Trekking in Patagonia --- January, 1997 Part II

At 10:30 I board the Aerolineas Argentinas 747 bound for Rio Gallegos. We have roast beef and potatoes for lunch. The flight is perfect and we land in RG at 2:40 p.m. Coming in to land near the sea, I note that the land resembles a desert. I see no roads and it looks desolate and deserted -- so this is Patagonia. Now my goal is to locate the Hotel Santa Cruz and find out if anyone else is going on this trip! Stepping off the 747, I am advised to remove my hat and glasses because of high winds. I learn that they were not kidding! The wind must be 20-30 miles per hour and steady! It never stops. How can that landing have been so smooth?

In the terminal I spot persons looking suspiciously like Argentine gauchos -- they have hats, bandanas, and leather pants! I retrieve my luggage and take a taxi to the Santa Cruz hotel for $7. Exiting the taxi, I am struck by the wind and have trouble getting my stuff through the doors. Inside, it is warm and I find soft, brown terrazzo tiles and lots of woodwork. I ask for the trip list and note references to several Australians so I conclude I must be in the right hotel! Fortunately, my room is larger and more modern than the Castelar. There is one problem however, the heat is on full-blast and I can find no way to control it. So I open the window and metal louvers to cool off. Now how do I keep out the noise from the taxi stand nearby? Rio Gallegos seems to be a modern town, even though it is near the southern end of the world. It has small shopping centers, a Locutorio, and lots of restaurants, even a British Club! Also, there are music stores with speakers blaring! It doesn't feel cold here but it is windy.

Around 7 p.m. local time, I begin to get hungry and decide to eat. No one is in the restaurants yet, but I find a pizza place, Gino's, just across from the Santa Cruz. I walk in and find 3 kids having cokes. There is no menu and no prices are posted. I manage to order a pizza and select a strange drink called a Pronto in a pretty cobalt-blue bottle. It seems to be lemon juice with alcohol and it is carbonated -- would not recommend this drink -- the bottle is nice though! The pizza was pretty good, however, not in the class of Pizza Hut, but definitely filling! The kids wave goodby, and head off, showing their skills doing wheelies -- I think they look like American boys in the summer, except that here they wear jackets in the summer!

Back at the hotel I keep hoping to meet our trip leader but he doesn't show up so I decide to sleep at 10:30 p.m. Unfortunately, my room must be about 90 degrees F. I pull up a chair and try to turn the louvers off. This produces mucho dust with no success in stanching the flow of dry hot air. There is no thermostat in sight. So, I throw the windows open all the way. Isn't this a paradox, here I am in cold, windy environment and burning up! Opening the windows definitely helps the heat situation but the taxi stand is noisy so I put in my ear plugs and also my eye covers since it doesn't become dark until after 11:00 p.m. I sleep well!

January 9, 1997
I awake at 6 a.m. and my room is hot. So I decide to get up and leave the room to cool down! Peeking outside the hotel, I note that the streets are deserted. Businessmen with coats and ties are in the dining room --- they pollute it with smoke from many cigarettes. A couple of folks drift in that I take to be Aussies: Mack and Jill, both in their 60's. Mack has a substantial beard [later, I learn his mother was a famous Australian historian] and Jill is a world-class bird watcher. They are from the Blue Mountains north of Sydney. We discuss what we expect on this trip: rain, wind, and snow! More Aussies appear and once they learn I am from Atlanta, they begin to ask me about what to expect from the Olympics, which are to appear in Sydney in 2000. I tell them to leave town! Maybe even leave Australia!

Later, Rob Noonan, our trip leader appears. He is from Chicago and lives in Flagstaff, AZ. He has long blonde hair, done in a pony tail and is about 5 feet 8 inches. He speaks fluent Spanish. He also does Grand Canyon rafting trips. Rob advises us that we will get both rain and snow and that winds may reach 130 KM per hour. Wow!!! Why weren't we told this before we paid for this trip?!!!

By 9:00 a.m. we have gathered our luggage into a giant pile and get ready to leave. It happens that the Aussies were not told to bring sleeping mats, so we have to wait to buy these before leaving. Rob and our driver, Marcello, begin drinking matte, the local herbal tea. They add the matte to an aluminum cup with an aluminum straw, then pour in agua. They never replace the matte, they just keep adding more agua as needed. At 9:40 we depart the hotel with 15 people, mucho luggage, mucho matte, our guide, and our driver. I don't see any food on the bus but assume we'll stop at McDonald's!!!

