On Darwin's Edge
The First Complete Traverse of the Cordillera Darwin, Tierra del Fuego, Chile
“Three hundred days of storm and the other 65 not pleasant.”
- Alberto De Agostini, describing the Cordillera Darwin Range after his 1913 attempt on Mt. Sarmiento.
“You are raving mad to consider crossing the cordillera in its entirety.”
- Steve Ogle, who attempted to cross the Darwin Range in 2008.
THE RARE STORIES of those who’d been to the Darwin Range had the flavor of Homeric tales: impenetrable fogs, 200 kilometers per hour wind gusts that lift you from the earth as if with an invisible hand, virgin summits everywhere, massive glaciers tumbling into the sea, permanent rain, sketch maps all wildly different. In short, a perfect labyrinth.
Various teams over the last decades have made brief forays into the range, in order to pick off one peak or another, even to traverse the range crosswise. But to attempt a lengthwise crossing—some 130 kilometers as the crow flies—would be a different animal altogether. So we prepared according to three axioms. First, be as light as possible, because weight is time.
Second, know all that’s possible to know, because so much will still be unknown. Third, train to move in bad weather, because no matter how wretched the conditions, how soaked and frozen our bodies, we must still pack and move every morning.
After some testing we determined that the maximum weight we could drag would be 75 kilograms per person. Considering the weight of the equipment, this meant we could carry 35 days of food and 40 days of stove fuel. We would not take any spare equipment—no extra skis, rope, or stove.
A drop test into a crevasse with the sleds revealed that we'd need to be at least three on a rope in order to stop the fall. So the expedition needed six people: two parties of three. Each member would know the others well and have extensive experience in cold, technical, unfamiliar places. We were from the Group Militaire de Haute Montagne, or, in English, the French Military High Mountain Team, a corps of soldier-experts in mountaineering and arctic conditions.
After reviewing all existing maps, it appeared that the Google Earth topo was the most accurate, although lacking in detail. The only paper map dates from 1954 and has a 1:250,000 scale, which doesn’t work for navigating.
After a last meal in Punta Arenas, an old fishing boat takes us toward the Cordillera Darwin. But the wind is already toying with us, the sea rages, and we are unable to cross the Strait of Magellan. After a forced landing, the next day we make it across the strait and into the maze of fjords that lead to our starting point at the west end of the Cordillera Darwin, near Mt. Sarmiento.
September 6. It’s snowing as the boat drops us off with sad farewells. The sailors are disturbed about leaving us here in the land of the wind, the realm of the devil. As we say goodbye, everyone, climbers and sailors, feels a pinch in his heart, a tear in his eye.
Now the boat is gone. It’s snowing. We are in the middle of nowhere.
But the weather on our second day is beautiful! Could Darwin’s reputation be exaggerated? Sarmiento hovers above the sea. Everywhere massive glaciers cascade into the sea. From here to the horizon is a succession of spectacular, unknown peaks. It looks like one Mont Blanc range after another. With our feet on the glacier, we establish our strategy: one team will go forward to find the way, while the other brings up the gear and installs camp.
We seem to have picked the right season, as the snow is made to order, and we step into our skis a mere 200 meters above the sea. But three days in we learn that the weather is not a myth. Despite our plan to make progress each day, we're unable to move the camp. To make matters worse, one of our two satellite phones malfunctions. We no longer have a connection between teams.
The next day is a little better, and we move camp to the end of the previous recon and make a new one. At nightfall we discover an unexpected ramp on a wall that leads past the final serac barrier and onto the next glacier. Without this ramp we might have been stuck, as there seems to be no other possibility.
Thus far we have been moving terribly slowly as the crow flies. We’re covering distance, but it’s rarely in the direction we want to go.
The next day we suffer the fury of the wind as we plow through deep snow. Come morning we can barely exit the tents. However, we are developing a rhythm. Our evening routines repeat themselves: find the best snow patch, build a wall, raise the tents, prepare the food bag, take off shoes, remove snow from the tents, de-ice clothes and harnesses, melt and heat water, mop up clothes, dry clothes on our bodies, drink, eat, prepare the sleeping bags, arrange clothes and sacks to protect them while we sleep, prepare the next GPS track, load the GPS, mop, sleep. In the morning we resume our rituals: remove hoarfrost, melt snow, the bags, the shoes, the tents.… The repetition helps. Everything is done for a reason; we must forget nothing. Despite the storms, each morning we get out and go.
By the sixth day we have made only 10 straight-line kilometers of the 125 we must make. On the seventh we do a little better, but weather difficulties increase. More snow, increasing avalanche danger. The day’s leader is especially stressed. Despite the weather he must find a passage through the crevasses, the snow slopes, the seracs, and the cliffs.
On the ninth day, in the pouring rain, we reach “Green Valley” the only place during the traverse that we’re off glaciers. It was the first obvious objective on the map, 20 straight-line kilometers into the journey, and we’re happy to reach it. And yet we’re really late, and this bothers us.
As we continue over increasingly snow-loaded, avalanche- prone slopes without picking up speed, morale plummets. We are moving so slowly. There are too many difficulties, too many recons.
