The first explorations of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap took place in 1914. Frederick Reichert, a German explorer sponsored by the Argentine Scientific Society, reached the 1500m high plateau of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap by way of the Perito Moreno Glacier, in the southern portion of today's Los Glaciares National Park. Two years later, Reichert organised another expedition where members of the society explored all the way from the Viedma glacier to the huge plateau of Paso de los Cuatro Glaciares, the watershed of four huge glaciers on the ice cap. They passed the remote west faces of Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre on the way.

Dr Frederick Reichert returned to the ice cap in 1933 and, in a brief glimpse through weeks of bad weather, made the first sighting of a live volcano that was smoking away in the middle of the ice cap, north-west of Paso de los Cuatro Glaciares and less than 50 km from the current location of El Chalten.

Eric Shipton

Reichert's observations of a volcano went largely unnoticed until the 1950s, when Eric Shipton, an English explorer with possibly an unmatched experience of the Himalayas, turned his attention to Patagonia and completed a number of exploratory journeys onto the ice cap.

In 1959/60 Shipton, with countrymen Jack Ewer and Peter Miles, made the second, but first noted, account of Cerro Lautaro being a volcano - 27 years after it was first seen by Dr Reichert. The three were unable to attempt the peak due to the poor weather.

By the 1950s, the challenge was for a full traverse of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. The shorter east to west crossing was attempted in 1953 by a national expedition, led by the head of the Argentine army, Emiliano Huerta. During this expedition the group saw, but like Dr Reichert in 1933, did not reach the Pacific Ocean.

The first complete lateral traverse of the ice cap was made by Eric Shipton's Himalayan partner, Bill Tillman, who, with the Chilean Jorge Quinteros, crossed from west to east and back again in 1956, starting and finishing from Tillman's yacht, Mischief, which they moored in a Chilean fjord. During this trip, Tillman had a swim in Lago Argentino.

Traversing the full length of the ice cap

The first attempt at a north to south traverse of the ice cap was by Shipton himself, who returned in 1960/61 and made a partial crossing, from Glacier Jorge Montt in the north to Glacier Upsala in the south, finishing at Estancia Cristina, over a period of 55 days. His partners were fellow Briton Jack Ewer and the Chileans Cedomir Marangunic and Eduardo Garcia Soto.

The four travelled the whole way on foot, carrying their food and equipment behind them on sleds and spending the nights under a heavy canvas tent much used in Antarctica. During this trip they tried again to ascend the volcano Cerro Lautaro.

Cerro Lautaro was finally climbed in 1964, when Argentines Pedro Skvarca and Luciano Pera reached the summit on 29 November, having travelled over the ice cap from Paso Marconi at the head of the Rio Electrico valley.

The second ascent of Cerro Lautaro was made nine years later in 1973 by British mountaineers Eric Jones, Mick Coffey and film-maker Leo Dickinson. Their initial plan to parachute onto the ice cap was curtailed by the Argentine army, who deemed the idea too dangerous. The British used the parachutes anyway, as a great sail, and as a means to propel themselves across the ice. After their ascent, the trio climbed a peak they called Cerro Mimosa, 30km north of Cerro Lautaro, which they named after the ship in which the first Welsh settlers arrived in Patagonia.

A last great journey?

For those with the experience to attempt it, a fully unsupported, complete traverse of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap still exists. Notable attempts since Eric Shipton in 1961 include the Swiss climbers, Franco Dellatorre and Arturo Giovanoli, who retreated in 1993 after getting lost for 17 days at the Falla de Reichert - a huge 900m deep, 12km wide crack in the ice south of Upsala Glacier - when one of their sleds fell into a crevasse and they lost the batteries for their GPS. Later in the same year, three Spaniards and an Argentine, Sebastian de la Cruz, completed the same journey but resorted to a helicopter crossing of the Falla de Reichert, continuing on down the Pingo Glacier into Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

The first complete land traverse of the ice cap, from north to south, is understood to have taken place in 1998/99 when the Chilean team of Pablo Besser, Rodrigo Fica, Jose Pedro Montt and Mauricio Rojas travelled to the Balmaceda Glacier - about 45km further south than the Pingo Glacier - taking 30 days to cross the Falla de Reichert on foot. Critics however pointed to the support of a cache of food and equipment they used on the way.

In National Geographic September 2003, Norwegian polar explorer, Boerge Ousland, and Swiss mountaineer, Thomas Ulrich, completed the 'first unsupplied expedition from Tortel in the North to Puerto Natales in the South', taking in much of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap on the way. They exited from the ice 'at a logical point 28km north' of the Chileans' exit point, with the view that the additional distance to the Balmaceda Glacier was not part of the main ice cap due to a mountain range cutting across it.

In some media (but not by Ousland and Ulrich) this was claimed as the first crossing of the ice cap, a view rightly challenged by the Chileans, who pointed out that Ousland and Ulrich's use of kites to travel across the ice should also be classed as 'support'.

An independent arbitrator, ExplorersWeb (www.explorersweb.com), took up both sides for its readers in 2003 and decreed that whilst each expedition had great merit, neither party could be classed as having made a 'fully unsupported, complete crossing of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap' and that such a journey still remained an open challenge.

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