Worth Dying For? To Hell And Back On The Southern Patagonian Icecap

(This article was first published in Intrepid Magazine Issue 2 2018.)

Outside the wind was a noisy, malicious presence, violently shaking the tent as it raged about at speeds in excess of 140km/h. But it wasn’t the wind that I was worried about – it was the snow. It was falling so heavy that every eight hours, the ground level was rising almost a metre, completely burying the tent. So every eight hours, my companion, Tarka L’Herpiniere and I had to dig our way out and start clearing the guy ropes and snow anchors. Then, struggling to stand in the commotion, we would move the tent to a new location. For two days, we repeated this process. And then it happened. The weight of the snow became too much for the poles to bare, and as we dragged the tent to the latest location, one of them snapped. Seconds later another one went. With its support damaged, the tent became little more than a canvas rag, flapping about in the wind, and the sharp ends of the shattered poles quickly tore through the fabric. There we were kneeling in the snow at the mouth of the Fella Reichert icefall in the middle of the worst storm I’ve ever experienced, no rescue possible, our only shelter in tatters.

From the completion of my very first adventure, becoming the first to walk the entire 4300km length of the Great Wall of China from its most Westerly point to its most Easterly, I was hooked. The trek took 167 days, over terrains ranging from the barren Gobi Desert to towering snow-capped mountain passes. Obviously it wasn’t plane sailing, with temperatures ranging from +40C to -40C I battled with critical dehydration resulting in an emergency evacuation to hospital with the help of a hijacked bus, compression of the spine, days without food, the worst snowstorm to hit China in 50 years to name just a few things. But, it was life-changing. I was now a lover of type 2 fun (an activity that is fun only after you have stopped doing it). I had a newfound understanding of what this inherently lazy ex-model was capable of, realising that any feeling of accomplishment, achievement or success is directly proportional to the effort, commitment and hardship put into achieving it.

Subsequently, I went on to cycle across Africa; expeditions in the Arctic in -60C; and plan and partake in many other challenges and exciting adventures. However, it wasn’t until I returned from the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap expedition, that I realised there was another massive lesson to learn…

It was an ambitious project: to complete a world-first unsupported expedition across the world’s third-largest ice cap in the southern Patagonian Andes, an area that arguably has the most ferocious weather in the world. Often described as a place “where the wind drops you to your knees and the snow buries you alive.”

Patagonia Expedition Map

Ladened with rucksacks weighing 50kg’s each, Tarka and I set out to become the first to complete a full crossing without the aid of sail kites. We estimated it would take us 37 days, although we were only able to carry enough food and fuel for 32 days. A feat that was set to test us to our limits.

Dropped by boat to our start line, we traversed laboriously through the various stages of dense vegetation, then up and over the steep scree slopes before dropping onto the Jorge Montt Glacier. Before we could reach the ice cap plateaux, we had to meticulously pick a route through the vast crevasse and cerac fields in near-zero visibility. Balancing in a whiteout is always difficult, but made harder with my 50kg backpack. I couldn’t have carried another gram, my knees were buckling with every step.

As with most expeditions, we were always likely to suffer from routine injuries. Early on, my feet suffered the most, blistering and harbouring infection from day one. I reached a point where there was virtually no good skin to be seen, and despite heavy bandaging walking was painful, but getting my feet into frozen ski boots each morning was excruciating. Despite this, we were making great progress.

The winds would regularly gust at speeds that knocked me to the ground; blizzards and zero visibility became everyday occurrences. In the 35 days on the ice, I saw blue sky and my surroundings only 3 times. For the other 32 days, we could see nothing but each other if we were lucky. When it was really bad, I would see nothing but a piece of rope heading into the whiteness out in front of me, Tarka would be on the other end at just 10 meters but I couldn’t see him. It’s a bizarre feeling, navigating your way around the base of mountains and over cols, yet never even catching a glimpse of them. I often felt quite seasick, unable to tell what was up and what was down.

Southern Patagonian Icecap

Towards the latter stages of the expedition we would regularly fall down several crevasses a day; occasionally we would ski over the edge due to poor visibility, but more regularly we would hear the thunderous crash as the snow bridge gave way beneath one of us. As Tarka was in the lead, he took the vast majority of the falls. Some were innocuous; with others where I had to drop to the ground becoming a human anchor to halt his falls on the end of the rope. On the days when visibility was so bad, I couldn’t see him, just a meter or two of rope stretched out in front of me, there was no visual warning of him falling. The first I would know about it was when I was yanked to the ground. Terrifying.

