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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

Things that don't go so well - an honest summary of unsuccessful projects in Patagonia

From gale force winds, to flooded trails, to snow in summer - the Patagonian weather is not to be underestimated
Traveling away from the crowds requires your own logistics planning - the hard life away from standard tourists who are willing to pay
Information bottlenecks and intentional "information asymmetry" lead again and again to surprises
Permits and the chaos of authorities - Chile is at the top when it comes to bureaucracy

We've been in Patagonia for more than 4 months now, still in southern Patagonia. This reagion is just so beautiful and special; there are endless possibilities and things to see. We have ideas upon ideas - the longer we stay the more come into our mind. However, not everything is always so easy to realize. Let's talk openly about failed expeditions, impossible-to-reach places, and other obstacles.

What we did know beforehand is that the unpredictable Patagonian weather can be a show stopper. That is well known. From our point of view, we were very lucky with the weather in the first few months, December to February. We hardly have to wait for good weather windows. The wind is a constant companion, but it hardly ever rains and it often is even warmer than we expected. However, that should change by the end of February.

We quit the trekking at Villa Cerro Castillo over the mountain range of the same name. The narrow 3-day weather window is worse than forecast. At just over 0 degrees we are standing at 1,437 m in front of the glacier lagoon, in fog and drizzle. There's no need waiting here for a better view. So we descend with our equipment and food, packed for 3 days. Paradoxically, one has to say that we actually wanted to leave two days earlier - with the best weather and sunshine. Admittedly, some access roads were flooded by the previous heavy rain, but not a real obstacle. We traversed them for several kilometers on foot (yes, it was bloody cold, but doable) only to be sent away by park rangers at every checkpoint. With the note that today is closed "due to bad weather". That's all the more annoying in hindsight when it's really bad the next days.

For our expedition to the Northern Patagonian Ice Field we need perfect weather. We planned to reach the northern part of Laguna Leones and camp on a place called Punta de Camillo, at the edge of the icefield. However, for this you have to cross the lake, a distance of about 9 km. We are familiar with Patagonian winds and have seen that some lake shores invite you to surf when the winds are heavy. We prefer to refrain from crossing it with our inflatable kayak at 70 km/h windspeed. In addition, the weather on the ice field promises snow and fog. Don't get us wrong, we're quite willing to wait for a weather window and take calculated risks. Unfortunately, at the end of February the forecast was: 1 day acceptable, 5 days really bad, and so on.

We had a similar experience at the Circo de los Altares, a 6-8 day crossing of the Southern Patagonian ice field behind Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, starting in El Chalten. Unfortunately, we only had passable weather for a maximum of 3.5 days; the park rangers dramatized the situation and warned of a snowstorm and possible consequences. However, the main reason for abandoning the expedition was the difficulty. The ascent to the Marconi Glacier includes some unsecured climbing passages. These, in combination with our footwear, doomed the tour to failure. We have to attribute that to ourselves. We were only out with bulky, crampon-compatible mountaineering boots and did without a second pair of shoes - because of the additional weight. The mountaineering boots were absolutely unsuitable for precise climbing with heavy luggage on the back. It is all the more difficult for us to deal with that failure. We can't blame the weather. As ambitious people, that gives us both a lot to gnaw on...

Wind gusts of up to 53 knots (~100km/h) - Learning from our Drake Passage crossing: Purple is bad :-)

Circo de los Altares El Chalten Fitzroy Cerro Torre Expedition
Proper footwear is crucial

Speaking of shoes with crampons. On the way to the Monte San Lorenzo pass in Chile, despite extensive studies of satellite images, we decided not to take crampons and ice axes. According to some locals, these would not be necessary, there should be a way past the glaciers. Well, about 100 meters in altitude from our destination, we are in front of a glacier wall that is impossible to conquer without crampons... At least the wind is not preventing us from drone flying, so we can enjoy the same views.

Even fire has (almost) damned another trekking. On the Huemul Trek in El Chalten, a fire broke out at one of the camps just a few days before our planned hike. Unfortunately caused by a tourist who carelessly threw away a cigarette butt. Due to the prolonged drought and constant wind, the fire has spread rapidly. Luckily the rangers got it under control within 4 days. However, the official statement was still that the trail is closed due to a fire. We started anyway, nothing burned anymore. The said camp on the Huemul Trek was of course unusable, so we spent the night in an alternative camp a few kilometers away. The traces of the fire were clearly visible and it will probably take some time for nature to recover.

Waldbrand wild fire Huemul Trekking Patagonia el chalten
On the bottom left you can see the recent wildfire :-(

So much for force majeure or nature. However, these were not the only reasons for failed projects. Especially in Chile it is incredibly difficult to get information about less touristy tours and regions. It has to be said that Chile - compared to Argentina - is very good at marketing its natural wonders. The Torres del Paine National Park, for example, is completely "managed", both by the park administration and private providers. Each campsite on the trails requires a reservation. Everything is strictly controlled - of course also for the benefit of nature. Nevertheless, the Chileans make a lot of money with it. Usually, we try to travel away from the tourist crowds. We are interested in special places that are often difficult to reach. However, there is hardly any information about these "hidden gems" and the logistics quickly become unaffordable.

