Micro Blog: 25th August 2012 (Travels)
From El Calafate which is as pleasant a town as one can wish for, we headed to El Chalten. El Chalten is the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park which is really home to Monte Fitzroy, Cerro Torre and the immense Patagonian IceField. Unlike the very developed El Calafate, EL Chalten was much smaller in area, less amenities and definitely no Casino to be found. There are just a couple of streets but one will not notice that the first time you arrive as what greets you as you enter the town is the direct views of Monte Fitzroy and Cerro Torre itself! It is true that without even heading out onto the trails can one get some nice shots of the peaks. Cerro Torre which is a sharp spire of granite is closer to the Patagonian IceField and was clouded up for the entire photo tour. I did get some totally clear views of it during the extension of the trip and I was grateful I made the decision to do so.
The next few days, we were to spend some time hiking into Laguna Capri before sunrise to get the two peaks at first light. The light however did not happen but it was still a fun hike and was a good way to warm up for the strenuous stuff ahead. Despite the group of 10 shooters, everyone had their own space and I did not encounter a single situation where we had to ask for some space to set up. There was a problem with the winds however. Howling at estimated speeds of 70km/hour, we were caught right in it while shooting on a slope but since the wind was blowing uphill, there was no trouble with camera setups rolling down the slopes. The vibration from the winds hitting the tripods did give some unsharp images. Fortunately, I do plenty of frames and that was not an issue at all. Using Liveview and a remote cable was my usual routine and was all the more important to keep up with here.
The next location, a 6 hour drive from El Chalten was Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile. I have long heard of the Horns and I was trying my best not to get too excited about seeing them in person. I was also sufficiently distracted by the stuffing of roasted almonds (courtesy of my loving mother who prepped them for me) as Chile forbids any fresh food. 2 whole bags went into my partially filled stomach and I was pretty sure I would be farting almonds that night. Reaching the single-storey building, we had our passports chopped and luggage scanned with no hassles at all. A money changer was just next door and Chilean pesos were in the pockets. It is good to note now that Argentinian pesos and Chilean pesos are totally different and only available in their respective countries.
Chile and Torres Del Paine in a nutshell seems to be my choice than what Argentina, Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torre could offer. It was perhaps the vast landscape and the fact that one could really go all around to get different views without much difficulty. Or it could be the black peaks that just made them so different from other mountains I have seen up close. One issue we faced while out in Chile was definitely the wind. To think that we thought we had seen the worst of all winds in El Chalten, what we had in Chile made its Argentinian counterpart seem like a breeze. On the second day while having our lunch in the hotel, the wind came in at full blast. The lake just outside looked like part of the South China Sea during the monsoon season. One participant even commented that that looked like the ocean outside his house and that drew some laughter from the gloom.
Rain soon followed the winds and depression crept in slowly. It was inevitable to think that I had spent quite a large sum and time to get to a location like this, only to be trapped within the confines of the hotel. Free WIFI perked us up a little and the ever cheery moods of Ian Plant and Richard Bernabe kept the laughter constant.
The winds however kept on and we soon accepted it as one of the challenges Chile presented to us. Few in the group were thanking themselves for bringing the larger tripods from a Really Right Stuff Versa tripod to the 3 series Gitzos. A 2 series Gitzo would have been blown down flat quite easily. Of course hanging one's camera bag from the centre hook is always recommended and that stabilized some of the smaller setups really well. I played safe much of the time and always had one tripod leg facing the direction that the wind was blowing towards. This makes the setup much tougher to blow over. Nothing is 100% and one careless moment saw the entire setup crash to the ground and that left me without a 82mm polarizer for the rest of the trip.
After Chile, an extension into the backcountry of Argentina was planned. Ian and Richard brought the brave 3 in and man, was my pack heavy! It weighed in at about 60 pounds and my 85L Osprey pack was seeing the outdoors for the first time thus it was not that conformed to my body yet and that could be the reason for some discomfort. Fortunately everyone felt the need to take a break every half hour and give our shoulders a good stretch. After two hours, we were soon trekking like old-timers and the load was seemingly much more manageable and I started to take my mind off it and put my full attention to the trail and the scenics around us.
At long last, we reached the campsite and while the 4 were pitching their tents, I proudly took my bivy sack out and was positive that my decision to go ultralight in terms of shelter was going to be a sound one. An hour later, we headed out for a shoot before the last light faded. It was not a awesome shoot as Dennis and I somehow went astray from Ian and Richard and ended up spending much time looking for them. Back at camp, we had a deserving meal and everyone went to their shelters for a good night's rest. The plan was to get up real early the next morning to see whether we could get Mt Fitzroy in moonlight.
My body jerked and I woke up. It was freezing and I was chilled to the bone...literally. I checked the watch and it read 930pm. Only half an hour had passed! I looked at the moon as it showed up over the east. This was going to be a long night for me if the temperatures dropped further.
11pm....1am....2am. I have had enough. I had already piled all the available clothing over my feet and there was not the slightest improvement. Stacking layers with my balaclava over my head was not making things any better either and I was starting to appreciate the heat from the equatorial Sun back in Singapore. I stared at the moon which was now overhead and thought of a hot chocolate by a heater churning out warm air from its coils.
