It has been nearly two months since my departure from Europe. I’ve returned to my side of the ocean, back to the Americas. Being in South America, I feel a lot closer to home, upon looking at a map though, I realized I’m still just as far away from home as I have been. In fact, lots of bizarre places I saw, like Uzbekistan, are even closer to home than I am now. With the minor time change and my ability to understand Spanish, I felt very comfortable when I arrived here in Ushuaia, Argentina. I can’t describe how incredible it is to finally be able to understand the language used my surroundings. Compared to countries like India, where the languages were so extremely foreign and changing every 200km, being able to speak and understand in Spanish feels like a godsend to this life. Even if my Spanish is in dire need of practice, I feel a much stronger tie to the people of this part of the world because of it.
I arrived in Ushuaia at 5PM on November 18th. After 48 hours of travel, I arrived to USH airport exhausted and disoriented. I spent about 15 minutes walking around the cute little Ushuaia airport, which looked like a miniature ski lodge, trying to find the ‘Special Baggage Claim’ This is where I typically find my bike discarded after a flight. In Ushuaia though, they have no special baggage, just the belt and of course, my bike is too big for the belt. I recognized this as the bags stopped coming out of the belt and the sound of cardboard rubbing on rubber started. Of course my bike had gotten stuck in the baggage belt, so I crawled behind the rubber awning and back out into the cold air of the runway to find my bike box stuck diagonally in the belt. Another thank you to exhausted Adam and his decision making skills because 30 seconds later I was rolling out onto the belt just like a piece of baggage with my bike box right behind me and the airplane passengers clapping for the guy who unclogged the belt.
Once I had my bike and my panniers, I went into a back room to assemble my bike. Half an hour later, I was riding into Ushuaia to my hostel. I checked in with a big bearded man who only spoke Spanish, I passed my first Spanish test there: Check Into Hostel. By 8 o’clock, I was fully ready to go to sleep, my mind was all loopy from the flight and my body was used to the 4PM sunset of the Netherlands. If you know Ushuaia though, you know it’s the town at the end of the world! It’s a bit like Alaska where in the summertime the days are insanely long. So I was in this hostel trying to wait for my first South American sunset, but having to go to bed hours before sunset to keep my brain happy. For reference, I have not seen a fully dark sky since leaving Europe. I’ve passed new years now, on new years I was saw the sun start to rise at 3:00AM, but I missed the setting. On a late night camp evening with a friend recently we went to bed at 1:30 and the sun was almost fully dark. My theory now is that the hour of 2 holds the darkness here, but I have yet to see the hour of 2 here.
I woke up to my first full day in Ushuaia after a long deep sleep. I showed up to breakfast in the morning of two croissants and some tea and started chatting to a girl named Rachel who had sat next to me, she was telling me she was about to go on a three day hiking trip, but her friends had just cancelled. After about 30 more minutes of talking with Rachel and a man named Tobias who had sat down with us, we decided to do the hike the three of us. So 3 hours in to my first day in town I was off hiking into the mountains. I was so happy this first day, because my idea of South America is to slow things down and try new forms of travel. After completing my goal to cycle across Asia and Europe, I see the next few months as my time to go into the back country with my backpack, meet locals and practice Spanish, pass time with new friends and bike in between. Walking into the mountains at the end of the world three hours past my arrival, I felt I was executing this plan perfectly. And I was.
I had an amazing hike with Tobias and Rachel, we saw glaciers, snow, bog, alpine lakes and mountain passes all in a short span of time. It was such a perfect introduction to South America and Patagonia, and a great way to quickly bond with two strangers.
After I finished the hike, I checked my calendar and it was thanksgiving! This thanksgiving was big because last year I was locked down in a quarantine hotel in Thailand where they gave me a teeny tiny little disgusting portion of pasta. Easily my worst thanksgiving meal ever.
This year I had to make up for last year’s thanksgiving by doing an all out cooking day at the hostel. I asked Tobias and Rachel to help out and they agreed. Rachel and I did most of the cooking while Tobias did some tourist stuff at the local museums. Tobias was in charge of the lamb fry though. We did lamb instead of turkey because turkey was impossible to find. After 5 hours of cooking and using most of the hostel dishes, we made stuffing, potatoes, lamb, cranberries, casserole and an apple pie. Enough food for the three of us and whoever in the hostel wanted to partake. I can say too with 100% certainty that this thanksgiving dinner absolutely blew the Thai quarantine thanksgiving out of the water.
