Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Patagonia VI: Hanuka & Christmas with Fitzroy


Finally, after almost 9 months of traveling, I finally came to one of the two most famous and popular treks of Patagonia: The Fitzroy trek. Together with Maya and Barak we embarked on a 3-day easy going (most of the time) trek near the monstrous giant granite rock with superb weather and clarity all along...

Criss-crossing El Chalten
The light came early, a typical phenomenon in the summer of the far south, and while Maya and Barak were still sleeping, I got dressed and went to the reception to check if we could have a smaller room, which was indeed possible. While talking with the receptionist, I have saw for the first time the immense and spiky erect Fitzroy with a grey overcast in his background. Everything was grey-colored and the overall feeling (with the low temperature) was a bit depressing. Is it like this all the time, I asked the receptionist and she replied that I am actually very luck to see the peak as it is usually heavily shrouded by clouds. Oh, than I better capture it before it vanishes behind clouds! I told her and went into the room to take my camera…
While Maya took the shower, me and Barak went straight to the ranger´s cabin, which serves also as the park information point. We had A LOT of things to arrange before the departure to this trek.
Getting into the cabin, we were approached by a serious park ranger, radiating importance and authority…Asking him about paths option, he offered us a route that later on we will realize was a less popular one to see the mountain range, but nonetheless, an amazingly beautiful path.
The trek route was a simple one: We could take a bus to a point northern of El Chalten called El Pillar (which is the name of a hotel near the dirt path that leads north), and from there start walking south with the valley while the Fitzroy range towering on the other side of the valley, till we reach the first camp, where we were suppose to make the first camp. At that point, he explained, you can climb 300 meters to a hill over looking the mountain over a beautiful lagoon, Laguna de Los Tres. After that come down, sleep the night at the camp and the next day continue on south till you reach the second camp, very close to Laguna Torre, which overlooks Torre spike, one of the spikes in the Fitzroy range. Sleep another night there and return the next day to El Chalten.
When I asked about the weather, and the possibility of this and that, he turned to be all to serious (more than I mentioned the weather) and as bluntly as he could, he said that “I will be bullshitting you if I would say ANYTHING about the the next day´s weather as it is IMPOSSIBLE to predict ANYTHING about the future weather here…I only trust this” and he knocked with his finger’s ring on the circular clock-like instrument that hang from the opposite wall. Looking closely, I saw that it was a barometer that showed 960 Millibars of atmospheric pressure. The ranger continued “If it stays like this, it is a very good weather, no rain, but I can’t tell you anything about tomorrow or even tonight.” And with that, we left the cabin with an uncertainty feeling but hoping we gonna have a good weather. It’s not like we had a choice, in any case, right?
Returning to the hostel, we switched to the 4 person dormitory and ventured to the small town’s dirt streets looking first for places to rent a tent for all the three of us and also, to rent sleeping bags and mattresses for Maya and Barak. We found three shops which sell and rent outdoor equipment and eventually, after walking the length and width of town, we rented sleeping bags and mattresses from one shop and the tent from another. At the later, we had a kind of, ha, argument with the lady in charge.
What happen is that we wanted to rent the tent for 2 nights from the next day (as we have accommodation for that night), but the lady demanded we pay from that point onward, even if we plan to use it only the next day. I asked if the shop will be open the next day morning around 7 am, and of course, it was not as it was Christmas…So, what the hell you want us to do?! If we can’t take it now, when do you think we can take it?? Seeing me starting to get pissed off (as usual), she made “a face” and stated that she doesn’t want to argue and that she is here to sell service and not fight. She tried to squeeze my conscience, and she managed to do that only by a bit, and even so I was determined I wont pay a night I am not using the tent (especially as it was outrages and not the custom I have encountered thus far). We had also the same situation with the sleeping bag/mattress rental in the other shop, BUT, they assured us they WILL be open at 7 am the next day as they are open 24/7 (so we agreed to pick the equipment the next´s day morning).