Driving out of RG, every sign of a modern community is seen, apartment buildings, gasoline stations, supermarkets, and various stores. The land is flat and desolate, no trees, the road is straight. We head northwest to Chile, where we are to spend the night in a hosteria. We pass isolated sheep and a few horses. The horizon is endless. The only vegetation is low grass.

Around 11:30 we stop at a restaurant, La Esperansa, nestled in hills by the paved road. I order a ham & cheese sandwich but get pizza. Continuing our drive through flat land, we begin to see the Andes mountains of Chile, our camping and hiking destination. Tonight, we are to stay near Cerro Castillo, at a lodge [el Pinero] across the Chilean border.

There are some things you don't see here, like power lines and phone lines, everyone has to be self-sufficient. Occasionally, we spot flocks of sheep and even more rarely, rheas, that resemble ostriches. The latter are elusive and fast. As we approach the mountains and gain altitude, we encounter low forests with beech or fir trees 10-15 feet high. Many are bent and broken by wind and perhaps fire -- a harsh climate. Below certain altitudes, one finds only low, colorless, grass growing in featureless terrain.

By 3:00 p.m. we reach the Argentine checkpoint and pull out our passports. The guards check off our names from the passenger list and we have no trouble. After we cross this checkpoint, its only 20 KM to our destination for the night, el Pionera Hosteria. But first, we have to cross the Chilean border and have our passports checked yet again. We pass the small settlement of Cerro Castillo and continue to the Hosteria, a white stucco building set among evergreen trees and flower gardens. Taller trees serve as wind breaks. The hosteria has a nice dining room, a sitting room with fireplace and also a bar with fireplace. The walls are painted in a light yellow and the floors are wood. We meet in the bar to place our orders for dinner: salmon, chicken, steak, and lamb are available. The Hosteria has electric lights but backup kerosene lanterns also. I have lamb, baked potatoes, and a salad for dinner. The lamb is great, especially after I put lemon juice on it! Also, the Chilean wine is excellent. Suffering from a cold, I go to bed at 10 p.m., anticipating our three upcoming nights of camping at Lake Pehoe and the boat ride to get there!

January 10, 1997
This morning I arise at 6:30 a.m. and begin packing so that my raingear, sunscreen, etc are readily available. At 7:00 a.m. we have a breakfast of toast, cookies, and cafe. By 8:30 a.m. we've packed the bus with tents, food, and camping gear. Also, Catharine, our assistant guide has arrived to continue with us. We begin driving on a straight road leading to the snow-capped Andes and the Torres del Paine [pronounced pie-nay]. Trees grow where water drains in gullies and valleys. As we drive, we observe the Savage Mountains, which remain unclimbed. The clouds are beautiful here, that is something I really like about Patagonia, the clouds are the most spectacular I've ever seen! Along the way we spot condors feeding on carrion on a high hillside. We drive along a dirt road and then stop the bus to get closer. As we walk across a field and reach higher ground cover, the condors begin flying off one by one. They are magnificent birds with ten-foot wingspans, soaring with seemingly no effort. They rarely flap their wings but float on the high-speed wind currents of the Andes.

The three Torres del Paine are relatively clear of clouds except for one top as we continue. We stop at Lago Sarmiento to get good photos of the Torres with the turquoise lake in the foreground.

At the park entrance we find gunacos and even a grey fox. Boy do these get photographed! Driving closer to the Paine massif, we stop about 1/4 mile from the Salto Grande, a huge glacier-fed waterfall. Then we have pasta for lunch before beginning our walk to the falls. The wind is so strong that it rocks a jeep and sets off its security alarm, more than once! I begin walking the 1/4 mile to the Salto Grande, which is really spectacular. From there, we continue another 2 miles to a glacier-fed lake. Here the wind whips the surface water into a silvery spray. We stay at the overlook about 30 minutes and walk back to the bus in very strong winds!

