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Conservation and Development in Patagonia: An Alternative Vision

“Well what happens when you get to the edge of the cliff.  Do you take one step forward or do 180° turn and take one step forward?  Which way are you going?  Which is progress?  The solution to many of the world’s problems maybe to turn around and to take a forward step.  You can’t just keep trying to make a flawed system work.”

–Yvon Chouinard

I’ve been taking a bit of a break in February from rephotography to explore the current state of conservation in Patagonia.  Right now is a fascinating time to be here as this region faces many options for future development.

The big question here and in many other places in the world is: How can a country that is faced with national and international development pressures develop in a way that respects the local environment and people while still contributing to the national economy and allowing the improvements in quality of life that the people want?

At the beginning of February I walked the Aysen Glacier Trail (AGT) with Jonathan Leidich, founder and guide of Patagonia Adventure Expeditions.  He came to Chile about 20 years ago looking for a blank spot on the map and found that in Puerto Bertrand.  Over the last two decades of living there he has developed a deep connection to the town and with gauchos living in remote valleys, a life virtually unchanged in the last century.  Through working with these rural estancias he has built a trail that follows the watershed loop from the Northern Patagonia Ice Field to the Baker River.  In walking up windswept valleys, crossing a major glacier, passing active glacier research sites, and ending at Sol de Mayo, his working ranch 35km from the nearest road, guests get a deep experience of “real” Patagonia.

It is immediately clear that Jonathan is not interested in standard tourism development.  His trips are limited to six guests at a time and the infrastructure is minimal to give guests a real experience interacting with the beauty and the challenges of Patagonia.  He works with scientists to support cutting edge research in geology and ecology, and works with education groups to bring students into the mountains to learn about glaciers and the beginnings of watersheds.

Just across the Rio Baker valley from the Aysen Glacier Trail is the Future Patagonia National Park.  This former estancia, Valle Chacabuco, was purchased by Kris Tompkins and the organization Conservacion Patagonica.  They have been removing the fences and ranch infrastructure to restore native habitat and building up infrastructure to turn it over to the Chilean government as a national park.  A huge undertaking, and one that is faced with many difficulties, from public acceptance to having no precedent for restoring Patagonian grasslans.  They are working on developing a volunteer program to get visitors, mostly Chileans, involved in the restoration of the park with the hope that in the future these people will be advocates for it’s preservation.  Their goal is to get this park to be as large of a draw as Torres del Paine, creating jobs in the local economy in a way that does not depend on resource extraction.

This all is set in a background of the recent protests in the Aysen Region of Chile where people are protesting about a wide range of things from the development of international fishing and the proposed construction of five major dams to high gas prices.  Things are changing in Aysen and clearly the residents do not like how they are changing.

How does this all fit together?  In a region with significant natural resources, it either faces continued development of hydroelectric dams, mines, tree plantations, and salmon farming or it needs to figure out a more sustainable way to contribute to the economy of Chile.  An alternative vision to an economy based on resource extraction would be an economy based on resource enjoyment.  By developing infrastructure to allow large scale tourism, the Aysen region has the potential to become one of the most popular areas in Chile and Argentina.While that would require sacrificing the quiet nature of the region, people will have to decide.

We all share a future together.  How do we want that future to be?




*Note about photographs –  You may notice JB watermarks appearing on photographs throughout this site.  I’m not trying to prevent people from enjoying my work, I’ve just had some issues with photo rights.  Please contact me at if you are interested in purchasing prints of any of these photos.

No Doubt

When you arrive in a town and the first things people tell you about are how they’ve never seen so much good weather, how the trees are turning fall colors months early because it is so dry, how the approach to the Torre valley that climbers have been using for half a century is too dangerous to continue using because the glacier is receding, there is no doubt about the changes.  People who spend their time in the mountains, who make their living in the mountains see it every day.  There is no doubt.

