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 MaƱihuales, 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.

2 responses to “Wet and dry Patagonia

  1. Matt Lemke says:

    Hey Sean! Glad to see you’re around in Patagonia. Wish I’d known you were here as I’ve been here all season as well. Sucks you got so close to Cerro Castillo. I wonder where you gotn your beta from that said it was only 5.5? The summit pinnacle is posted as 5.9 on Summitpost and Andes Handbook. Where are you at now?

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Biggar’s guide says it’s Alpine III-IV, i.e. 5.4-5.6. Good to know I’m not just getting weak and the (modern?) grade is 5.9. I guess Summitpost still has a lot of good old information, but I don’t think of it much, since it’s been dead for years.

      I’m in Torres del Paine now, headed south.

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