Terra Australis was the name early modern geographers gave to an unknown southern continent stretching around the base of the globe. Landmark voyages by navigators like Captain Cook and Robert Fitzroy finally disproved any lingering notions of its existence. Yet something of this place remains fixed in the imagination of those prepared to explore the edges of the map. In the second part of this special two part feature on Patagonia, LEGEND editor David Pickford ventures into the wilderness of Tierra del Fuego, the island at the end of the Americas
The jagged profile of the Cordon Martial overlooks the northern edge of the Beagle Channel, the stretch of open water separating Argentine Tierra del Fuego from Isla Navarino, the Chilean island to the south. Beyond Navarino lies Cape Horn, the southern end of the Americas and the last land before Antarctica. The Beagle Channel takes its name from the ship captained by Robert Fitzroy that took the naturalist Charles Darwin on his celebrated voyages south in the nineteenth Century, and provides the last safe passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific before the Horn.
The Beagle Channel seen from high in the Cordon Martial; the opening image shows the Channel from the air
I leave the still-sleeping streets of Ushuaia by taxi at dawn, bound for Valle de Andorra, the last outpost of civilisation before the wilderness of the Tierra del Fuego national park rises up to the west. I jump out at the chosen point, and watch the battered Mercedes disappear back down the dirt road in a cloud of dust. I’m now completely alone at the base of a wide glacial valley that extends westwards towards a great cirque of steep and craggy peaks, the tallest still freaked with traces of snow from the recent storms. Early morning sunlight sparkles from the numerous ice fields that remain on the upper slopes throughout the year. It’s a perfect day to be here.
Argentina is a big country, and Ushuaia is a long way from anywhere else
Following a sinuous trail through the dense Patagonian forest, I cross and re-cross several rivers that flow down the valley from the glacial basin to the west. By mid-morning, after navigating a mile-long flooded glade of desiccated pines straight out of Lord of the Rings, I’ve hiked just over fifteen kilometres. Striking up the steepening slope to the south, I gradually break free of the dense forest and into the barren terrain of the Cordon Martial’s higher ground.
Waterlogged forest on the approach to Cerro Tonelli
"The tallest peaks are still freaked with traces of snow, and early morning sunlight sparkles from the numerous ice fields on the upper slopes. It’s a perfect day to be here"
The trapezoidal volcanic bulk of Cerro Tonelli, the highest point of the Cordon Martial, rises above the col of Paso de la Oveja that defines the southwestern head of this valley. Not unlike the Cuillin on the Isle of Skye in northwest Scotland, it makes up with serious drama what it lacks in substantial height. Despite that fact its summit stands at only just over four thousand feet, the craggy ramparts that defend every approach to its knife-edge summit ridge give it the look and feel of a much bigger mountain. The normal route to the top leads up the easy-angled glacier and ice fields on the eastern side; my chosen route, by contrast, takes the much steeper western flank of the mountain.
The steep and brooding west face of Cerro Tonelli seen from the Paso de la Oveja
"Cerro Tonelli stands only four thousand feet high, but the craggy ramparts that defend every approach to its knife-edge summit ridge give it the look and feel of a much bigger mountain"
Pausing for a brief rest on the lonely plinth of Paso de la Oveja, I check my watch. It’s 2pm. Despite the forecast deterioration in the weather later on the day, pressure is still stable, the wind light, and the signs generally good. All the summits to the north remain free of cloud. That’s the signal I need; I decide to go for it.
Looking west into the wilderness of Tierra del Fuego from the summit ridge of Cerro Tonelli
The climb up to the summit of Cerro Tonelli from the pass is technically easy, with just a few short sections of moderate rock climbing. It’s mainly arduous scrambling for over a thousand feet of jumbled scree, interspersed with deteriorating rock terraces between boulder-filled gullies steepening with height. The final few hundred feet becomes steeper still, culminating in a seventy-degree chimney stuffed with tottering blocks. This way up the peak isn't really a scramble, I now realise; it’s a straightforward but serious alpine rock climb. At the apex of the gully, I press eject and land just below the crest of the summit ridge.
