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Expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia,
Cape Horn, Falklands & Tierra Del Fuego

Tierra Del Fuego Adventures (Continued)

Making up the left-hand side of South America's tapering tail,
Chile's lean strip has been described by author Benjamín
Subercaseaux as an extravaganza of `crazy geography'. It
extends some 4300km (2666mi) from the desert north to the
glacial south, is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west
and shuttered by the Andes on the east. Chile shares most
of its extensive eastern border with Argentina, and borders
Peru and Bolivia in the north. Rarely extending beyond
200km (124mi) in width, Chile makes up for longitudinal
mincing by rising rapidly from sea level to 6000m (19,680ft)
while the country's latitudinal extremes give it a formidable
array of landscapes. Snow-capped volcanoes plunge to river
canyons; the Great North, where some weather stations have
never recorded rainfall, is counterpoint to storm and
snow-prone Patagonia; and Chile's razored and sculpted
coastline has endowed it with beaches and bays perfect for
fishing and swimming.

Chile also lays claim to the offshore territories of Easter Island
(3700km/2294mi west), Juan Fernández (700km/434mi west)
and half of the southern island of Tierra del Fuego (which it
shares with Argentina).

The variety of habitat supports distinctive flora and fauna,
which are protected by an extensive system of national parks
- one of the country's major draw cards for visitors. In the
parks, animals such as the endangered vicuña (a wild relative
of the alpaca), the Patagonian guanaco (a wild relative of the
Andean llama), flamingos, pelicans, penguins, otters and sea
lions do the food chain thing. Chilean plant life includes
stands of araucaria (the monkey-puzzle tree), cypress and
rare alerce trees (similar to the giant redwoods of California).
Outside protected areas, extensive logging denudes the
landscape at an alarming, and increasing, rate.

Chile's climate is as varied as its terrain, with arid but
surprisingly temperate areas in the north, a heartland which
enjoys a Mediterranean climate, and the wind, rain and
snow-battered lands of Chilean Patagonia and Tierra del
Fuego in the south. The rainy season in the heartland is from
May to August when temperatures are cooler, getting down
to an average maximum temperature of 10°C (50°F) in July.
January's neat gin average is 28°C (82°F). Chilean
Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego have summer averages of
just 11°C (52°F) but if you think that's manageable, muff up
and get ready for the wind chill, baby.

USHUAIA, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego

From my journal:

"Ten minutes till midnight and it is finally
dark. The view from the third floor lobby of
our hotel now consists of an arc of blue and
yellow lights - the city of Ushuaia - floating in
the blackness and marking the edge where the
beech-covered slopes of Tierra del Fuego slid
into the waters of the Beagle Channel.

Earlier this evening, as I watched the same scene
from the hotel dining room, it struck me that these
electrical 'fires' that we now use to light
up our habitations are reminiscent of the fires
that Charles Darwin watched as he sailed in the
ship whose name was taken for these waters.

The inhabitants then were known for wearing little
in the way of clothing. They did, however, carry
fire with them everywhere they went,
even in their canoes. As Darwin and the crew of
the Beagle sailed this passage they watched
fires spring up along the shore as night fell. If
they were to return today, they would see that
the Fuegians are still faithful to their name.
Tierra del Fuego - Land of Fire.

We embark tomorrow for the Drake Passage and Antarctic waters. Have we had enough good omens to insure a safe and just-sufficiently-uneventful passage to thrill us but not endanger us?

Perhaps. The first omen of the day was the wondrous view from the window of our plane as we climbed out of Punta Arenas and crossed the
Darwin Range: glaciers and meandering, braided rivers. A scene I never tire
of, a scene reminiscent of similar geography I have seen in the southern alps of
New Zealand and the Central Range in Alaska.

