Prepossessing Patagonia: Fjords, Rivers, Lakes, and Fitzroy!

3/5/2017.

Cochrane, Chile.

After riding Paso Roballos, a restful recovery night was well-earned. Now to continue onward, back on the Carretera Austral to it’s terminus in Villa O’Higgins, a few ferry crossings and some trail riding would hopefully bring me to El Chalten in Argentina, home of the famed climbing mecca of Mount Fitzroy within Los Glaciares National Park. 

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 LOTS of water flowing down here in Southern Patagonia. If it’s not an enormous lake it’s a raging river, the colors of which range widely within the aquamarine spectrum. There is always something magical that happens for me when beholding a fierce section of raging rapids. The power it conveys, the respect it demands. 

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Turkeys? Yep. Tons of them along the roadsides down here.  

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Every small hill crested revealed another huge mountain with glistening glacier on top. In this landscape one is offered daily examples marking their accelerating retreat, as the rutted rocky cliffsides seem increasingly exposed. While the vistas of these cliffs and valleys scarred from past glacial motion are captivating and beautiful, their significance is not lost on me. Such extreme contrasting emotional swings with every passing peak. 

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Reflections. I’ve photographed inspiring reflections on water, ice and even some glass over the course of this journey. They never cease to inspire a sense of calm, peace, and appreciation. It’s as if just the sight of them is a reminder to engage in that very internal process, “Reflect.”

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Around a bend I encounter grand cascades as they plummet from glaciars on high, the underlying vegetation rich and vibrant. 

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Another few kilometers and I find myself following the massive flow of the Rio Baker as the Carretera precipitously contours the steep ravine by its sides.

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Evening approached far too quickly this day, and I almost chose to take respite by the sign with my name on it: The Vagabond river and bridge. But I had set my sights on the small town of Caleta Tortel and hoped I might reach it by nightfall. 

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It was surprisingly hilly on the detour road to Caleta Tortel. Much slower going than I’d expected, I thus adjusted my plans to begin searching for slumber. Not an easy task, as this entire area is soaking wet marshland. Virtually every flat piece of land off of the graded dirt road was 1-3’ deep with water. Alas, with nearly 20km to go and a cool rainy night in my midst, I laid myself to rest on the first dryish soft grassy knoll I found, overlooking the enormous river. 

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Early to rise, I followed the dirt road West through vast dense marshland to it’s end at the seaside town of Caleta Tortel.

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Many had shared the unique beauty of this little town, as there were no cars nor other vehicles there. Given its location right on the end of an enormous fjord system and surrounded by swamp, all walkways through town consisted of raised wooden platforms! I stowed my bike and followed my welcoming new four-legged guide down into town…

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Having arrived late in the tourist season and early in the morning, the “streets” were empty, my footsteps only accompanied by  the gentle lapping of the sea beneath them. 

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“Universidad de Concepción”. Not a huge campus, I wondered what degree programs they offered… 

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Beautiful wooden carvings lined the walkways throughout town. 

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After passing through the desolate town center, I decided to follow a hiking trail marked on my map, exploring the hills above town. Pretty awesome place for a morning constitutional on the way out.

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Most of the lower trail was composed of a miniature version of the raised walkway system. This one only about 8” wide. 

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It surprisingly continued through a large area of marshland, keeping my feet comfortably dry as I hovered over the sopping wet spongy earth. 

But that didn’t last long…

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Dropping back into town, I ran into a cyclist friend I’d met two days prior in Cochrane. He’d hitchhiked down here to take a ferry through the Fjords to Puerto Natales, a 41 hour ride. Having  heard about his variety of prior hitchhiking experiences in recent past, I wondered if he actually liked riding his bike. He didn’t seem to do it that often, though was intent on describing his journey as a bike tour. To each his own, I guess!

 After a leisurely day in town, I glanced at my clock and realized I was late. With limited winter schedule, the last ferry across the Rio Bravo would leave in 3 1/2 hours, some 43km of steep mountainous terrain away. There was no other way I had found to cross the river down here, so no choice but to hustle! I hopped on the bike and hoped for the best. 

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Huffing and puffing up relentless steep slopes, I did stop once or twice to take in the beauty… and some sugar-spiking calories. 

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Just in time! With 20 minutes to spare I grabbed a highly overpriced cup of coffee at the tiny shop by the ferry, boarding with a small crew of other cyclists. We shared our routes and stories during the short crossing, hoping to find a dry place to set up a shared camp soon after the early evening ferry ride. 

