Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fitz Roy

Hilary and I spent five days backpacking in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares around Mount Fitz Roy. On our first and last days we had good weather and amazing views of the mountain and its surrounding walls, spires, and glaciers. It was wonderful but painful as well because of the demise of our camera. At one point, after jumping in Laguna Piedras Blancas (at the bottom of Glacier Piedras Blancas) and feeling the strange warmth and exhilaration that leads me to do things like that, as we returned to the trail jumping from boulder to boulder, we looked back to see clearly Mount Fitz Roy´s fortress-like form framed by a ring of clouds above mirroring the snowfields below and the glacier winding down in glowing variations of white and unearthly blue. It was so beautiful I wanted to cry realizing I was missing the chance to take the best photograph of my life.

Our third and fourth nights we camped at a private campground located under an enormous tree covered boulder, near the wonderfully named Lago Eléctrico. We had intended to stay only one day, but the weather on our fourth day was so utterly wretched we spent most of the day haunting the refugio. It turned out to be a wonderful afternoon and evening, however, as we got to know a Belgian named Koen (pronounced "Coon"), also a nurse, whom we had seen a few times before and his traveling companion Matías, a modern dancer from Buenos Aires. We had a wonderful time cooking, talking, and drinking hot whiskey and rum together. At one point in the late evening in the middle of a particularly intense and personal conversation the rain abated and the sun briefly broke through and illuminated the startling rock faces around us and the snow that had collected at their tops. This sent us all spinning and shouting out of our cooking shelter full of the kind of joy only a respite from foul weather can bring.

Hilary and I have spent the last few days in El Chaltén where, thanks to Hilary, we found that the owner of this internet cafe, Fernando, has a friend who is good with electronics. This afternoon we returned to find our camera in full working order! Thank you Fernando!

Tomorrow we will hitch-hike to Lago Desierto to begin a walk that will take us around the lake, across the border back into Chile (no cheese!) and to a boat that will take us across Lago O´Higgins to Villa O´Higgins, according to our guidebook, "one of the most isolated settlements in Chile...(a) pioneer village founded in 1967," which would make it 18 years older than the town we´re in now. It might be a while before we get to a computer again. Please send us your impressions of Obama´s inauguration as we will be miles from radio, tv, or internet.

Love to you all.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

El Queso Perdido y La Cámara Rota

We took 4 days downtime in Puerto Natales, Chile, following our Torres del Paine trek, restoring the tissues and enjoying the relaxed, down-to-earth feel of the town. We also met up with Alvaro from the trail, who turns out to be the head of tourism for the region. He supplied us with maps and suggestions at his office where his window looks straight out into the waters and mountains that border the town.

We had beers with him at an incongruously hip hotel bar and then a good seafood dinner.

Our real treat was being invited to his house the next night where he whipped up pisco sours (the ubiquitous Chilean and Peruvian cocktail) and pizza. He and his girlfriend Yessica are wonderfully kind, hospitable people we hope to see again someday.

To get to our next trek in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares we had to cross back into Argentina. This was our 6th border crossing between the two countries and you might have thought we were old hands at it. Traveling into Chile posters everywhere warn you against bringing in fruits, vegetables, meat and cheese. You have to sign a declaration that you have no products of plant or animal origin and your bags may be searched. Going into Argentina there are intimations that the same rules apply but no declarations are required and there are no huge posters showing apples with lines through them. And we let our guard down and forgot about 3 fat supermarket cheeses in Mike's backpack.

A young soldier's search of the bus luggage turned up our contraband groceries, along with the banana in the lunchbag of a middle aged couple from Buenos Aires and a young woman's apple. Mike and his fellow offenders disappeared into the border office and for 45 minutes the rest of us waited at the bus. Eventually they were released, Mike with a closely printed page detailing the discovery, confiscation and planned destruction of (1) kilogram of cheese, approximately. This notification, signed by Mike and the soldier, will certainly be going up on the wall at home.

The loss of the cheese was hard, though the receipt of the notification did make up for it. The breaking of our camera as we got off the bus was tragic and made for a difficult transition. Calafate, our layover town, had no electronics repair shops; neither did Chaltén, our new base town. We hiked into Los Glaciares National Park on a beautiful clear day, our broken camera left with our extra stuff at the campground.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Torres del Paine

We are in Puerto Natales in Chile, back from 10 days of backpacking in Torres del Paine which is sort of the Yosemite of Patagonia, though they thankfully have not paved everything in the valley and you can´t just drive from view point to view point. It still is neccessary to do some real hiking.

Our first two nights were spent camping not far from the Torres themselves about 4 hours walk from the valley. It was very crowded, full of people who only hike if their guidebook insists that they have to. People in designer foul weather gear trying to keep thier snowy white pants from being muddied, the clickety-clack of brand-new trekking poles, and sherpas carrying other people's overpriced camping gear. The scenery, however, was breathtaking.

