The End of the World…almost

We replaced the tent in Puerto Natales and tested it out in Torres del Paine,  home of Patagonia´s other famous rock spires and the now familiar wind. The mountains were similarly stunning, but the new tent failed to live up to our old one and we might never get over the loss. That portable shelter housed us for three months through all kinds of conditions and pathetic as it may seem, we became quite attached to the little yellow nylon bubble. Sometimes after a hard day on the road, all we had was the Half Dome with her multiple interior pockets and two roomy vestibules…

Anyways, back to more interesting descriptions. Torres del Paine is one of the premier trekking destination in South America and initially we had grand plans to hike the full 10 day circuit. But three easy day hikes in El Chalten made us reconsider (my legs were so sore I could barely walk). We opted for the shorter route known as the ´W´ and the snowstorm we encountered the day after we arrived in Puerto Natales confirmed that this was probably a wise choice. In five days, we had glaciers, granite spires, the standard insanity of Patagonian weather, pill popping (my usually robust knees did not like suddenly being saddled with loaded packs on steep rocky terrain), and some wildlife encounters.

Looking out over Glacier Grey, with its giant chunks of blue ice floating in the lake and deep crevasses, we imagined looked a bit like looking at Antarctica – or the last ice age. A huge sheet of thick white glacier spreading out into distant snowy mountains half covered in mist. On the second day we hiked up the French Valley to a lookout over a cirque of towering summits. Needless to say, the views were spectacular and pain free thanks to the six advil I consumed throughout the day. Highlight of day three was the freshly steaming mystery poop we came across in the middle of the trail. It looked suspiciously like puma scat and we spent a tense few minutes wondering if there was a  predator stalking us from some unseen vantage point. Alejandro had his knife out and was ready to defend us, but no puma materialized. In fact, the most dangerous wildlife encounter occurred on the second morning when I opened my pack and a very fat mouse (it may have been a rat…) scurried out after a night spent gorging on our granola. Even worse than our diminished food supply was my embarrassingly girly scream. Luckily we were the only people left in camp so no one heard (we always seemed to be the last to leave and the last to get into camp at night).

We arrived at our final campsite near the trail to the Torres lookout, a famous viewpoint at the base of the three granite spires surrounding a glacial lake, but decided to wait until morning for a sunrise view of the peaks. At 6:45 AM we crawled out of our tents to a light rain and headed up in darkness hoping for a weather miracle. By the time we got to the lookout, it was pelting rain and windy. We huddled under a rock, made coffee, and ate the last of our food still hoping for a miracle. When, at 8:45, the towers were not lit up electric red and orange like the postcards, but shrouded in clouds, we gave up and ran down the trail in increasingly the obscene weather.

We rode out of Puerto Natales ridiculously happy to be back on the bikes because walking was too painful. This is ´Ultima Esperanza´or ´Last Hope´ province, a place where a long arm of the sea comes inland to meet the mountains and between Puerto Natales and our next stop, Punta Arenas, it was 250 km of flat windswept plains. Now, the smallest dots on the maps aren´t even towns, just large sheep farms called Estancias. But as the weather and landscape get harsher, the people make up it with their hospitality. At Estancia Irene, we escape the wind and the cold in the sheep shearers´quarters and get to watch spanish soap operas in the kitchen at dinner.

Now we´re in Punta Arenas, a sprawling metropolis at the end of continental South America, preparing for our final leg of the trip across Tierra del Fuego to Ushuaia. We finally bested our biggest mileage day of the trip two days ago and it was about time given that our previous best was set on day two. 136 km almost felt effortless. We´re back to desert riding – but without the scorching heat. Flat roads in straight lines to the horizon, wind (thankfully at our backs), and limitless skies. But now that we´re almost at the end of the world –  even the locals refer to this place in those extremes – the desert feels tame in comparison. Here, the few trees that can survive are permanently bent in the direction the wind blows, weather is as mercurial as ever, and the hardest part of our day is trying to get the right combination of layers so that we can bike without sweating or freezing. In the morning it´s easy. We put on every item of clothing we have and start pedaling as fast as possible to accelerate the warming process, trying not to think about our perpetually numb  feet. Fall temperatures have finally caught up to us as we wipe frost off our bike seats and spot cracked ice covering pools of water by the side of the road. Daylight is scarcer too. The sun sets at 8 pm and doesn´t rise until 8 am which means twelve hours of sleep and the rest of the time  spent moving as much as possible – both to get somewhere and to stave off the cold.

