Day69 - : 7.3. - 12.3.2009
Villa O’Higgins – El Chalten

Ferry postponed

A myth finally became reality. What many of the northbound travelers told us became true. The ferry from Villa O’Higgins across Lago O’Higgins is postponed from today, 7.3. at 8.30 am to tomorrow, 8.3. at 7 am. The ferry operators say there will be less wind tomorrow. OK, if it helps to not get sea sick I am happy with it. And I am not in a hurry anyway. That gives me another day here in O‘Higgins for reading and relaxation (you couldn’t do much more here anyway, even if you wanted to). The guys who wanted to leave with the bus direction north today are stuck here as well. The road has been cut by a landslide a bit further up and the bus couldn’t come through. Hence they also have to wait until (they hope) tomorrow to get their lift up north. I assume that this is part of the reason for the delay of the ferry because tomorrow they can also shuttle the passengers that will come with the bus today. Anyway, this only increases my anticipation of the crossing into Argentina and the stay in El Chalten, the trekkers and climbers paradise at the feet of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. We have decided yesterday that we will not use horses for the crossing. There will be four of us together and we will face the challenge. We have compromised a bit though because we will use a boat to cross one Laguna on the way rather than pushing and carrying our bikes and luggage up and down a tricky hikers trek. It is supposed to take 6 hours hiking with a backpack so we decided against it. There will still be plenty of challenge before and after that Laguna that we will have to master with our heavily loaded bikes. Let’s go for it!

International Hostel Life

By the way, the hostel in O’Higgins is a true accumulation of waiting travelers from all over the world. People from Switzerland, Marocco, France, Israel, US, Australia, Chile, Poland, Sweden and Germany (at least, I might have missed a nationality or two) are sitting here together, waiting for fate to decide when to move on. That is a truly interesting mix of cultures, genders and ages. E.g. the Israelis are in the period between their military service and their university studies. Their military service takes them a full three years. That is a rather long time. And they might as well, depending on the function they have, be much more involved in real conflicts than a German military servant during his 9 months of service. Hence when they finish their three year service many of them decide to go and see the world before doing anything else in their lives. In fact most of the Israelis I met so far have been in this period between military service and second level education. Interesting knowledge I gather here. This fits well to the book I am reading these days. It is called “O Jerusalem” and acts in the period of time when the state of Israel has been founded and built to sustain. At least some bit of mental challenge I have to have here. And I can truly recommend the book.

Finally on the ferry

At 6.30 we leave the hostel. We need to bike 7 km to the place where the ferry will leave. It is still dark and without headlamp all I can do is to follow close after the other three cyclists and to try not to be surprised by the sudden bumps in the road. There is a little bit of a light rain but we expect a day of sunshine and mild temperatures. The mosquitoes at the lake side are plenty and aggressive again. While we wait for the check in procedure at the ferry landing point we wrap ourselves up in scarves and hats until only the eyes remain free. Once on the ferry we are fine though and everybody begins to concentrate on that little light spot at the horizon which is where the sun rises and where we are going. There are 8 cyclists on the ferry who want to cross into Argentina the same way Martin, Martina, Fredrik (a Swedish cyclist) and myself want to go. The wind is acceptable, the ferry doesn’t move too much. Good. We reach the other side of the lake after 3 hours and disembark to move into Argentina.

Experiences with the police

“We are police here. You cannot do anything without my permission beforehand. If you want to do anything, you ask me first. Is that clear?” After the officer has almost pulled me on my hair out of the walkway and back into the border control area he makes this clear to everybody who is waiting there to get an exit stamp into the passport. I was only looking for a toilet and seem to have entered a restricted area (there were no signs though). The Chilean police officers in general do not have a great sense of humor in Chile. They take their jobs very serious and are extremely proud not to be corrupt. In my opinion they take this one step too far and hence appear to be extremely stiff and inflexible, almost like machines. I experience the opposite when I get into the Argentinean border control office a few hours later. There the guys are watching soccer and are preparing their meat for the evening meal. “Do you know Mönchengladbach?” “No, never heard of? Is it Munich?” “No, it is not Munich. It is a different team. But we are bad and never play internationally” “Ah, this is why we don’t know them”. We quickly find common ground in our soccer talks. We watch Boca Juniors play and chat about this and that. And of course they put the entry stamp into my passport without hesitation. That is much more “my gusto” of a police officer, at least when I have to deal with them.

