Thursday, March 16, 2006

Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, El Chalten, Argentina (4 days)

The book `Enduring Patagonia` had got me excited about the mountains around El Chalten in Argentina. The author recounts climbing Cerro Torre, one of the peaks in the area. It describes waiting for months for the weather to clear long enough to get to the top, and the long boring days at base camp, as well as how difficult it is technically to climb, and the elation and view at the top. So Alison and I prepared for our second hike of the trip to go see Cerro Torre and Mt. Fitz Roy up close.

El Chalten is a relatively new village, being only around 20 years old. The resurgence of the Argentine economy is very clear here with many buildings under construction. At the moment there are only a few streets, all dirt, email is by satellite (mucho dineros), and not a lot of shops. It´s great! But it is not hard to imagine that in the near future it will be unrecognizable with development. At each end of the street are trails out to the granite mountains for why this town is here. The trails here are not very long. You can stay out and camp in the area at three different campsites, but you can just as easily get to all the hiking destinations in day trips from town. This information will prove helpful later on...

The night that we arrived in town was after a long bus ride on dirt road from El Calafate, 5 hours south. Got off the bus and into the front doors of the hostel to a friendly face- dutch Guido who we had hung out with in Punta Arenas. So we dropped our bags and off to one of the best pubs I´ve gotten to enjoy. El Chalten has this tiny cute pub selling its very own microbrew (choice of dark or light) with homemade pizzas and popcorn. All the locals started piling in after 11pm. It´s all warm and friendly inside, everyone´s dogs hang out outside in the chill wind that characterizes this town. Very cool.

So next morning we set off for a 3-day hike. Weather is gorgeous. Guido has been hiking here for days and says he has yet to see clear views of the peaks due to poor weather. So he hikes halfway with us to a great lookout for lunch. Mt. Fitz Roy and its sister peak, Cerro Poincenot are our view for a great lunch break. We wonder at the ´flying saucer`clouds in the sky which are formed by fierce winds up high. Little did we know at the time that those are a sure sign of a storm approaching (!)

At camp we meet americans Mikayla and George from Long Island, NY. Weather still beautiful, so we decide on an evening hike to the Piedras Blancas Glacier, about an hour from camp. Access to it is through a giant boulder field (see photo) of fun rock-hopping and exploration. The base of the glacier has a lake complete with out-of-the-blue gales of wind that rip across the lake prepared to remove anyone in their path. Mikayla and I were hanging out on a rock when one pretty much knocked us right over.

The rain started when we were in the tent for the night. The wind also. We were camped at Camp Poincenot which is under a grove of tall trees. As we were lying in the tent, we would hear the wind far off in the distance with the sound of leaves rustling. Like a giant wave, the wind would make its way closer and closer to us until it sounded like a jet engine over our tent. This happened all night long. The rain was heavy and constant. Like so many of the granite faces and peaks in the mountains of Patagonia, the thing to do is to get up in the dark and make your way to a viewpoint for a view of the rising sun hitting the rock, which makes it glow various shades of red. So when my alarm went off at 6am, the heavy rain outside sent me back to sleep. When we woke later and looked outside, many tents in the camp were now in small lakes and all was saturated. We decided that camping in hard-core rain isn´t really much fun, so we packed up and hiked back to town with the mind to come out to the area again as a day hike the next day.

Mikayla and George hiked back to town too. The four of us, Silvia from Italy, and Jean from France, all headed back to our favourite pub for the evening. A clear view of the stars on the walk back to the hostel hatched a plan to wake up early and hike to see the sunrise, this time from the other side of town. Next morning there was hushed scuttling around the hostel and we were on our way. Won´t bore you with details, but we essentially got lost (best to figure out the route in daylight I would say). But it just made for a fun story and early morning workout as we walked past the lookout by a good hour´s hustle up a hillside. Still got to see the whole sunrise deal, but not as impressive as it would have been had we stopped at the bottom of the hill! Highlight was a glimpse of Cerro Torre, the tall slender peak, which is most often covered in cloud. I felt very fortunate to get to see it, and to understand more clearly the accomplishment of those who climb it.

The clouds and then rain set in later that morning. El Chalten has very terrible weather. I had yet to see any of the peaks up close yet, so was determined to get to the Laguna Los Tres lookout close to the bottom of Fitz Roy. Mikayla and Silvia agreed, so the three of us packed a sandwich and headed off at a fast pace back to Camp Poincenot. Just past that camp we passed the climbers camp (where the author of `Enduring Patagonia` would have hung out for 2 months). Then, up steeply to a high moutain lake which is at the bottom of a glacier and supposedly the peaks of Mt. Fitz Roy and Poincenot. No view, we were socked in with clouds. Kudos to the girls for our dedication in the rain. It felt great just to get to our destination. We did not get back until it was getting dark. With the morning sunrise hike and our afternoon rainy one, we hiked a very long distance this day!