Tomorrow we take the ferry across the Magellan Strait to Porvenir and from there it´s a little over 500km to Ushuaia. Sorry for the lack of pictures. We´ll get some up eventually.

 

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Hiking (mis)adventures

We’re in El Calafate right now on an emergency mission to fix our tent. It did not survive our stay in El Chalten, a little hiking mecca filled with an odd combination of gore-tex clad trekkers, expensive restaurants, ramshackle tin buildings, and the occasional horse. This is Argentina’s newest town; it was hastily assembled in 1965 to beat Chile to the border. El Chalten sits right at the entrance to Los Glaciares National Park, home of Argentina’s most famous mountains. Along with the towering granite spires of Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, the area is known for severe weather. Unpredictable storms blow in at any time and in our four days, we had hot sun, cloudless skies, snow, torrential rain, and fog – all occurring in the span of a few hours. But it was the wind that really defined this place and on our last day it was so strong, I could feel it almost blow me off balance.

Apparently the tent felt the same way. We arrived back from hiking and found a large rip in the rain fly and a snapped tent pole. Our plans to trek around Patagonia’s other famous mountains in Torres del Paine are on hold while we try and find a way to fix this very essential bit of equipment. Otherwise we’ll have to swallow our budget and buy a new one and the tents we’ve seen many Argentines using do not inspire confidence – usually they’re sagging and in various states of disrepair. Maybe we’ll have better luck in Chile.

Aside from the wind issue, El Chalten was ideal for its proximity to Cerro Torre and Mt Fitzroy, two peaks rising 3,000 meters above the Patagonian steppe. I say “ideal” because there was no real backpacking required to get up close to the mountains. And judging by how our legs feel after three days of relatively easy day hikes, this was a good thing. Biking long distances for prolonged periods of time is completely useless for any other physical activity – except more biking.

The immense scale and technical difficulty of these peaks combined with the wild weather makes them two of mountaineering’s greatest climbs. And looking up at the mountains I had already seen in countless photographs was a testament to the stunning inadequacy of pictures in this particular setting.

The tops of the peaks are almost always shrouded in clouds; you can wait for days and never see them. But the clouds always seemed to part at some point in the day giving us glimpses of the entire summit massif long enough to take hundreds of pictures, each with a slightly different cloud arrangement clinging stubbornly to the mountain’s flanks.

Almost as exciting as the scenery and the weather was meeting up with Casey Jones, a junior at Williams studying in Buenos Aires for the semester. Our timing in El Chalten coincided and we hiked together to Laguna de Los Tres for views of Mt Fitzroy and an off-trail adventure scramble to a glacier lookout. When we got to the ridge it was snowing, but slowly the fog lifted, revealing a giant sheet of blue ice wrinkled with crevasses and studded with huge toothy pinnacles.

Having Casey around provided some much needed perspective on just how many strange behaviors we’ve developed over the last three months. He introduced us to his American friends from BA, but interacting with normal people turned out to be a little too much to handle. We were reduced to crouching behind a boulder eating spoonfuls of dulce de leche in mute silence while Casey tried without success to facilitate conversation. He chatted away while the others probably wondered why he’s friends with the two biking freaks. Sorry Casey – reintegrating into normal life might be harder than anticipated…

Sleeping in a bed for more than two nights now feels unnatural so we convinced Casey to move from the hostel to the “Casa de Jesus”. We pitched our tent in Jesus’s yard on a hill above town along with a motley crew of travelers. Jesus is a legendary figure around El Chalten, a man who offers up his entire property to complete strangers, most of whom end up staying for weeks. We arrived just in time for the nightly communal dinner cooked in a big “disco” over the fire and immediately felt more at home more at home among the dreadlocked unshowered tribe hanging out with Jesus than with the the clean “normal” tourists in the impersonal hostel.

