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The Works of Jed Appelrouth
Jed Appelrouth

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Patagonia: December 30, 2011-January 10, 2012

The Inspiration

The seeds for our Patagonia trip were planted in December 2006 when Larry Golson and I were hiking our way through New Zealand's South Island. We ran into a British outdoor adventure guide who had been leading trips across the globe for nearly 4 years. When pressed for his favorite trek on the planet, he replied: "that would have to be the Torres Del Paine trek in Patagonia, Chile." Neither Larry nor I had ever heard of Torres, but it instantly went to the top of our shared bucket list.

A soccer injury delayed this trek for a few years, but in 2011, Larry and I were finally ready to tackle Torres. This summer we began training for the 10-day Torres circuit, primarily using the Appalachian Trail to get in prime back-packing shape. We traded up for newer and lighter gear at REI, and I picked up a new camera using the micro four-thirds technology. I opted for the Lumix GH2, and purchased a 20mm prime for low light, a 45-200mm zoom and a 9-18mm wide angle lens. The whole kit barely weighed 2 lbs! Ideal for an 80-mile trek.

Torres Is Burning

Our flights were booked, our reservations for buses, hotels, and hostels were all set, and our backpacks were loaded and ready to go. The night before our departure, Larry received a surprise e-mail from one of the Torres' refugios (hostels). A fire had broken out in the Torres del Paine National park, and hikers were being evacuated. We followed the news as it came in. 20 hikers evacuated. 1,000 acres burned. 400 hikers evacuated. 4,000 acres burned. Strong winds, drought conditions and challenging terrain prevented the crews from putting out the fire.

Friday night we boarded our flight in Atlanta, not knowing if we'd be able to complete any part of the long-anticipated trek. Once we arrived in Santiago, Chile, we learned that the fire was not contained. We proceed with our itinerary. We flew LAN from Santiago to Puntas Arenas and caught the first bus to Puerto Natales, the launching point for all trips to Torres del Paine.

On the 3-hour bus ride to Puerto Natales, we were struck by the windswept, flat landscape. The trees were hunched and distorted by the persistent wind, which, according to one of the bus-riders, had been blowing at 70 mph only days earlier. As we drove, we passed sheep, alpacas, and cows grazing on the steppe. We spoke with the congenial and solicitous locals. One Chilean pointed to the skyward trails of smoke, traveling well over 100 miles from the Torres park to the southernmost tip of the Andes. Later we would learn that this fire (caused by a negligent 23-year-old Israeli tourist carelessly burning his toilet paper!) would consume 30,000 acres, over 42 square miles, of the gorgeous park.

Plan B

During the bus ride, we received the news from one of the locals: the Chilean President had just announced the complete closure of the Torres Park through the end of January! So much for the best laid plans! With Torres out of the picture, Larry and I opted to head northeast into Argentina to see Mount Fitz Roy, another Patagonian gem, only 8-hours from Torres. We'd lose some time in transit, but we'd still be able to hike and shoot some beautiful Patagonian mountainscapes.

Arriving in Puerto Natales, we dropped our bags at our hotel, spoke with the manager, watched a quick Facebook video of the Torres fire (technology is amazing) and headed into town to book transportation into Argentina. We would need to find a bus to Calafate and then another bus to Chalten, the launching point for all hikes to Fitz Roy.

As we anticipated, nearly every single tourist in Puerto Natales was making a bee-line for Fitz Roy. For the next two days, all the coach buses were completely booked, but we managed to find a pricier small group tour that would take us into Calafate. From there we could find transportation to Chalten. With the tour arranged, we were able to relax, and brought in the New Year with a satisfying dinner and some Pisco Sours.

January 1st was a relaxing day in Punta Arenas. We had a delicious meal at Angelica's with several varieties of offensively good Sea Bass. Walking around, we were impressed by the confidence of the roaming bands of dogs who laid claim to the town. What a variety of pooches! Shepherds, retrievers, bulldogs, labs: the whole posse. We grabbed dinner at El Living and broke bread with an Aussie biologist who, when not traveling through South America, occupies her days tending to three cleverly named endangered species: pottaroos, dibblers and numbats. Long live the dibblers!

El Chalten: Viva Fitz Roy!

January 2nd was a long travel day: Puerto Natales to Calafate and then onward to Chalten. The desert-like landscape of the Santa Cruz steppe strongly resembled northern New Mexico. It was almost like being back in Taos! Arriving in Chalten, we found our hotel, grabbed dinner, and took our first hike into the hills of the national park. Having 19 hours of daylight from 5:00 AM until almost 11:00 PM made our days spacious and our evening hikes much more enjoyable.

