Southern Ice Field Traverse: A new packraft classic?

We just returned from a 22 day unsupported crossing of the Southern Ice Field in Patagonia (Chile). See for some half assed blogging info.

We paddled 15 river miles, 75 “flat water” miles lake/salt, “hiked” 80 land miles.

Drop off at Pascua River near Lago Quetru, Show up Blow up. Paddle down to ocean. Paddle ocean to Lago Jorge Montt. Gain access to glacier. Travel glacier up to Southern Ice Field and cross to O’Higgins Glacier. Paddle Lago O’Higgins back to Villa O’Higgins.

3 people; 96 Snickers consumed.

Getting some pictures together and will post shortly. An amazing trip with my fiance, Kailyn McGrath, and friend Galen Dossin.

22 days unsupported? With packraft and mountaineering gear?! On the Patagonian Icecap?! Holy shnikies!! Congratulations y’all! Looking forward to seeing the pictures!

The trip began with a long drive from Coyhaique to Cochrane in a bus and then the next day a shuttle with a driver to our put in at Lago Quetro. When we unloaded all the duffels and began blowing up the boats our driver “Chilote” thought we were crazy, “ you are doing what? and going where?” That being said we put in on the river with our own doubts and some trepidation as to how far we were going to get. What would it be like to paddle a boat with about 120lbs on it in a river? Or in the ocean? How would the boats/sleds pull if we could make it to the icecap? How bad was the weather going to be? If we could make it across the icecap how would it be to paddle 60 miles on a huge lake?

Loaded with a huge pack on the front of the boats; containing mountaineering gear, ropes, crampons, ice axes, etc. and a 40lb bag of food in our lap we set off down Rio Pascua. The paddling was pretty smooth, a ton of water with lots of whirlpools and crazy currents but no rapids. That being said the boats felt sluggish and very tippy at times. On day one we paddled about 10 miles before getting blown off the water from strong winds, the chop picked up quick and even with a 6mph current we were not going forward. On day two we quickly finished the last 5 miles of the Pascua and hit the ocean. The sea was mild, overcast with a slight rain but no wind. We paddled and paddled and paddled. About 10 hours of continuous moving and we covered a good 16 miles before having to stop when winds picked up at a bigger crossing. We made it to the outflow of the Jorge Montt Glacier with a bunch of icebergs around and the next morning we got up early to try to beat the wind on our 2 mile crossing. Three quarters of the way across the wind started to build but at that point it was just keep going forward. The good thing about the packrafts is that they are pretty stable, the bad thing is that in a cross wind they lose a lot of their efficiency. It took a little longer but we crossed, did a little portage to another lake and then two more miles of paddling to a spot where we could start the walking portion. On that same day we ferried a load a couple miles forward through some crappy bushwacking in the rain. In the middle of the night we woke up to move the tent from it’s formerly beachfront spot to a drier area as the lake rose about 6 inches and the tent was getting swamped. The next day and the following 4 we leapfrogged camp and supplies forward, transitioning from dense bushwacking in calafate and michi to rocky riverbeds, to slabby alpine areas to dry glacier. Weather stayed windy and rainy but not too bad in the whole scheme of things, movable. Travel on dry glacier wasn’t too bad either and since we had to travel the route twice we were able to find a good route on the first trip making the second move easier. All in all we shuttled somewhere around 40km.

After a few days of schlepping we got to a place where the next move was through a big icefall but beyond that was snow covered glacier. With a day of half rest half scouting we were able to find a route through the icefall and began pulling things on top of the rafts. The elevation gain was about 500m over a few kilometers with a couple of steep up hills along the way to actually gain the plateau. The route finding to get on top wasn’t too bad as a lot of crevasses were open or had sagging bridges. The snow was terrible, knee deep post holing. At this point the weather changed to blue bird and no wind, which was great except for the fact that we were getting cooked. The next three days were like this, marching across the icecap getting absolutely sunburnt tongues in mushy snow. The days were long covering about 15km a day but the rafts as sleds were amazing to pull compared a kiddie sled or trying to carry everything on our backs. Our final day on the actual icecap, as we went up and over a pass of 2200m, was in a whiteout but without much wind. Moving up and over the pass blind was no big deal. More slogging down the backside of the pass to get down to the O’Higgins Glacier. From there it was two days of weaving on and off glacier with huge packs, sometimes crampons on sometimes off, in and out of crevasses to get down to Lago O’Higgins. Even though at this point we only had maybe ten days of food left we were carrying the packrafts and mountaineering gear so our packs were still huge and heavy. Lots of stumble-fucking through rocks and up and down ice fins trying to find a route. It was a huge relief to see the lake and the toe of the glacier, at one point we just dropped packs and sat in awe, listening to the snap, crackle and pop of the glacier as huge chunks would calve off into the lake. Probably the most beautiful camp any of us have ever stayed at.

At this point we started to do the numbers of how far we would have to paddle to get to Villa O’Higgins, the closest town. It turned out to be about 55-60 miles with a couple of crossings longer then a mile. We were all flabbergast at this. It was in the back of our heads that we would have a ways to paddle but in reality I don’t know if we ever really expected to get this far. So many things could have shut us down to get to this point but luck and hard work seemed to be paying off. “Fuck, here we go, one last big question mark.” With blue skies and the glacier at our backs we set off paddling our little packrafts. On the first day we expected the wind to kick up at any point so we hugged the shore waiting for the williwaws and swell to come from the glacier. We started around 6am and the waves didn’t pick up until 2pm. A solid 8 hrs of paddling and we moved a good 15 miles. The next day we got up even earlier and were moving by 5am and were able to paddle another 15 miles before the wind started. Same the following day and we were able to turn the corner on Lago O’Higgins and start traveling north to town. At this point we maybe had 12 miles to go but the weather started to change and instead of the wind starting in the afternoon it was blowing all the time. We got up early and smelling the barn set off into a 8knt head wind ducking from protected spot to protected spot. The wind increased steadily until rounding a point in about a 20knt headwind and 4ft swells we decided to pull off. It wasn’t that the boats were unstable so much as we weren’t making any headway no matter how hard we paddled. Determined to get to town we hit the trees. The shwacking was thick and hard. With six miles to go we stopped deeming our efforts futile. As much as we wanted to be done it was better to wait out the wind. The next morning there was a lull, enough of one so we could move. Gusts were still strong, 20knts, but from a direction that didn’t punish us too much. Steadily we worked from protection to protection, slowly making headway if we judged our moves correctly. The last mile to our exit and freedom was a direct headwind, a lot of hiding and ferocious paddling to be done. Amazing how a lomo a la pobre will motivate you. We kakisocked(beached at high speed in inuit) our boats, elated to be done. We cranked out a 5 mile hike on the road to get to town. A trip of a lifetime!! 24 days self supported. 15 miles of river, 18 miles of ocean, 50 miles of glacier and 60 miles of lake paddling.

Crossing Lago O’Higgins in packrafts is impressive and bold. Well done. Inspiring journey.

Belated congratulations on a great trip. Awesome effort. Enjoyed the write up and look forward to the photos.


With a day of half rest half scouting we were able to find a route through the icefall and began pulling things on top of the rafts.
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