Winter in Patagonia - a coveted first ascent of Aguilera

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 01/10/2014
Concierto de Rimayas on Volcan Aguilera. Natalia Martinez
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A five-member expedition, led by Chilean explorer and mountaineer Camilo Rada, has made the long awaited first ascent of Volcan Aguilera on the South Patagonian Icecap.

After a long approach the team climbed the north ridge and northwest face in a 25-hour round trip, negotiating heavily crevassed terrain, large seracs and snow/ice mushrooms.

The isolated Aguilera (2,480m), which lies on the western edge of the Patagonian icecap and less than 10km from the coast at Fiordo Peel, has seen  considerable British interest.

First named in 1933 by the famous Italian explorer Alberto de Agostini, the peak was next described by none other than Bill Tilman, who in 1956 sailed to the area aboard Mischief.

Inspired by Tilman's account, in 1985 a British-Chilean expedition, jointly led by Matthew Hickman and Francesco Medina, and supported by the MEF, made a scientific survey of the Seno Andrew region and attempted Aguilera, abandoning the climb due to atrocious weather.

However, for the first time they were able to establish that the mountain was an old volcano.

In 1989 Eiho Otani led a primarily Japanese team to the mountain but made little progress.

Next to put Aguilera in their sights were Julian Freeman-Attwood, Frank MacDermott and Skip Novak, aboard Novak's yacht Pelagic. Little progress was made but it inspired another British Patagonian activist, Dave Hillebrandt.

Hillebrandt, with Nick Banks, Allan Richards and Chris Smith, arrived in late 2003 and enjoyed unusually clement weather for the first few days, which allowed them to get established on a ridge to the south, where they climbed a subsidiary peak

This gave a depressing view of Aguilera, shortly after which a two-metre snowfall sent them packing.

Not discouraged, Hillebrandt and Smith returned in 2004, taking 14 days to penetrate jungle and swamp before setting foot on a glacier draining southeast from the mountain. They reached an altitude of 1291m (according to their GPS) before having to abandon the climb.

Hillebrandt and Smith, boasting short memories, returned again in 2005, accompanied by Steve Hartland.

Having identified a feasible route the previous year, they were optimistic of success: two days of "good" weather throughout four weeks at base camp put pay to that.

Perhaps understandably the mountain was left alone until 2013, when Abdo Fernandez's Chilean team tried the British approach from the southeast. The weather was typical and...........well, you can guess the story.

Camilo Rada has made a number of important ascents during the Patagonian winter, and chose this season for his attempt on Aguilera.

He also opted for an entirely different approach.

Whilst all previous expeditions had started from the ocean to the west, Rada started from Lago Argentian well to the east.

With Natalia Martinez (Argentina), Ines Dusaillant and Viviana Callahan (both Chile), and Evan Miles, an American currently based at Cambridge University (UK), he traversed 47km of icefield, crossing previously untrodden passes, to reach the northern flanks of the mountain.

Starting at 4:30am on August 29 from their advanced base camp at just over 1,000m, the five climbed rapidly up the first 1,000m, crossed onto the northwest face, and seemed to have the summit in the bag.

But they were blocked by an impassible bergschrund just below the summit ridge, forced to retrace their tracks, and made a long and time-consuming traverse in deteriorating weather, exploring several avenues, until finally gaining the summit ridge - complete with wind and freezing rain.

Six hundred metres of ridge led to the highest point, which they reached at dusk.

Whilst their route, Concierto de Rimayas, named after the complex navigation required to work through the many difficult crevasses and bergschrunds, may not, in their own words, be a test piece of modern alpinism, it was physical, required much endurance, a 10-day approach, and a lot of luck with fickle Patagonian weather.

It was the last major Andean volcano still awaiting an ascent.

On the return journey, the team were blessed with fantastic weather and climbed four more virgin peaks, two unnamed at 2,420m and 2,440m, the East peak of Cerro Spegazzini (2,290m), and Cerro Esperanza (2,520m).



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