Last November I flew to Patagonia for the first time, not for climbing or mountaineering but for a an amazing trekking trip between Argentina and Chile in the Lake O’Higgins area. For 5 days we chased the trail tracks that exist only on the hiking maps, waded through white water rivers in our underwear, walked for hours sometimes imprisoned in the mud, through steep woods up and down, left and right, without meeting anybody, and above all we had fantastic sunny weather throughout the whole trip.
Good weather is a rare treat in Patagonia, so while you will look at the pictures I took, don’t think this is normal down there… we had only way too much luck.
If you fancy to know more about this trip, Woody wrote a day by day diary, and I like to share some parts of it. Enjoy!
Day 1. Lago Desierto to Punta Norte.
Wind can be heard from a long distance away when it begins on the other side of an unobstructed glacier created lake. It arrives to you about 10 seconds later on the other side. Just close your eyes for a second and imagine if it were quiet enough that you could actually hear the wind coming towards you a good 10 seconds before it arrives. Very amazing sensation as it hits the trees you are nestled under. That distraction is welcomed because it cools you down (as it’s about 65f to 70f during our treks). The terrain is tricky, the feet are certainly throbbing and our aging lower backs are speaking to all of us. It’s not the steepness that gets to you. But it is a lot of ups and downs over rocks, creeks and roots for 6 hours straight. About every 10 minutes you get a window in the trees so you can gaze in aw at the snow and ice covering the Patagonia Mountains. The Fitz Roy is especially impressive and we were fortunate enough to have a clear view of it in the distance as cloud cover (rare) was minimal. About every two hours, it was break time (thank goodness!). You take your 30 pound back pack off, find a rock or stump to sit on, drink your caffeine spiked water and inhale some energy snacks. We talk, we laugh, we discuss our common aches and pains and we mostly revel in how happy we are to be here out in the middle of nowhere.
The approach to camp site 1 is nothing less than stunning. In the last 30 minutes as we approach, the ground is muddy/swampy with lots of creek crossings using the rocks and branches that are just above the water level. They are your dry spot for your next carefully taken step. You watch the guy in front of you and if his step was stable, you use that same rock or branch. If not, you move a half a foot left or right to find more stable footing. The last 15 minutes as we approach camp we walk on a beach right along the shore of the lake which borders our camp site. First order of duty, get our required Argentinian exit stamp entered into our passport as border enforcement is right here at camp. Then it’s time to clear the ground to build our tents, boil water for our freeze dried dinners (freeze dried beef stew is pretty tasty), hit the nearby stream to fill up our water jugs, have 3 shots of Scotch and climb into the tent for the night.
Day 2 – Lago Desierto to Refujo del Diablo.
Grueling trek. Day 2 is a 10 hours of a virtually non stop, very hard, challenging trek. We all are saying that this is the most difficult trekking we have ever done (and we have done some crazzzzzzy stuff). For the vast majority of it, there simply is no trail. You are laboring up and down very stiff cliffs, dredging ever so carefully through thick swamp brush (one wrong step and you are in wet mud past your ankles) and multiple river crossings where balance on slippery rocks and tree stumps is a must.
3.5 hours into the trek today, we came to the biggest river crossing of the trip. Shoes must come off, pants must come off, and you cross the river holding the rope we draped from one side to the other while in nothing but your underwear (as your pants would otherwise be drenched the rest of the day). You immediately cannot feel your feet or legs and by the time you reach the bank 5 minutes or so later on the other side, you are cramping to the point of pretty severe pain. Forget about even falling into the river. You would be hypothermic immediately as this water obviously just melted from glacier ice. You climb out of the river in the mud, back on to dry land, take your back pack off and begin rubbing your aching feet with your socks.
10 minutes or so later, feeling begins to return to your legs and feet, pants and boots back on and OMG we had no idea what we were in store for during the next 5.5 hours. Btw, to get to this river crossing we had to climb through thick brush and mud and use rope to slowly lower ourselves down to the river level (about a 500 foot straight vertical drop below us). Getting hurt simply is NOT an option as there is no one else out here and no way for any emergency vehicles, including helicopters, to get in here. We are relying on ourselves and pure adrenaline and concentration. Both were required all day.
