The One Less Traveled By: a chronicle of my yearlong sabbatical


Hiking, Biking, Boozing and Busing Through Argentina
May 16, 2010, 11:27 pm
Filed under: Argentina

Now that it’s months and countries behind me, I figure it’s high time I update my blog with the rest of my trip through Argentina.  So….  After Bariloche, where I hung out until March 14, I headed a few hours south to the town of El Bolson.  El Bolson is situated in a ridiculously picturesque valley, with beautiful lush mountains on either side, and is probably best known for its hippies and microbrews.  It didn’t disappoint as to either.   (Picture, for example, barefooted, knotty-haired toddlers running around the organic section of the supermarket, and a weekend market with nearly a dozen vendors selling homebrew.)  I stayed at a fantastic hostel called El Pueblito whose innumerable charms included two proprietary beers brewed by the owners, a barn converted into a bar, and delicious nightly dinners prepared with ingredients from the organic garden.  It was the type of place where people stayed for weeks and, in the case of two dudes I met, months.  I stayed for about a week.

El Pueblito

Marcel, one of the owners of the hostel, tending bar

During that time I made two trips to the mountains – one for a day, the other for three.  The day trip was to Mount Piltriquitron, the highest peak on one side of the valley.  The hike passes Refugio Piltriquitron and winds through El Bolson’s “Carved Forest” where artists have carved figurines and objects into the trees in an effort to bring life back to this area which had been racked by fire.

Refugio Piltriquitron - this place served excellent homebrew

Dude who carved this one must have been on something strong...

Hands from the Carved Forest

On the summit of Piltriquitron with the Andes in the background

Two days later, along with another American girl named Chrissy, who had attended the same Spanish school as me in Bariloche, I hiked to Refugio Cerro Lindo.  Unfortunately it was the day after Saint Patrick’s Day:  all of the drinks and all of the not sleeping did not make for a particularly pleasant hike up the steep trail.  Nevertheless, we made it in about 4.5 hours when everybody told us it would take 7, so we were happy.  The next day, the man who runs the refugio – the refugiero – took us on an incredibly beautiful hike around the area and up to the top of Cerro Lindo mountain, where we were rewarded with panoramic views of the Corderilla de los Andes.  The next day, after a trip to a nearby waterfall, we headed back down the mountain and back to El Pueblito, just in time for an incredible Argentinean asado (BBQ), where the quantity of meat cooked and served bordered on the obscene.

The lush forest through which we passed on the way to Refugio Cerro Lindo

The refugio

The refugio's 5-star accommodations

The refugiero pausing for a moment of reflection

The Chilean Andes from the top of Cerro Lindo

Lago Tres Colores

More of the beautiful scenery around Cerro Lindo

Sledding down the snowfield on the way back to the refugio

Not having any plans of any sort, after El Bolson I decided to head back to Buenos Aires (~20 hours by bus; Argentina is huge) to see some friends, check out the city some more, and decide where to go next.  I stayed about a week, during which time I ate ridiculous amounts of steak and walked a ton (like Argentina, BA is massive).  I mulled over heading to Brazil next, but decided I didn’t want to deal with the headache of applying for a visa — which is required for US passport holders — and waiting for it to be issued, and also realized that I needed more mountain adventures.  The beach would have to wait.

After about five days in BA I boarded an overnight bus to Cordoba, in north-central Argentina.  There wasn’t much to do there so I stayed only a couple of days.  I did meet some great people at the hostel where I stayed and walked around the city blah blah blah.

From Cordoba, I traveled further north in Argentina to Cafayate.  Cafayate is the type of place that does not get much press – thankfully – but is an absolute gem; the type of place where a Canadian couple came for a few days and immediately looked into buying a house there.  I was nearly swayed in the same direction, too.