January 3rd we were ready to hike. In Chalten we procured our provisions (cookies, crackers, bread and cheese to our heart's delight), gas for our stove, and then we took to the trail. Our first destination was Lago Torre. The early hike was chock full o' tourists, but as we got deeper into the park, the trail thinned out nicely. By 8:00 PM we arrived at the campsite, set up our tent and broke bread. We grabbed our cameras and headed north to Lago Torre. Amazingly, we had the entire lake nearly to ourselves. We ran into one other pair of American hikers and one particularly vocal fox. We were climbing the same trail as the fox, and he kept turning to bark at us as we ascended the hill. His confidence grew and at one point he began to full on run towards us. Larry launched a rock which fell close enough to bring the fox back to his previously dimmed senses; the fox barked in protest, and finally ceded the trail to us, heading down the hill toward his den, tail tucked between his legs.

Without further interruptions, we wrapped around the trail to find a nice spot to watch the sun set and the clouds roll in over Glacier Grande.

The sunset was fabulous as the arc of clouds over the lake caught the fading beams of sunlight. I couldn't believe all the hikers had travelled so far, but were all resting in the campsite, less than a mile away from this most stunning view. As day gave way to night, the moon peaked out from behind the mountains. We used our tripods to shoot a few night shots as Cerro Torre emerged from the clouds for the first time all day.

The next morning we dipped our Nalgenes and Camelpacks into the rivers of crystal clear glacier water, cold and delicious. Who needs filters when you are drinking directly from the glaciers! We hiked back down the trail and made the cut through towards Lago Hijo and Lago Madre. At one point we stopped to eat a lunch of bread and cheese. Whenever the strong winds died down, the large black flies would emerge and buzz about with a ferocious persistence. When they started biting, the game was changed. Buzzing is okay. Biting is not. If you flicked one fly away, it would return with a maddening vengeance. So we became masterful at smacking these little buggers and grinding them mercilessly into the earth. A few smacks would buy you a moment's peace. I frequently found myself longing for the next strong gust of wind.

Fitz Roy

As we walked past Lago Madre we came to a large field which provided our first views of Mount Fitz Roy. It was enshrouded in clouds, but the mountain began to clear. We hiked until we hit the Poincenot campground. We set up camp on the high ground of Poincenot, surrounded by a chattering band of Israelis. We had dinner, rested, and then headed up the hour-long hike to Lago de Los Tres. The clouds were doing quite a dance, as we saw pancakes, UFOs, and thunderheads in the heavens. Passing only a handful of hikers on the ascent, we pulled into the lake around 10:00 PM, and we had the entire landscape to ourselves.

Words cannot describe the feeling of seeing this place for the first time. The photographs do not capture a fraction of the experience. It was so stunningly beautiful, with the mountains soaring above, the sound of the water, the sky so open and clear. I was profoundly moved. I put my daypack down and walked down to the lake. I sat down on a rock by the water and we took in the timeless moment. As the hour approached 11:00 PM, the sky grew dark. I traced my path back up the hill, but now it was too dark to see my daypack. With our one shared headlamp between us, Larry and I searched for it in vain. I resolved to wake up at sunrise to return to find the pack.

We walked down the trail, took a few night shots, and headed to bed. We faced two challenges that night: the wind, and the Israelis. The wind was gusting over 50 mph, shaking the tent like a freight train, and the Israelis were noisier than a band of rabid chipmunks. I barely slept, and I kept imagining my daypack (with camera lenses, memory cards, batteries, filters and all) facing the fierce elements. Eventually it started to rain. At 4:45 AM I finally got up, threw on my rain gear and headed up the hill. Around 6:00 AM I arrived at Lago de los Tres in time to see the sunrise and a double rainbow lofting over Fitz Roy. Gorgeous! And my pack was untouched, a little damp, waiting just where I had left it the night before.

I headed back down the hill. At 7:30 AM the Israelis began playing Hebrew rock songs with a battery powered boom-box. Really?! Seriously?! Did we travel a dozen miles into the back country to listen to Israeli pop music at 7:30 in the morning? Larry and I decided to move our tents off the crowded hill and towards a more isolated spot on the streambed of lower Poincenot. There we reunited with our Australian friends, Ruthie and Jo, on holiday from Melbourne.