We did thanksgiving one day early because Tobias and Rachel had a bus to catch on thanksgiving Thursday, so on that Thursday I rode my bike out of Ushuaia to the next town down the road called Tolhuin. My true thanksgiving had been on the Wednesday before, but on Thursday I called home from Tolhuin, where I ate thanksgiving leftovers at my wild campsite in the forest and spoke with my family and friends eating thanksgiving up in the north woods of Minnesota.
I left Tolhuin in the morning and immediately felt the famous winds of Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego. As I left my campsite in the morning I pulled onto the road and then immediately got pushed right off the road and into a ditch by the wind. I decided to hitchhike for the day to the next town. I figured with my new idea of travel trying to meet people and go into the backcountry that I wouldn’t be so bummed about skipping flat, remote, windy land. I hitched a ride with a big van to Punta Arenas, Chile with the intention of returning on the bike in the direction of the wind in the coming months as the wind starts to calm down.
I arrived in Punta Arenas at 12am in the rain. I ended up staying in the van for about 8 hours because we had to take a ferry to reach Punta Arenas, but the wind was so strong that the ferry couldn’t cross the Magellan Straight without capsizing, so we sat at the port waiting for the ferry for four hours!
When we did finally reach Punta Arenas, the hostel I wanted to go to had shut down, so I had to find a new hostel at 12am. I saw a glowing sign through the rain down the block saying ‘Hospedaje Independencia’ and underneath a little picture of a tent. Perfect! Hostel camping is a perfect way to save some cash, and especially better because when I sleep in a bed I always miss my tent anyways. I knocked on the door hoping someone was awake and Eduardo, the dueño (owner), opened the door and let me in. After a short orientation of the hostel, I set up my tent and went to bed. In the morning I started talking to Eduardo, and recognized that this hostel with little to no internet presence was probably the best hostel I’ve stayed at. It has a very home like feel to it since its run by just one man and his wife who have one young son who’s always playing outside. The family lives in a small house in the backyard of the hostel and cook in the same kitchen as the guests. The kitchen has a stove that is running all day long keeping the room nice and warm, according to Eduardo, the gas prices are dirt cheap in P. Arenas.
Anyways, I ended up staying with Eduardo for a week and accepting his invitation to return for Christmas. Another opportunity seized for my goal of South America, spend time in hostels, meet friends, PRACTICE SPANISH!
I went north again for a town I had been hearing about for a while, Puerto Natales, supposedly a town with great free spirit hostels and lots of opportunity for excursiones. I ended up hitchhiking again after riding 20km and being blown off the road and into ditches twice on average per kilometer. Luckily I looked miserable in the wind, so the first car to pass picked me up. A civil engineer on her way to Natales to build affordable housing took me the whole way to town.
My first night in Natales was spent camping outside of town admiring the mountains and fjords of Torres del Paine park and the Patagonian landscape. Unfortunately, I did not stay up until two am, so I didn’t get to see the sunset, but I imagine its a beautiful sunset there in winter when the sun actually sets.
In the morning I packed up my tent and rolled to Redpoint Hostel in Natales. This hostel is owned by a Chilean climber and his dutch wife who moved here years ago. The hostel has one room exclusively for bouldering, one room for expedition gear rentals, two yurt like domes with dorms, two normal dorm rooms inside and a loft dorm upstairs. As I raided the free cabinet in the hostel kitchen looking for food I started chatting with Michelle and Amina, two girls from the Lake Tahoe region. As they made their delicious looking egg, veggie scramble, I made my own breakfast masterpiece of dried mashed potatoes powder and quinoa. We sat down and had breakfast together, and again I had more friends right off the bat for some adventure excursions.
We spent the first day together in Natales hiking up to a local mountain peak for a view of the city and the fjords, and to experience the raw Patagonian wind at higher altitude.
On day two in Natales we went out on a climbing trip with the owner of the hostel, it was Michelle and my first time doing outdoor climbing, but Amina is an avid climber back in Tahoe. Amina was out leading some impressive walls while Michelle and I struggled up the same walls with top rope belay. It was a great easy to spend a day out in these mountains and a perfect introduction to outdoor climbing for me.
