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Key words: friends, food, stupidly good weather, hiking, mountains

My Patagonia experience started in Argentina, in the city of El Calafate. The city itself was not much to write home about, but being there was fantastic nonetheless, largely because I met my Seattle friends Jim and Melissa there to start a week of mountain enjoyment. They’d planned a trip to Patagonia independent of mine, but the timing could not have been more perfect. When I arrived in Calafate at 6pm, I’d been traveling since 7am, having started in Punta Arenas, Chile and bussed across the border into Argentina. No matter, however, because as the bus rolled into the station, I glimpsed a woman clad in shades of pink and realized with much flappy-handed excitement that it was my friend Melissa. I thought I would be meeting them at their hotel, so having her meet me at the bus station was an unexpected delight. Melissa took me to their hotel to shower (needed) and then we met up with Jim for pizza and wine. The plan for the following day was a visit to the Perito Moreno glacier, so we ordered overly large pizzas in expectation of pizza-bag lunch leftovers.

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At the crack of 8 on Saturday, we boarded our bus to Los Glaciares National Park. You might think that 6 hours of watching a glacier might be boring, but I can now confirm that 6 hours doesn’t seem like enough time. There’s something strangely exhilarating about watching a glacier calve. The three of us got really excited every time chunks of ice fall into the lake, and the larger calving events were cheer-worthy. The scale of that river of ice was incredible, as was the size of many of the calving events that we witnessed.

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Around 4pm, we reluctantly headed back to Calafate, where we prepped our bags for the next day’s travel to the hiking/climbing mecca of El Chalten. But the awesomeness of the glacier watching day was not over. After an extremely underwhelming experience at the local “microbrewery” (summary: sampled all the beer, ordered house wine instead), we decided to take a Frommer’s restaurant recommendation and made our way to Pura Vida. The 30 minute wait was absolutely worth it. I think we all agreed that dinner there was the best meal of our respective trips. I ordered traditional Argentinian stew: lentils with potatoes, corn, beef, squash, and peaches. They also served it in half of a roasted squash, a delicious surprise. Jim ordered this cheesy corn business and Melissa ordered lasagna. Each of the dishes was amazing and our taste buds were practically dancing with joy. Not to mention, the house wine was of course delicious as well. Dessert was as good as dinner was, notably the pears braised in Malbec. The meal incited lots of grinning and giggling at how freaking good everything was. If you ever go to El Calafate, go to Pura Vida (maybe make a reservation, just in case). You will not be disappointed. On the walk home, we even wandered into a free concert where some Venezuelan artist was crooning soft rock songs. While the music wasn’t to our taste, it was really cool to see what seemed like the entire town – families with kids included – out and about, sharing the festivities together.

Sunday morning we took the bus to El Chalten. Although the whole ride takes 3 hours, minutes after we were on the road you could see the top of Fitz Roy poking out about above its neighboring foothills. When we arrived at the ranger station just outside of Chalten, the ranger informed us that we were at the beginning of a ridiculously good weather window. We were stoked. We dropped our non-backpacking stuff off in storage and hit the trail that same day. The next 3 days (and 3 nights) were an incredible tour of stunning landscapes and ridiculously good weather. Especially after 2 months of being on my own, I was super happy to be hiking with friends from home. We spent one night in Campamento Lago de los Tres and two nights in Campamento Poincenot. At sunrise on the first morning, I awoke to Melissa scratching at my tent. Within 10 minutes walking from the camp we had this view of Cerro Grande.

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On the second day, we took 6 hours to do a 3 hour hike, which will happen if you stop to enjoy almost every lake along your path. A highlight was swimming in a perfectly clear (and freaking cold) glacier melt lake and lying on the beach in the sun to dry off.

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We arrived the second day at Campamento Poincenot and located an ideal site, complete with a camp “living room” with a view of the Fitz Roy range. We hiked to watch another glacier that evening and got to enjoy some scrambling on granite en route. Then I found an engagement present for Jim and Melissa… but I don’t think their baggage allotment would have accommodated it. 😉

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That night, we enjoyed the second of two boxes of wine that Melissa packed in (because she’s awesome like that). Then for dessert, Jim and I cooked up some worms in dirt (minus the worms). It took waaaaay longer than I expected to make pudding with a camp stove, but it was a fun activity with delicious outcomes.

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We spent almost the entire 3rd day with a perfect view of Fitz Roy. There were two climbing groups on the range that day, one coming down the glacier and another going up. The ascending group provided us with lots of entertainment, as we watched them stop repeatedly, for no apparent reason, and wondered with exasperation what the heck they were doing on that glacier. They ended up turning back at a fair-sized bergschrund, which was probably for the best. (Also probably for the best was that they were out of earshot of our merciless heckling.)

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The third night treated us to this view of the range (from our living room):

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And the 4th and final morning treated us to this sunrise view:

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Have I mentioned what a stupidly good weather window we had? Jim had been dreaming of visiting this area for years, and I learned from him that lots of people visit Chalten and see nothing but clouds. Knowing that made me appreciate our weather even more. Three hours of hiking took us back into town, where we searched for lunch, lest my hanger grow. I wish I could remember the name of the Argentinian beer we tried at lunch, because I would tell you to NEVER DRINK IT. That brought Argentina’s beer score to 0 for 2. That afternoon we got ice cream, did laundry, and finally found a Cerveceria (brewery) with reasonably tasty brews. That brought the score to 1 for 3, but I still think that they should stick to wines, since they obviously have skill in that department.