At 4:30 we have a boat ride scheduled across Lago Pehoe [pronounced pay-way] to Refugio Pehoe, where we are to spend three nights. Wonder what the wind and rain will be like there? We remove all our camping gear from the bus and store it on the boat, the Tzonga, which is ~25 feet in length and diesel powered. The guides speak of "sailing" across the lake which is ridiculous, you could never sail here, the winds are far too strong! Perhaps they mean the wind is so strong that the boat is pushed adequately by the wind with no sails! A new definition of sailing for me! But at least the passenger section is enclosed and protected against wind, rain, and spray. There is some question as to whether the boat will leave in these high winds but they do. And I do mean high winds! Six-foot waves are being whipped into a frenzy by the ever-present Patagonian winds. We pass the Salto Grande and continue for an hour to the Refugio Pehoe, where we unpack the boat and lug everything hundreds of feet to our campsite. There we assemble our North Face yellow tents which have external supports and a wind/rain shell. With the sun out it is not cold in the tent, despite the wind.

January 11, 1997
I still have a cold and did not sleep too well last night--taking antihistamines now. Despite the incessant wind, the tent was not cold and it was windproof. About 8:00 I exit for a breakfast of eggs, toast, jelly, and cafe. I face an 8 hour hike in the cold to Grey Glacier and think about protecting my runny nose from the high winds and possibly rain!

Later: Today we hiked ~13 miles to the Grey Refugio and Glacier. About 3/4 of the time it rained. The trail began through a steep walled valley consisting of mostly rock. Then it began climbing steeply towards the glacier. As you approach the Grey Glacier, you see only turquoise water in a lake, then icebergs. The trail goes up and down many times, sometimes through forest, sometimes open with rocks, and sometimes in deep valleys. There are several spectacular overlooks of the lake and the glacier. The wind is not too bad but the combination of the rain and the wind make it cold. Many horses have used the trail, turning it into a sea of mud. In these places you have to walk beside the trail because the mud is too deep.

At the Grey Refugio [two-story log building with tables for eating and upstairs (perhaps) for sleeping] many hikers have crowded in for refreshments. Because you can't wear boots inside, boots and backpacks are stacked several feet deep in a small alcove leading to the dining area. Inside there is no place to sit. I pay $2 for a Pepsi but considering the location, its probably worth it!

I rest a few minutes and begin the four-hour walk back to our campsite. On the way back I find that the rain and the horses have made the trail much worse. As I walk, one of my hiking boots sinks into the mud several inches and comes off of my foot! I spend several minutes digging it out with a stick, first I have the break the suction holding it in the mud. Finally, I get it out and its too late to be concerned with mud inside it! I begin to realize that everything is going to get wet! So, one has to accept this and figure out how to live with it in the best way you can.

When I arrive back at the camp, I would like to dry out my jacket, hat, and gloves but it is raining! But the asparagus soup and spaghetti is good at dinner! Tomorrow we have another long hike planned to Glacier Francais.

January 12, 1997
Last night it rained at least until I fell asleep at 11:00 p.m. but the tent did not leak at all. About 6:30 I get up and prepare for the day of hiking to the next glacier. Will we experience rain, snow, floods, winds? Who knows in Patagonia! My jacket and gloves, hanging in the tent, have dried a bit. I feel better but still am taking antihistamine for my cold. I have brought two pairs of boots for hiking but decide that it would be better to wear the wet pair because I don't want both pairs to get wet and be left with no dry shoes. So, I decide to wear the wet socks and wet hiking boots again. For breakfast, we have granola and cafe. I mix the granola with hot agua and dried leche, its pretty good! We discuss today's hike to the Campground Italiano and the Glacier Francais. Its supposed to be about 2.5 hours each way.

