Thursday, 22 September 2011

Southwest Patagonia

Cerro Fitz Roy, near El Chaltén, Argentina
I left Ushuaia behind, starting the long journey up north to who-knows-where. Still, ahead of me for now was a lot more of Patagonia, a lot more mountains and a lot more snow.

The ten hour bus ride to Punta Arenas in Chile was uneventful. This time there were no fruity problems at the Chilean border, and the landscape was as featureless as it was in eastern Patagonia. There were no trees, no plants and the little grass was dry and dead. The land was almost completely flat, except for the teasing line of mountains on the distant horizon. We arrived in Punta Arenas on a particularly chilly day and explored the rather plain town. We ate lunch in a small cafe calling itself ‘Zurich’, though nothing on the menu resembled anything Swiss. The tv broadcast an endless series of thirty second snippets of 1980s pop songs and we entertained the old man in the corner by singing along to them.

Just outside the city centre is a wonderful cemetery, if cemeteries can be described as such. It was snowing when we arrived, giving it a distinctly eerie atmosphere as we wandered amongst the colourful headstones. Dissecting the graveyard are rows of perfectly trimmed, identically phallic trees, rising some twenty feet into the air. Aside from the usual opulent tombs of innumerably rich families, are the relatively tiny patches dedicated to the more modest deceased. More often than not, these graves were far more recently decorated with flowers; the mausoleums were merely left to gain cobwebs and dust. I wonder whether this means they are more forgotten, or just that no-one had any money left after spending it all on the eternal home. A dog seemed to live in the cemetery. He followed us around, occasionally stopping to eat the flowers from the headstones and playing about in the earth of a recent exhumation. Finally, he settled down to sleep on someone’s grave.

Municipal Cemetery, Punta Arenas, Chile
That night in the hostel we heard an intriguing baseline penetrating the walls. Investigating, we went outside and pushed open the door of the building next door. Inside was a large group of worshippers dancing and singing their praise in time to a never-ending tune. Alas, it ended, just in time for the preacher to turn everyone’s attention our way, who in turn insisted we come in. We were ushered to a pew, where we had to endure a long introduction, prayer and song on our behalf while the congregation smiled at us as if we were kittens brought in from the snow. If I hadn’t known better I’d have thought they were worshipping me. We clapped along and then made our escape while everyone’s eyes were closed. They were thoroughly nice, just a little bit… scary.

The road to Puerto Natales is just as desolate. It’s not a particularly exciting town, with not much in the way of walks or scenery other than the promenade along the water’s edge. It serves mainly as a base for exploring the nearby Torres del Paine (meaning 'Blue Towers', where 'paine' means blue in the native Tehuelche language). After stocking up on enough pasta and lentils to last a nuclear winter, we set off on the five-day ‘W’ trek, so called because it scores a childish letter ‘w’ through the national park.

The beginning of the 'W' trek, Torres del Paine, Chile.
After arguing with the ranger over which way was north, the first day was fairly non-eventful: five hours across moors with the faint outline of the mountains in the background. As we rounded the hill at the end, the view of Rufugio Paine Grande came into view, the only of the lodges open at this time of year. In hindsight, we would’ve been better off staying here on our last night when we were more in need of a shower and some warmth, but the wind was blowing west to east so it seemed better this way around. We pitched up our tent under the mountains and readied ourselves for the next day’s trekking.

Pitched up at Paine Grande, Torres del Paine.
Day two was a long walk up the valley and back past Lago Grey all the way to Glaciar Grey. I’ve never seen anything like it. My travel companion was not as keen as I was on the long uphill hike so I had a completely undisturbed and solitary view of the glorious wall of ice squeezing its way imperceptibly slowly between the mountains and into the lake, from where huge icebergs would float away, pushed gradually by the wind. I imagined the rocks being pulled apart and eroded away over the eons through the sheer power of the ice; it is an incredible testimony to the forces of nature.

Glaciar Grey, Torres del Paine
The following day we walked on eastwards past the wind-whipped Lago Nordenskjöld with its backdrop of bleak, rolling hills toward Campamento Italiano. I set off alone up Valle Francés, following the edge of Glaciar Francés to my left and the towering peaks of Cuerno Máscara, Cuerno Norte and Cuerno Principal way above me to the right. The second of these mountains, Cuerno Norte, was strangely alluring. It has a large, almost circular base, on top of which sits an outcrop of much darker rock, like chocolate ice cream poking out of the top of a tub.

