Archive for January 30th, 2010

Patagonia – El Chaltén to Villa O’Higgins

Today I plan to leave for the pass from El Chaltén in Argentina across the border to Villa O’Higgins and on to the Carreterra Austral in Chile. This is a little crossing with a short section of footpath where one has to push and even carry the bike, with ferry boat rides across lakes on both sides.

I am taking my time this morning in El Chaltén over breakfast at the local Panaderia with fresh bread and some coffee. I won’t have to leave until noon or so to catch the first boat leaving at 5:30pm. Then I’ll camp at the North end of Lago Del Desierto at the Argentinean border patrol station and set off early the next morning to cross the pass on foot.

Leaving El Chalten headed for Lago Del Desierto and the Chilean border

I cook some pasta at 11am taking advantage of the kitchen facilities of the hostel and then start riding around noon. The weather is a mix of cold wind and some rain showers with occasional sunshine – just like we have in the Alps in April. Right from the end of town the road is gravel along the river coming from the Lago Del Desierto.

The road from El Chalten to Lago Del Desierto

It’s not a great road, but I can manage with the recumbent. Slowly I ride back into the valley, mostly flat with a few steep up- & downhill sections and the occasional bridge over the river.

Crossing a bridge leading to Lago Del Desierto

There is also some forest here with tall trees, a wonderful sight to behold and shelter from the wind after the many days on the tree less tundra.

Riding into forest again is a welcome sight after a week on the Patagonia tundra

At a nice waterfall a few km before Lago Del Desierto

Since it has rained so much in the last weeks – apparently due to this year 2010 being an El Niño year – the water level of the river is running very high. At one section it actually floods the entire road over several hundred meters, leaving me no choice but to wade through ankle deep water and getting the boot and socks all wet.

The massive rains sent the river over the road - no way to get through without wet boots

I reach the end of the Routa 23 at Lago Del Desierto around 4pm with plenty of time for the 5:30 boat. During this time I catch a brief glimpse of Mt. Fitz Roy with fresh snow, coming out of the clouds only for a short period of time. (Later I hear from other riders that one day earlier was an exceptionally clear day here with great views of both Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre…)

Mount Fitz Roy makes a rare appearance - fresh snow and clouds covering the top

The boat “Huemul??? (named after a local deer species) is surprisingly big for this relatively small and narrow lake.

The Huemul boat on the South end of Lago Del Desierto

I roll my bike and trailer on board and affix it on deck, as we must expect a windy ride. When the boat leaves there is actually sunshine with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. There are, however, extreme wind gusts on the lake which stir up waves and whip up water spray from the top of the waves – I’m glad I’m inside on this boat ride!

Stormy wind gusts whipping up water spray on Lago Del Desierto

About 45 min later we arrive at the North end of the lake where the Argentinean border patrol is located. I show them my passport and they stamp my passport. There are four other riders who came across the pass from the other side and waited for our boat to continue on to El Chaltén. Their bikes and panniers look pretty muddy and their reports confirm the bad state of the hiking trail.

Since I still have 2.5 hrs of daylight I decide to carry my panniers up the first steep section of the trail. This will allow me to see what kind of challenges lay ahead and also make it easier tomorrow to get up with the bike and trailer, without the added weight of the panniers. I walk up about 4 km through the forest and realize that this will be very hard work to get the bike through the next day. I also see two Swiss and one French rider coming down. On my way down I help the French rider carry his panniers, as he has too much weight and needs to double-carry everything.

Campsite near Argentinean border patrol on Norht end of Lago Del Desierto

Once back down I set up my tent on the edge of a clearing next to the Swiss couple’s tent. It’s a peaceful scene with horses gracing next to our tents. I crawl into the sleeping bag to light rain, somewhat apprehensive about the pass ahead.

Next morning I pack away my tent and start the trail early. Fairly quickly I need to take off my sweater under the GoreTex as it is very hard work pushing the bike and trailer up the steep and narrow path. Within the first 10 mins or so it becomes clear that this will be an extraordinarily difficult part of my journey. The trail is often quite narrow – even though luckily my trailer just fits through in most parts – it is muddy and steep, and with the recumbent bike I need to bend down to reach the handle bar and thus push sideways half bent over, which is very uncomfortable. The additional challenges are river crossings over partly submerged old tree logs and mud flats where the wheels sink in all the way down to the axle at times. Here is a series of photos showing the terrain.

Pushing my bike and trailer up steep sections of the hiking trail

Need to double-carry bike and trailer separately across this make-shift bridge

Who needs a bike stand anyway?

Very muddy section of the trail

The first 7 km to the border take me 3 hrs. It’s hard work, but I have the benefit of having carried the panniers most of the difficult section the day before and now I have plenty of time to reach the lake on the other side and catch the ferry. Once I reach the Chilean border it gets much better, with a 4-wheel drive road that’s still too rough to ride on but easy to push the bike along.

From the Chilean border onwards the trail becomes a real road and thus much easier

On the Chilean side the trail is maintained to some degree; for example there is a new bridge over a river, which according to previous reports hasn’t been there and required either a wet crossing or a detour to some pair of logs further upstream. There is also – strangely enough – an airstrip here seemingly in the middle of nowhere! This is also the first stretch I can ride again.

After the first 7 km of trail even a bad road is far better as you can ride again!

The valley opens up a bit and soon I can see the Lago O’Higgins down below. It’s a nice and steep descent, and the lake on the Chilean side is 200m lower than the one on the Argentinean side.

Gravel road descending to Lago O'Higgins

Near the bottom of the lake I reach the Chilean border patrol station. I get my passport stamps there and inquire about the boat. I am happy to be here several hours before the scheduled departure time, so I’m in good spirits. Then I learn the bad news: No boat today! And worse: No boat to Villa O’Higgins tomorrow, either! So much for regular weekly schedules (which had the boat go round-trip on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays). Apparently the weather on Monday was too bad for the boat to sail. So they went Tuesday (yesterday) instead and now decided not to go on two consecutive days – probably economic factors (like not enough paying tourists?) playing a role, too. And tomorrow (Thursday) the boat is coming down from Villa O’Higgins, but not returning there until the next day (Friday). So it looks like I’m going to be stuck here for two days.

View of Lago O'Higgins from Candelario Mancilla in cloudy weather

That said, the people here at Candelario Mancilla are very friendly; they maintain a little guest house and provide warm meals. They are also curious about my recumbent bike and help me clean it with a water hose. All things considered, I am happy about at least one rest day in this beautiful, if very rainy scenery with great views over the lake – and don’t worry too much about the extra lost day as there is nothing I can do or could have done differently to avoid this. Sometimes one just has to go with the flow of things…

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