Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Patagonia: Argentine Time

Guanacos near El Rincon.

I was growing fond of “Argentine time.”  It was nearly impossible to meet someone without also sharing food, some mate, and staying a few minutes.  The culture was consequently exceptionally hospitable, if not a little slower moving than what I was used to in the United States.  Embracing the notion that things take a little longer down south and accepting this a positive thing made relaxing much easier.  Our visit with the park ranger was no different.

We spent nearly an hour at the entry station to Parque Nacional Perito Moreno registering to climb.  The ranger was exceptionally friendly; as it was spring, we were likely some of his first visitors this season and would be the first visitors to the Puesto San Lorenzo refugio since the park had closed for the winter.  We chatted for a while about our plans, checked the weather forecast, and saw photos of his recent trip to Chaltén.  A smile crossed his broad face the entire time, wrinkling the corners of his eyes ever so slightly.
Park entrance and ranger station.
From the ranger station we advanced to the last estancia on our route, El Rincon.  Here, we finished loading our expedition packs, marveling at their weight and volume.  A short drive up a rugged dirt road took us to the trailhead.  Lacking a four wheel drive vehicle, this included pushing our vehicle up a steep, sandy slope as well as a skin of the teeth stream crossing.  

The estancia El Rincon.
Creek crossing on the way to the trailhead.
By mid-afternoon we were finally shouldering our massive packs for the hike north to Puesto San Lorenzo.  The searing pain in my hips, shoulders, and back from the overloaded pack was soon diminished by the remarkable vistas.  The Rio Lacteo valley was massive and encompassed numerous biomes. 

In the Rio Lacteo valley.
At its mouth we left the rabbits, guanacos, and scrub of the estepa for braided tan gravel bars and interlaced streams of aquamarine milky river.  We crossed open grasslands covered in tufts of light green and straw colored, razor-sharp grass.  There were marshes full of mosses and ferns with mud so sticky it threatened to suck the boots completely off our feet, gaiters be damned.  We encountered shoulders off the river valley replete with conifer ground cover and stands of evergreen trees.
On the eastern shoulder of the Rio Lacteo valley.
 Where the Rio Lacteo turned west we met Puesto San Lorenzo.  Indications of its pats life as a ranching outpost abounded.  Old fence posts dotted the boundary of the grassy clearing.  A corral and hitching posts were evident to one side of the pasture, near an old 2-wheeled wagon and an interlaced network of still-present cow trails.  Numerous rabbits had left markings of their passing in the form of droppings.  The small stone outhouse rested across from the old grazing area.  A trail led through a stand of deep green trees down a steep scree embankment to the river’s edge.

Puesto San Lorenzo.
Camp near Puesto San Lorenzo.
The hut itself was a log frame construction, covered on the roof and sides with a patchwork of corrugated metal in various states of rust.  A small bent stove pipe extended from the roof, indicative of the wood burning stove nestled inside below the only window.  The interior revealed the timber skeleton and dirt floor along with a few accommodations.  The surprisingly well-lit cabin was home to a table and bench, cast iron skillets, water jugs, and even a few fuel cartridges.  The decorations included a variety of crafts--expedition penants, drawings on driftwood, whittle sculptures, and all manner of other exploits of idle hands trapped by weather.  We made our own contribution, caching a day or so of food and fuel in a bag suspended from a rafter.

Our attention was then drawn directly westward, to the prominent summit of Cerro San Lorenzo, steep rock walls broken by rivulets of ice and plastered with massive snow slabs and hanging glaciers.  The ridge running south from the main summit was heavily corniced with layers of overhanging snow stacked 80 or more feet tall.  The pinnacles ripped into the clouds and high winds blasted snow from the ridge, shrouding the top of the mountain in white fog.

The way from the hut demanded multiple river crossings, looking for the shallows between stretches of continuous class II whitewater.  Two trekking poles made the repeated crossings barely manageable through the water that rose above the knee.  Our journey onward and upward took us to the slopes above the river valley, working our way across morainal scree, talus, and boulder fields to a camp site above the lake.
On the braided river bed.
For the preceding two days we had watched the mercurial clouds coming in from the Pacific Ocean across the San Lorenzo massif.  Cirrus clouds wisped aloft, smearing tendrilous fingers into the covering of the sky.  Altocumulus pushed up over the peaks, flattening as it advanced, sliced across by high winds.  Lenticular clouds rose over the summit, cotton plates flowing eastward and breaking into claws as they reached the front range hills.  Layer upon layer of clouds stacked up into striated columns atop every summit.  Finally, San Lorenzo itself was shrouded in cloud.

Cerro San Lorenzo (courtesy of Kevin Shon).
What we could actually see of Cerro San Lorenzo as we approached--just clouds.
I watched as winds tore across the lake 500 meters below, breaking the waves into white caps and rolling glacial icebergs.  The temperamental weather released a small distant avalanche, a wet slide that generated enough force to dislodge a chunk of ice from the glacial headwall.  The frozen bright blue block splashed violently into the sea green water with a distant, muffled crash.

