Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Backpacking Mt. Fitzroy

Running update: I am up to 45 glorious minutes on the seawall and a fairly relaxed BCMC (there might've been a final push, what can I say, Type A stands for awesome right?!). I am attempting to cross-train via yoga (going well) and rock-climbing (my hands are beat up and I have no idea what the hell I am doing, but at least I got to go outdoors).

As far as a life update, I am knee-deep in April busy season. As far as work endurance goes, mine is pretty crappy. Along with the crappy endurance comes me thinking that I am good at working overtime, when, to be realistic, working anything over an 8-hr day pretty much puts me in a mood similar to permanent PMS. So what I am saying is that working all Easter weekend, and this coming weekend, will do wonders for my already reduced social life and relationships.

I try to stay positive: I have my old Ernst & Young mug at work to remind me that it could always be worse (and, for 30 months, it was in fact worse). I have coworkers who e-mail Stephen Harper with thoughts about the tax act and have beer in our office fridge (and wine for me - thanks guys!). I have a junior who ensures I will be obese by May, as he brings in chocolates and home-baked cookies.

So as I have nothing interesting to talk about besides the fact our photocopier has thankfully not yet broken down and caused mass panic, this is a bit of escapism about hiking in southern Argentina in November 2011 with my old boyfriend, Mark.

A note on maps
For the one misguided person who reads this and thinks, hey, this would be a cool idea, could you show me where this is on a map? : Well, Matt has beaten you to this request, and was provided all the maps. I say "provided", and not "loaned", because whatever the hell he did to them on his Patagonia trip meant that they will not be returned to me. However, Lonely Planet has a great guide to trekking in Patagonia. Additionally, detailed topographical maps with distances and elevation profiles for the routes described were available in both Buenos Aires and in El Chatlen.

In late fall 2011, my old boyfriend and I went south - really south - to Argentina and Chile. The plan was to hike for about two weeks in the southern-most part of mainland South America: four days around Mt. Fitzroy in Argentina, and 10 days in the Torres del Paine in Chile. This was a bold plan, made bolder by my having only two multi-day hike trips under my belt, bad navigation skills and worse camp-stove-starting skills.

Getting there
We flew into the El Calafete airport from Buenos Aires. From there, we took a bus directly to El Chatlen, our starting point for the hike. We arrived at the airport from 25C and sun to single-digit temperatures and a wind that shook the airport windows. We were able to get a bus directly from the airport to El Chatlen - awesome. However, the bus left about 4 hours after our flight arrived, so we were stuck in the airport until then. We unpacked all our warm clothes, grabbed coffee, and sat at the window watching the landscape.

It was pampas - rolling hills for ever with low grey clouds. Next to the airport was a lake with ragged waves. The grass was almost horizontal in the wind. The rain came in waves, visible from far-off. We left our luggage with the eventual van and walked along an empty road, up to the top of a low hill. The grass stretched on forever and we both needed another jacket.

About 5 minutes into the van ride I was already asleep. I woke up to the rain against the windows, then went back to sleep. I woke up again to a slant of sunlight, and the mountains around El Chatlen rising in the distance.

the town
El Chatlen is a scruffy mountain town in about ten blocks with a couple hundred people, wedged right next to the mountains. It serves as a base for the many tourists that hike into the mountains. It has houses with painted roofs and corrugated steel sides and many outdoor shops and hostels and restaurants and one very expensive and busy grocery store.

When I arrived in El Chatlen I realized 1) it was damn cold and 2) I didn't have a toque. So, for $10 I got a really warm wool toque (some of the runners might recognize it, as I have worn it a few times since...)

We stayed in a hotel on the edge of town. Our room was tidy and small. We drank malbec out of small tea mugs as the rain poured outside and we packed, re-packed, then re-re-packed our bags.

Day 1 - Piedra del Fraile - 16km, 500m elevation
When we woke up, it was sunny. Our route plan was to start at the less busy "backside" of Mt. Fitzroy and hike around to the front as a point-to-point hike. We took a taxi ($20 AR, about $15 CAD) along a dirt road until we got to the hostel. This was supposed to be the starting point - and it was, except to a different route.

So what I'm saying is, we got lost pretty much right off the bat. The actual trail required us ducking under barbed wire and walking across a rocky field and shallow stream bed. Luckily, Mark has navigation superpowers and was able to get us onto the actual trail very soon.

We were really, really south. The sun would emerge hot through grey clouds, and I'd sweat underneath my many layers. Ten minutes later, the wind would pick up and I'd be shivering. The trail roughly followed the Rio Electrico - a fast-moving milky-blue river.  We walked over large rocks, and smaller rocks. We walked through a forest, with gnarled trees facing away from the wind. At one point, it snowed. We reached the campsite at Piedra del Fraile to an afternoon sun at the edge of a field, to a wooden fence bleached bone-white against lush green fields. On either side of the campsite was hemmed in by mountains on either side. There was a refugio there - a place where people could sleep and buy food, along with cold showers and toilets. The campsite had small wooden shelters to cook in the strong winds.

We arrived early afternoon and were the only people in the site. It started to snow again as we set up the tent. I went to nap for a couple minutes and suddenly over an hour had passed. Outside, it was once again sunny. By then it was closer to 4 - mid afternoon. However, we were so far south it stayed light out until at least 10pm.

