Day 30

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Day 30– Saturday March 26: Short and Steep to Puerto Tranquillo

Morning arrived, and we enjoyed another great breakfast before setting off. We traveled the side road to Bahia Murta proper, about 5km away. It was a small community tucked alongside the closest edge of Lake General Carrera. The lake itself was outrageously turquoise, and the little town looked as though it might fill up in the high season. Right now it’s deserted, so we made our rounds and headed back to the main road. Once there we turned towards Puerto Tranquillo, just under 30km away. As we rode the sun broke through the heavy clouds until we were riding in complete sunshine – something we hadn’t done for a long time. The gravel on the road was reasonably maintained, so we made good headway. Soon we caught sight of the same Lake General Carrera and the road followed its shoreline south, rising and falling with the headwalls bordering the water. Some steep climbing, but totally beautiful. In fact, this ride was the most beautiful of all the rides we have taken so far, with frequent stops for picture taking.

By mid-afternoon we were in Puerto Tranquillo, and the town was like the scenery, extremely fetching.  We found our way to our new place to stay, El Puesto, and were delighted to find that our cabins were complete, with fully equipped kitchens – including the first microwave we had encountered in Chile.  There was revelry and wandering around the little town, a great dinner. Finally we settled in to a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow was planned as another rest day, and we knew that down the lake there were marble caves to explore.

Day 31: Puerto Tranquillo pleasures; no pix yet

Day 31 – Sunday March 27: Puerto Tranquillo, Marble Power and San Valentin

Come morning we were awakened late by the guides putting our breakfast together. We were pleased to find an open day, a beautiful sunny day, and so we headed out of town in a minibus south to the Capillas de Marmol, marble caves accessible only by boat. The drive to the tour alone was worth the price of admission. This lake, Lago General Carrera, which is over a hundred miles long and twenty or thirty miles wide, is a rich turquoise hue pretty much unknown in nature, and we viewed it from hundreds of feet above as we negotiated the headlands along the way. Four of us had opted to use kayaks to get to the caves and the other seven of us set out in an open boat, heading north along the shore for perhaps two or three miles. There we found huge marble structures, some of which had tumbled from the cliffs above thousands, perhaps millions, of years ago. Our boat guide/driver drove us into caves and grottoes we could hardly believe, the surface of the marble mottled with countless divots as though banged out with a ball peen hammer. We took lots of pictures.

When we returned to Puerto Tranquillo the day was still gloriously sunny, and David made plans for us to ride in a van 52km up a road to a trail that led to an overlook of a hanging glacier, Glacier Exploradoes. Remember that none of these roads are paved, and they are often very rough, wide enough for only one vehicle. So we set out heading away from the lake, following a rushing river. High above, some twenty-five kilometers along, we came to the beautiful Lake Tranquillo; a few kilometers beyond was Lake Bayo, and as we skirted it high above through cuts in the rock we caught sight of the 4000m (nearly 13000 foot) peak of San Valentin, one of the highest in Chile. After 52km we pulled over and found ourselves at a kind of wilderness camp with a couple of buildings for people to stay in and do glacier travel and ice climbing. There was a trail that began here and ran a little over a mile uphill to a lookout point with a platform. From there we could see the majestic snow covered crags of San Valentin and the glacier that extended to within a few hundred yards of where we stood on an old lateral morrain. We returned to the van an hour later and headed back down towards Puerto Tranquilllo, still amazed.

Our guides fixed us dinner and we retired, ready for another day in the saddle as we rode to Rio Baker. As it turned out, we would need the rest.

