Field Notes: Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile: March 15, 1993 – From the Field…

The three of us trekked across the faces of the thickly bedded sands for over an hour to what reasonably appeared to be the crest of the hill. But once there, looking across the valley, the terrain revealed the upland was a spectacular syncline. This wave of strata was the huge Cerro Torro syncline, a giant north-to-south trending warp of the earth in the foothills of the Andes. From the ridge, we looked eastward into a valley thick with small trees in the deep axis of the fold. The flocks of tiny dark birds squawked amongst the cover and flew in coveys about the forest. These were Andean parakeets, not really rare in Patagonia, but an exotic and enjoyable distraction for Houston flatlanders.

To the west we looked up to the Andes, the granite pinnacles of the Torres del Paine. A dark discoloration in the face of one of the towers resembled a caballero on horseback. It provided a ready and recognizable landmark in the National Park referred to as “Chile’s Yellowstone.” Above and behind the Towers gleamed the Andean Ice Sheet. This mass of alpine ice feeds the mountain glaciers along the tip of South America. The ice sheet also feeds the wind. As air cools on the ice and warms in the Argentine Pampas, the dense cold air moves furiously eastwards towards the warm updraft. Here in the Parque, afternoon winds commonly exceeded 75 mph. (A measurement of the wind later would peg a meter at 100 mph.) Having arrived at the tip of South America in March, winter was approaching in Patagonia. We were prepared for cold and wet with GoreTex gear, interestingly “Patagonia”-brand, but were ill-equipped for the wind. In the coming weeks, some measured sections would be constructed while lying down, with one person yelling out a geologic description to another who recorded bed thickness, grain size, texture, etc.

The wind picked up ferociously in the afternoon and there on the edge of that syncline we were posed with a problem of very personal nature. In fact, it was the call of nature. After drinking copious amounts of water while hiking, how does a man relieve himself in a 70 mph wind? One would think that a trajectory directly downwind would provide the best solution. It was soon discovered that a stance with your back to the wind produces significant turbulence downwind and random “back eddies” making the waterproof GoreTex even more valuable. Through trial and error that first day, it was determined that a side-wind stance, surrendering all modesty to friends and nature, made for the most hygienic and efficient solution.

Beside the wind, the second predicament quickly followed when we needed to take strike and dip measurements. Three geologists, from three universities, had three methodologies for taking dip measurements. Once the methodology was settled, the iconic Brunton pocket transit was produced. However, after several tries at taking strike and dip, three frustrated scientists realized that their Brunton was useless. The pull of the South Pole was so downward on the compass needle that the north tip stuck against the glass. We were simply too close to the South Magnetic Pole. In the evening, we would need to take apart our compasses and weight the needle in order for it to remain horizontal in the device. “Fixing” our Brunton was but one more challenge of field work in one of the most rugged and beautiful places on the planet…Next time, snakes!