Ushuaia - The End of the World, The Beginning of Adventure
Ushuaia - El Fin Del Mundo.
That was the first indication I received as to where and what this place was. The end of the world…the double meaning made my interest peak and my stoke levels rise. I started googling to see what I could find out. Within a matter of seconds, I was sold. The first photos were of the town of Ushuaia - bright colors, vibrant culture, and some of the coolest alpine architecture. But the best part is the dramatic mountains blasting up into the sky right behind this little port town. Most of the mountainous areas I’ve visited have always started in higher elevation places and then gradually gotten taller and taller. In Ushuaia, however, these massive behemoths rip into the sky literally from the shore of the ocean. Sure, we have 14ers in the United States, but the foot of the mountain usually rests at several thousand feet and goes up from there. Seeing a peak rise up from the ocean all the way to 14,000+ is a sight to behold.
Our original plan upon arriving in Ushuaia was to highline in the alpine - Tierra del Fuego. The top of the peaks. But there’s one thing that’s always a reality on missions like these, and that is the reality that a successful mission isn’t for sure… far from it. There are so many variables up there - uncertain weather is a big one. Terribly strong wind that can blow rocks off the top and onto you. Snow, rain, hail, all of the above built into one fucked up monster storm that can end very badly. But these are the odds and it’s something we accept, even welcome. True adventure doesn’t lie on the other side of a mild approach under calm skies; true adventures are found at the end of uncertainty, bipolar weather, unpredictable elements, and extreme changes in the plans. That’s The hardest part of these kinds of adventures is actively paying attention to the ephemeral nature of these places, knowing when to keep going and when do turn back.
After we arrived into the city, the first step was to build a rough plan around what we wanted to accomplish. Before even flying to Argentina, we had connected with some local alpinists that have been up most of the peaks in the area. It was March at the time which means they were about to go into winter, but that we also had a pretty good shot at a window to get up the mountain. Over the next few days, however, bad weather did indeed make several appearances in the form of blasting wind, snow, rain, and freezing temps. This meant that we were hunkered down waiting for it to clear, but used this time to get some solid planning done as to how this was going to go down.
Thankfully, we did have a few opportunities to take helicopters up to the proposed highline location where we could get a good look at the line potential, the approach, and anchoring situation. We had recruited a star studded team including the one and only Facu, an Ushuaian native and all around badass, two local alpinists that didn’t say much but smiled with 100+lbs packs on, the film crew, and myself. Planning for this meant a few things: having clear entry and exit times for the helicopters to come get us, unloading, setting up base camp, hiking the gear up to the anchors, getting eyes on anchoring possibilities and hopefully build anchors… all while staying warm, hydrated, smart, and safe. It’s incredibly involved, and highlining specifically holds one primarily unique characteristic: it’s 100% gear dependent. What that means is, compared to climbing for example, highlining requires gear to occur. You could just go climb without any gear. That matters because the success (or failure) of a highline mission depends on quality anchors and proper gear use.
We finally got clear skies and a green light from the crew at Ushuaia Heli, so we packed up and headed up into the mountain range. This was a super special moment because, since we had arrived, the mountains had been bare and without much snow on the majority of the landscape. But upon flying in that morning, we were welcomed with a gorgeous snow kissed landscape from the last few days of storms. It was incredible to see just how quickly a place like this can go from tranquil, to severe, then to beautiful… all while remembering that although it’s beautiful now, it could turn for the worse very quickly. As few made our way up and up, we eventually came to the clearing that was our base for the day. Resting between these two incredible peaks was one of the clearest, most vivid glacial lakes I’ve seen in my entire life. It was this magnificent teal that stood out perfectly contrasted with the mountains upon which it rested, their dark characteristics making the color of the lake pop even more.
What was beautiful and serene from the bottom became freezing as we were immediately blasted with wind and snow flurries. But skies were clear, so we decided to commit to one step at a time and the next step was getting to the anchors. That’s what it’s all about in this game: one step at a time. Focus on being present and alert, and accomplishing one mission before moving to the next. So off we went up the side of El Colorado. It was incredible to finally have boots on the ground as I’d been looking at photos and topo maps of this place for months!
