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An expedition in Southern Patagonia, around the Hielo Continental

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Six-month expedition on foot and sea kayak in the lesser known and most extreme areas of Southern Patagonia

Carried out with Mélusine Mallender , an adventurous geographer and specialist in marine worlds, the expedition took place in two parts over more than 2,500 kilometers:

  • A two-month overland stage on foot in the Argentinian pampas and on the ice of the Hielo Continental.

  • A three-month marine stage in sea kayaking, in the channels of the Chilean Pacific.

An integral discovery of Patagonia to its most secret corners and the most distant from inhabited centers for a challenge equal to the unforgettable landscapes of the fortieth South American parallels and a research on the life of the Patagonian Indians who have now disappeared.

Research work on human adaptation capacities to an extreme environment and decision-making in difficult situations has also been carried out.

This expedition ends the Patagonian trilogy for the explorer Christian Clot who gave him the opportunity to travel all over Patagonia: 2002, crossing Tierra del Fuego on foot, Cape Horn then the Fuegian canals by sail; Exploration of the Cordillera Darwin between 2004 and 2006; Hielo Continental, the trace of Men in 2009.


A still unknown territory!

The Hielo Continental, located in the south of the Chilean-Argentinian Patagonia, is the largest glacier in the world. It separates the semi-desert steppes of the east and the humid fjords of the west. Opposing territories, extreme and among the least traveled on the planet.

A global approach

A sea kayak trip in the canals and fjords and walking in the steppes, for two, for an in-depth and sensitive discovery of the Patagonian environment, its rare inhabitants and its history.

Missing peoples

Nomads of land or sea, the Tehuelches and Kaweskars Indians disappeared from the face of the globe at the beginning of the 20th century. We have evolved in their worlds to better understand them.

In addition to this, you will need to know more about it.

In addition to this, you will need to know more about it.

The places of the expedition: Southern Patagonia

Patagonia is about twice the size of France for only XX inhabitants.
It is divided from east to west into three particularly different environments although they are very close geographically:

To the east, the semi-arid pampas , considered as a desert, which represents ¾ of the surface (zone A on the map).
To the west, the channels of the Chilean Pacific, one of the wettest environments in the world and undoubtedly one of the least explored (zone C).
Separating these two worlds in an almost impassable barrier, the mountains of Hielo Continental (Zone B)
Finally, a final environment can be identified, particularly in the canal sector, the primary forest in Fuegia which is still often untouched.

The expedition has evolved in each of these four types of terrain, each extreme in its own way ( see route ). See details on each of these backgrounds below.


The Hielo Continental, or Campo de Hielo Continental (zone B on the map)

With its 21,000 km², it is the third largest land ice mass in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland, but the largest located on a continent. It stretches over 550 kilometers long (between 46º30 'and 51º30' South latitude) for a maximum of 60 kilometers wide (73 ° West longitude). It is located in Chile and, for a small part (2,600 km²), in Argentinian territory.

  • It is separated into two parts: the Hielo de Campo Sur and the Hielo de Campo Norte. The Hielo Sur is by far the most imposing, with its 17,000 km2 and 450 km long.

  • It is an essential hub of Patagonia. Barrier for winds and depressions, it governs the different climates, we see it from almost everywhere and it has long scared men.

  • The main peaks of the Hielo Continental have become legends. The Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy, Lautaro or San Valentin are among the most emblematic peaks of modern mountaineering, often attempted, rarely successful. However, the majority of the splendid glaciers and peaks of Hielo Sur still remain completely virgin. A territory in the making.

Patagonian canals and primary forests (zone C on the map)

Between the Continental Hielo and the full waters of the Pacific, the winds and the melting ice have created a territory between two worlds made up of hundreds of canals and thousands of islands, bordered by an inextricable forest most often preventing landings: a world of raw beauty, difficult life and the least explored of Patagonia. A real labyrinth! Such is the reality of these canals, seños and other golf courses which sink in an indescribable interlacing until the center of the glaciers of Hielo Continental, by dark and cold fjords.

