Sunday 30 April 2006

Bariloche: Nahuel Huapi Traverse Day 2

On the Nahuel Huapi Traverse, near Bariloche
This is rock climbing. I have 35-40lbs on my back, big trekking boots, no rope and I'm 50ft up a cliff. There's black ice on the rock face. Next, 2 week old iced up snow lies across the track (such as it is). To step on it would mean a fast slide down the mountain. So we skirt round the top of it, find some rocks to climb up and head on. Actually, I start to climb a sheer rock face, lose my nerve and remain stranded. I don't know how to get up or down. I ask Bailey for advice. He managed it no problem. He's trying to help but can't remember what he did. Besides from the top you can't see the rock face. I take a minute. Shut out everything. Decide that I'm not going to spend the night here then find a way up.

On to the next pass. Hop over and along. Then, instead of passing below Cerro Inocentes, we go the wrong way, climb to the peak, go over to the other side and clamber down before realising we're in the wrong valley. Back up. My climbing is getting better but it's challenging me. Along to Cerro Navidad. And what an amazing view of Mt Tronador. At 3,500m, it's the tallest mountain in the region. An extinct volcano, its slopes are covered in glaciers that keep it white all year round. I switch on my phone to take a couple of quick snaps. In view of Bariloche, way over to the North East, 2 text messages come through. I can't reply, though.

A condor flies overhead, checking us out. Finally, the long steep descent. Tough and a little monotonous. Then straight ahead on the other side of the valley we can see the path, a series of switchbacks climbing a near vertical 400m. That will take us to Laguna Negra, where we're stopping for the night. There is the option of camping at the valley floor. Tough choice. Take the climb and stay in a refugio or stop earlier and camp at the bottom?

We reach the start of the ascent at 6.30pm. Last light, we were told at Jakob, is at 7pm. Already the sun is behind the mountains. Bailey races up. I try to keep up but can't. He's way better at this than me. But I'm feeling grateful to Signa for making me do all those deadlifts and power squats. The strength in my back and legs from it is helping.

I'm dehydrated. Gasping for water, I drive myself on, telling myself how much beautiful mountain water I'll drink when I get to the top. This is the reward I'm offering myself for keeping going. I should have stopped for a quick drink, really, but make the wrong decision to plough on. I have to make it before dark. Light is fading fast and my legs are starting to give in. First my right quad starts cramping. I guess my body compensates and puts additional strain on other muscles. My left calf goes, then the right. I'm in pain. I push on. I'm telling myself to push for 2 minutes. Then another 2. And on. I can see I'm nearing the top but each time, there's another switchback and more climbing. Finally, I reach the top. 7.12pm. Not quite dark. Just ambient light left.

Bailey's fetching water from the stream. "There's already a fire going in there", he tells me. Inside there's a number of others. 6 Argentinians and a Dane, living in Bariloche. There's a couple from Ushuaia, although he's originally from Bariloche and has come back to join in the festivities for Bariloche's Birthday on 3rd May. Two girls from Bariloche. A school age local girl and boy. Her father runs the old refugio on Mt Tronador. And the Dane, who came over to do the ski season last year and has stayed on. We spend the next few hours chatting, cooking, sharing stories and mate. I'm so hungry, I eat 250g of pasta and 250g of tomatoes, half a packet of biscuits and an apple. At least the pack will be lighter tomorrow.

My legs are bad. After eating, they start to cramp. I don't sleep well. At least it's warm and pleasant. Tomorrow is the easy descent to Punto Lopez.

Saturday 29 April 2006

Bariloche: Nahuel Huapi Traverse Day 1

The Nahuel Huapi Traverse, near Bariloche
Is it still walking if you're using your hands?

The Nahuel Huapi Traverse is billed in the Lonely Planet guide to trekking in the Patagonian Andes as a 5-day classic pass-hopping moderate-demanding trek. That basically means that for 5 days you're going to be ascending and descending steep slopes covered in loose rocks, scree, sand, boulders and other difficult terrain. You're definitely going to need to use your hands and, probably, on the occasional descent, make use of the technique known as 'sliding down on your bum'. And, of course, I choose to do it in 3 days instead of 5.

Day 1 was supposed to be easy. It wasn't. After a short steep climb to a mountain pass, I get moving along the ridge, manoeuvring over large boulders, careful not to slip and end 300m down to my right. Then the descent: step, slide, step, slide, bring half the mountain down with you. Nice walk through the wood at the bottom lasts 30 minutes max before starting the long ascent to another pass. It's warm today and the going feels slow. Half way up, I unzip my legs and remove them. That's my detachable trouser legs. So I'm in shorts now with my dayglo legs out for the world to see. Except there's no one to see them.

