Saturday, January 16, 2010

Patagonian Playground

I spent much of December and a good chunk of the New Year thus far just barely scratching the surface of a playground I've wanted to visit for a very long time. The beauty, vastness, and lure of Patagonia is everything it promised to be and more. Wondering why you didn't hear from me for a while...well to put it simply, I was in heaven.

I had originally planned to spend my time in Patagonia in a 24 day mountaineering course. The course was cancelled and as a Plan B, I signed for Erratic Rocks Patagonian Adventure which included a visit to a penguin colony, Torres del Paine, and Cabo Froward. After a short stop in Ushuaia (pegged as El Fin del Mundo) I headed north to El Bolson where I met up with my friend Kat who was having an amazing time on a WWOOF'er farm. From there it was a short jaunt north again to meet a climbing pal and good friend from home, Charles, for a little more time in the mountains.

Below is a brief recap of all the great recesses I got enjoy in the Patagonian Playground.

First recess: Torres Del Paine - The 'Q' Circuit. (9 days)

This was the longest of my trips in Patagonia. From the bus ride in to the bus ride out I was blown away by the spectacular views, diversity of the park, and general majestic quality of the terrain I was in. Due to trip timing Erratic sent me out solo with my guide Sebastian, who I fondly refer to as Super Seb. He's got a great story and we became fast friends over the course of the trip. He's originally from Germany and after his mandatory 10 months in the military he went to Chile to cycle down to the end of South America (he even built a raft with some fellow travellers and floated a portion of his journey). He was soon penniless and ended up going from farm to farm working before arriving in Punta Arenas. Shortly after arriving he met his partner and mother of his children. That was 10 years ago and he's been here ever since guiding and running a hostal with his partner (Mom and Dad, don't worry I will be coming home).

I took a ton of pictures, but I have admit the best are filed upstairs on my internal memory card. The windswept pampas with golden grasses swaying in the breeze, the spectacular mountain views in every direction you look, the Patagonian winds forming trees and dancing off the water, lakes and rivers in every conceivable hue of blue, the rufous collared sparrows providing a musical accompaniment to snack breaks, southern lapwings announcing their territory as we hike by, the black faced ibis quietly probing away for food with their long black beaks, condors soaring, the vicunas keeping their distance with ears upright and alert, deep skies painted with layers of clouds in all shapes and sizes that shift by the second, dramatic lenga forests, stands of snags weathered grey and hinting of the flora of days past, glaciers that creep and groan on endlessly into mountains and valleys... By the end of my time here: Feet - achy and blistered, Legs - fatigued, Body - slightly weary, Spirit - overflowing!

Second recess: Cabo Froward (5 days)

Cabo Froward is the southernmost point of the South American continental landmass and the route there is over headlands and through forests, but primarily along the rocky coastline and beaches of the Strait of Magellan. This was an adventure complete with black and white Commerson's Dolphins feeding offshore, fields of peat moss, jellyfish, red foxes, tide timing, multiple river crossings (some in our birthday suits), and one head injury. We had an international group headed up by our guide Rustyn (founder of Erratic Rock Patagonia, from Salem, OR). Rounding out the group was Bart from Holland, Pawel from Poland, and myself. We all had some good laughs and great times.

Day 3 was our big day with the 2 largest river crossings (for a total of 4 crossings with the trip back) and a good 12 hours of fast moving that would take us to the point and back. Since we were going out and back we didn't have to take full packs, but we did have to strip down to cross the icy rivers and carry our clothes and shoes overhead. Our head injury occured on day 3 too when Bart ran into a low hanging branch and put a sizable gash in his head. A little gauze and tape though and we were back on our way. The last section before the point was a steep hike where we were awarded at the top with 360 views and the giant metal cross that was erected in honor of Pope John Paul II visiting in 1987 to bless the site of so many shipwrecks and lost lives. A cross was originally built in there in 1913 and then several times after that, but the harsh Patagonian winds had blown down all previous structures. The site is impressive and to be looking out across the Strait of Magellan was surreal. We quickly snapped some photos, whipped up some lunch, and decided to head back as the winds had moved in and we had a lot of ground to cover to hit low tide at the river crossings. In all this was a great and scenic trek to a place visited very little!

