A Topography of Solitude
A Packraft Expedition in Patagonia
Bad weather on the walls of the tent; bad weather in my head. Patagonia’s San Quintín Glacier lay open as a love confession on the opposite side of the lake, but obscured by a frozen white mist. With each window of clarity the icebergs revealed their silent wanderings, swept and reshuffled by a playful and murderous wind. Inside my little one-man tent, cocooned in my bivouac and sleeping bag, I was the only still feature in a turbulent landscape. Drifting ever further into unexplored corners of boredom, desperation and anxiety, I waited for the storm to pass. I startled myself with the sound of my own voice when I said aloud: ‘so this is exploration’.
Somewhere beyond the mist, the end was almost in sight: on reaching the shores of Chile’s Laguna San Rafael I would complete a gruelling 24-day solo trip through one of the world’s most unknown regions. On foot and in packraft, I had travelled some 220km through the patchwork quilt of marshes, mountains, glaciers and forests sandwiched between the untameable wildernesses of the Northern Patagonian Ice Cap and the Pacific Gulf of Sorrows. I had camped in front of seven glaciers (two undocumented), paddled six rivers and walked along 35km of uninterrupted beach. In all this time, I saw not a single sign of human presence. Shrouded in solitude, my emotional topography mirrored the valleys and peaks I had traversed in this land of extremes. Patagonia became my deepest love and my bitterest enemy – a traitorous smile, a rainbow in a rainstorm.
At the start of my journey I had called in at the rangers’ cabin to register. As we shared a smoky brew of mate in a hollowed-out gourd I talked them through my route. My mood flickered between excitement and anxiety as I referred to a large map on the wall, dragging my finger along nameless valleys and prodding at the two unknown glaciers that I aimed to document for the first time. Chuckling like a pair of bright-eyed robins, the rangers assured me that I was crazy. They had witnessed a number of expeditions in previous years, but I was looking to go further into the unknown than almost all of them. Furthermore, there was the not insignificant element of going solo – not as some grizzled backcountry veteran, but as a fresh-faced 23 year-old. Confident of my thorough preparation, I laughed along with them that morning in the cabin, blissfully unaware of the full extent of the challenge ahead.
Later, that naivety returned to haunt me. On the flanks of an unnamed mountain, 50m above the yawning canyon below, I found myself collapsing with every step. The ground was a sloping mess of fallen and rotten logs, covered in thick green moss. Time and again, I fell chest-deep through this detritus, almost unable to lift myself and my 35kg backpack out. Rain was coming and the already glistening web of greenery around me would transform into an unstoppable slide towards the cliffs below. I was progressing at less than 300m per hour and had no way of knowing how much of this unchartered mistake lay before me.
I saw not a single sign of human presence. Shrouded in solitude, my emotional topography mirrored the valleys and peaks I had traversed in this land of extremes.
As I weaved between creaking icebergs in my packraft, or watched explosive Pacific breakers from my sleeping bag, I was ever-conscious that nature is as sharp as a knife; I was not a spectator in this game, and those friendly, chirping birds would watch my body chill and sink into the marsh with complete indifference.
My mind flickered about on autopilot. I thought of my parents’ home in rural Cornwall – cosy and secure – and their loving anxiety when I set off on my trip. It struck me that I was irresponsible to be risking my life on a whimsical voyage of youthful adventure. I’d begun to plan this trip three years ago, but somewhere in the interim things had changed. I had a love waiting for me in Santiago; I had friends and family who wanted nothing more than for me to arrive home safely. But here I was – one mistake away from tragedy – risking everything for a dream that a younger me had created. I became aware that my journey had somehow become a rite of passage, a reflection of that strange junction between youthful desire and adult responsibility.