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Things that don’t happen in the United States #1,694,502: Upon watching my try to tether my sopping wet tent to the ferry’s railing in hopes of a quick dry, the boat workers generously walked me down into the engine room and let me hang it right over the cozy warm engine! It was dry within 15 minutes. Thanks guys!

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While chatting with the ferry workers, they shared that there was a small waiting room on the far side of the ferry which is never locked. One could, if so inclined, create clandestine camp inside it’s warm and dry walls so long as said person was packed up before the first ferry arrived the following morning. Sweet!

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All four of us bikers invaded the space, enjoying no tent assembly and some great company. 

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I rolled out of the ferry building early the next day, hoping to cross the 100km stretch in order to reach the next ferry ticket office in Villa O’Higgins before closing. All ferries seem to be diminishing their crossings in preparation for the Winter, so time is certainly of the essence! 

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A great section of road with only a few cars the entire day. Silence is addictive. 

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 “Reflect.”

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Big waterfall. Little bike. 

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As the afternoon light stretched across the valley I realized I was making great time. I could relax a bit, calming rolling South through these grand lands. 

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I reached Villa O’Higgins and proceeded directly to the ferry ticket office. Not a cheap method of travel, even without the added car fee. But again, this was the route I’d chosen and the only other rideable route would be a big detour up and around the lake. Alas. I proceeded to a small campground just outside of town known to house touring cyclists. A lovely little wooded area with covered tent platforms and a shared cooking/hangout space within. the kind owner was shutting down the place for Winter when I arrived, this very night being his last night in operation until Spring. Perfect timing! We shared a warm fire and great conversation as 2 other cyclists arrived. One of the two had shared the last ferry. The other was a Japanese man I’d not seen since meeting him way back in Cusco about 6 months prior! I love how this journey South can have so many potential routes while simultaneously having certain funnel points which force chance encounters like this!

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Waking just before dawn, we all packed our gear and shared a quiet sleepy breakfast so we could ride the final 10km to the ferry dock. It was an early ferry and we wanted to make sure there was room for our bikes before it filled…

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Official end of the Carretera Austral. While I’d only actually ridden a small portion of the 1,247km road, it’s always fun to celebrate landmarks! 

 

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A sleepy wait at the ferry docks. For everyone. 

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Plenty of room for a few dirtbag bikers aboard the Robinson Crusoe!

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Despite the gloomy grey skies, the views were fabulous.

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Once dropped at the ferry dock, we all helped each other unload the bikes and set out up the muddy road to reach the Chilean customs office. Being the only backpacker, I was first in line. Sweet! Moments later the others arrived, as did a group of other touring cyclists who’d made the crossing from the South. 

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I set out on what started as a rough, steep dirt road toward Lago Del Desierto, where one final ferry crossing awaited. I’d heard that the ferry would be leaving in only 2 hours, and knew I could likely reach the dock in time. I bid farewell to my other two-wheeled friends, all of us knowing they’d need to take their time dragging wider and heavier rigs through the dense forest ahead. We’d rejoin over in El Chalten in a couple of days. 

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After a steep rainy climb the road on the Chilean side was pretty smooth and fast. I was making good time and confident I’d reach the ferry with ample time!

 

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Reaching the official border about 1/2 way to Lago Del Desierto, the surface changed immediately. Just as I’d found in other Chile/Argentina borders, the Argentina side was decidedly less maintained: a narrow, muddy hiking trail through dense brush continued onward from here.

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Wet, slow going. Lots of mud. Lots of stream crossings. I felt bad for all the other cyclists on their skinny tires and wide, pannier loaded bikes. Deeply appreciated my rig here!

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The Ogresa conquered with fluidity and ease. Mount Fitzroy is peaking out above the clouds across the lake!

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Reaching the shores of Lago del Desierto, I got my passport stamped by the Argentinian Customs officer and asked about the ferry across. He said it likely wasn’t actually coming that day. Or even possibly the next day. The schedule was, according to him, very erratic. The only way to ensure a timely crossing would be if each of the 4 cyclists I knew were coming wanted to pay him $50USD per person and he would, out of the kindness of his heart, give us a ride in his police boat… 

Sigh. The shakedown. Never my favorite experience. 

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Somehow not trusting the officer’s “kindness” entirely, I decided to wait for some of the other cyclists to arrive, perhaps we could make a counter offer once we’d discussed the issue. They trickled in over the course of the afternoon, some having taken as much as 7 hours to make the trail crossing. Bikepacking: the only way to roll! 