Third recess: Glacier Martial (day trip)

Bart, Pawel, and I all ended up travelling together to the end of the world - Ushuaia. On Christmas Eve things aren't open long and I'd be leaving Christmas morning for El Bolson so I wanted to see a bit more of Ushuaia than just the Beagle Channel. Bart and I struck out from our hostal and decided to head up to Glacier Martial.
After an offroute turn we ended up at an RV/Campground full of off road RV's, many of which had travelled from Alaska down to Ushuaia. We got straightened out in our direction and hiked up a broken lift line before tucking into the woods on ski trails. The trail had multiple ski signs, with the skier indicating the terrain by their position, but I was curious to know how one would actually see them while skiing since they were all lying on the ground and would be snow covered before the trails would be skiable. We came across the road up and lost the trail so we hoofed it on the pavement up to the lift. After a long lift ride we arrived to strong winds that would accompany us the rest of our way. We’d hunker when it blew hard as to not fall over and to keep snow and sand from being blown into our eyes. Soon enough we got as far as we could without snow gear and took in the views of the glacier hanging in the clouds and wide open views of Ushuaia, the Beagle Channel, and beyond.

Fourth recess: Cajon del Azul (1 day)

I arrived on a weekend in El Bolson so Kat had time off from her farm duties to get in a hike. Cajon del Azul was the perfect destination. A sizeable day hike and we could hike there and back from the farm. The blues were vibrant and multiple rivers were passed and crossed along the way. I got a kick out of the 1 person at a time suspension bridges that swayed with each step. In the valleys the trails were lined with beautiful wildflowers. As we climbed through the forest we were treated to views of the lush estancias below. The waters ran faster and more blue the higher we got. Finally we arrived at the Refugio Cajon del Azul where we were treated to hot tea in the cutest little refugio by the little old man than oversaw it. It was an idyllic setting to have lunch and warm up before the hike back. I was especially fond of the car stereo (tape deck) mounted below shelves of old tapes and powered by a battery sitting on the floor. It looked exactly like something my Dad would set-up.
Lunch ended all to early as did our time at the Refugio. The walk back was restful and peaceful. Thank you Kat for the great hike, conversations, and company!

Fifth recess: Lago Puelo (day trip)

Kat had recommended I check out Lago Puelo with my time in El Bolson and I was glad she did. A short bus ride takes you out the lake where a network of trails awaited. There was a bit of flooding at the time which made some inaccessible, but I got my fill in. After a loop through the botanical gardens to see a variety of trees I made my way up to a Mirador. En route I got to go through a variety of terrain, some with a ‘Watcher in the Woods’ quality (Stacey, Mindy – you know what I’m talking about), others lined with wildflowers. The hike to the Mirador was brief, but rewarding and gave a better perspective on the size and beauty of Lago Puelo.

Sixth recess: The Frey area (5 days)

