Blizzards, snowdrifts, gales, frostbite, snow blindness, buried tents, floods, hardship, cold, sleepless nights. It must be summer then in deepest Patagonia.
"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)
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!
It was supposed to be a relatively easy day. Reaching the flat plateau of the Icecap mid-afternoon. We had gone well to start with and were above the serac barrier and onto the long but slow rise to the Paso Marconi when we got caught in a whiteout. Strong winds were blowing spin drift into our faces. Visibility went and we were surrounded by a grey howling mass. It was the worst possible place to get caught as the winds from the icecap escape eastwards, channelling together at the Paso Marconi. Too high to retreat we had to keep going. Pushing on meant some further hard hours graft and discomfort.
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.
Resting beside our campsite situated by the lake at “La Playita”. It felt good to be out of the wind. I fell asleep but woke early evening when my eyes felt gritty. During the next few hours that uncomfortable feeling worsened and it became painful to open my eyes. Every time I blinked, a tear detached from the eyes and streamed down my cheek. It felt like sand in the eyes.
I spend an uncomfortable night. The only relief was not to move my eyes behind my closed eyelids. Any movement of the eyes or eyelids was painful. My buff was wound tightly around my face. Somehow it felt less painful, eyes tightly wrapped up.
Next day we headed back to civilisation. I had a rough day’s walk with a big pack. More difficult as I found it hard to open the eyes. I squinted my eyes together as much as I could to try to negotiate the rough terrain. Any light sent tears down both cheeks. It was an awful feeling.
No further epics, we got back. But the pain continued for a further forty eight hours. I looked ridiculous, crying in my beer, in the bars and restaurants of El Chalten! The symptoms gradually alleviated, but I felt some discomfort for a couple of weeks.
The lesson? Well, I certainly know what to expect should I leave my eyes unguarded. But if I was in the same situation again what could I have done? In my opinion the damage was done during the ten hours on the first day climbing up to the Paso Marconi. It was vital I was able to navigate correctly and arguably much more important than my damaged eyes. A spare pair of goggles might have helped?
Day two should have seen me put on sunglasses or goggles. That was a mistake. It was grey, an absence of light coming through. Because of the previous twenty four hours of blizzard battling, maybe my head was not functioning correctly. I should have known better as I once got badly sun burnt in the Sierra Nevada on a grey, cloudy days ski touring.
This trip also taught me a lot about risk assessment and to look out for small, minor problems compounding imperceptibly into major problems as a safety window narrowed.