Day 75 -80: 13.3. - 18.3.2009
El Chalten – El Calafate – Cerro Castillo

My leaving present in El Chalten– Cerro Torre

It seems like El Chalten and the surrounding mountains were happy with my presence and that I behaved well. On my leaving day the weather is perfect. I get a great view of the entire mountain range plastered into a bright blue sky. And that includes a perfect view of Cerro Torre, the mountain that has been in clouds for all the days of my presence here. I am glad I enjoyed a lazy rest and administration day yesterday. If I had a bit of a bad conscience about this until now, it is definitely gone. If I would have left yesterday already I would have missed this scenic postcard view. This is a treat ! I am not exactly sure how I deserve this luck again but I am not unhappy to accept it. On my way out of town I pass by the campground where M&M are staying. We have a cup of mate together and enjoy the view of the mountains. They will move to the US (Itaca, state New York), where Martin will do a post doc, in a few weeks time. We hope that one day we will meet again, maybe to do some ice climbing together. As real swiss people they are into climbing (rocks and ice) since many years and I have certainly caught some interest yesterday. So, why not? Then, at about 11 am, I finally hit the road for El Calafate.

Welcome to la pampa !

Oh my god. This is boring. The pampa is really boring. There is nothing, really nothing to see there. Just dry land, some hills, many fences, sometimes a Guanako or bird, and this for as far as the eye can see. Only a few kilometers out of El Chalten I am already in the middle of this. My first thought is that the suicide rate in such a boring and lonely environment must be at least as high as in those northern countries where there is no daylight at all in winter for months. Well, I have a few kilometers to go in these conditions. In detail, my first stage to El Calafate is exactly 220 km. And in between those two towns there is nothing. Literally nothing. I hope I will not be the first person to confirm my own theory. Originally I was hoping for the small dots with a name on the map to be mini towns at the side of the road. Unfortunately this is not exactly true. What looks like towns on the map is always exactly one house, an estancia (farm), where somebody lives a lonesome life with his kettle and horses. I wonder why they have them on the map at all. Maybe because if you would take those dots away from the map there would really be a huge area without anything. This wouldn’t look good either. Most of the time the dot on the map at the road is only the location where the entrance to the estancia is. From there it can easily be a few kilometers until you reach the farm house. This is a very wide land. I will have to find a way to survive my stages between the towns in this part of the world without external help. Most of the time these seem to be 200-300 km stretches, so I hope two day trips between the towns. I will find out.

The wind…

Well, yes, there is the wind in the pampa as well of course. I forgot to mention that. Maybe because you cannot see it, which does not make it better though. The first three hours out of El Chalten I like the wind. It is in my back and I make 90 kms in those three hours. This is a record. Then I have to change direction and I manage exactly 35 km in the next three hours. In flat terrain. This is also a record. While I am in the middle of the afternoon now with my legs slowly but steadily feeling more and more powerless as a result of the constant struggle against the wind I begin to think about my overnight options. I realize that there are not so many. I could simply lie down at the side of the road in a ditch to escape the wind, at least on my mattress and in my sleeping bag. Putting up the tent in this wind without any protection will not be easy. The ground is rocky and hard, my pegs will deliver little stability. I am afraid I will spend more time keeping my tent from flying away then sleeping during the night. The few rocks I see at the side of the road do not provide enough shelter for the tent, the wind does blast past and above and below them on all sides. Not even sitting behind them I find a real windless spot. Hm, what do I do? This is one of those moments where I would like to be sitting in one of the tour buses that have overtaken me today. They cover the distance between El Chalten and Calafate in 4 hours. The people in there are being transported from one warm bed to the next and do not have to bother about the wind or where to sleep without flying away. They enjoy the comfort of their trip while I am in serious danger of falling into a de-motivation hole. This is bad. I haven’t found the right method to keep my spirit entirely up in such moments. Sunshine and less wind would help, good conditions for staying in a tent overnight. But then this would also take away the adventure factor. Would I want that? Yes. No. Well, in that moment sometimes yes. Before and after those moments definitely no!

My salvation !

