|We were the Pescadores, named in Spanish as “The Fishermen” by our Chilean instructors. We spent 28 days sea kayaking and successfully completed our circumnavigation of Isla Riesco in the Magallanes Region of Patagonia. While learning and loving the water, we had a month to look up at the glaciated peaks above us. For a month, they taunted us.
In November 2004, the Pescadores began their mountain section of a Semester in Patagonia. Over a year later, Course Leader Christian Steidle and student Simon Koster can still vividly recount their adventure atop one of Patagonia’s many unclimbed peaks. With mixed blessings of good weather, dedicated students, and well-planned logistics in the face of notoriously challenging terrain and conditions, the Pescadores were able to claim the first ascent of Cerro Ladrillero.
APPROACH AND PLANNING
Christian (CS): The significant peaks around the region of Magallanes have a lot in common in terms of terrain and weather. In most of the cases, they have to be accessed from the ocean, navigating through channels and facing brave storms. The land is full of swamps, locally called “mallin,” thick forest and bushes plus difficult river crossings. These are the challenges that are encountered daily when you are moving inside these mountains.
Ladrillero specifically is located on the very west side of Isla Riesco, south of Skyring Sound. Seen by fishermen and others traveling in the ocean, the peak is one of the classics of the region, and it was still not climbed. In terms of previous mountaineering activity, we found a couple of attempts to the peak, one in the 1977 American Alpine Journal, an expedition from England led by Jack Miller. The other was by a Chilean team who have been trying to do first ascents in Patagonia for a few years, having successes in some but failures in other ones, like Cerro Ladrillero.
Simon (SK): A month prior, at the pre-trip meeting in Puerto Natales, summiting Cerro Ladrillero had been discussed as possible, but not a task to be taken lightly. To reach our starting point, we had a three-hour dirt road van ride to meet a zodiac, which would ferry us another hour to a small beach – miles beyond the end of roads and human habitation. The resounding sentiment in the van, though, was that the peak of Ladrillero was worth more than anything.
As a group we decided on a no-nonsense approach to the mountains; every action would have a purpose. Every move made, meal cooked, lesson learned and hour slept would dictate whether or not any of us would stand on the summit. Our instructors, Christian, Phil and Galen, applauded our determination, but added one important note: We would climb in Good Style. There would be no sacrifice of safety, dignity or ethic. And we would stand as a team, or not at all.
CS: It is very important to emphasize early if one of the big goals of a course is to try to climb a peak, but it shouldn’t be the only goal or the most important one. At the end, a month living in the mountains becomes a powerful experience, even if a summit doesn’t get conquered. And this should not be a surprise or frustration, because failing is a normal part of mountaineering. I think that the crux of this type of course, here, where the weather is generally bad and you want to attempt a peak for which there is no route information, choosing the right approach is key to have a chance in the limited amount of days you have.
SK: The first seven days were spent shuttling. The sheer amount of food and gear dictated that every move had to be made twice. Day after day: move camp, shuttle food, move camp, shuttle food. Moving camp had us bushwhacking, planning our ascent and pushing limits. Shuttling food had group members carrying over 100 pounds on their backs. After dinner, back in camp, we would meet to go over knots, rope handling, tool use and mountain skills around the fire. We went to sleep exhausted, but made progress every day.
CS: You need to be ready to use the good weather, if it arrives, to climb. ‘Ready’ meaning having the high camp located in a strategic place, the group ready with the necessary skills that the climb will require and hopefully still with time to wait. Waiting becomes an important skill to develop and explain to students in Patagonia and, in general, in the mountains.
SK: We were awakened early on day nine by Christian telling us to pack camp. “We’re going for it,” he said. The sky had cleared and according to Phil, the barometer was as high as he’d seen since the beach. Our plan was to establish snow camp with as many days of food as possible to maximize our chances. We were out of camp early, climbing right away with our heaviest loads and kicking steps within an hour.
Moving as a team, we climbed through forest and into snow, traversed a small shoulder before descending a drainage that led to the snowfields of Ladrillero proper. As we looked at the mountain before us, we mapped out our high snow camp and the subsequent ascent onto the glacial plateau.
We reached the small bowl that was to be our snow camp around 4pm. In our high, exposed environment, we were required to dig tent platforms and build five to seven-foot wind walls of snow around the perimeter of each tent. As we dug with our snow shovels, group members took turns checking in with instructors to go over final rope skills for our glacial ascent. At 11 pm, with snow camp complete and bellies full, we convened to discuss the summit-day plan. The sun had been shining all day and the barometer was still sky high; tomorrow was our day. We hadn’t worked for nine days to squander any opportunity. “Meet at 6:30 AM, ready to do this,” Christian said with a nod of his head that told us ‘well done.’ We were ready.
SIMON’S EYES ON SUMMIT DAY
No one was late the next morning. Geared up with ropes, crampons, axes, pickets, stoves, clothes and extra food, we were off. In the first half-hour, we were nearly running. Instead of our standard single file, we were walking five abreast; we couldn’t move fast enough.
Getting higher, the quickest route became apparent: a traverse across a side slope with thick vegetation, move back to the snowfields and kick steps up a bowl to reach the glacial plateau.
Back on the snow, the sun shining, a couple hours of kicking steps got us to a small, rocky outcropping that defined the glacial edge. As I kicked the last few steps to the rock, a group member, Colin, looked at me through his mirrored glacier glasses. “Time to rope up,” he said with an enormous grin.
From our perch, we stared straight across a snowy, crevassed couloir. To our left, it rose gradually and curled around the back of Ladrillero. On the right, it sloped down from us for perhaps a quarter mile before it dropped into a jagged icefall ending in a small alpine lake. Our route took us straight across the couloir and up its far side to reach the expansive glacial summit plateau. As we switchbacked up the far side of the couloir, we looked down on crevasses that would have easily swallowed a Greyhound bus.
Coming out of the couloir and onto the upper plateau, I was presented with a view I am not expecting to see again in my lifetime. On the plateau, with not a cloud in the deep blue sky, but the wind buffeting, we could see countless peaks, fjords, the merging of two oceans and the summit pyramid straight ahead. At the crest, we took a short break to eat, adjust layers and take a quick photo. Those 10 minutes passed in seconds. I didn’t add layers and didn’t eat. I stood with my arms up, jaw dropped, eyes wide open, leaning into the wind, screaming with exhilaration. Climbing again, I was a little cold and a little hungry, but I didn’t care.
Nearly an hour later I was belaying in the rear member of my rope team to the summit. My sentiment and the views before me at that moment are just as clear now, over a year later, as I write this. A celebration ensued. In the wild wind, we went around giving hugs and high fives, drinking mate (a South American tea), eating dinner leftovers, taking pictures, laughing, screaming and looking out over our 10 days of success that led to this point. We stood together, as a team, in Good Style.
HOLDING ON TO THE HIGH
CS: It was a great feeling to have climbed the peak. Everybody on the course did it. One of the big memories I have is how much fun we always had as a group. Everybody was a different and unique character who brought a special flavor to the journey. We really took advantage well of the 48 hours of good weather. When we left the summit it was very windy, a few clouds were coming in from the ocean and a bad system was building up. By the time we arrived to camp, the sky was covered and the summit was not visible anymore. By that night, it had already started to snow.
SK: Even after 12 hours on our feet, 18 the day before, and a week before that, no one went to bed. Instead, we broke for dinner and gathered wood for a fire on the rocks nearby. We sat together and chatted around the fire, as we had most nights. We were the Pescadores – no longer 14 students and three instructors – just one team.