Swimming upstream to El Chaltén

Final descent into town


Gobernador Gregores sits well east of the Andes, while El Chaltén is near the Chilean border (until recently undefined and disputed), well to the west. Given the prevailing Patagonian winds, I knew that I would have a tough slog between the two, but hoped to avoid the worst of it with early starts. My experience last time east of the Andes, between Mendoza and Fiambala, had taught me to avoid the afternoons, making the majority of my miles in the morning, then holing up somewhere before doing a few more in the evening. Unfortunately the Patagonian wind does not seem to follow this daily ebb and flow; when it blows, it is more or less continuous.

Running rheas

I started out from the Gregores campground around sunrise, enjoying some easy rolling as the road went more southward just outside town. However as soon as it turned west, I was fighting a consistent wind that was already strong enough to make progress a grind. I enjoyed watching some more rheas as they easily outran me, and herds of guanacos watching me curiously from a safe distance on the road banks. Less pleasant were the occasional mummified guanaco corpses hung on the fences. I don’t think they are put there by gauchos; my best guess is that they mistime their jumps, get stuck halfway over, and die of thirst. One long stretch of this road is entirely straight and was nearly directly into the wind. I was able to grind away in my second-lowest gear into the normal wind, but was reduced to my lowest by some of the gusts. Overall, I was averaging about 7 MPH with a solid but not race-level effort, or more than 50% slower than I would have been towing a trailer in still air.

Ripio to Lago Cardiel

A map at the campground had helpfully marked the stretches of ripio, indicating that Route 40 included some 70 km between Gregores and Tres Lagos. Shortly after the end of the straight, the road turned southwest and became gravel, and the wind became a partial crosswind. My progress became slightly slower, as the gusts would push my front wheel helplessly to the side. I think the fact that my front is so light with the trailer is partly to blame, but I can imagine the crosswind being even worse with a bikepacking setup with a frame bag, since the trailer has a smaller cross-section and an extra wheel for traction. This part could have been discouraging, but I managed to take it in stride. I met a fair number of drivers going the other direction, those in pickups making good speed, and those in vans or pulling campers creeping along only somewhat faster than I was.

Some guanacos

One guy who worked at a “fishing estancia” stopped as he passed me to talk for a bit and give me a small bottle of water, warning me to be careful before he continued. This stretch is dry, and while it was not hot, I became worried that I had not augmented my five liter water capacity. I therefore appreciated the small bottle he offered, and had earlier salvaged a partially-consumed 1.5-liter bottle of citrus soda. I could have deviated to the large Lago Cardiel, turquoise and shaped somewhat like an anatomical heart, but that would involve an extra mile or two of dirt road and hiking, and I had just enough liquid for another day and a half. I therefore continued just past the lake, then set up my tent just off the road in a somewhat sheltered spot. It was not sheltered enough to keep the wind from filtering sand into my tent, but that is something to be accepted in Argentina.

One of the many SOS poles

The next morning I continued the gravel grind, along a road that became wider rather than better. It was generally wide enough to have three pairs of wheel tracks through the loose gravel, and I switched from one to the other trying to find the smoothest one. Shortly before the pavement resumed, I found a water source and some nearby ruined buildings that would have been a perfect, but inconveniently-located, campsite. My speed improved somewhat once back on pavement, then the road turned south and downhill toward Tres Lagos and I absolutely flew, my three different tires buzzing at different pitches.

I passed through the town without stopping, then pulled into the service station for what I hoped was another internet cafe. Unfortunately this was not a regulation YPF, so hanging out felt awkward. I was about to leave when a German woman came in and plugged a very nice laptop into the one power strip. We talked for awhile, and I learned that she was really living the dream. She had flown to Santiago, bought a 4Runner, built it out for living, and was now traveling the continent and exploring. Her living space was wonderfully designed and built, with a single-width bed in the center and finished wood cabinets on either side. As someone who has lived in vehicles for over a decade, I appreciated the nuances, and was ashamed of how primitive my my “homes” have been.

I wanted to take a bite out of the final stretch, so I kept grinding uphill into the wind out of town. I initially planned to continue to where the road to Chaltén branches off from Route 40, but I thought I might have better wind in the morning, and was concerned about finding a windbreak, so I stopped only five miles or so past the gas station in the lee of a larger embankment. I found a spot just large enough for my tent between the spiny bushes, pitched it with my drybag weighing down the upwind vestibule (less sand that way), and passed a decent night.

Angry fish, why?

Unfortunately the wind was unchanged in the morning, so I had about 70 miles to ride straight into it. Fortunately Fitzroy (or Chaltén, “the smoking mountain”), is enormous and visible for much of the grind, distracting and encouraging me on the endless grind. At the intersection I was surprised to find a shiny new hut with USB plugs and, I gather, WiFi, as well as a large metal statue of an angry fish. It would have been a perfect place to camp, except that five or six other cyclists had thought the same thing, and I would not have enjoyed so much company. I talked to a couple of them who were leaving, collected myself for a few minutes inside, then began the 90-kilometer grind to Chaltén.

Chaltén closer

Chaltén the mountain rises 10,000 feet above the plains, mostly as a single granite monolith, so it looks deceptively closer than it is. The road changes direction somewhat around Lago Viedma, as does the wind, so I faced straight-on headwinds as well as crosswinds from both directions. This being a prime tourist destination, I was passed by many buses in both directions, for which I had to brace myself, then react quickly and steer wildly to keep from tipping over in their wakes. I also saw quite a few camper vans, several of whose drivers pumped their fists in encouragement as they passed, which always made me smile. There were a few places with shelter and water along the way, but I did not want to take another day, nor did I have enough calories; in fact I was reduced to adding milk and chocolate powder to my bottles for energy.

Reaching town, I headed immediately for the Casa de Ciclistas, a basic but friendly camping hostel run by Pedro and Florencia. Their backyard was crowded with tents, but I managed to find a spot, then showered, ate, and tried to sleep early. I was exhausted, but the next few days were supposed to be clear with little wind. This is supposedly rare in El Chaltén, so I had to make the most of them.

Paso Mayer to Argentina

Home for two nights


Villa O’Higgins was one of the more pleasant towns I had visited on the Carretera Austral, but I do not like waiting around, so when I learned that the ferry to the southern end of Lago O’Higgins ran sporadically based on last-minute decisions about the weather, the alternative route to El Chaltén via Paso Mayer (Paso El Bello in Argentina) sounded more appealing. On the downside, it takes at least a day longer and involves much more distance. On the upside, my schedule would depend entirely upon my own will, I would be primarily on the dry side of the mountains, and I would have a respite from the tourist track before returning to Gringolandia in El Chaltén. On neither side, it was rumored to involve a fair amount of hardship and bike-pushing. To someone who has crossed the Paso de las Damas, such things are meaningless.

Drizzly approach to the pass

Despite my intestines’ continued complaints, I loaded up with five days’ food, bid farewell to the Czech hostel-keeper, and retraced my route to the Rio Mayer turnoff. The weather was gray and unsettled, but I suffered only intermittent drizzle on the gently-climbing road toward the border. There were a few houses along the way, and some pickups driving up and down, but little traffic on this route to nowhere. Other than the houses, the border post, and a lake that may attract a few tourists, there is no reason to drive this way, since the pass itself is designed for livestock.

This guy rules!

Where the road forks between the border post and the lake, there is a tin-roofed wooden shelter with a fireplace and an outhouse. It is not a full day’s ride from town to the shelter, but the afternoon looked to be unpleasant, and I wanted a full day and semi-decent weather to do the hard part of the pass between the two border stations, so I set up camp inside the hut and took the rest of the day off. The hut was in good condition, with a reasonably-swept floor, very little trash, and a stack of firewood next to the hearth. It also had graffiti all over the inside, mostly from bike tourists. These were not the kind I had been meeting along the Carretera, tourists out for a few weeks, sometimes on rental bikes, but the passionate lifers I had met east of the High Andes, following their idiosyncratic muses. Their brief biographies (and Instagram handles, sigh…) made me both humble and curious. One guy had even passed through in July with skis. The low-level tension and unhappiness that had been weighing on on me lifted, and I felt relaxed and at home.

Inside refuge

After a restful night listening to the rain and wind outside, thankful that I was not in a wet and shaking tent, I woke to see unsettled weather and a dusting of fresh snow on the hills above. I found this impressive in mid-summer at 48 degrees north and only about 4000 feet elevation, especially since I had been hot in a t-shirt only slightly farther north in the Ñadis a few days before. I listened to the wind and intermittent rain, and periodically checked to see if the weather was improving. When it looked no better at mid-morning, I decided to spend another day in the hut. I had food for an extra night, plenty of listening and reading material, and I was enjoying the quiet isolation. I listened to Whymper’s Scrambles amongst the Alps, pausing after each chapter to check on the weather, let my mind wander, and reflect on the past and future of my trip.