Cuerno Norte (the fat one in the middle)
As I ascended the trail became not only steeper, but more laden with snow until I was following in the waist deep footsteps of the previous explorers. And then they disappeared. That had evidently been enough for them. However, counting on a few more hours of daylight I strode forth, ploughing my way upwards with my sodden boots squelching in protest. I crossed ravine after ravine, passing through thick forest and along exposed ridges, certain that the final camp and viewpoint would be just over the next hump. I had to slide down slopes and use branches to climb up them, and finally I came to a clearing – from where I could see that the final point was still some way off. I consoled myself with the reassurance that I’d got farther than anyone had all winter, and stopped for a short break before turning around. I looked at the snow around me and realised that I was far from alone: all around me were puma prints, crisscrossing tracks running through the trees and up them. I didn’t feel anxious, just alive.

Puma Print!
I slept off my aching legs despite the cold night and we set off the next morning to continue as far as we could. Weather and tiredness conspired to prevent us from reaching camp that evening, so we pitched up in the wild on the side of a mountain. We felt very alone (not many people come to Patagonia in the winter and even fewer decide to go trekking and camping), but the view over the lake on one side and up the foreboding mountain on the other created a feeling of contentment. For me, this is what trekking is about, that feeling of oneness with nature. I simultaneously have a sense of inferiority when confronted with the vastness and ferocity of the elements and deep satisfaction at being able to survive them. All the while I am aware of the fact that I’m just another animal, a different combination of the same things that are all around me. It makes me feel happy, humble and privileged to be alive.

Solo trekking up Valle Francés, Torres del Paine.
The last day was shorter than expected. We made it to Las Torres base in good time, but the weather was not conducive for another snow-obstructed trek up to see these other mountains up close. Instead we contented ourselves with a cloudy view of them from the bottom and continued on to the final administration point. Half way there along the dirt track, a minibus pulled up. “Jason?” asked the driver. He was supposed to pick us up two hours later but was evidently bored of waiting. I tried to explain that I should sign something at the administration station to say we’d survived, but he insisted it wasn’t necessary. I only hope they’re not still looking for us.

After re-energising my body with protein (steak) and vegetables (chips) we left Puerto Natales to head back into Argentina (for the fourth time.) The border was uneventful but I did notice a permanent sign saying ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’. Really, there’s no need to up put signs like that. Who are they trying to convince? We arrived after ten hours in El Calafate, a small town undergoing massive development as more and more people come here to explore the nearby glaciers. Indeed, it’s known as the ‘Capital of Glacier Country’. The town is dry and dusty and sits along the edge of several lagoons and a lake (how big does a lagoon have to be to be called a lake?) and stretches itself out further and further along the shores as it grows. For some inexplicable reason, the only hairdresser’s is at one end of the long town, as if it had been built only after years of construction when everybody suddenly realised their hair was too long. Anyway, I had my haircut for the first time in a while, by a man who took it upon himself to teach me Spanish in between every snip. After mentioning that I write for a magazine, he became very excited and wanted to know when the story about him would appear. He may be waiting a while.

Just a couple of hours north is El Chaltén, a village that might as well be on the moon. It appears out of nowhere as the bus comes over the crest of the hill, rising out of the dust. When we arrived it was lashed in a mean wind that prevented any normal walking procedures and doused in thick cloud hiding the allegedly stupendous mountains. That afternoon was a write-off; I waited it out until next morning. Miraculously, my decision turned out to be one of my better ones, because the sky was as clear as glass and the winds merely a whisper in my ear telling me to get up there quickly. I rushed up the Fitz Roy trail at the northern end of town and reached the viewpoint for my first glimpse of Cerro Fitz Roy.

I was gobsmacked. In front of me stood a mountain that I’d seen countless times in pictures, but here it was in its 3D, real life glory. It was perfect. The bright sunlight reflected off its pristine white snow, and its jagged outline contrasted with the silhouette of its poorer cousins behind it. I stood transfixed at this magnificently sharp peak towered in front of me. I ignored the warnings about the trail at this time of year and walked on, lured by this incredible natural wonder. I made it as far as the climbers’ base camp, Rio Blanco, before snow stopped play. I got down just in time for the bus back to El Calafate, but I kept stopping all the way back to turn around to see the mountain again, fusing it into my mind forever.

The astounding Cerro Fitz Roy.
We left El Calafate the next evening on another comfortable overnight bus. Although we’re headed several hundred kilometres north, this is by no means the end of Patagonia.

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