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.

2 responses to “Swimming upstream to El Chaltén

  1. Dan says:

    70 miles into a headwind including gravel and hauling a trailer is brutal! I can’t really explain why, but I enjoyed reading this and am psych’d for your next posts!

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Fortunately the last 70 miles were all pavement, and I managed not to wipe out in the eddies behind the many tour buses, where the wind suddenly and completely changes directions. I’m still a bit behind, but getting to the good stuff. One more good weather day tomorrow, then rain and psychotic wind Wednesday, so I’ll have time to write.

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