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The Southern Patagonian Ice Cap Traverse March 14, 2007

Posted by Jason in Argentina, climbing, mountaineering, Patagonia, South America, Travel, trekking.

Mount Fitzroy and surrounding peaks

 When we arrived in El Chalten our idea was to find some information on circumnavigating Monte Fitzroy and Cerro Torre by taking a route onto the ice cap.  We had read something about this a month or so previously in a German climbing book(or rather we looked at the pictures and maps!).

It looked pretty awesome, but we needed alot of information and in South America this can be err. . . hard to come by!

We ascertained that maybe it would be too difficult to do ourselves with no real time to do any recce on the route and a guide would be needed.  Our investigations though with agencies proved fruitless as they wanted astranomical amounts of money for a guide. We tried to explain that we would do all the logistics, food, gear etc all we wanted was a guide.  But the prices would range from US$2,750 to US$1,000!!!

We put up a post in the Guardaparques building and sent a round robin email to individual guides we could find on the net.  But with no responses we settled for the normal trekking routes on the east side of the massif and a 3 to 5 day trek.

Then at short notice we were contacted by a guide Manuel Quiroga, who we quickly met for coffee. After chatting a while and discussing the options we agreed to hire his services.  All our plans changed and we put our efforts into the next few days sorting rations and hiring gear for our journey to the “Ice Cap”!

The Ice Cap Traverse – 8 Day Trek

Day 1   –  El Chalten to Laguna Electrico (March 6th 2007)

We arrived in a panic at Manuels house at 9:30am.  Our tent was covered in ice in the morning making our efforts to strike camp a little longer than usual!

We checked gear and rations and then called a taxi to take us to the beginning of the Electrico Valley where we would begin the trek.  Empanadas for breakfast! and off we went.

We started walking at about 12pm.  The sun was shining and it was clear blue sky.  Most unusual for El Chalten!  The Gods were shining on us.

The walk up the valley is beautiful and a fairly easy beginning to the trek.  Mainly flat to start and perfect to try and get used to the plastic boots we had hired. Through wooded pastures we arrived at the camp site and hut within a couple of hours.  Here the landowners charge a ridiculous $10 pesos per person to cross their land.

Manuel (the guide) and Jason having a rest on day 1     Marconi Mountain range ahead and the Marconi pass     Our camp site on the shore of Laguna Electrico

We were lucky enough (or not) to see a Puma here.  The landowner had caught a young Puma.  Puma´s here are considered a pest by some landowners.  They kill sheep and even young horses.  With young cubs around the mother will use sheep to teach the Pumas how to hunt.

The Puma had been chained up and the landowner said he was going to keep it!  We later found out that the Puma had been kept to attract the mother.  They ended up killing the mother and another young cub.

We continued on and gradually ascended the valley rising with the river and crossing large boulder fields.  The views to the south were fantastic seeing Monte Fitzroy reaching into the sky.

We reached the Glacial lake Electrico and crossed the stream before continuing across the boulder slopes when Chez over balanced her pack and dived head first over a rock!  Her screams alerted the guide who saved the day and pulled her pack off her.  Her back was badly bruised but after an Alfajor she felt fine!    

Monte Fitzroy as the sun went down looking up from our camp

Finally we reached our camp site beside the lake at about 6pm.  Set up camp and ate our dinner watching the sun go down.

Tomorrow would be the crucial day.  The wind here is so bad that many expeditions don´t get over the Marconi pass onto the ice cap.  The Patagonian wind is most fierce in these parts aound El Chalten.

Day 2 – The Marconi Pass 

A 9.10am start and we begin our ascent immediately. Climbing from the Lake we traversed around Laguna Marconi to the start of the Glacial morraine.  As it was mainly ice and rocks we did not we did not put on crampons.  The views here are amazing.  You can see straight up the Marconi Pass with a hanging glacier and Seracs to the left.

Chez on her way to the Glacier     Our guide Manuel striking off into the distance!     Cheryl making an impact she did not expect on the glaciar!

As the day warmed up, the Seracs began to crack and would break off with a thunderous sound.  Ice would flow down as an avalanche with pieces of ice the size of cars rolling into the ice valley.

Roping up as we climb the Marconi pass avoiding crevasses     Jason and Cheryl climbing the Marconi Glaciar Pass trying to avoid the crevasses!     Finally reaching the plateau of the ice cap       

As we climbed higher the panoramic view just got bigger and better.  The view over the Marconi Glacier and towards the spires of Gran Gendarme, Cerro Pollone, Torre, Pier Giorgio, Cerro Domo Blanco was amazing.

As I was probably paying too much attention to the view I slipped on the ice and cracked my knee into a rock whilst falling into a pool of iced water!  Cheryl though, no doubt jealous at my achievement went one better by falling over and cutting her face on a rock! It was most impressive with blood everywhere, even the Guide was impressed and proceeded to get his first aid kit out.  What Chez will do for attention!

