Campo de Hielo Norte: Part 1

I’ve written three times so far (1, 2, 3) about a trip I took through the Wind River Range in Wyoming. I’ve been meaning to get back to it, but I’m kind of stumped. In my last post about it, I wrote about Mile Long Lake, and I’ve found the location of a landmark that we passed by a few weeks after hiking past Mile Long Lake, but for the life of me I can’t figure out exactly how we got from the latter to the former. It’s pretty straightforward to see why it was pretty easy to find this particular landmark on a map:

What would you call this mountain?

It turns out that this is called Square Top Mountain, and it’s right here. I was north of the mountain when I took this picture, standing in the valley at the top of the linked map. If you zoom out a bit on the map (or just look at the picture below), you can see where Mile Long Lake (top right) is in relation to Square Top Mountain (bottom left), which is to say that you can see how there’s a sizable gap in my memory of this trip.

A topographical representation of a memory gap

I’ll get back to this at some point, and I’ll do my best to reconstruct the journey, but in the meantime, I’ve got lots of recently-scanned old pictures from a number of other places I’ve been, such as southern Chile, where I did a NOLS course (along with 14 or so other folks) which consisted of hiking across the Northern Patagonian Ice Field (or Campo de Hielo Norte).

Reconstructing the path in Chile is a lot easier than reconstructing the path in Wyoming, for a few reasons. First, I went to Chile a few years after I went to Wyoming, so the memories are (slightly) fresher. Second, it took a long time to make any real progress, at least for the first couple weeks, so we became very, very familiar with our surroundings. Third, there are only so many paths you can take from the ocean to the lake district via the northern end of the northern ice field, which should become fairly clear as I post pictures and (links to) maps.

I was living in Arizona at the time, so I flew (with a friend who did the course with me) from Phoenix to LA, LA to Miami, Miami to Santiago, and Santiago to Puerto Montt. I remember the cab ride from the airport into Puerto Montt was fairly horrifying, though I also remember that my response to this was to laugh. We zipped through construction zones, whipping around other cars, and we squeezed in between at least one pair of box trucks with no more than a few inches on either side to spare. We made it to our hotel safely, if somewhat mentally and emotionally shaken.

The few days we had in the city itself were far less exciting than the cab ride into town. We had a day or two to wander around, run into the other people taking the NOLS course, and take some pictures. I took four pictures in Puerto Montt, apparently. Two essentially identical pictures of the waterfront, and two essentially identical pictures of an utterly plain street. Here’s one of each:

One can imagine why one would take this picture.
One has more difficulty discerning why one would take this picture, especially given that one's film stock was quite limited.

I don’t remember much about Puerto Montt, other than that the food was pretty good (especially the aji hot sauce, which looks deceptively ketchup-like, which made for a very surprising order of fries one day) and that the dialect of Spanish spoken there was pretty easy to understand. It had been a year since I had used Spanish with any regularity, but it came back fairly quickly and well enough to find food and bathrooms as needed.

We had an initial orientation with the instructors (or a subset of them, anyway) in Puerto Montt, and then we all flew to Coyhaique, where the NOLS-Chile headquarters were (and probably still are, I suppose). I have only one picture from Coyhaique:

Gearing up for the mountains, feeling the effects of a lack of ozone

We were told at this point that we were under the Antarctic hole in the ozone layer, and whether because of the power of suggestion or because this was actually true, the sun felt exceptionally intense at the NOLS ranch. I remember seeing the southern cross for the first time at the ranch, too, and I think I saw Orion upside down or in a weird part of the sky. I’m no astronomer, but I recall it being somewhat disorienting to look up at the night sky and see nothing familiar.

We spent a few days there, putting together all the food and gear we would need for a month-long trek across the mountains. In Wyoming, we only carried 7-10 days worth of food with us, meeting up with cowboys every week and a half or so to re-stock our depleted food bags, and our equipment was fairly minimal. In Chile, we weren’t going to re-stock at all once we were in the field, so we had to take everything we needed for the whole month with us. This included, of course, a mess of food, including lots of noodles. There were other foods, of course, including some peanut butter I had brought with me from the states, since I’m lactose intolerant and wanted to have a reasonably calorie-dense non-cheese alternative, but the noodles end up playing a special role on this trip. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The month’s load also included plenty of ropes, sleds, shovels, crampons, ice axes, and assorted other gear.

Once we were packed, we drove to Puerto Aisén, where we got on this boat:

This boat

I remember this boat having a Spanish name that meant ‘glacier’, but my google-fu must be pretty feeble, since all I can get from the internet along these lines is ‘glaciar’, which definitely was not the boat’s name. In any case, I think the guy facing the camera with the sunglasses might be one of the instructors, and I know that the woman to the right was the only native Chilean on the course and that the guy facing away from the camera with the suspenders is this big goofball from New Jersey or New York City named Rich. You can see our big pile of gear pretty clearly in front of Rich.

We spent a full day on the boat, and it just so happens that the day we loaded up was my 21st birthday. It also just so happens that some combination of seasickness and fumes from the engine engulfing me while I tried to sleep below decks conspired to make me vomit fairly copiously over the side of this boat that evening. If I leave out the right details, I can make it sound like I was the ugly American, drinking myself silly and throwing up over the side of a cruise ship off the coast of Acapulco. Not being much for tradition, I did my 21st-birthday boat-puking stone cold sober, over the side of a fishing boat, and I was farther south of the equator than Maine is north.

Anyway, we sailed from Aisén to the ice field (from the labeled town at top right to the big white blob at the bottom):

Aisén to the Campo de Hielo

For the reasons mentioned above, it was very easy to figure out which valley we hiked up here, especially with the aid of satellite imagery. I am 100% sure it was this one:

It took us two weeks to hike four miles up this valley.

But more on this next time. I’ll leave you with the kind of scenery we got to take in as we sailed southward (and when I wasn’t feeling so under the weather):

Southern Chile is unbelievably beautiful.
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