Getting Blown Away by El Chalten

When you ask my Dad where a particular place is, he will almost invariably tell you that it is right down the street. Dad, where’s Livermore? It’s just right down the street. Where’s Santa Rosa? Right down the street. Bakersfield? Right down the street. Bakersfield may be pushing it, but in a town like El Chalten, my Dad would be right 100 percent of the time because everything in El Chalten is literally right down the street.

Adam and I are older than El Chalten, a town that was not founded until 1985. There are only a few hundred permanent residents who cater to the thousands of tourists that pour in wanting to take advantage of the ten or twelve trails that you can access practically from your front door. In other words, the town is a virtual wonderland for hikers without a car. And we are talking top-notch scenery here—everything in and around the town is pretty much jaw-droppingly gorgeous. El Chalten might be just about perfect except for one thing: the Patagonian wind.

Every year from about October to March, Patagonia is beset by violent windstorms. During our week in El Chalten, there were about two days when it wasn’t really windy. The other days it was so windy that occasionally I was actually blown off course like this: Patagonian Wind

I loathe strong winds, but when you’re in a place like El Chalten, there’s no time to waste waiting for the weather to be perfect. You want to soak up every inch of this place.

We took a bus from El Calafate to El Chalten, and for a change, the bus trip only took about four hours. We stopped midway at a hostel/restaurant that was supposedly one of the places where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out for a time after getting into some trouble in Rio Gallegos. I wasn’t as interested in that as I was in following their pet guanaco around trying to pet it. Unfortunately, a bunch of kids showed up and started to annoy it, so it headed for the hills. See? Kids ruin everything.

When we got closer to El Chalten, we could see the Fitzroy mountain range in the distance. The bus driver stopped to let us out for a quick picture—he must have seen everyone pressing their noses against the windows trying to get a better look at the ludicrously fabulous scenery.

On our first full day in town we hiked to Laguna Torre to a spectacular glacier. After making it through the initial uphill part of the trail, the hike was fairly easy (except for numerous gigantic mud puddles that were tricky to negotiate sometimes). But the great thing about Los Glaciares National Park, is that anywhere you are on the trail you have a view of something sublime. Whether you’re looking at the Fitzroy range or one of the numerous lakes, it’s hard to not enjoy your surroundings at all times.

One of the little annoyances of hiking through lots of brush is that bugs are constantly flitting around you. Usually I don’t pay much attention, but there are sometimes situations that cannot be ignored. There are several different ways to eat a bug, some of them less pleasant than others. The best way to eat a bug, of course, is to not know that you ate a bug. You just plow through your can of Spaghetti-o’s without knowing that a curious cockroach fell into the tomato sauce and was cooked and strained to death. The second best way is to willingly eat one—perhaps a fried grasshopper or a chocolate covered ant. The worst way is to eat a bug involuntarily—it flies into your mouth and before you know it you have, without thinking, swallowed it. Leave it to me to find an even worse way. That is to suck the bug through your nose into your throat. The bug will be as surprised as you and he will struggle for a few seconds in your throat trying to get out. You will undoubtedly want to help the process along by fervently coughing and hacking. “Up or down!” you will say, “I don’t care which way you go, just get out of my throat!” And that, (barring some weird form of torture that I haven’t thought about), is the worst way to eat a bug.

Shortly after the bug incident, we arrived at Laguna Torre. It was a pale blue lake dotted here and there with chunks of ice and at the far end was a gleaming white glacier that poured down the side of the mountain and into the water dazzling the onlookers with its brilliant blue glow. We found a large rock  that had a bird’s eye view of the glacier situated away from everyone else and we had lunch. It was perfectly sunny and still. We were perched on this ideal spot. We had tasty sandwiches. How could anyone conceive of a better lunch than that?

After soaking up the scenery for a while, we reluctantly started to head back on the trail. When we finally got back to the cabin I was exhausted, but I also felt surprisingly good. I don’t at all mind wearing myself out in order to see something so sensational.

One of the most exhausting things about hiking is pretending to be friendly to the other hikers. For some reason, when you pass people on a trail, you must look at them and say hello even though if you walked right by those people on the street you would pretend not to see them. It is a mystifying exercise. So if it is a busy trail, you could potentially have to be pretend to be friendly to a hundred people in the span of one day and that can be more tiring than the physical aspects. I say “pretend” to be friendly because that is what everyone is doing. They are pretending to be nice and, as Adam pointed out, they are judging you and each other. The photographers are eying each other’s equipment. The hikers and backpackers are checking out everyone’s gear. The backpackers are scoffing at the day hikers. Adam was especially interested in the people that pay absurd amounts of money to go on guided hikes in a park which is neither dangerous nor difficult to navigate. I was enraged by the fact that probably 70 percent of the people hiking were using walking poles for no discernible reason. By the end of the week I was ready to grab people’s poles, break them over my knee, and throw them into the lake.