On the twelfth day a storm surprises us just after we vleave the bivy. We try to push on but are forced back, desperate to find our old campsite. A mere 200 meters from camp, and we still can’t find it because of the wind and the whiteout. To survive we spend two hours digging a hole we can barely crouch in. But the snow still creeps in, and we are soaked. What to do? For how long will we have to stay here? We can’t spend the night in these conditions. The situation is becoming critical. We feel near the end. The virtue of that snow cave is that we can now talk together and try to make the right decision.
Eventually the wind weakens and we walk 50 meters, where we find a flat enough spot to pitch the tents. It takes all six people to erect each tent. Will they hold? I’ve never had so much wind slamming against my tent—maybe in excess of 150 kilometers per hour. Continuing the next day would be insane, and this proves to be the only day that we spend tentbound. Even so, it is hard to rest in such a violent wind.
The next day we leave despite the wind. We are 14 days into 35 days of supplies. We’ve consumed roughly one third of our food but have traveled only one fifth of the required distance. At this rate we can’t complete the crossing. It’s difficult to believe in our chances, but we aren’t giving up.
The glaciers grow larger and easier to follow as we approach the central Cordillera, which we reach on day 16. Still, we’re rationing food to make it last 40 days, just in case.
After crossing the dangerous maze of the Marinelli Glacier on day 20, we’re faced with the most technically difficult part of the expedition, the thin ridge linking Mt.
Shipton (ca 2,600m) and Mt. Darwin (ca 2,400m). For three days we walk a tightrope while dragging sleds above the void. From the start our strategy has been to not attempt any peaks. It is a hard rule for a climber as he passes mere meters beneath virgin summits, but we value each second of good weather. Nevertheless, with clouds obscuring the view, we have to stick to the crest of the ridge, which takes us over the virgin summits of Mt. Gines (2,022m) and Mt. Beyond the Far (2,026m). While planning we had wondered if we could traverse that ridge, and it feels like one of my best days in the mountains when we finally descend from the ridge to the Darwin Glacier. We did it!
More glaciers, passes, storms, and finally moraines, and we’re walking on grass again. Oh, the birds! Soon we’re dining on grilled beef that our new friend, José, prepares for us. José, the only inhabitant of Darwin, hunts feral cows and horses from an old farm. His goal is to make this place completely wild again, so he rides his horse for a few days into the mountains and hunts with a lasso, bringing the animals down alive and selling them as meat to fishing boats.
During the three days we spend waiting for a boat, we feel lost between two worlds, between two eras. This gradual return to civilization is good for us, and we’re grateful to this man from another time.
In our memories this journey has been like one long day of 30, with rare moments of clear weather revealing the spectacle of Darwin: splendid, ephemeral, and barely known.
ABOUT THE GMHM:
Created in 1976, the Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne (GMHM) is composed of 10 alpinists, all mountain guides or aspirants. Our mission, as stated in our 2002 charter, is to “Explore the domain of extreme physical and climatic conditions on land.” This generic mission can be broken down into three secondary missions: communication, experimentation, and, especially, advising the French Army.
Recruiting is done inside the armed forces but also outside for recruiting privates at the beginning of their careers. We are currently three officers, four NCOs, and three privates. Most of us stay a long time in the GMHM, so we can improve our skills and also because of the team spirit that is our strength. we’re based in Chamonix at the Military High Mountain School, or EHMH.
Though we’re soldiers, we’re not commandos. We aren’t engaged in conflicts during our stint in the GMHM, though we’re part of the 27th Brigade of the Mountain Infantry, which is engaged each winter in Afghanistan. Several members of the GMHM served in the Mountain Commandos, but our GMHM role is only to advise and to train.
There are only two other countries with Military High Mountain Teams: Italy and Spain. Those teams are not structured like the GMHM, nor do they have the means and stability to carry out projects like ours, though they have made some impressive ascents. Other countries sometimes organize military mountaineering teams for a particular expedition. A few countries are thinking about creating their own GMHM.
The GMHM’s first big climbing accomplishment was the second winter ascent of the Harlin Direct on the Eiger in 1978. From there the team (with changing personnel) went on to make the only free-solo ascent of the American Direct on the West Face of the Drus (Christophe Profit), numerous first ascents in the Himalaya (Nepal, India, Pakistan, China), reach six summits above 8,000m, including Everest without oxygen (1993), carry out unsupported expeditions to the North Pole (1996) and South Pole (1999), accomplish a speed-climbing record on Aconcagua (1992), and climb over 100 new or important routes in the Alps. In 2010 we completed a five- year challenge intended to demonstrate our versatility. It included climbing expeditions to Mali, Patagonia, New Zealand, Greenland, Canada, the Indian Himalaya, and Antarctica.
Area: Cordillera Darwin, Tierra del Fuego, Chile.
Expedition: The first lengthwise traverse of the Cordillera Darwin lasted 30 days, 26 of which were roped and 22 in bad weather, with temperatures down to -25°C. It covered 130km linearly, but at least 250km on the ground, with 17,400 meters of vertical gain.
The six team members were Captain Lionel Albrieux, Chief Warrant Officer Sebastien Bohin, Lieutenant Didier Jourdain, Mr. Dimitry Munoz, Corporal Sebastien Ratel, Staff Sergeant François Savary. Support base in France: Captain Jean-Yves Igonenc. Logistical support in Chile: Guillermo Cratcley Klenner.