Glaciers - rivers of ice - the surface cracked and stretched, buckled and
compressed, revealing in those distressed patterns the slowly flowing,
unimaginably fluid substance: hard, incredibly dense blue ice. Meandering
rivers reveal another aspect of fluid flow - energy shifting and swirling -
picking up bed loads and laying them down in gravel and sand swaths,
forever wandering back and forth across their valleys. Both examples of water
changing the nature of our world just as it has for millions of years.

- Roy Beckemeyer, 19 January, 1998

The Tierra del Fuego was leaving early (5AM) Friday morning on its north-bound Puerto-Natales - Puerto Montt trip, and we were asked to board the boat the night before. I would rather have spent the night on shore, but decided to play it safe and stick to the rules, since alternative transport out of Patagonia was very difficult to arrange (all buses, planes, and future sailings of the Tierra del Fuego were fully booked weeks in advance), and I needed to catch an international flight from Santiago in a week and a half.

The main topic of conversation as we waited to get on board was the Tierra del Fuego's encounter with a rock 3 weeks ago, which (according to rumor) left a 40-foot gash in the hull and (verifiable fact) had forced the boat to spend a week in Puerto Natales being repaired. There are lots of narrow rock-filled channels around Puerto Natales, and the then-captain (now unemployed) had decided to go through one of these without waiting for high tide (rumor claimed he was was under management pressure to make up lost time). No one had been hurt, but we all knew that if the boat had a more serious accident and sank, we wouldn't last long in the ice-cold Patagonian waters ...

The Tierra del Fuego had four kinds of accommodation - cabins, bunks, class A seats, and class B seats. I never saw a cabin but heard they were quite nice. Bunks were quite comfortable bunkbeds in reasonably-sized rooms (3 bunks to a room), class A seats were reclining seats in a small compartment (13 seats) with a view, and class B seats were reclining seats in a large `container' (80 seats) on the truck deck. The class B container was next to some trucks carrying sheep, cattle, and other animals, so those of us fortunate fortunate enough to have better seats cracked innumerable jokes about how the ship's livestock section included a `human pen'. Besides the sleeping areas, the only indoors space available to non-cabin passengers was the dining room - there were none of the lounges, snack bars, TV rooms, shops, etc that are found in most US or European ferries.

I had been unable to get a bunk, since they were mostly reserved for truck drivers, and had instead settled for a class A seat. When I got on the boat I quickly unrolled my sleeping bag on a choice bit of floor space, as I prefer sleeping on the floor to sleeping in a chair. Many other people, particularly in class B, had the same idea, and some brave rain-loving souls even staked out semi-sheltered spots on deck to sleep in. Some of these hardy souls were a bit taken aback, though, when they discovered that while they had been sleeping on deck, their seats had been sold to people on the stand-by list!

Friday: I didn't get much sleep (partly due to a loud snorer in my compartment), but the beautiful scenery soon revived me. The boat was meandering through various channels, many of them narrow (and rock-filled!), on its way to the main North-South channel. I had once taken a boat trip on the coast of Norway, and the scenery here reminded me of that - narrow channels, lots of forested islands, mountains plunging directly into the sea. The main difference was that while most of the Norwegian coast is settled, and every little valley and island has its Viking history, the Patagonian islands are uninhabited except for a few fishing villages. A true wilderness area, in other words, one of the few places on this globe that has not yet been `exploited' by man. As I watched the islands go by, I wondered what it would be like to jump overboard (in a wet suit, of course), swim to a random island, and live a Robinson Crusoe type life, completely out-of-touch with the rest of the human race. I talked a bit to a nun and a teenage girl who were going to a religious retreat on one of the islands, and I half-thought of making an instant conversion to Catholicism and then asking if I could join them ...

I spent a few hours around lunchtime talking to Jim and Linda, a couple who were returning to Britain after a job in Tuvalu, a South Pacific island nation. They laughed when I told them I wanted to stay on one of the islands, and said that they had spent two years on a remote island whose only contact with the outside world was a monthly ferry, and they were looking forward to being in a place that had bookstores, telephones, and an occasional new face that they hadn't seen before!