After a decent nap, Larry and I made the trip back up the hill to Lago Los Tres. The sky was unapologetically and spectacularly blue. Not a cloud in the sky! We scampered around the rocks, climbed on the ice, drank straight from the glacial streams. Larry wanted to see if we could walk on the Glacier de Los Tres, so we decided to hike up the rocks to get as close as we could. We climbed higher and higher until it became clear that we needed ropes to safely go any further. We watched a group of climbers, bound with ropes and climbing gear, ascending the glacier towards Fitz Roy. Later we learned that many of these climbers wait a month or more for a clean ascent on account of the fickle and unforgiving Patagonia weather.

After an afternoon around the lake, we headed down to Poincenot, had dinner, spent some time with Ruthie and Jo and settled in for the night. The next morning, the iphone went off at 4:45 announcing our 4th and final ascent of Lago de los Tres. The sky was clear and for 5 minutes, just shy of 6:00 AM the rock faces brightly reflected the pink and red of the rising Patagonia sun. The sun stalled out in a patch of clouds, dimming the warm light, and ending the visual fireworks. But we had taken our sunset pics! We headed back down the hill in photographic triumph.

Lago Electrico

Back at Poincenot we took a final nap, broke camp and headed north to Lago Electrico. We failed to follow the map closely enough and became turned around on the trail. Having to backtrack through the park, we lost a couple of hours of daylight. We eyed a shorter path across the Rio Blanco, but we could not find a safe place to ford the river. The current was too strong and it wasn't worth the risk. So we headed north to Hosteria Pilar to cross the Rio Blanco by bridge.

We stopped for a couple of cold orange Fantas and boxed lunches at Hosteria Pilar and then headed alongside the Rio Electrico towards Piedra Fraile, formerly refugio Trunko (AKA refugio Junko en el Trunco). We kept a very brisk pace, as we were determined to arrive before the kitchen closed. My hiking shoes began to break apart as the soles started to peel back from the toe; I had to adjust my stride to keep my shoe together.

Around 8:00 we arrived at the Piedra Fraile campsite, and we found a perfect spot for the tent. Ruthie gave me some duct-tape which would keep my shoe together until the end of the trip: clutch. We went in to the kitchen for dinner. The prices were a bit more than we had bargained for. Flan: $12. Orange Fanta in a can: $8. Waking up to crystal clear sky in the valley of Rio Electrico: priceless. For a time I was measuring the value of hotels and other assets in terms of how many orange Fantas it would take to buy one.

That evening we dined with Ruthie and Jo; Richard, a British chap from Devon who was spending a year studying Permaculture; and a worldly Spaniard living in Brazil, working for Google. That night I saw the Southern Cross for the first time in several years. In the morning we woke to clear skies and walked toward Lago Electrico with Richard, Ruthie and Jo. We strayed from the path and spent the morning scampering up and down the giant red rocks. So much fun!

Eventually Larry and I went off on our own, walking alongside Rio Pollone towards Glacier Pollone, on the far side of Fitz Roy. We spent a serious amount of time launching rocks into a glacial lake, aiming at various targets. It was fun at 7. And it's still fun at 36. On the way back down from the lake, I took the high road to climb on and around some enormous boulders that had broken off from the mountain. It was wonderful to scramble about in my Vibram Five Fingers, feeling like a Chilean mountain goat.

Around 3:00 PM it was time to head out. Larry and I returned to Piedra Fraile, broke camp and headed back to the road. Near Hosteria Pilar we had the profound good fortune of finding a gracious family from Buenos Aires willing to give us a ride in their truck back into Chalten. We did not realize it was an additional 17 km back into town! That would have made for a crazy long day. Instead, we were back at Hostel Kalenshen by 7:00, cleaned up and fed by 9:00 PM. We ate delectable artisanal gelatto in town and settled in for a good night's sleep.

Days of Ice

At 7:00 AM we were up and packing for our last day in Chalten. We had another round of Breadfest (AKA breakfast) and headed to Patagonia Aventura for the 7:45 AM departure of our Viedma Pro Ice Tour. We took a bus out to Lago Viedma, boarded a boat and headed to Glacier Viedma. On the glacier, we geared up with crampons and harnesses and headed out to climb the walls of ice. The glacier was massive. It backed into the Southern Patagonia Ice field, the largest Ice Shelf outside of the Arctic or Antarctic, which generates ice for 48 glaciers.