Yet for the people who do not interact with these landscapes, it is easy to keep thinking that nothing has changed.  The changes are more subtle.  More fights over water rights, ski areas only having fake snow into late January, and restrictions on when people can water their lawns.  The real question is how to connect people with these changes in a way that they understand.  At Alpine of the Americas Project we see repeat photography not only as a useful tool for scientific research, but also as an extremely powerful way of communicating these changes to people who don’t see it for themselves.  In a world that relies heavily on visual communication, we hope that showing people the huge changes that are occurring in alpine areas will contribute to people taking ownership for our collective impacts.

The last few weeks in El Chalten, Argentina, has been an interesting experience in contrasts.  The town is nestled at the base of the Fitz Roy group of mountains.  The town has only been in existence for 25 years and was established to lay claim to land that both Argentina and Chile say they own.  While the economy of the town is based on taking people out into the mountains to experience the spectacular natural beauty, the town itself has a lot to figure out.  Trash is dumped in a big open pile by the river, and four generators run full blast day and night to power the town.  The town has no plan for development and is facing the pressure of rapidly increasing tourism and development.  As with any time a community faces rapid changes, whether it is a small mountain town or a global community, they need to come together and decide what they want and what action they need to take.

We are currently focusing on writing a handful of grants for the American Alpine Club and National Geographic to secure funding for another year of this project.   We’ve also been focusing on getting other people out repeating photographs for us.  The photo above is of the road near El Chalten, which is now a paved two lane highway.  Hopefully a few Canadian cyclists will be able to get this photo.  In the mean time, be well.

First Views of the Andino

Our first experience in the Andino verdad has been an incredible trip up Mount Tronador. As with any of our repeat photography trips we started with a stack of photos printed in black and white and ended up with a deeper understanding of a place.

Cierro Tronador is a large volcano hidden behind the mountains near Bariloche, Argentina.  On our first day on the mountain we climbed above Refugio Otto Meiling toward a beautiful ridge called Lamotte. A short hike obtains this ridge giving the spectator wonderful views of two of Tronador’s three summits. From this vantage it is easy to appreciate the former scale of these incredible glaciers that still pour off this volcanoes flanks. Here, we repeated two historic photos. After a short jaunt to a nearby summit to preview our next two adventures, we descended back to the refugio for a great New Years celebration with friends.

On our second day, we climbed Cierro Constitucion. Despite the bushwhacking through lenga bush and tabanos, or horseflies, we were able to summit and take one of our best historic repeat photos to date. Alberto M. de Agostini, in some ways the Ansel Adams of the Andes, took this photo of Tronador´s Frias Glacier from the summit of Constitucion in 1949.  These photos show the most startling changes we’ve witnessed so far.  Our repeat photo reveals an incredible amount of retreat and thinning. Where there were once huge icefalls, there are now rivers, lakes, and breathtaking waterfalls.

Our most difficult decision was to forgo taking our oldest photos. We decided to not climb to Cierro Interncional where these photos were taken from because the temperatures were unusually warm at night and the glacier surface was not freezing. This meant that the loose volcanic rocks were free to crumble off of the summits to the glacier paths below. Instead we chose to climb Pico Argentino, since it had far less rock fall danger. We were living our dreams, celebrating the sunrise as we welcomed the spirit of adventure and gave our thoughts to Travis Lizotte, whose life was taken very near our route.

Phase two is now complete.  Next, we are setting out for Chile, where a whole new adventure awaits:  to better understand and articulate the deep and intricate relationships between glaciers, people, and dams.


Cierro Tronador is the heart of our Andes adventure.  Our first  steps into the Patagonian wilderness will be toward the mountain that took the life of our friend and fellow Outward Bound instructor Travis Lizotte.  We dedicate this next portion to celebrate his life and spirit.  In his life he opened his heart to so many people, showing and creating the kindness possible in humanity.  He left a legacy that guides how we may trod our own path giving, and in turn, receiving.