In addition to this, you will need to know more about it.

  • Still low temperatures, permanent humidity and the most significant precipitation measured on the globe at present welcome the traveler who very often quickly turns back.

  • Although the English hydrographic work, then Chilean, made it possible to draw up good nautical charts, there are still many sectors not mapped or with many errors. Once out of the main canals, places where large ships pass, we find ourselves far from everyone, isolated and in a universe where everything remains to be discovered.

  • An exceptional environment as much for its lack of information as for its biological and geological diversity.

  • The permanent humidity gave free rein to the development of an abundant primary forest, varied and changing, often impenetrable. Perhaps one of the least known circles in the world as studies are so difficult.

  • It is the home of dolphins, sea lions, whales, albatrosses, cormorants and even huemules (Patagonian deer).

  • It was the territory of the Kaweskar Indian sailors.


Argentina's semi-desert pampas (Zone A on the map)

Gigantic semi-arid territory, listed as a desert, it covers almost the whole of Argentine Patagonia, from the foothills of the Hielo Continental to the Atlantic Ocean (west-east) and from the Rio Negro to the Strait of Magellan (north -South).

  • Its rare plants are grassy tufts and mini-shrubs.

  • It rarely rains there, and riverbeds are only wet on rare occasions. Finding water is often a problem for the lone walker.

  • It is the territory of predilection of the wild Guanacos and, since the arrival of the colonists, the horses and the sheep.

  • Its vast plateaus pockmarked with mounds of dry grass make walking difficult and often monotonous.

  • It was the territory of the nomadic Tehuelches Indians .

The journey of the expedition

The goal of this expedition was to make a unique journey through the lesser-known territories of Patagonia, without always setting specific points for objective but allowing yourself the vagaries of discovery. The idea was more to live and to feel the places of life of the ancient land and sea extinct Indians. Scientific studies have also been carried out on the ability of humans to adapt to the most extreme environments. Living for six months in the heart of these exceptional territories of Patagonia, often extreme, even dangerous, but of extraordinary beauty and power, was a rare and unusual experience.

The journey took place in two main stages, land and sea, with however a land stage itself in two parts:

Stage 1 : In the Argentinian pampas - walk. A good start over 800km

Stage 2 : In the mountains and mountainous foothills of Hielo Continental - walking and horse riding. Between glacier, high peaks and discovery of the horse.

Stage 3 : In the channels of the Chilean Pacific - sea kayaking. By far the most trying stage, in a territory very little known.


Stage 1 - La Pampa

Land journey -in purple on the map- from Perito Moreno to El Calafate through the semi-arid pampas.

● 800 km of walking pulling carts (a sort of land pulka) or carrying heavy backpacks at the end, for more freedom of movement. Two months away.

● 120 kilos of load at the heaviest, including 20 liters of water, divided between our backpacks and our carts. 75 kg for Christian and 45 for Mélusine.

● Major problems: Lack of water, long stage distance, difficult terrain for walking.

● Interest: A step that allowed us to better understand life in the Pampas, a nomadic sector of the Tehuelches Indians; The Rio Pintura and its hundreds of cave painting sites.
This part of the expedition was the entry into this Patagonian world so rich in diversity. For Christian, the reunion with an environment that he has already traveled a lot, while it was the first experience of these lands and total autonomy for Mélusine. We had to find our rhythm, learn to work together and find precious automatisms for the rest of the adventure. A pleasant first stage despite the strong winds, the lack of water and the chaotic terrain.


Stage 2 - The Mountains

Land and glacial journey - in purple on the map - around the village of El Chalten and on the Hielo Sur.

● 100 km of walking for 20 days of journey. (With for this part a 3rd person, Jean-Christian Kipp)

● Major problems: Difficult and very crevassed glacial terrain, very strong winds.

