Sunday, November 5, 2017

Patagonia 2017: Laguna de los Tres (A Story In Which A Hiker Is Misplaced) - Día Tres

Patagonia 2017: Laguna De los Tres - Día Tres – 2/10/17 – 20 km

The wind didn't blow itself out during the night; it strengthened to gale force such that normal people would have stayed inside for that second cup of coffee.  But not hikers!  We’re in Patagonia!  Fitz Roy is out there…somewhere.

Today’s plan was another of the most popular hikes in Los Glaciares:  Laguna de los Tres.  "Los Tres" refers to the three peaks that can be seen from the lakeshore: Fitz Roy, Poincenot, and Saint-Exupéry.  [spoiler alert: cloud cover reigned so we didn’t see the big guys.]

Out our front door to the end of our street, then we ascended an odd steel ramp/walkway and headed to the north end of town, where Avenida San Martín turns to gravel and then to dirt.  Like yesterday, we passed a gigantic wooden trail map and a tent staffed by a ranger pointing out the posted rules. 

The hike began with a steep two-mile climb, the wind blowing as fiercely as I have ever experienced, with frequent gusts that shook me off my feet if I wasn’t prepared.  One blast knocked my camera out of my hand so one selfie was my limit. Yikes, this may not be as much fun as I’d hoped.  And the clouds were shrouding the peaks once again.  Reconsider that coffee?? Brunch?? Nope, keep on hiking.

Río de las Vueltas

At the Mirador del Fitz Roy – same as yesterday, the peaks still hiding

But there’s a tease: Glaciar Piedras Blancas

The main trail is wide and heavily used with numerous quickie side trails to viewpoints, although some truly go nowhere (potty stops?)  At one point the trail splits - left goes to Laguna Capri, right continues to Laguna de los Tres - and then comes back together again. We took the path going right, but remarked that maybe we could take the alternate on our return if there was time. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember this conversation later…

The trail passes through an extensive marshy area via long boardwalks, two planks wide, with “turnouts," frequently spaced side boards for stepping aside to let oncoming hikers pass.  Everyone played the politeness game – you next - no, you next - no, I insist – 

In the Chorrillo del Salto Valley

I spy Glaciar Piedras Blancas again

We had agreed that without drastic improvement in the cloud cover situation, we’d turn around at the Poincenot campground.  The final ascent to the lake and the peaks is very steep with loose scree and we didn’t feel it was a worthwhile risk if we truly could not see the view.  Along the way, Cathy spoke with a woman who suggested we follow another trail from Poincenot to a “best view” of Glaciar Piedras Blancas. 

At the camp, we made the call to skip the ascent.  A ranger there confirmed a different trail that goes closer to Glaciar Piedras Blancas but the distance was unclear.  We set off in that direction, but after a short while I cried uncle, feeling that I needed my energy for the return hike.  Rick and I sat down to rest while Cathy and Carol continued on for the close-up. 

My best photo of Glaciar Piedras Blancas

Once we regrouped, it was time to turn around.  We passed scores of people as we backtracked through the valley and over the marsh boardwalks.

And then… the day took a turn for the worse.  I stepped off the trail to pee, told Carol to go ahead.  When I stepped back onto the trail, within 30 yards I came to an open area of boulders and sand.  I saw the trail going left, but after just a few minutes it grew narrower and I suspected I had gotten onto one of those pesky side trails.  At about the same time I realized this, the main trail crossed.  Okay then!  I turned left onto the main trail and continued on my merry way. 

I thought my friends were ahead of me when in fact they were behind me.  I picked up my pace, thinking that I would catch them or they would be waiting at the next intersection…or the next…or the next. Meanwhile, they had waited for me literally right around the curve from where I had mistakenly bypassed the main trail.  When I didn’t join them within a few minutes, they of course began looking for me.  The more time they spent looking, the more concerned they became. 

Preoccupied now with just catching up to my friends, I asked two different groups of ascending hikers if they had seen a very small woman hiking with two friends, and they both said, yes, they are a few minutes ahead of you. I hurried all the way to the entrance – surely they would wait for me there – but they weren’t there.  I sat down and waited, not sure now what to think. 

 Several hours of worry and confusion as my friends enlisted others to help look for me.  A ranger along the trail was drawn into the search.  Was she hurt? Lost?  Both?  They began asking ascending hikers if they had seen me.  I had been sitting at the entrance only a few minutes when a couple coming down asked if I was Sharon, and my chest constricted.  My friends were desperately looking for me near the place where I should have been – several miles up the trail. 

I hiked back up less than a mile when a hiker-photographer carrying a full-size tripod stopped me – yes, I’m Sharon – and he insisted that I return to the entrance with him to wait.  The ranger was radioed and the mystery was solved.  Another hour later, my friends met me at the entrance.  None too happy with me, either. 

What is the lesson?  We’re all very experienced hikers and many times we’ve hiked in and then “see you at the trailhead” hiked out.  But this was another country and the back-home rules were not enough.  My first mistake: not backtracking when I realized I was on a side trail, no matter how short it was.  My second mistake: not remembering the discussion about taking an alternate route to Laguna Capri, meaning we would have all met up at that trail junction (or had I passed that one on my detour?) My third mistake: assuming they would keep going ahead of me and not wait.  My fourth mistake: Not sitting down to wait at the first true intersection I came to.  My fifth mistake:  Not sending word up and down the trail as they had done (so if they were indeed ahead of me, I would eventually find that out). 

