The main reason I travelled to South America was attending the marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds.
Actually, it was to hike Fitz Roy (Argentina) & Paine(Chile).
Both are stunning postcards. But which is the better hike?
To get to southern Patagonia we took a 20+ hour bus ride through scrubby, barren Patagonian steppes. I sipped red wine, dozed, listened to music & read — as I had the last two 20+ hour bus rides.
First stop, though, was the Moreno glacier, perhaps the most visited & photographed in the world.
I camped so as to have the fabulous glacier to myself once the buses departed.
Next a happy rendezvous with Stacey and Bevan, a cool couple from Vancouver. We had hiked Alpamayo together months before. The three of us were psyched to finish our hiking adventures together before going home — as all good Canadians do— for Christmas.
We went first to Fitz Roy named for Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle. He and Darwin were likely the first Europeans to see the massif.
I feel a kinship with Fitzroy. Despite sharing a dinner table with Darwin for 5 years, he managed to come up with diametrically opposite positions on almost every issue.
While Darwin is a regular guest on Oprah, Fitzroy’s scientific theories have languished! (As has my own modest discovery that sea creatures once lived in the high mountains. It’s true! I can show you the fossilized shells.)
I had high hopes for Fitz Roy as it is far less visited than Paine and more famous with mountain climbers. The book Enduring Patagonia, by Crouch, details the history. I was particularly interested in the tale of the best first ascent in Patagonia, the Super Couloir on Fitz Roy, 1965. The Argentine climber Comesana said his fitness, at the time, was unimproveable.
Even more impressive is The Tower (Cerro Torre), most often climbed by theCompressor route, named for the 150 pound compressor hauled up by Maestri in 1970. This desecrated the mountain with 350 bolts, one of the great controversies in mountaineering. The compressor is still up there near the summit.
(Cheap chortle: one of the top climbers in history is named Athol Whimp. Talk about a boy named Sue!)
Also of note is the smaller Egger tower, sometimes named one of the 7 real summits — the most difficult peaks to climb on the 7 continents.
Unfortunately we had to endure Patagonia — in 3 days we did not see the tops of any of the famous peaks. The weather at Fitz Roy is horrific, even by Patagonian standards of horror. It sits on the largest ice shield anywhere in the world outside Antarctica. Near constant storms rage.
Horizontal rain and gale force winds. Snow at higher altitudes.
I love high wind, though, at night. The sound through the trees is wonderful. Wind is alive, like fire.
Wind batted my tent like a cat playing with a mouse.
We bailed on the Fitz Roy hike a day early. It did not look like the weather would clear. Ever.
Oh well, as Crouch says, It’s not Patagonia unless you hang on the cross for a while.
I was reading Naipaul too & recalled his advice on how to face disappointment, Take it on the Chin. And move on.
On to the Towers of Paine.
Super touristy, Paine is, regardless, the highlight for many who tramp South America.
Spectacular and uniquely chiselled peaks, granite towers, stunted & twisted trees, colourful flowers including orchids, huge undeveloped glacial lakes, brilliant glaciers — WOW! — What’s not to love?
Animal life is plentiful: llama-like guanaco, ostrich-like rhea, Andean fox, condors, flamingos, water fowl, hares, the endangered huemul deer. We saw all these. People hiking with us even saw a puma, not uncommon.
We did the 100km+ circuit of the Paine massif; no rush, plenty of time for side trips, in 9 days. Wonderful.
Unlike Fitz Roy, on Paine we had, for the most part, remarkably good weather. On the notoriously stormy Glacier Grey, you could light a match when we arrived at the Pass.
Bevan at Glacier Grey
Anemomaniacs be warned, our most vivid memories of Paine are of the wind which often blasts 170km / hour. Several hikers were thrown to the ground. My glasses were whipped off my face and blown 10m. Two pack covers blew off: one recovered by a group a half hour behind; the other never seen again, flying like a balloon out of sight.
One night we sheltered in one of the expensive Refugiosas winds I estimated at 140km / hour tried to blow in the windows.
At last light (11PM!) Bevan went to check on their tent — it was close to Maytagging away down the valley. All the pegs had pulled out but the weight of 2 packs was justenough. Other friends had their rental tent flattened.
We saw waterfalls blowing UP.
And never before had we seen the wind pick up sheets of water and splash it on to the shore, drenching us at one point
After Paine, the remaining days of my trip were a let down. I moped at the southern extreme of the continent. I did not reach the barbarian coasts of the uttermost part of the world, but I could see it from Punta Arenas.
Punta Arenas. Tierra del Fuego in the distance.
I daren’t cross the water to Fireland, forewarned that fearsome, naked giants live there, tending constant flames to stay warm, even in their canoes. They would devour me sure as shooting.
I am happy to go home to the best country in the world. Dreaming of a raisin bagel &double double at Tim Horton’s.
Pleased to stop torturing people with my Spanish.
I have a staggering genius for not learning languages. That is not the problem, though — perhaps I just got off the boat yesterday instead of months ago — the problem is my heartbreaking willingness to try to speak Spanish.
I am weary of filling in unnecessary bus roster & hostel registration forms. The amusement of using the nom de plume Richard Cranium is wearing thin. Occupation:grave robber. I invented new passport numbers each time.
When I was last in South America the blanks asked:Religion?. But this trip I was denied the chance to respond: lapsed pagan.
When I wandered into a high security Chilean naval base, I used my New Zealand driver’s licence as ID before being escorted out past red-faced security guards.
What part of the States are you from? The Canadian part. This no longer amuses anyone.
I will miss the plentiful time for reading, one of the great joys of travel. A few holiday recommendations:
• Kim, Kipling (classic)
• DaVinci Code, Brown (page turner)
• Life of Pi, Martel (original, intense)
• True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey (well wrote)
• Sea Wolf, London (classic)
• My Imaginary Country, Isabelle Allende (on Chile)
I was gifted a guide book to Molvania, a land untouched by modern dentistry.
Or — last minute berths to Antarctica by ship were going for US$1200 all inclusive 10 days.