Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina – My First River of Ice

11 01 2012

From Torres del Paine we head into Argentina, across the empty Patagonian steppe to El Calafate. It’s the lodging headquarters for those visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier. El Calafate is the biggest town for hundreds of miles around.

We stay in the centrally located Calafate Hostel. Its guests are all visiting the outdoor spectacles in the area. Lago Argentina, a 1,640-ft deep, twenty mile wide glacial lake sits to one side of this town. This lake is as deep and much larger than Lake Tahoe. It is 566 sq miles in surface area, and Tahoe is 191.  This morning, we head to the dining area and things are not going well. The coffee is just about un-drinkable, the milk is hot. There are not enough coffee cups or cereal bowls or anything. Yaap complains to the staff. And again, the fruit is canned. I make up my mind to bring my own stuff tomorrow, I cannot stand it. I love breakfast and this is hard. Still, a surprise! An attractive young woman comes to sit at my table. We introduce ourselves, and she is from my home town in NY! Her name is Andrea, she works in Australia. She’s really excited to see the glacier today and will be on my bus! We talked all the way to the glacier.

I’ve never seen a glacier of this magnitude. The Southern Patagonian Ice Sheet feeds 300 glaciers in Argentina, including Perito Moreno. This is a famous glacier because it moves 10 feet per day, and calves ice bergs all day long. It’s also got viewing decks built along its face so you can see it up close. Saskia, our guide, says it’s really exciting to watch.

So without further adieu, here are some nice photos of this magnificent force of nature!

This is the left half of the mile-wide glacier terminus.

The terminus of the glacier is three miles wide, and 16 stories tall. It dwarfs tourist boats coming to view it. It’s one of three in the world that is growing. It’s 580 feet thick. It’s a sky blue color! Riddled with dirt. The front is 16 story tall saw tooths of ice. Utterly un-walkable. We take walks all along the decks built to people can view. It’s incredible how tall the wall of ice is.

I can see down more than 100 feet and yet the glacier towers above me.

A view along the north side of the glacier shows how wide it is. On the viewing platform there are places to sit. Many are having lunch, some writing, but most are watching the glacier, because this one is known to send off ice bergs all day long. I sit down and wait. I can hear explosions all around. Those are cracks in the glacier which appear as it moves over the ground.

Several times I see ice falling off the glacier, and it slams into the water, as if in slow motion, and then bobs up only to reveal maybe 10% of itself once it floats. Ivo was able to catch one of the moments with a fast action camera, and put together this compilation! Enjoy! It’s fantastic.

Ans, Margaret, Monique P, Anne Marie, Monique

The ice field behind the glacier, and the glacier itself, make their own weather. Several miles away from the glacier, the weather turns sunny again. In the days to come we’ll see again and again how the ice sheet affects this part of South America.

The lake, which is probably a hundred miles long,

is peppered with ice blue glaciers from these glaciers.

Amazing!

At the parking area, I see some friends from Bariloche! It’s Matt and Rob, our British friends who are doing the walking tour! They took a ride down here, but plan to walk back to Bariloche. Nice to see them!

After we get back to Calafate, we stroll the town in search of dinner and a drink. It takes a while, but we find an outdoor table in the sun. Of course, it’s popular, but we manage to grab a table. As this town is a magnet for the outdoor seekers in Patagonia, it’s got visitors from all over the world.

We meet two guys at the next table, who are from Reunion. If you know where Reunion is, you are a geography buff! It’s off the coast of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean!

Enjoying a cold one after a day outdoors





Hiking the Torres del Paine “W”

7 01 2012

A Lenticular Cloud over the towers!

Awakening at O’Dark Hundred, it’s pitch black and the Southern Cross is sparkling. We’re up early because Saskia wants us hitting the trail at 7:00 a.m.! Little did we know, but this was a brilliant decision for hiking Torres Del Paine.

We force down some more dry bread, orange colored water and cheese at the refugio-cafeteria. Today we could pre-order a “trail box lunch,” and this time a tuna sandwich was a choice – I picked tuna over the standard dry ham and cheese!