We packed up rain gear, a bit of food, and headed to follow the Rio Electrico to the end of the valley, where there was supposed to be a glacier.

It was a beautiful and surreal hike and truly made me feel like I was somewhere very remote. The snow came in sheets down the valley. I actually wore sunglasses - not for the brightness, but to protect my eyes. Ten minutes later, the snow would pass and the sun would slant down. We walked along sand, on wide beaches with perfect sand through heavy snow. We scrambled along huge wet boulders covered with delicate purple lichen. Way later than it seemed, we arrived at the glacier, and got a view of sunset down the valley in the clear light.

deserted beach at the edge of the world

We cooked dinner with headlamps and fell asleep immediately.

Day 2 - Paso Cuadrado - 2500m and 14km
We woke up just after 7am to completely clear blue skies. The weather around Fitzroy is unpredictiable - if unpredictable means usually pretty bad. We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get as high up as possible. After hastily grabbing a couple cliff bars for breakfast and packing lunch, we stuffed as many warm clothes as possible into our daypacks and were off.

Our map was very detailed, and most of the trails we planned to travel on were marked in nice, thick red lines. Not this one - it was black and thin and in dashes. We thought nothing of this as we walked through wide meadows, following a small stream. We were still convinced everything would be fine as we criss-crossed the stream, following a clear dirt trail through the grass. Then, somehow, we were pulling ourselves up through spiky grass and prickly shrubs until we reached a cliff that didn't look passable. This lead to some back-tracking and finally a somewhat less dubious trail. We climbed through shrubs, then we climbed through spongey ground, then loose rock, then boulders, then up still through snow. The sky was brilliant and my calves were burning. The final approach felt like 45 degrees - up to a lip, then up to a ridge, scrambling along snow and ice covered boulders.

this might not be the right way up

Then we were at the top. There was nobody else. In front of us, the glacier stretched and stretched. I wore two layers of long underwear, plus two jackets, plus a down jacket and I was freezing. We sat, and listened to the sounds of glaciers moving, against the huge slabs of Mt Fitzroy.


As we made our way down, a lot of the morning's snow had already melted. We met some rock-climbers who had come up all the way from the Piedra del Fraile entrance to climb. They were camping out in a semi-burnt down house in El Chatlen, between guiding season ending and another not starting, to wait for days like this one.

We lingered before the final descent, surrounded by mountains, with the sun on our faces.

Day 3 - Laguna Torres (almost) - 12km, 400m elevation
By day three, luck had run out for both my immune system and the weather. I woke up to a sore throat and low clouds. The trail was easy to follow this time, and again, we were the only ones on it. It started to rain, hard, about 1hr into the hike. The trail wound through the forest, and across low ridge after ridge. We ditched our packs behind a boulder and took a short detour to see a glacial lake. After climbing over more huge, wet boulders, we were sort of done. The problem - the trail wasn't. We walked along a frustrating section of small wet rocks, muddy trail, and then just plain wet.

We arrived at the campsite still in the rain. The ground was squishy and all the branches were dripping. As we struggled to set up the tent while keeping as much of our gear dry, we somehow punctured the fly (I say "we", but it might've actually been me) but breaking a tent-pole. Oh man. Luckily, Mark found a tent patching kit and some elastics and we did last-minute first-aid on the tent. Then we get inside, and change out of all of our wet clothes into only somewhat damp clothes. Then hang the wet clothes up inside the tent to get some negligible drying.

Mark had always reinforced the importance of not eating food inside the tent, because bears (anything involving bears was as easy argument to win with me). However, dangerous animals in Argentina are pretty rare and the "shelter" to eat in was sorta far and very wet. So we ate cliff bars and a red pepper for dinner as the rain drip drip dripped outside.

Day 4 - Laguna Torres actually and el Chatlen - 12km, 600m
When we woke up, it wasn't raining - a huge improvement over the day before. We did want to hike up to see Laguna Torres, and so we wiggled into the still-wet hiking clothes from yesterday and got up on the mountain. Even cloudy, the glacier going right down into the lake was beautiful, and worth the rainy night.

On the final hike back to El Chatlen, the sun came out. And with it, a steady stream of tourists with jeans, daypacks, hiking poles, and guides. It felt a bit surreal, after seeing so few people for the rest of the trip.

Back in El Chatlen we had to forgo a shower (as the bus was picking us up later that afternoon to go to El Calafete and we had no hotel room booked) so tried to clean ourselves with paper towels in a bathroom. My curly hair had gone straight from wearing a toque non-stop for 4 days.

The lunch we had was huge, and nothing tasted so good.

2.5 years later
I remember being in the tent, in the rain, totally sick and unimpressed by a cliff bar and sort of wanting civilization. I remember being in the snow on slippery rock with no idea what the hell I was doing. And the funny thing is that, now, all I want to do is to get the hell outside and have another adventure. I want to be wet, and cold, and in someplace that is beautiful and alien and slightly terrifying. It's hard going to bed with itchy feet and a restless mind and a not-quite-ready ankle, but it's also good to still have the fire burning for someplace new.

ps - huge thanks to Mark for the pictures! If I totally mis-remembered something, I apologize :)

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