Soon things were hotting up as we donned crampons and roped up to try to climb out of the valley and over the Marconi pass.  First we scaled the patch of snow covered Glaciar before taking a route over the ice.  The crevasses were numerous and large but fairly easy to avoid and eventually the steepness levelled out over snow covered Glaciar at the top of the pass. 

Reaching the top of the Marconi Pass with the Monte Fitzroy/Cerro Torre Massif behind

We continued ascending and Manuel started using the sled for the first time.  The pass seemed to go on for ever but gradually it levelled off and we were finally on the plateau.

Wow!! The view was amazing.  Looking back at the massif of mountains behind us with Monte Fitzroy and then north to Cerro Gorra Blanca which would be our objective for tomorrow.  We were finally in a  position to see the ice cap full on.  A massive expanse of white snow and ice stretching as far as the eye can see.  Unbelievable.

We were both very tired.  We finally reached the Refugio (1,587m) on a rock promentary at about 7pm.  A 9 hour day carrying 30kg packs over snow and ice.  We were both knackered!

Manuel cooked us his speciality of Spaghetti, cream, nuts and blue cheese while Chez and I collapsed!

Day 3 – Ascent of Cerro Gorra Blanca (2,907m)

We had a late start 10am.  We were tired from yesterday, but the weather is holding, blue skies again and we had to make the best of it.  A chance of a summit! 

We carried a day pack only as we travelled roped up across the ice to ascend the long Glacier to the col on Cerro Gorra Blanca.  We did not wear crampons as there was a soft cushion  of snow on top of the ice. Wow, the views were amazing.

We start out across the ice cap to reach the foot of Cerro Gorra Blanca     Resting before ascending the Glaciar. Cerro Gorra Blanca in the back ground     Ascending the slopes to the col

The pace Manuel set at the front was better today and was easier to cope with without our heavy packs.  We reached the col after 3 1/2 hours.  We quickly put our crampons on and continued up the crevassed steep slopes.  We first traversed to south slopes and then up the ridge to the bottom of the ice mushroom. 

Ascending the summit slopes of Cerro Gorra Blanca     Jason and Cheryl on the summit with the ice cap stretching away into the distance     Hong Kong Phooey enjoying the view!

An Ice Mushroom is where ice is deposited on the top of a mountain by the wind and precipitation and is shaped by the wind, often referred to as Angel’s Wings due to their shape.  This continues to develop and can be extremely large.

Climbing the summit ice mushroom

The ice mushroom we had to climb was quite large and involved a short easy ice climb to its summit.  The view was amazing at the top!  See the video below to appreciate the panorama from here!  Words cannot describe. . . . . .

After many photos and a bite to eat we had to head off down as the clouds were coming in.  So we descended down the slopes banging the snow from our crampons as we went trying to prevent them from balling up. The Crampons we hired were pretty bad for this.

After reaching the col we were able to bounce our way across the softening snow slopes down to the ice cap and then across the ice to the refugio.  Another tiring 9 hour day but absolutely fantastic!

Most people do not get a chance to climb Cerro Gorra Blanca as the weather here is notoriously bad.  We have had 3 days of fantastic weather, surely this can´t last??

Day 4 – Ice Cap Crossing to the Cirque

Another 10am start.  No crampons necessary as the snow is again soft enough not to need them.

The weather clagged in last evening and it was raining overnight. YES . . RAINING!! It is often thought that it only snows on an ice cap but NO WAY!! In summer it can rain or snow.  When we woke this morning the clouds were down to just above the refugio height.

As we walked across the ice the weather began to brighten up and the cloud began to lift.  Finally the sun broke through and blue sky appeared.  We were to have another amazing day!

Beginning to cross the ice cap behind the Marconi range of mountains     Cheryl taking five on the ice cap after marching for a couple of hours     Manuel our guide with ice cap stretching ahead, using the mountains to the left as a hand rail

Today we were walking along the main ice cap.  This is where explorers like Shipton came to explore Patagonia and wrote of their adventures and amazement of this landscape.  And for the first time in Patagonia those stories have come alive.  Such an amazing landscape, and amazing place. 

The ice stretches for miles.  You can see the  Paso de los Cinco Glaciares (Five Glacier Pass) to the west and the mountains dividing the ice cap to the south west.  We used the mountain massif of the Marconi range as a hand rail to navigate as the cloud lifted and descended as we travelled.

There was truly a feeling of complete solitude here.  No sound of anything other than the 3 of us breathing when we stopped!  A pristine environment of bright white snow covered glacier and wonderful iced peaks in the distance.

As we travelled it was most disconcerting. Pulling the sled, marching forward we would look to the east at the Marconi mountains to see our progress.  But in this landscape the scope is so large it appears as though you are not moving at all!

Eventually we could see a small blemish on the landscape in front of us.  Then 4 tiny dots appeared in our view.  20 minutes later the dots got larger until eventually we recognised the 4 person party who we had met in the Refugio 2 days previously! They were also camping at the cirque.  We said our hello´s and proceeded to set up camp.

Manuel built our snow wall as we pitched the tent. We cooked the meal tonight. Only a 6 1/2 hour day today so we were in alot better shape!  But as we ate dinner the clouds were descending and the cirque disappearing from sight.