While doing all these arrangements, we also reserved ourselves a place on the 28th bus back to El Calafate– We had to be very calculative so we could pull this off as best as possible under Maya and Barak´s time limitations. We took the time to reserve a place in different hostel for our return from the trek (the current hostel was fully booked) and also in America del Sur hostel (El Calafate) when we return to town on our way down south. We also had to check transportation to El Pillar, only we found that no bus company ride to El Pilar on Christmas, so we had to find an alternative option, which was a taxi car. Only, when we found the place we found it to be also a Garage (how typical for a small town). I asked him if he could chauffeur us to El Pillar and he said he could, and named a reasonable price. OK, so I fixed with him a time, 7:30, to be at the hostel front and we continued on with our arrangements. The rest of the time till evening we focused on arranging our backpacks for the walk. Barak and Maya decided to take only one big backpack and one day pack, to ease the weight on Maya´s back. That was a mistake I should have anticipated to be a problematic one, as each one have to carry AT LEAST a sleeping bag, mattress and warm clothing, not to mention the other crucial accessories such as a tent, food and water, utensils and the like. Even though it was not my problem, as Barak was to carry all that Maya could not press into her tiny back, it would have made his backpack not balanced and made his back suffer (even though the fella didn’t winch the whole walk, which I take the hat off for that), something which is unwise. At the end, Barak carried the sleeping bags, mattresses, his clothing and food while I carried the tent and the cooking gear. While my backpack was reasonable balanced, Barak´s was enormous with the two sleeping bags and mattress wrapped outside the backpack. I should have adviced against it but I didn’t think it would be such a big thing…Fortunately, as I said, Barak’s no wussy-pussy and carried it with grace all the way… We all took a good shower before the evening came - Even though we are not Christian, but also not that Jewish, we went to a restaurant to enjoy a good meal on what else than Christmas Eve.
In one good, but expensive restaurant (“Pangaea”) I suddenly met an Israeli girl, Moran, that I have met in Lima when I was going down south back to Arequipa. We talked a bit and heard her telling me about the Fitzroy trek and that she is going back home after visiting Ushuaia (which you will be hearing about in couple of entries). I joined Maya and Barak and we had a nice dinner while sitting if not close to the lady we had the argument the same day morning…Talking about small world (or small town at that!). We returned to the hostel tired enough to go to sleep before the awakening at 6:30 am…

Christmas morning, don’t ask!
The next morning, we woke up early and arranged the little we had before departure. We had to pickup the sleeping bags and mattresses before the taxi came, so joining me, Maya and me walked to the rental shop (which is by the way also a café). The streets were quiet, the Fitzroy beckoning from not far, the skies with feather-like clouds high above the peak, hinting to the amazing day we had before us.
Coming to the store front, we were amazed to see it closed and shut, the morning rays just starting to spread in the dark interior. WHAT THE HELL?! Like, were the hell is the guy?? We need the equipment NOW! (as usually, me becoming slightly furious and agitated while Maya kept her serenity and composure like a queen made of ice, looking around to see where is he hiding. Than she motioned to a little electronic door bell set at the door frame and she clicked it while wondering what would happen. And, surprisingly we heard a door slam quietly above us and from the side flight of steps came the guy, obviously awake, coming to open the door! HURRAY! I was calmer and after 5 minutes we walked back to the hostel where Barak waited for us and the taxi. It was 7:20 and no sign of no taxi. What no? I asked myself, getting agitated and furious to see that things not working as I planned (as usual, of course). I told the two to wait for me as I was going to fetch the taxi. As I was doing my way toward the Garage, I had already gripped that Christmas morning can be sometime worse than Sylvester’s morning, people get drunk and forget all kinds of agreements made only 12 hours before…And, coming to the Garage, I found what it look like a taxi, and the Garage door wide open. I peek inside but didn’t see anybody. I called several times but no answer came back accept for the bird’s singing (that fortunately for them, didn’t celebrated Christmas).
Now what am I suppose to do?? I don’t know even where this looser lives and time was running. I looked around, and found two houses close by so I knocked on them, but I didn’t get any reply there, and started to get REALLY FURIOUS! God damn locals, you just cant rely on NO ONE, NO ONE! I murmured in deep frustration, kicking what ever I crossed while I got back to the hostel, trying to calm my self and at the same time, try to think of an alternative. Who can take us now, Christmas morning, and drop us at El Pillar?! What a way to start a trip…I got into the hostel to find Maya and Barak waiting and lifting their head with a question mark on their faces. I told them fast and with bubbling fury what I found out and that I am gonna look for an alternative in town. Barak suggested he will accompany but I told him he better stay in the hostel, as I am so mad that it is better no to be in my proximity. It was not that I would do any harm to him, but I wanted to get pissed off alone and take it all out without any witnesses…While heading back to the quiet streets of El Chalten, I remembered that I saw a 4WD Galloper Jeep driving down the road when me and Maya went to fetch the sleeping bags, so I decided to see if we can hire it. I walked briskly, with bad temper and very foul thoughts about the whole town. Only when I entered the hostel the car was park in front of I managed to shake those thoughts and focus on the problems at hand.
