Standed! Aerolineas Argentinas Airline Strike! We Wait for Tierra del Fuego

29 01 2012

Before I went to Argentina, I visited the United States State Department Website for its country brief on Argentina. Here is a quote, one which borne out to be true for us:

“Domestic flight schedules can be unreliable. Occasional work stoppages, over-scheduling of flights and other technical problems can result in flight delays, cancellations, or missed connections. Consult local media for information about possible strikes or [work] slow downs before planning travel…”

Our trip’s fate was about to fall victim to Argentine politics. Nothing like experiencing the good, bad, and the ugly of your host country for real, right?

We leave El Chalten, and head back for an evening in El Calafate, staying at Calafate Hostel. Our flight is to depart for Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, the next afternoon. We’re really excited to be there!

Breakfast done, we are free to spend the morning roaming El Calafate. Basically, our aim is to burn some time waiting for the flight. To be frank, El Calafate is a kind of “oasis” in the middle of high desert-bleak steppe Patagonia. There is nothing around but for this town. As it has access to the southern part of Los Glaciers National Park, the city is a magnet for outdoor freaks from all over the Earth. That means it’s mostly a city catering to travelers. There’s not much local culture. So roaming El Calafate means roaming restaurants, gift shops, tour guide offices, banks, and it’s even got a casino. The one thing we found interesting is that there is the Laguna Nimez bird sanctuary on Lago Argentina.

We paid it a visit, and were impressed! While not something worth driving hours for, it’s surely something good to do, if you’ve got an afternoon to spend in El Calafate. It’s more than it appears at first glance. Its value is discovered in the subtle side trails along the shore. There, you can see a surprising variety of birds. The reserve lightly financed, but big bang for the buck. A trail wends its way around wetlands and we could see Flamingos, Geese, Caracaras, ducks, Black Necked Swans, and many others. As it’s late spring many were tending eggs or chicks. The caracaras were not bothered by us one bit – they’d perch on bushes just beyond the trail and wouldn’t flinch if you got within ten feet of them.

We gather back at the hostel, board a bus and head for the airport. Once there, we check in, get our boarding passes and check our luggage. We’re going to the “end of the earth”! We are going to the farthest south anyone can go before Antarctica. 15 minutes pass. Then something goes horribly wrong. There is a commotion stirring in the airport. We’re delayed an hour. And then  we hear that Aerolineas Argentinas has suddenly gone on strike! We are not going to Ushuaia today. We do not know when we are going.

The airline puts us, and other passengers, on a bus to a hotel they have contracted for such situations. We head to this hotel, which is just outside the end of the town’s main strip. There, we learn the whole country is stranded! This isn’t just an airline strike, it’s a strike that started in the general labor sector. It may even spread to Chile. We’re informed we’ll have a table-service three course dinner tonight. That’s a far cry from what one gets on a cancelled flight in America! We all take it. It is a chicken schnitzel. Not bad!

So tonight, we wonder when we will get to the “end of the world.” We don’t even know how our connection back to Buenos Aires from Ushuaia will go. The airline tells us we will be leaving tomorrow.

To entertain ourselves, we walk away from the city lights to look at the southern constellations. One strange thing is moving across the sky, and it’s the International Space Station! It moves steadily from southwest to northeast. It is very bright and does not blink. We see other orbiting objects like satellites. And we see in full view the iconic Southern Cross plus hazy cloudy things we think are the Magellenic Clouds. The Magellanic Clouds are micro galaxies just outside the Milky Way – they can only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere.

We’ll just have to cross our fingers that we will leave tomorrow….

We’re hopeful that tomorrow the strike will be over and we will be on our way to the bottom of the world.

Hiking to the Foot of Cerro Fitz Roy

25 01 2012

Cerro Fitz Roy, front and center. Spectacular!

Today it’s windy and bright in El Chalten. I sip coffee in front of the picture window of the Aylen Aike hostel watching Cerro Fitz Roy. This morning the tower is sprinkled in dazzling sugar white. And, it’s obvious why it’s also called Cerro Chalten, which means smoking mountain. There’s a constant cloud drifting off the top. But the sugar melts as the sun warms the peak, revealing the 11,090ft pure granite face.