Back at the hostel, Alison was preparing a yummy curry dish with irish Aisling, whom we had met in El Calafate. She had cleared a spot on the steamy kitchen window to look out for our safe return. Great evening of wine and curry and drying out. Met Laura from the UK over dinner and she decided to join us for our upcoming adventure on the Carretera Austral road in Chile. So now we were four: Laura, Aisling, Ali and I, all headed north the next morning.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Perito Moreno Glacier, El Calafate, Argentina (4 days)

On our bus from Puerto Natales was Byron, a fellow British Columbian from Kelowna who we first met in a hostel in Ushuaia. Travelling north is great because we are starting to run into people we have met before on the same travel plan as us. Byron had in the meantime been to Antartica and back, so we got to oogle over his pictures on the bus ride. Antartica looks magical, with glaciers that tower over big boats, and him getting to explore lots of penguin and seal colonies in zodiac boats. He said it wasn´t nearly as cold as you would imagine. Byron also visited some spots where historical explorers had been and had some great stories to tell us of heroism and hardship in the far south.

El Calafate welcomed us with lots of tall poplar trees rustling in the wind under a big blue sky. Can´t recall when we last saw big trees, and whole bus ride was dirt road and yellow grassland for as far as you can see, as usual down here. El Calafate is located on a blue lake with mountains in the distance. It is the most touristy place that we have yet been, with lots of shops selling comparatively expensive gifts, and here you can get real brewed coffee in fancy coffee shops and even more ´north american´type food (we were actually able to find a place selling eggs for breakfast). Highlights of El Calafate were an amazing lunch that we splurged on in a fancy restaurant (tender lamb, roast potatoes, apple crisp), endulging in real coffee (everyone just gives you instant here), and a shop with good homemade chocolate. Also it was fun to shop for once, and one little group of shops was cool architecturally with a grass roof garden on the shops with river rocks.

We chose to stay in a hostel here that our guide book called ´a log cabin on steroids´! It was. Once in, we met a nice-seeming (forewarning, yes) Israeli guy, Natan, who was travelling on his own. We had heard from Mary and Brian on the Torres hike that in El Calafate, it is cheaper to rent a car than to take the tour buses out to see the highlight of this area, the Perito Moreno Glacier. So thus, Ali and I, Byron, Natan and an Irish girl who was also on our bus from Puerto Natales, Aisling, all did a little research and committed to hiring a car the next day.

The next morning, there we were driving around Argentina on the dirt roads, able to stop whenever we wanted (a luxury no tour bus will afford), and loving it. Had the tunes on the radio and an overwhelming feeling of freedom. We drove to a lake that is next to the glacier upon someone´s suggestion, but it really wasn´t special at all. On the way we stopped the car to all get out and try to get photos of the condors flying overhead- they´re huge! In the afternoon we headed to the glacier and it is every bit as spectacular as the photos suggest. The Perito Moreno Glacier is an impressively huge one that ends abruptly in a lake with a massive 60meter face of ice. There, pieces of it fall off and crash down to the water below. You see it happen before you hear it, it´s an awesome experience. We spent a good three hours just sitting and taking it all in.

So then, when we were ready to go, we all said ´where´s Natan??´ And thus we waited for two hours for this guy, worried that he might have got lost (how??). So basically, after some research at his hostel that night and the next day, we came to the conclusion that he hitched a ride back from the glacier to get out of paying for the car, and he also snuck out of the hostel to avoid paying them. What a guy!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Torres del Paine circuit, Patagonia, Chile (9 days)

Let the hiking begin. While we had read about some hikes in Ushuaia, the robust winds which we awoke to on our first morning there helped us decide to save ourselves for better ones further on. In particular, for the Torres del Paine circuit, which is just north of the town of Puerto Natales. This is a 123km. hike which some very fit people do in 6 days. We took our time with lots of photo breaks and even the luxury of a rest day in the middle to hang out at a refugio for the day. Thus we did it in 9 days. Basically it is a hike which does a loop around a circle of large granite mountains. The harder days involve a hike over a mountain pass and two hikes up valleys which bring you right up close to the more impressive peaks.

