The Cordillera Sarmiento in Winter
The following article is reprinted from the annual  AMERICAN ALPINE CLUB
JOURNAL 1993,  page 109.

The Cordillera Sarmiento in Winter

By Jack Miller

    The islands, fjords and mainland along the southwest coast of South
America are legendary for collecting storms.  Rolling off the Roaring
Forties and Furious Fifties of the South Pacific and Antarctic oceans,
they dump precipitation in enormous amounts (one station commonly
reports over 8 meters--more than 300 inches--per year). This results in
lush rain forests at sea level and healthy glaciers that lie not much
higher.  Some of the world's fine mountains are found there--when they
can be found.
    My travels and climbs in this wet zone, over the last 30 years, have
ranged from the Darwin Range in Tierra del Fuego to San Lorenzo, 15
degrees of latitude further north.  Over time I learned there are
pockets within this wet zone that are even wetter, viewed as a perpetual
cloud cap, and sure to be centered over some orographic attraction.  The
Cordillera Sarmiento (not to be confused with well-known Monte
Sarmiento, south of the strait of Magellan) is one. Of the several
hundred days I'd been, theoretically, within sight of the range, I had
glimpsed its peaks only twice, in 1974 and 1976. Even camping during our
three-week siege, in January 1976, across the Fjord of the Mountains
from these peaks, failed to reveal more than their lower escarpments and
tongues of glaciers that must descend from massive fields of ice.
Ridgeway and party in November, 1989 reported the same unceasing
    Then, one day in February 1990, as I was driving a road some 55
miles to the east, they came clear !  I dropped all else, rented a plane
and overflew the range, all 40 miles of it, both sides.  The photos
created an excitement that resulted in grants from The Shipton/Tilman
Fund of Gore and Associates and National Geographic Magazine.  With
support from Ladeco Airlines, several equipment manufacturers and
donations from friends we raised enough for a modest expedition of six
men for six weeks.
    Over the years Patagonian locals told me that austral winter offered
the best chance of clear days and low winds, and the scant climate bore
that out.  The trade-off would be short days and colder temperatures.
In the winter of 1992, we arrived in Puerto Natales, a fishing village
120 miles north of the Strait of Magellan, to learn that June and July
had brought some clear, some calm days, even some clear and calm days.
We were on the right track.
    As companions in these explorations, I'd chosen Pete Garber, Rob
Hart, Phillip Lloyd, Gordon Wiltsie and Tyler van Arsdell. Allthough
they had climbed widely in mountains around the world, only Pete had
experience in this climate.  They were astounded when first stepping
ashore into the super-rain forest.  Gordon declared, "I've never seen a
place like this !" which quickly translated to "How the hell do we stay
dry ?"
    That was August 16.  We had arrived from Puerto Natales on a 50-foot
wooden motor sailer, the "Trinidad."   Early in our 70-mile voyage we
abandoned "dry" Patagonia and all of man's activities, except fishing
and some rudimentary logging.  Even place names on the map stopped at
the edge of  "wet." Every map, every book, every person we consulted
gave us reason to believe the range was essentially unknown.
    Base Camp centered around a smallish 8x16 foot tent that could
withstand Antarctic winds, but not, we soon learned, Patagonian rain.
We mounted it atop a plywood platform on posts; thus we'd brought our
own level and firm ground with us, for such clearly was not to be found
anywhere in those boggy forests or along the steep ridges which soar
directly off the beach. Our sleeping tents were draped over planks on
the bog or on bedrock too exposed to support soil and its spongy
mosses.  Large stands of old growth Nothofagus, or southern beech,
protected us from the ferocious winds.
    Our 1990 air photos had suggested not only this location but also
the best ridges for approaching the icefields which overhang the
fjords.  By August 29, we were camped at 4000 feet, three in a snow cave
and three in a Himilayan Hotel tent, until it blew away.  By comparing
our air photos with views during open moments between storms, we located