Surprise surprise, what a birthday

“Is this Fitz Roy we see there?” “Yes, it is. Wow. That is a great surprise”. We stop our bikes and stand there with humble respect for the moment for a few minutes. Mount Fitz Roy is clearly the most popular symbol of the bigger area here. With its cone shape and light granite color it stands out in the blue sky, even from many kilometers away. We see it there in the distance when we emerge out of the forest for the first time after having climbed up from the Laguna for more than 2 hours. The surprise is big because often Fitz Roy is hard to see. A lot of the time the mountain is covered in clouds. We have heard plenty of stories of people who where in El Chalten (the town nearby, Argentina’s trekking capital) for weeks and could not see the mountain once. We are extremely lucky today. This must be because it is my birthday. And my birthday is getting better and better by the hour. I am in great company of Martina and Martin. We do really enjoy the sunshine on our tour. We cross over a pass and then descend on a difficult trail down towards the Laguna del desierto. After a few hours of a combination of riding, pushing and pulling our bikes we reach the Laguna. And this is not just a Laguna. It is the most scenic spot I have had for camping in my whole life. The view is awesome. The laguna stretches out towards the south between the mountains. In the distance behind it, clear and big, we see Mount Fitz Roy. The silhouette will not disappear until very late that night because the moon is bright and almost full. We start a fire, cook pasta and enjoy a very good bottle of wine that I have carried all the way to celebrate my birthday adequately. For desert we have chocolate and tea and coffee. I have to say that I could not have imagined a much better way to celebrate my birthday. I am happy and very contented.

The lost Swede

“Where is Fredrik?” “I don’t know. Maybe he has a problem. I will ride back and see if I find him.” Fredrik was always a bit slower than us because he kept setting up scenes and filming himself on the way. Now he is really late though. Maybe he had a technical problem, maybe a health problem We are concerned and I go back and see if I can find him. After a few kilometers and some time of searching without success I meet some other people from the ferry. Hikers. They have seen Fredrik. He has stopped to cook. Taken out all his cooking gear, settled down at the river and started his cooking session. Without letting us know. He simply stopped when he thought the time was right. This is all right but an info for us would have helped. M&M and myself are quite surprised. As the four of us were going together today until now we expected a different behavior. More social somehow. Fredrik seems to not be used to traveling in a group anymore. He did all of his bike travel in the past few years alone. And that was plenty. This might be an impact of this. I shouldn’t overdo the traveling alone thing.

Encounters on the boat

Craig from the US has one year off and has decided to tour the world by bike during this time. He tells me a lot about the great divide mountain bike trail. It is a 3000 km long trail from the Canadian border to the Mexican border of the US, all along the Rocky Mountain ridge from North to South. Sounds like a great adventure. It is also possible to do only parts of it e.g. on shorter holiday trips. Good knowledge to have. He also shared names of a book and a webpage dedicated to this. If ever after my tour I will want to get back on a bike this is something to consider doing.
Ronald, a dutch guy I already met in the street a few days ago. He is about three heads taller than I am and he is on a real biking holiday, meaning no rest days, just biking. He started in Santiago as I did, just more than a month later. He will later check into the same hostel in El Chalten as I do and we do quite some things together. Then there are two Argentinean youngsters and a French couple, also on bikes, and a few hikers. It is always nice to meet people on the ferry and to exchange travel experiences from the journey. Today it is especially nice because we do sit on the roof of the boat, in the sunshine and have a stunning view of Mount Fitz Roy as we are approaching the other side of the lake.

El Chalten – Argentina’s trekking capital

This town does only exist since a bit more than 20 years. Originally it was built to put a village into the area to make sure that Argentina could claim the land as its own and not lose it to Chile. I have seen a picture of town from 15 years ago. It consisted of exactly 9 houses. The development that was about to come was not to be foreseen. Since a few years the town booms with tourism. The marvelous mountains Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, with their sharp edges and cone shapes, attract so many hikers and climbers each year that the village has developed into a real trekker-town by now.