A brief word about our guide service might be welcome here. They are Dittmar Adventure (www.dittmaradventures.com), and our chief guide is David Dittmar. Dittmar Adventures is based in Puerto Natales and specializes in trekking in southern Chile. Steve Jones has known David for three years when David guided Steve’s group in a program of hiking in the Mt. Fitzroy region.  This is their first cycling tour down the Carretera Austral, and they enlisted the help of Dirty Bikes from Bariloche (www.dirtybikes.com.ar), who provided the support truck and bike trailer, plus the services of Tikka Walde, one of their own guides. The coordinating figure back in Puerto Natales is Laura McAfoos, and keeping track of us by bicycle on the road is Dario Aguilar Cofre.  No-one had done this journey before and that has meant a completely fresh adventure for everybody. I think I can speak for all of us in saying that we wouldn’t have it any other way. While It has meant some uncertainties of routing and accommodation, the program of riding has changed flexibly in response to our needs and other travel contingencies like ferry service cancellations. In any case, there is a widely shared feeling of teamwork running through everything we do.

Day 32: to the Rio Baker and some dam observations

Day 32 – Monday March 28: The gigantic River Baker

We headed out mid-morning, planning to go only halfway to Cochrane, our original destination. As it turned out, the original plan would have been pretty much impossible, given the mileage and elevation gains that we would be facing just today (76km, 3600ft). Right out of town we started up a steep hill that took us southwards along the shore of Lago General Carrera. Then we followed another watershed downward to Lake Bertrand, then up again and over some serious hills to end up at the Rio Baker, Chile’s most voluminous river, ranging from wide to narrow and filled with rapids. Fine fishing here, and a lot of fishing resorts along the riverbanks. Almost all the places to stay were closing now at the end of the season. The weather was turning foul: cold rain and wind, so we were glad to get out of our riding clothes and put some wood on the fire.

The River Baker is one of the rivers where dams have been proposed to provide hydropower. At first it sounds like a fair proposition, since the river runs powerfully through canyons where a dam might be hidden and it would produce a good deal of electricity. Unfortunately, as usual, the story is more complicated. Although much of Chile needs more electrical power, the power from these dams has been promised and would be directed entirely to corporate mining and aluminum operations as part of cap and trade agreements, rather than actually going to the many people who need it. And the real cost to the environment would be the series of towers marching relentlessly across the spectacular landscape, through hill and dale from south to north. Plus, of course, whole ranges of the river would be choked off.

In any case, the Rio Baker acts as a kind of rallying point for the “Patagonia sin represas” (Patagonia without Dams!) issue, and so far the watercourse remains untamed, wildly roaring through rock walls and chasms. The game isn’t over yet though.

We stayed overnight at one of those fishing lodges next to the river, the Los Rapidos del Rio Baker, and had an excellent dinner prepared by our guides. Tomorrow we would follow the course of the river and head back over the mountainous terrain to Cochrane.

Day 33 :the steeps to Cochrane

Day 33 – Tuesday March 29: Over the hills to Cochrane

 It rained and blew violently during the night, and everyone feared that we’d be facing a very uncomfortable day. But we started out about 10:00 and managed to stay just ahead of the squall line. We followed the Rio Baker downriver past the largest rapids we’ve seen so far, and then it joined with another large river, the Rio Chacabuco. At that confluence the Rio Baker comes in beautifully blue and frothy, while the Rio Chacabuco appears brown from the vast quantities of mud and silt it carries. From there on the Rio Baker is sand-colored. Just after the confluence the road headed uphill in a series of the steepest climbs we have so far encountered – at least 19%. Some walked and counted themselves lucky to have made it at all. Ultimately we picked up some downhill speed for the final push into the town of Cochrane. The nearly 50km seemed longer because of the steeps, and we had gained about 2800 feet.

Our B&B was the house of a jolly man who clearly liked having guests. Pictures on the wall suggested he was an empty-nester. The town of Cochrane itself occupies a crossroads. It has a huge town square, a couple of good cafes, a restaurant, a super Supermercado, and an internet café. Unfortunately the connection speed there was so slow that we couldn’t talk by phone on Skype or upload pictures. We enjoyed dinner at the restaurant and returned early for our next ride. The route was becoming a little cloudy now, a little unfocused, but we rose to a rich breakfast to set out on the next leg.