SO… you bet I was buying dinner and drinks for everyone that night!  I didn’t dismiss the situation because it did create much anxiety for everyone, and I hope that a sincere individual apology to each friend helped us to move forward. After all, we have 14 more days of this adventure!  Keep those Pisco sours coming!  

“I’m not lost for I know where I am.  But, however, where I am may be lost.”  ~A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Patagonia 2017: El Chaltén & Laguna Torre - Día Dos

Patagonia 2017: El Chaltén & Laguna Torre – Dia Dos – 2/9/17 – 22 km

Driving from El Calafate to El Chaltén takes 3.5 hours with no stops, but how boring is that?  Two lanes of pavement on Ruta 40 and Ruta 23 pass through the desert steppe landscape in every shade of brown imaginable – umber, russet, ecru, toast, cinnamon, tan, beige, auburn, khaki, dun – and sharp eyes are needed to distinguish the fauna from the rocks and sand.  I had not done any reading up on wildlife in Patagonia but I got an education real quick.  

First up is the guanaco, the same species as the llama and the alpaca, although those two cousins are domesticated while the guanaco is all wild, baby.  They don’t have distinctive variations in color like llamas do; they stick to brown.  Between 3 and 4 feet tall at the shoulder, weighing between 200 and 300 pounds, they are very shy in the remote reaches of the desert. If our car slowed down too much in a stealth attempt to photograph them up close, they quickly moved away. [We did see some more placid guanacos in Torres del Paine later in the trip.]

 Guanaco on the ridge

“Slow down, turn on the lights, do not honk.”  Rules for lots of situations when you think about it.

Barbed wire fencing runs parallel along both sides of the road.  I’m not sure what the primary purpose is, as we saw more than a few guanacos easily leaping over them.  However… the gruesome reality is that not all of them make it.  Over the course of our two weeks in Patagonia we saw dozens of guanaco carcasses hanging from fences, in varying stages of decay, sometimes just the skeletons, sometimes more recent.  One day we stopped and walked over to inspect a carcass.  I’ll show you a photo sometime.

Next up is the lesser rhea (aka Darwin’s rhea), a flightless bird that looks like an ostrich.  They are between 35 and 40 inches tall and weigh between 30 and 60 pounds.  Their coloring is mottled brown and white, good desert camo. 

The friendliest critter is the Patagonia fox or South American gray fox.  He greets tourists at the best viewpoints along the road and is happy to clean up any food that you discard. 
Lago Veidma

We have arrived

El Chaltén is a small village (pop. 1,000) within Los Glaciares National Park and our home base for the next couple of days.  El Chaltén means “Smoking Mountain,” a reference to the near-constant cloud wreath around the top of the Fitz Roy range. First we stopped at the visitor center for maps and received a quick but thorough orientation of some local hikes. We chose an 11-mile out-and-back route to Laguna Torre for the afternoon. I was working to get rid of a headache (caffeine withdrawal) and felt skeptical that we could do it, but daylight continues until after 9:00 p.m. so we’ll see.

Our Airbnb apartment that Cathy had booked wasn’t ready yet, so we ate a snack and prepared for our hike.  I felt a little discombobulated and swallowed a heaping helping of ibuprofen, hoping it and some fresh air would help my head (they did).  We left our car in front of the apartment and walked to the end of our street and onto our trail to Laguna Torre and the Cerro Torre range.  How cool is that?

After two kilometers uphill, the trail flattened out and we encountered many hikers, all wearing daypacks or backpacks and properly outfitted – no flipflops and tube tops.  At a tent station a park ranger quickly recited the rules and told us the water was safe to drink (hmmm).  The trail had kilometer markings which made it super easy to track progress. 

This sign shows what exists versus what we could see today – lots of cloud cover and not much “mirador” except for Cerro Solo, the mountain in the center with the “ski mask” look, a landmark that stayed with us throughout our hike. Cerro Solo is one photogenic mountain.

Rio Fitz Roy down in the canyon

 Usnea, a lichen called old man’s beard

Cerro Solo

Chilly, silty glacier melt Rio Fitz Roy

We hiked alongside the river, following a rock-lined path through small hills.  We topped a crest and looked down onto Laguna Torre: opaque gray water, choppy waves due to a stiff wind, and Grande Glacier flowing down at the far end of the lake.  This is the first of many glaciers we’ll see in Patagonia.

A ridge curved around on the right side of the lake and we hiked halfway up to a higher viewpoint, then descended back to the beach to get up close and personal with chunks of ice that were floating near the shore.

 Cathy holds a chunk of glacier ice

The return hike was quick, looking back once in a while to see if the view had changed, ever hopeful to get a look at the real "mirador."

Grande Glacier hidden in the mist

Rocky peaks visible to the right

And then….the Cerro Torre!

We were back on our street around 6:45 p.m., unloaded the car and checked out our awesome apartment:  kitchen, living room and bathroom downstairs, two bedrooms upstairs – hot showers and a hair dryer! [$82 per night for 4 people = $20.50 each]

And the real treat – wifi!  We’re all addicted, especially Cathy, who could not resist reporting on the political nonsense of the day.  We laughed, we moaned, we criticized – and then we were hungry.

Cleaned up and ready for a celebration, we walked toward the center of town looking for dinner.  We landed at Technado Negro (more locro stew) and toasted to Día Dos of our Patagonia adventure with a delicious Malbec.

What’s that waking me up at 4:00 a.m.??  Sounds like a freight train! Can wind really be that powerful? What does that mean for tomorrow?

"God never made an ugly landscape.  All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild." ~John Muir