On our second day there, I woke up with a bad sore throat and the wind and rain were pelting the side of the cabin. I didn’t think that we were even going to be able to go outside, let alone go hiking for any distance. But the weather in El Chalten is almost as changeable as in Ushuaia, and by mid-morning the rain had stopped and the sun had come out although the wind was still whipping away. We planned to just take a quick walk up to the waterfall and head back to the cabin for lunch. But that’s not quite what happened.

We did go to the waterfall which was just an easy 4 km walk although the wind was so strong that not only was it blowing me off course, it was honestly making my nostrils flap involuntarily which I didn’t realize was a possibility. We got to the waterfall which wasn’t the biggest or most impressive, but it was admirable nonetheless. I thought that after the waterfall viewing we would trot on back to the cabin and have some lunch, but Adam thought that we should take the trail up the hill and see what it was like from the top of the waterfall. I agreed; I mean the waterfall wasn’t that tall. So we started climbing up the hill on the narrow trail getting poked and scratched by the bushes and weeds that had overrun it. We easily got to the spot where we could stand on the rocks and look down on the waterfall, but what we noticed at that point was that there was another and even more spectacular waterfall above us. You see where this is going. We kept climbing higher and higher and finding waterfall after waterfall. Every one we came to seemed to be more splendid than the last one, and the view of the valley in front of us was unbelievable. But eventually the trail got sufficiently scary for me. I’m still rather skittish when it comes to steep inclines, slippery surfaces, and edges that one could tumble over to her death. Maybe I’m exaggerating. Adam tells me that I wouldn’t die if I fell down in any of these places, but I list “grievous injury” right up near the top of my list of things to avoid. So I decided that rather than follow Adam to what I was sure was certain death, I would stay behind and at least I could go for help when he tumbled over the side of the cliff. I watched him nervously as he leapt surefootedly up the rest of the way, disappeared for a few minutes, and then hopped back down as if he was doing nothing more than strolling down the sidewalk. Maybe it wasn’t as difficult as I imagined. But when we were about to go back down Adam advised, “If you start to slip, make sure that you try to fall towards the wall so that you can grab things on the way down.”

Mmm hmm. O.K. No problem.

We got down without incident, but I learned a few things that day. First, I should always be prepared for anything because if there is a bump on the earth, Adam will want to climb it. Second, I probably over-inflate the likelihood of death-by-falling-off-a-cliff, and I could possibly stand to suck it up a little. Lastly, Adam sometimes has a way of giving very good advice that strikes terror into my heart.

Although the previous day turned out better than I had expected, our third day started out inauspiciously. When we left for the trail, it was insanely windy and there was a light mist falling. Going uphill was even more difficult than usual since there was a significant headwind. By the time we had finished the uphill part of the trail, I was fairly damp and cold and, I admit, in sort of a foul mood. I cheered up a bit when we came around a bend to find a large group of Japanese tourists clad head to toe in blindingly bright colored rain gear. All of the outfits were the same, but they were all different colors – purple, pink, orange, yellow. It looked like a Teletubby convention.

Then things got worse. We came to a section of the trail where we had to cross a little stream by carefully stepping on the rocks and branches that were sticking out of the water. Adam jumped across and then watched me as I went from the first rock, to the next branch, to the…PLONK! I plunged my leg up to the knee into the water. Cursing, I pulled my foot out, went for the next rock and…PLUNK! My other leg was now submerged in the stream. Furious with myself, I waded out onto the trail and assessed my situation. Cold. Wet. Shoes squishing. Extremely irritated. I continued walking for a while, but I was miserable and I was making Adam miserable, so finally I decided to just go back and cut my losses. We did get a really good view of one of the glaciers before I gave up which, besides the Teletubby sighting, was the highlight of the day.

Walking back by myself, I went through my mental list of back-up professions and reluctantly crossed “mountain climber” off. Considering my performance in the past few days, I just don’t think I can ever make it work. I did leave “Vaudeville performer” on the list, though. I seem to be good at that slapstick stuff.

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