The weather during the day was typical Patagonian - clouds with occasional bursts of sun, frequent bursts of rain, and odd bursts of hail. Gray, in other words. Kind of like Scotland, except that the rain, when it came, was a lot stronger than Scottish drizzles. The human passengers could at least go inside, but the livestock, sitting in their open trucks on the open truck deck, had to suffer through the rain and hail. When we stood on deck we could see the animals shivering and huddling together, and sometimes hear their pitiful bleating when the weather got really nasty. It seemed crazy to me to subject animals to this kind of treatment - if nothing else, sick or dead animals are presumably worth a lot less than healthy ones - but it seemed to be standard practice on the Tierra del Fuego.

Saturday: The snoring wasn't so bad this night (or maybe I was just getting used to it), so I actually got some sleep before waking up at 5AM to see Puerto Eden, the boat's only stop between Puerto Natales and Puerto Montt. Puerto Eden has about 300 souls or so, and is the biggest village on any of the islands. The boat did not dock, but just stopped in the middle of the channel while small boats came out from Puerto Eden to load and unload cargo and passengers. It was quite fun to watch, especially because some of the Puerto Edenians were Indians, the last remaining descendants of some of the fierce tribes that once ruled Patagonia. I waved good-bye to the nun and her teen-age charge as they got off the boat, and then went back to sleep.

When I got up, I discovered that the boat hadn't budged - it was still sitting in the channel off of Puerto Eden, and remained there until 12 noon. Apparently we had to wait for a high tide in some channel (I suspect the captain was being extra-cautious because of the recent accident). I asked some people if it was possible to go ashore and explore Puerto Eden, but the small boats had all left, and there didn't seem to be any other way to leave the Tierra del Fuego. It was a nice day, though (i.e. occasional drizzles but no heavy rain, and even a bit of sun now and then), so I hung around on deck with various other tourists. After the boat started moving, it hit a windy patch and we all stood around on deck and tried to see how far we could lean into the wind without falling over.

I had lunch with some of the Chilean truck drivers, and they clearly thought (although they didn't quite say so) that all of us Western tourists were crazy. Why on earth were we paying $100 to spend 3 days on a boat, when a bus to Puerto Montt (through Argentina) cost $50 and only took 36 hours? Was there some odd element in Western culture which made us enjoy spending 4 nights sleeping in a chair? A difficult question to answer ... I should mention that, excluding the truck drivers, 90% of the passengers were foreign tourists, and the handful of Chileans generally had good reasons for not taking the bus (e.g., they were moving house and needed to take a trailer full of furniture).

Lunch, by the way, consisted partly of a stew with rather odd chewy bits of material in it. It wasn't bad, just strange, but I made the mistake of asking one of the truck drivers what it was. When he responded "cow stomach", I gulped and pushed the bowl aside, much to the amusement of my companions. Sometimes its better not to know ...

I spent the afternoon hanging around with Susan, a fellow traveller I had met in Puerto Natales. Susan and I had roughly equal competence at Spanish (not fluent by any means, but able to converse with people if we could convince them to slow down and speak clearly), and we had fun trying to figure out a poem in one of Susan's books. We eventually decided it was too difficult and asked a Chilean to explain it to us, but he told us that he couldn't understand the poem either! I told Susan afterwards that I had decided to stick to non-fiction in the future ...

In the evening, the boat entered the dreaded and aptly named "Gulf of Sorrow" (Golfo de Pena), the only true open-ocean part of the trip. The crew passed out sea-sickness bags to the tourists, and I headed up to my favorite semi-sheltered spot on deck (it was, of course, raining heavily again). Juan, a Chilean oil engineer from Punta Arenas, had discovered the same spot, and we sat and talked about politics as we watched the boat go crashing through the waves. Chile had just recently made a transition from dictatorship to democracy, and Juan was saying that although he didn't actually approve of Pinochet, the ex-dictator, he had to admit that the man had done gone things for the economy. I'd heard quite a few other Chileans make similar remarks, and it set me to wondering - how do you evaluate a bloody tyrant who overthrew a democratically-elected government and killed and tortured hundreds of political prisoners, but who also saved his country from economic chaos and raised the living standards of millions? In college philosophy class I would have said the killings outweighed any economic gain, but now I'm less sure, since the vast majority of people I've met in my various wanderings around the Third World seem to care much more about economic well-being than about politics.