Day 34: over the hill and through the woods

Day 34 – Wednesday March 30: Camping halfway to Caleta Tortel

Because of the ferry cancellation south of Villa O’Higgins, we were now trimming our sails to suit the wind, and David (through Laura) made arrangements for us to stay in a Campsite with a Refugio – Refugio and Los Nadiz camping -- a small structure with four bunks and a rudimentary kitchen. It lay at the bottom of another serious pass that traveled east to west, back into the wet landscape. More serious uphill and downhills took us over yet another pass towards Caleta Tortel.

At the bottom of a spectacular descent Steve and Steve Jahn and John, though, passed up the turnoff to the campsite/refugio and ended up many miles and hundreds of vertical feet ahead. In the rain and cold. Eventually they realized their mistake and turned back some 30km beyond the turnoff. Mercifully Tikka and Dario had come looking for them with the truck, and the three were able to get inside and warm. But the message was clear: we had no real other options in this deserted landscape, and we had to make sure that everyone was on the same page to avoid disaster. That night five of us slept on the floor of the refugio kitchen because it was so cold and windy and rainy outside.  The original ride to the refugio covered nearly 60km and 2600 feet; the three rogues had clocked in yet another 30km and perhaps a thousand feet more of elevation gain. Just about everyone slept fitfully.

A new big worry was that Tikka discovered his truck had lost its brakes, and he had to descend using the engine drag on the transmission.  This in turn meant that the next day Tikka had to return to Cochrane to find a mechanic to fix the truck while the rest of us would press on without support for a long day in foul weather to Caleta Tortel. Also, we had been riding steadily without any more days off, so everyone was getting tired. But more strenuous adventures waited ahead.

Day 34: over the hill and through the woods

Day 34 – Wednesday March 30: Camping halfway to Caleta Tortel

Because of the ferry cancellation south of Villa O’Higgins, we were now trimming our sails to suit the wind, and David (through Laura) made arrangements for us to stay in a Campsite with a Refugio – Refugio and Los Nadiz camping -- a small structure with four bunks and a rudimentary kitchen. It lay at the bottom of another serious pass that traveled east to west, back into the wet landscape. More serious uphill and downhills took us over yet another pass towards Caleta Tortel.

At the bottom of a spectacular descent Steve and Steve Jahn and John, though, passed up the turnoff to the campsite/refugio and ended up many miles and hundreds of vertical feet ahead. In the rain and cold. Eventually they realized their mistake and turned back some 30km beyond the turnoff. Mercifully Tikka and Dario had come looking for them with the truck, and the three were able to get inside and warm. But the message was clear: we had no real other options in this deserted landscape, and we had to make sure that everyone was on the same page to avoid disaster. That night five of us slept on the floor of the refugio kitchen because it was so cold and windy and rainy outside.  The original ride to the refugio covered nearly 60km and 2600 feet; the three rogues had clocked in yet another 30km and perhaps a thousand feet more of elevation gain. Just about everyone slept fitfully.

A new big worry was that Tikka discovered his truck had lost its brakes, and he had to descend using the engine drag on the transmission.  This in turn meant that the next day Tikka had to return to Cochrane to find a mechanic to fix the truck while the rest of us would press on without support for a long day in foul weather to Caleta Tortel. Also, we had been riding steadily without any more days off, so everyone was getting tired. But even more strenuous adventures waited ahead.

Day 35: the Unimaginable Town of Tortel

Day 35 – Thursday March 31: Torturous road to Caleta Tortel

Complicated day today. We left the Camping/refugio site in the rain and started making our way to Caleta Tortel, which we thought was about 60 to 70km away. Tikka and Dario and Steve Jahn, who wasn't feeling all that well, headed back to Cochrane where they hoped to find a mechanic. And it trned out to be even more complicated than that, ...they found out in Cochrane that the rear end of the truck was trashed, as well as the brakes. They worked with an amazing mechanic who fashioned the part they needed for the rear end, and they were able to get things fixed by the end of the day and to come back over the pass to find us.