We celebrate Travis and heed the insight of our Canadian friend and experienced guide, Lorenzo.  Lorenzo told us how many of his clients came to the mountains expecting suffering, so they suffered.  On Aconcagua and in the Himalayas, Lorenzo observed  that people who approached a mountain with humility and compassion experienced less of a battle and more of a salutation.  Travis approached life with similar compassion and we believe it is no coincidence that he lived a life rich in happiness and community.

We  hope to approach Tronador with the  same open heart and compassion that Travis lived by.  We celebrate Travis’ life as we  have and will celebrate the life of Matthew Baxter III. These two inspirational men guide  our own interpersonal connections with people we are close to and they inspire us to generate strong bonds among the people outside our communities.

The High Sierra

We finally finished the film from our adventure through the high Sierra this past summer just in time for the El Portal Travel Series show.  Check it out.

This represents the culmination of an interesting process of trying to transform my skills as a still photographer into the world of motion.  I learned a few new software programs,  a whole new way of telling a story, and look forward to learning more.  I love hearing feedback as to what works and what doesn’t for you so I can improve my storytelling.  Stay tuned for the other outcomes of our trip this past summer, such as a photo database and maps.

We are currently laying the groundwork and plans for our South America portion of the trip, starting in Santiago, Chile in December.  We’ve received really positive support from many researchers, guides, and water advocates working in Patagonia and are tremendously excited for this trip.

be well,



Sky Pilot Knows

click here to hear “Sky Pilot Knows Part 1”
It’s happening. Right now the waters are flowing.
There is ice there, in the heat of your summer.
California. Water. Budget.
Do you know? we have forgotten.
We have been there, in the highs and lows,
Through the cañon and o’er the pass.


Mineral King and the Kern of Sequoia
From endemic yucca and up from Sequoiadendron giganteum,
The road that promised mineral riches will,
Leave us alone to pass over the Sawtooth,
To wander with ourselves,
Down the granite arroyos of the Kern.


Flowing paths and running water.
The Golden Trout is burning,
There’s smoke on our trails,
And we’ve only just begun.


Gooseberry flowers
Arrowleaf and Columbine, Arnica and Sage.
In how many ways we do not know?
Nor the bewildered insects
Bound in a maze of color and fragrance.
Our reptilian brain knows,
Walk forward.


When history is plainly in front of you,
A picture is worth its weight in gold.
Where waters of hot and cold combine,
A balance can be found.


Walk over old ground with new eyes,
And new wor(l)ds.
Turn your circle.
We are under the spires of the Universities,
And we are only beginning to learn.


Harrison Pass
Up and over the icy pass, so much snow.
It melts. Water pure, so pure its sweet.
Your lips would know it, even if you don’t.
Watch your step, it’s a treacherous slip,
Down to who’s waiting hands?
Taken by all, as long as it arrives.
As long as it arrives.


The echo from the canyon bottom, roars the eventual demise,
Of the Mountain. Death by free flowing, crystal clear water.
IT is changing. IT always has.
We are changing, but never like this.


Who was Torrey’s Blue Eyed Mary?
Fox tail and Pussy Paws.
The morning is so still. Yet it is happening.
Where the Sky Pilot dwells.
Polemonium eximium.
Only the sweetest mountain colors for this beauty.
We are all finally falling in Love.


The Devine alluded to where the Sky Pilot lands.
Her bloom celebrates every morning, the alpen start,
And mourns every eve, alpen glow.
Who knows where she is climbing?
Eventually even the mountains end.
Yet in her bosom, every breath begins anew.
In her wisdom, cyclical resilience.
So she celebrates the snow.


Meanwhile, the King dug the deepest chasms,
To hide his Pennyroyal,
Rosewort, Mountain Heather,
Laurel and Blue Gilia.
All in flower as the snow melts.
There are unrelenting shadows there,
Outside in, snow melts to the eventual patches,
Secrets the darkest places,
Under Brewer’s tutelage,
Across Charlottes Dome.
It’s the same eon after eon,
Till Mother precesses a significant turn,
And the stars in the sky tell us there’s change in the balance.


