American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

South America, Chile, Cordillera Sarmiento, Mt. Burney, Southeast Ridge, Attempt

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2001

Mt. Burney, Southeast Ridge, Attempt. In February and March, 2001, I traveled with five companions (New Zealanders Brede Arkless, Paddy Freaney, and Rochelle Rafferty and Canadians Scott Fraser and Dave Pfeiffer), with the aid of two inflatable dinghies, to the foot of Mount Burney on the remote Munoz Gamero Peninsula in far southern Chile. Mount Burney, a 1768-meter peak, has the distinction of being the southernmost volcano on the mainland of the American continents. Seen by very few people (as it is usually shrouded in cloud and tempest), it has the further distinction of having been climbed only once. This was by my father, Eric Shipton, and two companions.

Within a few days of gathering in Punta Arenas, we were boarding the fishing boat Katyta that I had hired to take us to the end of Seno Obstruccion and pick us up three weeks later. This was a variation of my father’s Skyring route, but it got us to the isthmi, avoiding the dangerous open waters on Skyring between Peninsula Diadem and Paso del Indio. We then carried our boats and gear across our isthmus, with a small hidden lake on the way, to launch them on the western arm of Lago Munoz Gamero. We traveled the lake to the end of its northern arm, and carrying one boat through forest not traveled since my father, reached the great unnamed lake he discovered in 1961. We crossed this in relays— a dodgy business, especially as we were caught in tempestuous winds; failure of boat or engine at any point would have been disastrous.

From the northern end of the nameless lake, we made the march across a vast boggy plain with our 30-kilo loads, and up a valley covered in antediluvian rain forest to reach a glacial lake at the foot of Burney. One side of the lake was rich green southern beech forest, but at the other end were great blocks of ice that had fallen from a great black wall at the base of our mountain. A hundred feet up the wall was the base of the ice cap, which disappeared into the layer of permanent cloud that shrouded the mountain. We made this our base camp and during the next days reconnoitered three sides of the mountain. However, a serious attempt at climbing was impossible, as the cloud remained persistently at 800 meters (which was our high point as well). My father climbed Burney in 1973 from the west after being landed on the western side of Munoz Gamero by the Chilean navy. We saw the ridge he used—or at least as far as the clouds, which remained at 800 meters. Finally, after we had returned from our attempt on the southeast ridge, the pressure dropped like a stone, and an enormous tempest virtually blew us away from the mountain. We returned the way we had come, exploring more country on the way. As we finished our last morsels of food and started catching fish to survive, Katyta returned to take us back to civilization.

John Shipton, United Kingdom

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.