Sunday, April 16, 2006

Paso de las Nubes trek, Bariloche, Argentina (3 days)

Paso de los Nubes means ´Pass of the Clouds´ in spanish. It is a 3-day hike that I had read about in my trekking books before leaving Vancouver. Add an extra couple of days to the end of the hike and it is called the ´Trans-Andean Trek´because you cross from Argentina into Chile over the Andes.

We caught a beautiful 2-hour early morning van ride from Bariloche to a small town called Pampa Linda, on a forest dirt road, stopping at blue lakes to take it all in. Arriving at Pampa Linda, we caught our first view of Monte Tronador, a very large snow-capped peak. Two guys in our van are from New Zealand and Columbia, and have ropes and heavy packs in preparation to summit Tronador. They have 5 days to wait out bad weather. No sign of such weather today as clear blue sky dominates. The others in the van have the same plan as us- an American lawyer named David and the nicest german couple that I have ever met, Helene and boyfriend, who we will run into again on our travels.

After eating our lunch, Ali and I set off in our true style, last. We always seem to have the latest start over anyone else. Hike along forested valley on wide dirt road in sunshine. Trail then heads up for 9 km., switchbacks for a long while under cover of bamboo and tall, tall trees. Towards top of mountain, Lenga trees turn to Lenga scrub and is brilliant shades of red and orange. Catch up to other hikers at mirador of waterfalls that fall down tall cliff face from Glaciar Castano Overo, Tronador´s glacier. Monte Tronador´s name means ´the thunderer´, and refers to the noise that we hear all the way as we hike up the mountain. Chunks of glacier break and fall a great distance down high cliff faces to the valley below and create awesome thunderous noise.

Once on top, it is an easy hike up through the end of the vegetation to scree and rock. Up a few hundred more meters and we reach our destination, Refugio Otto Meiling. Refugio stands at an altitude of 2000m, as short way below the permanent snow line. Its location offers a superb panorama taking in what seems like all of the Andes mountains of Argentina and Chile. We can see the Paso de las Nubes pass that we will cross the following day, as well as Cerro Catedral, where we had hiked several days prior. Monte Tronador itself has 3 peaks, Piko Argentina, Piko Chile, and Piko International, where the border of the two countries actually splits the highest peak in half.

We set up tent in mountainscape of what would be the best advertisement possible for a tent company. Want to send photo to MEC for their catalogue, but realize MEC does not sell this brand of tent. German couple and David set up also. We all discuss option of hiring mountain guide to take us across glacier with ropes and crampons the following day in an effort to avoid hiking back down way we came to valley and then up long valley and up and over pass... essentially a major shortcut. However, by the time we band together for reasonable guide rate, another couple has snaked the guide for an ascent of Piko Argentina- ggrrr.... frustration all around.

Spend evening watching sun setting over endless sea of mountain peaks. Also watch Argentinian military up on glacier practicing for an upcoming training session in the Antarctic. Head inside cozy refugio and for once, pay fee (7 pesos each) to use their kitchen to prepare our meal. Alison prepares amazing stew. This refugio has great ambience, with 4 employees working in the kitchen/bar, which actually has some stainless steel appliances, much more swish than any other refugio we´ve seen yet. Large picture windows surround the common room and allow breathtaking views of sun setting on Tronador and glacier. Am inspired by two Argentinian families staying in the refugio who have come up with their three kids, one a baby not more than 6 months old- very cool.

Next morning wake at sunrise to take in the sun lighting up first the highest peaks of the Andes including our Tronador. Breakfast in the refugio. Rock outcrop outside the refugio affords view down valley under glacier. Condors, huge huge condors, fly around first at eye level, and then below us, circling in and out of the glacier valley. Amazing, and very hard to tear ourselves away from. But alas, we have a long hiking day before us since we were not able to get the guide for the glacier shortcut.

Day 2, hike back down switchbacks to valley bottom. Hike along Rio Alerce valley. Lunch stop along banks of river in sunshine. At one point, have to fjord river with no bridge- thanks to David for giving us a hand with figuring best spot to cross. Weather starts to turn as we hit bottom of Paso incline. By the time we get to top of pass, it starts to rain a lot. We get quite seriously soaking. My hiking book described the view from the top of the pass as one of the best the author has ever seen, but we are socked in with cloud and see nada. Steep descent down other side in rain. Near bottom, finally catch a glimpse of Glaciar Frias, a tall `icefall`sprawling down from the eastern side of Monte Tronador. Glacier feeds a surging waterfall and numerous other smaller cascades that form the Rio Frias. This glacier also drops large chunks of ice over a high cliff face. Our camp is at the bottom of the pass, opposite this series of waterfalls. Rain stops pretty much as soon as we reach camp. No time wasted, we set up tent and duck inside, not to resurface all evening. Warm up with dry clothes and cook dinner in the vestibule of the tent. This night we do not get a very good sleep as some mice decide to keep us company all night, crawling over our packs and getting into some of Ali´s food. At 2:00am, move packs into the tent, but then worry that mice will chew through tent. Next morning, poor David tells us he had mice chew through his tent and crawl over him during the night... he is tired also.

Day 3 is described in my book as a ´character builder´, as we are to hike along the Rio Frias valley in thick bamboo forest and over many wet fallen trees. It feels essentially like an army obstacle course, or like we are in an adventure race. This is because we hike the whole day at a very fast pace, trying to make sure we catch our 3:00pm boat ride at the end of the hike. In fact, the hike is quite fun and not too tough at all. Hike a lot of the way with David. Arrive at Puerto Frias, on the Laguna Frias, in record time and take all of our wet gear out of our packs, and lay it out to dry. Spend afternoon catching series of tourist boats and buses all the way back to Bariloche. After our difficult hike, we find it quite funny when the boat stops at a dock in the middle of the forest and lets off all of the tourists to walk up a series of boardwalks to see a waterfall and lake. It is a joke after what we have just hiked. View from top deck of boat back along the Lago Nahuel Huapi breathtaking in the setting sun. Love Bariloche!


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