Lago Lacteo with Glaciar Lacteo visible as a thin strip at the head of the lake.
The wall of clouds closed in, enshrouding the valley in mist and grey fog.  We ate dinner hurriedly by headlamp and retreated to the tents, our temporary home.  I re-read the note from my wife, Susan, for at least the tenth time.
Sunset on camp near Lago Lacteo.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Patagonia: Stumbling In

The land stretched out interminably in all directions, three hundred sixty degrees of horizon.  Looking carefully, the slight roundness of the ear was just visible, but nothing else.  No mountains, no trees, no buildings--just scrub brush, dirt, and the straightest road I had ever traveled.

The flat and vast estepa.
Routa Nacional 40 extended south from San Carlos de Bariloche in northern Patagonia, cutting directly across the estepa.  The land was flat and isolated, in many stretches occupied only by the road, an occasional line of barbed wire fence, and perhaps a guanaco or two.  The sky was huge, clear and deeply blue with all the variety of clouds arrayed at some point across the vista.  The seemingly barren landscape did much to highlight the inconsequentiality of three gringos, their compact SUV, and their true place in the universe.

We barreled onward at 100mph, driving always toward the heat shimmer on the horizon.  We had left Bariloche that morning.  There we experienced Argentine hospitality.  We were greeted by Kevin’s friends with gourds of mate in the morning and an asado that afternoon.  The choripan, a simple sausage and bread sandwich, was indescribably tasty, somewhere between a bratwurst and a spicy chorizo on excellent whole wheat rolls.  The steak was incredibly satisfying as well, carefully prepared by our asadors Diego and Craig.

Our stay was somewhat short-lived, though, as we purchased supplies, packed, and set out on the road once again.  We now approached Bajo Caracoles, stopping the car for photos as Cerro San Lorenzo crept into view on the horizon for the first time.  Overwhelmed with excitement, we snapped photos before continuing south to the tiny hamlet of Caracoles.

We parked near the only gas pump in the small community of not more than a dozen buildings.  I entered the hotel/convenience store/restaurant/gas station and queried the owner behind the bar:

¿Tiene nafta aquí?”

“No, no tenemos nafta,” he replied.

“¿En serio?  ¿No hay nafta?” I asked, somewhat surprised.

“No.  Ayer tuvimos, pero hoy no hay mas.”

Our exchange was rather unfortunate.  The town had run out of gas the preceding day.  Without gas here we would not have enough fuel to reach the trailhead and also get back out of the park.  We needed to find gas to make it to the mountain.

I relayed the news to Karsten as Kevin conversed a bit more, getting information on three other possible places for gas, one of which was inside the park boundary.  We decided to commit to entering the park and looking for gas there.

As we approached La Estancia Sierra Andia, our spirits plummeted.  While it was possible the one faded white-washed building in the middle of miles of estepa had gas, we were skeptical.  We approached the outpost slowly and were greeted by an exceptionally amicable Argentine man.

Tito had a full black beard and dark hair beneath his gray wool cap.  His dark blue pants and off-white t-shirt were dirtied from use, extending around his slight potbelly on an otherwise stocky but powerful frame.  He invited us in and introduced us to his companions, a thirty-something Brazilian woman and a wizened, weathered gaucho with clear blue eyes.

These three were the caretakers for the estancia, owned by a lawyer in Buenos Aires.  They confirmed that they did, in fact, have gas.  As Tito went to fetch it, we were treated to mate and tortas fritas, small fried cakes the size of a diner roll and similar to fluffy, slightly-less-sweet homemade donuts.

I accompanied Tito with the gas.  He placed a large jug on the roof of our car and siphoned the fuel by mouth into the tank.  I helped him tidy up and we then escaped the wind back into the building and the warmth of its wood burning stove.  Our transaction complete, we stayed for mate, conversing a while about their time in the park, and telling them of our plans for climbing Cerro San Lorenzo.  The general consensus was that we were crazy, but they were friendly nonetheless.  We watched a few minutes of “The Fast and the Furious” together and finally departed an hour after our arrival.

We drove into the park and the waning daylight.  The full moon clearly detailed the landscape.  Plains lay behind, mountains ahead, and rabbits, guanacos, cows, horses, and birds in between.  I admired the beauty with growing excitement as we drew ever-closer to the mountains.  I marveled at the amazing people we had met thus far.  Their generosity was overwhelming; I was humbled.

Sunset entering Parque Nacional Perito Moreno.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Patagonia: Argentine Road Warriors

I returned from the bathroom as Kevin began negotiations with our third rental car company.  It appeared that our intended rental company, replete with webpage, phone number, and email address did not actually exist.  Or, if it did, no one at the Ezeiza International Airport had ever heard of it as it did not have a desk next to the other rental companies.

Karsten found a seat atop our cart of luggage.  Meanwhile, I attempted to stumble through striking up a conversation with Mario, a friend of a friend involved in a small-scale operation to smuggles U.S. dollars into the country who also doubled as our taxi driver.