An example. We wanted to go to Piu XI Glacier – the largest glacier in Chile. It is located in the south, in the midst of the Patagonian fjord and glacier landscape of O'Higgins National Park. Our plan: Take the ferry to Puerto Eden, cross the fjord from there, then hike about 27 km (no path) and continue by kayak to the glacier. A somewhat longer expedition, but quite attractive. However, there were some gaps in the feasibility. We needed

  1. a boat transfer across the fjord (about 9 km one way). As you have read before, not all waters can be crossed with a kayak

  2. Information about the terrain

  3. Kayaks or packrafts to reach the glacier

  4. Ferry tickets to Puerto Eden, which consistently sell out 6 weeks in advance.

It's easy to make contacts in Chile. One is enough, and it usually multiplies, through friends who have heard etc. You know :-) So in the meantime I had over 20 chats going on about this one expedition. Everything in Spanish, of course. You won't get far with English. Around 80% don't understand and the rest doesn't want to understand you. And, me myself I like to avoid speaking English, out of respect for the country and its people and so as not to be stamped as "standard tourist". By the way, voice messages are also very popular here. A challenge for my Spanish at the beginner level. And with the Chilean accent paired with mumbling, the Google transcription also fails.

Well, but it was also very difficult in terms of content. First you are pushed onto the standard tourist track... "there's a cruise for €3,000 pp. all inclusive..." After you've explained to everyone for the umpteenth time how you want to do it, challenges such as price negotiations follow. Here, too, the rates are enormous. For example, the fjord transfer (go and return) is at around €700. I don't question the logistical challenge at all. And to be fair, it's the only way to cross the fjord. Still... Long story short. Negotiating feasibility, prices and availability with three providers at the same time, organizing packrafts or kayaks and aligning everything with available ferry tickets brought me to the brink of despair. We were about to buy our own packrafts.

After the expedition on the Rio Serrano (>>> see our blog), we knew about our kayak that it is - in the truest sense - a "size too big" for this one :-). In the end, it was with a heavy heart that we let the project go. All in all, the price was around €1,500 - and the weather, the terrain or our own capabilities could still have doomed us to failure. That's only one example. I'm the one of us who communicates, and with any idea that's a little more "special", it's the same. Unfortunately. Our goal was actually to be independent with our own equipment, which we have with us. However, often it's a lot more than just a kayak, rope or crampons that is required.

On the Rio Serrano expedition Micha was at the limit with 30 kg on the back

Speaking of which, we of course considered booking a guide for certain expeditions. Here, too, you always end up with the standard package including transport from the next larger city, 3 meals a day, insurance, equipment, etc. All negotiations to reduce the price to what we need - namely a guide - fail. Unfortunately, there are too many tourists who are willing to pay the moon prices and keep the business going. Really a pity!

By some places we were simply disappointed - above all the Valle Cochamo, which is hyped as Chile's "Yosemite". It is managed similarly. The prices for the campsites in the valley are tremendously high. In general, every need is answered, so even going to the toilet in the paid parking costs extra. Last but not least, the base camp in Valle Cochamo is "infested" with wasps. And of a particularly aggressive kind. After 5 minutes I got two painful bites. We can only assume that it is due to the wrong waste management... The valley itself, with its granite rocks hundreds of meters high, indeed reminds you of the Yosemite National Park in the USA. However, you can only enjoy the view on a few high mountains. The way there leads for hours (exactly 9 hours one way, only possible with 2 nights in the base camp) through muddy, shady rainforest steeply uphill over 1,700 meters of altitude to the summit. Overall, in my view, in no relation to energy and costs. And finally I lose my beloved, brand new Patagonia basecap on the hike - a birthday present! Out of anger about the second cut on the shin, Micha smashes his hiking pole.

By the way, our material losses should not be underestimated. Lost headlights and jackets, broken hiking poles and worn-out trousers are just a few examples. At least, I was able to reactivate my cell phone, which fell into the sea while kayaking (along with me), thanks to a chemical bath in a specialist shop :-)

And then there was the Chilean bureaucracy. Ever since we visited the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego, we wanted to reach Yendegaia. Located at the southernmost tip of the continent, it is not yet connected by road. It is located in Alberto Agostini National Park, at the foot of the Darwin chain, embedded in a picturesque landscape of rivers and glaciers. Theoretically, the place can be reached via a ferry that runs once a week from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams. In theory, mind you. There are only occasional stops in Yendegaia, with permission. We actually went to the trouble of applying for one. Here too, however, we were sent from pillar to post. The ferry company needs a permit from the local police, which in turn from the Chilean military corps, which is responsible for the road works, and in turn from the national park administration CONAF. Ultimately, the latter decides on the basis of special purpose, for example scientific and educational ones, which we try to achieve through photography as well as through our contacts. You can imagine, in vain. I was once again caught in a chain of confusing conversations.

Ultimately, we will also put this expedition on our bucket list. And someday we'll come back and hopefully one or the other can still be realized!

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