During the next 5.5 hours, there simply is NO relief point. The terrain is raw and difficult. You’re burning thousands of calories and we only stop for about a 5 to 10 minute break about every 2.5 hours. Countless other tricky river crossings. We have no idea how our guides know where we are and they had to refer to the GPS on our phones numerous times. There are no marked trails, no signs. Just thick forest covered in what most would describe as impassable brush, mud, swamp and steep cliffs. I was shaking and pretty depleted when we actually arrived to our next camp site.
Everyone took off their backs packs, dropped to the ground, and inhaled as much water and energy food as they could. Eyes were shutting as we all just laid there with the sun’s welcomed warmth. The hard ground felt wonderful and for a good hour, we went into recovery mode. We needed this badly before we could even think about setting up the tents, stoves or hike down to the nearby, visible glacier filled lake to get water for the evening. We all were simply exhausted. But about an hour later, we started to get some energy back (including the two VERY experienced guides who were laying on the ground with us, with their shoes off), and began setting up Camp ( which takes a good hour or more). We then cooked dinner (freeze dried chicken teriyaki for me tonight), lit a fire and chilled.
Day 3 – Refujo Diablo to Estancia Ventisquero Chico.
The 5 hour trek to get to the Estancia was certainly much less rigorous then yesterday. We are staying on a peninsula that sticks out in the middle of this wind pounded glacier lake. On one side of the peninsula the water is brown similar in color to the Mississippi but on the other side it’s light sky blue, simply stunning. We were welcomed by three gorgeous and VERY happy boarder collies. They jumped up on us, hugged us and ran around like crazy occasionally leaving us to herd the horses and cows. Mind you I thought I was dreaming as the back drop is a screaming/howling wind to the point where you can’t hear anything else, snow covered mountains, Chico glacier and icebergs floating by. We made Camp, visited the out house (happy we don’t have to do our business outside here in the natural elements with this freezing howling wind) and a few of the guys bathed in the glacier melting frigid waterfall at the front of the ranch.
To our PLEASANT surprise, Marcelo (one of our guides) arranged for the cowboys wife to make us fresh rice and beans and fresh biscuits. It has a kick to it and the sauce she made to pour on top was delicious. We all inhaled it like it was our final meal. We are told tomorrow that it will be another extremely difficult Trek (and LONG) so today’s easier (all relative) journey was needed and welcomed. Our aching backs, shoulders, knees and bodies just require some recovery.
Now you might think at this point we would be saying enough is enough. Let me make this as clear as I can be. Not one of us would trade going home right now for the remaining two days we have out here. We are drinking fresh melting untreated glacier water. We are eating on the ground with cow dung all around us. We have not bathed in days. We are wearing the same clothing we have been in for three days. We have no “private bathrooms”. We carry our food, carry our tents, carry our sleeping bags and carry our essential supplies with pride and happiness. We all have aches and pains somewhere. “Settling in” and “gaining clarity” were the words I was using in my first few blog entry days. Now I’m replacing those with, “this is living”. Yes, I assure you that my fellow friends with me out here would ALL without hesitation tell you that they are loving every second of this journey.
Day 4 – Estancia Ventisquero Chico to Candelario Mancilla.
Three hours of straight up, steep climbing. To be exact, according to my health app, 41,166 steps, 2600 total elevation gain and 15.8 miles total. From the time we left the safety of the ranch on the Peninsula, until we arrived at the Chile exit passport control station on Lake O’Higgins, 10 hours of very diversified terrain has gone by. We had two more frigid river crossings in our underwear with water up to our knees, desert looking landscape where a glacier once existed, thick forest, extremely steep climbs where every step had to be carefully calculated, a long dirt road walk, and more. We have seen only one other set of back packers today and they were each (3 guys and 1 girl) carrying at least 60 plus pounds, twice what we were each carrying.
When we got to our location this evening, we were all excited because tonight we were going to be able to take showers (it’s been 4 days since our last one) and sleep in a Refugio right by the lake. Well, flexibility on this journey is key. It was full. However, sometimes plan B can be much more rewarding then plan A. We still were able to sit down in the house where we had a hot home cooked meal made for us from a wood burning stove. It was potatoes, mushy looking stuff and we think a small amount of beef. It was delicious and I ate three portions along with LOTS of bread, freshly made butter and wine in a carton. We were starving as we burned uncountable calories getting here.