The next morning’s weather was only slightly more promising, but I did not have another day’s spare food without going to starvation rations, so I geared up for the cold and made the short ride to the border post. The border is somewhat confusing, with the road winding north to cross the Rio Mayer, and the station itself on a side-road next to a more direct ford. It would be easy to pass by unnoticed, and I am not sure when or how the consequences of this transgression would catch up. A man came out to greet me as I propped my bike on the sign, and invited me in to fill out the paperwork. He generously offered me the Chilean rocket breakfast — instant coffee, white bread, and dulce de leche — and although I had just eaten, I happily accepted.

Customs was as slow and involved as expected, with them apparently verifying my airport entrance stamp via a slow internet connection. Just like last time I entered Chile by land for the first time, they were also disconcerted by the fact that I did not have paperwork for my bike. While this is apparently standard, it does not seem to be issued at the Santiago airport, but they had the piece of paper on hand, and duly recorded my bike’s make, model, and serial number. There were three guards, and the senior one helpfully explained the least-bad route to the suspension bridge (pasarela) over the Rio Carrera. He also suggested that I ford the river rather than making a long detour around via the road then, helpfully, loaded my bike into his truck to drive me across to the next fence. Despite the paper-shuffling, my Chilean sendoff left me in a good mood.

Warning to cyclists

The border guard had told me to turn right on a trail after the second gate, but this part quickly got confusing. I never did find a main trail or old roadbed in this section, but only a network of cow-paths through thorn bushes. Nor did I find a route that avoided full-on barbed wire fence-crossing. After exploring a bit on foot, I crossed a single fence at a place where part of a broken bike helmet had been hung, perhaps like a dead coyote meant to discourage its live compatriots. The bike and trailer went over, the bag slid under, and I left the road to follow the least-bad cow-paths generally east and north. This section was perhaps half pushing, with one stream crossing and a couple of loose, steep hills that required the technique of locking the brakes, stepping forward, then pushing the bike a few feet.

Narrow bridge

The bridge was much like the one at the start of the Paso de las Damas, a swinging span with steel cables anchored at either end, thinner loops supporting the deck, and dubious two-by-fours to walk on. It was also slightly narrower than my bars, so I had to walk my bike across on its rear wheel. It was again three trips: first the bike, then the trailer, then the trailer bag worn as a backpack. Fortunately it was not too windy, because although the cables on either side were high enough to make it unlikely to pitch into the river, the bridge did sway alarmingly with each gust.

Crossing in three parts

I reassembled my rig on the other side, took a snack break, then soon found a rideable 4×4 track along the riverbed, probably made by either local ranchers or the border guard on occasional patrols. I eventually lost the main track by following another into the woods, but although that one had too many blowdowns to be drivable, it was almost all rideable and quite pleasant. I eventually emerged into open fields and, with another couple of gate crossings, reached the border post and the start of the official road. The Argentine border station was, as expected, somewhat more run-down than the Chilean one, with electricity provided by a solar panel and generator attached to a large lead-acid battery and inverter, all wired together somewhat haphazardly.

Welcome to Argentina

The Argentine border guard entered my details by hand in a large ledger, then adjusted the date on his stamp and tested it before marking my passport. When I asked, he said it had been ten days since someone had last crossed this way. He declined my offer of cookies, but seemed to want to chat, so we talked for awhile. Unlike the Chilean border guards, one of whom lives full-time in a house next to the station, he only stayed there for stints. A teenager came out from a back room, likely his son, and I probably could have stayed for dinner if I were more sociable and spoke better Spanish. But I had miles to cover, so I showed him how my bike trailer worked, then bid farewell and continued on the now-official Ruta Provincial, which remained little more than a ranch track, braided to get through some boggy sections.

Argentine ford

I wanted to at least get past the river ford he had mentioned, then find a somewhat sheltered place to camp, as the tailwind that was so helpful while riding would be miserable when stopped. The ford was probably fifty feet wide and calf-deep, so I took off my socks, pulled up my tights, and crossed pushing my bike in my shoes. I then continued across a few estancias separated by ranch gates. Unlike the more familiar ones secured by looping a wire over a post, these looped the wire over a lever used to pull the gate tight, an essential innovation for this windy valley. The only other person I saw was a guy driving a backhoe, who asked me where I was coming from, then either asked if I had a cigarette or if I wanted to smoke. When I declined, he reminded me to close the gate, then continued to one of the houses off the road. It did not appear to have a garden or greenhouse, so he would have to drive a half-day to Gobernador Gregores for everything but animal products, a level of remoteness hard to fathom for a modern westerner.

Omnidirectional wind

Toward evening I decided to set up camp behind a dirt berm where the road leaves the Rio Ñires to climb to a plain. It seemed like it might be the last sheltered spot for awhile, and there was water nearby if necessary. Unfortunately it did not block the wind, but rather caused it to eddy and come from all directions. I knew how to set up my tent in high wind and anchor it with rocks, but these variable conditions proved challenging. Even peeing was difficult, as I had to constantly turn to keep the stream pointed downwind. I had hoped the wind would die down overnight, but it never did, and I got little rest as the tent shuddered and fine sand filtered through the bug netting.

After the ordeal of packing up the next morning, I was happy to once again be moving with the wind. I stopped at a bridge across the Rio Lista to refill on water, and sat behind the embankment for awhile simply to have a minute of relative quiet and eat in peace. Then I continued along the dirt road, which gradually became more trafficked and rougher as it approached Route 40. I could not get going too fast on the rough surface, so with the tailwind it took very little effort to keep going. Along the way I saw some guanacos, as expected, and then some rheas, which I took for ostriches. They easily outran me, occasionally ruffling their wings ridiculously, then went behind a hill to one side, one poking up its weird periscope head to watch me as I passed. I later met a few more flocks, and once they were running in a straight line, they reminded me of Kenyan marathoners, with thin legs, smooth forward momentum in their bodies, and a powerful, springy stride.

Back toward Paso Mayer

Things really got going once I finally hit pavement at Route 40. The road was almost perfectly aligned with the wind for miles, and I kept my speed at 20-25 miles per hour on a flat with little effort. It was actually harder to stop and remove a layer than to keep moving. I did need to stop and camp before Gobernador Gregores, though, so I stopped where the road began to turn and I had easy access to a river with trees for shelter. The bank was sandy, and some of that of course sifted into my tent, but it was a vast improvement over the night before.

Gobernador Gregores settlers

The next morning the wind had somewhat abated, so I had a reasonably pleasant ride south across the wind, then another raging tailwind into town. The YPF gas station, as expected, had a nice cafe with power and good WiFi, so I bought a bunch of food and sat down to catch up with the world. I planned to hang out for the afternoon and put in a couple more hours in the evening, but my trailer tire finally died completely, and by the time the bike shop opened again after siesta, it was too late for me to want to continue. I paid a few dollars for a spot at a campground (and about three times as many pesos as the last trip), then tried to get to sleep at a very un-Argentine hour for an early start to beat the wind as I began the long trip back west to El Chaltén.

Fin de Carretera

Villa O’Higgins


I packed up my Ñadis campsite, returned to the Carretera, and turned south again, heading for a spot I had marked where the stream from the main glacier on the other side of the road seemed to cross. I was still picking a few tips of thorns out of my legs, so I was not eager for another few thousand feet of combat, and my map had no roads, trails, or ranches on that side, but if the stream’s flow had a lot of seasonal variation, perhaps I could rock-hop up the riverbed. Unfortunately it looked like the vegetation ran right down to the bank, and the water passed through some potential cascades, so the easy version of that plan was out. The last forecast I had seen said that the next couple of days would be unsettled, and the mists forming higher on the peaks suggested higher humidity, so I gave up my vague hope of climbing the Ñadis’ more impressive neighbor and rode on.

Dusty trench toward Tortel

The road crosses an upper branch of the Rio Los Ñadis, goes over a faint hydrological divide, then follows the Carrera and Vargas Rivers to where they join the Baker. This part was rolling dirt, but the net downhill made it reasonably fast. While I stopped for a snack, a guy on a touring motorcycle came by, then stopped and returned to talk. He turned out to be from Argentina, and to have done extensive touring by motorbike, including starting in Homer, Alaska. We talked until the flies descended in earnest, exchanged emails, then headed in opposite directions.