When I finally reach Refugio San Martín at Laguna Jakob, my knees are feeling a little sore. Each big step down on to rock with the weight on my back is putting a strain on them. The refuge, I was told by the guys at Club Andino in Bariloche, yesterday, was closed but I arrived and could hear music from inside. Definitely open. No camping tonight. Total wimp-out. I've had 8 nights in a tent for 12 days walking (including today), out of 21 days since leaving BA. Bear in mind 5 days of transfer, that's 75% of the time walking and 50% of nights spent in a tent. Tonight I have a mattress, indoors, in my sleeping bag, with a blanket should I need it. 20 pesos. £4.00.

I met a guy from Montana in the albergue in Bariloche, by the name of Bailey. After I told him what I was planning, he decided to come along. He didn't have all the kit he needed so set out later. He's camping tonight, just to show me up. Bailey works in a bar in Montana. Working evenings means that during the winter months he can ski during the day. That's 75 days skiing per year. Jealous. He also spends a lot of time out trekking and camping. Great way to live.

Tomorrow's leg is supposed to be demanding and both my book and Club Andino Bariloche strongly recommend going with a guide. Should be ok, if the weather stays good. I hope. Like today but tougher.

Thursday 27 April 2006

An opportunity opens up

Monte Fitz Roy
So I now have a few more days to spare before taking off from El Calafate to Bariloche. Originally, I wasn't planning to do anything around Calafate, simply using it as a take-off point to get to Bariloche: there are no flights from Puerto Natales there.

Sunday I get my laundry done, then Monday up for 7.30am bus to Calafate. James and Nicky recommended the America del Sur hostel, so on arrival I looked out and found, amongst the throng of hostel people, for a rep from there. I arrived, checked in and within moments Maria had booked me on a trip to Perito Moreno glaciar that afternoon. Sadly, the weather was poor but it was still spectacular.

The young staff at America del Sur are fantastic. They're incredibly helpful and friendly, which makes a huge difference to the stay.

The following day, I got the bus to nearby El Chaltén. I had planned to do the overnight Laguna Torre walk, taking in views of Cerro Torre. Majo, in the hostel, advised me that I could also take in Monte Fitz Roy by connecting onto that track via the sendero Madre y Hija. Finally, talking to the gaurdaparques from APN in El Chaltén, I opted to start at the northern end at El Pilar, camp at Poincenot to see Fitz Roy at sunrise then head via Madre y Hija to Laguna Torre.

I'd met a Dutch chap, Sander, at the hostel in Calafate and a South African pair, Blane (M) and Alex (F) on the coach. I suggested we do the trip together. The S.Africans had little kit, no tent, but between the four of us, we could easily make do. Then Sander decided he didn't want to rush out and would spend a night in the hostel in El Chaltén. So now we're in the interesting situation where I'm going to have 3 in my tent again.

Alex and Blane. Both early 20s recently finished studies in Cape Town. Alex is travelling for 6 months ending up in BA to work a bit. Coincidentally, her mother is also Argentinian. Blane, 1.5 years out of university, is a keen photographer and was trying to build his portfolio since he wants a career in photography. Despite being S.African and bearing the surname Venter, he doesn't play Rugby.

During the course of the day, we see, first, a pair of Magellanic Woodpeckers. That's Woody Woodpecker (El Pajaro Loco). Just the same red head (but black body) on the male. Female all black. While he was pecking holes into the wood, she was meandering about the branches, laughing like a lunatic, just like the cartoon. A little later we saw a Patagonian skunk. This animal has a bad rep but is actually rather a beautiful little creature.

It's warm in the tent that night and we oversleep! The bottle of Norton Roble 2003 Cab Sauv might have had a part to play. 8.20am and the sun will be rising very soon. From down here, in the early light, Fitz Roy looks spectacular. We move as fast as possible up a steep climb to the viewing point from Laguna de los Tres. I get ahead but still don't quite make it for sunrise and now clouds are forming around Fitz Roy. I manage to get some pics. It's great to be above the snow line, though. Cerro Torre, on the other hand, never shook off its cloud and I never saw more than the base of it.

Next day was leisurely. Catching the flight at 16.40 to Bariloche, I got myself generally organised and had delicious empanadas for lunch at La Lechuza, as recommended to me by Maria and Majo at the hostel.

