[The following essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism.” We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]
IT IS A MISTAKE to think that, since the whole planet is at our fingertips on Google Earth, there is nothing left to discover. Exploration has many dimensions, most of them hidden to those who only look from afar. You have to ramble through the ravines and creep up the mountainsides to experience the verticality and immensity of the landscape–to get entangled in a dense forest and swamped in peat bogs to know its flora and fauna truly, and to witness those small enchanted places tucked in a creek bed or under a thick canopy of trees to feel its energy.
For over a decade, both of us have been exploring, investigating and combining the collective imaginings, histories and geographies of the mountains of Patagonia into maps. What we usually find in books is the first exploration by a European, or the first written account, or the first recorded ascent. But those are just events in the process of discovery. Undoubtedly there have been significant events before them, at times largely forgotten, along with local peoples, their place names and their stories. There have been also many events after those first records, and new wanderers who discover additional dimensions of the same place. To us, discovery is not a single event documented in history books; it’s a process, a living adventure that we can all be a part of.
With this conviction, we decided to explore some of the poorly charted or seemingly unknown places in Patagonia and to create living maps. These are maps that do not adhere to official names. Instead, we follow a historical approach trying to help restore the heritage of Indigenous people and explorers. We constantly update the maps to record each new ascent, each new encounter and each new adventure. Our aim is to create maps that are not only a miniature of a place’s geography, but that convey the feelings the geography evokes as well as the passions of those who have striven to unravel it.
As alpinism has evolved, walls that were ignored by adventurers of old are the most coveted playgrounds for climbers today. Although our maps depict journeys of the past, the gaps in between them are the most interesting part: the unnamed ridges and the apparently untrodden glaciated valleys. In over a decade, we have searched for every piece of exploration history of Cordillera Darwin, Cordillera de Sarmiento, Peninsula Munoz Gamero and the Northern Patagonian Icefield. Throughout this time, we have been continually surprised by how much there still is to learn, how many valleys there are to cross, and how many beautiful summits there are to climb: dozens of granite walls several hundred meters high; sheer alpine faces of Himalayan size, such as the 3000-meter north face of Mt. San Valentin; glaciers that may have never seen human footsteps. Easily a third of the summits are still untouched. Many of the unclimbed peaks that appear insignificant on sheets of contour lines could present some of the finest alpine challenges of these regions. Extraordinary experiences await behind dripping jungle walls and endless grey, wet days. To push the limits of mountain climbing in these areas will require amalgamating the patience of the explorers of old with the fine technical skills and advanced tools of modern climbers, as well as a stronger thirst for adventure than for success.
Perhaps the climbers who will tackle those remote vertical walls have not yet been born. But exploration is a continuous, communal process that we can all take part in. There are alpine objectives of all types and of a range of technical difficulties. Exploration is not reserved only for elite alpinists. We believe the call is to learn from the experiences of those who came before us and to forward their quests. By cleverly using new tools and mapping the unknown, we can redraw the line between the possible and the impossible.
–Natalia Martinez (from Argentina) and Camilo Rada (Chile) have made first ascents on many peaks in Southern Patagonia with their UNCHARTED project. (Translated from Spanish by Kathleen Archer.)
[This essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism.” We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]