The climbing was fun and challenging. Larry was a natural. One of our guides, Mochie, was singing to himself most of the time: he was a real trip. The guides were supportive and quite professional. After lunch, we hiked for an hour on the Viedma Glacier. At one point along the hike, the leader broke out a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream and a dozen plastic cups. With his ice axe, he chipped off glacier ice and gave everyone a cup full of Bailey's Glacier Snow cone! A nice touch, indeed.

When the tour ended, we boarded the bus from El Chalten back to Calafate. Calafate: home to a healthy tourist infrastructure; ample wandering dogs; helpful Argentinians and more tasty Gelatto.

Monday morning, January 9th we were picked up at our hotel just before 8:00 AM by the Hielo Y Aventuras bus. Our destination was the gigantic Perito Moreno Glacier. Towering 240 feet over Lake Argentina, the glacier spreads 3.5 miles across the Valley, and gradually climbs 19 miles to the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. It is an ocean of ice. We took the bus to the Moreno boardwalk and spent an hour watching ice break off, listening to the wails and cracks and crashes every five or so minutes. After an hour on the boardwalk, we drove down to Lake Argentina and hopped on a boat to cross the sound and commence our 4-hour ice hike.

The weather, in true Patagonian fashion, was quite fickle. The wind moved the clouds over the ice field, and the weather shifted from 40 degrees to 70 degrees and back to 40 degrees within the span of a few hours. By mid-afternoon, the blue sky finally emerged. We photographed the glacier and spent some time crawling in a deep blue ice cave. That was too cool! The guides were completely chill and let us walk wherever we wished. The freedom was nice, providing a marked contrast from the more vigilant oversight by the guides on Glacier Viedma. On the boat ride back to the bus, everyone was given a piece of chocolate and a glass of Jameson whiskey with glacier ice. Another fabulous touch to end a great hike!

Heading Home

Back in Calafate, Larry and I had some insanely tasty lomo on the main drag. Grass-fed tenderloin, medium rare. Soooo good. It was the best steak I've eaten in several years. My mouth is watering like a dog, thinking about it. Post carnage we grabbed some more Gelatto, and were sure to try the Calafate berry-flavored ice cream.

In the morning we grabbed breakfast and tried the Yerba Matte the locals loved to sip. Drawing the tea through the metal tipped filter yielded one of the most bitter, repellent tastes I have ever experienced. I don't know how people can stomach that brew! We hired a taxi and headed towards town. The taxi driver, Fabio, was incapable of simultaneously driving and talking. Each time we asked him a question, he slowed the taxi down to 5 mph and turned to talk to us. Not wanting to miss our bus, we quickly resolved to ask no further questions until we arrived at the bus station.

From Calafate we took the 8:00 AM bus to Puerto Natales. From Puerto Natales we took the bus to Puntas Arenas. We headed straight to the airport and caught the LAN flight back to Santiago. After a tiring day of travel, we finally pulled into our hotel around 11:00 PM.

We had only a single day to get a taste of Santiago. The morning sky was remarkably hazy and we could barely make out the tall mountains surrounding Santiago. Our first stop was the Santa Lucia Park near the town center. We climbed the hill and then moved on to our next destination. Along the way we were surprised by how much graffiti covered nearly every available surface, detracting from the charm of the city.

We had a brilliant lunch at the Mercado Central, where we ate Ceviche at Augusto's and were serenaded by a band of skillfully harmonizing musicians. We saw a Matta exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bella Artes and then took the funicular to the top of Cerro San Cristobal for a view of the white Virgin statue. We enjoyed the musicians playing at the top and bottom of the funicular. From San Cristobal we walked through several art galleries in the BellaVista district, stopped for one final Pisco Sour at a street side cafe, and grabbed dinner at the touristy, but fun, Patio Bellavista. From here we taxied to the hotel, grabbed our bags and headed to the airport.

As a final bonus, on the flight home, I sat next to this fascinating Chilean who descended from the first President of Chile, traced his Spanish roots back to the early 1500s, had 3 presidents in his lineage, graduated from Wharton, and was one of the country's major fruit exporters. We had an excellent conversation about food exports, organics, foreigners buying up land in Patagonia... it was a great conversation to conclude a great trip.

Larry and I encountered a few surprises along the way, but I think we artfully turned lemons into lemonade and had quite an adventure. We're still debating when to return to Torres. With so many new adventures and gorgeous places to visit on this rock of ours, it may be a few years before we return to Patagonia.

Thanks for following along with me!

I hope you enjoyed the travelogue.

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