All suited up and booted and ready to to, we were all set. Almost. You see, our Refugio had an outdoors “boot storage box.” Inside, we were to walk in our stocking feet. We were to leave boots outside in the box. Being that we are in the Andes, low nighttime temperatures could be at freezing. I knew from past experience to NEVER allow boots to be stored outside if it is that cold. That means putting on COLD boots in the morning, and who wants that? So I took off my boots and brought them into my bedroom for the night. I was just fine. But some of my peers didn’t take such precautions, in particular Angelique! Hmmm, we’ll be hearing from Angelique today…Angelique did not pack hiking boots. Rather, she had Dr. Martens-calf-high boot style. She’ll find out if those work on the trail!

Our luck holds as it’s not windy, and the sun is out. Locals say it can blow a constant 4o mph around here! It’s cold but the athletic effort will no doubt have us losing layers before long.

We embark, hiking at a brisk pace along the flat plain below the towers to the trailhead. We come across bridge over a river, and like yesterday, there is a limit on how many can cross at once. Rickety for sure, but it’s kind of like Disneyland! What would a hike down here be without a rickety walk over a skinny bridge? It’s not too long past this bridge where the real trail begins, which will end at the base of the world-famous pinnacles of Torres del Paine!

The hike should challenging. It’s about 12 miles round trip, and 3,000 ft elevation gain. The beginning has a steep climb. The middle is up and down. The end is a 40-minute scramble up a boulder field, to a spectacular view of the towers. The climax will be a view of 9,000 ft vertical towers, with a glacial lake underneath! In 2011 I have done so much kayaking for work, and been so busy with outdoor recreation / kayaking work that I have not done much hiking. But I know how to hike efficiently. And, I am so much looking forward to being outside and the workout!

My strategy is to start at my own pace, slowly, let my body warm up, and once the trail reaches the rolling section, take off like a madman, like a workout. Let the legs run on the downhills. Then, at the scramble at the end, have enough energy to make a push to get there in a respectable time! I’m the only American, so I can’t allow myself to look like a slug. I’ll make a respectable hike for myself and for America…how patriotic…silly.

I take my time on the initial part. I can see Eray and Elwin moving on up ahead, and out front there is a group trailing Saskia, pushing out at this first part of the hike. Partly I want to hang back so I do not perspire too much. I’m kind of hoping if I relax a bit, I will not sweat and won’t have to change layers. That thought doesn’t work out. As the trail climbs I’m inevitably swamped with my own sweat and must do away with layers! At about this time Behrend walks past me going down, and he says he is seeking his girlfriend who’s behind.

But this strategy works. As the temperature rises and the physical effort builds, the layers peel off. I started with gloves and a hat, which are gone. Then the gore tex jacket. I’m warming up, I’m perspiring, I’m totally immersed in the physical element! I LOVE the physical aspects of hiking. Especially since we have spent so much time on the road! Breathing. In, out, in, out, my legs and torso warming up.

The ascent leads beyond the dry steppe and into an alpine forest. It winds along the slope of a valley, with a river cutting through. Every so often I can see the towers.

Up and down, I chug up and then fly down. I’m one hundred percent in this moment, breathing in the air, taking in the scenery, feeling the blood flowing, marveling at the views unfolding. I catch up and pass my peers Flores, Ivo, Stephanie, Ed…and on a bend there is another bridge with a trailside rest stop/lunch spot, which I pass by. Filled with endorphins, I just concentrate on my pace and breath…and I catch a glimpse of Angelique up ahead! More and more, backpacker couples pass me by coming down. I hear Ola! Cheers! G’Day! Gutte Morgun! It’s clear Torres Del Paine is a global magnet for outdoors enthusiasts. Further, I am struck by how many young couples are backpacking. This is a romantic Mecca!

Some of the woods reminds me of the movie “The Lord of the Rings,” and I can’t help myself.

When I catch up to Angelique, I’m so excited I have trouble containing myself. I say, “WOW, isn’t this fantastic! I’m so in my element, FINALLY! Wow, hiking in Patagonia!” Angelique retorts, “I hate it! I cannot stand it! My feet are blistered because I put on cold boots this morning, and I never thought it would be so long!” With my elation it was hard to understand. But I’m an experienced outdoors enthusiast and Angelique was not in her element. Yet she continued on. I asked, “Who’s up ahead?” “Behrend, Saskia, and Elwin” was the response. So passed all the other people? Wow! They must have paused at the rest stop. So, somehow Behrend passed me going down, and passed me going up but I missed that. How? Either way, that’s impressive!

