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.
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:
The article is
ending with a summary made by ExplorersWeb.
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
Definition of crossing:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
facts are, essentially, three things:
A: Start in Jorge
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.
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.