By Eñaut Izagirre
Working in Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego is not an easy task. Changing weather conditions and an intricate geography of fjords, channels, mountain ranges and vast glaciers that reach sea level give rise to one of the most extreme regions of the planet where numerous expeditions have sunk in the quest for discoveries.
Conducting exploration expeditions to these latitudes you have to cope with violent wind gusts and lots of precipitation fronts coming from the Pacific and Antarctica. Therefore, exploration expeditions, even today, have their sense in of these places where there is been little to no human presence.
Mixing alpinism and scientific research, my team and I launched the Incognita Patagonia project in 2015 with the idea of better understanding the current changes that are happening in southern Patagonia glaciers related to climate change. In 2016, we accomplished the ambitious objective of exploring and documenting the remote and unknown southernmost icefield of South America. Beyond Tierra del Fuego’s Darwin Range and Mount Sarmiento, nestled in a labyrinth of southern fjords and mountains, lies the vast Cloue Icefield.
After reading two scientific articles that were mentioning the stability of Cloue Icefield’s glaciers, surveyed by satellite imagery, we were hoping to the check their status on the ground and conduct additional glacial geomorphology works around the icefield’s perimeter. Surprisingly, the team measured that the glacier area diminished 20 percent between 1945 and 2016, and discovered some exceptional glaciological processes and conditions, such as one large proglacial lake that suffered an outburst flood (GLOF) in 1997-98 and the disconnection between the upper plateau of the icefield and many of the glacier tongues, which we were not able to see in the preliminary mapping of the area with satellite and aerial imagery.
Additionally, the expedition required significant resilience in adverse conditions and with limited information. This was only possible thanks to very careful preparations. For example, my teammates Ibai Rico and Evan Miles completed most of the icefield crossing in a blizzard at night, following a carefully prepared GPS route. We later conducted the survey of icefield summits, including two interesting first ascents (Mount Cloue and Torre Saia), during the only conditions permitting visibility — moderate rain and wind. Consequently, we have some dramatic photos and video from each of those experiences. Simply locating the positions of the weather stations was a major obstacle due to poor record-keeping, and those (limited) observations are of extreme value to groups attempting to validate dynamically-downscaled meteorological and climate models.
In conclusion, we were really well-prepared for this expedition, as we all usually do winter mountaineering activities, such as alpinism or ski mountaineering, but for working on remote areas such as Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, it is more important to be psychologically well prepared for any contingency that can happen due to weather, terrain or team conditions.