The Great Patagonia Ice Cap Expedition
15:55 p.m. EDT Sep 26, 2003
02:58 a.m. EDT Sep 12, 2003
Borge Ousland just recently came down from Mount Everest. So, he spent the summer chilling out and enjoying the greenery, right? Wrong! The Norwegian polar veteran barely touched sea level before he was off again.

This time, for a thrill that will keep us all spellbound for some time ahead. Borge and German adventurer Thomas Ulrich are off to cross the world's third largest ice cap.

So what's the big deal about that, if you already (like Borge) crossed the other, much bigger ones? Well, this one includes a serious ice fall and some good mountain climbing.

Many have tried, but only one party finally succeeded the quest. Just to get up on the glacier is a challenge. But before we continue, let's lose some rumors in media casting a shade on a tremendous adventure:

The Pioneers

The headlines have it that Borge and Thomas - if successful - will be the first to complete the crossing. ExplorersWeb contacted some Chilean pioneers who reportedly already hold the prize. Pablo replied fast:

-"Thanks for getting in touch with us. Yes we did the first ever full crossing of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap between November 98 to January 99 in 98 days. Sadly, we didn't get much recognition for this outside of Chile. It was however published in Desnivel climbing magazine, the American Alpine Journal and High Magazine.

I got in contact with T. Ulrich a few months a go and I made it very clear that the first crossing was made by us, 4 friends from Chile on our third attempt. The first was in 95 together with Mr. Arved Fuchs (Fuchs-Messner Antartica crossing), later in 96 where we only completed 2/3 of the 400 km ice cap, and the last, successful, in 1998 to 1999 (Oct-Jan).

We started from the Jorge Montt glacier, the most northern part of the ice cap and exited in the very last part the Balmaceda Glacier. A film was made about it. A book is just about to be published. Sadly, the ice cap is not well known outside Chile-Argentina, so this great sports success was not extensively published. But the first crossing was done in 98-99."

The support

Neither of the parties use/used resupplies, dogs or other external help. The Chileans however placed a cache in the icefall:

-"Our depot was placed through the forest, close to the Garcia glacier (part of the ice cap), by ourselves earlier in the trip.

56 days later we reached the Garcia glacier again, and made camp on the ice. We then moved to the cache and fetched the replacement gear. We never left the ice. We felt this was unsupported, as we didn't use machines, dogs or sails, nor change of team members or got gear from other people or team support."

Strictly technically however, the expedition did in fact become supported - even if by its own members only - as the members used the easier terrain of the forest to place out the spare gear.

Borge and Thomas instead hope to complete the crossing without a pre-placed cache. That is more difficult. The reason being that their sleds will be much heavier in the beginning, and actually throughout all of the first half of the trip.

However, according to Thomas website, Borge and Thomas packed sails as an aid to pull the heavy sleds and to cover the distance faster. Sails are - again strictly technically - a support. The reason being that a daily distance covered by sailing is up to four times greater than skiing/walking. In addition, the pull of heavy sleds is significantly eased by the aid of kites (much like the aid of pulling dogs).

So what we are ending up with here is a first that goes to the Chilean Pioneers. In addition, both expeditions were/are supported, even if the definition is made in its most strict meaning. It is simply harder to ski a glacier without caches and sails. The one who manages that, will earn the term "unsupported".

The Facts and the History

Now that we have settled that, let's jump right into the action:

There are large icecaps/glaciers on earth. They all pose a serious challenge to cross, due to difficult travel on ice, generally bad weather and dangerous crevasses. The three largest ice caps in the world are (at their widest point):

1. Antarctica ice cap 5800 km
2. Greenland ice cap 2500 km
3. Patagonia ice cap 400 km

The Patagonia ice cap, or Hielo Patagonio Sur, is 400 km by 80 km.The cap is long and narrow. It has been crossed several times east/west and west/east, as this direction is shorter and the main difficulties of the glacier can be avoided. But only once before has the cap been crossed in its full length.

There are two main obstacles on the route: The first obstacle consists of a wall that must be climbed to reach the Glacier. The second - and worst - obstacle is a big rift with a huge ice fall right in the middle of the glacier.

The chronology of the most notable ice cap crossing expedition attempts is this:

1960/61 British Eric Shipton made the first partial N-S crossing
1992 Italians led by Paolo Cavagnetto completed 2/3 of the route, incl the Chilean corridor and the icefall.
1993 Spanish-Argentineans narrowly missed completing, went out Tyndall glacier.
1995 Arved Fuchs and Chilean friends incl Pablo Besser had to abort after 250 km and finish in the Peel Fiord.
1996 The Chileans returned with Pablo Besser, Rodrigo Fica and Jorge Crossley, but failed again.
1998 The Chileans return a third time with Pablo Besser, Mauricio Rojas, Jose Pedro Montt and Rodrigo Fica Perez - and succeeds, in 98 days, the first complete North to South traverse.

A Hellish Trip Ahead

Borge and Thomas have a hellish trip ahead. The guys have a very heavy load, in a difficult terrain. Says Pablo: "We took 30 days to cross the icefall only. First you reach the 2000 meters plateau, then fall 700 meters to a col of 1300, next climb up to 2225 meters, then rappel 700 more, half overhanging ice with pulkas and all. In the generally nasty weather... you can imagine".

At this point, the men have already kayaked for three days, cut their way through the forest and they started on the glacier September 2. Pablo reccounts his own trip to leave us a clue of what to expect:

-"Fifty days after the start, we arrived at the Reichert Fall, the most important obstacle in the traverse. A 900 meters ice fall, much like the Khumbu on Everest but without porters or sherpas, a chaos of seracs. We down-climbed to the bottom of the Fall, took our loads in the cache and made the first (and obligatory) ascent of East Bastion, climbing it because it stood in our way.

We climbed up 2300 meters, to face the worst, a 600 meters vertical face. Near the summit, we spent nine terrible days in a snow cave waiting for good weather. On January 10th, we started the longest and most dangerous rappel of our lives, 18 hours with sledges. Finally we were able to rappel 620 meters (150 overhanging)down the virgin south face. We became the first humans to cross the Reichert Fault, which in itself took 30 days.

Low on food rations and really weak, we walked the last 160 kilometers across broken glaciers in 21 days to finish on January 30, 1999, at Seno Ultima Esperanza, the Pacific Ocean, after 98 days on the Ice Cap, finishing the First Complete Crossing of the Patagonian Ice Cap."

The question now is how Borge and Thomas will fare in these conditions. The cap is smaller than Greenland and Antarctica, making it easy to underestimate the challenge of it. The expedition is heavy loaded and it's only their first attempt, compared to the Chileans three shots at it.

First or not, the Patagonia Ice cap doesn't really care:
It looks for the tough and the brave among us. Borge and Thomas had the guts to take on the challenge. Now, Mother Nature will decide.

Image courtesy of Pablo Besser and the Chilean Trans-Patagonia expedition