People often say they’d go to the ends of the Earth to realize their dreams, but in the case of Chilean explorer Cristian Donoso this is no metaphor but reality. Donoso has devoted the past dozen years to exploring the wilds of Patagonia and Antarctica, usually in a kayak and often alone, alerting the world to both the beauty of this unique landscape and the dangers it faces as a result of global warming.
Donoso trained as a lawyer, but says he rarely practises now. “My main occupation is exploring, teaching and research,” he says. “I teach at the Universidad San Sebastián and, with their support, as well as that of the Chilean government and various businesses, I’m able to finance my expeditions.”
However, he says it was winning a Rolex Award in 2006 that enabled him to make the transition from lawyer to explorer. “The Award allowed me to become a professional navigator and carry out my first explorations,” he says. “More than the money, what Rolex gave me was prestige and credibility. It opened the doors to all kinds of finance and it still does. Without Rolex, it’s unlikely that any of my big expeditions would have been possible. I also feel a sense of responsibility as an ambassador for Rolex’s philanthropic project, using my work to give the Award prestige so that other winners might have the opportunities the prize brought me.”
Donoso has made more than 50 expeditions to Patagonia, Antarctica, the Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean, and has covered more miles in a kayak in Antarctica than anyone on Earth, including a journey of 900 kilometres – and he has never had an accident. “The kayak is a discreet vessel, silent with little environmental impact, and it gives you an intense and unmediated connection with the place you’re exploring, allowing you to observe every detail. It also enables you to reach places you couldn’t get to by other means. It gives you complete autonomy on land or water or even on ice, and you barely leave a trace of your passage. It’s a vessel that respects the environment and allows you to connect with the landscape from the depths of your being.”
Travelling light also helps people to empathize with his expeditions. “It’s not the same when they see big ships or vehicles that are noisy and invasive,” he says. “What they see is a human with minimal resources, immersing himself with humility in a landscape that he loves and respects. This communicates not just knowledge about the landscape, but also an ethos.”
On these expeditions he detaches himself from everything, both social and material, he explains. “I’ve gone three months without a chair to sit on, without a roof over my head, without bathing or changing my clothes. By depriving yourself of these everyday comforts, you start to appreciate other things. We spent three months on the Antarctic ice and, when we finally saw vegetation, it was something tremendous.”
During a perilous, 14-day journey to the Southern Shetland Islands, he encountered animals that had never been in contact with humans and had no fear of them. “I sat down near a penguin colony and the penguins spontaneously came over to me, including one pup which climbed onto my lap to sleep. It was really touching.”
He gives talks to students and citizens’ organizations about the effect of climate change in Patagonia and the Antarctic, and believes that his expeditions have increased public awareness and appreciation of the region. “I have had a direct and wide-reaching impact on public opinion, on improving public access to mountains in Chile and [as part of] the opposition to electricity-generating projects that would have a negative environmental impact.”
Most of Chilean Patagonia is protected as national parks or nature reserves. In recent years this has been extended to new areas, including the sea. “There’s been a tremendous advance in conservation in recent years,” Donoso says.
Glaciers are the focal point of the effects of climate change in the region, he says, with the ice melting and sea levels rising which may lead to large areas becoming submerged.
“In the Antarctic peninsula, the effects are felt directly by the fauna. The population of Adélie penguins has shrunk and they are being replaced by sub-Antarctic species which are advancing south as the temperature rises. Higher temperatures have led to more evaporation and, as a result, more rain on the peninsula in areas that were suitable for nest-building, but are now covered in snow. The retreat of sea ice has also affected the quantity of krill which is the basis of the Antarctic food chain. Since 1945, the average temperature has risen by 3C.”
We are defined by our relationship with the Earth, Donoso believes, adding that an expedition with minimal resources “helps to communicate this connection, the human capacity to evolve that allows people like us, who come from big cities, to move successfully through extremely hostile terrain with hardly more than a kayak.”
He says that we persist in the idea that we are somehow separate from nature “as if humanity is here and nature is something over there. But, when someone in London, New York or Santiago de Chile starts their car or catches a plane, burning fossil fuels, it has a direct effect on what’s happening thousands of kilometres away. What we do in our daily lives has a global impact. We’re all responsible for what’s happening to the planet.”
As for Patagonia, what is needed is more exploration and research as we still know very little about its ecosystems and the impact of human activity Donoso established the Andeshandbook directory, an NGO whose aim is to raise awareness of Chile’s natural heritage, 80 per cent of which is mountains; and, by helping people to have access to the mountains, increasing knowledge about the need to protect them.
He is currently working with the mountaineer Camilo Rada on a project called “Uncharted” to map unexplored areas of the Patagonia ice fields, which will in part be a historic study of his earlier expeditions. Later this year he plans to climb five as yet unclimbed mountains in Tierra del Fuego. In early 2018, he will attempt to be the first to complete the longitudinal crossing of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, and, in early 2019, he is planning an expedition with dogs and kayaks from north to south of eastern Greenland, together with fellow Rolex Laureate Lonnie Dupre, as part of a research and educational project.
And beyond that? “I want to continue exploring Patagonia and raising awareness of the need to conserve it. No one is going to protect something they know nothing about.”Learn more about Cristian Donoso