The Fitz Roy, around which we progressed, was the sacred mountain of the Tehuelches Indians, the origin of their people according to legends. This is where each group went in summer, as much as a “pilgrimage” as for the abundance of game. There is no trace showing that the Indians ventured on the campo of Hielo Sur but there is no indication to the contrary. We wanted to go to this glacier, as much to see and tread it as to approach Mount Fitz Roy.

The second part of this stage took place on horseback, always with the aim of better understanding the life of the Tehuelches. The latter, when the white settlers arrived, very quickly adapted to these animals. And it now seems logical to us, walking in the pampas is so much easier with the high legs of a horse.

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Step 3: The channels

Sea kayak trip -in red on the map- from the town of Puerto Natales to the Golf de Peñas and back.

The most important of this expedition. After the accumulated fatigue of walking in pampas and mountains, we found ourselves facing hundreds of kilometers of canals on still rough, often violent, waters. Everything was new to learn, even if the automatisms acquired during the first two months were invaluable to us. But this fundamentally different environment operates according to its own rules. We had to learn them and adapt to them to survive them. An exciting experience in places where the nomadic Indians of the seas, the Kaweskars, once lived.

● 1,500 km of sea kayaking for a three-month journey with two Plasmor sea kayaks. A single-seater Belouga 1 for Mélusine and a two-seater Belouga 2 for Christian (see pg 15).

● More than 300 kilos of load at the heaviest, divided between food, marine and camp equipment, mountain equipment to access the glaciers falling into the fjords and artistic equipment.

● Major problems: Very violent storms in the canals, gusts of over 200 km / h wind, few camp sites possible, extreme precipitation and humidity and very short day length at this period.

● Interest: One of the least known areas of Patagonia, and the world, with many exploratory possibilities. Many fjords have been visited very little, maps are scarce and no extensive scientific study has been carried out. As for the forests bordering the fjords, they have for the most part never been penetrated.

The Hielo Continental 2009 expedition was led by two people,
supported by a team representative of the different fields of work.

In addition to this, you will need to know more about it.

Christian Clot Expedition leader . Christian has been traveling the world for more than 10 years in search of the less traveled and less known places. He led expeditions to Asia, South America and the two polar zones, crossing mountain ranges as well as deserts, seas and tropical forests. He is particularly interested in the adaptability of man in the most varied territories.


Mélusine Mallender Even if Mélusine had already crossed many countries off the beaten track from Togo to Vietnam, from Thailand to Costa Rica, Hielo Continental 2009 was his first committed and long-term expedition. Geographer and scuba diving instructor, she has prepared for a long time to lead large-scale expeditions in two areas of predilection: the sea and the meeting of forgotten peoples. Since then, she has led several solo expeditions.

Cécile Vallet (Fr) - Psychologist, Senior Lecturer (Paris 13) and researcher at the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme. She is in charge of setting up and monitoring protocols for psychological and physiological research carried out during the expedition. Since 2006, at the initiative of Christian Clot, she has set up a research program on explorers in extreme situations in order to better understand the capacities for decision-making in risky and stressful situations and for adaptation. Christian has already carried out these studies during the Ultima Cordillera expedition.

In addition to this, you will need to know more about it.

Marcelo Arévalo (Cl) - He is THE specialist in all measurement campaigns in the South of Patagonia. He coordinates all field studies at Magallanes University. He provided logistical support to Punta Arenas.

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Ariane Dupleich (F) - She had the heavy task of translating the expedition and press files into English, as well as the website. It has also ensured the relay in France of the expedition of which it is also a partner through its company Hilight which produces Sail Away.

In addition to this, you will need to know more about it.

José Araos (Cl) - Geographer and glaciologist, attached to the CEQUA research group. He is the specialist in glaciological observations of Patagonia, author of numerous publications. He provided scientific coordination in Chile.

The first inhabitants of Patagonia: the nomadic Indians

Long before the arrival of the first navigators in the early 16th century, Patagonia (and Tierra del Fuego) was inhabited by several indigenous peoples, who occupied both land and sea. Long considered the vilest savages and today totally disappeared, they represent the soul of Patagonia, the one on which we are going to lead our tracks.