Saturday 22 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 7 'The Final Push'

0700hrs Sir Guestie's solo British Expeditionary Force in Argentina (and Chile) sets out into the snow to make the final ascent to the base of the Torres del Paine, to see the famous view for real. Overnight, the weather conditions were adverse. Pitched near a rushing river, at times the sound of the cascade was inaudible due to the power of the wind ripping over the top of the ridge and rushing through the trees. It is easily below freezing now and just outside the campsite, snow lies on the ground.

Wearing 4 layers, hat and gloves, carrying a camera tucked inside my waterproof jacket, I set down the first footsteps of the morning into the snow. The ascent steepens, the boulders grow larger and the track disappears. Under about 10 cms of snow, the waymarkings are invisible. I make a point of brushing them down, when I find them.

The wind is stiffer further up, the snow coming down harder. Visibility zero. My footsteps are filling in fast. I don't like the look of it. Near the top, I call it a day. I can't see anything and I don't like the idea of slipping and nobody finding me very soon - I don't expect anyone else to have a go today.

I decamp and descend into the gorgeous valley below. The weather, I see, is clearing further down. By the time I reach the bottom, I'm in shorts and t-shirt. A Swiss German, who followed my footprints an hour later comes down and shows me the great pics he'd got. I feel robbed.

I met with James and Nicky and we arranged to go out for drinks and dinner. TdP D8 is cancelled. Campamento Japonés, the entry point for the Valle del Silencio, a little further on from Camp. Torres where I spent last night, was cut off due to snow. A great week in the Park but plenty of reasons to return:
  1. the circuito grande
  2. Paso John Garner
  3. A decent view of the Glaciar Grey in sunlight from above
  4. A clear view from the base of the Torres
  5. El Valle del Silencio

Thursday 20 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 5

What a great day! Each day brings more experiences.

Up early and off up Valle del Francés. Despite a little drizzle - it seems my light pack days are doomed. The views of the Glaciar del Francés on the way up to Camp. Britanico were fantastic surrounded by orange and red autumnal beech forests. Of course, while the Italians chose a nice cosy campsite at the bottom of the valley, the Brits moved on up to an exposed area much further up. The campsite now is rarely used, it seems. Please understand, though, that the only luxury of Camp. Italiano was a flushing toilet. It's a free site with no other facilities other than a roaring river providing delicious fresh water.

Beyond, the view from the mirador was not quite as good as I`d hoped, so I continued up on a vague track marked with the occasional cairn. I scrambled up a steep ravine, eventually reaching an exposed plateau. Up here the wind was blowing very hard bringing snow off the slopes around me. From here I could see all the way down the valley I'd ascended to Lago Nordenskjöld. Around me I could see Paine Grande, Cerro Castillo and the Cuernos del Paine behind me. It was exhilirating feeling the raw power of nature and seeing how it had been molded over millions of years.

After taking a few pics, I descended quickly to Camp. Italiano. I had lunch and decamped, heading a short way to Albergue Los Cuernos. I felt sluggish and decided to take it slowly. In the end I was moving fast. On my way out from the campsite, I met an English couple who looked very familiar but I quickly discarded it as a deja vu. Later I discovered that they'd asked me the way to Grey while I was sitting having lunch at Pehoé. James and Nicky, married and living in Edinburgh, have understanding employers who have given them each 6 weeks off to travel South America.

Rounding Lago Nordenskjöld, I found a beautiful beach with black and white pebbles. The tide had raked it to look like a Japanese garden. The sun was out and I felt warm from the walking. I thought it would be lovely to have a swim. Then I thought, it WOULD be lovely to have a swim. I stripped down to my undies took a couple of steps into the water and dived in. Very cold. Very. This is a glacial lake. The water just above freezing. I got straight out. The temperature change gave me an awesome feeling. I quickly towelled down, put on some fresh undies (mmm), dressed and took a couple of pics.

At Los Cuernos, I didn't have enough cash for a bed and dinner, so I opted to camp and have a 3-course dinner cooked for me. I took a long, hot shower then enjoyed my dinner. Returning to my tent at 10.30pm, the sky was totally cloudless and I could clearly see the stars and the milky way. You just can't see stars like this pretty much anywhere in the UK, with all the light pollution.

Wednesday 19 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 4 'My last day at Work'

Woke up last night, cold. I'd been asleep 4 hours. It was only 11.30pm. Another 7 hours to go before I could escape the night.

