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.

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