Clichés and truths about nationalities

“What we see here are clearly Austrian cloud formations. The clouds group together like the Austrians do when they travel. Always in a bigger group.” The Austrian girl on our table is not happy but she will have to accept the “simplifying the world mood” that we are in. Especially because the only other Austrians she has met on her journey so far were a group of twenty travelling together in one bus. Inspired by huge pieces of tender Argentinean meat and king-size pizzas we let our thoughts go. The dutch and their caravans, always blocking the roads in Germany and never leaving any money in any other country because they bring everything they need for two weeks in their caravans anyway, are the next topic of interest. We identify the Swiss as world travelers number one (in relation to the little number of Swiss overall in this world) and the Russians as trouble makers number one (which might now stop because the crisis might stop them from traveling). The South Africans, in comparison to the Australians, are not a country of the ex-convicted but a country of the “we would have been convicted if we would not have come here beforehand”. Even our South African friend Greg signs on to that insight. The Chileans are obviously much more rigid and less open and friendly to foreigners than the Argentineans, which is a truth that we all sign on to. And they have more money but build houses much less durable than the Argentineans. We wonder why. Also do they only have the bad pieces of meat, no nice steaks, and no food culture at all. The best they can offer are their “completos”, which are nothing more than simple hotdogs with some avocado-sauce and ketchup and mayonnaise. And they are even proud of them. We have a lot of fun that night on our Swiss / Dutch / South African / German dinner table.

Patagonian Weather

“I am sure when these clouds have passed by the sky will open up again and we will see Cerro Torre”. I am very optimistic when trying to influence Martina, Martin and Ronald to keep going on our hike, even in the rain. We are going to Lago Torre, the place from which you can see Cerro Torre best. Cerro Torre is a thin, sharp piece of rock that stretches 3150 meters up into the air. Its shape is really impressive. It is one of the most difficult mountains to climb in the world. And we are trying to see it in reality and from close to add to the photo- and very distant views we had of it so far (and there we could only see the very peak rising behind other mountains, and only for a few seconds on the boat). The weather changes rapidly today. Within two hours we take off and put on again our rain gear three or four times. The sunny phases are warm and the rainy parts are so rainy that without raingear you would be soaking wet immediately. When we finally reach the Lago Torre we cannot see anything of mountain, it is all covered in clouds. And it stays like this for the next hour or so that we endure there in the rain. There are no signs of any clearing up of the sky around that mountain. Even with sunny skies around it this mountain seems to have a personal cloud guard that protects it from being seen most of the time. We have to accept that and make our way back home. It was worth the effort though, the whole area here is really beautiful and great for hiking.

Room number 3 !

“Suenad con los angelitos, amigos!” “What? Sleep with the angels?” “No, don’t sleep with the angels. Dream of the angelitos.” “What? Dream of Angelina?” “Yes, OK, dream of Angelina.” “And who snores first will pay for the beer tomorrow!” “OK” “Good night!”
Dormitorio number three in the Albergue Patagonia is a blast. We are four people in there. Greg, the South African, Fernando and Ariel, two friends from Argentina, and myself. We are all aged around 35 and communicate in a strange mix of English and Spanish. This is because I want to practice Spanish. Fernando and Ariel want to practice English and Greg wants to learn Spanish but speaks little so far. All together this results in a great language and leads to quite some funny mix-ups. I guess this is how the language of Esperanto was once developed. And by the way, Ariel won the snoring competition, with a distance !
“Can anybody cook?” Eyes move around in room number 3. We see big question marks in our faces. “OK, obviously not.” “But let’s go for it anyway” “OK, I will open a bottle of wine first. That will help.” As a joint effort of room number three we hijack the hostel kitchen and cook pasta with tomato sauce. Supported by Argentinean red wine and rounded off by a sweet pastry dessert this qualifies as a very complete and delicious dinner. And this is a lot of fun again. We end up entertaining the whole hostel with our activity. And we get the red card from the hostel owner at twelve pm because we are too loud and other guests can’t sleep. A truly great evening again. With hostels you can really be lucky or unlucky. There seem to be a few hostels only at each town that attract the certain type of people that will generate this special atmosphere of familiarity. It generates a feeling of belonging and enables an uncomplicated living together of a bigger group of people that didn’t know each other before. In these places I always meet people who I want to spend time with (and do so during the stay there) and who I would want to meet again later in life. Usually I stay longer than planned in these places too. This is not at all the case in many other hostels, which do only serve as shelters for the night. So far I have only stayed at two or three such hostels on my whole trip. They are rare.