Richard's shuffling in his tent woke me up. It's time to head out soon and I sat up shivering. Richard got out of his tent and held his sock by 2 fingers on one end and the sock was parallel to the ground...it was frozen stiff just like I was. Somehow the thought of everyone getting up and feeling the chill made me feel better and we soon made our way to the base of the hill. Over the hill was Laguna De Los Tres and we were hopeful of some wonderful views of Mt Fitzroy.
After half an hour, we reached the base of the hills and started the climb up. Guidebooks had informed that this was a strenuous trek and that taking it slow was the way to go. Even without that piece of advice, the group did take it slow as we found out to our disbelief that ice had formed on the rocky steps. Each slippery step took a huff and the next step took the puff. Halfway up, I thought of the return trek and how double a challenge it was going to be. One kilometre and an hour later, we were at the peak of the hill and looking down, thick snow separated us from Laguna De Los Tres. Without much thought, everyone started looking for their spots and I headed down in the knee deep powdery snow. Near the shoreline, I was bewildered by a group of photographers who were already shooting and apparently, they had stayed overnight at the side of the lake, sheltered by a huge pile of rocks.
The light arrived fast and I was scrambling to get into position. By now, I was not feeling my feet anymore. My Gore-tex boots were soaked but no time for that, Mt Fitzroy was getting the first light from the sun and that alpenglow will be gone in a matter of minutes. In my haste to get up to a higher spot, I went deeper into the snow and deciding that I had enough, I turned, plonked the tripod on the ground and grabbed a number of frames. It was only when I got back to a hotel did I saw a smudge on the side of the lens surface and the few frames were throwaways because of that moment of carelessness.
Within an hour, we started heading back and the journey down took 2.5 hours and saw us slipping at one point or another. The ice was hard and it was a butt-aching experience. Old-timer mountaineer Dennis however was stable as a Gitzo 5 series tripod and did not succumb to the ice at all. Amazing and admirable!
Back at camp and after a hearty breakfast, the rain fell and shivering to sleep once again, I decided for an emergency course of action if I woke up feeling like last night. If only I could be as accurate in lottery for I woke shivering like a half-working washing machine. Packing up, I informed everyone that I was going to head back to town alone, check into a hotel and get warmed up. Continuing to camp in this state was going to be a sound recipe to getting hypothermia and I still had 2 weeks left for the trip thus the hard decision was made and I made the three hour trek back to town.
I was in heaven...a warm room and soup was an absolute divine experience. The plan was to rest early, wake up for the sunrise and take a 4 hour hike in to meet up with the group again at Laguna Torre. Pleased with the simplicity of the schedule, I fell sound asleep before the clock struck eight. No shivering and layering of clothes...
Sunrise was nothing to shout about as the clouds came in and I took a longer rest before packing my gear for the trek back in. 2 Litres of water should be enough and a takeaway ham and cheese sandwich was going to make a quick lunch. At the start of the trail, I saw the peak of Cerro Torre being unveiled like a star on stage. The clouds were moving fast and it was going to be the first time since I set foot in the Andes was Cerro Torre going to present itself. I was hiking at a quicker-than-normal pace as I was going to be stopping at various points to set up some shots of this rare sight. But nothing was going to beat the peaks reflecting in Laguna Torre itself and I picked up pace everytime the thought came by.
1245pm, I reached the quiet campsite and other than a small little tent, no one was around. With nothing much at the campsite, I headed to the lake and sat behind some rocks while the occasional wind blasted over my head. Cerro Torre was straight ahead but I was famished. Have your lunch then proceed with the shot. Simple plan for the simple mind once again and I wolfed down the sandwich and downed myself with the clear glacial water from the stream nearby.
%#@#%!!....the line of expletives came out without a pause as I set up my gear and realised that the clouds were back and that Cerro Torre was once again sent to the backstage. Judging from the density of the cover, it was going to take hours for it to clear up and I decided to head back the campsite to await the arrival of the brave quartet. An hour later, I saw the familiar jackets from far and was relieved that they had travelled safely. A good second lunch (double serving of White Mountain Noodle and Chicken) was too good to resist and we tucked in amidst joy and laughter. Had wanted to stay with the group a little longer but seeing that I had to take the 4 hour trek out to town before dark, I took my leave and promised to meet the rest in town the next morning. The winding trail brought me back to town at last light.
The sky was clear and from my room, I saw the outline of Mirador Condor which was the elevated lookout I was aiming to take a short hike to for sunrise. Void of ambient light, my headlamp lit the way up the trail and even though there was some assurance from Ian and Richard, I was not taking any chances and was looking out for any signs of a predator that could make a quick meal out of me...the Puma. My senses were heightened in the darkness and every rustling of the bushes caught my immediate attention. Reaching the peak, I set up behind the piled rocks which once again was essential protection from the strong winds. It was to be one of the most gorgeous sunrises I witnessed throughout the trip and Cerro Torre once again stood out from the clouds and stood proudly next to Mt Fitzroy. It was just such a magical moment that will forever be etched in my Puma-fearing brain.
All in all, the trip to Patagonia was too awesome an experience. From just reading about them and seeing pictures of the famous peaks online to witnessing them firsthand was just magical. There were of course the killer winds we had to deal with, the cold that could have taken my life away but all these just makes the time spent so much more memorable. The next 2 weeks were spent in Iguazu Falls and the city of Buenos Aires itself. Mind-boggling places but the Patagonia Mountain Range still holds the top spot and hopefully the schedule allows another month there in 2013.
*all images from the iPhone 4. The main cameras were either deep in the pack or exposed to the light and cold.