Rio Vagabundos climb

The road to O’Higgins involves one more ferry, and I hadn’t really thought about its likely-limited schedule, but two signs gave two different versions (the truth was a third thing), and one said the last one was at 3:00 PM. I found this highly unlikely given the rhythm of life here, but wanted to be sure, so I put in some effort on the final climb up the Rio Vagabundo over to what looks like a lake, but is actually a really long fjord, at the mouth of the Rio Bravo. Some Slovaks I had met in Cochrane were cooking lunch in the bus shelter at the Tortel road junction, seemingly unconcerned with the time. They had been in “what are you doing with that trailer” camp rather than the “nice bike” one, but I would show them…

Pass above Vagabundos

Tortel is famously wet, and for about ten kilometers before and after the turnoff to the town, the vegetation was incredibly lush. These sudden changes in climate are a distinctive characteristic of Chilean Patagonia. By the time I reached the top of the Rio Vagabundo, the vegetation had returned to the drier oak-like scrub. The road descending to the ferry terminal was paved on a couple of extremely steep sections, but otherwise typical dirt. I met a few cyclists heading up, making me think that the ferry might be operating on the earliest potential timetable, so I picked up the pace.

Ferry to O’Higgins

I reached the terminal to find no boat and a definitive schedule informing me that I had about an hour to wait, and that this ferry was inexplicably free. The Slovaks did not make my boat — perhaps they were aiming for a later one? — but there was a retired couple from Washington in an old VW camper van, with a small house near Chiloé. They had traveled extensively, and were now making their way down to O’Higgins. I waited for the cars to disperse, then made my way down the quiet road to O’Higgins, looking for a decent place to camp. The couple in the VW were occupying the first, but I managed to find a small-time logging operation a few miles farther on where I could reside in peace.

Valley south of Rio Bravo

The next day I finished the ride to O’Higgins. There were a couple of long climbs, the largest being out of the Rio Bravo over to the headwaters of Lago O’Higgins, a broad and marshy valley with glaciated mountains to its west. It was raining off and on for this part, so I only glimpsed the bottoms of the glaciers, and many waterfalls below them. The valley vegetation was again surprisingly dry-looking, giving the impression of a central California climate with western Cascades glaciation. The wind, generally from the north in this area, punished me around the south side of Lago Cisnes, so I was fairly worn down by the time I reached town.

Lago O’Higgins

There are many campgrounds in Lago O’Higgins, and I chose one recommended by some other cyclists I had met along the way headed north (hi, Team Klaus!), El Mosco. It was on the high side of Chilean campground prices at $9/night, but actually offered enough value that I did not resent it, with a kitchen and reliable hot showers. I spoke enough with the Czech working the desk to get the sense that he was an interesting character. He had lived in O’Higgins for six years, having climbed most of the local peaks in that time. He said that although the surrounding land was private, people weren’t aggressive about property rights. He also casually mentioned that he had crossed the southern icefield on skis, though he denied being a “mountaineer.”

Hm… what’s that?

The O’Higgins ferry turns out to run only sporadically, and never when the weather is bad, so it was not clear when I would be able to get across the lake. My intestines were still getting over something I had eaten or drunk in the past week, so I stayed two nights to give myself a bit of a rest. But I was restless, not able to explore the peaks in mediocre weather and not up for extended socializing in foreign languages (my French has come in handy multiple times on this trip). I had noticed the Paso Mayer on my map, and the Czech guy confirmed that cyclists do it. It would probably add a couple of days to the ferry crossing, but since I did not know when the boat would next run…

Thoughts on the Carretera Austral

The Carretera Austral is the John Muir Trail for bikes. Those of you who don’t know me are probably wondering if I have been sponsored by the Chilean Ministry of Tourism. Those who know me better will understand what I actually mean.

Both the CA and the JMT are well-defined paths that a reasonably fit person can complete in two or three weeks, passing through spectacular mountain terrain and wilderness without exploring them. Both are also overused trenches full of powdered dust. Increasing numbers of people travel them, take the same photos, stay in the same places, buy the bumper stickers, and move on. While the JMT can be a gateway to exploring the Sierra, a friendly mountain range without much regulation, most people are fenced into the trail corridor by their own timidity and lack of curiosity. On the CA the fences are physical barbed wire, and surrounding peaks are difficult and highly regulated.

I should have anticipated this. I do not enjoy following prescribed routes: even on my first Sierra backpack, I got bored with Roper’s high route after a couple of days and decided instead to make up my own route linking peaks and places I thought might be interesting. To the extent possible, I hope to do something similar with what remains of this trip. And if I do any more long bike tours in the future, I will plan them more like I did my first journey down here, and avoid any pre-programmed paths.

Cordon Los Ñadis

Ñadis from approach road


As one travels south in Patagonia, access to peaks becomes more difficult, and information more scarce. The best known and most easily accessed peaks, such as Fitzroy and the Torres del Paine, are mostly of interest to Real Climbers, leaving me with dwindling options. The Cordon Los Ñadis is an island of lower peaks bounded by the Ñadis, Baker, and Carrera Rivers, with views of higher, better, and less accessible peaks in all directions. Its highpoint, only 5800 feet high and a few miles from a spur road off the Carretera Austral, seemed like one of the few things that was within my grasp. It was also a convenient stop along the ride between Lago Buenos Aires and Puerto Yungay, the ferry on the way to Villa O’Higgins.

One plant I can recognize

I found no information on how to climb the peak, but it seemed like the crux would be getting above treeline. I therefore returned along the road, filled up on water at the trailhead, and followed a trail hacked through brush and trees to near its highest point. Along the way I passed several signs labeling plants with their local and Latin names; all were indistinguishable to me, similarly brushy, spiky, and unpleasant. The only one that I could identify was “costilla de vaca,” a hardy fern.

View across Rio Baker

I was hoping for a use trail leading toward the peak from the highest of two lookouts, but found absolutely nothing, so shortly past that I left the trail at a semi-promising place and aimed uphill toward a bare ridge I had spotted from below. I soon discovered that the heather-like groundcover was actually calf-deep and consisted of a few species, some of which had spines. Some of the head-high shrubs were also barbed, and I quickly learned to spot which ones I could grab. All of it was fairly woody, and the ground beneath was loose and uneven, making for tricky and unpredictable footing. Making my way toward the ridge, I spotted some hoofprints and what looked like deer droppings — perhaps the huemules that road signs warned me not to hit with my bike? — though I never saw one, and there were too few to make a strong game trail. The ridge was loose, but mostly bare and easy, leading me almost to the base of some cliff bands.

Branch-dodging

The brush to either side looked much worse, so I wove my way through the cliff bands, preferring occasional fourth-class rock to thrashing, and even finding stretches of easy tall grass. I naturally trended left, toward what seemed to be an open slope, and was rewarded with more easy travel. I tried to pick the highest glade, but eventually dead-ended into a forest, where I followed a streambed, then searched out the largest trees, which usually have the least undergrowth. Unfortunately the trees shrunk as I approached timberline, turning to something between oak and alder, and I was forced to walk from limb to limb, stomping them down or pushing them up to make a path for my body. The final ten feet to open gravel slopes were full-on tunneling. I was recording my track for the return, but also looking for better options.

Highpoint from first peak

From there it was easy but tedious sand, gravel, and slabs, reminiscent of the Sierra, to the lower peak I was aiming for, about a mile north of the highpoint. The ridge crest was loose and tedious, and I was feeling more worn than expected, so the distance looked discouraging, and I resolved not to return over that peak. I followed the crest, side-hilled around one stretch, then dropped to a rounded saddle, with a U-shaped valley to the south and a lake to the northwest. From there it was more straightforward boulder-hopping to the highpoint.

San Lorenzo behind unknown peak across Carretera

I had seen no footprints off the official trail, but there had been a cairn on the subpeak, and there was one on the highpoint as well. Clearly there must be more information about these peaks somewhere, but I do not know where to look or, more likely, who to ask. It had been partly overcast all morning, but it cleared as I napped on the summit, giving better light to the surrounding peaks. To the north and west lie a line of glaciated peaks along the other side of the Rio Baker, likely inaccessible without a packraft. Above and beyond are the southern peaks of the Northern Patagonian Icefield, completely mantled in snow and ice. Far to the east I could see Monte San Lorenzo, one of the high peaks of southern Patagonia and, more intriguing, a peak around 7800 feet high only a few miles on the other side of the Carretera Austral. I have not found a name for it, but once above the brush, it looks possibly climbable for someone like me via the northwest glacier and north ridge. I decided to at least consider climbing it as I passed.

Crag along descent

I descended to the saddle, then dropped down mostly pleasant sand to the lake, where I replenished my water — the heat was intense in the full sun — then contemplated other ways home. There seems to be an estancia along the Rio Baker, and a popular tourist outing follows an old cattle trail along the river leading, I think, to Tortel. If I found more open slopes in that direction, the greater distance would be more than made up for by less thrashing. Unfortunately I could not find such a slope from above, and a streambed I briefly explored turned impassable, so I traversed back toward my tried-and-true ascent route.