While I am thinking about being depressed or not I pass by a small house that does not look like an estancia. Actually it is a roadside café, but closed of course. The owner is around though. I ask him for water (I am running pretty low on this by now) and camping options around. I am lucky. He is supportive! He gives me two bottles of water out of his car for free and explains to me a place where I could put up my tent in relative protection from the wind. A new hotel is being built six km down the road, the building is there already. I could put my tent up right next to it if I wanted. He knows the person in charge at the construction site and will inform him of my coming. Wonderful. I have hope again. The next six km take me more than half an hour. The wind keeps going strong and straight into my face and my legs keep fading more and more. As I cannot find the entrance road to the building (which can easily be seen from miles way though) I make my last few hundred meters cross country in a direct line straight through the pampa, with a group of Guanakos observing with surprised views my approach. Finally I reach the place. There is an empty building there at the riverside. Mario is the man in charge here. The man who invited me over is still there, chatting with him. He seems to be involved into the building of the whole thing, seems to have plans of the whole construction area and organizes some things. There are seven people who live on this construction site in two rooms that they have made up as their shelters. I screen the area around the house and put my tent up in a wind-protected place at one side. Then it is time to cook, to enjoy the evening sun and the view into nothing. I go to bed early in anticipation of an early start tomorrow morning (maybe the wind is still asleep then).

La pampa – second act

The pampa does still look the same when I get up at 7am. Nothing has changed since yesterday. My hopes of having dreamt the whole day yesterday have not come true. Right. Ok. Lets eat, pack my stuff and get going into the boring lonesomeness again for my last 90 km to El Calafate then. As I start off on the bike I am surprised. The direction of the wind has changed. Although the wind is less than yesterday, in the end it is still early, I have it now in my back rather than in my face. Nice. The first hour is an enjoyment really. The bike rolls well, I feel good. Then the wind decides to disappear altogether, which is still better than a head wind like yesterday. In exchange some dark clouds appear and threaten to deliver some rain. They come from the direction that I am going to and I am sure they will sooner or later help me getting the bike cleaned. Anyway, I will simply keep going, get done with it and go into a hostel with a hot shower in El Calafate. The loneliness in the pampa can almost be scary. You can see for miles and ,miles without detecting anything else than the road and a hilly dry landscape. If I had a fatal bike breakdown here or some other problem that would keep me from going on (e.g. a mega insinking) that would be a real problem. Well, I guess this is why I carry so many heavy spare parts and tools and at least one pannier full of food with me all the time. And in the end I am sure that a car would stop and help in the worst case (there are cars or buses passing by every other half an hour or so). Nevertheless, this empty space out here has something scary when you are cycling through it all alone. I better get used to it, there is more of this to come until Ushuaia. It seems that the mentally most challenging part is to come now. Well, lets do it then. Bus is not an option.

El Calafate - happy to stay with the police for a while

The rain begins ca. 10 km before El Calafate. It is a relatively light rain in the beginning though. It gets stronger only just before I reach the police checkpoint before you enter town. And this checkpoint has a roof. Nice. Good timing. I spend half an hour with the police guys, chatting about everything and nothing until the heavy shower has passed and use the rain break that comes to enter town and to find a hostel. Well done. The first two day bike ride through the pampa has been successfully mastered. With a bit of luck, admittedly. But luck is with the ones who deserve it, I hope.

The sounds and the views of the most famous glacier in the world

This is amazing. What looks from my viewpoint like a little stone-sized piece of ice that is falling into the water there does make a noise like a bomb explosion when it hits the surface of the water. Obviously it has been a piece rather the size of a rock than a stone. The relation and feeling for sizes really gets lost when seeing this glacier Perito Moreno. Only when pieces fall off and hit the water is when you understand the size of this thing because the sound it makes is so tremendously loud. Also when the ships approach the glacier is when you realize how big it really is. 55-60 meters is the height of the glacier front that stands out from the water. Its tongue is 14 km long and the front end that reaches out into the lake has a front line (width) of ca. 4 km. Just being there and seeing and listening to the movements of this monster is a spectacle. Within a period of 2 hours I observe plenty of small and big breakaways of the ice. This glacier is stretching its way down from the Southern Continental Icefield into the lake. There is a steady stream of new ice pushing from behind and hence the front loses pieces on a regular basis. The most spectacular observation is of course when a really huge piece the size of a multi storey building breaks off and crashes from high above into the water. First you hear the ice cracking when the piece breaks off the glacier. Then you see the piece falling, almost in slow motion so it seems. It is a mix of falling and sliding down the glacier front. Then you see the impact on the water, the huge splash long before you hear the loud noise that is amplified by the glacier wall. And then after a few seconds you see the huge blocks of ice re-emerge from the water like huge surfacing submarines. The waves then push their way into the lake in circles and the iceblocks float around. This is impressive and the full scale of the impression of this natural spectacle is hard to describe. Anyway, I have tried..