Yup, today, 19th April, is my last paid day at work. Maidenhead or Patagonia... not a tough choice.

I had a very pleasant walk from Campamento Grey down to Lago Pehoe (pronounced Pe (as in Pistol), We (as in Wistol), not Pee Hoe). Final views over the glaciar.

A sunny day, I was in the shadow of 60m year old Paine Grande until I finally reached Pehoe. I sat down to have my lunch in the sunshine by the lake, gazing across to the mountains beyond. Immediately it clouded over.

The going had been good in the morning but my pack felt heavy in the afternoon. I thought about ploughing on to Albergue Los Cuernos and having a nice hot shower and maybe some dinner and even a bed. I stuck to my plan and stopped at Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle del Frances. Tomorrow I'll head up to Campamento Britanico and beyond to the mirador above.

I met a couple of American travellers at the campsite, John and Jeffrey. They'd met on the Navimag boat from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas. Jeffrey had spent the last 3 years travelling, doing occasional work, in Australia, New Zealand and South America. He was carrying his whole world with him. He had a lot of little luxuries like spices for his food and really good tea. It's amazing how important these simple things become.

John, from Seattle, had like me left his job. He was on a 6-month trip. He'd already passed through Asia and was now in South America.

Jeffrey insisted on building a campfire and I insisted on sitting by it. What a great fire! It was ringed round by a circle of stones to keep it from spreading but also to hold the heat in. It kept us warm till about 10.30pm. A late night for me!

Tuesday 18 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 3

Wet. It was only light drizzle when I awoke and I hoped that it would clear. I set off early with just a few essentials in my pack to head up to Paso John Garner from which there are supposed to be amazing views over Glaciar Grey. Steady climb from 200m to 500m and then a final steep ascent to 1200m. But the rain got worse, the ground extemely muddy and slippery and those ravines less and less inviting. I reached the Campamento Guardas about 5km on, stopped to look out from the mirador over the glaciar then decided it simply wasn't going to happen. So I turned back. So I'm leaving something behind to do. In reality, since I wanted to do the circuito grande and was unable to do it, I'll have to come back anyway.

I sat in my tent drinking my mug of soup feeling something but since I can't read the notes I made, I have no idea what it was that I was feeling. Looks a bit like 'choked' but I wasn't. Anyway, I sat and watched the steam rising off my trousers as they dried in the relative warmth of the tent and watched the mist rising off the mountains once the rain had stopped. Nature suddenly seemed perverse to me. The clouds come along. Wet everything. It warms up. The water rises back up to form clouds. The wind blows the clouds into the next mountain, where they break into rain... etc... Well, somehow it seems to work.

There were a dozen members of 16 Squadron RAF, on R&R from the Falklands, staying overnight at the Refugio Lago Grey. These guys were doing it in relative luxury. Small packs, no tents, staying in the comfort and warmth of a hut. Food provided at each hut, so no need to carry provisions. I guess it worked in my favour. I chatted to a few of them for a while then one of them gave up a couple of boil-in-the-bag sausage and beans. Lovely. MoD cooked breakfast for the next 2 mornings.

Later I spent some time chatting to a Spanish couple. They had been living in Dublin. Chucked in their jobs and after a few months travelling were returning to Spain, where they reckoned they were going to struggle to find worthwhile jobs.

I took the opportunity of the downtime to do some admin: cleaned out the tent etc.Later I went to the mirador to take some more pictures. The ones I'd taken first thing this morning were probably not as good as they might have been, in the limited light.

I revised my plans for the rest of my time in the park...
  • D4 Campamento Lago Grey to Campamento Italiano
  • D5 Campamento Italiano to Campamento Britanico to Mirador then back to Campamento Italiano and on to Albergue Los Cuernos. Long day.
  • D6 Albergue Los Cuernos to Campamento Torres.
  • D7 Campamento Torres to mirador back to Camp T then on to Campamento Japonés on to Valle del Silencio then back to Camp T.
  • D8 Camp T to Hosteria Las Torres then on to Laguna Amarga for coach back to Puerto Natales.

Monday 17 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 2

It seems a long time since I got on the coach from Puerto Natales. I woke up this morning, calm and refreshed. The rain had come and gone intermittently throughout the night... one of my favourite sounds. The occasional burst of strong wind woke me but I stopped thinking the tent was going to blow away.