Cross-Baker peaks from summit

I found another series of glades to its west, and though I had found a better way, but the easy travel ended at a band of small cliffs. I might have been able to pick my way down, but the brush below looked impenetrably dense. I could see my open ridge down and to the right, and chose to pay the price of thrashing over to it. This became intense, stomping through spiny groundcover while hanging onto larger bushes, trying to choose the path with the most non-spiny large bushes for handholds. At one point a handhold broke and I did a full backward somersault, not noticing the spines in my alarm. All the while, the biting flies were circling, so when I found a stance, I would stay still to let them land and begin their drilling process, then slap them while they were too focused. I have found this technique works well with the small black flies in the Cascades, and their larger Patagonian cousins are more intimidating, but no smarter, and far more satisfying to murder.

Finally back on my up-track, I followed the ridge until it gave out, then thrashed a bit more to reach the trail. Weirdly, there was a friendly old man from Luxembourg sitting at the higher viewpoint, admiring the peaks across the Baker. We spoke for awhile, and he had even biked the Carretera himself some years earlier, but I was too tired and hot to be conversational, so I did not linger too long. He suggested that I check out the herders’ route, which is blasted into the rock and quite impressive, but devoting another day (worth of food) to that seemed absurd. I tanked up on water again at the trailhead, then passed a guy and his horses along the road. Fortunately they did not bother me at my camp, so I was able to spend another free and peaceful night before continuing south.

Cerro Castillo fail

Dawn behind Cerro Castillo


Cerro Castillo is one of the few popular and accessible peaks along the Carratera Austral, and it looked like a perfect day on paper, Alpine grade AD with 7000 feet of gain and a crux of UIAA III-IV (5.4-5.5). That would put it somewhere between the Grand Teton and the Matterhorn, both of which I have done. After packing up at my nice wilderness campsite, I rode over the last pass and was struck by a view of Castillo’s steep east side, partly shrouded by clouds generated as it warmed. It was an awesome sight, surrounded by shorter but still impressive neighbors, and I looked forward to climbing it. Passing through the town of Villa Cerro Castillo, I made my way to the appropriate trailhead, intending to scout out the approach and perhaps tag an easier peak to its west.

Nice new signs

Then things turned into a perfect encapsulation of much of what is wrong with Chile. Cerro Castillo is within a national park, but that park is surrounded by bits of private land, and does not even seem to be administered by the government. Entering via the trailhead for Cerro Castillo cost $16 for a single day. This fee was collected by three kids living and working in a large tent for the summer at the end of the driveway leading to a small-time ranch with maybe a dozen cows. Out of that fee, the kids had to pay off CONAF (the Chilean Forest Service) and the landowner, then presumably kept whatever was left over. Because Chile’s “National Parks” are run this way, the fees vary even between trailheads, and there is no annual parks pass.

Cerro Palo

To be fair, the kid I spoke to was friendly and helpful, and commiserated about the cost. I didn’t want to pay, but felt trapped, and was also feeling good for not having to pay to camp the night before. I wrote down my passport number and contact info, signed a waiver, and handed over the cash (no credit cards accepted). I did not mention climbing Castillo, but asked him a bit about the area, and about my guidebook’s suggested approach to the western peaks. He knew a lot about trails and water sources, and knew of the side valley I mentioned, but in classic Chilean fashion, suggested that I get permission from CONAF before leaving the trail. Privado, reglado, pagado, cerrado: it’s the Chilean way.

Lots of choss to climb

Fuming inside, I parked my bike by the guard tent, changed into hiking clothes, and set off up the driveway. I figured strapping crampons and an ice axe to my pack would give the game away, so I set off with just basic hiking kit, figuring I could cross or avoid snow as necessary. I filled up on water where he had suggested, and found the trail pleasant and well-maintained, with older built sections and some semi-recent clearing of deadfall. It was hardly a $16 value, but at least someone is doing something for the money. As I gained elevation, I admired the very difficult Cerro Palo ahead, and realized that I had enough daylight to do Cerro Castillo. If it would go without crampons and ice axe, it would be $16 well-spent.

Palo and friends from Castillo

I left the trail just before Campamiento Neozealandia, aiming for the long left-to-right couloir that makes up the bulk of the climb. The couloir itself being rubble lower down and snow higher up, I stayed to its right, finding a mixture of obnoxious scree and decent granite lower down. I was eventually forced into the couloir, where I had to deal with the snow more intimately. I also met a couple from Chile on their way up, with crampons, ice axes, big boots, rope, rock gear, and I think even a snow picket or two. I said “hi,” then continued skirting my way up one side or the other of the couloir to avoid the snow. Now having people below me, I climbed extremely carefully to avoid killing them with a piece of their own country.

Nothing in the couloir felt harder than third class, and most was just a rubble slog, but a storm in the last day or two had coated the upper mountain with ice, which was falling as the afternoon sun hit the faces above. I had no close calls, but the spontaneous icefall was unpleasant, wearing on my mind. I finally reached the top of the couloir, from which I could see down the other side to the glacier’s terminal lake. My guidebook indicated that one should traverse a “wide but exposed” ledge to the other side of the mountain, then climb steep snow. There was a sort of snow ledge, but the snow itself was a mixture of hard and rotten, and getting to it looked scary. So much for getting my $16 worth.

Mindful of the couple below, I carefully picked my way down the couloir until I met them taking a break. We talked a bit, I showed them some photos I had taken from the notch, and they decided to turn around as well. I thought it would be safer to descend together to avoid knocking rocks on each other, but before doing so, the guy took out a drone and flew the rest of the route. (That’s something you can’t do in a US national park!) I assumed we would just pick our way down the gully, but they intended to rappel, i.e. walk backward while pushing a rope through an ATC. I had seen this technique used on Mount Shuksan, and it was both slow and caused a lot of rockfall. That was enough for me — I bombed down the couloir, happily scree-skiing parts now that I had no one below, then hopped down the rocks to the left as soon as I could. I saw no sign of them looking back, and imagine they had a long night.

I signed out at the guard tent, then rolled back toward town, contemplating my next move and looking for a camp spot out of sight of the road. I finally found a lousy but adequate space, a mile or more from the tent, shoveled in dinner, then schemed a bit. I did not want to pay another $16, and could not explain away crampons and an axe. But the guard station did not open until 7:00, and I could just trespass up the river a mile or so, out of sight of the guards and house, to join the trail. I am mostly a rule-follower, but my frustration with Chile had finally boiled over into contempt.

Armed for snow and ice, I biked back to the guard station the next morning. There was a rope across the driveway, but it looked like someone might be awake, so I passed without stopping. At the river, I handed my bike over the fence, crawled under, then locked it hidden behind some trees. Cross-country travel toward the trail was easy, but unfortunately plagued by all sorts of burrs. I eventually realized that it was best to simply plow through them, then remove them all at once when I reached the trail.

Tower below Castillo summit

I repeated the approach, taking a more efficient line once I left the trail, then entered the couloir earlier. With crampons and axe, and ascending earlier in the day, the couloir was safe and faster than the sides. It was also colder and windy, forcing me to put on all my clothes when I reached my previous highpoint. Looking up while putting on my crampons, I saw a group of two rappeling into the notch from the rock to the left. I explored the traverse a bit, but really did not like the first few moves on rotten snow mixed with rock.

Glacier on the east side

Retreating, I saw that the rock the others were rappeling, covered in ice the day before, looked solid and not too difficult. The first guy said that they had summited, and that it had been miserably cold and windy. I talked to the second guy before he rappeled, and he helpfully pointed out and roughly explained the route from there, which is mostly rock. He also asked for my contact info for vague reasons having to do with my inevitable injury or death from foolishly scrambling up Cerro Castillo solo.

Monte San Valentin

The route climbs left from the notch, rounds the corner, traverses along a wide ledge, then climbs a sort of dihedral or chimney. It seems much preferable to the guidebook route in most conditions. The pitch from the notch to the rappel, and another from there back to the ridge, had some moves that felt 5.4-ish, enjoyable and thought-provoking but not scary. Pleased with myself, I emerged into the sun to find myself sheltered from the wind. I took in magnificent views of the glacier below, and sheer pinnacles along the ridge. In the distance I could see the Northern Patagonian Icefield peaks, culminating in Monte San Valentin, the highest mountain in Patagonia at around 13,000′.

True and false summits

Making my way up easy terrain toward the apparent summit tower, victory seemed assured. There was a bit of tricky climbing toward the top, but that was supposed to be the crux, so I was dismayed to see a slightly higher pinnacle farther north, with a mass of rappel tat around a boulder. Its left and right sides dropped into the chossy abyss, so the only practical route seemed to be the south face. I retreated, wrapped around the west side of my non-summit, and started up the most likely route. I found two pitons, confirming that I was where I should be, but the climbing felt much harder than 5.5, a steep traverse with thought-provoking exposure as the ground dropped away. I tried a couple of things, then backed off to eat and think in the sun. I was not optimistic about my chances, but tried once more without my pack, making it a move or so farther. The climbing felt vertical, with decent holds which were not jugs, and none of the frequent rests one normally finds in low-fifth-class terrain. Not having climbed in awhile, I did not have the strength and confidence to hang out and explore, so I backed off and consoled myself with the view from an excellent perch.