On day 12 I summitted a low mountain on the lip of the Campo de Hielo Norte, part of the third biggest ice field in the world after Antarctica and Greenland. That’s when I experienced a taste of the elusive nectar of exploration that the ‘Christopher McCandless’ part of me was searching for. Earlier that day, I’d scrambled onto a bushy col which stood like a dancing partner to an unexplored glacier on the far side of a turquoise lake. Progressing slowly around its rocky borders, I contemplated the drama of this extraordinary cascade of ice. It was a raised fist, an unspoken desire – worthy of every eye in the world, yet mine may have been the first to glimpse it from up close.
On the other side of the mountain lay another stacked and unexplored glacier. My satellite images had prepared me for a second lagoon below the terminus, larger and more bowl-shaped than the last. To my astonishment, the lake was almost entirely absent. A number of noisy geese scurried ahead of me as I climbed down into the granite-grey basin where cubic icebergs lay displaced from the main moraine. Sweating with my icy compatriots in the midday sun, I felt a strange affiliation to their isolation – we were all stranded so very far from home.
Here, life and death were everywhere. The arch of a sei whale breaching in the Gulf of Sorrows beamed forth like a smile as I rested atop the colossal skeleton of another; vultures plundered the carcass of a shipwrecked sea lion while I watched a playful seal repeatedly pummel a salmon against the surface of the Río Andrés. As I weaved between creaking icebergs in my packraft, or watched explosive Pacific breakers from my sleeping bag, I was ever-conscious that nature is as sharp as a knife; I was not a spectator in this game, and those friendly, chirping birds would watch my body chill and sink into the marsh with complete indifference. I floated like a prayer down rivers, silently accompanying icebergs and drifting red flowers on their pilgrimages to the Pacific.
Whilst trips are often defined by their extremities of excellence and agony, there is a middle ground which is far too quickly forgotten. Boredom and monotony were the rice in my dinner that gave the meal bulk. The three days I spent trapped in my tent in front of the San Quintín glacier was definitely ‘rice time’. Huge raindrops hung from my tent while a vicious wind pushed the walls inwards and pummelled the glacier. Its broken teeth pierced through a freezing bone-white fog that sent me in shuddering retreat to my shelter whenever I emerged to eye the skies for weather.
There’s something comforting about being in a sleeping bag whilst rain patters on the tent walls, but after three days it was beginning to sound like a sadistic and taunting slow-clap. I needed to reach the headwaters of the river which would take me to my pick-up point – a two-day journey at a stretch – but the forecast suggested another four days of wind and rain still to come. The 500 ravenous mosquitoes that had gathered on the inside of my tent stirred with excitement at my every turn, like the crowds outside Buckingham Palace waiting for the Queen to emerge onto her balcony, and prevented me from enjoying even the small luxury of comfort in which to pass the hours. How slowly those three days passed as I lay confined in my bivouac.
Frustrated almost to the point of tears, I came to the realisation that my journey should not be measured in kilometres. The animals I’d seen, the two unexplored glaciers I’d photographed and the first known descent of a river through a nameless valley were all waypoints on a more profound path of exploration. The many moments of agony and ecstasy that they had inspired – not least those bleak days of boredom at the San Quintín glacier – had forced me to consider new perspectives on company, comfort and risk. If this was a journey of exploration then the first landmarks on my list were surely internal.
On the final morning of my expedition, I rose early to break camp. As I waited for my pick-up boat to appear between the icebergs, a couple of dolphins cavorted together metres from the shore. The wind pushed wispy clouds across the sky, and on the beach a lone vulture paced in front of me with a strangely endearing mix of hopefulness and embarrassment. The agony of the previous 24 days tasted deceitfully sweet as it mixed with the sugary scent of the nearby marsh. For more than three weeks, I had promised to myself that I wouldn’t do something like this again – that the agony of endurance had been too big a price to pay for those isolated moments of breathtaking brilliance. But as I looked down into my coffee that morning, cradled in my scarred and beaten hands, I could have sworn that the little bubbles collecting upon its surface formed a map of the world.
Charlie, originally from Cornwall in the UK, now works as an English teacher in Santiago, Chile. Using his job as an opportunity to travel, he has undertaken a number of expeditions in recent years into little-known and unexplored regions of Scandinavia and Patagonia.