Balanced in my sea kayak, I can see six rainbows. It’s enough to make me forget the work it took to get here. Hours earlier, dinner table-size slabs of ice grazed and pinched my boat as 35-mph gusts whipped up whitecaps. After a series of energy-sapping braces and jabs, I finally reached calm water, only to find another puzzle of ice. Solution? Launch my boat onto the slabs, then scoot over and across, pushing with gloved hands.
I’m in the Pacific, paddling a glacier-gashed channel off the Fjord De Las Montañas beneath the Cordillera Sarmiento, a snow-draped range of 7,000-foot peaks 150 miles west of Puerto Natales. The narrow, 30-mile-long fjord is only visited by the occasional fishing boat. “This is an exploratory paddle even for those born here,” says my companion Hernan Jofre, owner of Antares Patagonia, a local guiding company. “Most of the peaks aren’t named, let alone climbed. The last mountaineering expedition here was in the 1980s.”
Three days ago, twelve of us launched from Natales in the Don Sergio, a wood-and-steel fishing boat that would be our mother ship. The plan: Motor overnight to the fjord, then spend as many days hiking, ice climbing, and paddling as Patagonia’s famously violent fall (May) weather will allow.
Our first foray is an evening jaunt toward No Problem Ridge, which leads up to the peaks; we zip over to the rocky shore on the Zodiac to hike as far as we can before sunset. The soil is so virgin that we posthole into the duff. We pick our way through electric-green mosses and ferns to scramble up blocky cliffs. It isn’t raining, but everything is so wet that we still wear full raingear. In a couple of hours, we reach a vista of a baby-blue lake with three glaciers spilling into it from steep drainages above. Later, we celebrate on the boat with sea ice-chilled Scotch and fresh, raw sea urchin.
Over the next couple of days, the winds kick up 10-foot swells, and we anchor in a sheltered cove to battle seasickness. During calmer moments, we go ice climbing on the Bernal Glacier, less than a mile hike from an inlet where the Zodiac drops us. The pick-your-path terrain varies from low-angle ice “hiking” to dead-vertical climbing.
On day four, the clouds lift, revealing glacier-covered peaks at the head of every side channel. We paddle kayaks through the ice-clogged waters (that’s when I learn how to launch over chunks of ice). Then we round a bend as the low clouds lift. The scenery is staggering: a blend of the Swiss Alps’ rock-and-snow, New Zealand’s verdant coast, Iceland’s fjordlands, and Alaska’s immensity. Kingfishers and cormorants buzz us as multiple rainbows fade in and out of the fresh-washed blue sky. Now I’m glad for the storms that came before: Without them, could this moment be so sweet?