Summit climb, start at notch and move left, then up

I expected the others to be long gone, but I caught them partway down the couloir. We talked for a bit, I told them I had failed, and they asked if I was the crazy gringo in the green t-shirt from the day before. Indeed I was, and they were almost as surprised by my antics as they were by the fact that I couldn’t climb harder than 5.9. Though they had apparently had no trouble with the summit block (I probably would have led it in rock shoes, since there was good protection including a fixed piton above), they were rappeling the loose couloir, just like the couple the previous day. How someone can be so good on rock, but so bad at everything else to do with mountains, remains a mystery to me. In other words, we had complementary reactions to each other’s skills. I cramponed quickly down the couloir, rock-hopped to the trail, and fast-walked back toward my bike. Cutting across the burr-fields, I narrowly avoided being seen by a guy driving his pickup around off-road. I returned to my bike, picked out the burrs, then rode back to my lousy camp for another night. I had plenty of time after dinner to sit and scale back my ambition.

Wet and dry Patagonia

The way out is through


Riding from Hornopiren to Coyhaique dramatically illustrated that rain shadow is far more important than latitude in determining the climate for this part of South America. As on the west coast of the United States, weather comes from the west, though it seems to be more extreme for a given latitude in Patagonia. Glaciers are generally lower, including the Glacier San Rafael, at only 46 degrees south the tidewater glacier closest to the equator, draining the Northern Icefield. For reference, 46 north is about the Oregon-Washington border.

Yelcho exit glacier

Between Puerto Montt and Chaiten, the Carratera Austral is largely shielded by Chiloe Island, an almost-peninsula. From Chaiten to south of Puyuhuapi, the highway is more directly exposed to the Pacific. Vegetation is dramatically greener and more dense, rain seems more frequent, and the glaciers are far lower. The Yelcho Glacier (Ventisquero Yelcho), has an upper portion that seems big enough to be called an icefield and a tongue dropping below 3000 feet, despite only being at 43 south (mid-Oregon). Volcan Michimahuida, about a degree closer to the equator, is solidly glaciated from about 5000 feet up.

After climbing Michimahuida, I rode to Chaiten in drizzle that turned to legitimate rain. It was not unreasonably cold, and my rain gear seemed adequate, so after getting some coffee and WiFi in a cafe, I planned to keep going. The cafe, though it charged American prices, did not have WiFi, and closed at 1:00. Despite this, I made the mistake of staying still too long and getting chilled. Just as the three baristas were gently kicking out the tourists, and I was vacillating about what to do, who should walk in but the Kiwis, Tom and Julie! They had started at the campground near where I stayed, and were hoping to get coffee as I had. When I told them the place was about to close, we decamped to the supermarket across the way.

We hung out there, where I chatted with a German they had met while they bought more supplies. My thermoregulation situation did not improve, and despite putting on my hoodie under my rain jacket, I was soon uncontrollably shivering in what was probably 40- or 50-degree weather. This is typically a sign that I am fit: I produce an incredible amount of heat while moving, but my body completely shuts down when I stop. The German had recently started his tour, and had just consumed two packs of sausages and a can of fruit, so he wanted to keep riding, but when the Kiwis suggested splitting a room for the night, I quickly agreed.

The place they found was a hand-built addition to some government tract housing built after the town was mostly destroyed by an eruption of nearby Volcan Chaiten, made with questionable materials and what seemed like at best a half-hearted wave at “building codes.” The fact that it had a second floor above us made this more concerning, but it held up, and had a calefactor, hot water, and a propane stove. We immediately fired up the calefactor, opened the windows against condensation, and began rotating all our things to dry. Being in town, we decided to have something a bit better than road food, so I went to the store for eggs and vegetables, then turned them into something like omelettes. Tom and Julie were very polite about my cooking, and generally wonderful company, despite my having very little capacity for extended socializing when traveling alone.

Yelcho cliffs

The next morning dawned dry, if not clear, and we rode together to El Amarillo before they turned north to visit Michimahuida, while I turned south along the Carratera. As I passed between the Yelcho Lake and Glacier, the rain threatened to return. I had vague plans to climb the highpoint of the range above the Yelcho, as there is a path to the glacier’s toe, but the weather was not promising, and the next day’s forecast looked worse, so I cranked on south, climbing over a pass and narrowly escaping more rain. I thought I might reach La Junta, but I was freshly clean from staying in a room, annoyed at paying for everything in Chile, and sore, so I looked for a campsite before town. What I found was a Chilean classic: a broken-down bus that looked formerly lived in, parked behind a fence, next to a dump with a mixture of broken concrete, cow dung, and cow bones. For once the gate was merely secured with wire rather than a padlock and chain, so I let myself in, pulled out of view of the highway, and set up on a flattish spot free of bones and dung.

Not gonna climb that

I slept undisturbed, let myself out, reclosed the gate, and continued through La Junta to Puyahuapi, a port town where I stopped for supplies. South of town I caught a trio of bike tourists, two European women and a Brit. The former had started all the way up in Mexico, and were headed for Ushuaia. I talked for a bit, but they were moving at a different pace, and I had used up my social skills, so I kept cranking past Queulat and its substantial icefield/glacier, now hidden by low clouds. Entering a fjord to its south, I noticed that the vegetation became even denser, the road turned to dirt, and it began to rain. Once again, my vague peak-bagging plans were scrapped (Cerro Redondo in this case) as I slogged over the Portezuelo Queulat in a steady drizzle. When it is wet and light out, you keep moving.

Rio Cisnes

I checked out the potential trailhead for Redondo, but could not see enough of the route above to make success likely, so I froze my way down the other side (paved, thankfully), then found another free campsite. This one seemed to be a popular pooping spot for passing motorists, but at least it was somewhat away from the road and had a nice view of the Rio Cisnes. The next morning I continued down-river to Villa Amengual, where I found WiFi. The Carratera Austral runs directly east here, while the number of shield islands to the west increases, so the climate becomes dramatically drier. The drying continues further south, and the jungle terrain gives way to pines and what looks like scrub oak. Past Villa Mañihuales, Route 7 heads southeast, while the pavement continues southwest toward Puerto Aysen. I was fighting a strong southwest wind on this stretch, and tired of traffic, so I turned off onto the dirt Route 7.

Self-captioning again

I enjoyed a solid tailwind on the first part, but began flagging on the climb before Villa Ortega. A few miles outside town I found a clean river that was not entirely fenced off, then let myself in another wired gate to sleep at the base of a logging road. I slept well and was not attacked by lumberjacks or CONAF, and continued through Coyhaique the next day. This is the main city in the Aysen province, so I took some time to resupply and fortify. I bought a few days’ food, then headed to Patagonia Cycles to change my rear tire, which was worn bald. I had brought a spare for just this occasion, but it turned out to have a gash in its sidewall. The guys at the shop, who had happily lent me use of their air compressor, did not have a suitable tire, but pointed me to another shop that had several. I chose a knobby 2.25″, grateful that my new bike has clearance for such, and continued fully re-tired.

I meant to reach Villa Cerro Castillo, and could have made it, but found a wonderful wild campsite along a river between two passes. For once there was no fence or feces, and even a flat spot where others had slept. In Chile, you have to seize these things when you find them.

Volcan Calbuco

Summit glacier


Volcan Calbuco is an inactive volcano between Lago Llanquihue to its north, and lower but more impressive peaks to its south. Though it has a glacier high on its southeast side, it looks like a mound of forest and choss from most directions, far less impressive than neighboring Osorno. However it has an all-important trail through the forest, a bit of low-fifth scrambling near the top, and the all-important 5000 feet of prominence to make it appealing to gringo peak-baggers. It is also only a short detour on the way from Osorno to the Carratera Austral, so it was a natural objective for me on this trip.

Just another soggy morning

I woke in fog and wetness at my camp next to the threatening-looking plants, and took my time preparing for the climb, giving the fog time to start burning off. Said plants look like an upgraded devil’s club, with spiky stems up to ten feet long and broad leaves up to five feet across, and a club-like fruit or seed body that grows from the base rather than one of the leaves. I was fearful of them at first, but it turns out they are not venomous, and I even saw a local carrying a couple of leaves bare-handed by the stems. I did not know much about the route, so I brought ice axe and crampons for the final part.