The view of the cirque as we built snow walls for our tents     Our tent on the ice cap     Chez sorting our gear at the tent with the guides tent behind and the cirque in the background as the cloud descended

Day 5 – A bad weather day and a stormy night

As we woke in the morning we were greeted to low cloud and flurries of snow.  The wind was picking up and we were allowed a lie in!  The idea was to explore the upper reaches of the cirque today but we had time to see if the weather got better. . . . . . . it never did!!

We spent the day eating, sleeping and building walls of snow to protect the tent.

Beautiful views when the cloud lifted     Chez still with a smile on her face!     View from our tent    

As the day wore on the wind would pick up and just before nightfall the wind changed direction and we had to build another wall!

Within 3 hours the wind changed direction completely again and was giving our tent a hammering.  It went from west to east hitting our tent from the side.  The wind was ferocious all evening and bending the poles with ease.  Our Guides tent almost collapsed at one point.

Day 6 – The walk out, from the cirque across the ice cap to Laguna Ferrari

Thankfully by 7am the wind had died down and the rain we were having most of yesterday and over night had turned to snow.  With all the rain much of the snow left on the ice late in the season had melted and we could see many patches of bare ice beginning to emerge.

We packed up as quickly as possible and headed off with the snow falling at our backs. At first the conditions were not too bad but soon, being late in the season on this section of the ice cap, the snow bridges were weak or it was bare ice.  We wanted to keep pulling the sled for as long as possible otherwise we would have to carry our gear over the ice.

Starting out across the ice on day 6     Reaching the end of the ice and the beginning of the morraine, leaving the ice cap     The terrain we were crossing to exit the ice cap

We had to zig zag many times to avoid crevasses and the bare ice was resembling a ferocious sea with waves of ice making it difficult to pull the sled.

Eventually we reached the morraine at the edge of the ice cap where we would find our way through to the Viento Pass.  The snow was now turning to slush and getting us very wet. It was extremely cold and after packing our stuff into our rucksacks from the sled we continued over the Morraine and ice and found our way across to the pass.

Eventually we reached a bivi site where it was sheltered enough to pitch the tents by the side of Laguna Ferrari and directly below the Viento pass.  We were all soaking wet all the way through.  Our boots and socks soaking.  We were glad to dive in our tent and get some dry clothes on after a 7 hour day!

Day 7  – The Viento Pass

Overnight the temperature dropped and we had a snow fall dropping about 5 inches of snow! We packed up in the morning but did not set off until about 12pm.  We climbed up to Viento pass for our last view of the ice cap.  The cloud lifted long enough for us to get a good view back to the ice and the Viedma Glacier and then we descended to the other side of the pass to the scree. I think the weather has been kind to us.

In the morning we found a fresh fall of snow, this is looking from our tent to the viento pass we were to cross     Jason and Cheryl at the top of the Viento pass and our last look at the ice cap     We walked on the edge of this glacier as we passed over the Viento pass down to our camp site

The Glaciers on this side of the pass were still impressive and the scenery superb as we descended to make a short 1 hour traverse on the Glacier itself.  Large glaciers of Rio Tunel and De Quervain pour down from the peaks of Cordon Adela. 

Then we had a Tyrolean crossing where we slide across a wire over a gorge. Then an easy walk along the lake side of Laguna Toro to a wooded camp site. Another day of beautiful views.

Day 8 – Over the Pampa De Las Carretas and the return to El Chalten

We started at 10:50am for our final leg of the journey.  We followed the valley of Rio Tunel and then climbed the shoulder of Tumbado before descending to El Chalten through forest.  The views back towards Cerro Solo and Grande were magnificent and over towards Fitzroy were superb and the sun shone down on us again.  Just a superb end to the trek and back to El Chalten for 4.30pm.

Needless to say, after living on rations for 8 days we celebrated the traditional Argentinian way with a steak and beer!    The 8 days had lived up to and beyond expectation.  The mountains around El Chalten are superb. Cerro Torre and Monte Fitzroy cannot dissappoint and we had some of the best weather El Chalten can offer to appreciate this landscape.  The Ice Cap was everything we thought it would be and more. . . . . .Just superb! 

Links to more photos:

Getting onto the Ice Cap

Climbing Cerro Gorra Blanca

Crossing the Ice Cap

Camping on the Ice Cap

Leaving the Ice Cap

Back to El Chalten



1. New posts just added! « little BIG adventure - March 31, 2007

[…] Crossing the Southern Ice Cap […]

2. 12 ft Trampoline - April 27, 2013

Hi there mates, its impressive paragraph on the topic of tutoringand fully explained, keep it
up all the time.

3. Artur - August 21, 2015

Hi I’m heading to Patagonia in December and like yourself, I’m quoted crazy prices for a guide onto the ice cap, I’m from Brazil and so I don’t earn in dollar. I’m wondering if you have the conact for your guide and how much did you spend in renting gear, supplies and th guide himself. Thanks alot.

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