I quickly brewed some (nasty powdered instant) coffee and had a little breakfast. I had the tent down and everything packed away by 8.00am. I left my pack at the campsite and headed on with camera to the mirador Zapata, looking up Zapata glacier and mountain. The autumnal colours of the beechwood in the early sunlight were beautiful.

I had to make it back down to Lago Grey for 2pm to catch the boat across the lake, so I then hurried back to the campsite, picked up the pack... and some water... and moved quickly. The weather was mostly sunny with occasional showers that left numerous complete rainbows: the kind where you can see the entire bow against a backdrop of blue sky. I put my waterproof jacket on during one more persistent shower and succeeded in tearing a gash into the arm on a tree as I tried to find a crossing over a flooded brook.

At 11.00am, I scared the life out of a girl walking alone in the opposite direction. I later found a solitary 1-person tent at Campamento Pingo at the start/end of the track. Assuming it was hers, she probably hadn't seen anyone since about the same time as me the day before, 4pm. That's 19 hours, if I can still add up.

I made good time, pushing it hard and stopping for a few photo opportunities. Gazing at a pink cliff, with a curious rockface of curved layers, I stepped on a solitary rock protruding quietly on to the track. The weight of my pack, with 8 days' provisions, caused me to slip and I ended up with my arm buried in a thornbush, unable to stand up with the pack on my back.

Walking into Hostería Lago Grey, a US$275 dollar per night place from which I had to catch the boat, I got some very strange looks. I made use of the bathroom, then seeing myself in the mirror, it became clear why they were looking at me like that.

On the way across the lake, I was lucky to be able to see a condor feeding its offspring. It seems that the young bird had fallen while learning to fly, so now the adult was having to feed it on a ledge off a cliff in full view of us on the boat.

Across the lake to Campamento Lago Grey, my initial plan was to head up to Campamento el Paso, so that I could climb the pass the next morning. But it was much later than I'd expected. The temptation of a hot shower at Camp LG won the day and I decided to stay there 2 nights, making the climb of the pass tomorrow and moving on the day after.

The feeling of a hot shower was just amazing.

The camping experience here was totally different. Yes, it was by water surrounded by mountains but there were several people there and it was all more civilised, though not necessarily itself a good thing. It was also warmer and more sheltered.

Through the night, I could hear the sound of Glaciar Grey dropping huge chunks of ice into the water. It sounded like thunder but it was curiously soporific.

Sunday 16 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 1

Up early-ish to catch the 7.30am coach to the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (henceforth TdP).

A few TdP facts picked up from the very friendly and helpful guardaparques at Administración...TdP is located at the Southern end of the Andes on the Chilean side. On the map, have a look at where Puerto Natales is. That's pretty much where it is. The result of tectonic activity, it is part of a range of mountains starting with the Rockies in North America, stretching right down to Tierra del Fuego.

The Andes themselves are about 60 million years old. But TdP is only 12 million. At the foot of Cerro Paine Grande, there was a major depression in the ground. When a fissure in the rock caused the ground to subside, magma rose to the surface, forming, essentially, a volcano. Later, the whole area was covered by a glacier, which tore into the rock of the TdP. The top parts of the TdP are black because they were above the level of the glacier. Fossils have been found in the rock of the TdP, including ichthyosaurus, the dolphin-like, water-dwelling dinosaur.

The TdP are inhabited by puma, guanaco, european hares (introduced in C19), condors and many other animals. The trees are principally a variety of southern beech. I saw some National Geographic footage of Hugh Miles, who apparently IS the National Geographic, filming puma in the wild in TdP. He spent two years there getting to know one female puma.

Unfortunately I had to give up my plans to do the circuito grande. The northern section of the walk was closed, being close to the end of the season. So I quickly revised my plans and decided to do the 'W', which covers the same ground excluding the northern section and adds in a couple of side trips. I decided that I still wanted to spend a good length of time in the park, since I had put aside the days. So I resolved to spend 8 days in the park, which was way more than what is needed to complete the W.

I started off on a separate track, the Pingo-Zapata, overnight trip. After spending half the morning finding out about the park, I was left with just a few hours to get to the campsite before nightfall. I strapped on my pack and got moving fast, uphill. I set off without enough water and it began to make me feel tired after 4 hours hard march. To compound it, when I took the side walk to the Pingo Cascade, I was unable to get water, despite watching it rushing over the rocks.

Campamento Zapata, located at the top of the river Pingo, seems to be rarely used. I pitched my tent as the wind was picking up before it got dark. Immediately, I got cooking while there was still some light and once that was gone and I'd eaten, at about 7pm, I got into my sleeping bag.

