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.