It's absolutely clear, though, that however one evaluates Pinochet's career as dictator, he was certainly acting badly at the time of my trip to Chile - making numerous veiled and not-so veiled threats of staging another coup (especially when corruption investigations started getting too close to him), and generally causing lots of unnecessary problems for the fledging democratic government (which, I should add, consisted of some of the most decent, capable, and honest politicians that I saw in any Latin American country).

Enough politics. I must say that this moment of the trip is the one that most clearly sticks in my mind. My memories of gliding through beautiful sun-lit channels are already starting to fade, but I can still vividly recall seeing the twin smokestacks of the Tierra del Fuego silhouetted against the crashing waves as the ship fought its way through the misnamed `Pacific' ocean, while Juan and I kept up a deep political discussion as we huddled for shelter from the rain and hail. I could really feel the boat as a little self-contained world afloat in a hostile sea, trying to battle its way through the elements to safety ...

Sunday: I wasn't too badly affected by the boat's rocking, but I heard lots of running in the hallways (presumably to the toilets) at night, so I assume the seasickness bags saw a bit of use. By breakfast time the water was getting a bit calmer, but I still noticed that far fewer people than usual had come down for the meal ...

The weather improved somewhat, and we spent a few glorious sunny hours sailing through inter-island channels. Some dolphins kept us company for a bit, and the waters were full of ducks, the skies full of birds, and the islands full of trees and mountains. We waved at a few fishing boats in the distance, and at one container ship that passed pretty close by. This is the part of the trip that the tourist brochures all talk about, I'm sure, although, as I said above, it's not the part that most sticks in my memory.

I spent the day, as usual, drifting around the boat chatting to the various people I had met. As I grow older I seem to be doing more of my travelling on boats (always ferries - I've never yet found a cruise that both goes somewhere interesting and is within my price range). I guess I really enjoy the atmosphere; plenty of room to move around in, plenty of opportunities to hang around and meet people, nice scenery by and large, and more `atmosphere' than is usually found in buses, trains, or planes.

I spent the evening talking with my friend Susan and with Carlos, an engineer from Spain (Susan and I had once again combined forces to achieve better Spanish fluency). Carlos was interesting to talk to because he knew a great deal about Patagonia and its history, but he also complained a lot about the trip. I guess that while the backpackers (such as myself) had more or less known what to expect, and in any case were used to roughing it, Carlos was a well-off professional, and did not appreciate spending four nights in a chair. I gathered that he had only seen glossy tourist pamphlets before signing up for the trip, and had been shocked when he saw what living conditions were like. So, a warning to readers - I took quite a few boat trips in Chile, and while they were all beautiful, they were also all very primitive accommodation- and facility- wise, except for passengers in cabins. Be warned, and get a cabin unless you're used to roughing it.

Day 4: The last day of the trip. We arrived at Puerto Montt harbor at about 9AM, but once again had to wait a few hours for high tide, and didn't actually dock until noon. I felt kind of funny as I walked off the boat. On the one hand, I was certainly looking forward to days without rain and nights spent on a bed. But on the other hand, I remembered all the magic moments of the trip - watching the boat battle through the South Pacific waves, looking for birds and dolphins in the sunlit inter-island channels, and just hanging around and talking to Susan, Linda, Jim, Carlos, Juan, and all the other people I had met on the trip - and I knew that the voyage of the Tierra del Fuego was going to be one of the most unforgettable experiences of my trip to South America.

