Memories from the Patagonian Icecap – #1 Blizzard!
December 2010 – Blizzards, snowdrifts, gales, frostbite, snow blindness, buried tents, floods, hardship, cold, sleepless nights. It must be summer then in deepest Patagonia.
This memory was one of the toughest two days of my mountain life. But, it was an experience I wouldn't have wanted to miss!
“One gains nothing worth having on mountains without paying for it; beyond the snowline minor hardships will always be met in a small tent and, the sooner a man is trained to rise above them the better” (W.H Murray, Mountaineering in Scotland)
When things start to go wrong in the mountains, it starts with small, minor things. Like when I had packed my big down gloves in my main rucksack, instead of close to hand. My rucksack was not very accessible as it had a pulk/sledge tied to it. When I wanted to warm my hands up I was faced with a problem. Stop and fiddle around for five minutes whilst everybody else froze, or keep going? I borrowed Kiersten's spare gloves and kept going, it wasn't ideal as my fingers still solidified.
After wearing contact lenses for twenty years I had recently changed back to wear glasses. Glasses and goggles in a blizzard do not make a good combination. They fog up and make navigation even more difficult. I soon abandoned the glasses as they were useless and my shortsightedness would not unduly affect my ability to navigate. The lenses of my goggles not only fogged up but became encrusted in ice particles. I was blind. As the navigator I needed any help I could get from the sloping, featureless terrain as the team were relying on me. In the interests of safety I took off my goggles. My eyelids quickly became iced up. Two inch long icicles hung off my nose, which Kiersten to her great credit managed to snap off. She does love me, after all, I reflected later!
Then another thing went wrong. Our satellite communications failed. We had been assured that Patagonia was within the working zone of our communicator. It wasn't. It was in a “grey” area, which meant it might work or it might not. Everyday we received text messages updating us with likely weather conditions. Without that we were blind. As night began to fall we reached the icecap and hastily built our snow walls and put up tents.
Overnight I reflected on our options. Our safety factor had narrowed dramatically during the day and what once suggested a big safety net was now reduced. We couldn't afford anything else to go wrong. Assessing risk in a situation where the safety factor has narrowed becomes simple. You have choice, go on, or retreat. Most people will choose retreat. Unknown to us, another small group caught out on the Icecap continued on into what was to develop into a full blown three day storm. Tragically loss of life was the result.
Next day the weather was just as bad. We had had a rough night with the winds constantly battering the tent. We decided without hesitation, and quite correctly, to pull out. Uncertainty with the weather and the previous days mauling make us retreat to lick our wounds. We headed east down from the Paso Marconi, this time with the wind at our backs. It was still a full on blizzard and the micro navigation required to find the top of the Serac barrier, the key to our escape, was critical. There was no sun, just a dense grey mass. I left my glasses and goggles off. After three hours of descending we reached safety and left the Marconi Glacier with a great sense of relief.