The ambitious trails to connect Villa O’Higgins with the Southern Ice Field

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Photo: Fernando IglesiasPhoto: Fernando Iglesias
Years ago, Conaf planned the development of seven routes in glacial zones of the Aysén region in Chilean Patagonia. With the Eduardo García Soto shelter now restored and under its management, the next objective is to strengthen the Chilean alternatives to the currently popular circuit that starts from El Chaltén.  There is potential for a binational connection.
By Ignacio Palma
Translation by Andy Ford
Mario Villagrán was born and raised in Villa O’Higgins, a small town in the southernmost part of the Aysén region. Located at the end of the southern highway known as the Carretera Austral, from his infancy he began climbing the mountains that surround the town and which offer panoramic views of, in particular, the binational Lake O’Higgins (Chile) / San Martín (Argentina).
By the time he was 15, he had carried out his first guided expedition.  Five years later he did it in a certified manner, thanks to the training provided by the Chilean forest service (Conaf). He has already worked for the few companies that offer expeditions to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and surrounding areas.
Today, Villagrán, 22, anxiously awaits the realization of one of the great desires of his fellow residents of Villa O’Higgins: the official opening of trails that will cross glacial and periglacial zones of the northeastern sector of the nearby ice field. A key feature of the project is also the Eduardo García Soto refugio, or shelter, located among the mass of ice just 2km from the Argentine border crossing at Paso Marconi. There, it is possible to gaze up close at the rarely seen western faces of Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.
“It is a project that brings people a little closer to getting to know the Southern Ice Field in an affordable manner. A while back it was a true odyssey to go all the way there. Today you can see that there are risks, but they can be resolved with a good operational service,” says the young guide.
Glacier trek. Photo: Fernando IglesiasGlacier trek. Photo: Fernando Iglesias
Southern Ice Field. Photo: ConafSouthern Ice Field. Photo: Conaf
Eduardo Garcia Soto Shelter
Villagrán himself was trained in the field as part of the ambitious plan that Conaf has been implementing in the area since 2011, when they began restoring the aforementioned shelter. Constructed thirteen years ago by the Instituto Chileno de Campos de Hielo, mostly up to now it was only taken advantage of by Argentine tourist operators, who offered it as part of a 9-day trekking circuit on the ice field. These companies and their clients usually traveled uncontrolled through Paso Marconi, which is located just a day’s march from El Chaltén, the closest trans-Andean village.
Now, Chile is joining in the fun. Last year, with new funding, Conaf began a program that both trained some fifty persons, among them park rangers, guides and travel operators, about the area and its potential as well as restored the shelter.  “There is a lot of expectation of what can be done here,” said Pascual Díaz, owner of Kalem Patagonia, a tour operator that has completed several journeys in the area since 2012.  “A group of young and local guides is being trained, and they are acquiring a lot knowledge in the field.”  
Refugio Eduardo Garcia Soto. Photo: Fernando IglesiasRefugio Eduardo Garcia Soto. Photo: Fernando Iglesias
Next objective: Seven trails
The next step for Conaf will be to promote the seven trails planned for the Chilean side of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (see images).  All of these will have their trailhead in Candelario Mansilla, located on the southern shore of Lake O’Higgins, which is accessed via boat from Villa O’Higgins.
The routes will vary in their difficulty and duration.  Among the attractions will be crossings of the Chico Snowdrift and the Gorra Blanca Glacier, and a four-day’s journey away lies the Eduardo García Soto shelter.  In the approach to the ice field there are moreover two army shelters available, which are located in the sectors of La Pirámide and La Laguna, respectively.
According to Piero Caviglia, head of protected wild areas for Conaf in the Aysen province of Capitán Prat, the main objective is that in three more years the routes will be technically as well as economically viable, and with an emphasis on the services for the trails being operated by licensed local services using local guides. “Our idea is to plan the routes now, implementing them with semipermanent camps and domes,” explains Caviglia.
Furthermore, Caviglia says that Conaf will have new, specific requirements for trekking in the area: every visitor will have to certify that they have sufficient experience in high mountaineering, safety protocols, and rescue.  Otherwise, they will have to hire a guide service.  “The visitor must demonstrate they are physically ready, in addition to possessing the knowledge and equipment necessary for the expedition,” says Caviglia.
Díaz agrees with the Conaf approach. “The trail is very dynamic. Besides the impact people can cause, such as trash, or creating new, spontaneous trails, there is also the risk a person faces. A visitor must be supported here by a guide certified by Conaf.”
Binational route
Although the journey to the shelter over Chilean territory is longer than that which begins on the Argentine side of the ice field, Caviglia explains that the Chilean route is less demanding. “The access through Chile, even though it has more crevices and is longer, does not have complications like a rock face located behind the Marconi Glacier, in the Argentine sector.  One does not have to do any climbing.  It involves crossing a glacier, with stream crossings where precautions must be taken, but everything is manageable,” he says.
Photo: ConafPhoto: Conaf
During the ten years that Kalem Patagonia has been conducting trips in the region, Díaz says they have led five expeditions to the Argentine border crossing. The trip lasts between 8 to 10 days, including a three-day break in the shelter, where, among other options, the visitor can learn how to build a snow shelter, practice ice-climbing or climb the Gorra Blanca peak. 
Caviglia points out that there is also great potential for the creation of a binational route, something that he experienced himself four years ago, when he personally crossed from the O’Higgins Glacier to El Chaltén. Notwithstanding, he emphasizes that in order for it to be carried out commercially, a plan that addresses issues of immigration and labor legislation in the respective countries must be first developed.

“This should not become something really massive,” said Cavigila. “This is a place only for a limited few. We must preserve the immensity of nature that pervades here so that in 15 or 20 years from now others can come here and live the same experience.”



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