Trailwork

The trail through the woods is an impressive labor, with stairs, railings, and extensive boardwalks through the boggy sections. After a mudslide apparently destroyed a fish hatchery at its base, it has been closed, with multiple layers of signs indicating such. Farther up, there is a guard station with a semaphore-style gate that is lowered to provide another level of closure. More recent flagging suggested that this “closure” was widely ignored, but it still dimmed my mood. Another of my least favorite aspects of American culture that Chile has adopted is capricious and over-broad laws that are selectively enforced. In the States, this is most visible in traffic laws, where one is almost always doing something illegal while driving, but whether you are pulled over depends upon other factors, such as whether one is black or driving near a poor small town with out-of-state plates. Starting out alone in the morning, I had no way of knowing whether I would be fined and deported by armed CONAF agents or, as actually happened, meet a half-dozen Chileans out for a hike on my return.

Refugio

The trail passes the information/guard station, then crosses the path of the mudslide to parallel it on the ridge to its left. The jungle is incredibly dense, with moss on everything and no hope of progress without a trail. Fortunately the trail itself is, though boggy in places, clear and wide enough to avoid a brush-washing. There must not be many large animals in this part of Chile, because I did not see any game trails or non-human prints along the way. The official trail ends at a semi-destroyed hut made of corrugated metal that was likely flown in by helicopter, with another sign warning that climbing Calbuco was serious andinismo. I forget if this one forbade climbing without a guide, but I was definitely not supposed to be there solo.

Endless slog

Beyond the hut, the trail actually continues left of the mudslide, but I lost it and followed the open slide directly, which seemed easier. However I was not sure how easy it would be to exit the top, so when I realized my error, I picked my way carefully up one loose side to find the flagged climbers’ trail. As the brush thinned and disappeared and the day warmed, the giant biting flies began to emerge, but they were few at this altitude, and easy to swat as always. The final climb to the base of the summit cliff-band was incredibly tedious, with much backsliding on baseball-sized rubble. There was a bit of snow to the right, but I found it easier to stick to the bits of use trail.

Crux climb

From where the bits of trail reached the rock step, I moved slightly left to find a more broken section of the cliff. It seemed like there might be a few ways to climb it, but the easiest and most secure was a chimney on the left. I was wary of the volcanic rock, trying to climb with counter-pressure when possible, but it seemed solid, with sharp, positive edges and good friction, making the steep pitch of climb fun and engaging. Above, another scree-slog led to the base of the summit knob, which was made of the same stuff as the cliff band, but no harder than third class.

View south

I was above any lingering fog, with clear views to the much more impressive Osorno and Tronador to the north and east. To the south there is a lake, with more jagged and glaciated peaks beyond. According to my map, this section of Chile east of the Carratera Austral between Puerto Montt and Hornopiren is mostly trackless, with the deep valleys and thick vegetation making it nearly inaccessible. It is home to the suggestively-named Lago and Pico Inexplorado, making it even more intriguing, and would have been worth learning more about if I were spending a lot of time in the area. The summit was warm and fly-free, so I spent some time eating and taking a nap before heading back down.

Trying to dry everything

The flies were much more awake on the descent, so I dodged and swatted as best I could. While they are persistent and too fast to outrun, they only seem to attack in open sun, and get lost or lose interest in shade and forest. I passed two guys with lots of gear headed to the shack for a summit bid the next day, and a few casual hikers lower down. I also noticed that the semaphore gate was up and the guard/information house seemed to be open, but I passed quickly and quietly lest someone start asking questions. With an unused ice axe and crampons on my pack, I looked extremely guilty of heinous crimes. I had hoped to bathe in the river on my return, as it was hot out and there were nice rock dams and pools at my campsite, but the flies were out in force, disappearing only after it had become too cold in the evening. I had grown comfortable with my own stink, though, so it was no great loss. Rather than reentering the land of barbed wire, I settled in for another evening of free camping next to a water source.

Volcan Osorno

Osorno from lake


Volcan Osorno is a symmetric, glacier-clad peak near Lago Llanquihue, the largest lake in this part of Chile. It is a landmark intermittently visible from days’ ride in every direction, the site of a ski area, a popular tourist attraction, and a moderate climb. Given that, I assumed that the crux would be getting past CONAF (the COrporacion NAcional Forestal), which would probably either close the peak or impose arbitrary requirements. Perhaps because I started early and hiked past the snack bar rather than the refugio, I did not encounter any checkpoints. But even the sign above the highest lift merely said “danger beyond this point” rather than “closed,” so Osorno may be free to climb.

Random fox

The giant flies take even longer than I do to get started in the morning, so I was able to pack up without being bugged. I retraced my route partway around Lago Rupanco, filling up on water at one of the many roadside cascades, then took off on another dirt road leading more directly toward Lago Llanquihue. It was slow on the climbs but mostly in good shape, and I returned to pavement without too much trouble. The next day’s forecast was wet, and I needed to resupply, so I aimed to stay in the town of Ensenada at the base of the peak rather than riding directly to the ski area. It began drizzling as I approached Llanquihue, but stopped for my ride around the lake. I caught glimpses of the lake to my right through breaks in the clouds, and admired the many cascades cutting through the rain forest to my left. Though a fair distance from the ocean, this part of Chile is incredibly lush, similar to the western Cascades.

Osorno from Llanganuco

I topped up on gas and bought a couple days’ food, then rode over to one of the campgrounds that supposedly had WiFi. It did have that, but only right around the restaurant, and it was otherwise disappointing, with dirty lukewarm showers and sad picnic tables. Worst of all, it supposedly cost $30 per night! The woman I spoke to seemed embarrassed by the price, and offered to charge me $15 instead; she even threw in a private bathroom (i.e. my own indifferently-cleaned toilet and sink), which seems to be a selling point in Chilean campgrounds. I believe it was the Christmas holiday, so there was a busload of students on a backpacking trip staying there, but they fortunately partied or slept in another area, so I had some quiet.

Osorno lenticular cap

With only a short ride up to the ski area, I had lots of time to kill the next day. I took my time in the morning, willing my things to dry in the damp and cloudy morning, then heading out to the beach to watch the clouds changing around Osorno. With such high humidity, winds over the mountain generate an impressive amount of cloud and mist, including a lenticular sheath that covers the upper mountain, hiding the crevasses and protruding rocks beneath a uniform white cone. Not wanting to pay for another day at the campground, I packed up my things and my slightly damp tent, then headed out to climb to the ski area with my trailer.

Partway up road climb

I was soon glad I had not combined this climb with the previous ride. While it might be a good ascent on a normal road bike, it was brutal with a fully-loaded trailer, especially with my not-quite-touring gearing. It was only about ten miles from town, but took me a depressing amount of time. I was fine grinding out most of it in my lowest gear, up to the top of the hairpins, but the final stretch above that, about which the van couple in Entre Lagos had warned me, was too much. It was also unnecessary, as I knew I would not be able to camp at the base, and had seen some discrete spots lower down, but I had time to kill.

Llanganuco from snack shop

I finally pulled up to the restaurant, parked my bike, and headed up to the cafeteria to reward myself and use their WiFi. Only a couple of minutes after sitting down, a couple came in and sat at the next table, and the guy asked if that was my Bob trailer outside. It turns out that he was another of the world’s few remaining Bob fans (simple, reliable, low center of gravity), so I joined them for awhile. His English was much better than hers, but I learned that he was Swiss, she was Tyrolean (Sudtirol ist nicht Italien!), from Bolzen, and they lived in Bern. They were currently staying in Buenos Aires to study tango, an obsession for them on par with my obsession with peaks.

According to them, the kind of tango you see in competitions is not the authentic tango. Like traditional flamenco, which is communal and deeply embedded in gypsy culture, traditional tango is part of a larger cultural edifice. Tango happens at a kind of salon (I don’t remember the correct word), where men and women come to participate in a highly developed ritual of subtle social cues. One doesn’t simply ask someone to dance; instead, one watches them for awhile, then negotiates interest with a system of glances. The dancing itself is, I think, less showy than the competition version, but more subtle. It seems like an expression of runaway sexual selection not yet divorced from its roots, like the tail of a peacock not yet bred by humans for that trait. It sounds like a highly-evolved version of my least favorite parts of Middle School.

Dawn on Calbuco

Once they left, I topped up on water, then coasted back down to the highest switchback, where I had seen a social trail leaving the road. I found a flat spot that was mostly out of sight of the road, and definitely a nuisance for a ranger to come bug me, and set up camp. Volcan Calbuco and Lago Llanquihue were still hidden in clouds, but I enjoyed a clear sunset above them as I ate and packed. The next morning I set off reasonably early from my tent, passing the snack shop while it was still closed and the lifts were not yet running. I did not see any “no climbing” signs or CONAF rangers, and was soon out of shouting distance of the buildings. There was a good climbers’ trail up the ridge left of the lifts, making the volcanic debris much less tedious. It was warm enough to hike in a t-shirt, and clearer than the day before, but there was still mist streaming off the summit.