Japanese habits

I know this is not nice but I have to write about the Japanese guy that is in the hostel here. He just fits so well into the cliché about the Japanese. First of all, he is an individualist in a foreign country. He doesn’t talk to anybody. He always wears a baseball cap. I have never seen him without. I guess it is because this is what you do on holidays. He has excellent equipment. One day I saw him on the trail hiking, it was warm and sunny (I was wearing a shirt). He was in his yellow high tech Gore Tex pants and jacket, with baseball cap, sunglasses and camera round his neck. He always uses his own cooking gear in the hostel kitchen. And he always cooks. Mornings and evenings. He uses chopsticks to eat of course. When he has cleaned his pots after eating he dries them above the open flame of the stove to immediately pack them away again.I often see him sitting in the hostel lounge, contemplating, staring holes into the air, somehow thinking and writing letters into the air with his fingers. For sure this guy is the best equipped and most organized person around here. Still he feels a bit strange to me.

Going for the “double”

The weather is great today, blue sky and sunshine at mild temperatures. The decision is simple: I will try the double today ! I want to make up for the missed view of Cerro Torre yesterday and also see Fitz Roy from close by. There are two most popular hikes in El Chalten. The first one is to the Lago de los Tres, to see Fitz Roy from as close as possible. The second one is to Lago Torre, to see Cerro Torre from close. These are the two spectacular mountains to see here. The Fitz Roy hike is about 4 hours one way, the Cerro Torre hike ca. 3 hours one way. And they include pretty steep parts. I will combine the two today through a traverse path. I want to use the good weather and see them both from close. The plan works out well at Lago de los Tres. I have great views of the Fitz Roy range. This is a marvelous huge piece of carved granite that reaches up into the sky (3400 meters high), supported by some glaciers at its base, plenty of smaller but still sharp and impressive side peaks and with this laguna de los tres at its bottom. I sit there and enjoy the clear view and mountain shapes in the blue sky for at least an hour. Then I descend again and make my way for the traverse. Some clouds begin to form and to cover Fitz Roy after I have left (so Ronald told me who went there a bit after me), so my timing there was right, I was lucky. When I finish the traverse and get the first view towards the Cerro Torre area I am disappointed though. All I see is the same cloud-guard that I have already seen yesterday in the rain. What a pity. I sit down at a nice place and wait for a good hour to see if things (especially the clouds) are moving up there but they are not. I learn in town later that Cerro Torre has again been covered in clouds all day. I wasn’t even late, he was not simply not showing up at all again. Tough guy, this Torre. My tour ends back at the hostel after almost 10 hours, of which ca. 8 hours were effective hiking time. And so my legs tell me the next day as well. But it is definitely a good feeling to do other stuff than just cycling all the time. I think I have found a good balance.

