Tuesday, March 25, 2014

El Chalten, Los Glaciares, and Decisions

As we roll along on the 2-day bus ride to Bariloche, I have plenty of time to reflect on the past week or so. The choice of how and when to make our way north from El Chalten was not an easy one, given that the internet in town was abysmal and virtually no information was available for travel through Chile. Because ultimately, you go north by bus, plane, ferry, foot, or some combination thereof. Our bus ride to Bariloche, though long, was the fastest known route in our price range (and it's still not cheap - nothing here is!). Given more time, making our way through Chile would have been preferable, possibly even catching a ferry for part of the trip. This might have allowed us to meet a couple of wildlife biologists near Coyhaique, friends of Jim Williams (Kent's boss) and members of Partners of the Americas, an organization I just joined. But without any reliable information on bus and ferry schedules and having a week left in my trip, I didn't want to risk getting stranded for days at a time, waiting for the next ferry or bus to come along. Similarly, I will miss meeting Argentine biologists north of Bariloche because of distances between us. Though only 4-5 hours north of Bariloche, I fly out of Puerto Montt, 10-11 hours in the opposite direction. Of course, this just means I'll have to make a return trip...

Back to our arrival in El Chalten...rolling in on the evening of the 18th on the hottest bus I've ever experienced (yuck), we piled out in El Chalten and began searching for our accommodations. We'd made some quick reservations the night before, not wanting to show up at 9:30pm with no beds ready. Fortunately, the town is small and our places practically next door, so we parted for the night.

Being pretty food motivated, I consider the quality of breakfast at wherever I'm staying to be rather important. I'd clearly been spoiled at my cheap hostel in Puerto Natales, with their homemade bread and peanut butter (hard to find here), jam, egg, muesli, yogurt, and awesome coffee... the Nothofagus B&B was better than some I'm sure, but more basic and without the homemade goodness. The coffee was outstanding, though, and staff very friendly and helpful. Certainly the nicest place I've stayed so far, with artistic decor and quiet atmosphere. And showers with consistent hot water AND giant towels.

The day after arrival was for laundry, food shopping, and final planning for our next backpack trip starting right from town. Los Glaciares National Park includes the iconic Monte Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, dramatic peaks at the edge of massive ice fields. The beauty of exploring the park near El Chalten is the proximity, and while we chose to backpack many others simply day hike much of it. Camping, of course, is cheaper!

We'd opted for a 4-day plan, capturing much of what there was to see locally. Day one brought us to camp Poincenot, near the base of where we'd access closer views of Fitzroy at sunrise. Another name for the peak is Chalten, meaning "peak of fire" or "smoking mountain" because of the near constant shroud of clouds surrounding it. We were very fortunate, seeing Fitzroy in its glory our second morning on a sunrise hike up to Laguna de Los Tres.

After our post hike breakfast, we started down the trail for Piedras del Fraile, a private campground in a valley filled with more glaciers and beautiful miradors. The hike took us through a cobble filled river bed that was challenging to navigate at times, making me wonder if the real trail was elsewhere. So, naturally I went looking for it. Mike and Lora were a little ways behind me so I ventured up the hill to find something better. It looked like a great place for a trail! Except there was none. I was not deterred, knowing I wasn't far from a side junket to yet another glacier and its Laguna Piedras Blancas. Eventually, I made it to the lip of the cirque, peering down on an impressive mass of ice, rock, and water. Steep, bouldery, and trail free. Hmm.

After eating some cookies for fortitude, I spent the next hour making my way to the outlet where the "trail" picked up, which was really just more of the same without the steep slope and laguna at the bottom. Needless to say, bush-whacking and boulder hopping with a full pack left me kind of worked. Did I mention the full bottle of wine we scored at our last camp I'd added to my load? Totally worth it.

Fasting forward, camp was a beautiful sight later that afternoon. I met up with Lora and Mike and we set up our tents. This camp also had a refugio, so we had to pay to pitch our tents with the understanding that "bathrooms" and water was provided. Sometimes they even flushed and occasionally had tp. But when the large group of German men came and took over the dining hall, the water ran out and we salivated at the carne asado cooking to feed them. "Sorry, restaurant closed tonight, big group" we were told. I'm sure our Mountain House meals were WAY better. We made our plans for the next day to hike up to Lago Electrico before our trek to the next camp.

But later that night, it started to rain. And rain. And rain some more. And by morning I knew that we were not going to any lagos that day. We leisurely made breakfast in the mildewy cooking shelter, hoping the rain would break. We chatted with a couple from Montreal, also hiding from the rain and changing their plans. Debating our course, we thought breaking for town might be a good option, but wanted to give the day more time to be sure. Alas, it wasn't the day that needed time, because 4 hours later I was soaked and frozen, scratching a note for Mike and Lora that I'm headed to town and I hope we meet up for dinner.

A couple of hours later I slogged to my B&B, hoping desperately that my room was available a day early. Along the way I discovered a bountiful reservoir of water had gathered in the bottom of my pack cover, as well as my gaitors. Glad I didn't discover that at camp later that evening! With enormous relief I was accepted back at my B&B, and I proceeded to make a complete mess of their entry. I tried avoiding it, but they didn't seem to mind at all. Tile floors, no hay problemo!

Later, I met up with Lora and Mike and enjoyed another of our many delicious meals together. Neither Chile nor Argentina has disappointed at dinnertime... from the spectacular seafood in Puerto Natales to the locro (Argentine stew), steak, pasta, and postres of El Chalten. I can't wait to see what Bariloche has to offer! It's good that we are hiking so much, my pants would probably otherwise blow out.

We finished off our time in El Chalten with the hike to Laguna del Torre, where we would have camped the rainy day before to get up close to Cerro Torre. I felt a little pathetic as I encountered a couple of backpackers in their late 60s coming out, knowing they'd kept on when I'd ran for town. Still, they weren't exactly skipping down the trail in jubilation. No regrets here!

That night we enjoyed one of the more delicious and unique platters yet, featured at a vineria (wine bar). A sampling of smoked meats and cheese, including Nandu (a native ostrich-like bird), wild boar, trout, deer sausage, with bread and olives. Paired, of course with regional wine and beer. Delicioso!

Our final day we split, Lora and Mike on a journey to find fishing and me hiking to another glacial lake. The weather was gorgeous, and I thought more about the landscapes I've seen in Patagonia so far. On the whole, it seems a much more dynamic and dramatic place when compared top Montana - from the geology to the weather. Forecasting if it will rain, be sunny, windy, or all of the above is hardly bothered with. Some people journey to where we've been without seeing any of the famous peaks or vistas because of weather. Barring a couple of instances, we've been very fortunate overall and hopefully that holds true to the end of our time here.

Next, the Nahuel Huapi Traverse...

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