The sound of guanaco and other animal shrieks, the howling wind shaking my tent and the desolation by the river made me panicky at first. My thoughts were... there are guanacos nearby... puma eat guanacos... I can't run as fast as a guanaco (let alone a puma), especially stuck in a tent... I'm easier prey than guanaco... I'm going to be killed by a puma.

But soon enough I realised that my tent could take a lot of blowing... I can defend myself against any pussy that tries it on... And then the sounds of the patter of the rain on the tent and of the flowing river began to put me to sleep.

Thursday 13 April 2006

Punta Arenas: in transition

3 hours sleep. Pack on back. Run out the door. No time for coffee or bread. No time to look at the view. Straight out. No time to collect water. Is that a hangover coming on? No time to collect anything. Run down the steep road turn left down San Martín and run to the coach. I'm one of the first there. Damn. Could have got some nutrients into the bloodstream.

But what a coach! Big seats. Comfortable. Reclining.

So I slept some of the time and gazed out the window the rest of it. First through snowy mountains then soon into the plains of Tierra del Fuego. Phone reception disappeared about 10 minutes out of Ushuaia and popped on again once we were on the Chilean side about 4 hours later in San Sebastián de Chile. Most of the land was flat and rugged pastures for sheep, cattle, horses and guanaco.

I was very happy to get that lunch.

I hadn't had food or water for several hours and my guts were not best pleased.

Then rush off to get the ferry. Or wait 4 hours to get the ferry across the Magellan Straits. Waiting next to a field with warning signs saying 'Danger: Minefield'.

Short crossing and a couple of hours later we reach the destination late at night. I was expecting to be met by a gaggle of hostel owners touting for business and luckily I was.

I didn't take to Punta Arenas. I got the earliest bus I could find to Puerto Natales and in the meantime tried to kill some time. Bought provisions etc for the trekking in Torres del Paine coming up.

Wednesday 12 April 2006

Episode 1c. Ushuaia, the last night

Leo decided I needed a leaving party. How many's that I've had this year? I had commented that my main reason for visiting Argentina was to eat (decent) empanadas. So that was that. He was going to make empanadas in the hostel and invite anyone to join us.

Claudio and Estela (the owners) came along; a young Canadian couple; 68-year old, half-deaf, recently-retired, recently divorced Jorge; Oreste, a travelling art and craft maker, whom Leo met in the campsite; Angels; and the tall, English red-head Leo had chatted up in the supermarket.

Wow! they were good. But I didn't pay attention to how he made them so he's going to do the whole thing again in BA. Claudio, Estela, Angels and I will all be in BA at the same time at the start of May. Possibly Laura too. And Leo's girlfriend, of course.

Well, the usual thing. We ate loads, drank plenty of red wine then headed down to... Pub Dublin (pronounced, of course, Doobleen). A few beers then on to the next place. Whatever that was called. Oreste insisted that I learn how to dance the tango in BA. Leo gave up on the redhead. Angels took a shine to Oreste. I was having thoughts about that missed plane back from Bangalore as it approached 3.30am. So we called it a night. I set all the alarms I could find and passed out.

Monday 10 April 2006

Episode 1b. Ushuaia, el Paso de la Oveja...

El Paso de la Oveja
Most visitors to Ushuaia seem to stick to camping and day walks in the Lapataia sector to the west of Ushuaia, which is totally flat and forested at sea level. This means that they don't experience any of the mountains that you can see all around you. At the end of every street in Ushuaia you can see white peaks. Such a shame not to get amongst them. The sendero del Paso de la Oveja goes round the back of the first range directly north of the city. Although the guidebook reckons it takes 3 days, the chaps at APN do it in one day of 9-11 hours, which at this time of year means you have to split it into 2 days. I reckoned on it taking about 8 hours a day to be on the safe side.

Carrying food, wine and water, we set off on the unmarked path through coihue (southern beech) forest. There is no certain path and much of the time I was following animal tracks and their dung, heading vaguely in the right direction. Virtually impossible to get lost since we were basically contouring a mountain.

The river crossings were interesting. At one point, we decided the only option was to take boots off and wade. Beautifully cool water. Drying them off and putting warm socks and boots back on was a lovely feeling.

After staying most of the day in the valley floor, we began the ascent towards the pass. It was then that we passed the only 2 people we saw the entire trek. The route quickly steepened and became a little trickier, muddy and wooded. We got above the treeline to grassy meadows above and headed off the track to the only campsite. We continued beneath a cliff and had tremendous views over into the next valley with its tall, white mountains.