Meanwhile a lot of time passed, and in the very late afternoon we began to dribble into Caleta Tortel, which marked the end of the Carretera Austral for us. The distance, though, had turned out to be tricky, and as we were riding without support – that is, with most of our gear in the truck or the trailer. – ii was a bit unnerving. We had pressed on, and the ride turned epic. Long -- 97km on really nasty roads -- up and down and finally up and up to arrive around 5:00 in Caleta Tortel. It was still raining, hard, and we were freezing.

It is an amazing town, unimaginable. It's built on steep stone cliffs and until 2003 was only accessible by water. The town came into being in the thirties by building walkways on stilts between houses and shops, so you have to climb up and down stairs and along these walkways. Which were very slippery for people walking in bicycle shoes. The town is unbelievably situated looking out at a fjord. But the rain was really coming down and it would be dark soon After an hour we finally found our place to stay, which was warm and welcoming. Our guide David had ridden this ride to make sure we made it, and he arrived with Tom around 7:00. No sign of Tikka and Dario and Steve Jahn though, and then darkness dropped down. No streetlights in this town because no streets. And you had to park at one end, high up, where the road arrived and dead-ended. The owners fixed us dinner and we went to bed exhausted.

We feared the worst for the truck, but In the morning we came down to breakfast to find that everyone had made it, though not until midnight, in a water taxi.  The truck was fixed and we were all together.

We had some new directions to ride though, starting out that very day.

Day 36 -- Another Patagonia

Day 36 – Friday April 1 – Another Patagonia

David had arranged for us to be transported back over the road we had just traveled, to Cochrane and points eastward in Argentina, since our way was blocked any further south into Chile. We rode from Caleta Tortel in a fairly new red Dodge Durango -- luxury!! -- with the bike trailer and truck following at a distance. In Cochrane we had lunch and got back into the Durango, heading north and east perhaps seventy or eighty kilometers to a little used pass through the Andes. The weather changed to sunny and windy – seriously windy, mainly from behind. Now we got to see the wild life of the steppes: herds of the deerlike/llamalike guanacos, their faces set with huge eyes and eyelashes like a camel. We saw Rheas, the ostrich-like birds that can run almost as fast as the car. We saw a couple of condors cruising high above. A couple people saw armadillos. 

The plan had been to be dropped off with our bikes near the border, cross the Chilean border station, ride the 10km to the Argentina border station, and press ahead to an Estancia – a ranch where we could stay. But by the time we got through the Argentina border it was almost six and we clearly couldn’t make the next 20 or 30km to the Estancia. There was no other habitation on the road at all. Just a few kilometers into Argentine though, we descended to the bottom of  a hill to find the ruins of an old adobe building with its walls pushed down and the bricks scattered, It was next to a beautiful flowing stream and we decided to set up camp. The wind was howling from behind the hill we had just descended, but it was calm enough by the tumbled walls to get the tents out and set up a kitchen tent, where we ate. The terrain was desertlike but filled with gigantic buttes and mountainous profiles. It promised to be cold, but we hunkered down anyway and went to sleep.

The next day was to be our last one on the bikes, and it looked like a long day, a long way to the tiny village of Baho Caricola. We had no idea what the day held in store for us!

Day 37 -- Grand Finale

Day 37 – Saturday April 2 – What a Finale!

In the film version of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, starring Rod Steiger, one episode concerns a group of spacemen stranded on a planet where it rained incessantly, unrelentingly, drilling down on their helmets as they make their way through the thick jungle. They were looking for Sun Domes, places that had been constructed where one could get out of the rain. Otherwise you’d go crazy. The wind in Patagonia is like that. It blows constantly through much of the day and night at about 50 or 60 miles an hour, and it gusts to 70 or 80. This is real no man’s land, though indescribably beautiful.