After leaving El Bolson I met up with Charles in Bariloche. After ringing in the New Year with a nominal amount of debauchery some climbing in the Frey was next on our list. Route info and gear needs were hard to come by in the states so we climbed with our guide Walter for the first 2 days of the trip. Walter was amazing and made everything look so easy! A true spiderman on the spires and peaks of the Frey area.
We had amazing weather both days. After our hike into the Frey Refugio and camp area, we headed up to spires that Walter referred to as the Frey TV. The spires lie in perfect view of the refugio and visitors can watch climbers ascend like ants up the rock. It was good to get back on the rock and after 2 good multi-pitch climbs to get us warmed up for Cerro Principal the next day, we were all smiles and ready to rest up for the next day.
Cerro Principal was about a 2 hour hike down the valley from camp, but it went by fast. Soon enough we were on the rock and treated to great views of Mt. Tronador which was next on our list as well as our route for the next day’s hike. Four great pitches, the last of which was a challenge with high exposure and not much to hold, past old school anchors of pitons and wood and we found ourselves atop Principal (the highest peak in the Frey climbing area). The route back was a treat with a sizeable snow field to run down as condors circled overheead. Such beautiful (not to mention huge) birds, and we got some good close up views.
We parted ways with Walter that evening and the next morning struck out for the Refugio Jakob camp area. It was good day that tallied up 3 valleys, 2 passes that were good and steep, and of course great views once again. Our last obstacle before arriving at camp was a river crossing complete with boggy shores. I opted for the barefoot approach while Charles put his trust in Gore-tex. Both methods worked. That night we got our first real rains and little yellow let a little moisture in. A sunny morning allowed everything to dry up real quick. After a few hands of cards in the Refugio, Charles and I set out to see Lago Los Tempanos and possibly scramble up Cerro Cella. Winds, rain, snow, and hail kept us away from Cella, but we did hike to the top of the next pass for a peek at the route we wouldn’t be travelling.
The next morning everything was frozen, but blue skies and a blazing sun still greeted us. The weather held for a great hike down the valley to the road into Colonel Suiza where we would camp for our last night before heading back to town. Lots of feria’s and artisan goods were abound and we settled for empanadas, fries, artisan beers, and topped it off with fresh icecream instead of the dehydrated potatoes and chili we had back at camp. The next morning we were treated to a scenic bus ride through part of the lakes district and back into town to prepare for the next leg of the adventure.
Big thanks to Charles for a great trip and the introduction to the ‘F’ scale and to Walter for making some great climbs possible, keeping the ‘F’ scale low, and introducing us to his own ‘interesting’ scale.

Seventh recess: Mt. Tronador (3 days)

Mt. Tronador is named “The Thunderer” for the great thunderous echos created by the hanging glaciers sloughing off into the valleys below. We held great hopes for a summit attempt and kept a close eye on weather forecast while we were in town. While an improving trend was anticipated it wasn’t to be had. The hike to base camp at the Otto Meiling Refugio was rewarding enough though. Great views as we ascended out of the valley, but as soon as we hit the snow line we were hit with the rain and wind that would remain for most of our time there.

Since little yellow is not a 4 season tent, we opted to stay in the Refugio the first night for some much needed sleep in a dry place. It was quickly nicknamed the refugee camp. It consists of 42 mattresses butted together on the floor and as many folks as possible crammed onto them. Quite the chorus of noises in the night as well. The morning brought a sun break in which we optimistically put up little yellow and built snow walls to provide shelter from the winds. The rains started in again so we retreated to the attic (camp refugee) to go over our rope set-up and crevasse rescue techniques, by the time we returned to little yellow the snow wall amounted to little more than a pile of snow, the vestibule was torn, and it was taking on water - fast. We used it as a dinner shelter since we couldn’t cook in the refugio then quickly tore everything down and retreated once again to the refugio where the ongoing rummy battle continued.
That night we came to terms with fact that a climb wasn’t possible. While it was a bummer sometimes the weather windows just don’t work out. Once again we had a morning sun break and we began to wonder if a climb might have been possible. The weather in the valley was beautiful, but Tronador remained shrouded in clouds for the remainder of the day. The hike out was good and we were able to dry out some gear and continue the rummy battle while we waited for the bus back to Bariloche.
Thanks Charles for yet another great trip even if we didn’t climb!

So that sums up my foray into Patagonia this time. I’m coming back for sure as there is so much more to see and do. One could spend a lifetime and not tire of or even see all that Patagonia has to offer. For now, I’m back in Quito and headed to another mountainous playground – The Avenue of Volcanoes!

I’m scrambling to get all the photos up…some are there, other sets coming.


Anonymous said...

Hey! Looking at the itinerary and it looks like you will be in Australia when Jessica and Dustin are there for their honeymoon. You should see if you can crash the honeymoon. I think they will be there for 3 weeks criss crossing the country. Let me know if you want contact info. Take care and am starting to REALLY miss you. - Kyla

A-train said...

Hey Kyla! Missing you and the fam too! Shoot me an email and let me know how things are going and send some info for Jess and Dustin. It´d be great to meet up with them.