Angelique: OUCH!

We keep going, and Angelique keeps up a good pace! All along this hike I encounter backpackers going this way and that.

The report on this trail says the end steepens. This is borne out as we are still in the woods, yet the trail’s upward trajectory becomes ever higher. Then the trees disappear and we’re in broad daylight.

The trail winds through a boulder field, and the Torres Del Paine towers begin to come into full view.

Rather than fall victim to the ever steepening burden of the trail, Angelique and I double our efforts. The “trail” begins to fade, and the way to the top is only found by carefully watching red blazes on rocks up above.

Here, we’re truly scrambling. A sign says, “30 minutes” meaning we have to scramble for 30 minutes! Well, at least we know.

That sign means one thing to me! We are NEARING the summit! It stokes my adrenaline, powering me up. Right then, Eghbert suddenly shows up. He’s also on the attack! He’s half my age. I’ve got to give it everything I’ve got to keep my position!

Somewhere along this flight to the finish, I move way ahead and Angelique gets lost amongst the boulders. I d0 not know it, but Angelique has lost her way and has gotten panicked, not knowing which way to go.

When I’m near the summit, I grab my camera and film the end in video mode. So here it is, without any further description. Imagine you are there yourself!

What can I say! No wind! Blue sky! WOW HOLY COW! Nothing could surpass this, could it? The fact that we left at 7:00 a.m. was killer! Clouds rolled in as we descended. We SCORED! It was surely a challenge and worth every single step! We take lots of photos. My other compadres make it to the top. Yaap, Ed, Stephanie, Eray, Ed, Christof, and more.

Behrend,Stephanie,Ed,Yaap,Ivo,Angelique,me,Eray…

Everyone savors the view and a bit of calm settles over. But after about half an hour, after we have had a chance to refresh ourselves, it’s time to head back.

Poor Angelique! On the way up she lost her way and practically had a panic attack finding us!

She wasn’t familiar with the markings showing the way. I felt bad that I got so excited I just kept going.

On the way down, I fell victim to the same issue. Before I knew it, I was in “no man’s land,” with no markers and everything unfamiliar. I had to scramble back up and find the trial markers.

Much of the descent, I was with Christof. We made good progress through the forests. At one particular bend in the trail, I glanced to my right, and WOW! I glimpsed a creature so rare, the park rangers want us to report it if we see it. It’s called a Hemuel – an Andes deer!

As Christof, before me, passed, I quietly signaled him to stop! He turned around, and me, without a peep, pointed to my right, and Christof saw the deer! WOW! I can’t believe it. What we are witnessing is one of the rarest creatures in Patagonia.

An endangered Hemuel

And, it has no problem with us. It’s a stout creature, with early season antlers, and losing its winter coat. It totally knew I was watching, but it didn’t mind that I was there.

Another romantic backpacker couple shows up, and I put my index finger to my mouth, signalling “quiet!” and pointed in its direction. Instantly they fell to their knees and watched, slowly bringing their point-and-shoots to capture the scene.

It was priceless!

The hike down was characterized be the day becoming more cloudy, and wind building. I was so thankful Saskia had planned to have us on the trail early. Otherwise, our pictures wouldn’t be as fantastic.

Also, the number of international outdoors addicts built during the day. All during the descent we saw more and more people coming up the trail, signaling how much of a magnet this place is!

I need to mention that about ten of our group gave up and never made the summit. Some actually planned to only hike part of the route. This whole day was a success. On our return, we walked again past the bottom of the plain, and this time we walked through one of the campgrounds at that lie at the base of the trails. These are car campgrounds. I was amazed at the sheer number of campsites. At this early part of the season, I counted less than ten sites occupied. But there are over 100 campsites! If this were December or January, this place would be packed! So we are SO fortunate to be here in early season. We had no idea. I would have to day that November is a great time to be in Patagonia.

At long last we arrive back in our Refugio, where we can get showers. We are to depart today, and tonight we’ll be in El Calafate, another few hours to the north in Patagonia. We are all desperate for the warmth and cleansing of a shower. We find it back in our Refugio. Oh man, it feels FANTASTIC! And we have some time to kill before our transportation shows up.