We rose at our camp site, somewhat sheltered from the wind, packed up and prepared to go. We were heading southeast, and the wind always blows out of the northwest, so it was behind us for the most part. Steve Jones went down within the first half mile as we tried to cut across a quartering wind from the right, but then we turned left downwind and pedaled away. The road rose up along cuts in the buttes and disappeared over blind hills. After about 30km we were starting to get used to it. And then the road began descending gradually for almost 40km.

This meant that we had sixty mile-an-hour wind at our backs, gusting to ninety and pushing us along the gravelly, rutted and washboard road. But if you kept your head you could really haul. John clocked the fastest time – almost 57.6km/hour. It was impossible to turn around, of course, but that wasn’t the way we were going anyway. We flew on that road for about 30 miles at that pace, and none of us expects to experience that exhilarating speed and riding pleasure again.

We finally stopped at an intersection of Route 40, which we had to take to get to Bajo Caricola. Upwind. The truck loaded us up and we arrived in the little village covered in dirt and dust and laughing. .

The settlement Bajo Caricola is an odd little place, with a gas station and a squat hotel with a bar. Nothing else around, though, for perhaps 75 windy miles. We celebrated and hosed off and celebrated some more. After dinner we collapsed into bed for our trip by bus to El Chalten the next day.

Day 38 -- On which the team finds itself on a bus to El Chalten

Day 38– Sunday April 3 – A grueling  trip to El Chalten  

The 9-passenger van taking us from Bajo Calicola to El Chalten – about 325km – arrived on Saturday night while we were celebrating. We dutifully loaded up in the morning. Bram was really feeling pretty ropey, so we tried to secure him a comfortable spot with a seat in the sun. Then we set off. For about 25km the road was paved, but then turned into a construction road for almost 175km along Highway 40, a main road but getting paved only gradually. The shocks on this van were shot, and it was impossible to move faster than 40km an hour (25mph) without shaking apart, so the whole trip took us nearly ten hours.

The vastness of the land became more and more clear as we beetled along the rutted way, although the constant bumping and bouncing, plus the rushing of the wind whistling through door and window seals made for a truly uncomfortable ride. Stretched out as far as the eye could see was an enormous panorama, hard to realize even when in the middle of it. We ground our way slowly across it, very slowly. To the horizon line of the plain the only thing covering the ground was close-cropped sage-like clumps, some shaped like tumbleless tumbleweeds, interspersed with numberless cone-shaped golden tufts of some stiff grass. Oddly, in this apparently forsaken landscape we saw plenty of wildlife: whole herds of guanacos, families of rheas, and some huge beautifully colored birds of prey, the Caracara, sitting on fence posts.

Just over halfway we stopped at the Estancia Siberia, over the hill from the gigantic Lago Cardiel. The Estancia sported a bright blue derelict antique truck in its front yard and a quasi-deserted coffee shop.  We were able to glean some cafés con leche and a few epanadas there, watching out a window as a dozen or so gauchos hacked pieces off a spitted lamb roasting in the back courtyard and drank bottles of beer and wine. Sunday dinner in Siberia. Everyone was already feeling a little queasy, and poor Bram looked white. On the road again, we continued to thread back and forth over the construction until, about 130km from our destination, we reached paving. A cheer broke out, the driver smiled, and everyone relaxed as we made our final approach to El Chalten.

Ahead to the west all was shrouded in clouds from the distance, but as we got closer they cleared like in some cheesy adventure film, and we saw that the town itself is situated in sublime mountainous terrain. Rearing up behind El Chalten are steep rocky foothills and stony walls, and just beyond them one of the most famous and difficult mountaineering peaks in the world, the spectacular Mount Fitzroy. We pulled off the road a couple of kilometers away and snapped some pictures. We planned some mountain experiences, hikes and such, but had little idea of what dark forces lay in store.