A lady was sitting quietly in the hostel lobby looking at me with deep surprise (and I cant blame her) asking how can she help me, and while controlling my still burning fury, I told her that I need a car to take me to El Pillar, now. She nodded her hear and explained that the driver, which is quite tired, went to sleep after driving for 4 hours from El Calfate. I asked if she could drive us but she nodded again, taking it out of any sensible consideration. Just great, now what?! I thought bitterly, not knowing what to do. She was kind enough to see my frustration and despair, and asked me how did I plan to get there and I explained her that I made a deal with a taxi driver only he is not there. She nodded and went to the reception counter, only to hear heavy snores from above and smiling, she pointed to the overall directions and explaining to me where is the driver…I smiled back, hoping she might find a solution to my problem. She looked at the board behind the counter and wrote me the address of yet another taxi that might help me. I thanked her and went out of the door, more desperate than I got in…
a taxi, now? In damn bloody Christmas!? No way I would manage to find a taxi now, so early with half of town drunk as hell! While these thoughts were still running, I heard cries of laughter, talk and commotion with music plays loud in the background. My instincts told me to take a look, maybe someone will be able to make me a favor. I got in, half curious, half anticipating for anything. Immediately I recognized the place as a local bar, with four fellas, leaning on the counter drunk as they can be at such an hour in the morning, and couple of guys behind the counter. Seeing me, all hushed down and from behind the counter one guy told me that the bar was closed (no shit!). I continued my pace, explaining that I am not looking for a drink (actually for a bat, to smack that fool taxi driver!) but for a driver. Leaning on the counter, I saw the guy stop cleaning the glass he held, thinking while the commotion continued only now I was the star. One guy offered me that he will take me, with hand gestures that went from one side of his body to the next, his eyes hollow as a couple of drainage pipes. I thanked him, with half a smile, loosing patience with every word, but I told him I am looking for a car, not for death. The fellas roared with laughter and drank more for the heck of it, and I was about to turn my attention to the bartender just to hear this guy trying again, saying he will take me for 200 pesos. I smiled broadly, watching the bartender leaving his post and going for the door and walking after him. While doing so, I told the drunk guy that even for 1 peso I would not let him take me no where. his friends laugh accompany while I went outside.
Outside I walked after the guy, that how interesting, was walking straight for the garage. Surprised I saw him opening the car door, checking the key was in the ignition hole, and then went straight to the open garage. He opened a door that I didnt notice before, peeked for a moment and then returned his attention toward me, asking me if I want him to take me to El Pillar. I said of course, but under the same fare I was told the day before. He nodded with his head, and went back into the garage, switching the electric pump and going back outside to inflate the tires. While I was waiting for him to prepare the car, I saw the other guy I talked with yesterday, coming out of the little room all turned out with a shameful face, and with my icy gaze I didnt helped him too much, I must say. I saw him get dresses and started to worry a bit that he will be the one driving us (which I would doubt that as I would have strangled him the first moment I had, for what he had me go through because of his foolish irresponsibility...
We got into the car and less than a minute I already waved Maya and Barak to come out with the packs. Quickly afterwards, we were speeding along the dirt road, going north along the forested ridges on the left and the river flowing on the right. On the way I told Maya and Barak what have happened and they laughed about the situation and my short and easily inflammable temper. I could not agree with them anymore than I was...

Among Forests, mountain ranges and Lagooms – Day 1
Standing there, in front of the hotel entrance, our backpacks on our backs and the taxi was already speeding down the road back to sleepy El Chalten, I was full of awe looking at beautiful Fitzroy at that early, cold morning. We started walking along the river bed and quickly cutting with the path straight into the forest that populated the left river bank, sloping toward the flowing river below. Most of the time we walked in a slow pace, taking a lot of pictures along the way, as it was a VERY BEAUTIFUL place, with such a good weather and clarity in the sky. Everything looked crisp and sparked, the monstrous granite rock towering above us with the deep lines of cracks running along its face, like a wrinkles of an old and experienced man sitting there and waiting for time to pass, for another sunrise to lift his face and for the following sunset to acknowledge his time for a night’s sleep. The quiet forest was just awakening and the many flowers along the way kept maya busy with both her digital and film camera, recording every flower and butterfly.lucky for us, the weight of the packs didnt disturb us too much, as the path was most of the time flat, with inclines and declines here and there. We walked some time, admiring the beauty and grand of nature, and eventually came to the split in the path. The signs at the location of the split were not straightforward enough, and after consulting with three Americans that arrived to the split at the same time, we chose one path and continued to walk for some time. I felt something is wrong with the direciton of our walk so I consulted with the map we were given in the park’s information. As I was saying that I think we made a mistake choice and we should return to the split, we heard a shout and lifting our head we saw one of the American, coming running toward us, puffing and saying that the camp is on the other side, and that he was sorry of making us choose the wrong path. We thanked warmly about him making the effort of coming back after us and ensure that we wont walk on the wrong direction...Less than 10 minutes we were already in the camp, surrounded by wood in the midst of the forest, many tents already erect and quite a lot of people making camp. While we erected the tent, we saw many day-visiters that came to see the Fitzroy from the scout point and then return the same day to El Chalten. We had time on our hands (we barely walked 3 hours before we came to camp!) so after pitching the tent, we spread the sleeping bags and mattresses and made ourselves some light lunch before departing ourselves for the scouting point, Laguna los Tres.