Eray and I know the best way to spend that time. Which is, to lounge on the grass, with an Austral beer and watching the sun pass over the nearby mountains, right?

At this moment, I don’t know how anything could be improved! We’ve hiked, accomplished, and we are relaxing following an incredible experience.

Well done!

Our drive will take us across the steppe, another lonely highway, and we’ll find ourselves in El Calafate, another magnet town for international outdoor addicts!

We take a minibus across another rickety bridge to a “transfer point,” where we’ll all board bigger buses to take us to El Calafate.

It’s a nice sunny afternoon.

And Angelique’s Dr. Martens, hanging from her bag, stand testimonial to her ordeal today! Check out the dust!

Well, tomorrow is another day. We’ll be face to face with a huge glacier!





Torres del Paine at Last!

3 01 2012

Just to get the scale perspective, see the road by the lake?

Today, the highlights of our trip step up and will just keep on coming!

We drive two hours from Puerto Natales, Chile to Torres Del Paine National Park. Torres Del Paine, which appears on countless calendar photos year after year, just doesn’t disappoint!  This 600,000 acre park is South America’s Number One most visited national park. And for good reason. The Torres Del Paine massif is incredible, the hiking is unparalleled, and it’s got lots of jaw-dropping scenery in a compact area. Contained within its boundaries are 9,000 ft horns and spires, plus innumerable glacial lakes, and even the Grey Glacier, a 40-mile long river of ice wrapping around the west, visible from trail side. And behind it lies the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. This cap of ice is the largest continental ice sheet outside Antarctica, and feeds no less than 300 glaciers! All of this comes right down to the steppe, which looks like Eastern Oregon. It makes its own weather. It is truly a spectacle bey0nd imagination.

One thing about Patagonian highways that’s got to be said is that they are empty. You can drive for a long time, during which you see the road for miles ahead, and there are no other vehicles around. You see dry desert steppe, and when you do see trees, sometimes entire hillsides have been blown down by the wind. But today, it’s not very windy. We have clouds, though. There are mountains all around, sometimes contorted in unimaginable shapes.

As we near, I keep thinking the mountains we see are the Torres Del Paine massif. They are all magnificent, but when the real thing comes into view, it’s something else. Vertical, 9,000 ft. spires dug out by glaciers, but then to one side, there is something only suitable to the Lord of the Rings – several vertical towers, and below the whole thing, many blue lakes dwarfed by the spires reaching to the sky.

We come by a herd of guanacos; in fact we’ll see a lot of these camel-relatives during our stay here!

We come to a trailhead and we’ve got the afternoon to explore. This trail wends between Lago Pehoe and Lago Nordenskjold. In front of us lies one of the “W” valleys Torres Del Paine is known for. If you think about it, a “W” is how this park is generally laid out. The left is a trail along the Grey Glacier, the middle goes up the horns, which we’ll witness today, and the right of the “W” we’ll be exploring tomorrow! WOW. The park is so popular, it’s got a system of vans which can transport backpackers between the trailheads at the bottom of the “W”.

Well, it’s time to get into the thick of it!

We hike, and bring our picnic lunch along. It’s only about 30 minutes before we come along what can only be described as a jaw dropping scene, one which will be duplicated over and over in the days to come! We lunch by this waterfall. Check out this video:

The lakes all over Patagonia, blue/gray with minerals from glaciers, often drain into each other in this fantabulous fashion.

We watch for what seems an eternity. But we move on, to the trail’s end. Along the way I see lots of special birds, and flowering plants only found here. The view is of Valle del Frances, surrounded by those glacier-topped vertical horns, and Lago Nordenskjold underneath. Glaciers unfold, wrapping and warping over the rocks.

The glacial lakes below the scoured valleys bear witness to timeless geological forces. The tops of these horns are sedimentary rocks heaved up from the ocean bottom, and the grey underneath is solidified granite which intruded from the earth’s liquid mantle. All to be cut down by ice! Wow. Holy cow. When we get back to our transportation, we are shepherded to Refugio Las Torres, which is a hostel at the base of one of the valleys at the right side of the “W.” We travel over bridges so rickety that our van must go over them empty. Everybody has to exit the vehicle as it goes over. The hostel “refuge” is six people to a room. It’s got a central eating “lodge” where we have dinner, and tomorrow, breakfast.

