The battle for the great Transpatagonia ice cap
20:45 p.m. EST Oct 30, 2003
Recently, Borge Ousland and Thomas Ulrich came back from an expedition to the TransPatagonia ice cap. Their expedition stirred the polar community straight from the start.

To begin with, some media presented it as the first crossing of the Transpatagonia ice cap, something that deeply upset Pablo Besser, RodrigoFica, Jose Montt, and Mauricio Rojasa - a pioneer Chilean expedition who were first in 1998/99.

Next a question emerged regarding support. The Chileans used a pre-placed cache, Borge and Thomas used kites.

Finally the controversy culminated as Borge and Thomas completed their expedition at top speed (49 days), but at an earlier exit point than the pioneers.

In this story, both parties offer their comments. To enable a reasonably short and clear presentation, this article is cut and paste from a number of both teams extensive e-mails. Both parties will in addition have the opportunity to later add one more statement each if they find needed.

The article is divided in 6 main sections. They are: Exit/Definition/Support/Media/Respect/Other.
The article is ending with a summary made by ExplorersWeb.

Borge's statement:

We exited at Tyndall, marked on the map (img 5). There is no reasonable exit between our exit at Tyndall and the rock band. It is important to establish where the continuous ice stops, since this was the reason for our decision to exit at Tyndall. To exit at Balmaceda we would have to cross a mountain/rocks (img 4), and since the continuous ice stops here we went out Tyndall. The Chileans must mave crossed this rock band. We state as before that we are the first to cross the southern icecap unsupported from Tortel to Puerto Natales, wich for us means crossing the most difficult point Fella Reichart, skiing from the Horge Montt glacier to Tyndall and exit at a for us convenient point for finishing with kayaks at Puerto Natales which was our final finish point.

Definition of crossing:
I have never said myself that we crossed the whole length of the full icecap, we knew of course that there was more ice to the south of the rock band and also south of Balmaceda.

Since our research shows that the formal ice-stream stops before this point, we have - it seems - come up with new information: This is a major point that needs new eyes and consideration. Based on this we considered Tyndal the logical exit and went out here.

There is mountain/rock cutting through the icecap at this point. The continuous southern icecap stops here. We say that we have the first unsupported crossing of the continuous icecap, from Tortel to Natales - with the support of ski sail.

In my opinion an unsupported expedition is defined as what you bring from start to finish, without receiving depots or outside support on the way. Our Patagonia crossing however cannot be compared with Antarctica, where you can do great distances with sails after the South Pole, we had very limited use of sails, and it wasn't worth the extra weight.

During the expedition my webmaster wrote that we were the first to cross the whole icecap, I have asked him to change this to: The first unsupported crossing of the continuous southern icecap, from Tortel to Puerto Natales. Note that the Chileans still state their expedition as unsupported on their website.

We recognize Besser's expedition as the first to cross the whole length of the icecap with support. A great feat, which I look forward to hear more about.

Besser didn't want to share his information with us. This is his choice and of course it affects our feelings towards him. As you know, I have supported all expeditions that have approached me with questions and in my opinion, this is the way it should be.
It is also not good that he starts the discussion in public instead of sorting it out with us first. Instead we got a lot of valuable information from a Spanish/Argentinean expeditions that also made the crossing, Jose Tamayo a few years ago (supported) and that was of great help for us.

Pablo's statement:

A great adventure. But not a full crossing. In the past, several teams chose different enter and exit ways, according to their own logistics, but it was clear that if they did that, they couldn't claim a "full crossing". This is important because the crossing was attempted many times since 1960. If somebody wants to make the full crossing, they must respect some basic geographical facts, regardless their nationality, performance or experience.

The facts are, essentially, three things:

A: Start in Jorge Montt.
B: Cross the Reichert Fault
C: Leave in Balmaceda.

The geographical facts: The glaciologist community state the Patagonian Ice cap run from (Lat 48°15' to 51°30'S.) The US geological Survey is very clear about that.
We exited Balamaceda at 51° 24,23 / 73° 17,61. This was our last camp in the glacier, 395,03 kilometers to the south of Jorge Montt Glacier.

The terrain: To the south of "Canal de las Montañas" there are ridges, ranges, peaks, most of them covered by snow, not a formal glacier system. To the southeast of "Balmaceda", the glacier fall and arrive, several kilometers later in to lakes, forests and sea (see the Buscaini map).

Definition of crossing:
A glacier like this can not be compared to a mountain and there will always be points of some kilometers more or less which are left out, but we are talking about 60 kilometers, at least. They had to cross two additional different glaciers systems: Tyndall and Balmaceda.
Sir Eric Shipton, the explorer, did the first instep from the same spot used for all the expeditions since (1960), this is the tradition.

