A Rumor, A Hope and A Little Insanity
I was staying in a hostel in Calafate by myself, having just arrived at midnight the previous the night by bus. At breakfast I sat down next to a middle-aged man with greying hair. After introductions I learned that he was a back country ranger for the US National Park Service and had come to Patagonia for his winter vacation. A colleague of his had been down there a few years earlier as a trail maintenance consultant to the Argentine national parks, and had given him some recommendations of little known routes to hike. One of these was the Paso del Viento!
I, personally, was going to Chalten to hike and climb in two days time, but only had two full days there. I told him it sounded great but I didn't have camping gear and was only doing day hikes. He pulled out a detailed topo and showed me that it wouldn't be much more than 30 miles round trip. "Somebody your age could do it, no problem!" I just had to find an unmarked trail, marked as "guide recommended," and then cross a glacial river and a glacier. "My buddy said you don't need crampons to cross this glacier!" Well this sounds great! Maybe if I can hike to the lookouts for Cerro Torre AND Cerro FitzRoy in my first day then I'll think about this for day two.
Well I checked off the Miradors for Torre and FitzRoy on Day 1. That was 45km and it didn't seem too bad. So I inquired about Paso del Viento as a day-hike at the ranger station that evening. "NO WAY! That will take you 3 days!" is roughly the response I got. So I decided to go for it anyway.
I woke up at 6am and had a quick breakfast at my hostel. My day pack had an assortment of clothes for the Patagonian weather, water shoes for the river crossing, one liter of water, two cheese sandwiches, and my camera. I walked through town in the dawn light and snuck past the ranger station at the trail head around 7am. Once I got going a bit and warmed up my doubts quickly vanished. I had a little route finding trouble as the trail wound through cow pastures on the foothills south of town, but the trail soon coalesced out of the mud holes and animal tracks into the main trail. The sky was clear and blue and the wind was barely blowing, Patagonia doesn't get better than this!
After crossing the foot hills I started dropping down into the river valley that leads up to the Paso del Viento. At this point I could see the pass, but it was a ways off still. A low bank of clouds sat on the other side of it. Those clouds are hanging over the Ssuthern Continental Ice Sheet, I told myself. I was very much looking forward to looking out over that endless expanse of ice that crests the Andes in southern Patagonia. I was warmed up then so I started to jog for sections hoping to make good time and give myself a better shot at cresting the pass.
The trail quickly left cow country and traversed the side of the river valley. It crossed many little brooks tumbling down from glaciers in the mountains above. This gave me lots of opportunity to refill my water bottle. Calafates and the other native berries were abundant throughout the hike so I was able to supplement my diet too. I also took advantage of dandelion greens and a sticky, bitter leaf that Patagonian Gauchos are known to put in their mate. This herb is reported to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties according to trekking guides I met in Torres del Paine. Whether that is true or not I have no idea, and I can't remember the name of the plant. However, every time my feet started feeling swollen I would chew on some and it seemed to help. Placebo effect? Maybe.
Once the trail reached the valley floor it was smooth and even. I made excellent time and reached the campsite on the close side of Laguna Toro before 11:30. This was basically the end of the marked trail. From here I needed to navigate on my own.
The River Crossing
I made my way around Laguna Toro to the west side where the river flows into it. This is where I made the first of several mistakes. Instead of following the lake shore and then trying to cross the braided section of river where it flows in, I climbed into the rocky cliffs above the lake to look for an alternate crossing. I passed a guided group and assumed they too were wading the river. (In Parque Nacional de los Glaciares the typical back country river crossing is done on a semi-permanent rope as a Tyrolean traverse. To do this you have to rent a harness in Chalten. I didn't quite appreciate how prolific this method was in the park.)
I down climbed some steep ledges into the river gorge, less than 100m from where it flowed out of an ice cave in the glacier which loomed on cliffs above me. I put on my water shoes, hoping to avoid wet boots, and waded in. The river was deeper, stronger, and faster than I expected. My legs went numb very quickly and I was up to my waist. The river bed was large rounded rock and the water was totally cloudy (no surprises there). I got about a quarter of the way across and realized I was in serious peril. I barely made it back to the river bank and was so cold that I had to rest for several minutes before my legs stopped hurting.
I climbed out of the gorge and headed down stream hoping to find an easier crossing. Instead the river became worse and I observed several narrow cataracts that would have killed me had I been swept off my feet during my first attempt. I soon found the fixed rope that the guided group had been hiking to. They were traversing it on their harnesses. At this point I almost gave up. It was a beautiful day and I could swim in Laguna Toro and clamber on some rocks before leisurely walking home. Unfortunately, I am not naturally inclined to easy days.