Boat trip back from Ushuaia booked !!!

Good news! I have made a reservation for a boat trip from Ushuaia back to Punta Arenas, which is where my flight to Santiago will leave from later in April. I am looking forward to that trip because it will deliver a nice and appropriate ending to my experience of the southernmost pieces of land on earth (except Antarctica of course). The highlight of these four days will be a visit and disembarkation at Cape Hoorn (weather permitting, so far they have a 70% success rate this year). Furthermore there will be disembarkations at a Glacier in a National Park somewhere in the Southern Patagonian fjords and at a Penguin Island. The journey is not cheap but I have decided to accept it as an investment into a nice ending of the Southern Patagonian & Tierra del Fuego experience. And it is an all inclusive trip. I am sure that after my physically exhaustive journey my body will be longing for plenty of food and drinks which will help to pay back the high price. They will not be making money with me on food or drinks, that is for sure. I will have to earn that pleasure through more than another 1000 km biking through the Southern Patagonian pampa and the chilly winds of Tierra del Fuego though.

Tacheles !

Okay, enough smart talk and phrases like “the journey is the reward” etc. Let’s talk straight forward here (let’s talk some “Tacheles”): Biking in the pampa all alone is bloody boring! Nothing to see, nobody to speak to, all day long, for several days. What a waste of time! My decision for potential future trips like this one here has already been taken since a while but it has just been confirmed by my Pampa experience: I will not do such a thing alone again! The bottom line conclusion from the last 3 months is that the advantages of doing this with a partner or in a group outweigh the disadvantages significantly. Reflecting on the trip so far I simply have to admit that I have enjoyed the times with good company more than the time alone. I do still enjoy the trip very much, also alone, no doubt. And yes, I needed some time for reflection as I thought I would beforehand. And that is best done alone. After 4-6 weeks the big conclusions I wanted to draw for the next phase of my life have been drawn though. And I am probably not as introvert as I was thinking. I think I need a good balance of great company by nice people and still some time for myself. For thinking and reflection. Just me and my thoughts. This is important to me This balance cannot be achieved on a for months solo trip though. I have learned that lesson. I have also learned that I can spend a long time alone without getting crazy though. Even in the pampa. Just that the preferred choice as of now will be not to do this for too long. Good to know. I am glad I found that out.

Consolidation of my fitness

Today is the first day of my tour that I do really take the biking very easy for a whole long distance ride, for a whole day. Without one kilometer of exception. Usually I found myself pushing a bit harder to get up some steeper hill quick or to use tailwind support to gain more speed or something else. There was always a reason to put some pressure on the pedals. And I liked it. This is also the reason why I feel exhausted and burned out at times rather than at the top of my biking shape. Every basic training education tells you that you should do the long and easy rides first before getting into some more intensive training sessions. You solidify the fitness-basis first and then you build on it with more intensive training. What I did here so far was exactly the other way round. I came to Chile without any km on the bike really. Then I started off hard and fast and found myself exhausted pretty quickly. I think I carried this exhaustion through the whole trip until now. It is not as bad as it sounds but I clearly feel it sometimes on bad days. I should either have trained properly before the trip or started off much slower in the first few weeks. Well, too late. My only chance now to somehow leave in a really good shape that I might use well in summer is to try and spend the last 1000 km cycling at a low speed to consolidate the training effect. That would be a nice side effect of the whole adventure here, being in good shape for some mountain bike marathons. And the profile of the remaining km until Ushuaia is much flatter than what I have experienced so far, it would support that idea pretty well. I will try. The first day today is a success already. It is driven by a little injury though. I somehow pulled my hamstring in the morning, in the first minute on the bike. I got out of the hostel, got on the bike, started pedaling and then felt the pain. It is not as bad as to stop me from going on but I need to be careful all day to make sure it does not get worse and can recover itself until tomorrow. To support that I take it especially easy all day today, with no exception. And it is fun as well. Just rolling through the pampa without any pressure on the pedal. Fortunately the wind supports me well from the back.