Already getting across the river that flowed nearby, I suddenly remembered that I left my money wallet at the camp, and pondered for a sec whether to go back and fetch it (10 minutes walk there and back) or to “risk” it...Maya and Barak told me that there is no problem, and that they will wait. SO with that, I rushed back down the slope, across the flowing river and into the forest where our camp was, finding the wallet as was. I ran back, by passing huge groups of trekkers walking in one line, all equipped with the all to familiar walking sticks. I met with Barak and Maya and continue with the not east ascent, a total of 300 meters. As there were SO many people walking up the hill, most of them older than us, the pace was quite slow and enabled us to breath easily and enjoy the view of the park, distant mountains, lakes and forests. The place just looks like a piece of paradise...
Reaching the top of the hill we found ourselves standing on the top of a dike that surrounds the beautiful and serene Laguna Los Tres, its water swimming pool-blueish colored, and the wind gentle rocking the water face...And above it, the mighty Fitzroy and its “siblings” towering all, its scared face enhanced in the mid day intense sun. Looking up to the granite rock, admiring the size, shape and contour, I remember Lee’s comment about the mountain, back when we were strolling Bariloche’s street and stopping by a postcard stand. “Its a monster,” she commented while looking for a postcard of the mountain to show me “it is just a granite monster, you gonna like it.” She concluded. And boy, she was right – IT IS a big and raw monster, being molded and shape by the Patagonian freezing wind and by the ice that winter clouds shed on its summit and face. After taking TONS of pictures, from almost every angle, we sat down and relaxed under the tower, with other people, in this quite place. We saw some people go up on a nearby hill, most probably to see another sight and to have a different angle, so we propped ourselves to our feet and made the way up to the hill, only to see another lagoon, tourquise colored, which was towered by the Saint-Exupery spike (yes, named after the famous french adventurer and writer). I walked to one of the edges, leaving Maya and Barak to have some privacy, and enabling me take advantage of a better angle. A waterfall spilled near the place and in that peaceful atmosphere I sat down and enjoyed the sun, the mountains and the feeling of freedom. After almost an hour, we made our move back down to camp. We quickly arranged a nice dinner (pasta, of course) and some tea before hitting the sack for a good night sleep...

Second candle near Laguna Torre – Day 2
Waking up and starting to fix a light breakfast, I understand that Maya and Barak didnt slept too well, but nontheless, they didnt complaine more than commenting about it, and after an hour we were already with all our equipment on our backs, walking in good pace southward, the weather is just excellent and the view of the Fitzroy range just stunning. We quickly came to yet another split (which also lamely marked) and after pondering and advising with some trekkers passing by, we continued on the path that climbed a low hill, full of bush and trees here and there, scouting a pair of lagoons interconected. At a certain point we came down to the lagoons beach and under the intense sun, absorbed this desolate beach atmosphere. At length we walked, waiting to see the split that leads north to the camp, but yet walk more and more.
Well, finally we came to the split, only for me to recognize a familiar figure launching its big pack on his back and starting to walk out of the forest clearing. I shouted at Aviran, but he was walking with his music, full volume probably, so I managed to pick a dry branch from the ground and throw it at a nearby tree that he passed by, making the sufficient sound and movement to catch his attention. Turning around, he suddenly saw me and grinned. We embrased awkwardly with the packs on our backs and after talking with him I understand that he is one day ahead of us, and now on his way back to El Chalten and planing on taking the next day’s bus back to El Calafate. We parted, knowing that we will catch one another on the other attractions that await us in the beautiful ranges of Patagonia. I joined Maya and Barak and continued on going north, with vistas of Cerro Torre (another granite spike jutting into the blue of the sky) and the dead forest that lay close to us. After another an hour and half of hike we came finally to the camp, nestelling 10 minutes walk from laguna Torre. It was getting all of a sudden heavily overcasted and the shine of the day went to other places, taking some of the joy away...damn! This camp was less cramped, and we easily found a good place to camp in, not far from the flowing river that merged with Rio Fitzroy that flowed all the way to El Chalten, some 10 km east of our camp. We already were quick in pitching the tent and spreading the sleeping gear before having a lunch and going to visit the Laguna.
