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The Chilean Explorer Documenting the Death of Glaciers at the Ends of the Earth

Night has fallen, and a fat moon reflects in the waters of the Beagle Channel, known in the native Yaghan language as Onashaga. The explorers are fine-tuning the last details of the voyage, which will take Cristian Donoso (47), Camilo Hornauer (44), Harry Brito (34), Cristóbal Clement (24) and the captain, Jorge Caros, to the España fjord’s Cattigara Glacier — a four-hour trip by boat from Puerto Navarino, Chile. They are travelling to the southernmost tip of the country, to the ends of the earth: Tierra del Fuego.

Clement packages oatmeal into seven-ounce rations. As with every expedition, they will alternate between two meals, eating oatmeal one day and ravioli the next. This will also be their only food once they reach Cattigara and attempt to climb Mount Darwin.

“It’s simpler that way. It gets the job done and we forget about being hungry,” explains Donoso, an explorer with over 100 extreme routes in Antarctica and Patagonia under his belt, and the leader of the current expedition, which this time plans to repeat the journey and replicate the photos taken in 1962 by Chilean geologist Cedomir Marangunic and English mountaineer Eric Shipton, along with their crew.

“And for water? What will you drink?

“Melted snow.”

The team knows what they’re in for. On every expedition, they typically lose about 37 pounds, walking between 10 and 15 hours a day and carrying roughly 450 pounds of photo equipment, food and shelter between them.

“There are days when we climb more, and days when we climb less, depending on the terrain and snow conditions,” Hornauer say.

“But we have reserves,” Donoso says, laughing and patting his belly like a drum.

The plan dates back to 2018, when Donoso decided to follow the routes of past explorers through Chilean Patagonia, with the aim of recreating the photos taken on those earlier voyages and comparing the past images with the present ones. The project, titled Postcards of Ice, shows the stages of glacial retreat in Chile, as the ice sheets melt away. The team’s first voyage followed the route of Alberto de Agostini, and the second, the expedition of the German pilot Gunther Plüschow.

Using a map and by closely observing the terrain, they located the same places and determined the same perspectives that those historic explorers used to take the first images of the glaciers, employing box cameras and negatives etched on glass plates.

In 1914, the Salesian priest Alberto de Agostini photographed the Negri glacier. After 104 years, Cristian Donoso and Alfredo Pourailly captured the same perspective. The difference was shocking: in just 100 years, the glacier had melted away. A similar fate befell the Schiaparelli glacier, photographed the same year by De Agostini and again by Donoso and Pourailly in 2021. The Vergara glacier had also melted: in 1928, Gunther Plüschow documented the massive ice sheet, and 93 years later, in 2021, Pourailly and Donoso documented its demise. The same was also the case for the Pupum, Marinelli, and Louis de Savoie glaciers. All had a smaller volume of ice compared to the images from a century ago.

Concentrated in the southern zone of Chile (Aysén and Magallanes) are a total of 15,014 ice formations, equivalent in volume to 600 cubic miles of water. In the past 15 years, the country’s glacial surface has been fragmented, and 8% of the total ice volume has been lost, according to the latest glacier inventory carried out by Chile’s Dirección General de Aguas in 2022.

Cristian Donoso has been studying unexplored and extreme places for 30 years, and he has no doubts about the retreat of Patagonia’s glaciers: “I always go back, so I’ve become a witness to the profound and accelerated transformation of the landscape. There used to be places where you couldn’t get through because there was a glacier, and now I go back and the glacier is gone,” he says, the night before setting sail for Cattigara. Patagonia and its glaciers are a testament to the global consequences of human actions, Donoso insists: “What we are seeing is an acceleration of the melting of ice due to global warming. The speed of melting has increased exponentially.” The explorer and academic at Chile’s Universidad del Desarrollo adds another important point: “Before, in order to damage an area of land, humans had to physically destroy it, cut down forests, pollute rivers. Now, actions that occur thousands of kilometers away, even in the northern hemisphere, have global consequences.”

It’s late in the afternoon. The explorers have packed up everything they will need: cameras, bags, tents, solar chargers and a feast for the last day (water, cheese, maté and thick bars of chocolate. “We’ve spent the hour talking, now we have to sleep,” says Jorge Caros, the captain and owner of the Loica, the boat that will take the team from the dock of Navarino Island to the deepest part of the España Fjord tomorrow morning.

Aboard the ‘Loica’

The sun rises. First thing in the morning, crew member John Cano and crab fisherman Eugenio Calderón, the son of the last surviving Yaghan native speaker, Cristina Calderón, who died in 2022 from covid, join the team. Eugenio knows the waters of the Beagle as well as the living and dead of the Ukika village where the last Yaghan people live — an ethnic group devastated by the arrival of the region’s first settlers.

“When we were kids, we used to play all day in canoes,” he says, sitting on a wooden bench with his hands folded on his legs. “My mother used to get angry because we would get soaking wet, but we never got sick! We were free and healthy.”

It’s time to leave. The song Óleo de una mujer con sombrero by Silvio Rodríguez plays in the background.

Camilo Hornauer, one of the explorers, an entrepreneur, and the president of the conservation organization Fundación Plantae, cuts down some PVC pipes with a pocket knife.

“They have to be one meter tall,” he explains.

“And what do you do with them?” John asks.

“They’re flags, to mark dangerous areas, places where there are cracks in the ice,” Hornauer says.

Harry Brito opens up a map that traces the route of former explorers Cedomir Marangunic and Eric Shipton. The crew members run their fingers along the path of their journey, tracing their route through the islands and islets of the Beagle Channel.

“This is where we enter,” says Donoso.

From a window, their Yaghan crewmate points towards a small glacier, the Romanche.

“When I was a kid, that glacier reached all the way to the canal,” he says.

We look toward the distant ice, trying to imagine it: today, the Romanche is half of what it once was.

Source : EL PAIS