Postscript: I hope I have succeeded in giving the reader a feel for the voyage of the Tierra del Fuego - the most uncomfortable, but also the most beautiful, boat trip I have ever taken. For anyone who is tempted to do the same trip, I should say that 1990/91 was the Tierra del Fuego's last season in Patagonia. The boat has been sold, and, according to rumor, will shortly appear somewhere in Italy. The Puerto Natales - Puerto Montt run will be taken over by a new, and (so I have been assured) better equipped boat. But if anyone happens to go to Italy and see a medium-sized RO/RO ferry with two smokestacks, an open truck deck, minimal facilities, and a few scars on its hull from Patagonian rocks, please let me know - I wouldn't mind riding on the Tierra del Fuego one last time ...

Travel Summary

Travel in Chile is quite easy by Third-World standards. You can drink the water and eat the food without worrying about getting sick (the most common dietary problem among tourists seemed to be `fruit overdose' - when Americans and Europeans realized how incredibly cheap and good fruit was in Chile, they sometimes tended to eat just a bit too much. As I discovered, eating a kilo of cherries or grapes in half an hour is not advisable, no matter how good they taste!). Theft and violent crime is rare, and most travel services are reasonably efficient. Most of the population is of European descent, so the tourist can `blend in', and does not stick out out of a crowd. Prices are cheap by Western standards (although not as cheap as in the countries in the northern half of the continent), and I ended up spending about $25/day, not counting international airfare. Many other backpackers did fine on $15/day. Fluent English speakers are not common, but many people in the tourist business do speak a few words (I strongly recommend trying to learn some Spanish, though, as your trip is likely to be much more interesting if you can talk to locals, read newspapers, etc).

If you're like me and have always most loved remote unpopulated areas with snow-capped mountains, lakes, forests, and fjords, then go to Chile, and I only hope that you fall in love with the country as much as I did.

South American Ski Geography

The South America Ski Guide is a rather presumptuous title as skiing is developed in a relatively small part of the continent. On a land mass that is approximately 7,650 km (4,750 miles) long and 5,600 km
(3,500 miles) across at its widest point, all the skiing takes place in a narrow strip which is just 2,650 km (1,650 miles) long. Excluding the tiny ski run at Chacaltaya in Bolivia, all the developed ski areas lie in a region which occupies just 23 degrees latitude of the 70 degree-long continent at the narrowest and southernmost part of the world's longest mountain range.

The Andes, or simply the Cordillera as it is called by its residents, is the north-south continental divide that splits South America into very unequal halves. It is the world's second highest range behind the Asian Himalayas and boasts America's loftiest point on Cerro Aconcagua at 6,960 m (22,835 ft). The Alto Cordillera is the high-altitude portion which extends from the equator to the Valle de Las Leñas where even the lowest passes are above 3,000 meters. The range is extremely narrow and abrupt by global standards. The widest point is in Bolivia (650 km, 400 miles), and the crest is never more than 300 km (200 miles) from the Pacific Ocean.

Ski Regions

The Alto Cordillera

Between Santiago and Mendoza, the Cordillera is high and desolate. Very little vegetation grows in these mountains, and only one difficult pass links Chile and Argentina. Tupungato, the central peak in the region, lies on the border at 6,570 m (21,555 ft). The area is typified by Portillo which is dwarfed by the awesome peaks that loom above the comparatively minuscule ski slopes. This region contains South America's best ski areas including Las Leñas, Penitentes, and Vallecitos in Argentina, and La Parva, El Colorado, Valle Nevado, Portillo, and Lagunillas in Chile. With summit elevations approaching 3,650 m (12000 ft), this northern sector has South America's best snow, steepest slopes, and longest seasons. Skiing here combines the open, alpine terrain of Europe with the deep and dry snow of the North American West, producing world-class conditions.

