We are back online, after a couple of days in the wilderness! Our plans have changed a couple of times since we last talked, but for now I will fill you in in what happened up to last night. At the bottom of this post I will recount what happened today...
After meeting with the mountain guide on Wednesday night, I left for the mountains on Thursday morning. We hiked for five hours through forest, then along the Rio Electrico, with mountains and glaciers surrounding us, reaching Lago Electrico and our campsite, Playa de Ancha, but not before a large river crossing almost pulled me into the lake!
We were camped along the river, and enjoyed a fitful sleep before waking up at 4:30 am on Friday for our hardest day so far. We hiked for an hour before reaching the Marconi Glacier, where we strapped on our crampons and walked on the icefield for an hour and a half. What a great experience walking on pure ice, over crevasses and streams hundreds of feet deep! The different shades of blue as the sun reflected off the ice was incredible, and walking over these huge mounds kept a smile on my face the whole time. We saw (and heard) several large avalanches up higher on the glacier, with countless waterfalls surrounding us on the valley floor. Magnificent!
Now it was time to get over the Marconi Pass, which my guide says was the "tricky part" - an understatement of epic proportions. What we had to do was climb up a rock wall littered with waterfalls - we would have to traverse large rock sections that were wet, slippery, and probably about 35 degrees in slope, with a 600 foot drop!
So that is what we did - with me as scared as I've ever been in my life, we climbed, slipped and grabbed for the next 45 minutes and made it to the top of Marconi Pass!
My reward was a 30 degree ice slope, which, after crampons were reattached, was actually quite fun. You can get great grip (known as purchase) with crampons, so I walked up the slope unroped, and when I reached the top, there it was, with clear skies and almost no wind - the third largest icefield in the world at 295 Kms in length.
The view with Fitzroy behind me and nothing but white in front of me (not even someone's footprints) was completely overwhelming - quite emotional, actually, and by far the most amazing moment of this trip.
We roped up (deep crevasses were covered by the snow and my guide was sure one of us would likely fall in at least one) and proceeded onto the snowfield, walking and taking pictures until we crossed into Chile an hour later - no border guards here! By 12:30 pm we were in the Chilean refuge on a rock outcropping in the middle of the icefield, enjoying an unexpected nap in a bunk, where we would spend the night. I actually had to go to the police station in El Chalten and check out of Argentina, and when I came back from my climb, had to go back and get stamped in!
We spent the afternoon wandering around the icefield, and in the evening watched the sunset over Fitzroy while playing Uno with the Chilean park ranger (I won so many times he threatened to make me sleep outside).
We were scheduled to head back down to our previous nights camp early the next morning, but halfway through the night, the weather turned bad. The winds had picked up, and there were heavy rains - this would mean our climb down through the Pass would be "difficult" according to the guide. Oh crap, I knew what that meant!
We set out at 6:00 am on the same path as the day before, but climbing down through the rock was more than a little scary - we were roped up the whole way, with my porter, Ferre slipping and sliding down the rock face, me going second, and the lead guide going last. We made it through the now very large waterfalls, with our boots full of water, when I set off an avalanche of loose rocks (some 5 feet tall) that just missed Ferre, who was helping carry some of my items (I was only carrying about 25 pounds of the 45 pounds of gear assigned to me).
Disaster averted, we decided to make our way all the way home, as the wind had picked up to 60 Km gusts, and the rain was unrelenting. We made our way down to El Chalten over the next six hours, including another 3 or 4 river crossings (a couple of which weren't there just 2 days ago). At the largest crossing, the water was up almost 3 feet and i was wet all the way up to my backpack!
After 9 hours climbing and walking I arrived back in El Chalten at 3:00 pm Saturday, with my gear (and me) completely soaked, a day early. Current weather and forecasts say we made the right decision as the wind howled all night and the forecast looks terrible going forward.
In the meantime, Bob was checking out El Chalten, as well as spending a day wading through rivers himself, trying his hand at fly fishing at a lake 35 Kms north of El Chalten. He was actually quite successful, catching a bunch of trout and honing his fly skills, while enjoying the company (and some wine!) with his guide, Gustavo.
We left El Chalten at 8:30 this morning, making it to the border town of Rio Gallegos by 1:00pm. Driving to Ushuaia is a strange experience - the city is in Argentina, but is landlocked from its own country, the same as Alaska. In other words, we would have to leave Argentina, cross into Chile for about 200 Kms, take a ferry to cross the Strait of Magellan, then return to Argentina for the final 300 Kms to Ushuaia - a 9 hour jaunt from the initial border!
We completed part one of our border crossings, heading back into Chile from Argentina - this took 1.5 hours even though the office was jammed with Chileans and Argentines heading home after a weekend in Argentina.
When we opened our car doors to enter customs, we were buffeted with 80 kph winds, and this got no better as we drove down the highway - I've never had to drive in conditions like this. By the time we were near the ferry crossing, we were both getting worried - sure enough, there was a 2 km line on the highway to the dock, and it looked like the ferry wasn't running - in any event it was severely delayed, which meant us sitting in line for at least the next 6 hours, and driving in the dark!
We both looked at each other - it was time to make some Banman-like quick decisions. This was the only way to Ushuaia, and our only other option was to backtrack a bit and make it to Punta Arenas. That would mean abandoning our plan to drive the final 400 Kms to Ushuaia and not making it to the southernmost permanent settlement in the world. Well, technically, even that statement isn't true - the southernmost settlement in the world is actually a town in Chile called Puerto Williams, 20 miles due south of Ushuaia.
I remembered reading while reasearching our trip that the only way to get to Puerto Williams is by airplane from Punta Arenas, so I told Bob that, if we made it to Punta Arenas, we could fly into Puerto Williams in the next couple of days, and unlike most overlanders, legitimately claim we had reached the southernmost settlement in the world!
So, we backed out of line at the ferry after waiting just 15 minutes, and drove the next 2 hours to Punta Arenas, where we have officially ended the self-driving portion of our trip. Yes, that's it!
We are working on finding someone to help us sell Manuel in the next two days, after which we will get to Puerto Williams, and then home! Hard to believe that we have probably parked Manuel for the last time and our journey is almost done - it all happened so abruptly, we are both sitting in the hotel room rather quiet and shocked.
We are going to head out for a celebratory drink, and then will start preparing Manuel for his new life in Chile!
Stay tuned for our adventures in trying to sell our car in Chile - we will report back tomorrow!
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
- Mark Twain