I started writing this yesterday but as of this morning we don’t even have a broken tent. It was stolen last night along with all the cash in my wallet – confirmation of why we hate hostels. Or maybe we’ve just become too complacent after so much time spent by ourselves in remote places. We endured a morose bus ride to Puerto Natales and were cheered up by the less touristy vibes and the discovery of Alex’s camera that we thought had been in his backpack with the tent. I guess we’re going shopping now.

Below: the mountains we temporarily ditched our bikes for and waiting out the wind and rain in the tent (r.i.p.) with some wine and a book – we try to stay civilized at least some of the time.

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The Trail of Tears and the Road to Nowhere

Although we may have wanted to go hiking in southern Patagonia slightly more than we wanted to keep biking, the real reason we cut off the last 250km of the Carreterra was far more noble. The road was getting too easy and too populated and now that we’re three months into the trip, we needed a bit more of a challenge. And just to prove how well we’ve mastered the whole bike touring thing, our last 30 km on the Carreterra included me toppling off my bike yet again (I’m ashamed to admit this is now almost a daily occurrence). So we said goodbye to the “trail of tears” (Alex’s name for the Carreterra in honor of my many falls – but no real tears have ever been shed…obviously) and headed east into the Valle Chacabuco.

The turnoff was ambiguous i.e. completely unmarked, but the map showed only one road leading to the Argentinean border so it had to be the right one. Immediately the landscape changed from one dominated by the Rio Baker’s turquoise ribbon, a deep gorge snaking below us, making its way from distant glaciers, to a dry windswept valley of yellow shrubs and endless skies. This is the future Conservacion Patagonia, a giant national park in the making, spearheaded by American philanthropist and North Face founder, Doug Tomkins. Herds of Guanacos, some rabbits, and the endangered Huemul, or Andean deer, roam the “Serengeti of the Southern Cone.”

The wildlife sitings were exciting, but what really convinced us that this was maybe the best road of the trip was the lack of fences. This may seem like a strange point of appeal, but when you pedal for miles and miles down a road lined with barbed wire you end up feeling a bit cut off from your surroundings. And when every day is about moving through a place slow enough so that it’s not just a blur, fenced off landscapes feel like a sort of betrayal. Of course, this is a completely ridiculous notion. People own land and have a right to protect it from rogue gringos who might otherwise pitch their tent on a scenic patch of their property. All the same, it was refreshing to come across a landscape that was as accessible as it was wild.

Further down the road we came across the future park headquarters, right now just a construction site, but the luxury lodge looked pretty much complete. From here it was 60 km to the border crossing and even farther to anything resembling a town. As the Chacabuco valley emptied us onto the open steppe near the border, the notorious winds that blow down from the Andes hit – luckily behind us or we might not have made it. On the barren plateau that led to the border, we barely survived a brutal stretch of loose gravel and crosswinds that threatened to blow us (mostly me) off the road. According to the officials, we were the only people crossing into Argentina that day, and apparently this is standard for the Paso Roballo. They shut down this station in about a month because winter makes the rough road impassable.

There was evidence that motorcyclists come this way, but not surprisingly, no cyclists. The reason became clear when we checked with the border officials how far it was to Lago Posadas, the nearest dot on the map that looked like a town. From our map, it looked about 20 km past the border, but it was actually more like 70. The scale must have been off. We left anyways – in the howling wind – leaving the border patrolmen staring at us with a mixture of incredulity and mild concern.

We pedaled into a landscape of dry cracked lake beds, eroded rocks, and wind whipped silence. Empty and desolate, it felt like the end of the earth, a feeling compounded by the impossibly distant horizon. After two hours of biking on a road that would not have looked out of place on the moon, we took a turnoff for an unmarked town and hoped it would lead to somewhere. The food situation was getting dire. We kept pedaling while the sun set, looking for some kind of shelter from the wind, but there was none. We camped on the side of road and spent a sleepless night hoping the tent wouldn’t rip apart.