Today, it’s going to be an all-day hike. Leaving about 8:30 a.m., we won’t be back until past 4:00. We’ll head on a different trail which will take us all over the plain below these spectacular peaks, with an option to do a final, steep hike to a lake at the end of a glacier.

Box lunch in hand (less the ham and cheese I removed), I join Echbert, Saskia, Christof, Eray, Elwyn and Floris as we walk past the north end of town to the trailhead.

At the beginning of the trail there is a group of maybe twenty hikers and a guide. They are partly already on the trail, so we hike with them. But we are much faster. This first part of the trail is a steep climb. When they stop for a break, we make our move and go on ahead. There’s no looking back. We want to have the experience to ourselves. We wind our way up a slope with a view to the north, looking up a river valley. Up above Andean Condors ride the air currents. We can see their nests clinging to the steep cliffs above us.

Llamas on the plain belowThis trail is rapidly becoming my favorite of the trip because of the vistas all along the way. Plus, after our steep climb it becomes a rolling up and down trail. These trails of Los Glaciers National Park are superbly maintained and marked. It’s not long before a a view comes into focus with shark toothed Fitz Roy mountains. Below this magnificent spectacle is a gorgeous relatively flat plain, several square miles in size, filled with creeks, meadows, flowers, trees. To the right side of the mountains flows an electric blue glacier. It’s unlike any I’ve seen in that the whole thing is electric blue, not just parts. It stands in contrast to the gray rocks it cuts through.

Passing us by is a United Nations of hikers. I even recognize some of them from Torres del Paine. Some of them are day hiking, and others are laden with backpacks. One of the best things about this region is that one can do fantastic day hikes and stay in town. Wonderful.

After several hours, we reach the base of the steep final assault, which is a 500ft high glacial moraine under Cerro Fitz Roy. Here is the final assault. Saskia says we don’t have to do the final part. Floris, part of our group today, did not complete the Torrres del Paine hike due to asthma. But he made it here. I want him to enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. He doesn’t want to do the final assault. So I decide to stick with him and we offer to wait for the others to go up and return.

This seems to be a gathering place for many hikers. So, we will have a relaxed lunch here, enjoy the beauty, and wait for the others. The day has become warm and many folks are have shorn jackets, some are in shorts. It’s a nice spot. There is a sign that says, “The water in the streams is potable.” Wow! That is a big difference from home. So we fill our water bottles and go ahead and drink.

Floris and I spend about an hour here, and after another twenty minutes we decide to hike back. The trail meanders all over the plain, past many little brooks, some clear, some stained brown with some kind of algae-like growth. I think there is perhaps a warm spring in here causing this growth. We come across a cluster of hikers all taking a nap in the sun!

We come to a fork in the trail. One path leads the way we came, but the other goes to Lago Capri. Thinking it might take some time to get there, we prepare for a longer hike.

Floris and I hike on. Much to our surprise, we reach the lake very quickly, and it’s a beauty! Much larger than I expected. And it’s not glacier-fed. So, instead of a misty blue milky color, it’s crystal clear. And what a view of the peaks!

It’s even got a thin beach, and some other hikers are relaxing on it taking in the view. Alongside the lake there’s a sweet campground. Super beautiful.

Back in town, it’s a wind tunnel again. It’s a constant 40mph with gusts rising to 65mph! I have to hold onto everything to keep stuff from blowing away!

El Chalten sports a few restaurants catering to the hikers that come here, and one of the most popular is the brewery.

So today, after cleaning up at the hostel, we head to the brewery for a late afternoon beverage and a bite to eat.

I’m super pleased because I can get a fulfilling salad here! It’s brimming with yummy veggies my body is craving for!

We’re discussing the next phase of our adventure. Tomorrow, we’re going to the end of the continent – Tierra del Fuego and the southern-most city in the world, Ushuaia!

Walking on the Viedma Glacier

21 01 2012

Last night we partied! It was Patricia’s birthday and the hostel was festooned with festive decorations. We had cake and champagne. Then everybody hung out and either played board games or watched videos. Meanwhile the wind outside howled, and occasionally whistled through any cracks in the insulation.