The Lakes Districts

Farther south, the Cordillera shrinks dramatically in elevation. Conical volcanoes begin to dominate the landscape with the highest elevations deviating from the crest of the true Cordillera Central. Almost all lie west of the Andean border, and the tops of many continue to puff steam. The last to erupt was Lonquimay in 1988. The mountains are densely covered with a skirt of ferny deciduous rain forest which gives way to open snowfields at the 1,500 m (4,900 ft) level. Trout-filled lakes gather icy snow melt and warm spring water in the foothills between the mountains and the valley. The area was perfectly described by the North American ski writer John Jay in 1947 as "a combination of New Hampshire, Norway, and Sweden."

On the Chilean side, all the ski areas are located at the base of volcanoes including, from north to south, Chillán, Antuco, Lonquimay, Llaima, Villarica-Pucón, Antillanca, and La Burbuja. In Argentina, only Caviahue is located near a (hot) volcano, while Primeros Piños, Chapelco, Cerro Bayo, Gran Catedral, Perito Moreno, and La Hoya all climb some sub-range of hills. Skiing in these areas is characterized by low elevations (up to 2,000 m or 6,500 ft) meaning heavy, wet snow (sometimes rain), and interrupted seasons. The most successful of these resorts have aerial lifts to carry skiers from the warmer base below tree line to upper snowfields where skiing is generally good all season. The slopes can be vaguely compared to the smaller resorts of the Cascades.

Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia

The third geographical zone includes the southern end of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. The Cordillera is at its humblest here as the rugged peaks have been eroded into rolling hills by the Patagonian winds which rip through the region each spring. Although the area is home to the world's most southerly everything, the latitudes are no more polar than Glasgow, Scotland, or Edmonton, Alberta. The winter landscape is characterized by frozen bogs and ponds, and mossy but otherwise bare trees.

Most of the ski areas are within sight of the ocean fjords and channels that permeate the region, and the normal snowline is just above the seashore. The area is best suited to nordic skiing because of the flat terrain and low elevations. Of the four alpine ski areas of the region (Cerro Mirador, Valdelén, Wolfgang Wallner, and Cerro Martial), only Mirador has more than one run. Skiing in Tierra del Fuego is thus a believable excuse to explore the unique region in the off-season when travellers enjoy substantial discounts.

Ski Season

The "normal" ski season in South America lasts from late June to early October. That definitive statement needs to be qualified however, by emphasizing that almost anything is possible. Snow is all but certain from mid-July to early September, with the heaviest snowfall in August. The best time to ski is early September when the winter storms have subsided and the slopes are least crowded. Argentine vacations are in their full, frenzied peak in the last half of July, the most crowded and expensive part of the ski season.

It is not unusual to ski outside this "normal" season. May was the traditional start, but climatic change seems to have postponed recent opening dates. On the plus side, the seasons seem to continue later than ever and a few of the areas, notably La Parva, have extended seasons into December! One of the most remarkable springs of the century is documented in Alive , the story of the Andes plane crash survivors, in which the author describes heavy snowfall in the Alto Cordillera throughout November in 1972.

Climate and Snowfall

Each region has its own climatic patterns and snow characteristics, but hard data is only gathered and kept at the major cities. Precipitation records for Santiago are about the only reliable data available, and a study of the figures shows a huge variance in annual precipitation. It also shows that, in spite of sub-par years in 1988 and 1989, the decade of the 80's was one of the wettest of the century. This data is valid only for the west flank of the mountains near Santiago where storms approach loaded with moisture from the Pacific Ocean. Most systems on the drier east side spin off the Atlantic Ocean and only release their treasure in the higher elevations.

In the Lakes District, Pacific storms have no trouble crossing the Cordillera. They blow in strong from the Pacific Ocean and dissipate quickly over Patagonia. Fog is common in the central valley of Chile but this should not discourage skiers who are likely to find clear skies at high mountain elevations. The weather at lakeside ski areas like Villarrica-Pucón is characterized by increased humidity which results in significantly more, but heavier, snow. The areas closest to the international border and in the deepest parts of the rain forest, particularly Antillanca, suffer from an almost constant falling mist that may or may not turn to snow at ski lift elevations.

