The Better Part of Valour

 

Heading towards the Beagle Channel, September 2014.

Heading towards the Beagle Channel, September 2014.

 

At 6am the storm was still raging and it was almost 10am by the time we got going. We decided to travel light as we had so little of the good weather window left. Straight away it was a test of teamwork and motivation: taking it in turns to break trail through deep snow, navigating around crevasses and trying to stay warm. Periodically, I took compass bearings just in case the visibility dropped; Simon placed waymarks in his GPS.

We pushed further on and then a little further through magnificent scenery, before dropping down a rocky couloir and up towards the next glacier. Up ahead were two fine unclimbed peaks.

 

“I don’t think anyone has ever stepped foot on this glacier before,” Simon said.

 

From the air, we would have looked very lonely: two small figures slowly punching holes in the deep, white snow. Inside I felt two conflicting emotions: joy at being so alone and slight anxiety about the seriousness of the place. Even a twisted ankle here could prove calamitous.

 

As we moved towards the bottom of the face, I peered around at banks of snow, memorizing them in case we were forced to spend a night out – at least we could dig a snow cave to shelter in out of the wind.

 

Up above, the clouds had cleared to reveal a possible line through to unclimbed summits. It didn’t look steep, but it had a serious air about it, debris from hanging glaciers littered the bottom of the face out left and right. It was so cold that we calculated these ice cliffs would be frozen enough to allow us to sprint up and down to the summit.

 

Simon ploughed through the snow like a machine until the face steepened and we put on our crampons. Without warning the cloud descended and before long we had very little visibility. We climbed together, rather than stopping to belay eventually reaching a sharp ridge. I peered over it, trying to gauge where the summit might be.

 

“It’s 40 metres above us according to the GPS,” Simon shouted. He climbed up to me and peered into the swirling cloud.

 

“There looks to be a giant crevasse,” I said, nodding downwards.

 

A canyon with overhanging 100-foot walls separated us from the ridgeline we needed to be on. We only had a single thin rope and it would be far too committing to abseil into this giant crevasse so late in the day, without knowing if we could climb back out again. The wind intensified, freezing snow onto our goggles and gloves. We were hours away from the tent, hours of more wading through snow to get back to our sleeping bags and food.

 

We debated the options, but quickly realized that the only safe decision was to retreat. It was frustrating, being so close to our summit. We set off back down the face, two ice axes and crampons biting into the hard ice.

 

Our disappointment was alleviated somewhat just before sunset by staggering views of the peaks further south towards Cape Horn. Maybe we could come back.

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