From top of ski area

At the upper lift, I put on my hoodie against the wind, then continued past a sign that warned me about entering dangerous mountaineering terrain. I spotted and soon passed two groups, what seemed to be an independent group of three and a Chilean guide with a single client. The wind got stronger as I climbed, and by the time I finally reached the glacier, it was strong enough that I put on my down jacket and heavy gloves, and hid in the lee of the ridge to put on crampons. I ventured out onto the snow, but it was unpleasantly cold and the summit was now enveloped in a cloud. The Osorno glacier is fairly simple, but I wanted to be able to see at least a bit, and more importantly it was probably too cold for my feet, so I retreated to the rocks for a few minutes.

Morning mist

By the time the others reached the top of the rocks, the summit looked to be clearing, so I headed back up. The glacier was partly covered in a thin layer of rain-saturated snow, so it was easier to follow stripes of ice where possible on the ascent. It was cold in the shade, but bearably so, and straightforward most of the way. The final climb onto the summit was steeper, however, forcing me to pick a slightly wandering route and climb facing in, daggering my axe. The summit plateau was clear and sunny by now, making it pleasant despite the steady wind, but the actual summit, a snow fin on its far end, was brutally windy. I stood on it just long enough to get photos of Tronador, Puntiagudo, and Lago Todos los Santos, then turned around to admire Calbuco and Llanquihue on my way down.

Puntiagudo, Tronador, and Lago Todos los Santos

The top part was steep and icy enough to make me downclimb facing in, but not really difficult. Lower down, I hunted out the softer portions rather than the ice, and made pretty good time once I reached the sun and the angle eased. I passed the group of three at a distance, as they had chosen a line well to climber’s left of mine. I put away my ice gear, then passed the guide and client down on the dirt, descending after apparently being put off by the wind. I still do not have the timing down for climbing these volcanoes, but I think a late start may be best: that would let the morning clouds pass, and the snow is consolidated enough not to be miserable in the afternoon.

Back at camp, I packed up and exercised my forearms pumping the brakes back to Ensenada. Not wanting to pay another $15 for mediocre camping, I kept riding along the south shore of Llanquihue, heading for either Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt. With time to ride and think, I changed my mind and decided to ride straight for the Calbuco trailhead, on its southwest side. The next day was supposed to have the best weather, and I had plenty of energy and daylight. The secondary roads were unfortunately a bit more dirt than I had hoped, and my map was out-of-date about one road being privado, cerrado (this is Chile), but I found a minimercado to top up supplies, and a nice place to camp next to a stream short of the trailhead. I reloaded my pack, ate my glop, and went to sleep next to some giant savage-looking plants.

Michinmahuida

Michinmahuida from ferry

[This is out of order, but written while fresh. Previous climbs will not be neglected. — ed.]

Volcan Michinmahuida is a broad, glaciated dome northeast of Chaiten, clearly visible from the ferry south from Hornopiren. My (outdated) Andes climbing guide describes it as not hard, but requiring multiple days and horses to deal with deep mud on the approach trail. This had led me to dismiss it, but a bike tour guide mentioned the approach as a hike, and the trailhead is signed as a challenging outing for ordinary tourists, so I decided to give it a shot. It turned out to be a full-value experience, with a trek through a rainforest on a somewhat overgrown trail, then some post-glacial debris, and finally about 3500 vertical feet of crevassed glacier leading to the nearly flat summit plateau. I had hoped for views of its more precipitous neighbors, but the upper peak was intermittently covered in mist and cloud, so I only had a few brief glimpses.

Looking Patagonian

While the Carratera Austral technically begins at Puerto Montt, it really gets Patagonian at Hornopiren. There the Chileans gave up on settling the land and building roads, so all southbound travelers must take a ferry, at the south end of which the well-paved Carratera turns to dirt. I had admired the peaks east of this ferry while approaching town, including one tantalizingly named “Pico Inexplorado,” but could find no information on how to reach them, much less climb them. They looked jagged but manageable up high, but the steep, dense forests below would be nearly impenetrable.

Physical caption

The Carratera is well-known among bike tourists, with companies renting complete touring setups, and one local company offering guided rides with van support. I began passing other riders soon after joining Route 7 from the side-road to Calbuco. The first were a French couple, whom I met before the first ferry. This one makes a short hop across a fjord to join the other road south from Puerto Varas, costs only a few dollars, and runs regularly. I floated to the other side, then continued on good pavement around a peninsula to Hornopiren, a port at the dual deltas of some Rios Blanco and Negro (of which there are many). I passed some other cyclists along the way, including one large van-supported group.

No one climbs those

Stopping in at the tourist office for WiFi, I learned that the ferry south from Hornopiren ran only twice a day, at 10:00 AM and 6:00 PM. It was only mid-afternoon, so I was tempted to take the evening ferry and camp for free on the other side, but I (wisely in retrospect) decided to enjoy an evening of civilization. The town has many campgrounds, and they all seemed to be filling with cyclists. I almost stayed at one with nice spots along the river, but it required me to portage my bike and trailer down some awkward steps, so I went elsewhere, eventually ending up essentially in someone’s backyard (“Camping Doña Marina?”). The owner was friendly, the showers were hot, and for some reason it only cost about $5, the first campground this trip that I felt was a good deal.

This guy is a legend

Bike tourists are like ladybugs: one is interesting, a few are harmless, and a swarm is overwhelming. There were perhaps a dozen in the campground with me, and while I would have been happy to spend the evening learning any one of their stories, dealing with them all at once was too much, especially after four weeks more or less by myself. The most interesting were an entire Chilean family on a range of bikes, with one of them riding a cargo bike with panniers. I am more used to meeting people with fancy bike-packing setups, so it was inspiring to see someone going for it with entirely sensible but far from ideal equipment.

Ferry view

The next morning I had a leisurely breakfast, then rolled over to the slipway to line up with the others. There seemed to be some local traffic, but most waiting to board were tourists: people in vans with spare tires strapped to their roofs, soft middle-aged men on motorcycles, and mostly younger people with bikes, a few of the women taking boat-selfies. The twenty or more cyclists boarded first, stacking our bikes in one corner, then heading up to the deck to take in the view, or the cabin to rest in rows of seats. The ferry takes several hours, so I slept for some, but was mostly awake and on deck. The coast here rises steeply from the water, vegetated from the high tide line to around 3-4,000 feet. It is split by a few fjords, up which one can see sharp, glaciated, inaccessible peaks. I spoke with one of the bike tour guides for awhile, and also with a pair of men driving down to meet family in Coyhaique, the main city in Chilean Patagonia. It seems to be about halfway between Puerto Montt and Villa O’Higgins, a convenient place for me to refit and resupply items not available in small towns.

Leaning alerce

The ferry involves two boat rides, separated by a short dirt road across a peninsula. I was worried that I would not be fast enough to make the second boat, but with so many cyclists on board, the company was apparently willing to wait for them. This was probably not necessary, as the road is short and easy, and loading and unloading are slow. I talked to another of the guides for awhile at the final slipway, to let the dusty vehicles go ahead, then started along the sometimes rough and loose dirt road. The supported cyclists, on their unloaded bikes, easily kept pace with me, but I slowly left them as they stopped to take photos or go on short hikes. I had originally planned to join them at the Los Volcanes campground, but I saw a good tent spot at the Michinmahuida trailhead, and was tired of traveling in a crowd. I set up camp, cooked dinner with some silty water, then fell asleep listening to podcasts, anxious about the next day’s climb.

Trailwork

I started up the trail around 7:00 the next morning. With sunrise at 6:30 and sunset at 9:30 this was still fairly early, and I did not think starting earlier would be necessary or helpful for better snow conditions on the glacier. The forest trail started out flat and not brushy, and I was feeling energetic enough to jog a fair bit. As on Calbuco, I found some labor-intensive trail work, including stairs with railings. Though there was also some modern flagging and more recent brush-trimming, none of the work was new, and it made me wonder if there was a period of active trail-building for some reason in Chile. Italy’s Fascist building spree of the 1930s left a legacy of roads and mountain huts. Did Chile’s government encourage outdoor activity or andinismo at some point? Sadly, my knowledge of Chilean history is not much deeper than “sorry about Pinochet, we’re not all Milton Friedman disciples.”

Harmless plant

The trail remained easy to follow — there do not seem to be large animals to create game trails here, and the forest is impenetrable — but got progressively more overgrown. I was at first ginger about pushing past Devil’s Club’s big brother, but I had seen a guy carrying two big stalks of it bare-handed the day before, and eventually decided that while it may be spiky and threatening-looking, it is actually harmless. In addition to the flagging, old signs with arrows at several points kept me on the right path.