The Patagonian Ice Cap (left) feeds the Viedma Glacier

The Viedma Glacier is our destination today. We all get those box lunches, and this time I just toss my ham and cheese in the waste basket. But it’s got empanadas too, and I like those! We’re up and out the door by 9:30. We head down to a marina on Lago Viedma.

Lago Viedma is another huge glacier-fed lake that sits right out in the high desert. It’s 50 miles long, and is dotted with blue icebergs borne from the Viedma Glacier.

We are to board a boat which will take us around a point and into the lake, and then to the snout of the glacier.

Then, we’ll disembark for a few hours walking on the glacier itself!

The Viedma Glacier is the largest in Argentina. It doesn’t look as large at its snout as Perito Moreno, but above, it’s a bigger sheet of ice.

While it’s sunny back in El Chalten, here out near the Patagonian Ice Sheet, the weather’s so different. It gets even windier, and stormier. The lake is punctuated by beautiful indigo ice bergs. It still seems weird to me to see ice bergs in a lake! But here they are.

As we round a point and the boat swings west, we’re no longer protected by the land, and we face directly into the wind racing down the Andes. The sea state instantly changes into a storm, and the captain races the engine to push through the waves. Many of us had been up above on deck enjoying the weather, but we’re ordered to stay inside now!

As we near the glacier, many more icebergs come into view and of course the glacier’s snout. I am told that boats do not get close to this glacier for views, because instead of calving from the visible end, this glacier has an underwater shelf where it calves, and massive ice sheets suddenly shoot up from below. No boat wants to be on top of one of those!

A berg near the glacier's terminusThis should be really interesting – walking on the ice. Others here have done this before, but for me, this is my first time. I’ve used crampons climbing mountains in the Cascades but nothing like this river of ice.

So I’m pretty excited to give it a try.

We disembark and walk up the rocks near the end of the ice. This glacier has retreated, unlike Perito Moreno.

We are told the ice was moving over these very rocks 20 years ago. The rocks are all smooth. They have streaks across them and deposits ground in. These streaks are scours called glacial striations. They are where rocks embedded in the glacier cut down on the bedrock.

Our guides meet up with us and we get lots of information on the glacier, the ice cap that feeds the glacier, climate change, and about the upcoming hike and equipment we’ll be using today.

The main piece is crampons.

You wear crampons over your other shoes, and it’s best to put crampons on over hiking boots.

The ice today is a bit slushy/wet. It’s full of grit from its journey scraping along, plus winds carrying dust that has settled on the ice. The ice has cracked into thousands of vertical spires of ice. It looks un-hikeable, but we’re about to find out it can be done.

Our guide! Super cute.Crampons securely tied on, we head out onto the ice. These shoes bite into the ice, giving a firm grip. It’s a bit disconcerting to see the rivers of water gushing everywhere and the deep cracks. One slip and it looks like you’d be lost forever!

We climb all over and we’re not the only ones up here.

There are others learning how to use ropes to climb the ice walls. It’s interesting to watch them. We climb up and down “trails” the guides know.

We walk all over, and after a time I realize how easily one could become lost out here.

You lose track of your trail, and everything looks the same.

The ice flows up and down, and you feel like you are walled in. I’m super thankful we have the guides here. They are really professional; they guard any spot where you could slip and fall into a cravasse.

The guides take us into a dead end, and I kind of wonder what’s up.

They start digging holes into the ice. Then, their true plan is revealed…they have a little celebration in store for us.

They pull out some Bailey’s Irish Whiskey from their packs. We are treated to a toast of Bailey’s on glacier ice! Very nice.

Glacier ice and Bailey’s!

This was a fine hike.

Some said they wanted it to last much longer, but I found it a good introduction.

After all, I’d never done this before.

I felt satisfied with my first time on a g00d sized glacier! Up close these are really fascinating natural phenomena. After all, the ice we’re walking on is hundreds of thousands of years old.

Certainly something to celebrate!

With the Bailey’s finished we lumbered back to our starting point, to lunch on those ham and cheese sandwiches (except myself, of course). Then it was back to the wind tunnel (El Chalten).

Tomorrow is the big hike to Cerro Fitz Roy! I’m stoked to tackle it! I’m really enjoying being in the moment, taking each amazing day as it comes! Bring it on!