Cafayate's main church in the small's town's diminutive central plaza

Cafayate, like all of Argentina, relishes alfajores - a snack that's a cross between a cookie and a cake

In Cafayate I met up with Chrissy again – with whom I had hiked in El Bolson – as well as a couple from Ireland, Susan and John, and a girl from Switzerland, Silvia.  Together, we took a bus 50km out of town and then biked back through the gorgeous countryside, which looks like a cross between the red rocks of Arizona and the badlands of South Dakota.  There were several wineries along the way (the area being a principle wine making region, though less well-known then Mendoza), so we stopped and indulged in several bottles of excellent wines, including the regional specialty, Torrontes, a beautiful white wine I had never had before.

On the road

Working hard for our reward...

... which was several bottles of Torrontes..

... at this fantastic winery...

...where they grow their own grapes.

The countryside which we passed through on our ride

At last, back in town, 50km later, at the last winery

Sylvia and I contemplating the first of five bottles from Bodega El Esteco

Back at our fantastic hostel, Rusty Ks, we had a delicious barbeque prepared by the staff and enjoyed more of the fine local wine – until, that is, we delved into the 5 gallon jug of rot gut that the hostel provided, probably more for their entertainment than our own.  After a few more days hanging out in Cafayate and enjoying its laid back vibe, the five of us headed north to Bolivia.

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Climbing in El Chalten
February 26, 2010, 2:06 pm
Filed under: Argentina

My buddy and climbing partner, Alex, and I were incredibly fortunate to have blue skies for the bus ride into El Chalten.  We were rewarded with incredible, rare views of the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre ranges – two reasons the best climbers from around the world make Chalten home during the summer.  Even though these granite behemoths tower over Chalten, they go shrouded in clouds, rain and fog for weeks or months at a time; it is common for visitors never to catch a glimpse of them, even though they are the main attraction.

Fitz Roy and Torre ranges from the drive to El Chalten

Alex and I on the way into El Chalten. Fitz Roy is the massive central pillar and Torre is shrouded in clouds on the right.

The snow-capped peak of Cerro Torre pops through the clouds

We had hired a guide for five days to tackle Aguja Guillamet, a peak that would require three days to summit – the two days being a hedge against the weather.  Turns out we didn’t need them.  Upon arriving in town, we checked into a great little hostel run by Marcelo and his son, William, and headed over to our guide, Manuel’s, office.  He told us that that day was the first without rain in over 40 days.  We checked the weather forecast and models to learn that the next few days would be, for the most part, excellent weather.  The first weather window in nearly two months.  We had arrived at the perfect moment. That evening we sorted gear and food, packed our bags, and had a big meal of a local stew.  The next morning we hit the trail.

The tiny outpost of El Chalten

Aguja Guillamet is the closest peak - the one with the puma head on its upper-right summit. Fitz Roy looms, capped with unseasonal snow, in the distance. This was the view from our base camp.

Aguja Guillamet is one of the bookends of the Fitz Roy range.  Our base camp for 5 days/4 nights would be Piedra Negra, a climber’s camp at the base of a glacier that serves as the approach to the climb as well as many other climbs on neighboring peaks.  The hike to camp was about five hours, the last three of which went straight up a steep mountainside replete with loose rock and scree.  I was worked by the time I dragged myself into camp.  Fortunately, the next day was a rest day due to unfavorable weather – snow, wind and cold.  We spent most of the rest day eating and hydrating, trying to stay warm, and chatting up the other climbers who were beginning to descend on Piedra Negra.  (At one point we counted 16 tents – the mass migration due, no doubt, to it being the first climbable weather since mid-December.)

Our guide, Manuel, and Alex and base camp

Trying to stay warm the day before the climb

Grubbing

We decided that the best route up Guillamet would be the classic Amy Coulier route: several hundred feet of a 60 degree snow and ice gully, followed by several hundred feet of rock climbing on quality granite, to reach a steep snowfield to the summit.

We woke at 3 AM and departed camp around 4.  From 4 to 6 we hiked up the glacier and steep snowfields to take us to the mountain pass that provided access to Amy Coulier.  As this was my first time on a glacier and only the second wearing crampons, I was glad it was dark during the approach or else the steepness of the approach would have likely frayed my nerves.  Fortunately, at that hour I could see only a few feet ahead of me, so I just focused on putting one spiked foot in front of the other, planting my ice ax, and hoping that I didn’t lose my balance and go careening hundreds of feet down the glacier.  We made it over the pass just as the sun was rising over the distant mountains in front of us – quite a sight.  Manuel, Alex and I roped up and began the 45-minute hike up another steep glacier to the start of the Amy Coulier route.