Looking south from Cerro Tonelli towards Monte Sarmiento, Tierra del Fuego's highest peak
On the narrow summit ridge, I’m confronted with one of the most astonishing panoramas I’ve seen in more than two decades of climbing and mountaineering all over the world. The crystal air sparks with light, and the shining mountains of the world’s most southerly inhabited place disappear in every direction. The sky to the south fades into the blue of the Beagle Channel and the wild waters of the Southern Ocean not far beyond. Being up here reminds me of every single reason I started to climb as a teenager on the gritstone edges of northern England, and of all the reasons I continue to climb today. For a few intoxicating minutes, I’m swept away by the pristine world that surrounds me.
"On the narrow summit ridge, the crystal air sparks with light. The shining mountains of the world’s most southerly inhabited place disappear in every direction"
The captivating landscape of the glacial valley immediately to the west of Cerro Tonelli
"Just before I strike down from the summit of Cerro Tonelli, the white air shifts to grey, and the austral sky grows wild with the approach of another Patagonian storm"
After a while, threatening cloud begins to obscure the upper icefields of Monte Sarmiento; forty miles to the west, this is Tierra del Fuego’s highest and most inaccessible summit. In the moments before I strike down from the summit of Cerro Tonelli, the white air shifts to grey, and the austral sky grows wild with the approach of another Patagonian storm.
For the sake of speed and also of variety, I descend the mountain by a different route than the one by which I ascended; a fast fifty-degree scree run results in a rapid altitude loss of five hundred feet, landing me on the narrow col that separates the twin summits of Cerro Tonelli and its southerly companion, Cerro Martial. By the time I reach the col, the tops of both mountains are shrouded in cloud. The wind shifts in a weird game of fitful, powerful gusts followed by eerie lulls. It’s time to get down and out of here.
A thousand-foot waterfall in the heart of the Cordon Martial
"The descent gully is a perfectly smooth chute, steepening to 65 degrees, and marbled with fine scree. This means that once a certain amount of speed is built up it’s almost impossible to stop"
In a few short minutes, I descend a steep gully that’s one of the most efficient and also one of the more hair-raising ways off any mountain I’ve climbed. It’s a perfectly smooth and deepening chute, steepening beneath the col to a casual 65 degrees, and marbled with treacherously fine scree. All this means that once a certain amount of speed is built up it’s almost impossible to stop, so I half-run, half-scramble down the gully, which promptly spits me out at the top of a gargantuan cone of rubble: the chute is the mountain’s natural waste disposal system.
Dessicated forest on the approach to Cerro Tonelli
By the time I’m jogging down the spectacular Canandon de la Oveja, the ten mile alpine valley that extends from the shores of the Beagle Channel up to the pass, the storm has swallowed the mountains entirely, and cloud base hovers a few hundred feet overhead as I continue my descent. When I finally reach the coast road I check my watch. I’ve been on the go for eleven hours and have covered thirty five kilometres, with a combined ascent and descent of just over eight thousand feet.
"There was something unusually thrilling about this particular day, and this particular climb. It wasn’t a technically difficult one, but something about the mountain and the process of the ascent itself has stayed with me"
By the time I reach Ushuaia in the early evening, a chill breeze is blowing. The entire Cordon Martial is lost once again in a bank of cloud, and white horses begin to rise on the Beagle Channel. I’ve been given a rare and precious gift in my lightning visit to Tierra del Fuego, I begin to realise, in the brief weather window I’d used to climb Cerro Tonelli, the highest peak at the very end of the inhabited world.
A decommissioned tug in the harbour at Ushuaia, one of the key departure points for voyages to Antarctica
For reasons that remain hard to articulate, there was something unusually thrilling about this particular day in the wild, and about this particular climb. It wasn’t a technically difficult one, but something about the mountain and the process of the ascent itself has stayed with me more than many higher and more outwardly impressive climbs. It was the rare combination of component parts that made it so exceptional: the long approach through that enchanted forest; the steep, serious climb; the lonely summit that commands centre stage amid one of the most spectacular places in Patagonia; the approaching storm; and finally the fast descent back to civilisation.
It's possible that mountain adventures, like ocean voyages, are a journey into the hinterland of the human mind as much as they are an exploration of some of the wildest places on Earth. If that’s true, then Cerro Tonelli was one of those rare quests where the hinterland is clarified and made new all at once, like the flash of sun against steel, or the swell of a sail in a rising wind.