Ice climbing in the glacier

“So when will you climb Fitz Roy?” we ask. “Oh, we already did that…” Ronald and I are surprised by that answer to a question that was meant as a joke. Fernando and Juan, the two ice climbing guides that will lead us through the day on the glacier, have both already climbed one of the more difficult mountains of the world. They seem to be good. “Ok, but when will you climb Cerro Torre then?” We are sure this one is a neckbreaker. Only very few people in the world have mastered that mountain at all yet. It is very high in technical difficulty and most difficult of all are the ever changing weather conditions and always strong winds up there around the peak. “Oh, I did that in December.” Now we are really impressed. Fernando is in the exclusive club of the few climbers who mastered Cerro Torre. We feel safe. Those two should be able to get us through the ice climbing session and out of the glacier again safe and in one piece.
The Viedma Glacier is impressive. It is the biggest glacier of South America. It comes down from the Southern Continental Ice Field and stretches south east into Lago Viedma. First we see it from the boat, then we get off the boat to spend time walking and climbing in the ice of the glacier. The shapes are impressive. Nowhere near can you imagine when you observe it from a distance the holes and tunnels and shapes that form on top of and in the glacier. The color is of an impressive deep blue. And the surface looks like that of a golf ball. A wonderful experience.
The ice climbing session is my own personal highlight. Fernando and Juan set up various routes in the “training arena”. The ice wall there is of a marvelous shape. We have a wall with a steep but still less than vertical incline to start with. Then we have a “wave shaped” wall, about fifteen meters high, which we can use to see how far we can get in an overhang climb. The technique we get shown is relatively simple and the equipment is great. With crampons on our feet and one ice axe in each hand we can try our luck. The ice axes, once pushed into the ice, are so safe that you can hang your entire weight into one arm while you are sorting out the rest of your body to try and find the ideal position to move on. I am in my element and really push myself to the limit. We are secured by ropes of course. If we fall we fall into the rope. Pushing hard I can almost make it to the very top of the “wave”. Exhaustion and a lack of endurance in my arms and hands is where I find my limitation. This shows because I have trouble to get the ice axe out of the ice again or to push it into the ice deep enough for the next move. I guess it is also because my technique is not good enough and hence I work too much through power rather than technique. It is great though. I think I might try that again in the future, maybe in summer in Germany, if I have some time…

The boat trip back from the glacier is tough. The wind has picked up so much that there are high waves everywhere. The boat is modern and strong. We don’t have to fear for our lives. But the movements are very scary. The boat moves so much up and down to the left and right that the windows almost reach down to the water line in a low and are very high above on a high of the waves. The windows are washed by foam from crushing waves all the time. There is no more sight out of the windows anymore at all. The captain applies a strategy of trying to go through the lines in between the biggest wave lines because he keeps stopping the engine, maneuvering to the left and right, even going backwards a few times, then again pushing really hard to the front. I think he works really hard on this way back. As I do to keep the calm. Finally, and much by surprise, I got my sea sickness test after all. I passed it, don’t need a repetition though.

Schedule re-adjustment

“I have just recalculated my schedule. I will now only plan 4 days to Ushuaia.” I need to laugh immediately but then hold for a second and start thinking. It could even be feasible. The distance from El Chalten to Ushuaia is somewhere around 1400 km. With wind speeds of more than 100 km per hour and the wind in our back we could probably average in at35- 40 km/h. This is why Ronald does not believe (being only halfway serious with his opinion though) that we should calculate more than four days to reach Ushuaia. Admittedly, this is an optimistic view of the remaining bike journey but it contains some truth as well. I am sure with the strong tail winds that I can expect for a big part of the remaining journey I will be moving much faster than before. And I am looking forward to it. This will be fun !

The storm !

“I am glad this house here is a bit stronger than the ones in Chile.” Ronald is right. Many of the houses in Chile, certainly at the southern part of the Carretera Austral, are impressive in a negative way. All wooden structures with extremely thin walls they seem to fall into pieces at the first sign of a stronger wind. The noise insulation is so weak (basically there is none) that you can hear people snoring two rooms to the side and one storey above and below you. When people walk in the room above yours you fear that they will be falling through the roof into your bed any second. Sleeping without Oropax is a challenge there. Now we sit in the hostel in El Chalten and there is a storm ongoing outside. The whole house shakes but it seems to be strong enough to resist the forces. The pictures at the wall shake and rattle, the walls are moving a lot, wood screams all over the place and we expect a tree to fly into the window or by the house anytime soon. Our walk to the mini market 200 meters up the road is an adventure in itself. There is no chance to walk in a relatively straight line. Ronald and I fight hard but finally we have to admit that in the end we simply follow the waves and the where the wind blows us as long as the overall direction is roughly towards the minimarket. We manage in the end and can call ourselves proud survivors of the minimarket walk.

El Chalten is a great place to stay for a few days. With the right equipment and experience you can do one week tours to walk on the Southern Continental Ice Field or you could even try to cross it completely. I understand why this is the trekkers and climbers paradise here. The few days I spend here are well invested. A superb experience that will last.