The approach from base camp to Amy Coulier, which takes about 2 hours at a steady clip. The coulier starts on the other side of the rock and then traverses the face to the snow ramp.

Sunrise, about 6am, from the pass that serves as access to Amy Coulier

The climb does not start gently.  The first obstacle is crossing a bergschrund — a crevasse that forms where the moving glacier ice separates from the stagnant ice above.  Because of the massive snow build up around the bergschrund, Manuel had to spend nearly 20 minutes digging through snow to find solid footsteps and reach a solid enough portion of the glacier in which to plant the ice axes.  The move over the bergschrund still ended up being slightly overhanging with tenuous ax placements, forcing an insecure and scary move up and over a yawning crevasse.  From there we ascended the several hundred feet of the narrowing snow/ice gully – the coulier – kicking with the crampons and trying to find purchase with the ice tools in steady succession, all the while trying to avoid the shower of dislodged snow and ice from the person climbing above.

Me ascending Amy

At the belay after the second or third pitch of Amy

A view up Amy to the exciting exit over the granite blocks

Upon reaching the top of the coulier a couple hours later, we shed our mountaineering boots for our rock shoes and began the four pitches of rock climbing.  The exposure was significant – thousands of feet of air between my feet and the glacier below – which ensured that I gripped the rock way too hard with my fingers that had become numb from the cold.  After some exciting climbing and an airy traverse, we reached the final and, to me, intimidating obstacle: the snowfield to the top.  The snowfield extends for several hundred feet at a fairly steep angle – steep enough so that climbing down is done facing the mountain with ice ax in hand — and the bottom is an abrupt drop-off of several thousand feet.  Thing is there is nowhere to place protection, so the three of us attached ourselves to a single rope, about 10 meters apart, so that if one person fell, the other two would use their crampons and ice tools to arrest the fall.  Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary and we made it to the top without incident.  As Manuel noted, we were halfway there – now we just had to get back to camp.

Loving the weather and views

Alex on the rock route with the continental ice cap in the distance

Alex and I on the summit of Guillamet

The snow ramp to the summit of Guillamet

We hiked back down the summit snowfield, rappelled several pitches (with one sketchy rappel off wobbly old pitons), and descended back to camp, arriving at about 6:30 that evening to congratulations from the other climbers.  I was exhausted and exhilarated and a good bit relieved to be back safe at camp.  We celebrated with the finest dehydrated camping food money could by and an excellent bottle of fresh glacier run-off water, a 2010 vintage.

Descending the Amy - the obvious horizontal line is the bergschrund

Back at camp after climbing Guillamet

A little skeptical about this meal - I think the rehydrated peanut thai curry had mixed with the remnants of the rehydrated apple cobbler that was left in my bowl from breakfast

The next day we rested again and this time had the pleasure of sunny skies and relative warm.  Manuel’s girlfriend, Pas, had hiked up to base camp and was so kind as to bring us homemade alfajores from a little gem of a chocolate shop in Chalten, so we munched on those, took naps, dried and aired out our clothes, and otherwise did a wonderful lot of nothing.

The next day, facing excellent weather but still feeling a bit exhausted, we decided on a moderate rock climb that follows a ridge for about 8 pitches to the beginning of another route up Guillamet, a climb Manuel had never done before.  From camp, the ridge looked almost like little more than a scramble, but it ended up providing some excellent vertical and very exposed climbing.  In particular, there was one airy traverse under a big, precariously perched bloc, with nothing but air between my feet and the glacier a thousand feet or more below.  The last pitch of climbing was the most exciting and scary.  It went up a straight vertical dihedral (or open book corner) and then traversed right via a balancy, super exposed, very scary move.  Then, after a bit more exciting climbing, there is a challenging chimney that was so narrow we had to remove our backpacks and sling them off our harness.  I was super stoked to reach the top alive and kicking.