Before the expedition, we traveled on a Navy vessel, then carried food and equipment in our backpacks for 8 days (4 persons) and placed a cache. Mr. Ousland and Mr. Ulrich used parawings, covering 40 kms daily, benefiting from the very same wind that stopped us. We could barely cover 10 km per day.

The standard must be same for everybody. We live in an age when media owns the power to kill the truth. Maybe the best example of how bad it is to leave things going on without a "fight" is the Spanish expedition in 1993: They crossed the Reichert section by helicopter and they left the ice in Tyndall (Pingo). But their media power was so consolidated (the Spanish expedition was fully sponsored by "Al Filo de lo Imposible", a famous Spanish adventure TV program) that it took 10 years of efforts to convince people they didn't do it.

We congratulate Mr. Ousland and Mr. Ulrich for their extraordinary traverse, which shows just how strong the human spirit is.

We receive hundreds of requests for help, from people who come here, take advantage of our information and then return to their countries saying whatever they want and forgetting us. We feared the same from Ousland and Ulrich. We apologize for that. But, in the end, again we were right in our preconceptions. Borge and Thomas did not do a full crossing of the ice cap but claim victory. The Spanish too didn't make the crossing. They crossed the Reichert Fail by helicopter to begin with. Full story, visit the report in High Magazine that we did (link).

ExplorersWeb comments:

The Chileans point out that Borge and Thomas exited at Tyndall glacier, some 50 km from the Balmaceda glacier, by them considered the true exit point. Borge and Thomas say that they have studied satellite images and based on those, do not consider Balmaceda a part of the continuous ice cap.

SPIF is with it’s 400 km in length considered the world’s third largest ice-cap. (img 1) It stretches from North to South and everybody agree that it starts with the Jorge Montt glacier. Both the Chilean Expedition and Borge & Thomas started at this point. In the South it ends with Tyndall glacier, the French Plateau and the Balmaceda glacier (img 2). The Chileans stress that the last part might not be that long with app. 10% of the total distance, but it’s difficult with severe ice-pinnacles to cross (img 3).
Borge & Thomas stress that the Landsat image (img 4), shows that a mountain cuts through the ice-field and thus the continuous ice field stops South of Thyndall glacier, but north of Balmaceda.

In 1993 a Spanish Argentinean expedition exited at the Tyndall glacier. The expedition was heavily supported, but due to the early exit it was considered not complete.

Roger Hemon’s expedition in 1982 actually started from the South with the Balmaceda glacier, then went across Tyndall but exited at Dickson due to logistic problems.

The end of the ice-field according to USGS

USGS (U.S. Geological Survey - link) writes that the South Patagonian Ice Field starts at Lat 48°15 S, and ends at 51°30 S. They also state ”… the southernmost glacier of the SPIF, Glaciar Balmaceda (lat 51°23'S.)…”

...thus making it clear that the Balmaceda is considered part of SPIF by the geologists. The Chilean Expedition exited at lat 51°28, 2 NM or 3.7 km North of the by USGS defined end-point. Borge and Thomas exited roughly 50 km North of this point.


At this point all sources show that Balmaceda is the “correct” exit point for a full-crossing of the SPIF. According to Pablo Besser and the Chileans, when you are at Tyndall “you can only see a big mountain in the South, the Col Momblano (1700m)," but behind it the ice cap continues to the South.

Various satellite images show a difference in how wide the glacier is at the corridor between Balmaceda and Tyndall. It changes seasonally and also over time due to the melting of the glaciers.

Just as North Pole expeditions are facing increasing degrees of open water, future crossings of the SPIF will have less ice to travel on.

It was proven as late as 1999 by the Chileans that crossing the cap including the Balmaceda is feasible. It is not likely that degeneration of the ice-cap in the last three years has been so significant that the Balmaceda should no longer be part of the crossing.

Borge’s and Thomas crossing can not be considered a complete crossing in our view. However, the expeditions is still significant and takes its place in the history of SPIF attempts, as the longest and fastest journey on the ice-cap without resupplies. Borge and Thomas expedition was technically supported by sails, but apparently had limited use of them. Their expedition is the first crossing of the icecap from Tortel to Natales without any resupplies, but with the support of ski sail.

The Chilean expedition still stands as the first and only expedition with a complete crossing, however with the support of a pre-placed cache.

So, for everybody out there: A fully unsupported, complete crossing of the world’s third largest ice-cap still remains!

Images from top to bottom: Exweb, Pablo Besser, Pablo Besser, Borge Ousland, Borge Ousland. Graphic additions by Exweb, Besser and Ousland.