We all discussed the situation and decided to camp out, hoping the morning ferry might arrive and we’d avoid the shakedown entirely. 

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Fanastic sunset that evening. 

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The ferry did indeed arrive the next morning (only 2 hours later than its scheduled time). Still a bit overpriced in my mind, but a way easier way to cross the lake than the extremely rugged hiking trail I’d heard was far, far more difficult to traverse by bike than the one I’d just experienced. There would surely be more challenges ahead, and I no longer felt the temporal luxury to say yes to every option… 

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A quick 38km ride on smooth dirt road brought me to the backpacking/climbing center of Argentinian Patagonia: El Chalten. 

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I rolled through town, marveling at the fancy hotels and hostels lining all the streets. Still high season for hiking here the prices were set to match. Luckily I’d been informed there was a Casa de Ciclistas in town. Run by an El Chalten veteran by the name of Florencia, this funky little house had a few bunk beds for rent and a bunch of space out back for camping. All of it was packed full of bikers. 

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Upon arrival, I noticed these two DeVinci-era devices parked by the entrance. Recumbent tricycles mounted with sails…. What. I found their owners out back setting up their tents. A couple from France and Germany respectively, they had started in Ushuaia and were hoping to reach Alaska… someday. I was dumfounded by the machines, wondering how it was to be on such narrow rough roads with such wide trikes and tiny 20” wheels. Never mind the weight. And what about when there are headwinds? Were the sails actually that helpful??? Upon best surmisal, it was a publicity ploy by the trike’s European manufacturer. The riders seemed early enough in their journey to maintain hope and excitement about their method of travel, but that positivity was waning…

I spent the afternoon in town, resting up for a hike I’d planned into the park. I needed to buy my plane ticket North, finally, and make a committed decision about my Spring plans. If all went as planned, I’d reach Ushuaia by the end of the month, then within 3 days I’d need to turn around and fly back to the US. I’d have exactly 1 month to visit my parents, dearest friend, and beloved dog Sita, then fly to Seattle to reconnect with my chosen family, then maybe even fly to San Francisco to see my Sister, her husband, and meet my new nephew for the first time. Oh, and I’d somehow also have to find the time and money to replace a bunch of gear, including my bike, so I could immediately turn around and fly back down to Peru to guide mountain bike trips for Haku Expeditions. 

Sigh. 

Every time I imagined the intensity of April, having to rush through reconnecting with so many cherished people, I cringed. It wasn’t enough time, not to do it right. But I didn’t want to lose this connection with Haku in Cusco. They welcomed me to come down and build amazing multi-day mountain bike trips with them, mostly on my terms. It’s exactly what I imagined I would want to do next… After much ambivalation, back and forth advice texts with my inner friend circle, I took a deep breath and wrote a short, concise letter to Haku asking if they’d be open to my deferring the arrangement for up to a year. Not an easy message to send.  Luckily Bill and Nicole were gracious and kind, hopefully understanding how difficult it would be to rush the end of a 3 year journey. We agreed to take some time and plan well for the following year. As soon as I received their reply I could feel the weight lifted from my shoulders. I was back IN the moment of the journey. So of course, I again procrastinated airline ticket purchasing a few more days… 

That night I met up with Liz and Tyndall Ellis, one of a handful of bikepacking couples I’ve met on the way South. They had reached El Chalten a few days earlier and were planning to ride out the next morning. I was torn, as I really like them and hoped we might ride a few days together, but could not pass up the opportunity to behold Fitzroy. We enjoyed a great evening at their hostel drinking Fernet and Cokes, reminiscing about the amazing and challenging routes we’d each taken these last few months. Reminded of how much I cherish community, I was again inspired to return to the USA soon. See, touch, and hear (without bad wifi interruptions) all the loves of my life. 

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I set out early the next morning to enjoy a 2-3 day hike through Los Glaciares National Park. Fitzroy was not easily visible from town due to cloud cover and I wanted to get in for a closer look… (I loved that they had included a “no drones” sign. I personally love when nature is kept silent and natural.) As I’ve done many times prior, I loaded up my little daypack with the bare minimals and could easily fit all I needed for a 2-nighter. 

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A magellanic woodpecker accompanied me through a small section of wooded trail. 

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Another mossy reminder of the Pacific Northwest, I enjoyed the lush forested climb. 