Approaching the ridge climb

Manuel leading another super fun pitch

Me on one of the fun ridge pitches

Me carefully moving across the airy traverse

The snowfield traverse to the first rappel anchor from the ridge. The closest notch in the ridge in the distance is the pass to reach Amy Coulier.

By the time we rappelled back to camp it was close to 6, so we quickly packed up camp, drank a bunch of water, and ate a bunch of cliff bars, then began the long hike back to town.  We arrived in El Chalten at about 11 that evening.  The hike down with the heavy packs again broke me off; my legs were sore for about four days.

Alex and I spent another week in El Chalten mostly just hanging out.  The second night back, however, we went to an excellent asado (BBQ) that an American climber was having for his birthday.  It was an interesting, motley group of about 20 American climbers, most of who were down for the whole season, and were probably some of the best in the States (the type of guys who know all of the Yosemite park rangers by name because they have been living in the valley for years, climbing).  A local chef tended the grill and turned out some absolutely delicious chorizo sausage, a few gigantic chunks of beef, and tender, moist cordero (lamb, a Patagonia specialty).  During the day, Alex had work to do for the Antarctic program, so I read, enjoyed some El Chalten microbrews, and used the slowest internet on Earth (Chalten being the middle of nowhere; the type of town with only one ATM, which is more often than not on the fritz or out of cash).  However, we also made it a near daily ritual to, in the late afternoon, drink some yerba mate and get after some evening climbing and bouldering on rock around town.  It was perfect.

The hostel where we stayed

William tended desk at the hostel

Fitz Roy dominating the view from town

Heading into the local chocolateria for some excellent homemade alfajores



El Calafate, Argentina
February 26, 2010, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Argentina

I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina on the morning of February 6.  I checked into a great hostel called Hostal Tita, located near to the Palermo neighborhood, one of the best and trendiest in BA.  I spent a bit of the day exploring the Palermo neighborhood before escaping the humidity back in the hostel.  Argentina is quite famous — rightfully so — for its beef, so for dinner I ducked into a small, nondescript local parilla (grill house) for dinner, and had an unforgettable  hunk of bife de chorizo, a cut similar to a New York Strip, that was seasoned with nothing more than salt and rivaled the best steak I’d had in New York, and only cost about ten bucks.  That and a bottle of Malbec and I was good to go.  That night I went out with another American and a group of Colombians.  I fought through the jetlag from my overnight flight and managed to party until the sun came up.  The next day I slept in until about 3, and then two locals I met at the club the night before showed me around Puerto Madero, another nice neighborhood, and we had a few beers.  I went back to the same parilla for the same dinner that night and got ready for my flight the next day to El Calafate.

El Calafate international airport

View from the terminal

El Calafate is a smallish town in southern Patagonia, near the very bottom of Argentina, which exists primarily to serve the ton loads of sightseers who visist Glacier Perito Moreno (and, for me, served as meeting point with my buddy Alex and transfer point to El Chalten).  I was there two days.  The first I paid a visit to the glacier and did the “mini-trekking” tour, that involved a two hour walk on the ice.  The glacier itself is fascinating: its one of — if not the — fastest advancing glaciers, moving on average 1.5 meters per day.  It is also a stable glacier so that while it cleaves huge chunks of ice into the surrounding lake, it grows up top at the same rate.  At one point I was a chunk the size of a 10 story building thunderously cleave and crash into the lake.  Quite a sight.  The next day I met up with Alex, my climbing partner for the trip to El Chalten, and we spent a leisurely afternoon at the local bar/bookstore/cafe sipping microbrews.  (There are some incredible beers being made in Patagonia – reason alone to make the journey.)  Both of us were antsy to get to El Chalten and the next day we were on our way.

Lago Argentino - the largest freshwater lake in Argentina - from the I Keu Ken hostel in El Calafate

Glacier Perito Moreno

The passenger ship on the right holds hundreds, to give you an idea of the scale of this beast

It was a rainy day...