It is difficult to know exactly when man began to populate southern Patagonia. It seems that it starts around 12,000 years ago and accelerates at the end of the last mini-glaciation, 9,000 years ago.

Several peoples will gradually occupy Patagonia to its southern extremes and Tierra del Fuego. They sometimes lived very close to each other and sometimes in a relatively similar way, without having much contact with each other, if any. Indeed, the significant separation of environments created by the Hielo Continental has also led to very different ways of living without being able to have contact between the different groups.

  • On Earth lived the Selk'nam (Tierra del Fuego) and the Tehuelches (South Patagonia), two ethnic groups of terrestrial nomads.

  • On the marine side lived the Yamanas (South of Tierra del Fuego) and the Alakalufs (all of the Chilean canals), two ethnic groups of marine nomads.

See the map of the territories opposite.

Finally, the north of Patagonia was inhabited by the Mapuche, the most important Indian people of Patagonia, but outside the territory of this expedition. This is why they are not present on these pages. It is the only one of these peoples that has survived to the present day.


Nomadic marine peoples: Alakalufs and Yamanas


These two peoples were marine nomads. Fishing and shellfish were their main resources, as well as in some cases hunting, especially for the Alakalufs. They spent most of their time in their wooden canoes where they kept a fire constantly burning. A very important fire which constituted their only contribution of heat, since they lived naked.

The Yamanas (or Yagan) were located south of Tierra del Fuego and around Cape Horn. They were therefore not on the route of the expedition, but I had the opportunity to travel often through their former territories during the expeditions in the Cordillera of Darwin.

The Alakalufs, or kaweskars, lived throughout the Strait of Magellan and ascended through the fjords to Wellington Island, where Puerto Eden is today, on the shores of the Continental Hielo and sometimes further north. They called themselves the Kaweskars, which in their language means Men. Little is known about their relationship with both the Yamanas and the Land Tehuelches, in the rare places where encounters were possible, where the mountains were not too high. But they certainly had very little and lived mainly in total autarky, until the arrival of the Whites.

These two peoples will be reduced rapidly from the 1850s due to diseases and the reduction of their territories to have practically completely disappeared in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Our marine journey took place mainly in the living territories of the Alakalufs Indians.

Nomadic land peoples: Tehuelches and Sel'Nam

Larger in size than the people of the canoes, these Indians are at the origin of the myth of the Patagonian giants. They lived in the land of hunting and gathering.

The Selk'nam occupied Tierra del Fuego and moved throughout the accessible territory of the island, except in a small eastern part where a people lived in a very small territory, the Hauch. They dressed in guanaco skins, with the hairs inward.

The Tehuelches were distributed in small groups from the Strait of Magellan to the height of the city of Bariloche, that is to say all along the Hielo Continental. They nomadized mainly from east to west and vice versa, along the Atlantic Ocean in winter and near the mountains or in the pampas in summer. They dressed in guanaco skins, with the hairs inward and drawing on the skin on the outside. Several archaeological sites exist testifying to their life, including the famous Cuevas de las Manos, near the town of Perito Moreno, where there are hundreds of cave paintings.

As for the Alakalufs, our journey crossed many sites of life of this nomadic people, with many legends.


Since the discovery of the Straits by Magellan in 1520 and the arrival of settlers, then missionaries, the number of Indians has continued to decrease. Massacred to obtain land or decimated by unknown diseases, there were only a few individuals left at the start of the 20th century, before they finally disappeared a few years later. Often treated as savages without faith, sub-human or dirty and incapable people, all of these tribes have been little studied and underestimated.

It is only in recent years that some new data has started to rehabilitate them, but information is still lacking.

Hielo Continental 2009 aimed to help better understand the way of life and the reason for being of these peoples of Indians, land and sea, by living several months close to their customs, nomadism. This expedition therefore took place on the Trail of Men ... A book is in preparation.

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