…waters raging.
In the bottom, her trickles become a roar.
Together. Slow in times of crisis.
A crossing must be made,
Sure and steady foot.
Up to the chest the water exerts itself,
Effortlessly. Renewed.


The Road’s End
Lazy Blue Kings River.
The very same water; Destruction and Creation.
People of California are here where the Road Ends.
Where the waters are calm, inviting their children to remember.
Mexico Africa California.
Sundays at Church.  We rest.


The High Route
The meditation of no trail.
With a distant point on the brow,
Methodical, slow is smooth,
Breath and Step.
Rhythm in motion.
Body and Universe unite and invite the mind to the present.
Pass beyond pass, until even our bodies are new.


One elder says, “Stay together
learn the flowers
go light.”
May I have permission to speak?
The flowers are keepers of our story,
They will tell our history when we’re gone.
To all my relations.


Marion’s blues were as cold as ice,
Holding back at the source.
We did not rush by but listened to her story.
There are treasures for those who dwell in the lows
As well as the highs.


This is not John’s Trail.
It is beaten and sore.
Neither light nor serene.
This is California too.
Prepackaged mountains sold.
Even your footsteps are safe.
Even the plants have run away.


Big Pine
We were off again onto Sauntering,
Soulful and toward the South Fork Pass,
Into the Palisades, where the glaciers dwell.
The Northeast shadows hold ice.
So we went there to dwell and listen.
The pests are worst there, lingering to their waters.
Stolen from the people, for the people.
Falling down to the Angeles.
Prosperity for the majority,
 Deserts for others.
What will quench our thirst?
Nothing. Until there’s not enough.
Then we can share, deserts.
Man has chosen and the Sky Pilot knows.


The Sierra will lull you into complacency
And let you know your worth.
Her snows were three times the average,
Her rains a month late.
We found the people of Owens.
They were working, hardy and happy,
AWake and poor.


They know where the Sky Pilot Dwells.
Her own sights set higher than ever before,
She is worried,
And there is smoke on our trails,
As we fly over the concrete,
Expecting mechanized superpower.
The Sky Pilot knows.


Palisade Glacier
It is there.
Flowing ice and trickle.
Glacier blue water.
It is not yours, “unless.”
Unless, you are among the Angeles.
Among the Angels Asleep.


California’s Glaciers
A legacy of thousands of years,
So it is forgotten, but it is there.
Not still but moving, calving,
We will loose them.
There is smoke on our trails.


The poets on their high mounts will make their scene,
The people will go on.
The sheep have fed in the hills, below the Kings.
And this place will change.
How easy is it to change?
So easy, yet insurmountable.


So, what is it to have faith?
It must be a fool’s paradise, to seek truth in flowers.
We only climb then to feel like Kings at the top of Sill,
High for a moment,
Then surrendering to the Nature’s storm,
Fleeing back to the crevices we came from.


But the Sky Pilot will tell you in your wreckage,
“Keep the faith,”
But truth is like beauty.
It is in the eye and we have two.
We must carve the beauty and truth from the world,
With the gentle force of our hands,
Like water wears down Kings.
We, in small loads, among our people,
Find union with our relatives,
For all our relations. We are falling Love.


She has no hands,
But I will not cry,
We dig with ours.


Dusy Basin
Mother Earth will crush us and make us feel our center,
With only her gentle rains.
This is our place, headed toward the Center of the Universe.
Rock and water is all we are,
We will return.
Father Sun will ring us out and dry us,
Return us to our own divinity,
Effortlessly. Renewed.
Then burn us, make us crave for her.


Meanwhile the Kings will squabble over their debts,
Their unfinished roads. The war for truth.
A kingdom destined to crumble,
Fighting for a God that is here,
Between us, in your eyes. it falls,
Into gardens and paths.


Evolution Basin
History is a cyclical revolution,
Always anew in the moment.
We read the flowers,
And listen to the glaciers.
We record their stories in photographs.
We tell those stories to enemies and friends.
We listen to their stories.