A pattern I’ve been following lately is getting a solid 1-2 week plan and then not knowing what is coming next until the last day of those weeks. This time the end was the night before Michelle and Amina set off for an 8 day hike in Torres del Paine Park. I had no plans, I figured maybe go to the park, maybe stay in the hostel, maybe find a new place or return to P. Arenas. Then all of the sudden as I was trying to figure out the next steps, Tobias walked through the door into my hostel.
Tobias and I surprised each other at this hostel. I knew he was in the area, but he didn’t have cell service for the week prior so I figured he had left town. He told me he was heading north to a town called El Chalten for some hiking. I asked to come with him and suddenly I had plans for the next two weeks again.
The next morning after Tobias’ arrival, I locked my bike in the backyard of Redpoint Hostel and hopped on a bus to El Chalten. Tobias knew that El Chalten had lots of trekking opportunity, but he didn’t know what route he wanted to do. I suggested the Huemul circuit, a four day route a friend had just recommended me.
We spent the next few days organizing our packs, eating good food and waiting for good weather to hit the Huemul. The Huemul Circuit requires good weather and good gear because you have to cross a glacier, and cross rivers with a harness over cables.
We ran into a bit of an unfortunate situation with the rental stores though in El Chalten because the only places you can rent boots from are all owned by a very grumpy woman who ended up banning me from the store for renting boots and returning a minute later and wanting my money back since they didn’t fit. So I had to actually buy boots from a different store, now I own shoes that aren’t sandals for the first time on my trip though. Thankfully though, since we couldn’t return to that rental store, we actually found a much better deal on the harness and carabiners needed for the hike.
On a nice sunny day, Tobias and I set out with our backpacks towards the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. We met an Australian couple on the first day of the hike named Snowy and Andy. We ended up hiking with Snowy and Andy for the full four days of the hike, they are it so much more interesting because they are both geologists and Snowy also spent her university time studying glaciers in Svalbard. Because of their knowledge in this field, they always had something to add about the glacier patterns and the rocks around us on the trek.
The Huemul circuit quickly became one of my top 5 treks from this trip. Comparable to the ones I did in Nepal and Kyrgyzstan, if not better. We walked over glaciers, walked the rocks above the 13000km2 southern Patagonian ice field, camped and swam along an iceberg lake and even got to learn about the history of the landscape from our new geologist friends.
After Huemul, my hiking crew and I decided to meet at Tobias’ hostel for a big after trekking feast. As I walked into the small town of El Chalten on the last day of the hike, I ended up running into almost every person I had already met in South America. The dinner ended up being a big reception in the main room of Condor De Los Andes Hostel attended by all your favorite new names from this blog: Snowy, Andy, Tobias, Michelle, Amina, Rachel and some new faces from the hostel including Tobias’ friend Max who actually already kind of new me from coincidentally following my Instagram account back when I was in Nepal last year.
The next day, Snowy and Andy left on foot with hopes to cross into Chile over the mountains to catch a ferry onto the Carretera Austral route. They had a long hike ahead of them, meanwhile Tobias and I were sitting in his hostel jealous of them for still being on trail. As we sat looking at the mountains, we started planning a new route with Michelle, one we had heard about from some other friends. The new route was a bit ambitious. The plan was to rent crampons, rope and ice axes and head onto the glacier below Mt. Fitz Roy for a 3 day glacial traverse in the mountains. I was pumped!
We decided to wait until after the World Cup game to go. Argentina was in the Semi-Finals which was a very big deal for the Argentinians of El Chalten. Unfortunately, by the time the World Cup rolled around the winds coming off Fitz Roy we’re averaging around 100km/h and reaching 130-50 max. The rangers told us basically not to go without a deathwish.
We ended up calling off the trip and instead decided to hike up to the base of the glacier and try to reach the top of a mountain called Cerro Madsen. An easy 2000m peak achievable in a day hike. We were all bummed about not being able to do the glacier, but in reality, with the heavy winds and the fact that only 1/3 of us actually had previous glacier experience, it was probably smart we didn’t go.