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… Then noticed a big orange mushroom. Flipping it over, the gills below it in combination with its shape and color spelled chantrelle to me! But I needed local confirmation before consumption. I decided to harvest a small bag full in case I was correct, in hopes of cooking a meal for the casa ciclista in a few days. 

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Indeed there were myriad mushrooms around here! Many photos to follow…

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After a few hours of mycological exploration, I had a bag full of could-be chantrelles and some kilometers ahead to reach the basecamp for hiking to Mount Fitzroy. Beautiful country up here, even if under cloud cover. I truly hoped that the next day might bring a little sun and clear views…

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Plenty of wet marshland up here!

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Reaching the sanctioned campground by early evening, I was struck by the multitude of tents. I counted about 45 in all, packed into this tiny forested area. While I’d normally peel off trail to find my own private spot, I’m aware of the immense human impact on this area. Best to keep it concentrated to one area and leave the rest pure.  I spent the evening chatting with other international travelers, all of us hopeful for a sunny day tomorrow. 

I awoke before dawn, it had been pouring rain all night, and a weak spot in my tent fly was causing a slow drip of water, right onto my face. Unfortunately it was not my only issue. I’d made a beginner’s mistake, setting up my tent in a slightly concave bit of flat ground. Just enough that a puddle had formed under 2/3 of the tent floor and had slowly seeped through that, now working its way through my sleeping bag. Two choices here: 1: bundle up back into my now damp clothes and venture into the rain to drag the tent out of the puddle; or 2: stay relatively comfortable and hope for the best.

I know how #2 goes. Never well. 

Out I went, and as the monsoon rains continued to soak into my clothes I remembered the last time this happened… Mount Marcy. With my 3 best high school friends, we took a weekend during late Fall of our Junior year to climb the tallest peak in New York state. After a 10-mile approach we camped in a beautiful little flat spot (well, slightly concave) and scrambled to the peak. We all awoke to sopping wet and freezing cold sleeping bags at around midnight. Luckily my friend Collin was the one among us who’s sleeping bag proved waterproof, as all 4 of us scrambled on top of it to sit in a tight line. We sat there, upright, for 5 hours to wait for first light so we could hike out. Not fun. But at least funny to realize, 24 years later, I’d make the same mistake. 

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An early morning water run to the stream below camp revealed a perfect blue-bird day! 

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 I floated up the steep rocky terrain, so excited to see what lay ahead up the mountainside…

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Not bad so far…

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Using my biking legs to rocket past most other hikers, I reached Fitzroy in almost complete solitude. This place is absurd. 

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I hiked down to the upper lake, walked around it onto a lone point knowing most incoming hikers wouldn’t venture that far over, and sat. I watched the clouds whiz by those majestic peaks. I gave deep thanks for all the freedom I have enjoyed and sacrifices made, both by me and my community, to manifest moments like this one. The pendulum between solo exploration and community cannot simultaneous occupy both poles. Every beautiful moment I spend out here alone, cherishing the silence and the insights it brings, is a moment away from the people I love so much. Every moment back there with them is a solo adventure not taken. Not sure how to come to terms with this conundrum. But I’m hopeful I can find a better balance in the coming years, now having experienced the extremes.  

I sat for a while longer, listening to the gentle breeze and attempting to play my Peruvian Quenilla despite the wind’s note blockages. Wind instruments are hard to play, especially IN the wind! 

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 After soaking up this magical place for a few hours, the human density eventually became overwhelming. I was so deeply appreciative to have some time alone upon arrival. I began my return to town as endless groups of hikers continued to arrive. And for good reason. One of the most powerful places I’ve seen. 


 

3 Responses

  1. Henk
    | Reply

    Once again an excellent read and amazing photos

  2. Detlev Swoboda
    | Reply

    An excellent report, it brings back memories having cycled all of the carretera and beyond earlier this year.

  3. Gar Howell
    | Reply

    Fitzroy must be one of the natural wonders of the world?
    Ruta 40, east of your journey is probably much less interesting?
    Does the Carreterra Austral link up with the Pan American highway,
    or even part of it? I’m ambitious to travel the rest of the ruta 40,
    but if only I could heal a surgeon induced infection following a broken leg
    (I’ve still got the leg, thank him) I would take your marvellous example,
    even at the age of 71. It’s not so much the cycling when you are older, but
    the long air flights which git ya down!
    Your photography and descriptions are brilliant, almost worth hard copy
    production (for those who like hard copy)…… it is valuable.

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