Exploring the Cordillera Darwin – From one base camp to another

Approaching the head of Baha Pia, Tierra del Fuego.

Approaching the head of Baha Pia, Tierra del Fuego.


After flying 12,000km, we arrived in Ushuaia. It was dark, bitterly cold and blanketed in snow. Our skipper Marcel gave us a warm welcome onto his lovely boat, Iorana, and poured three glasses of very fine red wine. My kind of basecamp!


After a couple of days negotiating paperwork, first with the Argentinean navy and then the Chilean navy in Puerto Williams, we set off west along the Beagle Channel. Strong winds meant we often only moved for a couple of hours before seeking a sheltered anchorage. We were trapped in one spot for two days, the wind roaring in the channel. Almost a week after leaving the UK we finally got close to the big, pristine mountains. We had met just two fishing boats since leaving Puerto Williams, and now there was no one. We passed a couple of Megallanic penguins and up ahead glaciers calved into the sea. The mountains here felt raw and inaccessible, guarded by impenetrable forest right down to the water’s edge.


Our primary objective was to climb a very difficult technical face on an unclimbed mountain at the head of the Baha Pia fjord. We set off on a beautiful morning down what has to be one of the most austere fjords anywhere. Frozen waterfalls draped down vertical cliffs into the sea. The steel hull crunched ice as Marcel navigated around large chunks of ice, debris left by the collapsing glaciers.


The expedition nearly ended that day. Firstly, Simon and I failed to cross a dangerous, crevasse-riddled glacier and then, whilst getting back onto Iorana, a house-sized block of ice crashed into the sea. A wall of water hit us side on, pushing the boat onto rocks. Whilst trying to free the boat, another collapse roared and we hastily threw out extra anchors to secure the boat and then wait for the tide to rise. It was dark when we finally motored back down the gorge, much to everyone’s relief.


Our back up plan was to explore some unclimbed peaks further east.

Simon has led numerous expeditions to this area and his knowledge of the central massif is second to none. We had just three and a half days of the weather window left now and we had to act quickly. Early the next morning we sailed to Collate Olla beneath Mount Francis and Mount Bove. These peaks are seldom climbed; Simon and his teams have made most of the ascents. Crucially, he knows of vague intricate paths created by guanacos that lead through dense forest giving access to the high glaciers and hopefully unclimbed peaks beyond.


The weather here was better, and we set off with four days of food, aiming to climb 1200 meters to a place where we could establish a camp. We passed beaver dams, frozen lakes, hard snow-ice slopes and then waded through thigh- deep powder to a rock ridge. Donned with multiple layers and goggles, we battled up to a col, pushing on through a blizzard before finally finding a tiny platform just before nightfall. We chopped out the ice for our tent, tied the tent to a cliff and crawled in for soup and mashed potato. One of the advantages of being in a tent is that you can communicate and plan a strategy for the following day. Sleeping in a bivvy bag saves you a little weight, but it is cold and you don’t get the chance to chat.


We set the alarms for 6am, hopeful that the storm would abate long enough for us to venture further into the massif towards a group of unclimbed peaks. All night long, avalanches roared and the wind rattled the single nylon fabric tent wall. It wasn’t the most relaxing night’s sleep.

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