the route through the lower icefalls and crevasse fields.
    Of the 45 days in the range we were graced by several brief periods
of clear weather but only had four days which might be called "good."
August 30 was one.  We rapidly skied our flagged route and beyond, up
steep but trouble-free glacial slopes.  Before noon, we topped "The
South Face" (our name) and stood in awe at the view.
    Those readers who have been atop an unclimbed peak in a virgin range
on a clear day can imagine our ecstacy.  Magnificent peaks spread out to
the south and north of us, none with names, or even mapped.  The
block-faulted nature of the mafic olivine/serpentine bedrock, anomalous
throughout the Andean cordillera, resulted in peaks mostly steep-sided,
often vertical.  By dint of weather and remoteness, all will be
difficult climbs; some, such as "Angel Wings" --two overhanging summits
in the form of shadow-hands wings--will push mountaineering limits.
    Once our initial rapture passed we took surveys with compass and a
compact Garmin GPS (Global Positioning System) computer which read our
position accurately off military satellites.  Then our afternoon passed
in a virtual orgy of peak-bagging, our skis taxiing us across the
glaciers to "Gremlins Cap," "Jaco," and "Elephant Ears," summits
encrusted in rime.  Even as dusk came on, young Pete mirrored our
reluctance to descend out of this paradise by scrambling around on
vertical ice with his front points.  The perfect mountain day ended with
our ski descent down the rolling glaciers to camp.
    The following day, also good, allowed us to split into two groups.
Gordon and I went south to scout the route up the range's highest peak,
"Peak 66"--given by previous estimates as 6600 feet, although our
surveys put it over 7000. We now refer to this grand summit as "La Dama
Blanca" ("The White Lady"). This we accomplished, as the wind was coming
up and cumulus lenticularus were building. Given just one more day, we
could climb the peak--but we never got it.
    The other four come in at dark, having skied several miles across
the entire northern icefield of the range to climb two peaks, named
tentatively, "Taraba I and II." Their summit views looked almost
straight down into Taraba Sound, the large inland sea which borders the
Sarmiento range on the west.
    Storm held us in the snow cave for five days, frustrating any
further exploration.  One attempt aborted just outside our cave when
winds picked up 220-pound Pete and tossed him like a rag doll.  Finally
we descended in hellish winds and nasty rappels to the fjords, then
motored in our small inflatable boat to Base Camp on treacherous seas.
We made it in time for our radio schedule with the "Trinidad."
    As we sailed out of the Fjord of the Mountains, the weather lifted
and gave us clear views of the range.  For the first time, I saw the one
peak that Dan Asay and I had climbed, blinded by storm, in 1976.  It was
the highest of three rock towers we called the "Three Furies," with an
altitude of approximately 4000 feet.  Rounding Cape Earnest into the
shipping lanes, we had full view of Monte Burney, climbed by Eric
Shipton in the early 1960's on his third attempt.
    Sailing into the unknown Taraba Sound, we explored all five major
fjords that pierce the range from the Sound. At the head of one we
discovered a glacial lake whose emerald green waters captured icebergs
that calved off two immense piedmont glaciers.  Gordon pointed out that
if this were the Himalaya, thousands of pilgrims would pay homage to it
each year for its sheer beauty.
    We eventually settled on one fjord, "Spire Fjord" for locating our
second Base Camp to explore the range's central icefield and attempting
the spectacular spire that dominates the fjord.  We came to know it as
the "Fickle Finger of Fate."
    Moderate scrambling on ice got the team to the base of the vertical
"Finger." Only 50 meters of climbing remained to the top, but the famous
"hongo" ice (which we dubbed "elephant ears"), the lacy rime
inter-lensed with wind-blasted snow, frustrated Phillip's first attempt
to lead it.  It was nearly three weeks before weather permitted another
try.  On October 1, in an eleventh hour attempt,  he and Pete reached
the summit.  The following day the "Trinidad" motored in and returned us
to civilization.