Next morning we arrived triumphantly in Lago Posadas, ravenous, but relieved to have made it to an actual town. Even this far south though, the hours of siesta are holy and we couldn’t find a single place to get food for another two hours. We passed the time on the side of the road hoping a truck heading to Bajo Caracoles would give us a lift. No such luck. We gave up as soon as we could eat and decided to start biking in the morning.

Chatwin describes Bajo Caracole as “a crossroads of insignificant importance with roads leading all directions apparently to nowhere.” His description pretty much sums up this dusty little gas stop in the middle of Ruta 40’s most remote section. Even arriving here after the Paso Roballo didn’t change our perspective much.

But this bit of nowhere was the start of our little 400 km shortcut. Patagonia is a big empty place, but it has some of the most famous hikes in the world and after almost three weeks of straight biking, we were ready for a walking break.  Our bikes on the bus, we headed south on Ruta 40 to El Chalten. It almost felt like cheating as we blasted along the gravel highway for seven hours of empty steppe that expanded into an even bigger sky. At this point, getting off the road and into the mountains for a few days of hiking was more appealing.

But none of these moderately adventurous experiences compares to the momentous occasion that was Alex’s newly clean shaven face. Yes, The Beard is finally gone. Two months of wild tangled growth have been reduced to some patchy scruff and strange facial tan lines. Since he didn’t have much luck with real barbers, Alejandro took matters into his own hands and spent an hour taming the beast with my Swiss army knife scissors. He now looks like a semi normal individual – aside from the zip off pants and bike shoe booties he wears on a daily basis. I don’t look any better.

See below for pictures of the new face (along with some of Bajo Caracole and its most interesting sight: the sunset)

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Carreterra Austral Part II

We left Coyahaique after getting turned down by four different barbershops. No one wanted to tackle the gringo’s beard. So it survived another 400 km of the Carreterra Austral, both growing more beastly by the day.

Roads got rougher, winds stronger, and food scarcer as we pedaled farther away from the little island of civilization that is Coyahaique. Outside of Villa Cerro Castillo, we looked up at a mountain draped with glaciers and tall rock spires, like some kind of weird castle formation. This part of the Carreterra has a drier climate, with mountains more similar to the central Rockies. We followed a huge river valley to the windy shores of Lago General Carrera, the second largest lake in South America that straddles the border between Chile and Argentina. From Puerto Rio Tranquilo, we headed into an area marked by aquamarine lakes and glacier fed rivers – and hydroelectric companies desperate to sink their teeth into these untapped energy reserves. Billboards with “Patagonia Sin Represas” are everywhere, reminding us that dams threaten many of these pristine rivers. It’s a controversial issue given Chile’s chronic energy shortage, but if you ask most Chileans whether they’re in favor of damming their rivers, they say no. Big mining companies are driving the demand and the biggest one of all is Canadian. So for once I can’t proudly announce my nationality (usually when people ask where we’re from, the Canadian part of the equation gets a more enthusiastic response).
According to a trio of kayakers we shared a campsite with in Puerto Bertrand, plans are already underway to dam the Rio Baker, Chile’s most voluminous river.

Our original planned was to bike the whole Carreterra Austral to Villa O’Higgins where the road ends. From there it’s a somewhat adventurous crossing into Argentina that involves a couple boat rides across two lakes, a sketchy trail through the woods over fallen trees and across a few streams (some people rent mules for this part). Somehow you pop out on a gravel road just north of El Chalten, a town at the base of some of Patagonia’s most famous peaks, the spires of Mount Fitzroy and Cerro Torre. But this late in the season, the boat runs only once per week and with the protests and accompanying fuel shortages, potentially not at all. There were stories of people getting stuck for days or weeks at a time and with time running out for us, we decided to look into other options.

