Category Archives: South America

Mojon Rojo

Mojon Rojo

Mojon Rojo and tiny glacier crossing

It was the last good day before an extended period of bad weather, and I wanted to get up something. Cerros Huemul and Electrico are both on my to-do list, but both were longer outings than I felt I could manage coming off a 23-mile run the day before. So I settle for Mojon Rojo, a moderate summit just south of the Real Climber peaks of the Fitzroy group. It would involve repeating quite a bit of the overcrowded trail to Lago de los Tres, but the new terrain on the approach to Laguna Sucia and up to its southwest should be spectacular, particularly if the clouds held off. From the west end of Sucia, Fitzroy rises 2500 meters in only about 2700 meters of horizontal distance, which is not as steep as El Capitan, but well over twice as high. I found it more impressive than Los Tres, but thanks to a slightly harder approach trail and the randomness of social media virality, Sucia is seen almost entirely by climbers, most of them doing Aguja de la S, the easiest of the Fitzroy granite towers.

Laguna Sucia

I got a fairly early start, partly to avoid the crowds and partly out of habit to get ahead of deteriorating afternoon weather. This was pointless, as the weather here does not seem to follow the normal mountain pattern of calm mornings followed by deteriorating weather as the sun warms mountain faces and creates convection. Windy mornings are followed by calm afternoons, storms arrive in the middle of the night, and knock-you-over wind can build remarkably quickly. All of this is forecast reasonably well by modern weather models, particularly Meteoblue, but I don’t understand the “why” of it. In any case, I had a fairly quiet hike to the Rio Blanco, where I left the Los Tres trail to head up a well-beaten track following the river. There was a sign probably telling me to turn around just before a log crossing, and another before a scramble up the right side to get around a constriction, but everyone seemed to ignore them. The trail went through some boulder-fields above the constriction, and therefore disappeared and braided, but I eventually hopped back across the stream on some giant boulders and reached Sucia’s outlet.

Moody light on Fitzroy Glacier

Moody glacier light

The trail was refocused on the lakeshore, and mostly easy to follow after that, though I got into some annoying terrain by leaving the shore a bit too early. It was one again warm, and the glacier above had been in the sun for hours, so I got to hear and then see a large chunk of ice break free, shatter, and fall down a watercourse. It looked like snow by the time it poured into the lake, but the splashes made clear that it was still a rain of sizable ice chunks, dwarfed by the surrounding cliffs. I was dragging as I gained elevation in the heat, but with plenty of food, water, and time, I patiently slogged on. Reaching a place marked “La Cueva” on my map, I found a large walled-in overhang where some people had left a base camp, and several more tents on various nearby platforms.

Mojon Rojo (l) and Aguja de l’S

From there I followed cairns and trail steeply uphill, on slabs and recently deglaciated terrain, heading more or less straight for Mojon Rojo. The route description I had found mentioned a glacier crossing, for which I had brought crampons and axe, but as I approached the ridge, I wondered if this was no longer the case. With careful route choice and one low-angle snow crossing, I got remarkably close to the base of the peak all on rock, but there remain a few hundred yards of mandatory glacier, still steep enough to warrant crampons when icy, and home to a handful of crevasses that demand a bit of attention. I had passed a couple of rope teams descending snow and ice next to the rock, and a group of four were heading up as I stopped on the highest rock to crampon up.

Summit block

Heading out onto the ice, I sensibly followed the group ahead of me, then left their track to gain the toe of Mojon Rojo where they turned right toward Aguja de la S. As I took off my crampons, I saw someone higher up on the peak, traversing rubble below a couple of pinnacles. I followed a similar line, threading my way through generally obnoxious but not threatening talus. The route description I was using mentioned “several pitches of French grade 4 (YDS 5.4-5.6),” but I had found none so far, and saw none ahead. Route options eventually dwindled, though, and I found a short, steep part in a corner that involved a few low-fifth-class moves. There was also a bit of a bottleneck, as four guys from Sheffield were descending right as I was about to head up.

North from summit

Apparently Mojon Rojo is a popular consolation peak for climbers thwarted on neighboring peaks, because I also met two guys from Slovenia below the summit block. I said “hi,” dropped my pack, then set about figuring out how to climb the thing. Following Pataclimb’s directions, I traversed around the southwest side on some wide but exposed ledges, climbed back to the northwest arete, then made one somewhat-delicate move to reach the flatter part of the crest just below the top. Reversing the crux move was somewhat thought-provoking, as the west and south sides are sheer and tall, but I was soon back on the sheltered slab with the Slovenes, eating cookies and enjoying the sun.