About 9 a.m. we set out along Lago Pehoe in the opposite direction to yesterday's hike. We do not hike as a group of 15 but start in smaller groups of 1-4 persons who walk at similar rates. The trail first climbs a hill with a beautiful overview of the turquoise Lago Pehoe. Then the trail turns towards the Paine massif and away from the lakes. Again, we hike through forests, though they are not as dense as those on the Grey Glacier walk. We pass trunks of gigantic dead trees, sometimes 6-8 feet in diameter. This trail is not so steep and does not have the ups and downs like the one to Grey Glacier, so that is a big relief. We cross a rickety bridge over a raging river and the spectacular glaciers begin to come into view. It becomes noticeably colder. Suddenly, paralleling the river, we enter a dark forest with giant trees, boulders, and fallen logs tossed together, as if the gods were working to restore the forest and fled quickly. Fallen logs are twisted into strange shapes: arches and bows. The campground parallels the river and is located in the forest. Leaving the campground, the path becomes much steeper and rocky. You have to navigate around the boulders and fallen trees to make progress. Continuing the walk, the Glacier Francais becomes closer; the temperature becomes colder. The view of this glacier and smaller ones nearby is spectacular, with the glowing ice a great contrast to the dark rock of the mountain. The raging river forms a beautiful foreground to this image. Once in a while an avalanche occurs and you can hear the results. The tops of the mountains are obscured by clouds. Several of us stop for lunch in the cold wind. We consider going further to a water slide but it will take two more hours of hiking. Then it begins to rain and get even colder so we decide to return to our Pehoe campground.

As we start back, it continues raining, the trails are turning to a river of deep mud, so we have to stay off of them in many areas. Sometimes, if the trail is narrow, you can "duckwalk" the trail by walking on each side of the trail, rather than in it. Many trails are 1-3 feet below the ground's surface. During the return to our camp, I keep glancing rearward at the fantastic view of the Torres and the icy, turquoise glaciers. They appear so beautiful but would be deadly to trespassers. After an hour, the trail turns back towards the lakes and these come again into view. On the way back, I hiked with Mick, the first Australian I met in RG. I mention that my dad had a stroke and we discuss fathers. His dad died at age 98, after an intense effort to take care of his wife. Mick said that his father lost his short-term memory, just like my dad has. We are discussing these experiences while taking in the spectacular views of the lakes far below our trail.

Arriving back in camp by Lago Pehoe, I find it is not raining! So I put up my wet jacket and socks to dry. There was no possibility of drying my hiking shoes. We "boiled the billy" and made hot tea. Next, it began to rain so everyone headed back into their tents. An hour later, its sunny and hot! By 5:30, we've experienced howling winds and more rain, I figured my tent would be blown away! But it becomes sunny again and I begin thinking about what we'll have for dinner!

In Buenos Aires, I began coming down with a cold, the day before today's 4-hour hike, we hiked 13 miles, mostly in rain, wet boots and socks. Now after today's marathon I feel better! Go figure! At 8 p.m. we have dinner: corn sopa, a "goulash", and hash brown potatoes. Now its stopped raining and the sun is out! Wow! What weather!

Tomorrow we are to take a boat back across Lago Pehoe at 8:30 a.m. to our bus. So, we have to pack tonight, and get up early tomorrow morning. We'll have oatmeal, take down our tents, and carry our mountain of luggage back to the dock. Our guide Robert, has promised NO HIKING tomorrow! But the following day involves a long 8 hour hike to the base of the Torres del Paine. Robert will try to obtain horses for us. Also, he and Catharine claim our next camping site, Los Torres [del Paine] Campground, will have HOT SHOWERS!!! Wow!!!

January 13, 1997
This morning I awake about 6 a.m. It was not windy last night but it is extremely humid. The top of my sleeping bag is damp. I finish packing and go for cafe. This a.m. some folks ate leftover spaghetti for breakfast! After hot oatmeal, everyone takes down their tents and we begin transferring our gear to the dock. The one-hour ride back across Lake Pehoe is calm because the winds have decreased! After we off loaded our gear, we find we are missing one tent. This is a serious problem, because we have no extra tents and either someone will have to sleep outside or we'll have to "double up." We search everywhere to no avail. Finally, the missing tent is found still on the boat in an obscure location. Now we can begin the drive towards our next campground, Los Torres [del Paine]. The terrain here has lots of folded rock with multi-colored layers. We stop at a spectacular view of the Patagonian ice cap for photos. Its windy and cold.