Michinmahuida in the sun

The trail eventually ended in an open area below treeline, cleared by either landslides or the retreating glacier. I followed occasional cairns and bits of trail a bit farther, then aimed up and left for the most likely-looking place to mount the glacier. I crossed a few outflow streams, low in the morning, and found a welcome source of non-silty water. The spot I had chosen was well above the glacier’s badly-broken tongue, but it was still fairly crevassed, so I had to do some wandering and backtracking to reach the main, snow-covered section. This too had some long, large crevasses, but I avoided most of them by following a gentle depression leading up near the center to just left of the apparent summit.

Clouds coming in

There had been high clouds all morning, but the summit had been clear. Unfortunately as I approached it, it began warming enough to generate its own mist and clouds, which made it intermittently impossible to choose a route. Fortunately the mist lifted from time to time, often enough to pick out the next part of the route. The snow had been nicely supportive most of the way, but became ankle- to calf-deep slush in the last thousand feet. I suppose I could have avoided this with a very early start or a bivouac at the toe of the glacier, but simply dealing with the slush was preferable, as it was not about to avalanche. It was, however, unpleasantly cold for my feet — I need to find some better plastic bags.

Brief summit view

The clouds became more continuous as I neared the summit, eventually reaching what I thought was a crater. Looking at my map, I realized the summit was several hundred yards on the other side, and when the clouds briefly parted, I saw that it was just a huge, long crevasse. I explored to the left, finding nothing I liked, then found a crossing to the right. From there I trudged across a nearly-flat icefield toward the red dot on my map. Another break in the clouds let me see that I seemed to be at the highest point of the plateau, so I called it good and immediately turned around. My footprints were easy to follow in the slush, and I had been recording a track, but my feet were cold, and I did not want to hang around and look at nothing. Another brief break in the clouds showed me an impressive range of jagged peaks to the east, but I had timed it wrong to enjoy the summit view.

Glacier toe

I mostly just followed my footprints on the way down, occasionally pulling out the GPS track when they were unclear, so the descent was quick and mindless. I stashed my axe and crampons, then stumbled down the loose debris on tired legs, pausing at the clear stream for another drink on my way to the trail. I had expected to meet someone else on the trail, as it was a nice weekend day, but did not expect to see a middle-aged woman and her son only a mile or so from the end of the trail. They were both wearing shorts, so they suffered badly from the biting flies when they briefly stopped to talk. I was impressed that they had made it so far, and were not looking more beaten down and torn up from their bare-legged jungle thrash. Maybe Chileans are more used to working for their outdoor fun than we Americans. In any case, I was too tired to do any running on the way back. I stopped at a clear stream for as much water as I could drink and carry, then returned to my tent for another night at the trailhead. The developed campground was only a mile or two away, and supposedly free, but it did not seem worth the effort to pack up and move in a cloud of flies.

Puntiagudo fail

Brief view of the peak


Volcan Puntiagudo, a sharply eroded volcano like Mount Thielsen in Oregon, is supposedly the hardest volcano and one of the hardest peaks in the Los Rios region of Chile. From what little information I could find about climbing it — Biggar’s book basically says “that looks hard,” and andeshandbook.org has a few photos and a GPS track — I knew that it was normally done in the Spring, when snow and ice likely covered its rotten rock. It was therefore a long shot for me, but a prominent and attractive enough peak to demand my attention and two days of “precious” time. Had I followed my original plan and bused to Osorno, it would have been my first objective.

Typical trail

I woke early, as this would be my biggest day so far in the trip, and I wanted to hop the fence before anyone was likely to see me on the surprisingly busy dead-end road south of Lago Rupanco. Just out of sight of the road, I found a large open shelter for horses or tents, and some more signage about the sendero and its flora and fauna. Contrary to CONAF’s current policy of closing and abandoning everything, there seems to have been a period when they built trails and encouraged access to and enjoyment of the outdoors. This seems similar to the progression of the United States Forest Service, which went from a can-do agency building trails and roads (and suppressing a lot of fires…) to an underfunded sad-sack bureaucracy unable to maintain what it once created.

Mossy benches

The first part of the route is a confusing maze of old tracks and cow-paths through land of unclear ownership. I followed my GPS track for awhile, then deviated to continue along what seemed like the main path. The land was incredibly lush, and the paths were so eroded as to become almost tunnels, head-deep or more with vertical or overhanging banks and greenery closing in above to harvest every photon. Thankfully it was relatively dry, because otherwise I would have been walking in streams. My GPS track noted a house along the way, but I ended up at a different one, apparently uninhabited but with a cow grazing outside. Worried about angering an armed farmer, I hurried by quietly, finding a couple fences with wire gates I had to either climb or close after me. The maze continued, with the main path seemingly leading me farther from the GPS line, so I eventually started taking less-used branches back right to return to the known-good path. I eventually rejoined it with a final thrash, to find it no more used than the one I had followed.

Approaching summit cone

Back on the Sendero Puntiagudo, I passed a camping area with some mossy benches, occasional flagging, and some boards and logs bridging boggy sections of the trench. After climbing steadily, the trail made a long horizontal traverse east, then climbed again to emerge from the trees at the base of an old mudslide. From there it nearly disappeared with only occasional cairns, bits of wear, and an ominous wooden cross. However I had the track to follow, and therefore had no problem choosing the correct route through the rocks, up a branching ravine, then out of it via a loose slope to a sandy shoulder. It was too cloudy to see the peak or much of my surroundings, but the route was clear from here: up the broad ridge to the glacier, up and right across the glacier to the right-hand base of the summit pyramid, then… whatever I could figure out.

Upper summit

I reached the summit rock at a sort of west ridge, where I put away my crampons and axe to follow the crest, where the rubble was least mobile. I soon found that, however bad the north side was, the south was even steeper and looser. Eventually stymied by an impossibly narrow dirt-crest, I carefully crab-walked back down to the glacier (push in, not down), hacked steps across with my axe, and rejoined the ridge where it broadened again. Steeper rock is generally more stable, as it would otherwise have already fallen, so I hoped that enough of Puntiagudo’s summit would be like Thielsen’s relatively solid stuff. Unfortunately Puntiagudo’s spire is much larger, and while there are some intrusions of solid rock, most of it is rubble held together by sheer stubbornness.

Abandoned pickets

I picked my way up the west side, sometimes staying on a more solid crest, sometimes finding ways to chimney through short cliff bands. The hardest part came when I went well left of the direct line to the summit, traversing into a small gully and climbing 5.6-ish rock onto a somewhat-solid rib to get around a cliff. This was about as hard as I wanted to climb on an exploratory outing, and combined with the clouds obscuring my view and the rime above, it made me start to question my chances. I found a half-dozen snow pickets along the way, mostly the usual aluminum T- or L-shaped ones, but one that looked like an ice-axe handle. I also saw a cut-up old rope dangling down a terrible loose cliff on the southwest side. Presumably (guided?) parties rappel the route and leave their pickets behind, and based on the number, it seems like the peak is not infrequently climbed. However little information about this andinismo makes it to gringolandia.

Nope

A final vertical-to-overhanging band of harder rock was still partly covered in rime, which was falling off and shattering as the sun burned through the morning clouds. It was too steep to climb directly or to the south, but my GPS track suggested that the route wrapped around to the left. A low-resolution track with ground bounces is at best a suggestion, but this seemed likely, as the upper left-hand skyline looked less steep from below. I crossed a loose and icy bowl, reached a shoulder with another picket, then eyed an exposed traverse. I kicked steps across the initial steep dirt, then paused at a sketchy-looking boulder beneath a bulge. It looked like things might get slightly easier on the other side, but there were no handholds above, and doing a reverse beached whale over the boulder with death-exposure below was more than I wanted to chance. I debated for a minute as bits of ice fell past me, then retreated, defeated, to where I had found the last picket to have a sandwich.

Osorno above clouds

Puntiagudo was not to be mine, so I mentally justified the two days used by trying to enjoy the views of Volcan Osorno peeking above the clouds, and the feeling of wilderness and adventure that had been absent on my trip so far. Then I cautiously picked my way back down the summit cone, diligently following my track and taking an extra minute on the crux downclimb. I got on the glacier sooner, this time with crampons, and after a quick inward-facing downclimb of an icy stretch to get out of debris range of the summit, it was smooth going back to the trailhead. Since I had a dry camp, I stopped at the benches to fill up at a stream. I decided to follow the GPS track this time, and while I avoided the first house, I had to pass right by another, which at last looked more abandoned. I also found that the track led right through a field full of Chilean super-burrs, which coated my lower pant legs and shoelaces. Reaching the trailhead, I listened for cars, then quickly dashed across the road and back to my tent. As usual, my things were unmolested, so I crawled back into the safety of my bug netting to lie down for awhile before thinking about the difficult question of which of my one options to have for dinner. Tuna in oil with semola, more oil, and a half-cube of bouillon.