Night before the hike, we had settled in at a Hospedaje (basically where someone treats their own home as a hostel) for a lenghthy packing session of sorting what we wanted to leave behind. Backpacking is really an art of creative organization so that you are not always searching for something (where on earth did I put...) and also of trying to minimize weight since you are of course carrying whatever you bring. Alison landed with carrying the powdered milk, peanut butter, cooking pot, extra fuel, camp suds, salami, bug spray... and me the wine, stove, knife, sunscreen, pasta, water filter (which we ended up not needing as you can drink directly from all the streams)... all very fair. We both had a bottle of Bailey´s, half the tent, soup, instant mashed potatoes, hot chocolate, cereal, nuts, dried fruit, minimal clothes, sleeping bag, thermarest. My luxury item was a big comfy fleece, Ali´s was a big towel and wool top.

Day 1- Arrive at park and leave a bag of everything that we don´t need for the first night at the park hotel for a small fee, to be collected the following morning. Hike up valley to camp at top of valley for the night. Meet great Canadian couple, Mary and Brian, who actually know someone we studied with, and play travel scrabble with them for the night at camp.

Day 2- Wake up at 5:45 to start hike at 6am with Mary and Brian for 1 hour in dark up to famous Torres peaks, in time for famous sunrise. Boil water at top for coffee to enjoy nature´s show. Sun shines red on granite faces, complete with rainbow. Spectacular. Hike back down, pack up tent, hike back down valley. On way down meet young Dan from Alberta who is headed off on the circuit also but in opposite direction. Pick up extra bag we had left at hotel, start circuit proper by hiking around a few mountains to camp Seron. Find a few tents on their own in one area, also a great big group of identical tents all pitched together. Clearly a tour of some sort. Find out Belgiums. Name them the Belgium Expedition Team (!), we see them again the next night. One perfect spot that looks sheltered is completely bare of tents. We look at one another and say, great, check it out, perfect... only to have park ranger come to collect money later and tell us this spot has more mosquitoes than the others (note to self- there is usually a reason when something looks too good to be true). As we have already found in past travels, we discover again in South America, it is usually a good thing to be travelling as two chicas. We get special treatment from the park ranger as he lets us cook our meal in his hut (others outside) and he gives us some bread. Drink wine, good pasta, learn some new spanish words.

Day 3- Hike to Camp Dickson. Hiking starts our flat in grassland. Then up over a low pass for a long view of valley. As we do many times on this hike, I cannot believe that we are about to hike as far as we are- the map shows the camp at the far end of this valley, as far as I can see- it seems to be an incredible distance. But as always, we actually do make it there by the end of the day. On the way there is some exposed and windy bits, some protected Lenga forest bits, a lunch stop at a stream where many mosquitoes live, and some brief rain. View of Camp Dickson is a welcome sight. It is down below us, on the edge of a lake, with a glacier at the end of the lake. Smoke is coming out of the chimney of the refugio. These refugios are great, similar to the hut system in New Zealand. Well, not that similar since on this trek they cost a small fortune to sleep in. Meet Murray from Australia who had his camera stolen by the Chilean border police (hard to believe) so he had bought a $2 notebook to try to learn to draw before he got on the hike. He had some kid-looking sketches in his book of the mountains, and was getting everyone he met to write in his book. Said he was so glad his camera got stolen because he would never had thought of learning to draw and wouldn´t have all the memories- cool! So we pitch our tent just in time for a heavy rainstorm. We duck inside the tent, unsure whether we are allowed to use the refugio to cook in. For 2 hours we read, until it is almost dark. The park ranger comes around to collect money. ´Dos mujeres?´ which means, two ladies? Si, yes. And he says in a voice that sounds concerned about us to come inside and use the refugio. Once in, the guys running it kept handing us the most amazing bread we have ever eaten, so fresh it is steaming hot, some with gooey cheese inside, others with rosemary. Drink mate sitting around the hot stove. Hmmm...

Day 4- Rest Day! We had already decided to have a rest day before we got to this camp, which was lucky since it turned out so good. No one stays 2 nights at a camp, almost unheard of (!) since everyone is just doing the circuit to get it done. There were 4 guys working there: a great older gaucho (cowboy) from Argentina; a punk cook all tatooed who talked a lot about food and played latino rap music in the hut while cooking, and we later found out owns a pitbull who fights (crazy) but wouldn´t let us watch in town since it is illegal (no kidding); the guy who ran the hut, who was in his early 30´s and very friendly (will you be my girlfriend- no); and a great younger guy from Argentina who is studying at Uni. and this is his summer job. He really tried to get the most out of his experience by getting the gaucho to teach him to ride the horses bareback and lasso. So this day was one of our favourites with them letting us have a hot shower in the hut (only cold ones for campers outside), inviting us to have lunch with them (oyster soup with potatoes and fresh yummy bread), and just watching them get on with their chores, play soccer, and work with the horses. We chatted with passing hikers including one American guy who will climb Everest in the summer, inspirational. At end of this day Canadian Dan walks into camp! He is a fast hiker. It was a great day.

