Guest Blog Post: We talk to Patrick Usborne, Architect, Skiier & Ice Cap Adventurer

I was fortunate enough to meet Paddy, an architect, skiier and mountaineer, when we were on the same expedition onto the IceCap earlier this year. Paddy is exactly the kind of guy you want in your expedition team: incredible endurance and endless good cheer. He’s been kind enough to share some of his thoughts and photos of Patagonia.

Paddy, tell us a bit about yourself.

That’s a big first question! I guess I have two main passions in life; architecture and being in the mountains.  I’m just finishing my architectural training after a long and exhausting eight years at the drawing board.  Combining both architecture and mountaineering is proving a challenge, but hopefully I’m achieving a good mix.

I always find it difficult explaining to friends how I feel about both, but there are a lot of similarities between them.  We’re becoming much more aware of the effects we have on the environment, and even though we constantly hear doomsday reports in the news and television programmes, that can so easily numb us, it is right to be concerned.

We, as architects especially, have such an enormous responsibility to design and build not only to protect the environment, but also to work with it.  I live in London and am currently sitting in front of my laptop looking through my window at a ‘Freshly Clicked’ Tesco van delivering bags of food to a neighbour that was, I imagine, ordered at the confines of their laptop.  We are already so detached.

So, this is why being in the mountains for me, and having an adventure within them is so important to give a sense of attachment to the enormous scale of our environment around us. It might sound a cliché, but it is only here, that I really begin to feel myself.

Where else have you visited before visiting Patagonia?

I’ve been really fortunate as both my parents met in the mountains. They both were mountaineers at my age now, but our main passion has always been through skiing. Skiing has really defined us as a family and we have visited so many incredible parts of the world through it.  It has been a passion that has given so much to us, but has also taken so much away from us.

Tragically my father was killed in an avalanche whilst skiing ten years ago.  The first few years we’re very difficult, but instead of turning my back to the mountains as many of my friends thought sensible, my sense of adventure in the mountains grew much stronger.

Soon after the accident I visited Nepal to climb a mountain called Mera Peak, which remains one of my most memorable adventures. It was ‘only’ a trekking peak, but I realised then, the adventure wasn’t just to reach the top, but was instead the experience either side.

On the decent, our local Nepali guide invited us all into the house of an old friend of his. The owner was a farmer who worked her small plot of land to feed herself and her family. The blackened timber house had room for her small herd of cows on the lower floor and living upstairs.  I will never forget her enormous smile as she greeted our guide and us into her home. Without pause, she began to plunge repetitively a long thin tube, to prepare for us her best buttermilk.  She wanted no money, but instead you could see how immensely proud she was.

What made you decide to visit Patagonia?

The third largest icecap in the world after Antarctica and Greenland; the Patagonian Ice Cap. Just looking at this vast expanse of ice on the map makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand tall.  The thought to be able to walk on this frozen river of ice and look across at its endless scale was something I couldn’t pass up. And apart from the odd mountain hut on the edge, the ice cap is a place that has seen no human intervention, just pure nature at its rawest.

I also heard the Argentine beef and red wine was rather good (the Argentines are well known for banning the export of their finest wines)!

Where abouts did you go in Patagonia and what did you do?

Most visitors to Patagonia will hear of Torres del Paine National Park and its famous ‘W’ trek; a beautiful spot to the South of the ice cap.  Not as many will have heard of the Fitzroy range to the East. Here, you have such peaks as Mount Fitzroy, Cerro Torre and all their sister peaks nested on the edge of the ice cap.

My time there was to squeeze in as much climbing as I could as well as the adventure of getting onto the ice cap itself. In the end I also found that waiting for that elusive Patagonian weather window was second to none!

What were your top three highlights in Patagonia?

There were so many, it’s hard to know where to begin! The memories of the adventures I had when leaving far exceeded my expectations before arriving. The mountains, people and culture together created such incredible highlights.

The first though must be the people I met.  After my partner pulled out, I found myself a solo traveller; a liberating experience that allowed me to meet so many people that I wouldn’t have done in a team of two.  My base was a small town called El Chalten; a trekking Mecca that draws people from around the world to a ramshackle town of corrugated roof buildings. The owners however were always so proud of their town and what it had to offer.

For the more demanding climbs I was part of a team with a brilliant American mountain guide called ‘Coop’ of Andes Mountain Guides, Charlie from the Telegraph and Luke of Swoop Travel. Together we had a real adventure of attempting to reach the ice cap, and climb a peak on its edge. The adventure was due to last nearly a week and was certainly another highlight.

The team spirit was high, but the weather was not on our side. We made it through cascading ceracs, that were constantly falling from above, to a windswept blanket of white. Even though we had to turn back, it became clear that retreat in the mountains is never a failure; instead, it becomes a chance to try again another day.

The third highlight was the most special. I had a week to explore the mountains on my own, and I chose a five day loop around the peak Mount Huemul.  In those five days I only met five people.  The remoteness and being alone amongst the mountains was inspiring.  On the third day the weather opened to blue skies and a gentle breeze. My tent was pitched on sand near a melt water lake on the edge of the ice cap and that morning I decided to venture alone onto the depths of the ice cap.

Now, this is of course a dangerous adventure! Indeed, even today a friend over lunch claimed I was reckless.  But the draw of being amongst the ice; the emptiness and vastness was too strong not to.  With crampons, an axe and ample chocolate I walked for hours to the centre of the ice cap, jumping over crevasses and avoiding patches of snow that obscured hidden dangers.

Eventually I found a lonely rock that must have fallen from a cliff many miles away that had since been carried by the ice to where I was. Sitting on the rock having lunch whilst admiring the snow clad peaks around and to know there were kilometres of ice below my rock will be a moment I will never forget.

After taking a few photos I turned back and followed my footsteps to the edge of the ice and my tent. I saw nobody the whole day.  The experience really captured the vastness of the world we live in and certainly puts into the context that ‘Freshly Clicked’ Tesco van!

What’s on your cards for your next adventure?

I’m currently finishing my architectural training, so will be busy preparing for the final exams over the next year. I would love to return to Patagonia one day, but there is so much more to see in the world. I hope my career in architecture will take me to explore many new places.  Indeed, my interest in how we can build a better way of living for our future that works with our environment and not against it will be an important part of what I do next.

More immediately however, Greenland and its ice cap has been on the mind. Not to be done solo, but as part of a team to traverse its length on skis whilst measuring the changing conditions of the ice and finding out how the local Inuit community are coping with their changing environment.

A big adventure, but through exploring, if I can play a small part in improving our relation to the environment and allow others to share the sense of inspiration the world has to offer as I have done in Patagonia and elsewhere, then all the better.