Peaking in Patagonia

Irish Independent

Though not known for her love of the great outdoors, the beauty of Argentina’s Patagonia region had Rowena Crowley climbing mountains, traversing glaciers and, somehow, playing bingo on a bus

It was only when we had skidded down the mountain, making full use of all limbs, that we saw the ‘Peligroso’ sign which warned that only very experienced climbers in good physical condition should attempt the Laguna De Los Tres hike of Mt. Fitz Roy. The reason we missed it was that we had opted to do the 700 metre ascent in Southern Patagonia at 4.30am in complete darkness with no headlights, armed with just a phone torch app to provide light.

Desperate to catch the sunrise over the dramatic snow-covered granite towers that are Mt. Fitzroy, we had stumbled quickly up the steep exposed mountainside, using our hands to claw ourselves over boulders up the jagged terrain. Light rain started descending on us which provided a welcome respite from the exertion of the climb but made for slippery surface underfoot. The constant billowing, agitated wind seemed determined to carry us off the mountain.

“This better be worth it” panted my travelling companion as he knocked back the remainder of our water and pressed his chest, unsure whether he was more likely to vomit or have a heart attack from the effort. We needn’t have rushed- with heavy cloud cover, the mountain range wasn’t lit up with golden orange hues- it was just grey. “Did we miss the shining?” asked a fellow camper.  Yes, it would appear we did.

Patagonia will do strange things to you. This region of glaciers, desert, never-ending snowy mountain ranges and glittering lakes is so startling that it’s impossible not to embrace outdoor living. Over ten days, I found myself voluntarily doing all day cycling trips and hiking and camping for days on end. This was not the tango dancing, maté drinking, football crazed part of the country I had seen in Buenos Aires and it served as another reminder of how vast and diverse Argentina is.

The failed climb to see the sunrise was not the first time we had been caught out unprepared and unfit on our travels across Patagonia. Prior to the hike, we arrived in the compact town of El Chaltén which is situated in Los Glaciares National Park. From the town, you could see Mt Fitz Roy’s soaring jagged peaks dusted with snow.

It may have been the blinding sun overhead but on a whim, we decided to rent camping equipment. We trailed up and down the one main street of the town (it didn’t take long) but discovered we were not alone in our camping endeavour as every shop was out of equipment. Half hoping we could scrap the plan and stay in a comfortable bed, we tried one last rental shop on the outskirts of the town that had some equipment. The die had been cast- we were going camping.

With initial enthusiasm levels at an all time high, we set off on a trail towards Poincenot base camp carrying more wine than water, one muesli bar and what would later become overcooked, slimy noodles to sustain us on our maiden camping expedition. Within two hours, we reached Laguna Capri which is an invitingly pristine turquoise lake surrounded by hillocks. With Mt Fitz Roy as the backdrop, it was a classic Patagonian landscape sculpted by the force of the glaciers. While captivated by the scenery, I kept on my guard- we had been warned by the park rangers that pumas skulked around the area and I wasn’t convinced that our noodles or muesli bar would be sufficient in fending off any unwanted attacks.

On route to Poincenot, we hiked for five hours through terrain that was snaked by rivers and ranged from dense forest to arid low lying shrubland. On arrival, we set up camp and ate ‘dinner’ begrudgingly while surrounded by smells of stir fry and steaks. The other camp folk could spot that we weren’t authentic campers very easily- we were having wine while they were having an early night.

Although it was late summer, we slept in all the clothes we had carried with us for warmth as the temperature dropped below freezing. Luckily, due to our sunrise plan, we didn’t have to endure the uncomfortable sleep for too many hours before the alarm shrilly rang off at 3am.

Early morning rising became a feature of our travels in Patagonia. To get to the ice glaciers of Perito Moreno, we had to be on a bus leaving the sleepy town of Calafate at 5am. After two hours travelling, which marked our shortest bus journey by far, we came round a bend. As the glacier came into sight as the driver played the theme song of ‘Chariots of Fire in case we were in any doubt of the spectacle we were about to see.

Covering 250 sq km and standing uncompromisingly at 70 metres tall in the middle of Lake Argentina, Perito Moreno is a beast of a glacier. We donned ice-spikes on our shoes and began trekking across the ice, battling through rain and wind. The jagged glacier seemed to stretch on indefinitely and the heavy cloud descending on the ice gave the impression that we had reached the end of the world. The glacier had all shades of blue peeking through the cracks and crevices and every so often, a thunderous clash could be heard from what sounded like a far off location, which signalled some ice breaking off and plummeting into the lake.

Our guides were very deft of foot, jumping like mountain goats while our group crunched through the ice. Exhausted from the trek at the end, we were given shots of Jameson, served on glacier ice towards the end of the trip. The alcohol in no way helped my balance as I proceeded to slip twice after the drink.

Bleary-eyed and aching after the trek, we got on our last long-haul bus, revelling in the fact that it would only be a short 18 hour trip as opposed to the 32 hour ride we had recently experienced. As the delirium set in, the booming voice of the bus driver’s assistant could be heard through a microphone. The whole bus was to play Bingo. Paper and pens were doled out and locals and tourists alike showed their competitive edge, hushing other passengers so that they could hear the numbers being read out.

The assistant was a born showman, making for a lively game. Unfortunately for him, he had to compete with another spectacle- the sky suddenly lit up in those purple and orangey colours we had searched for at Mt. Fitz Roy. While sitting on the luxury bus with our backs fully reclined was a more comfortable viewing point than freezing on the top of a mountain, we somehow didn’t feel that we had earned this ‘shining’ as much as before.

Link to online version: http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/travel/peaking-in-patagonia-29673037.html

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