This far south, however, there aren’t many. On the other side of the border in Argentinian Patagonia, the steppe stretches for thousands of kilometers alongside the Andes. Towns are almost nonexistent and the one road – Ruta 40 – has brutal stretches of loose gravel. In other words, it’s not ideal for bicycle touring, so taking a bus is necessary. There was a border crossing just south of Coyahaique that was paved and well traveled (i.e. this would have been the reasonable route to take)
but then we’d miss out on more of the
southern section of the Carreterra. We looked at the map again and found the smallest road possible leading to the “Paso Roballo”, which led to a town called Bajo Caracoles. 200km separated the last town we would pass through in Chile and the nearest town across the border, but this was a minor issue. We had met some Dutch people farther north who had biked that way and decided it was doable based on the rationale that “they didn’t look too hardcore.”

A few days later, we arrived in Puerto Bertrand, a sleepy village at the confluence of the Rio Baker and Lago Bertrand, ready to stock up on food for the three days it would take us to reach the closest town in Argentina. But we pedaled into the town on Sunday and found only one of two grocery stores open. Calling either of these places a “Grocery store” is a bit of a stretch. There were about three mostly empty shelves and a freezer with a few items inside. No vegetables except for onions, no fruit, no cereal, no milk, no chocolate, no cheese – nothing in fact, that would sufficiently fuel two people for three days of hard biking. At least they had bread. So we bought three giant loaves, lots of butter, some canned peaches, and a lot of cookies, and walked out. After a few minutes of calculating how much we would actually need to eat, we realized this was definitely not enough, but by that time, the store had closed up. We camped out in town, hoping we’d have better luck with the other store in the morning. This was not to be, but we did find some chocolate and dulce de leche (or manajar as it’s called in Chile) to add to our highly nutritious supply of carbs, sugar, and fat. At least there was plenty of water (for now).

Pictures from top to bottom: Alejandro celebrating (or not) the two month anniversary of his ManBeard, crossing the Rio Baker, a good section of road along Lago General Carrera

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Coyahaique

More protests last night in Coyahaique with rioters and policemen spraying tear gas in the central plaza. Despite the civil unrest, the overwhelmingly well stocked grocery store convinced us to stay the night. Sometimes the prospect of food – and eating food –  eclipses all other potentially interesting facets of the trip.
For evidence of this see the first picture below. Yes, Nutella is like crack. That’s Alex’s jar after less than 12 hours (I think he might have a problem…)

On another note, we met two Americans, Christi and Tauru, who are stuck in Coyahaique for two weeks waiting for a bike part to arrive. They’re riding from Ushuaia to Alaska and if you thought riding 16,000 miles was a crazy undertaking, try doing it legally blind. They planned their trip as a way to raise awareness for blindness. This video gives you an idea of what it’s like to ride with zero peripheral vision. It’s a terrifying prospect given the number of sketchy gravel roads in southern Patagonia where I can barely stay on my bike with two fully functional eyes.

“The Beard” is getting shaved. Very sad, but maybe now we’ll get fewer strange looks.

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Cholila to Coyahaique

From Trevelin we rode back into Chile, crossing the border near Futaleufu. Our route took us onto a road as infamous as Argentina’s Ruta Quarenta, the Careterra Austral. There were stories of biblical rains and food shortages from the protests that have spread throughout the Aysen region of southern Chile, but luck was on our side. We entered Chilean Patagonia under clear skies (and I managed to not fall my bike for a whole day).

Once again, the landscape changed dramatically within the span of a few miles. Past the border we were looking up at glaciated mountains descending into deep river valleys flanked by black cliffs. We arrived in Futaleufu, a world famous whitewater kayaking and rafting destination on the banks of a frothing turquoise river with class IV and V whitewater. A chance encounter with a guy from Nebraska waiting to pick up some kayakers had us reconsidering – once again – the whole biking thing. He had sailed to southern Chile from New Zealand and almost convinced us to take a bus to Ushuaia and get on a boat bound for South Africa. This was a short lived fantasy on my end, but Alex seriously considered it.

