Published: June 2001
Deep Into the Land of Extremes: Probing Chile's Wild Coast
By Carsten Peter
Spanish cave explorer Javier Lusaretta regroups at a makeshift camp in the island's forest of southern beech. "We were soggy night and day for a month," says photographer Carsten Peter, who saw "at least half" of the 25 feet (8 meters) of precipitation that falls here in a year. Lashed by winds reaching 120 miles an hour (190 kilometers an hour), the island shows erosion rates among the highest ever recorded.

Though I'd never seen the coast of southern Chile, I'd heard for years that this part of the country was one of the most hostile, and beautiful, places on Earth. So I jumped at the chance to join an expedition of two dozen scientists and explorers boating 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) down the western coast of South America. Our destination was Madre de Dios (Mother of God) Island, a bleak, uninhabited 450-square-mile (1,165 square kilometers) bolt of rock blasted by a maelstrom of heaving seas, winds, and torrential rain. Despite these conditions the island was paradise to the French leaders of our expedition, speleologist Jean-François Pernette and geomorphologist Richard Maire, who'd first seen it during a trip to the region in 1997. Unable to land because of storms, they had recognized from a distance that much of Madre de Dios was karst, or exposed limestone, which meant that it was probably riddled with shafts and crevices. Experts on caves and karst formations, Pernette and Maire wanted to explore further. After arriving we spent nearly every moment either making new discoveries or dealing with small catastrophes, from a failing generator to a leak in the hull of the rented fishing vessel we lived on. My own catastrophe occurred several weeks later when I fractured my right foot in a caving accident. Yet my injury had beneficial side effects: Forced to sit still, I had time to reflect on what an astonishing place we'd come to. Madre de Dios is breathtaking, a realm of magical shapes etched by furious forces of nature. Far from the world we know, it is among the last of the untouched places, where moss and stone have a life of their own.

Braving gale-force winds and icy rain, a team of scientists, adventurers, and one intrepid photographer discovers new caves at the end of the Earth.

A glimpse of sun

Cause for celebration on the coast of Chile, a break in the weather illuminates fjord-rimmed islands that meet Pacific storms head-on. In 1520, after navigating the strait later named for him, Magellan cruised by this lightly populated coast, as close to Antarctica as it is to Santiago.

Nightmare in green

First we hit land, then we hit an obstacle course—a dense rain forest, the kind you'd expect to find in tropical latitudes rather than in the furious fifties approaching Antarctica. An average precipitation of 25 feet a year spawns a mad profusion of mosses, lichens, and a stunted forest of southern beech trees that reminded expedition members of bonsai. As cave diver Michel Philips discovered, every inch of this forest is slippery and green. In one backwater pool algae drape the fallen trees like mushy ghosts, while a thick cushion of moss blankets everything from tree limbs to boulders. We uncovered the treacherous side of this fantasy forest when we crossed it in search of caves. Hidden by the vegetation, the rock below was riddled with sinkholes and shafts. We traversed the forest dozens of times, often twice a day, but we never took the trip lightly.

Stubborn survivors

On the windswept heights of Madre de Dios, mosses and other simple plants succeed by keeping a low profile and working their way into the limestone's crevices. Sheltered from the worst of the Pacific winds, the island's tangled forest clings to rocky hillsides.

Glaciers of stone

Inspired by the subpolar weather, I came to think of the island's marble plateau as a series of rugged glaciers. In reality it is the remnant of a coral reef system laid down between 260 and 315 million years ago in a calm, tropical sea. High on the island, above the forest, sprawled a scene nearly devoid of color—creviced rock rendered in a thousand shades of gray, constantly changing before our eyes like a mirage. Fat drops of rain would fall, splattering light gray rock with dark leopard spots or zebra stripes, followed by driving sheets of rain that would slash across the rock and turn it dark and shiny as coal. Then the wind would rise and parts of the exposed rock would dry for a moment, turning white, only to be soaked black again.

It rained like this practically every hour on Madre de Dios, punctuated by occasional bursts of sleet or hail—a furious bombardment of pinpricks that made you want to clap a bucket over your head. The icy wind, which howled in our ears and shook our legs, was so strong that whatever fell from the sky came at us sideways. High-velocity wind and rain had even blasted away the exposed rock and left little wedges of limestone trailing from the leeward side of volcanic rock fragments deposited by glaciers. "This kind of erosion feature has never been seen before," said our lead geomorphologist, Richard Maire. "These karst islands are like a natural laboratory with a built-in wind tunnel." He estimates the rate of erosion at six millimeters a century, one of the fastest rates on Earth. The weather that carved such forms whittled away at us too. Our defense was to laugh whenever possible at little absurdities, like the futility of waterproof gear.

Plunging ahead

On a typical foray speleologist Alan Warild rappels from the forest into a cave entrance below. "This may be the most difficult caving spot on the planet," says expedition leader Jean-François Pernette. Though lush, the island is nearly devoid of animal life.

Stone-cold beautiful

In the end team members collected sweet rewards for their grueling journey. "The second we went underground I forgot how miserable we were," says Richard Maire. More than 1,200 feet deep, this cave becomes a waterfall in a downpour.

Fear of flooding

Beneath the nightmare forest and the glaciers of marble we found what we'd come for: the caves. In keeping with everything else on Madre de Dios, these were the wildest caves imaginable—raw, scoured pipes in the earth shaped not by slow and steady trickles of groundwater but by torrents and flash floods so violent that they chiseled the cave walls as though they were made of ice. The deeper we went, the tighter the knot in my stomach became. Cut off from sounds on the surface, we had no idea whether it was raining outside or not—a terrifying prospect, since any one of the island's trademark storms could send rivers of rainwater plummeting down on us without warning. These caves were slick and bare with no side chambers in which to hide; we knew that in a downpour they would quickly flood. Would we drown, I wondered, or would we die from falling as we were flushed down a slippery tube? I was searching for a place to take cover when the stone wall I was clinging to suddenly broke off, hurling me backward to the cave floor and injuring my foot. My scream brought my friends to the rescue, and I left Madre de Dios in a fitting manner—hobbling on a crutch made of a wind-gnarled branch and soaked to the skin. For the final few days the rest of the team continued to explore, study, and map the island, while I, immobile, reflected on the strange and violent beauty we'd found in this land of extremes.