We had another lovely dinner that night (although not nearly as good as the one at Pura Vida in Calafate), and celebrated our amazing trip with healthy amounts of wine. The following morning, we said goodbye, as Jim and Melissa had to get moving back toward the airport that would take them home to Seattle. That day was overcast and rainy in Chalten, which mirrored my spirits after saying goodbye to friends. I spent the morning gloomily trying to get my new tablet up and running. (J&M had teamed up with other friends of mine in Seattle (Simon and Janessa) to courier a replacement Nexus 7 tablet to me in South America, along with a proper trekking pack, AND some treats from Trader Joe’s. I’m so grateful to have such awesome friends!!!) I gave up on tablet things because the wifi was so slow and went for a wander around Chalten, which takes all of 30 minutes. On my wander I ran into a Canadian couple we’d met on our trek and had a lovely evening with them. They very nearly convinced me to join them on an expedition to Bernardo O’Higgins national park, but I had planned to meet a friend in Ushuaia on March 15 (a little over two weeks from that day) so I couldn’t join them. “Next time, next time,” I tell myself.

The morning of my 6th day in El Chalten dawned beautiful and sunny again, and I knew I had to get out into the mountains. I packed my bag for 2 nights and headed toward the ranger station with a vague plan of doing a loop just south of the one that J&M and I had done. As I walked down the road, another solo trekker was walking my way. I raised my hand to give him a friendly high 5, but he stopped and said he needed a partner for hiking to Pase de Viento (“Pass of the wind”), because the rangers wouldn’t let him go alone. His plan was in the direction of mine, so I figured “why not?” So my new Swiss hiking partner and I set out for the 6 hour approach for our camp site. The views did not disappoint.

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The campsite was in the eddy of a rock outcropping near the river that flows out of the pass. The wind force was impressive, even there. The following morning, Swiss Man threw on day packs for the out-and-back hike, and made for the unavoidable river crossing. We forded the river at the wrong spot and scared the bejeesus out of me. Nothing like a little adrenaline to get your morning started. (Thigh-high, ice-cold rushing water: fucking terrifying. Lesson learned, and fortunately NOT the hard way.) Once feeling had returned to my feet, we started hiking. We followed a sometimes faint but mostly obvious trail up to a glacier, which was so covered in rocks that we could easily walk up its edge.

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We gained the moraine close to the actual trail, but not close enough to avoid all instances of that unsettling feeling of stepping on a rock and having the whole pile grumble and shift. Eek. We wandered into some other mossy/rocky terrain before finding the climbers’ trail again, but not before I dropped my old point&shoot camera while delayering, and then couldn’t find it again. Damn. (More practice letting things go, yaaaaay. :-P) Fortunately, my nicer Canon was still safely in my pack, so I could still capture the beauty of our hike. (The smaller camera was more for easy access than exceptional performance.) We resumed our ascent and the views were such that I quickly forgot my lost camera.

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We gained the pass, and it lived up to its name, buffeting us with cold wind sweeping off of the Patagonian Ice Sheet. The latter itself was incredible to behold, a flat river of ice extending 4 miles from below where we stood until a different mountain range rose on the other side. We didn’t have a perfectly clear day, but even the clouds were fantastic: lenticulars stacking on top of each other as the massive winds blew them to the southeast.

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We watched the mountains and clouds until we were too cold to stay any longer. The hike down proved much easier to navigate than the ascent, although the steep portions were rather knee-destroying. We crossed the river at the correct point that afternoon: the water was only shin high, so my precautionary pant removal was unnecessary. I was relieved by the easy crossing, and ultimately happy to walk around pantless for a bit in the warm evening sun. (If you know me, such behavior is no surprise.)

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Back at camp, we made dinner and then chatted until bed seemed like good idea. Our chat brought my attention to what I would consider to be social interaction norms. Typically, socializing revolves around a meal, or a beer, a coffee, a smoke, a bus ride, a cuddle, a game, a fire… we had none of these things, and I was struck by how awkward I felt for having no distraction to pure interaction. I think this awkwardness goes away as you get to know someone better, but it was interesting to observe my reaction to the situation. (We are both engineers, so I could probably cite engineer stereotypes as well.) Ultimately, we made up a “socializing activity” in the form of balancing on bits of fallen wood as we talked. He is an interesting and relaxed dude, so our conversation was fun.

We booked it back to town on the following day. My motivation was the fact that I hadn’t quite brought enough food for the amount of hiking we’d done, so I was fairly delirious with hunger by the time we hit town. Swiss Man went to shower, and I went in search of sustenance. What I found was a Parrillia, an Argentinian grill place. I ordered a beer and the steak that the waitress recommended, and when it arrived in front of me I almost cried with happiness. People talk about how good the steak is in Argentina, and this steak made me a believer.

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Happily fed, I made my way the campsite in town where I’d been staying, took a shower, did laundry, and headed to the bus station to buy my ticket out. I could have stayed in Chalten area for much longer (at least until the good weather ran out), but I needed to get south to Torres del Paine (TdP) National Park in Chile so I could hike there and maintain my timeline for getting to Ushuaia. After such incredible weather in Chalten, I’d hoped for something similar in TdP, but alas, it was not to be. I’ll regale you with that story in my next post.

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