I think it was the Lord of the Rings landscape that kept him on the bike with New Zealand, Switzerland, and British Columbia all crammed into one stretch of road. We pedaled through green valleys suspended between mountains, tiny farms, and herds of cows walking down the middle of the road. Animals always have the right of way, especially when two Chilean cowboys are in charge. Later, Alejandro spied the perfect riverside campsite through a gap in the trees. Dinner, however, failed to live up to our scenic campsite. All the stores in Futaleufu were closed so we made do with instant soup, which I over peppered, rendering it almost inedible. Luckily we had a giant chocolate bar to compensate.

At Villa Sainta Lucia, we started south on the Carreterra Austral, a 1,200 km mostly gravel road running from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins through rural Patagonia. It was General Pinochet’s idea to build what sometimes felt like the highway to hell –  a fitting tribute to his brutal military dictatorship. Construction on the road started in the late 1970’s as a way to access the most isolated settlements in southern Chile. But with the harsh climate and impenetrable wilderness, the last 100km section to Villa O’Higgins was only just completed in 2000.

As we pedaled south, it quickly became apparent just how remote this road was. We were alone except for the occasional car (maybe 2 per hour at most) and a few other cyclists. Most are headed north but apparently there’s a Japanese guy biking in our direction ahead of us. We’ve been following him for days now and  can’t seem to catch him.

At some points the road is hardly more than a cart track winding through mountainous wilderness. In Parque National Quelat, we enter the rainforest. Giant ferns spill over the road as we rode deeper into mist soaked mountains and we emerged briefly  in Puuyuhuapi, a tiny fishing village at the end of a long arm of the sea. Here the ocean travels way inland through a network of fjords. The fishy smell of the sea followed us for awhile before we started climbing up into a cloud forest. And we kept climbing; pedaling through eerie silence and a foggy grey drizzle that clung to the mountainside so all we could see we’re the tops of the trees below and above us. With no end in sight and darkness approaching we pitched our tent directly beside the road near a waterfall. We didn’t worry about cars seeing us because there weren’t any.

This fact, however, did not imply the wild tranquility we expected. The whole area is currently in the midst of political turmoil with protests that began with the fishermen in the Aysen region of Patagonia. The unrest has spread throughout Chilean Patagonia, due in part to long simmering grievances tied to Chile’s overly centralized government. Chile is the longest country in the world but the vast majority of economic and political power  are concentrated in Santiago, almost 2000 km away. People in Patagonia feel like the government is ignoring their needs and have created a coalition they call the Social Movement for the Aysen Region to send right-wing President, Sebastien Pinera, a clear message. Their list of demands include subsidies to help compensate for the higher cost of fuel and food, a free regional university, a higher minimum wage to reflect the higher cost of living, and a greater say in the controversial hydroelectric dam projects.

Black flags fly everywhere, a sign of solidarity with the protesters, and we arrive at a roadblock just outside of Villa Amengual. There’s a line of tires blocking the road, fires burning, and cars backed up on either side. “Tu problema es mi problema” is scrawled on the windows of homes and businesses. “Your problem is my problem” takes on  new significance when we discover the road blocks have prevented food and other basic supplies from reaching the the stores. But at least we’re allowed through – thank god we’re biking. Those traveling by car or bus aren’t so lucky and we hear about people stuck in little villages on the Carreterra for days.

We arrived in Villa Manihuales last night after hearing rumors from other cyclists about the “Casa di cyclista” here. We asked around and found the green house that doubles as an evangelical church where Jorge hosts people traveling by bicycle for free. The hot showers and washing machine were particularly necessary. It had been awhile since we showered – as in over a week – and the odor situation in the tent was getting dire. We did try and clean ourselves Patagonia-style in a lake, but that was at least 5 days ago.

Sunday night was a big night at Don Tito’s bar – the only place open in Villa Manihuales when we showed up looking for somewhere to eat dinner. Instead we gave in to demands of “mas cerveza antes de comer” (more beers before dinner) which resulted in some impromptu dancing with the locals. We left before things got too out of hand.

Heading for Coyahaique now, probably the only town with a population greater than a thousand on the Carreterra Austral.

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Beastmode: Part II

Getting more rugged by the day…

More updates to come from Chile and the Careterra Austral.

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