Day 5- After our rest day and seeing so many hard-working hikers passing through the camp while we relaxed, I challenged Ali to a hard-core long day the following day. Most people do the challenging John Garner Pass in one 6-hour day, but we decided to tack on the 4-hour hike to the next camp onto it and do it all in one long day. One lady in the refugio said ´You know that´s a hard pass´, trying to sway us, but that only made us want to do it more. It was my favourite day. Started hiking at 9am and arrived at camp at 7pm. Morning quite uneventful but great weather. Afternoon a long approach to the pass. Hardest part a one-hour slog through knee-deep mud through Tolkein-like weather battered old Lenga trees. Muddy bit a mystery to me since it would so easily be solved with the park building a boardwalk. But since there is none, hikers wanting to keep their feet dry have cut the widest swath imaginable of new trails through this fragile landscape. Sad. Coming over the pass was the best moment of the hike. I hadn´t looked at any photos of the hike prior to doing it and didn´t have any idea what to expect. What we got on top was a view of a valley between huge mountains that was filled with a great big glacier, Glacier Grey, which started somewhere way off up in the distance and spilled out in front of us to a lake where it ended abruptly. Seriously amazing view. Hike down the other side incredibly steep with ropes and all. Just before camp we sat and stared out at the glacier for half an hour. It was sunny, warm and the sun was starting to set. In camp we met up again with Australian Murray, and also met two Israelis, Renana and Ido, who we are still in touch and travelling with. This evening was a bad one for Ali. Since this was just a small camp, there were only about 6 of us in it. In the evening we all got together in the ranger hut around the hot stove for camp chitchat. Ali did not see that hot water being heated directly from the stove was piddling out of the tap and she put her hand under it for a moment. Thus resulted a very bad burn, a good 2 inch by 1.5 inch skin-removed-instantly large burn (much larger than a quarter, and if it is larger than a quarter, you know you´re supposed to get a doctor to look at it). She´s fine, but got lots of quizzical looks with a large dressing on it every day thereafter.

Day 6- Hike to Camp Glaciar Grey. This turned out to be a nice easy hiking day with a stop at a ´mirador´, means view in spanish, to see the end of the glacier as it breaks away into the lake. Arriving at Camp Glaciar Grey refreshing as it was fairly early in the day and a beautiful spot. Camped on the beach of the lake and hung out with our little group formed by us, Australian Murray, the two Israelis, and an older woman from Switzerland. We would hang out the next two nights also. By now we are getting quite tired of packaged soup and mashed potatoes. We experiment by adding the mashed potatoes to the soup to thicken it up.

Day 7- Windy, windy, windy day! We hike around the end of the lake but fairly high up and for the first 2 hours the wind is wonderful. Sky clear, all the leaves shaking around, beautiful colours, whitecaps on the water. But then I am tired of the wind and later in the day, very tired of it. It makes it very hard to hike and even wearing sunglasses you get dust in your eyes. The straps on my backpack whip around and smack my face and neck often. Come down a valley and out onto the bluest lake that I´ve ever seen- Pehoe Lake. Lunch there quickly in the wind and onto the camp that is at the bottom of the second valley, the Valley of Frances. This camp is dark and super windy. The Lenga trees resemble bamboo with them all close together and with no branches or leaves until their tops. The wind smacks them around and they knock one another. Under this canopy is our camp for the night. We hear the trees and the wind all night.

Day 8- Hike up the spectacular Valley of Frances (more spectacular than Day 1 Torres) without packs for a day hike up to see the incredible granite faces that ring the top of the valley. Large river, high granite faces, glaciers, big rocks, lots of big raw nature up this valley, great. Hike back down and move camp to Los Cuernos, named for a mountain feature that looks like horns. Have a celebratory beer in the refugio as this is our last night. Israelis prepare list of food for their next hike, having paid attention to what ideas anyone else had for food on this hike. My own food comes back up during the night as I get sick due to unknown reason. Soup. No more soup for me for a LONG long time- I overdid it on this hike for sure.

Day 9- Am sick one. Pack up and hike out in rain, not feeling very victorious. We had planned to have hamburgers with eggs on them for our lunch when we reached the hotel and civilization, but I am hardly able to have some tea. Ali and I look like wounded soldiers as we finish, her with her hand and me with my sick. Bus back to town and straight to bed for this sick puppy. Feel great the next day. We did it!!!!