Part 5

By Carol L. Bowman
Photo by Ernie Sower

Climbing Cape Horn


cape-hornThe ship’s blast sounded as we entered the channel surrounding Hornos Island at dawn. At last night’s briefing, the lead naturalist spelled out the sobering facts. “We never know if we can make a safe landing by zodiac at Cape Horn until we actually enter the channel. It depends entirely on the atmospheric conditions.” Two days before, the winds peaked at 110 miles per hour. The Chilean Flag atop was ripped to shreds, leaving an eerie empty pole. There would have been no landing that day.

“If disembarkation is a ‘go’, then participants need to follow the team’s directions to the letter. This is not fun and games. This is serious stuff and participants must accept that before they board the zodiacs.”

The entire ship buzzed before first light as we waited on the observation deck for the fate of our expedition. Miraculously, the conditions proved so stable, the wind so minimal, the entire team seemed shocked, even worried that this could be the “calm before the storm.” Crew members could not remember the waters being this flat, the surf this quiet.

How could perfect weather be this unsettling? The atmosphere remained stable and by 7AM, we headed down the stairs to board the zodiacs, prayers answered. The bartenders, now playing alternate roles, donned protective frogmen suits to ward off the frigid waters. They stood knee deep at Cape Horn’s landing site to steady the zodiacs so occupants could safely make the jump to the steps.

The first 160 steps proved steep and heavy breaths sounded as the group ascended. A crew from the Chilean Navy loaded the incline elevator with fresh water tanks and other supplies for the current lighthouse occupants, as we arrived. A seaman from the Chilean Navy, along with willing family members, must spend one entire year manning the Cape Horn Lighthouse. Completely isolated, cut off from civilization and enduring the harsh, inhospitable conditions, the current naval serviceman, his wife and two young daughters, aged 4 and 7, took on symbols of the bravest of souls.

Breathless, I reached the summit. Off in the distance, our goal, the Albatross Monument, waited. In 1992, the Chilean Navy erected this symbol of the dominant bird of the southern seas for the Cape Horn Captains’ International Brotherhood. Dedicated to the memory of the men who lost their lives in the Southern Ocean, fighting the merciless, prevailing forces of Nature, the project received funding from maritime companies, public and private organizations and individuals. Rising up from the highest point, the monument, measuring 22 feet in height and constructed of ten steel plates, was designed by sculptor Jose Balcells, architectural professor at Catholic University of Valparaiso, Chile.

I trudged on another 300 wooden plank steps across the uneven terrain atop Cape Horn. The constant wind, normally bowling visitors over, was eerily absent. The landing team seemed almost reverent about this disquieting calm and acknowledged that our visit would be earmarked as one of the most unusual, serene landings. This rare experience turned our goal of reaching Cape Horn into a unique treasure.

Leaving the monument, group members retraced their steps back to the living quarters attached to the lighthouse, where the fearless, military family greeted visitors with a thankful respite from their solitude. I wondered exactly what it would be like to be stranded atop Cape Horn for an entire year. They deserved respect for their sacrifice.

I looked back on the spirit with which the people of Patagonia and the southern tip of South America accept their lives of isolation and self reliance. Amazingly, they thrive in the midst of harsh environments and minimal resources.

As we returned to the ship, pensive thoughts about the experience remained unspoken. Chatter seemed unnecessary. One more surprise awaited the group as our good fortune continued.

The captain’s steady voice came over the intercom. “The strange calmness of the waters allows us one last privilege. Rarely, perhaps one in ten expeditions, can we actually sail completely around Cape Horn. The fierce conditions that exist, where the Atlantic meets the Pacific, generally present such danger that we never even consider this path. But today, you will experience the route of Ferdinand Magellan around Cape Horn. You are among the privileged few.”

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