17.03.2006 - 20.03.2006
We eventually caught a LADE flight, run by the Air Force and therefore cheaper, to El Calafate, some 1400k south. This is a tourist town whose primary reason for existence is Parque Nactional Los Glaciares, about an hour away. Plenty of Argentinians as well as foreign tourists make it down here, and it is relatively expensive. Our plan was to first to go north 200k, to the tiny outpost of [El Chalten, and spend a few days hiking around the Fitzroy Massif and Cerro Torre. El Chalten didn't exist until 1985, and now comprises just a few hundred souls, whose only business it seems, is to take care of the mountaineers and trekkers who show up in the summer and fall.
The bus ride over the plains with its stark terrain and clear air reminded me of the Altiplano, though it is not nearly as high.
Near El Calafate
Along the Road
Nevertheless, the mountains are quite serious, and were not climbed until the late 50's or early 70's, depending on who you believe.
Fitzroy From a Distance
A Little Closer
As soon as we got out of the bus, we were immediately buffeted by a cold wind that blew unrelentingly for the three days we were there. At times it was blowing so hard that it was difficult to walk. This was our first introduction to Patagonian weather, and it was a good thing we didn't get here later in the year. It was somewhat cold already, though as we later found out, it could literally change in an instant.
The trails began just outside the village, and were below the tree line at the start. At first, there was actually less wind than in town.
The weather however, did not cooperate.
Most of the time it was overcast and the peaks were obscured, with intermittent rain and grappel for all three days.
On one particular day, as we went higher and around a bend on the trail, the wind blasted us with such force we couldn't stand up, and we elected to turn back under threatening skies. I pictured climbers being blown off the mountain or clinging to their belays on vertical rock, thankful that I was not THAT crazy.
I've done technical rock climbing about a dozen times in my life, and always had issues with the exposure, mostly on the way down. Even on non-technical terrain, I can get freaked in areas where there are sheer vertical drops. I have to talk myself through it, and have resorted to holding hands with a guide on narrow traverses or steep downs. In this vein, a story I have told many times is about an experience I had in the Indian Himalaya, some nine years prior to this trip. We had an Indian guide, Nagy, who was about 4 feet 10 inches tall, spoke poor English, and more importantly, walked with a limp. That should have told me something. At any rate, we had a long, extremely narrow traverse on the way down from a particular mountain village. I'm talking here about a trail that was a foot wide in some places, dropping off more than 1500 feet to a river. Somehow it had been carved or blasted out of the rock cliff, just enough so that an Indian man of Nagy's height could stand up straight. I had to bend over to avoid cracking my head for the duration, perhaps a mile or so. In places, the trail was so narrow that I had to face into the cliff and side-step. I was holding Nagy's hand for a good part of this. I should point out that Nagy probably weighed a good 20 pounds less than I do, and I'm a skinny guy, around 145 pounds. Somehow we managed to negotiate all of this, and the trail widened to about three feet, at which point I was able to continue on my own. I was chatting with my friend David while Nagy was 20 or 30 feet ahead. Suddenly, he stumbled and disappeared over the side. We were horrified, and ran up to where he fell and peered over. Luckily the drop was not quite as steep here, and Nagy had managed to grab onto a small stubby tree about 20 feet below. In a few minutes he climbed out, grinned at the two of us, and said he was fine. The absurdity of thinking that someone of Nagy's size, with a limp, who couldn't even keep himself on the trail, was somehow going to save me if I fell, still makes me smile. At the time it didn't seem so amusing.
There was a rather hard core crowd staying at the hostel with us. Two of them were a Swiss couple, around 40, who were biking their way across the entire length of South America. They were 18 months into their 2 year journey, and they weren't taking the easy route. At times they had to carry their bikes over mountain passes and had gotten lost, sometimes for several days at a time. They were close to the end now, a few hundred miles from Tierra del Fuego. Another fantasy of mine has been to bike around the world. Sadly, I guess that one will have to wait for another life time.