A strange place for the tent

Where do I put my tent in this wind? The pampa is flat here. No sign of any hills or ditch that would be significant enough to give a decent wind shadow. The ground is very rocky as well, that doesn’t help with tent stability either. At km 116 at six in the afternoon I pass by a house. This alone is almost a miracle. It is a police station. On the paper. In reality it is one guy living in this house with his wife and daughter. And he has an old police car parked next to the house. He offers me two solutions for camping. Either right next to the water stream that passes by (there is one spot that is in fact protected from the wind by a big artificial pile of sand) or in an old shed that used to be the horse paddock once in the past. I screen both places well. Of course I hope for the place next to the water but I have to accept that the ground is too soft and wet. It is simply too close to the stream. Which leaves the ex-horse-shed. Seeing it in a positive light I can remark that the ground is very suitable to hold the tent pegs (it is soft but dry, I don’t want to know what it is). Also do I have to admit that the wind protection in the shed is almost 100%. I have no choice anyway, have to be happy with what I have. I put up the tent, do some cooking and then follow nature’s rhythm. After the sun goes down at 9 pm I move into the tent, listen to an audio book for an hour and then fall asleep in my super cozy sleeping bag which I still use as a blanket cause it is not cold enough for it yet (did I mention already that this was a superb investment in Coyhaique? I think I did).

Into the cold or the wind?

This is the key question I am asking myself in the morning after I wake up with the first daylight at close to 7 am. The thermometer does show barely above freezing outside of the tent. There is no wind yet though. I am expecting a head wind for the whole trip of the day. If I get started early I might have a chance to go without wind for a few early hours. But it is very cold still. So, what do I do? I have the feeling that this question will come back to me more often in the next few weeks. I decide for the cold. After a big müsli breakfast I am on the bike shortly after 8 am, with my muscle fully recovered, no more pain, and with the hope to go without wind for as long as possible today. At least I am not alone in the pampa anymore. The wildlife (that I can see) during these early hours of the day is amazing. There are sheep all over the place, only slowly and reluctantly giving the road free for me to pass. Then there are ostriches (is this the name for the animal or the meat or both? I don’t know. I will simply keep using this term as I have no dictionary here). Many ostriches. Other than the sheep they are in a hurry to escape when I get too close though. They can really run unbelievably fast. At the highest of their speed they try to use their wings as well. This looks weird. They run fast and zick zack and try to unwrap their wings, which doesn’t work of course. Funny. There are also Guanakos again. These relatives of the Lamas that I have seen jump the fences beside the road with elegance. They are nice. And birds are around, from small to very big. Some smaller sub-species of the condors are there to eat the leftovers of rabbit remainders from road kill and some smaller birds seem to have plenty of fun in the morning sun. This whole zoo helps to get through the morning quickly. Oh, and by the way. The first car appears after two hours. One of very few today.

A lucky day

This was a good day. The wind kept sleeping all day. I am really a lucky guy. During one of the stretches of my journey which was supposed to have a guaranteed strong head wind I had no wind at all. I could pass through a 100 km stage easily without big effort today. I had anticipated two days for this with head wind. Very nice. After having passed a very lonesome border control office in the middle of nowhere I am back in Chile. I have found a nice hotel in the small town of Cerro Castillo (200 inhabitants). I had a big steak “a la pobre” (with two fried eggs on top), do relax a bit now and will then head off into Torres del Paine national park tomorrow. I will be there for a few days. The tent will rule again. Hopefully in nature and not in a shed again.