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Exploring Patagonia

Paul 2007-03-26
The land here is still wild, its grand expanses of earth, natural and untamed by man.

From the Atlantic Ocean all the way west for the width of Argentina, nothing but pampas, scrub land plains. Some is grazed by sheep and cattle, but mostly, there's just horizon to horizon empty. It's difficult to imagine how big an emptiness it is, but try this: You could look around before falling asleep on a bus and wake eight hours later to find the scenery unchanged. Then continue west all day, and night, waking again the following day and the scenery remains still unchanged. Like Africa's Sahara, it's the big empty of this continent.

Further west, compressed into the narrow strip of land claimed by Chile, nature's grandest splendors are on show. As if to compensate for the the monotonous flatland to the east, the earth lifts to the cloud-piercing heights of the Andes mountains. Their impressiveness starts on you from hundreds of kilometers away as you approach them, and consume you when in their midst.

In these southern latitudes, their western slopes nurture the impossibly large Hielo Sur, the southern ice fields between the mountains and the Pacific. The land is as it was millions of years ago during the ice ages. Blue ice, hundreds of meters deep blankets everything for as far as the eye can see.

Branching off its edges are untold multitudes of glaciers. These massive rivers of ice flow in between the mountain peaks in channels they carved out of the solid, seemingly indestructible rock. The glaciers' enormous weight pushes them down the slope and over millions of years, millimeter by millimeter, the scratching of ice on rock reshapes the landscape.

Standing among them, looking down from their heights we feast on literally breathtaking sights. U-shaped valleys stretch out from where the glaciers have receded. At their feet, the altitude lowered, the temperature a few degrees warmer, the ice begins to melt. Liquified, pouring out of solid ice into waterfalls, pooling into crisp mountain lakes of ancient and pure water before flowing downstream into the green valley bottoms.

In the Fitz Roy area of Los Glacieres National Park, we were just two tiny specs of microscopic magnitude, high on the grandiose magnificence of it all. We carried in our packs all we needed to not only survive alone, but be comfortably at home apart from civilisation's support. Well, at least for a few days at a time.

We walked ten to twenty kilometers a day through forest, picked our way over the exposed tips of rocks that occasionally stuck out of the dozens of streams we crossed. Sometimes stopping to drink their delicious water, sometimes to splash it on our sweaty faces. At one point, needing to scale up golf cart and car sized boulders covering the width of a river we could hear but not see beneath them, leaping from the top of one to the side of another. A balancing act in any condition, but with twenty kilo packs strapped on, a feat we would congratulate each other for.

One morning, we rose a little after 4am and climbed most of the way up the mountain in the dark with headlamps to a lookout to watch the sun rise and light the peak of Fitz Roy into a red glow. Awesome.

Another day, we paused mid-trek in a gorgeous valley surrounded by snow-capped and glaciated peaks. The cloudless skies let the full brightness of the sun be known. Topless, in shorts and barefoot I appreciated the contrast to the experience in Torres del Paine, where we'd wear absolutely every layer of clothing we had with us, gritting against the harshness of the climate. For hours, we sat, meditated, practiced yoga, strolled barefoot through shallow, grass-filled streams and generally felt the paradise of this paradise.

During the first treks, the distances and weight we carried would tire us quickly: aching and sometimes blistered feet, sore muscles, and bruises under our pack harnesses were common. But our bodies adapted surprisingly well to the five to eight hours a day of mountain traverse. Still, as surely as the setting sun, we would find with satisfying familiarity the high of accomplishment and bodily exhaustion strike somewhat simultaneously, and decide to stop for the night.

Picking where to set camp was one of our favorite times of day. Our packs would come off, hitting the ground with a thud that was always met with an audible "aaaaah". We'd scout the area with new-found nimbleness for a spot that featured an area of land that's both flat and dry, near a stream, and with enough tree cover to shield us from the heavy winds typical of the mountains. Invariably, we found a place that called to us to call home for a night.

Because of our good fortune with the weather during these hikes, we would sometimes strip out of our stinky clothes, hop into the edge of a frigid stream, bathing in brisk splashes, washing ourselves and our clothes, coming away reinvigorated and ready to set up camp.

Clear the ground, put the tent up, take our supplies out, gather firewood, strike a fire, and cook dinner. Routine. Until one night, we cooked a casserole of rice, sautéed garlic and sausage with sharp cheese. Mmmm! But as I went to serve it steaming hot, I dropped the whole thing on the ground, which was littered with decomposing piles of horse manure. Mmmm? After a moment's consideration, Jo said: "Don't scoop up any shit, let's eat". Such a comment, inconceivable just a few months ago, but we realize this journey has already changed us more than just a little.

There we'd sit, digesting our well deserved hot meal, sipping on the tea we made from berries we gathered during the day's hike. We'd stay for a while, beckoned into contemplative silence by the warmth of a crackling fire and its mesmerizing flickering flames. Occasional gazes skywards at the crisp, unobstructed stars, would likewise prompt awe-inspired thoughts.

Before long, we'd hang our foodstuffs suspended under a tree branch out of reach of any hungry night critters and crawl into our cozy sleeping bags, falling into the deepest of sleeps fueled by all-day exercise, full bellies and fresh mountain air, just as the fire settled into the warm glow of red embers.

The morning's rising sun would be all the invitation we'd need to do it all over again. The nomad's routine. We loved every moment.


Permalink by Bill   |  March 26, 2007 08:37 AM

Just as in the nomad's routine you loved every moment, I feel drunk with pleasure from every word of your blog.

Love you Both

Permalink by Bill   |  March 26, 2007 10:03 AM

Wow,wow and more wows! Actually had the hair on my neck and arms lifting up in awe. What a mighty adventure. Thank you again and again for taking the time to record and share all of this. I am remembering the frightening majesty of the glaciers in Alaska and the storm of emotions they provoked.Humbling, to say the least.. Journey on...



Permalink by Jess   |  March 29, 2007 10:57 AM

Paul, I imagine the words and sentences thought up to write this blog, as inspired as you guys are, came to you with much ease. Your mind and soul spill out into it! Invigorating to read, thanks for sharing! oxox

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