By noon we reach the turn-off for our campground. But to get there you first have to cross a river with a narrow bridge, constructed much earlier in this century. This must be done in small vans. We have 1:30 p.m. vans scheduled. Not to waste our time, we drive to a huge waterfall, Salto Paine, and have lunch of sandwiches and a salad. By 1:15 p.m. we are back at the turn-off and have off loaded our gear onto two vans. After crossing the narrow iron suspension bridge with only inches to spare on each side, we drive 7 KM over a twisting dirt road to Las Torres. We reach a lightly wooded area with a log building which supposedly contains HOT SHOWERS! I erect my tent, hang up some clothes to dry, and hit the shower. It is so refreshing! Unfortunately, it begins raining so I have move my stuff back into the tent. Rob lets us know that we have horses reserved for tomorrow! We are to get them at the Las Torres lodge about a mile from the campground. Everyone is excited about this! For dinner, we have tacos, beans, and rice. We build a fire and since it is not raining, I dry out my boots, they steam in the heat from the fire! I repack for the horseback ride tomorrow and get in my sleeping bag by 10:00 p.m. I reckon that tomorrow will be easy!

January 14, 1997
Last night it seemed to never stop raining and it was windy. My Kelty sleeping bag is quite warm however. I awake about 6 a.m. and it even seems sunny! Wow! We have breakfast of hot granola and walk to the Hosteria del Torres where our horses are stabled. At about 9:00 a.m. we are to pick up 13 horses for our group. It takes at least an hour for everyone to mount their horse and to have saddles and stirrups adjusted. Three guides [gauchos?] are going with us. Some horses seem responsive, others are sedate. My horse's name is "Rayo" or "Lightening." She is a pretty combination of brown and white. At first she will do nothing but stand in place. Then, I'm handed a switch and find that she responds to this quite well.

We assemble into a line and head out over a flat grey-pebble trail, cross a river, and then begin climbing steeply through a spectacular valley. I am glad to be on a horse, rather than be walking! As we climb far above the valley floor, we see a grey river, waterfalls, the Hosteria, and far off mountains. Further on, it begins to rain, then it sleets, and finally turns to heavy snow. We enter a strange forest with steep up and down trails filled with mud. It is dark, with fallen trees and moss everywhere. The snow falls on us the entire time. The forest is mysterious and beautiful in a somber setting. At times the trails become so steep that we dismount and walk our horses rather than ride. After about two hours we reach a place in the forest where we leave our horses. From here it is too steep for them. It is cold and snowing and dark. Everyone is soaked from the precipitation.

We begin a steep ascent through the remainder of the forest over muddy trails. In many places, we have to go around the trail or step on pieces of wood thrown over the deep mud. After ~30 minutes, the trail exits onto a field of boulders, there are no more trees. At first the boulder field is tilted to perhaps 10-15 degrees, then it becomes much steeper, perhaps 30 degrees. The snow begins to accumulate to 6-8 inches. Its snowing so hard that I remove my glasses. Its becomes even colder. The footing is treacherous because the snow has covered gaps between the large boulders. In places you have to climb on both hands and feet because of the angle. The paradox of this situation is that you are exerting so much energy that you are sweating, even in a snowstorm! So you have to open your jacket and even remove your hat to cool down! Finally, I make it to the top. Unfortunately, the Torres are obscured by the clouds and snow, but part of the lake is visible. The poor visibility and cold weather means that no one stays long.

I begin the descent in the heavy snowfall, happy to have reached the summit. I come down as quickly as possible, hoping to start back and finally get to a warm fire! After about 45 minutes I reach our horses. But we have to wait until everyone makes it back. Then we assemble into a tattered line of cold, miserable souls and start toward the Hosteria Torres. Once we have been through the valley and reached the river, I let my horse gallop! Dismounting, I say "Good job, Lightening" and give my horse a pat on the back!

Then, I walk back to the campground in heavy rain. All of my clothes are totally soaked, so I change into dry clothes. Then I pack all of the wet stuff into plastic zip-lock bags. At dinner time, its is still raining hard, so we have a quick menu because there is no shelter from the rain. Afterwards, I jump into my sleeping bag to get warm and then fall asleep.

January 15, 1997
Awaking, I find that everything is damp in my tent, again, the top of my sleeping bag is wet, but it is still quite warm for sleeping. About 7:00 a.m. I go to breakfast. The Australians are laughing about this great weather! We have scrambled eggs for breakfast. At 9:30 we pack our two vans and endure the 7 KM dirt road ride. It seems that the van has lost all its shocks and you feel every bump. The "road" has become a giant mud-hole from all of the rain. On the way back, we pick up two hikers with enormous backpacks and give them a welcome ride to the narrow bridge.

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