Our first night it rained like the dickens and continued to rain until 4 or 5 the next afternoon. We hid in our tent reading (Hilary, Jane Austen, myself Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner). When it cleared up I walked up into the Valle del Silencio which was mercifully empty. I got up at 4 the next morning and watched the sun rise on the Torres which was valio la pena ("worth the pain")as they say down here.

When I returned, Hilary and I sent out for the Grand Circuit of the park that took us into some pretty remote areas and we managed to walk without seeing anyone for hours at a time. That first day we walked though beautiful fields of daisies and followed the large and swift Río Paine to our first camp spot where we celebrated our aniversary with smoked oysters (thank you Marguerite!) and a small bottle of champagne (thanks Tom!) and chatted with a couple from Oregon named Jeremy and Kate. The sky that evening was breathtaking as the skies tend to be in Patagonia when it is not pouring rain.

The following day was also sunny and beautiful as we traversed the mountains on the south side of the huge valley containing el Río Paine and el Lago Paine. We ended our day by camping near the shores of Lago Dickson surrounded by snowy peaks, a glacier, and some of the most plentiful and aggressive mosquitoes I have ever seen.

The third day was also sunny and we had mesmerizing views of a rock face called La Cabeza del Indio and its surrounding darker craggier faces. Later we followed the Río de los Perros to Glaciar Los Perros, both supposedly named after a dog team that drowned in the river. The glacier was small, by Perito Moreno standards, but beautiful hanging above a bleak iceberg and boulder strewn lake.

The following day the weather turned just in time for us to cross Paso John Gardner (referred to as El Paso del Muerte by a Chilean couple we came to know). By the time we passed another glacier well above treeline and reached the top, the wind was absolutely whipping and the rain drops were furiously drilling us in the face. The whole place had a Biblical feel. Old Testament Biblical. Wrath of God Biblical. It was one of those places that reminds you of your smallness and insignificance in the face of the awesome power of nature. It was very humbling but at the same time wonderful to be a part of and surviving in something so enormous, powerful, and intense. As we started to descend, we became aware of the enormous Glaciar Grey grimly spreading out below us though the mist and incessant rain. When the trail descended into the forest it became terribly sloppy and slippery. Both Hilary and I fell several times covering ourselves in mud. By the time we reached the Campamento Paso we were completely soaked through.

Luckily when we got there a French couple (Jean Baptiste and Isabelle) and a Norwegian couple (Bjorn and Liva) were already in the shelter and had a wonderful fire going in the small woodburning stove. Later we were joined by a German couple (Christof and Anne) and a Chilean couple (Alvaro and Yessica). Soon everyone was talking and cooking and sharing chocolate and whiskey. What could have been a bad ethnic joke at the end of a nasty day, turned into the best night of the trip. By the next morning as we cooked breakfast and packed our now dry clothes, we talked like old friends.

The fifth day of the circuit took us up and down over still slippery trail along Glacier Grey to a campground at the beginning of "The W," the shorter route for trekking in Torres del Paine, and therefore to more people. It rained steadily all day but we were reunited with Alvaro, Jessica, Kristof, and Anne at a campground near where the Glacier Grey meets Lago Grey and we shared boxes of El Gato vino tinto with our dinners. One of the amazing things about the Paine Circuit is that many of the campgrounds sell supplies including wine and beer. There is nothing quite like sipping a beer, looking at giant snow covered peaks after a long day of walking. It was a little expensive but understandibly so, as I assume they had to bring the stuff in on horses. I think of all the times in the Sierras I would have given a lot more then 2000 pesos ($3.50) for a beer.

On the sixth day we followed the trail along Lago Grey until it headed up and then though a pretty glacial canyon that took us down to Lago Pehoé where there is a giant refugio with a bar where we took a break and read and the skies cleared. It even had internet and hamburgers which we could not bring ourselves to take advantage of. Later we walked for another two hours in the wonderful evening light with the trail to ourselves to Campamento Italiano, under the impressive rock faces known as Los Cuernos at the beginning of Valle Francés which we explored the following day without our backpacks but with incredibly strong winds.

Our eighth and final day was finally warm and dry enough for me to partake in one of my favorite backcountry pastimes: jumping in freezing water. I took a quick dip in the expansive turquoise waters of Lago Nordenskjold. Very refreshing. We finished up at the Hostería Las Torres where we had a celebratory beer before getting on the bus that took us back to Puerto Natales where we have spent the last few days sleeping and eating and planning our next moves with the help of Alvaro who is El Jefe de La Oficina Turistica in Puerto Natales. Tommorow we head to El Chaltén and Monte Fitz Roy for more backpacking.