Then it began to snow gently and suddenly we could see our destination, the stunning Laguna del Caminante, surrounded by mountains and a cascade of water to one side. We climbed down and while the other 2 started a (strictly-speaking illegal) campfire, I pitched tent by the edge of the wood.

It very quickly became apparent that my 2-man tent, that I'd bought to act as a 1-man, was really far, far, far too small for 3. 10 minutes of sheer laughter. Unstoppable. The situation was completely ridiculous. It was snowing, getting cold quickly and we had accommodation for 1.

Well, we got a nice fire going, thanks to Leo's bush skills, and cooked first soup then a veggie rice thing. We also had some tinned sardines, that were remarkably tasty heated and smoked by the beechwood fire. And, of course, a nice bottle of Etchart malbec.

The sky cleared and we watched the nearly full moon rise above the mountains, shining on the lake below.

Somehow, we managed all 3 of us to cram into the tent. If one person turned, everyone turned. Not much sleep all night. At one point, it snowed quite hard. We also all thought that we'd seen/heard a fox out there. The Fuegian Fox is common in the area, so it might have been. Or just our vivid imaginations.

We woke and badgered Angels into making coffee. Well, I had to fetch the water from the stream feeding the lake. It was white all around. The sun was rising where the moon had risen 12 hours earlier. It couldn't have been more than -5C. So beautiful I shot half a film.

After breakfasting on coffee, bread and biscuits, we headed off back to the treeline and then headed back up the other valley to reach the pass. We climbed steeply over scree and snow for a couple of hours. We stopped just before reaching the top and looked down where we'd just come to enjoy the staggering view. Then we got up and headed the last 200m to the pass. Suddenly I got an enormous rush of energy and just legged it. Uphill with 40lbs on my back, I'd have beaten Carl Lewis in his heyday. If someone tied his feet together. And he ran backwards.

Screaming and shouting at the pass, our echos bounced around both sides of it. Yes, very childish. It was a long, slippery climb down over snow, scree and ice. We got to the bottom of the valley, losing the main path and started a series of crossings over the river as it meandered from side to side.

After a spot of lunch in the sunshine, under the watchful of eyes of a few horses, we decided to head away from the river back into the woods to find the proper path. It 'contoured' the mountainside over mud, peat and trees but was easier going than the river route.

We got out of the wood and it was a simple walk through rugged horse-grazing pasture to the road below. We managed to thumb a lift from a truck driver and the 3 of us piled into the cab, rucksacks and all. The driver was from the North and didn't have too many good things to say about his employer but was jovial nonetheless and dropped us off exactly where we wanted in town.

Saturday 8 April 2006

Episode 1a. Ushuaia, The Trip Starts for Real...

guitarist at the Bar Lennon, Ushuaia
Landing in Ushuaia, I had my Lonely Planet Trekking in the Patagonian Andes guidebook to help me find somewhere to stay. But soon, a chap from Córdoba suggested we share a taxi to the place he was staying. Daniel is a travelling orthodontist, flying to places all around Argentina. He makes the dentures in BA, then flies back out and fits them.

As we were waiting for the taxi to arrive, another, older man joined us. Transpires, the cabbie told us, after we'd dropped him off at 9 de Julio, that he was a Fuegian minister for commerce. It's this sort of info that you simply can`t pick up without speaking the lingo. I'm so glad that I have it and can enjoy a greater texture of experience. Wow, that sounds pretentious.

We drove a short distance to 25 de Mayo and Magallanes to the Hostel Aonikenk. The word is local ie Mapuche and means 'Man from the South'. The owners, Claudio and Estela, were very friendly and helpful. Unlike, it seems, most other hostels, they put themselves out of their way to provide a better service. Towels and breakfast, for instance, were included. The hostel must have one of the best views of any place I've stayed at, anywhere. Above the city, you can see down to the harbour, across the Beagle Channel to Chilean Isla Navarino and the mountains of the Chilean Cordillera.

I had come down to do, probably, the Paso de la Oveja trek, which was down as a moderately difficult 3-day trek best done before April. Everyone - Administración Parques Nacionales, Claudio and others - was advising against doing it alone. On day 2, I was sitting at the computer doing some work on applications when Angels, Laura and Leo came back into the hostel and asked me to join them in the car they'd just hired for a trip to Lake Fagnano.