Now back to Plan B. After dinner, the local Refugio manager told us that he could give us a ride about 6 miles back up the road (and I emphasize UP) to a “house” we all could stay in. Turns out we were going to have to walk back up that 6 mile road in the morning so this was perfect. About 3 minutes into the ride back up the “road” (dirt with no guard rails right on the edge of the cliff with the lake WAY below us) the “vehicle” we were in started spinning out and we had to get out and push it to get over one particular steep part. We were more then willing as it literally started to slide backwards. So we thought better to get out and push then die. Good decision and from that point on the driver kept the speed to a level where it made it non stop to the “house”.
THE “HOUSE” (hmmm can there be negative star ratings?)
We opened the latch held by a string to the front door, and saw hanging electrical wires and rooms. My room was literally made with thin walls had a small single bed in it. There was a pillow looking thing and a comforter that was likely 10-50 years old, cleaned perhaps last decade (perhaps). No problem though because sleeping bag and blow up pillows came out, laid on top of this “bed” and slept like a baby. Again, we were exhausted completely. The toilet had no working/running water so bathroom time remained outside in the wilderness.
EMBRACE THE CONDITIONS
The entire journey today was full of change. Every turn has a different view. Every step required a different calculated maneuver. The sounds, the dirt, the rivers, the views, the steepness, the rocks, the roots, the density of the brush, all kept changing minute by minute. 10 plus hours of this. During breaks throughout the day, we laid on the ground, backpacks off, behind brush to avoid the wind, and energy snacks and water intake was a must. Water supply was no problem. We drank out of the lakes, streams and rivers all untreated. Not a problem. We all kept talking about how physically enduring this trip has been and how easily someone could have gotten severely hurt. But we didn’t get hurt. Barriers and obstacles along the way, and there were many, were overcome. We worked as a team lead by our guides. But this is an absolutely CAN DO group and the words “no way”, “no chance”, “can’t be done” simply do not exist. It’s overcoming through constant positive reinforcing. I wish I could describe the sky, the air, the smells, the water but I can’t. I can only ask you to imagine wide open wilderness with no other people around for days in a non polluted mountain glacier environment. But it’s unforgiving so physical and mental preparation is a must and more importantly expect change to occur quickly.
DAY 5 – Candelario Mancilla to Lago Desierto.
When you go fishing with your friends, it’s a bonding experience. It’s even more bonding when it’s on a crystal clear lake filled with ice cold glacier water. And it’s even more bonding when you just checked into the Argentinian passport control center and you are told the boat will be here in 3 hours. You bond even more when you all go sit by the lake behind the brush to dodge the wind with a perfect view of the Fitz Roy in the background and you all take turns using the one fishing pole we had, catch 7 very nice size Rainbow trout and Steelhead trout, filet them right there on the spot, cook them all in the frying pan with olive oil that someone in our group happened to bring and even eat a few of them raw. You see, we are an incredibly fortunate and unique group to have these random and very awesome events occur.
We were all hungry, we had the tools with us to catch fish, we believed 100% we would catch fish, we caught fish, we cooked them and ate them. You could not possibly find a restaurant with a better view and fresher fish at any price. You couldn’t have a nicer day. Our backpacks made for a perfect pillow to relax on while eating away.
Mind you, 4 hours earlier when we began what was the shortest and easiest hike of the week, our setting was slightly different. Now that it was daylight and we could actually see the “house” we were staying in, we laughed and smiled together as it was likely the dirtiest and most rundown accommodations any of us had ever experienced. The power lines inside the house were seemingly connected to two car batteries on the floor. The oven that we cooked fresh eggs on was wood burning and we had to go out and collect the wood. The toilet was there but if you actually wanted it to flush you had to carry the 5 pound bucket to the nearby stream to get water to pour in the toilet. That bucket also served as our drinking water, dish cleaning water, etc. My room had walls made out of aluminum or tin and when the wind ripped at night (oh it was howling so hard at times I thought the entire house was going to blow down) it sounded like a freight train was about to come though the walls. It looked like a small prison cell with no windows. Also, with the condition of the house, we were not willing to sleep under the covers, so we all slept in our sleeping bags on top of the beds. Yet we were all happy, smiling, laughing and excited to head back to civilization where we would actually shower.