Expedition San Quintín III – Chile

Pitch-dark night. Thousands of cold drops beating continually on the thin nylon skin, only few centimeters above us. Already since hours a bumpy landward south wind sweeps wide shower veils over the sandy coastal stripe of Playa San Quintín. Few steps behind the little tent, hidden between flat dune bumps, the largest Patagonian wetland begins. During short rain breaks the croaking of frogs resounds over here. In between the immense boom of the nearby surf of the Pacific interferes.

After several months of abstinence, we´re back at the start of a long tour through the damp valleys of the Campo de Hielo Patagónico Norte on the Golfo de Penas.

Be hooked on authentic wilderness. Hungry for familiar freedom. Curious about the magic of the unknown. Calm and strong, we expect the sunrise, standing on the beach and shouting over the roaring spray white waves: “WE ARE HERE”.

This January is unusual. With more than 6.000 mm annual precipitation it rains normally quite often here. But currently after 5-6 days of continuous rain you count one day with some sun at most. All rivers have raised levels. Torn off trees, shallows and changed current course are demanding our attention. The mouth of the Rio Nevado has shifted in a few months to almost one kilometer to the east. Many marsh creeks have burst elsewhere to sea.

Not a single whale is to be discovered. Only some dolphins and half-starved penguins are on the move. The offer of food seems to be just low.

Despite of heavy rainfall we make steady progress, find new passages, confirm familiar routes. The GPS receiver is rarely booted to determine bearing and distance. With excellent local knowledge we do not need maps. Currently we are the most experienced explorers and scouts in the San Quintín area.
Within 5 weeks we drive on 9 rivers and 2 fjords, visit 10 glaciers and complete our photo documentation of the glacier edge zone between Cerro Rolf and Cerro Gustav.

Meanwhile the main front at Glacier Andree stands more than 900 metres away from the lagoon outlet. Particularly drastic is the retreat on the eastern flank. The massive ice demolitions at the exit of the waterfall gorge could lead in-medium-term to the separation of large parts of the floating main tongue.

In the steep-sided valleys, especially at the upper Benito and Acodado (“Düstertäler”), the weather is rarely pleasant. With hail, snow and freezing temperatures we wait there for several days in vain for a weather improvement. Under these conditions, we cancel the planned trips to other valleys. The Düstertäler demand modesty and humility. This fortunately still original part of Patagonia is no holiday paradise. Here inhospitableness and unstableness are constant companions. It´s not unusual to have four seasons a day.

After separation and breaking of almost the whole floating glacier tongue, the HPN3 lagoon was completely filled with ice debris in January, 2015. Two years later the lagoon presents itself nearly ice-free (photo bl). Possibly the HPN3 is currently in a phase of quickened retreat. The white cap of the northern Patagonian Icefields is getting thinner for years.

The glacier edge zone is a particularly interesting area. Here whole forests can brutally disappear under masses of ice and rock and appear exquisitely preserved after centuries of permafrost again. Moss have the ability to endure these long ice periods and to grow up afterwards into completely intact plants. Ice-free rock in the humid temperate climate of the Patagonian west coast is covered with moss and lichen again after 1-2 years, followed by pioneer’s plants like the imposing Gunnera tinctoria and robust grass.

In blocked side valleys, filled with surface and meltwater, large water reservoirs of considerable size may be produced. However, these in their expansion usually only temporarily existing proglacial lakes, can also empty themselves rather fast. The remaining areas of shallow water areas are offering an ideal habitat for insects, amphibians and birds.

We are aware: To be on the move in this breathtaking maiden and yet unbeaten scenery, is a special privilege. So we put our steps carefully.

The wilderness once again dismisses us unharmed, physically refreshed and mentally strengthened.

A few days later we start a trip through the Atacama desert in the far north of Chile.