Hubbard, Wales

*Paolo Cavagnetto died in a rock fall along with two aspiring guides on Mt. Blanc in July, 1999. The team has applied to the IGM, Chile, for the unnamed peak that was first climbed on December 21, 1998, to be named after him.