I headed all the way back to the lake shore and ran into a couple, also without a guide, who were trying to cross the river on the flat braided section (a much better idea). The water was still freezing here so I left on my boots for insulation. We made it across quickly. I then scrambled up into the cliffs on the other side of the valley hoping to find the trail and make it onto the glacier.
Scree and Ice
I had seen the trail above the glacier from down the valley. It cut across the scree covered hill side, winding its way up to the Paso del Viento. It looked so good from down there that I assumed it would be easy and obvious to find. That was my second mistake.
After scaling the small cliffs I started crossing the old glacial moraines. These rock piles had a few paths through them. I picked the most obvious one and hurried on, hoping to make up lost time. I was under the false impression that I was close and the ascent to the pass would be quick and easy. This made me rush forward without stopping to properly think and observe; this was my third and biggest mistake.
The path I was on traversed the scree hillside above the glacier and looked like it had the right trajectory to hook up with the path I had seen from below. Unfortunately it soon petered out and I was left scrambling on unstable scree. The footing became worse and worse. The rock was the most unstable I've ever seen. I couldn't figure out why the scree was so unstable. Gravity and the elements should have pulled down the loose stuff and consolidated it more, I thought. As I traversed the rock in a hurry I set off multiple land slides. This should have been warning to turn around. A few minutes later I dislodged a boulder the size of a VW Bug from ten feet above me, and had it literally knock my calf as it rolled down hill behind me. Suddenly feeling like I was in a life threatening situation, I carefully made my way down the scree slope and onto the glacier.
Once on the glacier I realized that the loose scree was actually an old landslide that had covered the edge of the glacier. It was so loose because the whole slope was literally supported by melting, moving ice. I now realized just how sketchy my situation had been.
I ate a sandwich while I contemplated my options. The glacier was dry and the crevasses were small. The afternoon sun made it easy to kick steps. At this point I could have continued up the glacier and probably made the pass within an hour or two. However, I was seriously scared from the rock fall. It was already after 2pm and I started to worry about getting back to Chalten before dark. On the return I would still have to scramble through scree at the base of the glacier, find a way down the cliffs and recross the river. Then it was still 18km from there to Chalten. I decided to turn around.
I headed down the glacier carefully and slowly but with a sinking feeling in my gut. When you are 22, and have been zooming around Patagonia for two months in amazing physical condition, failure is hard to swallow. As I neared the base of the glacier I came across the guided group I had zipped by earlier. I told them I was turning around. They were also crossing the glacier without rope, cramp-on or ice axe. This reassured me that I hadn't been a total idiot. Still, the guides seemed glad that I was turning around. I'm sure they were dreading having to rescue this stupid gringo from his folly at the expense of their clients.
Long story short: I got off the glacier, through the scree, down the cliffs and across the river without too much trouble. My feet really f***ing hurt from the cold water though.
I started hiking back to Chalten quickly. There wasn't a whole lot of time but I was tired at this point too. My wet boots and socks started to give me grief but I didn't think too much about it. Tomorrow I will be stuck on a bus for 12+ hours bumping north on Ruta 40, and it will be the same the day after that, I thought. I will have so much rest on the bus I'll wish I'd gone for it! I turned around and took a picture of myself shaking my fist at the Paso del Viento in semi-mock anger.
My tiredness soon squeezed out anger and disappointment as I climbed out of the valley. I stopped a few times to enjoy the view. The cow pasture foothills I went through were some of the most picturesque places I've been in Patagonia.
As I descended toward Chalten I was surprised to see a Magellanic Woodpecker in a tree. This is a very rare species and it took me several tries to circle around and get a good photo. I was very lucky.
I got back to Chalten before dark. Showered at my hostel and limped to a local restaurant. I had the good luck to be seated next two outgoing french guys. They were self-admittedly splurging on food. I watched them eat two one pound steaks each! They forced some of their red wine on me which I appreciated. Then I went back to my hostel and slept.
The next morning I woke up and dragged my stuff across town to catch my bus. Ruta 40 is still unpaved (see The Motorcycle Diaries), for the most part. I sat on that bus for two days straight, nursing massive blisters from hiking in wet boots. I got dropped in El Bolson, in the Lake District. My next adventure took me up Cerro Perito Moreno. You can see my page on that here
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