Well, with an overcast above, grey colors dominated the view of Laguna Torre underneath the great spike. Combined with the chilling wind, Maya had enough after 10 minutes and went back to camp while me and Barak went ahead on the left dike that surrounded the laguna, pondering of maybe continuing walking across the river that drain the laguna. Only, we stopped short after five minutes, as we saw that there was no bridge that crossed the flowing river but a single zip-line strectch across to the other bank. Hmm... well, that setteles whether we cross or not cross the river to the other side....We noticed two trekkers going down the bank on the other side and sat down to watch them cross. A large tour group came also and everyone took out their cameras to capture this unusual crossing (I can only imagine the thoughts that passed through the trekkers mind, doing this zip-lining with not too much thinking...). It was a bit comic, to see the commotion of photographers on one side of the river bank, and on the other side, the professional serenity that surrounded the two trekkers, oblivious of the commotion and arrange their equipement for the crossing. And, without too much of a fuss, they crossed with their bags tied to one of the cables, zip line behind them...Once both of them landed on the other shore, the commotion dispersed and the group continued with their tour as well as me and Barak. Coming back to camp, Maya and Barak went to sleep while I sat and wrote my diary enjoying peace and tranquility.
While we prepared dinner, we noticed we ran out of salt and as Barak and Maya consumes salt like they consume drinking water, it was imperative to find some. Barak went to ask favor from other campers in the camping site, and indeed returned with a genorous amount of it. Turns out, that the man he asked the salt from is an Israeli guy name Mor, which later on offered us some of their left-over food and was counter offered to come and join us for a tea (which he accepted). He came with his girlfriend, Tania, both of them living currently in San Fransisco while doing their PhD in near Stanford university. They did us great honor when they came with candles so we could celebrate 2nd candle of Hanuka. After making a flat stone a HANUKIA, Barak said the prayers and lit the candles, a special moment for me, which I will cherish for a long time. I found this ceremony, over 10,000 km away from home and in the midst of nature to be a unique experience, something for life. We also ate cookies that were shaped as Jewish symbols (MENORA, SEVIVON, MAGEN-DAVID) all brought by Tania, which is Christian! Some good jews we are, Ha? We talked about life in the US in comparison to Israel (from Mor’s point of view) and we also got hooked with another attractive destination Mor and Tania told us about – Alaska! If there is a good place to be in nature, and feel you are all alone...We went to sleep quite early, 10 PM, as we were very tired!

Getting back to “civilization” – Day 3
The next morning we wraped everything quickly and already by 10 am we were on our way back to El Chalten, some 2 hours and half. The walk back was not difficult, most of the way flat, and we had some good weather that accompanied us, the skies deep blue and the sun shines brightly. At a certain point we saw town, beautiful under the intense sunshine and the path that lead of town. At that point I was happy to be in town and to take the pack off my back. Another great trek has ended!
Getting back into town, we first went to get rid of the rented equipment (which was easy coz it was on the way to the new hostel) and then headed to the hostel. The room we got was SO small, it was hard for all of us to arrange all our stuff in that room. We hurried to collect our other stuff from the previous hostel and to take it to the new one. As the room was small and eveyone were arranging their stuff, I decided to just move all my stuff to the hall and there I slowly arranged my backpack to the monster it was before taking most of the stuff out of it...Once I finished this (and also took a shower after three days of no shower...), me and Barak went to check emails in the very slow as well as expensive internet and later we passed the time reading books and talking...I remember a talk me and Barak had over beer on the steps that led to the hostel – we were pondering aloud about what are we gonna do when we gonna get back home, what are our options and sometimes just laughing about this and that...it was a nice talk and finish to a long day and good hiking in nature...the next day we had to wake up early so we moved to sleep quite quickly...

One anecdote: traveling with Maya and Barak in close quarters, especially when camping together, led me to see my two friends in new perspectives and different light, and also vice versa. It was interesting to see that after more than 5 years of aqcuiantance we didnt really know each other and only after traveling together we started to appreciate each other. Thanks to our sincirity and confidence, we were able to talk about almost anything that troubled us...

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