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Climbing in Patagonia with Jim Donini: Birdwatching (Part Four)

Kelly Cordes  /  May 4, 2012  /  3 Min Read  /  Climbing

An Andean Condor begins to check us out. Photo: Kelly Cordes

In early 2009, Kelly took a trip to Northern Chilean Patagonia with climbing legend Jim Donini. Here, Kelly revisits his notes from an adventure with Jim. This is the final part of a series of short posts from their trip. Click to read the firstsecond and third.


As we start down from the top of the snow mound, returning to our bivy – we would never get any closer to the route – a condor circles overhead. The Andean Condor is the world’s largest flying land bird, with wingspans of 10 feet and weights of 25 pounds. I pull out my camera, and another one comes. They circle us. They cover enormous ranges and have visual acuity beyond our comprehension. Surely they’ve seen humans before. Just not up here. I’m awe-struck as they glide around, sometimes still for a moment on a thermal, suspended in space, before changing direction and soaring away.

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We downclimb the easy snow slopes and they follow. A third one arrives. When the birds see another circling miles away, they must figure it’s carrion – their sole sustenance – and come for some feeding. I’m glad I’m not any smaller.

They’re just curious, and I snap more photos and continue down. But I keep stopping, beaming, studying them circling, sometimes only 20 feet overhead. The adults have white rings around their necks, the juveniles’ heads are all brown. Now there are four. Then a fifth.

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Up close. Photo: Kelly Cordes
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His friends join in. Photo: Kelly Cordes

The undersides of the adults must cover 30 square feet. They glide, soaring, turning, flying. Jim’s now well ahead of me downslope but sometimes he stops, too, and just stares upward, grinning. Sometimes they soar so close we see their heads making jerky turns to look at us as they pass. Master gliders, they only flap their wings at take offs and landings. They fly close and I can see their beaks and talons and eight “fingers” at the ends of each wide, rectangular wing.

We downclimb some more. I giggle uncontrollably, and feel like I’m glowing. Jim and I shout occasional words that can’t convey our delight. I reach a rocky ledge. Now six great condors circle us, passing by, staring, studying, soaring. One flies so close overhead that we hear the wind ruffle and rush through its great wings. I look down to a bigger rocky ledge and see Jim sprawled out flat on his back, arms and legs outstretched like wings, his scruffy white hair flapping in the breeze and a huge, toothy smile across his weathered face. It’s even better than the view from his porch, there’s ol’ Jim, just laughing, staring to the sky.

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Mutual admiration society. Photo: Kelly Cordes

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