The landforms of Tierra del Fuego hardly effect the storms that circle the globe from west to east all year long. Wind can be extreme in the region, and winters can be severe (over 500,000 sheep perished in the winter of 1995- See Below). Just a few centimeters of snow can last a long time though in the cold temperatures and short days of 55 degrees S latitude. Of final note, the atmosphere's ozone hole is widest above Tierra del Fuego, and daily readings are taken and reported at Punta Arenas.

Sheep Buried in Patagonian Snow

First Page - by Kaitlin Quistgard - Buenos Aires - 28 July 1995

Snow in July? Well, it's not exactly uncommon in Tierra del Fuego, the mythical "end of the earth" where South America stretches down toward Antarctica. But this year record-breaking cold threatens to kill hundreds of thousands of sheep on the island shared by Argentina and Chile, much of which has been buried in meter-high snow drifts for over 30 days.

Argentine ranchers, some unable to leave their estancias without assistance from evacuation helicopters, estimate that as much as 30 percent of their stock will starve before the freeze is over. "There's no way to even guess how many have died. You just can't get to them," says Adrian Goodall,
president of the Tierra del Fuego Farmer's Association, whose great grandfather was the first to farm the island.

Some estimates have put the potential death count as high as 300,000 although Goodall says the number is more likely to be around 120,000. "I hope it won't be that bad, but there's really nothing we can do. Even if you could get to the sheep, there's nothing to give them to eat -- we don't have enough
grass stocks," he explained, coming in after a long day in the snow.

Just down the road, Juan Carlos Apollinaire is trapped in his house, unable to surmount three kilometers of snow banks which separate him from the highway leading into the town of Rio Grande. "It's a feeling of total impotence," he admits in a telephone interview, "to know your sheep are dying and there's nothing you can do. It's your capital, of course, but also these creatures that you have cared for."

According to his wife, Rachel Scoffield, worse than today's fears will be the days of reckoning this spring, when the snow is gone and the carcasses appear. "You have to be strong to accept what's coming. We flew over the fields in a helicopter and you really couldn't see many sheep or cows," she said.

However, many of them are probably still alive under the snow. During storms sheep huddle together and, while they may be buried in the drifts, their body heat helps create natural igloos, where they can live for about three weeks, eating each other's fur and licking ice for water. But after 45 days at temperatures below freezing and another snow storm forecast for this weekend, it is unlikely that the woolly ones will have a chance to get out and find food.

"This is the worst snowfall we've had since 1954," says Goodall. "And in '54 the snow came on the 13th of August, so it was a much shorter freeze. This has been a month already and it's going to be a long winter."

It has snowed nearly every day for a month in parts of Tierra del Fuego, and the National Weather Bureau reports that record lows have been registered almost everywhere in Patagonia, along with winds as high as 100 kilometers per hour. Some roads have been impassable for weeks and several farms have been completely isolated.

A few people have been evacuated by helicopter -- a risky operation in the gale-force winds -- although many "puesteros," farmhands who live alone in distant cabins to tend to matters far from the main house, remain isolated. "They are very stoic people, used to being alone," Apollinaire said with admiration. By helicopter he recently checked on the keepers of his estancia's most distant outposts, but is now thinking of revisiting the outlying areas and bringing the men in from the cold.

There is nothing to be done but wait. "You have to have a lot of patience," says Scoffield. There is essentially no danger of people freezing to death in this harshest winter in 40 years, as island residents know how to prepare for the cold. "Just about every estancia is well stocked with provisions to last for months," Scoffield adds. "Then you have to have good books and a radio," and the heart of a farmer.
"Things were looking up last year," Goodall recalls. "Good wool prices and good prices for lamb, but now with all this snow, things look pretty bad."

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