Being in this kind of environment relies heavily on having the right gear, so it was imperative for us to talk to the locals beforehand to get advice on weather, what clothes to wear, tools, safety equipment, etc. Body temperature regulation seems to be one of the biggest cruxes with alpine missions like this. I’ve seen it time and time again, and have even had to turn around on big missions because of a single person being unprepared with gear to keep them warm and dry with proper thermoregulation. It’s incredible how quickly a mission can go from no big deal to a really big deal when faced with extreme temperatures and constantly changing weather. Not having the proper layering can quickly mean saying goodbye to a project that took months or even years to prepare for. There’s one main ingredient to success on missions like this: Merino wool. Forget about nearly everything other option, in my opinion. Merino wool is the only solution for not only moisture-wicking and warmth, but it’s also has the natural capabilities to adjust to a comfortable body temperature and it is odor resistant. Where cotton will leave you freezing the second it gets wet, wool is like a best friend. This 100% natural, sustainable fiber It gives you hugs, keeps you warm, and is there for you no matter what fucked up situation you find yourself in. Learn more about wool’s insane technical benefits from my friends at The Woolmark Company, here. My favorite pieces are the made by Black Diamond which includes the Solution Hoody and the Rhythm tee , both constructed with NuYarn stretch Australian Merino wool which dries five times faster, breathes better and has 35% more stretch than standard merino. Australian Merino wool combined with the technology BD has always strived for will consistently set you up for success. The second most important gear is Merino wool socks - I can’t stress this enough for superior thermoregulation and breathability. Continuing on in the list is a solid shell. This will depend on where you are and the weather you’re expecting, but for me and this adventure, I chose the highline stretch shell. Its waterproof AND breathable, eco-friendly, and super durable. As for boots, I wore the Scarpa Charmoz boots - easily the best boot around.
We spent the next few hours working our way up the rock field that is El Colorado, zig zagging up and up through clouds and snow until we were finally at the saddleback. As we approached, it got really calm and quiet which of course was exciting to me because at this point, we had all green lights and our only concern was if the wind would pick up. Well, that good feeling quickly turned to one of concern when we finally crested the saddle and as our heads came over the ridge, boom: wind pushing at what felt like near 100mph.
This leads me to a rather interesting aspect of rigging a highline: the inevitable task of brainstorming what could kill me… and not doing that. Sounds easy, but up here there’s a lot of unknowns, a lot of learning as I go and as I navigate the place I’m in. Up here, with this wind? We’re on a step ridge line, wind blasting… I could get blown over and thrown off this mountain. I could get frostbite. It’s high elevation, so I’m already moving a little more slowly and decisions can be inhibited. But there was one factor I didn’t consider, one that the local alpinists keyed me in on: that the wind is so strong, it will blast rocks down from the top, possibly hitting us and possibly hitting (and worst case cutting) the highline. This was something I didn’t expect or anticipate. I’ve never been in an environment so powerful that this scenario would ever be capable of occurring!
This was a major frustration for me and the team because we had worked so hard to get to this place, worked out so many logistics and waited for what seemed like a perfect window of opportunity, only to be shut down by this wind… the invisible enemy. We decided to wait just a bit to see if there was a chance it would die down enough to rig, but keep in mind we still had to stay within the extract window for the helicopters to get us off this mountain before the storm showed its ugly face again. We would wait a few minutes under cover of the ridge where the wind couldn’t be felt, and each time it got our hopes up so we would stand to see if it subsided. Over and over, we were met with a face full of wind ripping up, over, and out of one valley and into the next. And every time we did this, we quickly went from “maybe there’s a chance” to “there’s no chance in hell.”
Sadly, the only choice we had was to descend back to base. Despite our careful planning and equipping ourselves with the perfect gear, there wasn’t going to be any way to beat the wind or wait it out. Safety dictated our decisions because of the size of the crew and the well-being of each member. Before we left though, we did decide on a backup plan if met with this reality. I mentioned earlier that there was a beautiful glacier lake nestled into the mountain range, one that I knew would be beautiful to string up a line over and walk across. So without any more hesitation, we descended quickly to go rig the lake line. It wasn’t quite the alpine majesty I’d been jonesing for, but it sure was special to just be in this place, with these people, up high in Tierra del Fuego balancing on a rope nestled between to alpine peaks at the End of the World.
These things happen, especially in the alpine. It’s not even a matter of winning or losing, its a matter of enjoying the experience and taking whatever experience the mountain gives you. Sometimes she lets you accomplish the things you set out for, and other times she decides otherwise. It’s a good life lesson to me, and it’s taught me a lot about how to not only be okay with, but embrace this reality that we aren’t always in control of the outcome, but we are always in control of the experience we will decide to translate it as. What’s more is that I’m chalking this up as a great scouting mission wherein we learned a ton, scoped out the area and, upon returning, will have a much better shot at rigging the line where we originally planned. And at the end of the day, it was an incredible pleasure to spend some time standing upon the jumping off point to the End of the World.