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Patagonia Explorers

Jarek Wieczorek. Edited by Rianna Riegelman

Every step takes away the very last piece of my strength. To move a leg I need to scream and squeeze all that is left in me. Nobody is listening anyway. The screams die quickly in the marshes. Our bodies sink deeper into a mixture of brown water, moss, and rotten grass. A couple of vultures circle above us on the last thermals of the day. We are far south and summer days are long at these latitudes, but the night is coming and I know that we will be stuck in these marshes. My GPS says it is only one more kilometer to go. Only? When it takes an hour to walk a hundred meters one kilometer seems like an impossible eternity. We can see the moraine at a distance and I know that our prize is on the other side – I saw it two years ago. But we will be stuck in the marshes for the night. We will not make it today. We set up our tent on a piece of muddy ground, hoping the next storm from the Antarctic will not hit tonight.

We have been in this land for three weeks now. My skin slowly starts to resemble thin paper through which you can see all the taut tendons and muscles fed on the body builder supplements we have been eating. We have not seen any people here. We have not seen any signs of people. There is nobody here to name places and the few names that exist make you think: Expedition Fjord, Explorers Valley, Gulf of Sorrows. I play along and name a lake filled with icebergs and eternal fogs –Disillusion Lake. The name fits.

In 1741 a British Royal Navy sail ship HMS Wager shipwrecked on an island at the entrance to these fjords. Most of the crew survived the running aground but getting back to civilization was the story of their times. After almost a year on the island fighting winter weather, starvation, mutiny and countless fruitless tries to sail out of the island, only a handful of them remained alive. Then, one day, those survivors were met by sea-faring Alacaluf Indians. The Alacalufs, who were sea nomads and lived on their boats, took the survivors on an epic four-month journey through a secret passage on Ofqui isthmus and an infinite maze of fjords in Western Patagonia up to the inhabited island of Chiloe 500 miles north. It was a journey that only a few of the castaways survived including midshipman John Byron who lived to tell the story in his book. The Alacalufs are long gone. The island is called now Wager. In 1973 a new navy expedition came here to explore this truly forgotten corner of our planet. They had the support of the British and Chilean navies, but they did not have what we have—packrafts. And now we are here and we have gone even farther than anyone else before us into uncharted valleys and fjords known only from satellite photos.

There is nobody here to name places and the few names that exist make you think: Expedition Fjord, Explorers Valley, Gulf of Sorrows. I play along and name a lake filled with icebergs and eternal fogs – Disillusion Lake. The name fits.
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If I had to go through ten times muddier marshes, ten times denser jungle, ten times stronger storms I still would do it for this single day in front of the misty glacier. But I did not have to because every single day of this month-long expedition has been filled with experiences our imagination could not have prepare us for.
Morning sun wakes us up to a perfectly blue sky without a single cloud and a clear water channel in the marshes leads us across the moraine. We emerge at the foot of the enormous San Quintin glacier. Our hearts skip a beat and we sit for a whole day with our backpacks still on our backs looking at the ice giant.

Patagonian Ice Fields are among the most inhospitable and least explored places on Earth. Divided into two, the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields constitute the world’s third-largest continental mass of ice, after Antarctica and Greenland. Over 50 glaciers spill off the ice fields between peaks of the Patagonian Andes into lakes or the sea. Ventisquero San Quintin is the largest glacier of Northern Ice Field and dwarfs the next largest. It is so big that its size can only be fully appreciated from the air. Plunging into inaccessible marshes of Ofqui Isthmus, this glacier eluded earlier attempts of exploration.

Paddling in the labyrinth of icebergs surrounding San Quintin is demanding. Imagine a small inflatable boat maneuvering around chunks of ice with sharp melted edges. When we reach a land bridge separating the main body of the glacier from its northern arm, we begin to trek toward the shores of the glacial lake of the northern arm. The weather begins to change. With light southern wind, humid ocean air comes along from the Gulf of Sorrows on the other side of the Ofqui marshes. The wind blows right across the huge ice tongue of San Quintin glacier. What happens is the same as when you blow your warm humid breath across cold ice cream. Only the scale is different. Mists appear and fogs meander between ice towers and crevasses. Icebergs become enshrouded in veils of white wisps. It is an eerie spectacle, a jaw-dropping phenomenon Patagonia prepared just for us. We let our packrafts drift silently between icebergs and we say nothing as if our noise could break the spell of the moment.

Later this afternoon we make a camp in front of the glacier and continue watching the spectacle, laying in our packrafts as if they were reclining chairs and sipping hot tea. If I had to go through ten times muddier marshes, ten times denser jungle, ten times stronger storms I still would do it for this single day in front of the misty glacier. But I did not have to because every single day of this month-long expedition has been filled with experiences our imagination could not have prepare us for.

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Our eyes are not used to this land of contrasts. Standing on a white sand beach in hot summer sun you see snow and ice-covered mountain peaks topped with lenticular clouds. Glaciers that descend from those ice fields do not flow through barren, rugged mountains but instead crash into rain forest—jungle filled with ferns, moss, bamboo and layers of fallen trees and colorful insects, into meadows covered in blankets of flowers. With a single look you can see here a tower of blue glacial ice and there a tiny shiny hummingbird diving into pink fuchsia flowers.

For me it is not about self-pride that we may be the first explorers at some of these faraway places, but that it is still possible for independent adventurers to find a corner of Earth where perhaps no one else has been, where animals are curious about humans, where you can drink water straight from a stream or a lake. After four weeks in Patagonia I am still mesmerized by her beauty.

Over the past five years I have had the rare chance to see these very remote places, many of which have no record of being visited before because of topography and difficult access. Each of my expeditions in Patagonia has been an adventure filled with first rafting descents of milky glacial rivers and visits to distant glaciers. We hiked for days across one of the most untouched beaches we could imagine and fought our way through thick Patagonian primeval forest. We set our tent in front of walls of ice, on the side of rivers, deep in marshlands and on whatever small bite of land offered to hold our sturdy tent. I am honored and proud of what we have achieved there. We grew strong and skinny and sometimes we got wet. But even through raindrops, Patagonia reveals beautiful clues of her magic covered in mysterious mists. And, in sunshine, she makes your heart skip a beat with spectacular panoramas, perfect light, and valleys ready for exploration. Patagonia impresses, but she makes you work hard for your prize.

profile-jarek

Jaroslaw Zygmunt Wieczorek or simply Jarek comes from a quiet town in Eastern Poland. Years ago he exchanged his comfortable life on Chicago lakefront for a life in a shipping container on a dune at the heart of the Atacama desert and a small tent in Western Patagonia. Today he is the Expedition Director of Antofaya Expeditions specialising in custom-tailored overland and trekking expeditions and paragliding adventures in Chile and Argentina

Jarek always travels with his camera and regularly writes for his blog at http://www.digitalitis.com/blog/

You can find Antofaya on Facebook here.

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