Greater Patagonia Update: Cochrane to Puerto Natales
Well, Ola Ola from the vast plains and open ranges of the deep south, PUERTO NATALES! Chile, baby! Hombres, hombras, amigos & amigas, sweet Tigre and I are back and better than ever, wrapped in the sweet embrace of a fleece comforter and a wood stove. The creature comforts of the Great Indoors have never been more comfortable, never more creaturesque, and we are grateful for our first day off in almost three weeks. Tyler is currently sprawled on a couch, long blonde hair cascading off the sofa and onto a vacuumed floor, startling the poor hostel patrons with his electric blue spandex tights and horribly maintained mustache. I, on the other hand, have chosen to strap myself into a kitchen chair and pump myself full of instant coffee, until my teeth chatter and table bumps in rhythm to the blood coursing through my hyperdilated veins.
It’s time to wind back the clocks a bit. Un poco, as some may say, correctly, une ummm, ahhh, pohcah as I would say, incorrectly. A bit, to be straight. Two and a half weeks. A story in four parts:
Part I: From Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins, a Tale of Crappy Timing and Juicy Raspberries
So there we were, waiting for 8 hours in the sun, baking like two gringo cookies on the hot asphalt, thumbs sore, hands shaking with the weight of a family sized bag of Doritos, which had offered no successful hitches out of town. We were hoping to get to Las Nadis, which was supposed to be the trailhead off Route 7 to some seriously epic hiking, and wanted to do it on the cheap (i.e. – save $10/person for a 45 minute bus ride). It was our first failed hitch of the trip. It wouldn’t be our last.
(Maybe why we didn’t get picked up is because of my strumsticking? Nahhh)
A day later and $20 poorer in Las Nadis we were hanging out in the rain, wondering if and when the weather might ever knock it off and go bother another region of Chile. We were walking on the road, looking for a trail, any trail, that might be worth following. We had gathered, through a series of conversations, that nobody really knew where this trailhead was, or how far up the road it was, or what might be waiting for us when we got there. We hiked for 15 km, took a spur trail up to a viewpoint that most certainly wasn’t what we had been looking for, but was still appreciated, and then returned back to our refugio, which was where our tough first two days on the road had led us.
The host of the refugio is the woman named Marisol, who with her husband owns something like 33,000 acres of land, including these mountains, which is a comical and inspiring concept.
Marisol, the proud owner of what would be millions of dollars worth of land, had no qualms with charging pennies for camping, and one dollar for a kilogram of raspberries. It was this kilogram of raspberries that augmented our traveling woes, for in the twenty minutes it took to pick these berries our bus, 4 km away and ahead of schedule for the first time in Chile’s long and storied history of public transport arriving late and leaving later, we missed our bus and spent the next 10 hours attempting to hitch from one place to another, our goal Villa O’Higgins.
Yae, verily, we made it that night, but it was quite an experience. Four hitches, two in truck beds spitting up gravel and rock dust as the temperature dropped into the low 40s and the wind kicked up into the high 30s, Tyler and I huddled together like pups in the pen, trying to keep warm and still enjoy the scenery. One hitch, most notable because it was shared with the hapless couple known forevermore as Unlucky Tackie (Tom & Jackie), was a cow transport that was covered in poo. Oh well. We made it. Better than Unlucky Tackie, who were unable to secure a hitch to Villa O’Higgins after the cow poo transport dropped the four of us off. As Tyler said, us rolling away from Tackie in our final hitch to O’Higgins in a truck bed too small for four. “Reese, hitching is a dog-eat-dog world, and they just got ate!” Carnal. Vicious. Primal.
(Tackie never stood a freaking chance)
And thus, with three days of frustrations and generally self-induced struggles, Part 1 ends. Things get much better from here. For Unlucky Tackie, the world can only wonder.
Part II: From Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten, a Pretty Damn Good Time
It was a pretty damn good time, the 60 kilometers from the disembarkation point of Lago O’Higgins to the Argentinian town of El Chalten. The weather cleared, the trails opened up, and we hit the ground hard, happy to be on the move.
Part II began with an epic three hour ferry across the bucking Lago O’Higgins, which is a terrifying 55 km lake that whips up waves 5 feet tall. Tyler and I, had we been allowed by the port authorities to paddle it, would have likely been reduced to floating bits of packraft and shattered dreams had we pulled out, paddles in hand. As it happened, we got to meet some very lovely South Africans and hike 20 km to Argentina. Hello, Argentina. Looking good.
(The placid Lago Desierto, which Tyler and I paddled across the next morning)
The next morning, with fresh snow on the mountains, we loaded up the packraft and paddled the 10 km across Lago Desierto, looking like the Cowboys of Waterworld.
It was a good time. A pretty epic paddle. But even with a full set of tights, socks, and thermals on beneath our drysuits our exposure to violent winds and a mid-point sleetstorm dropped our core temperatures to unadvisable levels. We were grateful to get to shore, unpack, and warm up before continuing on.
The plan, moving forward, was to ride the river into El Chalten. This was what Jan, creator of the GPT had suggested we do, and liking rivers we thought it sounded like a good idea. Until we saw the river, discovered that we would have to hop a number of fences, camp illegally, and paddle through shallow waters and downed trees for 30 km, only to have our gear and raft confiscated by infuriated park rangers upon taking out in town. So we hitched to a campsite, had a wonderful evening, made a bunch of new friends, and the next morning hiked into southern Argenitina’s tourist hub, El Chalten.