Techado Negro

It was the last day of good weather before a period of storms, so I had brought enough food to also do neighboring Techado Negro, which shares much of the approach. Ideally I would traverse between the two peaks, weaving through the towers on the way to Techado’s summit. The ridge had looked semi-reasonable on the way up, but it was definitely chossy, and head-on it looked more difficult. I told myself I could always drop down and climb its known-moderate east side, but I knew I wouldn’t do that. I caught the Brits below the glacier, then skipped down the climbers’ trail through the Cueva camp to Laguna Sucia. Frustratingly Fitzroy remained hidden in clouds, but even neighboring Aguja Poincenot towered massively above the lake. The river was raging in the hot afternoon, and I missed my morning crossing, but there are plenty of ways to boulder-hop across, and I was soon back in mindless terrain. I put on some podcasts and wove my way back through the crowds to the trailhead, sometimes having to wait for lines of people to pass through the thickets of woody brush. Fitzroy may look awesome from Lago de los Tres, but it looks equally impressive from a half-dozen other spots that require no more effort. I haven’t decided whether it’s good or bad that almost everyone chooses this one hike.

Cerro Solo

Sunrise on Cerro Solo

Cerro Solo is another of the Chaltén area’s easier peaks, though unlike Tumbado and Madsen it requires legitimate mountaineering. After hiking the trail to Laguna Torre, the receding Torre Glacier’s terminal lake, the route crosses the Rio Fitz Roy via a Tyrolean, then continues on a climbers’ path in the forest above its south side. At a steep ravine, where the approach to Cerro Torre continues, another faint climbers’ trail climbs steeply left of the cascade, then fades in the debris of a bowl northeast of the upper glacier. Above this bowl, the route I chose crossed the glacier’s tongue to the right, climbed some slabs, then recrossed the glacier below some cliffs, finally climbing some talus and a bit of low-fifth-class rock on the left to reach the summit ridge. With mountain boots and front points it would probably be easier to go straight up the upper glacier, and the standard route might have climbed the glacier directly twenty years ago, but I have what I have, and the glacier is now much too crevassed.


The Laguna Torre trailhead is right up the street from the Casa de Ciclistas, so I started walking right from my tent. The trail rolls as it slowly gains elevation, generally staying away from and above the Rio Fitz Roy, which often flows in a narrow gorge. The trail eventually drops into an alluvial flat below the old terminal moraine, where it wanders interminably through rocks and brush before reaching the lake viewpoint, where most hikers stop. Just before that, a faint trail heads left to the Tyrolean. I had never done a Tyrolean traverse before, but knew roughly what to do, e.g. not to wear my backpack. Since the popular Huemul trek has two Tyroleans, shops in town rent a complete kit, probably for cheap, but I instead bought some webbing and a locking carabiner to make myself a diaper harness. It was a bit tricky to maneuver my crotch high enough to clip in, but I managed it, and had enough forearm strength to drag myself across the river. I stood on a rock to unclip, shoved the webbing and biner back in my pack, and continued along the now much fainter trail.

Scree bowl below glacier

I was pretty sure that the standard route was on the peak’s northeast side, but knew nothing about it other than that Joe had missed the turnoff a number of years ago. ( has some info, but it is vague and out of date, and I did not see it until later.) I therefore wasted some time exploring the woods just past the river, following faint game trails until, not seeing any cairns, I decided that must not be the route. I eventually continued along the climbers’ trail and, at the ravine which I suspected might be the best route to get above the trees, I found a clear climbers’ trail. Where the trail faded, I thrashed through brush a bit, then retreated to cross the stream and continue up the bare side of the ravine, recrossing higher up to enter the bowl via its left side. Much of this was loose and obnoxious, but not difficult.

View from base of glacier

As I approached the glacier I naturally trended left, following an old lateral moraine, sketching my way across steep dirt below some cliffs, then climbing a chute and a third class rib to the glacier’s toe. The glacier looked badly crevassed, and kind of steep for my crampons, so it seemed best to head right and climb the rock on that side. Unfortunately the terrain below the glacier was complicated, with gullies, streams, and tongues of ice, so I had to put on crampons and cross a couple of pieces of ice to get there. The face had been baking all morning, so rocks were melting loose of the ice or the cliffs above and bombing down the glacier. I could at least hear them coming, but the glacier was a bad place to be. As I had hoped, though, life was much better on the right-hand slabs, and I made good time up to the final cliffs given my level of fatigue. There may be a moderate way directly up the right side of these cliffs, but they looked hard, and I thought they might be the finish of a route that spooked Colin Haley a number of years back when he soloed it. If he finds it sketchy, it’s out of my league.