Cerro Madsen was a two day operation for us. Day one, we hiked to the base of the mountain where we could camp at a designated site and I noticed it was day 499 of my trip, so we made a little camp desert to celebrate 500 days and to fuel for the big hike tomorrow up of 10 in helmets, harnesses, rope, I’ve axes and crampons passes us and went for the summit. As they passed we realized we were a little bit crazy for going up in absolutely no gear, but we did it! Tobias still calls me and Michelle the craziest Americans he’s met, so I guess that’s a win fo. Day two, we woke up at 4AM and started up to Laguna de Los Tres, the lake below Madsen, for sunrise. after a beautiful sunrise we started hiking up towards Madsen. The hike gradually turned into scurrying on rocks and by the end we had to do some easy climbing because the main route to the top was on snow, but we had no crampons so we were forced onto the alternative route on the rocks.
When we were about 30m short of the summit we reached a spot on the rocks where it was impossible to avoid walking in the deep snow unless you did some climbing that was a bit dangerous considering the gear we had (me in sandals, Tobias and Michelle with backpacks on). At this point I was aras of Tobias and Michelle and I didn’t recognize that this part of the route was harder than the rest because I had gotten myself into a rythm and was so close to the top. I figured I’d climb across the rocks over the snow and wait for my friends on the other side.
When I got to the other side a few minutes later, no sight of Michelle or Tobias. I knew where they were, they were on the other side of the rocks I’d just scurried over and they were likely contemplating what route they should take. I waited on the other side for about 10 minutes trying to move to see them and call to them, but I was surrounded by landslide zones and the mountain winds took my voice away and down the valley so they couldn’t hear me. At a certain point, I figured my best option was to continue towards the peak. With landslide zones around me, I thought the only chance I’d get to see what was going on on their side of the rocks was to go up.
I eventually made it to a small rock ledge about 10m short of the summit where I could see Tobias and Michelle. Michelle was making her way across the rocks I had crossed and Tobias was breaking out the one pair of crampons we had so he could cross on the snow. Once Michelle crossed the rocks, she waited watching Tobias cross in the snow. As Tobias started on the snow, I saw Michelle look towards Mt. Fitz Roy, which was momentarily out of my sight because the rocks I was sitting next to were too tall for me to see over. After she looked towards Fitz Roy, I saw her and Tobias start to go down the mountain back to the spot where they were contemplating their route. Annoyed by their descent, I started thinking about whether I should follow them or just go the extra 10m to get to the summit. I decided it best to go down because if I got hurt at the top, they wouldn’t have been able to get to me. Once I stepped off my ledge, I looked towards Fitz Roy and thought “Oh Shit”.
The 100km winds of Fitz Roy had pushed in a huge snow front and two seconds later I had ice crystals digging into the side of my face as I scurried down a partial landslide zone at 2000m elevation back down to the snow valley Michelle and Tobias were waiting in. I made it down a few minutes later with only one fall on the loose rocks around the summit.
The snow passed in about 20 minutes and we sat huddled under a cluster of rocks eating a small lunch, trying to decide whether we should go up again. After lunch we decided to go back down partially because of the dangerous rocks we would’ve had to cross a third time and partially because Michelle had a bus to catch in the evening and we were worried she wouldn’t make it if we went up again. As we packed up to leave, a group of climbers in full ice climbing kits passed up. They were outfitted with alpine, helmets, harnesses, ice axes and they were all tied together on a rope. As they passed we realized we were maybe a bit crazy for trying to get up that with no gear whatsoever. Tobias still claims Michelle and I are the craziest Americans he knows. So I guess Michelle and I got one win for aAmerica on that mountain!
Even though we didn’t make it to the top, we had a great day of hiking! And it was a perfect day 500 for me.
After a bone chilling swim in Laguna de Los Tres we returned to town in time for Michelle to catch her bus. Tobias and I had one more semi relaxed day before leaving El Chalten. Our final day together was the World Cup Final match. We all went to the sports bar to see the final match. And Argentina won! It was such an incredible game, everyone in the bar was sitting on the edge of their seats ready to pounce at the announcer yelling ‘Goooooooooooooool’. Everyone in El Chalten came out on the street yelling and blaring their horns in victory. Even the police came out blaring the sirens in victory.
My blog website is getting very glitchy now, so I’m turning this one into a two parter. Part two should be coming out by next week. I’m heading out on a backpacking trip in a few days, but will try to finish beforehand.