  • Angels, 48, from Catalunya. A sculptor on a trip to Argentina to work with communities on artisan projects. Flight paid for by the trip sponsor. Now travelling in Patagonia solo, was heading South. Well, she had been heading South. There's not much further South to go once you're in the most southerly city in the world.

  • Laura, 22, coincidentally also from Catalunya. Had been travelling for several months in Argentina. Was travelling with another girl but they'd split off on their own travels.

  • Leo, 24, porteño working for Mastercard. On his annual holidays, 3 weeks travelling solo in Patagonia.

Angels and Laura had met further north and arranged to meet in Ushuaia. Laura met Leo in the Ushuaia National Park. He'd been camping on his own for three nights and was apparently shivering when she met him in his own spot on a little island in the forest.

So those are the basic stories. We got to know each other much better as we travelled in the car over mountain passes, to Fagnano and the lakeside pueblo of Tolhuín. There, there is a supposedly famous panaderia. Started up by a Spaniard who took a shine to the place and decided to start it up some 20 years ago. Delicious empanadas and churros filled with dulce de leche. Then back to Lago Escondido, which was so well hidden, we'd missed it on the way.

The four of us were out till 5.30am that night. Leo had bumped into a young chap who was playing bass in a band that night, starting at 1.00am. So we headed down to the Bar Lennon on the harbour at midnight after dining on sardine sandwiches. A few Quilmes (beer from Buenos Aires) later, the band started up. Well, when they finished, we went to another bar, where another band was playing, to dance a while. Obviously, on the way home, we had to wonder around the harbour and try to get onto a large fishing vessel docked there. For some reason, the security guards wouldn't let us on board.

We had the car until midday, so we arranged to meet at 8.30 the next morning. So on 3 hours sleep, we set off to walk up to the Glaciar Martial. Well, Leo and I did, while the women stayed in a nice café that had a rather tasty looking chocolate cake. As we reached the glaciar, the wind was strengthening and the snow started to come down, nearly horizontally.

I was loving it. Leo, with his inappropriate footwear was finding the steep, icy terrain a little difficult. We scrambled back down with thoughts of hot chocolate and chocolate cake. We took the last two pieces that can only be described as scrummy. Laura flew back to Buenos Aires that evening. I, meanwhile, persuaded Angels and Leo to come with me on the 2-day trek over the Paso de la Oveja.

Wednesday 5 April 2006

Getting to Argentina

A little reading quickly revealed to me that I absolutely had to bring my trip forward by 6 weeks. Leaving in mid-May would have allowed me to go to Stockholm on the Rugby tour but I wouldn't have been able to do any trekking in Patagonia. Pretty much everything shuts down by the end of April, as winter arrives with piles of snow.

It was July 1983 when I last travelled to Argentina.

I got on the 21.45 from LHR a bit stressed. Rushing to get everything done - giving up the flat, arranging for packing and storage (thanks to Sarah on this one), getting the MBA applications done... - was not a great way to start the trip. I couldn't quite work out what to pack to take to Argentina and what clothes to leave to put into storage.

I ended up with 13kg of excess baggage, which might have been very, very expensive if the kind British Airways check-in girl hadn't reduced it to 4kg. Still, getting stung for £100 at the airport wasn't great.

The flight was an hour late moving off the stand, courtesy of some problems with the undercarriage doors. It took just under one hour for a Brazilian chap to drink about 3/4 a litre of neat cachaça and start singing. It took just over an hour for a stroppy English girl to complain. So we turned back from the runway so that 4 heavily-armed policeman could drag him off the plane. He was being deported anyway - didn't have a visa - so he'd just have spent a night in a cell drying out before being put on another BA flight home.

We arrived at our stop-off in Sao Paolo 2 hours late. And a further 2-hour delay followed. So I lost the first day in BA, which I was going to use to get ready to head off sharpish to Ushuaia. Getting more stressed.

But I had the opportunity to check out parts of BA for my return there on 7th May. Lovely little area just to the West of Expedition Base Camp (parent's appartment), Las Cañitas. Great place to go out for food and drinking, if relatively expensive. I did it Argentinian style, heading out for dinner 10pm (that's 2am UK time), paying no attention to the jetlag. Picked up my tickets from Patagonia Travel's little office on Av. Cordoba, packed my rucksack, which I realised is too small, and set off, knowing that I still hadn't finished my MBA applications but that I would have time in Ushuaia to finish them.

The trip starts for real now...