We are telling the story of ourselves,
Written in the mountains,
Para los Pueblos.


This is about
People and mountains.
People and water.
People and life.
Every person.
Every sentient being.


It is happening, now.
The waters are flowing, echoing,
Carving new names of lands we will never know.


We can know.
From the history that created us,
We are now.
So what we are now?
So what will we become?


We are literally the Kings.
We are the Kern.
We are the San Joaquin.
We are the rivers of Mercy.
So it is.


The wax currant and mountain gooseberry.
The almonds and rice.
The Dwarf Bilberry and Alpine Gold.
The Olive Tree and Brasicaseae.
We are the battle between the Blackberry,
And the Elderberry.


Forgive yourself and walk forward,
On a new path, new eyes from a deeper breath.
See what is before you, behind you,
Within you.
We are change.


So what is in a photograph?
A moment of light.
Memory, passed down.
That is for the humans.


Piute Pass and Second Recess
We walk. Real people walk.
We trade.  We remember the generations.
The land remembers us.
Before we could walk with hands in our pockets,
We were walking. Burden Baskets.
Acorns. Obsidian.
Life’s work.
Simple, clean cut.
Walk on, in rhythm.
Methodical, slow…


The Silver Divide and Beyond.
Certainly there is an end to this.
Is there meaning?


Across the Silver Divide,
We found ourselves alone.
Beat up and worn out from our own trials,
On the precipice of returning,
Only a horizon away from the end.


The days will break us,
The nights will make you quiver.
Among the chasms filled with dust and (t)oil,
Where nearby riches lay the waste,
The valley fills with coal smoke,
And our tendency is to revoke,
We remember her wisdom,
“To keep the faith.”


So we let go of truth,
Held the faith.
Ceaseless evolution.
We are Creation and Destruction.
We are the waters of the mountain.
We are ice in the shadows.
We are the flowers in bloom.
So we walked on. There is no end.
So it is.

Resupplies and Rambles

We’re in Bishop today picking up our resupply boxes from the post office, doing laundry, eating lots, and using internet at the Library.  Coming down from the mountains after a long time always feels like cultre shock, and this time is no different.  We have become accustomed to the wild and it’s suprising to be able to smell laundry detergent on hikers at the trailhead from 40 ft away.

So far this portion of our journey has beeen a great success.  Yesterday we found and repeated six historic USGS photographs, crossed a 12,000 foot pass, and traveled 8 miles off trail.  All after a relaxing morning and we still had plenty of time to stretch, write, draw, and relax watching sunset on Mt. Humphreys when we got into camp.

The next section between Bishop and Mammoth is a section of the Sierra none of us have traveled before and we are excited to get into the rythm of moving every day again.  Soon you will also get to see the results of our travels as we process and put together the photos and viedo.

For now,

hike your hike

On the Precipice

Close your eyes.  Imagine what it might feel like to be standing on a high ridge of windswept granite surrounded by a vast sea of rugged peaks and deep shadowed valleys.  Alpine lakes glimmer in every direction and patches of white snow fill in the shadowed areas between the light grey granite.  How do you even begin getting to a place like this?  What does it take?

For us it has taken months of planning, countless hours pouring over maps, talking with scientists, researching, testing gear, organizing food, and countless other details.  Yet today, we head out on trail.  The mountains are snowy, the conditions are challenging for alpine travel, but we feel confident and have our gear and food organized.  Twenty six days from now we will have completed this first expedition and will be returning with photos, data, and experience.

Our itinerary:

July 19 – 24 : Mineral King to Roads End in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

July 24 – 31 : Mineral King to Palisades

August 1 – 8 : Palisades to Evolution Basin

August 8 – 12 : Evolution Basin to Reds Meadow

August 13-15 : Reds Meadow to Tuolumne Meadows

We are excited for the mountains and journey ahead and will be sharing our experiences when we return.

Be well.