By this point, we had been on the ground almost two hours coordinating the logistics of a car rental, cab ride, and money changing.  Our plan was bemusingly Argentine.

The first rental company we tried charged exorbitant rates and the second did not have a sufficiently large and capable enough vehicle for our combination of needs:  off-road capability and cargo capacity for three adults plus 300 pounds of stuff.  Finally, we managed to find a reasonably priced small SUV that we would have to pick up downtown, some 40 minutes drive from the airport.  Incidentally, the rental company clerk also ran a small side business in foreign currency exchange at better-than-market rates and was more than willing to offer us a deal on our rental for the trouble of letting him turn our dollars into pesos.

We soon found ourselves in the thick of Avenida Nueve de Julio, purportedly the widest road on the planet according to Mario.  He expertly threaded a line through cars, buses, trucks, mopeds, and bicycles stacked eight wide across six marked lanes, all while performing a variety of magic tricks with a well-worn deck of cards.  Our amiable chauffeur left us at the east end of the avenida to load our Ford Ecosport for our two day drive to San Carlos de Bariloche.

Our exit of Buenos Aires found us below the beautiful and imposing stylized portrait of Eva Peron enshrined as a one hundred foot-tall mural on the side o f the most prominent residential sky scraper in el centro.  Karsten jockeyed for position in the ever-changing flow of metal and rubber on asphalt.  Kevin navigated expertly with out tourist-scale map as I attempted to identify street names and warn of encroaching buses and suicidal motorcyclists in order to avert repeated, seemingly imminent collisions.

By mid-afternoon Kevn and I stood on Calle 42 in the town of La Plata, conversing with our new friend Diego, who offered us directions for el supermercado, la verduleria, and Routa Provincial 215.  I was impressed by his friendliness and enjoyed pretending like I knew my way around the market.  As I paid for some bananas, I sensed the growing urgency in the back of my mind to finally get on the road.

At the wheel on the cross-country drive.
Between fatigue, dehydration, our extremely tardy departure, and some navigational issues, my frustration tolerance was waning.  We tore headlong across la pampa, the sun beginning its slow fall from the sky.  The gentle green curves of rolling hills on the horizon were accented by the golden light until both faded to purple.  Rows of alamo trees lined gravel roads on either side, providing protective wind breaks for the homesteads they enveloped on each estancia.  The cattle and horses roamed freely across the grassy plains, and the occasional hawk would make its presence known as it swept earthward and then skyward clutching rodent prey from the roadside.  Frustrated though I was, I soon found it difficult to be upset in such a pastoral setting.  I gazed softly at the horizon beyond the steering well.  I cracked a smile.

Karsten grabbing some jamon crudo and wifi at the small hotel in General La Madrid.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Patagonia: Feeling Foreign

Absorbed in my reading, I  barely registered the stream of beautifully articulated Spanish directed at me.  A bit stunned, I looked up dumbly, a blank, laconic stare toward the Argentine stewardess.

¿Señor, que quiere cenar?”

My empty expression belied my many studious hours practicing Spanish.  I couldn’t even think to ask her to repeat herself.

“In English, sir?”

“Uh, yes, please.  Mi español no es muy bueno.  Gracias.”

A small portion of airplane-grade dinner invaded my tray table, an amalgamation of chewy pasta, dry cheesecake, a tiny wedge of brie, and a salad consisting solely of romaine lettuce and chopped asparagus.

As the strikingly pretty woman continued down the aisle, I could only then recall the numerous ways I could have indicated, “Otro vez, por favor.”

I wondered how Karsten was doing, seated in my row but on the complete opposite side of the plane, five people between us.  A few seats back, Kevin, chatted easily and amicably with the attendant on his side of the cabin.  She doted a moment as he layered on his irresistible charm, making it impossible for anyone to ever dislike him.  I felt a slight pang of jealousy as he bantered with the gorgeous flight attendant.  It appeared that the moment he spoke a little Spanish, every Latino he met (especially the women) became immediately disarmed, or even charmed.

I squirmed and wiggle in my seat, not unusual for me.  It has never really been possible for me to sit still.  Underlying my jitters, though, was perhaps a little anxiety.  Air travel had never seemed so foreign to me.  I was painfully aware of my place as a gringo.

Pushing these feelings aside, I returned to my reading.  The stories in the American Alpine Journal helped to take my temporarily subdued psych and bring it back up to at least a simmer, if not a full boil.  I was going to need it to get through the coming weeks, I was sure.

My friends were only a few feet away, yet I felt detached, almost alone, surrounded by people with whom I lacked any real capacity to converse.  Normally, I would not necessarily have even wanted to speak much with those around me on the plane anyway, but now it seemed vitally important.  I squirmed more in my seat and tried to settle in.  I attempted to sleep. 

Wrestling luggage as we wait to check-in for our flight to Buenos Aires.