Mission : exploration and discovery in Chile


Hi friends, after our modeling mission to the Upsala Glacier, we left the Argentinian town of Calafate and traveled along the Andes to the north to the Balmaceda (Chilean side), where the Andes were the most beautiful to be crossed - according to local drivers, of course! From there we reached the smoky town of Coyhaique, where people still heat up on a wood fire and coal, and then the small fishing port of Puerto Aysen (you can see our precise route to see these places).


Why are we in the heart of Chilean Patagonia? Because Alejandro, Professor of Geography and Director of the Interdisciplinary Research Station at the Pontifical Catholic University of Santiago, commissioned us for a rather original task:


"The Government of Chile has entrusted us with the task of managing an area 12 km long and 7 km wide in the south of Patagonia, which we intend to study in order to give recommendations to the Government for its use. At the moment this zone is completely unexplored, and according to the satellite maps it would be made up of mountains with snow-capped peaks and slopes covered with virgin forest. We have tried to penetrate it, but the slopes are so steep, and the streams discharge torrents and falls so violently that we could only make a breakthrough in the first 200 meters and install a temporary base: we named it Maldonado. Your mission is simple: bring back as much information as you can find! We understood that in the center of the zone, a piece of land would be flat; We know no more, for this flat ground is so enclosed between the mountains, that it is constantly in the shade. But who knows, maybe you can land and bring back samples of vegetation? "


Before starting this airborne mission, we take advantage of the visit to the field of Maldonado by a group of student-researchers under the supervision of Alejandro, to discover the places with them. To join this base, we follow the team: ten hours of road battered with the last three hours on a track under construction, a night in a frozen recluse caban, then a first boat to a bay and finally a second the next day before finally approaching it ... We then have to walk a few hours between the tall grass before arriving at the back-base of this unexplored terrain: Maldonado, a wooden platform composed of a floor and of a large tent nailed to the ground, which protects from wind and rain the measuring instruments brought here by the same routes as those which we have just taken.

The students then divide up with these measuring equipment and try to detect traces that would allow them to go further into this deep forest.

In the evening we have to leave, it is not possible to bivouac on site. Another four days of transport in the other direction, and we are back in Puerto Aysen !


It is now time to prepare our mission : First, we ensure our safety: we choose, with the help of our router Ernest, the day when the weather is the driest (it rains a lot at this latitude and in this season) and the least windy, and inform the local pilots as well as our Prepare2Go base-team of our intention: they will then be able to locate us in real time thanks to our satellite beacon, and to trigger helicopter rescue in case of accident. We then stock up on well-protected water and food. Second, we ensure the safety of the mission: in the hypothesis that we could land on the flat ground that Alejandro has identified, it is essential not to contaminate this preserved environment. For this we completely clean and disinfect the ULM, as well as our waterproof survival suits.

That's it, we're ready!


We take off at the fall of the morning frosted mist, and head south. We first go along the Pacific coast, then when it breaks up into hundreds of small islands, we remain above these sea-fronts, whose warm salt water mixes with the cool fresh water of the streams that came down from the glacier, and creates magnificent volutes with crystalline colors.

When we reach the right latitude we turn to the land and around the volcanoes with the wooded slopes: we are in autumn, and the mountains are adorned with multiple strips of colors ranging from red, orange, yellow and green. We photographed methodically the vegetal cover and tried - without success - to distinguish from the sky a river that would allow, upstream against the current, for the researchers to penetrate the impenetrable.


Approaching the flat zone, very deep between the mountains, we distinguish ... yes that's right, a lake! Invisible on the charts !

Will we be able to land ? Not sure, as we do not know its size and the mountains around are steep. We therefore make several passes by gradually decreasing altitude: if at some point the ascent seems difficult, we stop there! But no, the rise to full engine works each time, and the lake seems big enough to land .... In addition we even see a small beach ... Let's go!


When the engine stops and we pull out the oars to get close to the beach, we start to dream of what Neil Armstrong must have felt. We push the oar into the ground, it seems rather firm. We therefore carefully leave the microlight and Adrien lays the first foot on the ground .... I stretch the anchor to him, and when the ULM is well stowed in the sand, I descend in my turn. In front of us a layer of sand, punctuated in places by bands of reeds, and by others by kinds of stagnant pools of fresh water, of which rise bubbles: probably a chemical reaction brought about by our pace that raises disintegrated plants ? Or fumaroles linked to a remote volcano?

On the edge of the sand, at the border with the forest that covers the mountains, we can see the trees with their aquatic roots discovered, that show us what was the limit of the water recently : Indeed, we are very lucky! if the water level was the same as it was when these roots plunged into the water, we could not have docked because there would have been no beach.


The time is short, no more time to marvel: it must be left in time to fly and land in Puerto Aysen by day! We have little time left! We equip ourselves with waterproof plastic bags, and take in each the soil samples: here a bit of earth, there a grasp of - sand, there a bit of water from the ponds, there some water of the lake, there dead leaves, there some bays, there branches, here again reeds ... We note all carefully and photograph closely each discovery.


And there, oh... An egg ! No two, not three! They are bigger than those of a chicken, and surrounded by feathers ... One of them is half open, which permits us to see these eggs are not brooded nor fertilized. No animals on the horizon, not even the pumas that we might have encountered at this altitude - according to geographers - but it is better not to disturb those that might be hidden in the foliage. At the moment of leaving, a little squall makes me raise my head: yes, a little bird! Too small to lay eggs seen, however.


We take off, and go up in spiral to leave the funnel between the mountains. Phew, we succeeded! On the return we go between other mountains then along another tributary of glacier between the islands, and finally reach Puerto Aysen, exhausted. What emotion !


We fall into a deep sleep, and the next day write the mission report (accessible online for you), which we send to Alejandro. Obviously he calls us quickly, and is eager to receive the samples! As he went back to teach in Santiago, we wrapped each packet well and left it in the freezer for a few days before bringing it to us.


When we meet him in the premises of the university, Alejandro distributes the samples in different laboratories, for study. He also informed us that the French team of the research group "Observatoire Hommes-Milieux" of the CNRS, planned to join him to prolong the study. We will not meet them because we leave for our next mission, but wish them good luck!


The Professor Alejandro at the University of Santiago :

The satellite chart he gives us, that shows in red the research area. As you can see, there is no lake! :

Navigation between glaciers and along their tributaries :

We discover the lake, between the mountains! :

Water-landing in security, then docking on the beach and finally samples retrieval:

Wings for Science - Des Ailes pour la Science
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