Our place for tonight

A bottle of Malbec costs only $7 here. I’m not complaining. But maybe I ought to complain that we are to hit the trail tomorrow at 7:00 a.m.!

In keeping with the theme in this blog I ought to mention we are here in early season. The park’s campgrounds are only 10% full. Our “refugio” has been open only two weeks. As such, our lodgings need some work when we get there. The heat needs to be turned on. But all is OK. It all works out. We get heat and HOT fantastic showers. We are ready for the assault on the Towers tomorrow!





Puerto Natales, Chile: Patagonia’s Outdoor Ground Zero

30 12 2011

Looking east from the Puerto Natales waterfront

Today the next phase of our Patagonian odyssey begins! By tonight, we’ll be near the bottom of South America! Sunset will be after 10 p.m. We are flying from Puerto Montt, Chile, to Punte Arenas, and will drive to Puerto Natales, Chile. We’re going to the heart of Chilean fjord country! If you have thought what you’ve read about on this blog so far is amazing, well, it’s time to step it up a few more notches! The days ahead are filled with HIKING, glaciers, desert icebergs, wildlife, we’ll be right in the midst of the best of it!

The Puerto Montt airport is unexpectedly modern, as is the airport in Punte Arenas. We fly an Airbus A320 on Sky Airlines. The route takes us over the Patagonian Andes. Below, I can see the Pacific, and even where the Andes meets Argentina. You can see rivers of ice flowing into blue lakes and the desert. It’s an incredible spectacle! We’ll be starting in Puerto Natales, and each destination will take us further north, Torres del Paine National Park, then El Calafate, and then El Chalten.

After touchdown, it’s a couple of hours to Puerto Natales, which sits right on the water with endless fjords visible from its waterfront. We’re staying in a backpacker hostel, called Hostel Natales, several to a room. It’s big, and has a comfy atrium to hang out in.

Puerto Natales is the gateway to Torres del Paine and O’Higgins National Parks. It attracts so many outdoors enthusiasts that the grocery stores have stocked backpacker food!

Looking out from Puerto Natales, glacier-cloaked mountains jump right from the water. A NaviMag ferry is tied up at the waterfront. These ferries ply these fjords. It is several days ferry ride from Puerto Montt to here. Take a gander at the Navimag website to see the incredible journeys.

Even though it’s early evening, the sun fools us. It is so bright we’d think it’s mid afternoon!  We’ve heard about an interesting Patagonian/African restaurant called Afrigonia-and we are all gonna check it out.  I will disclose here and now that this restaurant deserves the 5-star rating! I had seasoned rice and ostrich, accompanied by a to-die for house Malbec. If you are in Puerto Natales you should pay this establishment a visit! Service is just as good. Do not be deterred that this place is frequented by people just like you-outdoors enthusiasts, and not so much locals. It’s too good to pass up. OK wind the clock back. Before we go out, we’ve got some time to burn so we shop at the supermarket, walk the streets, and pose for pictures.

We check out the waterfront. We stroll up and down, and marvel at the views.

We find this broken down life boat!

I’s too cool to pass up and even has working oars!

Perfect for a photo opportunity.

Since we’re going to spend more time hiking tomorrow, we ventured through the town to the grocery stores to get picnic supplies.

It is here I witness for the first time the global attraction of Patagonia! I hear Russian, French, Japanese, Italian, and some language I cannot distinguish. Portuguese? And Hebrew? All these people are dressed in hiking boots and Goretex. They are all here to do what we are to do – experience the wonders of the spectacular Patagonian outdoors! Not just backpacking – ice climbing, rock climbing, kayaking, rafting are great here.

Walking around town, I see tour operators. Some are offering multiday kayak trips…

Others, a hard to understand mix of jet skis and kayaking?

In any event, it’s clear Puerto Natales is a magnet, a hub for the outdoors activities that make this region so popular.

We are on the doorstep of  Torres del Paine National Park. That is our destination tomorrow! It is South America’s Numero Uno National Park.

