Mapping Patagonia

Ross Donihue and Marty Schnure set out to create the first map of the future Patagonia National Park on a National Geographic Young Explorers grant. Their goal was to create an interactive map to give people an on-the-ground perspective of what it's like to stand in one of the most ecologically critical areas of Patagonia, where a new national park is being created. They didn’t just make a paper map, Schnure explains. “We made 360-degree panoramas from scenic overlooks or the summits of peaks, a detailed geospatial database to assist park staff with land management decisions, a waterproof map and guide, and an interactive map to engage a global audience.”

Donihue and Schnure had to be ready for anything in the backcountry. Explains Donihue: “When you plan a trip to Patagonia it's not like you're just planning for summer clothes or winter clothes. You have to pack for all conditions. Some days it was too hot to even get much work done. Other days we were freezing cold. It was hailing or snowing on us and our shoes would freeze solid. We would struggle to find water sources because there would be ice on the lakes we were camping next to.”

Tough conditions didn’t stop Donihue and Schnure from exploring unmarked regions of the park. There were often no trails and the quickest route was straight through the rivers. “We didn't have a lot of experience in Patagonia before our expedition and we would try to avoid the streams at all costs, just because it was ice cold and we didn't want to get wet,” Donihue says. “Eventually, we got to the point where we realized the quickest route is just through the streams. Instead of stopping and changing out shoes or anything like that we would just plow right through them.” They even got used to putting on wet socks in the morning.

They also figured out the quickest way down from a mountain peak is glissading, or “sliding on your butt down a snow field,” says Donihue. “We didn't have ice axes so we were using our trekking poles as a brake. You get going pretty fast. The key is to brake before you hit the scree and rocks at the bottom that are waiting for you.”

As cartographers, Donihue and Schnure love going to uncharted territory to make maps. Schnure says, “I think the biggest impact that this project has had on me is that I want to keep doing this. I want to replicate this in other parks around the world, and partner with other conservation initiatives to tell their story through maps.”

Read more about their project here.

PRODUCER: Carolyn Barnwell
EDITOR: Monica Pinzón
SERIES PRODUCER: Jennifer Shoemaker