Mt Sarmiento's First Winter Ascent - Part 1 - The Mystique

For over two year Natalia Martinez and I had been enjoying the beauties and sweet snow of BC and Washington, but our minds were drifting back Patagonian dreams, and our imminent return for another expedition.

After an exciting trip to the St. Elias range in the Yukon, we flipped to the other side of the glob, 14.000 km southwards to the foot of Mount Sarmiento, a mythical mountain of Tierra del Fuego at the southern end of Patagonia. We were seduced not only by its massive 2200m walls rising straight from the sea and crowned by gigantic rime mushrooms, but also by its fascinating history.

Main image is of Mount Sarmiento from the Northwest. by Alfredo Soto

The two rime covered summits of Mount Sarmiento. by Marcelo Arevalo

Mount Sarmiento was born into history in the summer of 1579-80 when Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa was sent to chase the pirate Francis Drake to the Magellan Strait. Very impressed by the mountain, he named it "Volcán Nevado" (Snowy Volcano). Since then, and for more than a century the maps showed a mysterious volcano dominating the yet featureless and unexplored island of Tierra del Fuego, sometimes filled with drawings of giant indians and surrounded by marine monsters.

It wasn’t until the explorations made by the British Admiralty between 1826 and 1836 that the real configuration of Tierra del Fuego was unravelled, by the likes of Robert Fitz Roy, Charles Darwin and Phillipe Parker King. Realizing it wasn't a volcano after all, King renamed it Mount Sarmiento.

The H.M.S Beagle in front of Mount Sarmiento. by Conrad Martens

With proper charts and then steam engines, the Magellan Strait started a golden era as thousands of travellers learnt of this mysterious mountain always hidden between clouds. The lucky ones that got a glimpse of it were astonished by the massive Mount Sarmiento, rising 2200m straight from the sea level.

It is an omnipresent sentinel in all the explorations tales you can find of this remote land, well known as a natural weather predictor. Even today every fisherman in Magallanes knows that if Mount Sarmiento is visible, a storm is coming. Jules Verne on his novel "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" published in 1870, mention its forecasting properties when the Nautilus, navigating near Cape Horn, ascended to the surface getting a clear view of mount Sarmiento in the distance.

Sarmiento’s first climbing attempt was in 1898, by Sir Martin Conway, who came to the Americas to climb Mount Aconcagua and Mount Sarmiento, at that time the most attractive mountains in South America. Conway failed, but found the best access route to its upper reaches; the same that many, including us, followed in our expeditions.

You can find many quotes of travellers and explorers deeply moved by Mount Sarmiento's view, but it was the Italian priest Alberto Maria De Agostini who was most charmed. After three attempts to the mountain between 1913 and 1914, staying sometimes up to two months harassing the mountain, he spent his life dreaming about "the ice sphinx" ("Sfingi di ghiaccio"), and at the age of 73, rejecting to give away his dream in spite of his age, he organized a big expedition to climb Mount Sarmiento, recruiting the best Italian climbers at that time. They spent 57 days in the mountain, and after failing the North Face route, Carlo Mauri and Clemente Maffei launched a quick final attempt up the south ridge, reaching the summit after a epic ascent in middle of the clouds and strong winds.

One of the early attempts to the north face of Mount Sarmiento, during the Italian expedition of 1956. In the background the line followed by Natalia and Camilo.

After that summer of 1956, more than 22 expeditions attempted the mountain, and no one managed to reach the main summit. Three of them succeeded on the lower Western summit. They were stopped by its stormy weather and the steep headwall, protected on every side by huge rime mushrooms.

People came from every corner of the globe, including outstanding mountaineers Stephen Venables, Jim Wickwire, John Roskelley, Tim Macartney-Snape, Charlie Porter, Iñaki San Vicente, Robert Jasper, Jörn Heller, Ralf Gantzhorn, Romolo Nottaris and the legendary Erhard Loretan among many others.

With every expedition, the renown of this mountain grew stronger, and our dream of climbing felt more and more like David vs Goliath. But when we were invited on the CORDARWIN.13 expedition as a mountaineering team to climb Mount Sarmiento, we thought... we have to give it a try!

Natalia observing Mount Sarmiento across the Magellan Strait from Punta Arenas, distant 140 km through the pristine Patagonian atmosphere on a rare clear day.

Part 2 - The Slog - Coming Soon