Written by Spencer Crawford (University of Vermont)
Waking up in a military refugio on the West side of Glacier Chico is what I’d imagine waking up on Mars is like – cold, windy, and with an incredible sunrise.
The diversity of landscapes in this area was surreal: a moonscape surrounded us with Glacier Chico covered in volcanic ash to our east, and mountains straight out of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy to our East.
The Villa O’Higgins area has experienced brutal abuse from both the natural forces of the area and the anthropogenic slash and burn techniques used for the past century to promote grazing lands for cattle. Even a place as wild and remote as this is coated in human fingerprints; just 40 km to our East is El Chaltén, a tourist-filled village sitting at the foot of Mt. Fitz Roy. But here, Lenga (southern beech) forests are now sparsely scattered throughout the hills and burnt snags and open shrublands full of exotic grasses now dominate the landscape. Today was our hard day. 18 kilometers of backpacking would take us 800m up a valley to a wind-blown pass with gusts of 70mph.
We began our day in the dark. Then, as the sun rose to our East, dark red clouds slowly transitioned to pink and orange as we ate our morning oatmeal. Once we were all packed up, we headed into the field to begin our transects documenting vegetation as well as keeping our eyes peeled for any signs of the endangered huemul deer, whose presence in the area had previously been unknown to CONAF officials. We trekked on gray sands of glacial silt up to a valley coated in low-lying shrubs. In the distance, we noticed the silhouette of another hiker, so we pulled out our binoculars and confirmed it was someone enjoying the view of Glacier Pyramide and the Pyramide range to our West. Then, we continued on our path only to realize our fellow hiker was actually an Andean condor, sitting and scoping potential carrion to scavenge.
We began our ascent with switchbacks up the steep slope while documenting the change in vegetation as we gained elevation. Our trek up the valley wall took a total of three hours, where we were rewarded for our efforts by a panoramic view of jagged peaks and stoic glaciers – motivation to continue onward.
We continued onward towards Glacier O’Higgins in the alpine valleys of the park. The winds picked up, but Juan Carlos, our guardaparque guide, insured us that we would experience “Wild Patagonia” soon enough. At the highest point of our hike we knew exactly what he was talking about. The eleven of us, each with 40-pound packs, leaned straight into the wind being completely supported at a 45-degree angle. Any steps made out of the wind’s current was quickly punished and corrected, otherwise you’d be blown back like a leaf in the breeze.
As we started descending we got the view of Patagonia we had all been waiting for: Glacier Pyramide and mountain range to our left, the massive Glacier O’Higgins in the center with the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in the background, and the O’Higgins fjord to the right with its stunning turquoise waters. We all stood in the grassland admiring the view and noticed cattle 50 meters away from us grazing in this extremely harsh environment, impressed at their capabilities to withstand such wind and enjoy the grasses. We continued on battling 70 mph winds that none of us had ever experienced before. Dust kicked up into our eyes and spit flew backwards out of our mouths, but we continued to enjoy our scenic hike and collect data. Not many organisms can call this place home, yet here we were taking in a panoramic view of “Wild Patagonia” with all its gusts and glory.
Clouds formed over the mountains and began to engulf the mountain fronts. We thought rain was on its way and were forced to race the weather to our planned campsite in a dense lenga forest, a safe haven from the wind and the only place anyone could survive the night on this side of the mountain. We walked along the ridgeline bordering the turquoise water of Lago O’Higgins while being pushed forward by the wind. With the forest in sight we felt a sense of relief to be able to relax for the remainder of the day, but also upset that we wouldn’t see this landscape again. After a day in the wind, we made our way into the forest and were greeted by birdsongs, which welcomed us to our calm, overnight home.
Top photo: UVM student Sadey Mirabile takes the 800m climb in stride! Photo by Adam Spencer.