We’re excited to get into the outdoors ourselves. In the morning I get out before breakfast to catch the morning light as it will be shining on the opposite side from last evening. I just love the lighting on the boats I see from the waterfront. There are fishermen using hand lines and some professional fisherman are readying their boats for a day of fishing for a living.





Adventure 2011 Argentina / Chile

28 11 2011

I am a decidedly hooked overseas traveler and could not wait to get my fix any longer! I’ve had some tough times these last couple of years, so I’d put off venturing, but nothing would stop me from exploring in 2011! I had over 100,000 frequent flier miles with United Airlines, which were set to expire. Last time I went overseas was in 2008 to Laos / Cambodia, and that was fantastic. I’m in love with SE Asia and the Himalayan region. I was tempted to return, but I’ve been there seven times – and I’ve never been to South America. So this time, I decided to head directly SOUTH. Time to save my soul and escape my world…to Argentina and Chile – to Patagonia!

Because  for me, getting outside my neighborhood, city, state – my country – seeing life from outside, from another perspective – only that refreshes my spirit!

Honestly, I didn’t have a lot of information, but I knew I’d like to experience the Andes, and probably Tierra del Fuego. Timing was important. In 2011, I worked as a sales consultant and guide/instructor at Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe, and their busy season is summer, winding down with the Lumpy Waters Symposium in October. I inquired with Suzi Elle, one of the owners, about taking vacation and her reply was “anytime after Lumpy!’ So with that in mind, I targeted late October/November for a start time!

It looked like this would be a good time for Argentina and Chile. But it would also be a good time in the Himalayas – prime time is right after monsoon season. Also in the southern hemisphere, I could head to South Africa, or New Zealand. But it seemed the right time for me to see the “other America.” It would be late spring down there. Without a lot of time for research, and wanting to see a lot, I wanted to do an organized trip, so I looked at two companies I’ve worked with, Djoser, out of Amsterdam, and Mountain Travel Sobek, based in San Francisco. I had gone to Thailand with Djoser in 2004 and had a great experience. In 2007 I did an unforgettable 110-mile Himalayan Trek in Bhutan with Sobek. Sobek had a 3-week hiking trip focused on Torres del Paine National Park. I looked into this and really was interested, but I couldn’t get frequent flier flights to match up. So, I looked at Djoser again, and began to realize their agenda might be more an experience I preferred. That is because their three week trip covers much more of Patagonia. They do time in the Fitz Roy Range, and Tierra del Fuego, and even have some days up in the Lakes District, as well as seeing marine life on Peninsula Valdes. It would be more “road time,” but one would get a better overview. Sobek’s trip would be much more in touch with the outback areas of Torres del Paine, away from the throngs of backpackers.

So I inquired at the Djoser USA office in Pennsylvania. They cautioned me that the trip I was looking at was an international group, so I might be the only American. I’d have to be OK with that. I was not worried one bit. Djoser’s groups mostly cater to Dutch, and some other Europeans too. I knew from my experiences with Dutch citizens that they are gregarious, considerate, polite and nearly everybody speaks English. I didn’t worry about any issues. I signed up, and went about calling the frequent flier desk at United. I tried. And tried. “No seats for those dates” was the response for several tries. I began to despair. But one customer service agent took me under her wing, telling me that, “Seats open up, so don’t get discouraged! Keep calling every day!” So I did.

And then it happened. One day I reeled off the same inquiry, dates, times, and the response was, “OK, we have seats on these flights…” I just about hit the ceiling! Hardly containing my delight that I got a FREE flight to South America on the dates matching my itinerary, I booked them on the spot!

I was going! I was going on a trip to Patagonia! We would be seeing penguins, southern right whales, elephant seals, carakaras, guanacos, condors, hike in Torres del Paine, watch tango dancers, bask in the view of the spires of Cerro Fitz Roy, walk on the Viedma Glacier, cruise the Lakes in the Lakes District near Bariloche, and reach the end of the world at Tierra del Fuego!

Here’s a great photo of my comrades on this trip! We were American, Dutch, Belgian and Turkish. A wonderful group…of varied ages and professions!

I was in! So what follows is a story of the trip to the highlights of Patagonia! Stay tuned!