On two occasions we were also tested with avalanches. Both of which, again due to poor visibility, could not be seen only heard. At the first sound we would turn and look at each other, not say a word, knowing in a split second we could be wiped out, but not knowing from what direction, there was nothing we could do about it. We would just look at each other and wait. Fortunately both times we were only hit by a massive snowy whirlpool of air, as the main debris from the avalanche had thankfully not shared our path. 

Day 22 brought the first serious incident when I collapsed from acute Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. I suffered a seizure before becoming unconscious. I spent up to 6 months of the year living in a tent and cooking in the porch. How could we have become so complacent? Due to the storm outside, we must have closed the vents too much and the silent vapour had crept up on me. Tarka threw my lifeless body out into the storm to bring me around. I woke paralysed from the neck down, but over the coming hours the feeling in my body returned bit by bit, and after 12 hours we deemed me to be in good enough health to continue.

A few days later we reached by far the most technically demanding and dangerous section of the expedition, the Fella Reichert and Cerro Mayo, where we needed to descend a 400-metre vertical ice wall. For this, good weather was imperative. Halted by yet more poor visibility we waited tent bound for 5 days. Painfully aware of our time constraints, we reduced our food intake to half rations. The weather did nothing but deteriorate further, into the worst storm of the journey. For two days we were forced to continually move our tent to prevent us from being buried alive, but eventually, the poles broke, ripping the fabric to shreds, destroying our only form of shelter. It was an unbelievably desperate situation and the ensuing 2 hours were, without doubt, the most frightening of my life. 

We were unable to fix the poles due to the raging storm and lack of repair kit remaining, (unfortunately the repair tapes from the toolkit had been used on my feet once I had dispensed of all the medical supplies).  We created a pyramid shelter as best we could with the remaining tent fabric and our skis and ski poles. Huddled inside in the tiny space we devoured several days’ rations in a bid to increase our body temperature and enable us to think clearly so that we could make the right decisions. Neither of us thought we would survive the night, we had the conversation as to whether we should or shouldn’t call our parents to say goodbye (we decided not to). We took it in turns throughout the night to clear the snow from the shelter every hour, and the rest of the time formalising a procedure to get ourselves off the ice cap. We knew before we started the expedition that there was no chance of an evacuation if we needed it. We were always going to be on our own if it all went wrong.

Despite being aware of the difficulty of descending the Spegazzini Glacier, we had calculated that it offered us the best chance of survival as it was closest and had a rapid descent profile. Unfortunately, during the initial tent incident, my goggles were damaged and so I was left with only my sunglasses to protect my eyes in the storm. Providing almost no protection from the sharp ice crystals being blown into my eyes, my vision quickly deteriorated as I developed snow blindness. 

In total, we spent 5 nights in makeshift shelters as we negotiated the descent from the ice cap, before reaching the water’s edge and a collection became possible by the military. 

Despite the fact I had used up most, if not all, of my 9 lives on this expedition, I was still emotionally distraught in the days and weeks after returning home feeling that I had failed. I had told everyone I could do this, I was embarrassed that I had failed and wanted to prove the doubters wrong by trying again.

However, as the months went by, not only did I gradually come to terms with the failure of the expedition, but I also came to realise I wasn’t thinking back fondly of the expedition. It wasn’t turning out to be type 2 fun. It had been hell on earth, I didn’t want to go back, I didn’t want to try again, I didn’t want to achieve this ‘world first’ accolade enough to die for it. 

In Patagonia there were no incredible views, no cultural interaction, no laughs to keep up morale, it was purely trying to survive and make it through each day alive. That’s not what it is about for me. I have a passion for adventure, challenging my limits both physically and mentally, and exploring this wonderful world in which we live. But I now know not everything ‘floats my boat’,  and I tell myself it doesn’t mean I’m any less brave, or any less capable. It’s just not for me. Do I want to climb K2 or Everest? No thank you. Would I like to circumnavigate the earth? Yes please.

Obviously, there are elements of danger in all expeditions and adventures, and accidents can happen at any time, anywhere. I could be cycling across a continent and be knocked off my bike, but likewise, I could have an accident stepping outside my front door. This level of risk, I think we all accept. After all, the biggest risk in life is not to take any risk at all. However for me personally, I had learnt from this expedition that I am only happy taking these risks when I’m doing something that sets my heart on fire. I now understand and appreciate that I don’t have to say yes to every crazy idea that people throw at me 😉 

You might also like…

You can view more about the expedition here including a gallery of images.

A short video from the expedition can be watched here.

Feel free to ask me any questions, happy to help where I can. 

You will mostly find me over on Instagram @katiejaneendurance but you can also follow along over on Facebook and Pinterest.

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