Part III, El Chalten, the Huemul Circuit, and Close Encounter with Tourism
(Tyler standing in awe of the 7 peaks, Fitzroy wreathed in clouds)
El Chalten, as someone put it to me, is like the Woodstock of outdoor base camps. I didn’t really understand what that meant, until Tyler and I walked into town and saw the hundreds, no, thousands of gringos walking around carrying backpacks, ice axes, crampons, and boxes of empanadas. After two months of camping with nobody else, and I mean totally isolated, suddenly we’d stepped into the New York City of outdoor enthusiasts. It was overwhelming. But, upon a recommendation, we setup at El Relincho, the largest campground in town, and made our tents with the two hundred others sharing the space. And so the party began.
Well, not for Tyler and me. But for everyone else, sure. Why not? El Chalten is home to the famed Seven Peaks, the most prominent and famous Fitzroy, which are notorious for fickle weather. This season has been exceptionally bad – in six weeks there have only been two days safe for climbing. The restless climbers and alpinists, who have been cooped up in town for weeks and weeks, passed the time drinking, eating, drinking, slack lining, and, word had it, starting bongo circles until the 4 am sunrise.
But Tyler and I checked the weather and saw that, bless the few needs of the hiker, had good enough weather to hike the Huemul Circuit, which, due to two gnarly river crossings, required a harness, steel carabiner, aluminum carabiner, and 20 meters of rope. Nobody, upon our first sweep, seemed to have a steel carabiner. I gave up, but Tyler took the search personally, perhaps even a tad offended, and finally secured a steel carabiner pulled from the depths of deep storage on this third pass through town. Once again, Tyler opened up serious doors for us that we would have otherwise been unable to experience. I am, remain, extremely grateful for his company. Come on, look at him! That mustache, though, right?
So we started the 40 mile loop. It is, without a doubt, the best circuit of the trip so far. I could spend a whole update talking about the outrageous three day experience, but will settle for only describing the sight that awaited us over the first pass, Paso del Viento.
(The eastern view of Paso del Viento)
Over Paso del Viento one can look east, to where we’d hiked, and see two mighty glaciers pounding themselves into an opposing scree slope. Behind that, a lush green valley feeding out towards the formidable Lago Viedma. It is an inspiring sight. We thought it couldn’t much better than that. But then we turned west, descended, and saw this:
A glacial field extending as far as the horizon, and so much more. Jagged mountains breaking through the ice, swirled in cloud, ominous and impossible. It was so unexpected, so amazingly rugged, that for five minutes neither of us could say anything. We just stood there, in the freezing winds, staring out at a view incomprehensible to Appalachites.
The circuit, let’s be frank, beat the snot out of us. We limped back to El Chalten covered in sweat, dirt, cow poo, our feet and bodies feeling as if we’d just finished an ultramarathon. The weather turned to crap again, though that didn’t stop two nights of a flute/bongo jam going until dawn one camp over (sounds like fun, right? Nope. Should have heard the flutist). Our priority became short hikes with new friends, which we made surprisingly easily. It seems that people like us, which is nice. We’ve spent so much time in only our own company, farting and burping on each other, that I was seriously concerned with our deteriorating social skills. But we met Andy, and our first officially bromance of the trip formed. Love ya, Andy!
(Yes, we are holding hands)
And so, with many goodbyes and bro-hugs and “I love you, man!” Tyler and I said bye to Chalten, hoping to hitch our way to Puerto Natales and save $140 in bus fares.
Part IV: From El Chalten to Puerto Natales, a Final Border Crossing, and a Paucity of Pictures
I didn’t take any pictures during Part IV. Oh well. For those who want and care to see all the pictures from our trip so far, I invite you to check out our Dropbox folder following this link: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/dcp6sm0z0qzmv5p/AABX5w4BqGQSSGfxm2SUCoV3a?dl=0
Another failed series of hitches led us to tightening our belts and bellying up to the proverbial beast for an expensive fare to El Calafate, which from my judgement is that classic tourist trap of a town that has lost it’s original personality and just slapped together a series of western-style restaurants, bars, and shops to appease the increasing number of wealthy tourists walking through their streets, buying wooden dish sets and alpaca furs.
From El Calafate we had a decision to make: hitch in the dog-eat-dog highway system already littered with the mangled corpses of weathered hitchhikers exhausted by failure and exposure, buy a $40/person ticket to Puerto Natales and bus across our final border, or buy a $40/person ticket to Rio Turbio, Argentina, and hike across our final border? We decided on Rio Turbio and so last night successfully walked out of Argentina and into Chile, stuck out our thumbs to the first car that passed, and BAM! We were in Puerto Natales 30 minutes later, enjoying our first beds in 10 days, first showers in 6, first wifi in 3 weeks, and a meal that did not have lentils as the main ingredient for the first time in a very long time.
And now here we are. Whew. For those who made it to the end of this email, well, thanks for reading all the way through. It’s a lot, I know. But we’ve been up to a lot, and are looking forward to the final month of our trip. For Friday we enter the O-Circuit of the Torres del Paine loop, which will take us 140 km in 8 days through the most famous hiking in Chile.
As we continue with our adventure, know that things are good with us. Great is probably a better word. And each day keeps getting better. We miss you and love you all, are carrying you with us as we hike on. Four more weeks of this Patagonian adventure. Four more weeks to continue learning and discovering more about this land, its people, and ourselves.
Reese & Tyler
Nacho y Tigre