Nearing upper glacier traverse

My best option was to cross back left across the glacier and find some other way to the summit. I put on crampons again, then made my way across the softening snow, dodging some large crevasses and occasionally sinking in calf-deep. I was mostly above the spontaneous rockfall, but there were still occasional cascades from recently-exposed choss to either side of the snow and ice. Speaking to some Real Climbers later, I have heard that th range in general is far too warm for safe climbing, and a number of people have been killed by avalanches or rockfall on the major peaks this season. Given my experience in the Alps last summer, I will have to consider this issue more in the future when planning trips to glaciated ranges.

Icefield from summit

The glacier headwall looked too steep and icy for my current gear, and there was a bergschrund at its base that looked not to have any easy bridges. My best bet seemed to be to reach the rock on the left, then climb the southeast ridge to get around the steep part. I sprinted under a rockfall zone, crossed a couple more small cracks, pecked my way up some ice, then switched to rock mode to see what I had found. The ridge looked horribly choss, but fortunately the rock was fairly solid underneath. The south side was steep, but it was not too narrow, and I managed to wander my way up with only a couple short stretches of fairly secure low-fifth-class climbing. I emerged on one of a line of false summits, sheer to the left and covered in low-angle glacier nearly all the way up on the right. Following a mix of soft snow and unstable choss, I traversed my way toward the highpoint.

Torre Glacier cirque

I was once again treated to near-perfect conditions, with a moderate breeze from the west that was blocked on some comfortable sitting ledges just below the summit to the east. The weather was changing again, so the Cerro Torre group was in and out of the clouds, while Fitzroy and the Torre Glacier were in the sun. To the west, I could see through the Paso del Viento to the Southern Patagonian Icefield. Both views were equally spectacular in their own ways: the Fitzroy and Cerro Torre ridges each rise over 6000 feet above the Torre Glacier in sheer granite walls; and the Icefield is pierced by greater and lesser peaks, with the lines of its flow toward Viedma Lake extending for miles, reminding me of the view from my last flight over Greenland. Cerro Torre’s summit came in and out of view, and I was close enough and far enough west to clearly see the summit rime mushroom, and some improbably vertical- or overhanging-looking snow and ice on its southwest face.

Complete Torre glacier

It was warm enough that, out of the wind, I could nap comfortably in just my hoodie, but I needed to think about getting down. Reversing my route, I was happy to be heading downhill across the glacier, and therefore moving through the rockfall zones slightly faster. I tried to follow the rock all the way below that, and ended up getting into some shenanigans in the cliffy slabs lower down. Not only that, but I still had to cross one small ice tongue to reach the reddish rib I had used on the ascent. The rest of the descent was mostly unremarkable, except that the cascade next to the climbers’ trail was much more intense in the afternoon heat, making the stream crossings a bit trickier.

Ice beach

There was just enough wind to herd all the icebergs to the eastern shore of Laguna Torre, where it would have been tempting to sunbathe on the beach next to them, but I was tired and had miles to walk. I was feeling my three days of hiking after three days of fighting headwinds, and was dreading the 5-6 miles back to town. I had seen a group just ahead of me on the Tyrolean, and caught them on the trail. One of them happened to be a guide who spent a lot of time in the eastern Sierra, and had traveled quite a bit internationally. We ended up talking for much of the return, which perceptually shortened the slog despite the slower pace. By the time he stopped to wait for his companions I was only a mile or two from “home,” pleased with the last few days’ results and ready for bad weather and rest.

Cerro Madsen

Fitzroy from Madsen

Cerro Madsen is one of the easiest summits in the Chaltén area, though slightly harder than Tumbado. From Lago de los Tres, a semi-cairned route climbs talus to an easy ridge, with a final few moves of scrambling to a summit block that requires an exposed mantle. With a bit more rest and another day of perfect weather, I needed to increase my ambition. I originally planned to climb the nearby glaciated Punta Velluda, then try to traverse back along the ridge back to Madsen, but fellow cyclist Oli, whom I had met on the ride to town, was interested in joining me and did not have an axe and crampons. I wasn’t sure how experienced he was, but he had brought rock shoes on his bike tour, so I suspected he would be fine on the rock part.

Poincenot City

We left the Casa de Ciclistas slightly later than I had hoped. Oli was wearing shorts, which seemed like a bad idea to me, so I encouraged him to change, and said I would meet him on the trail. He caught up sooner than I expected, and we continued at a fast walk along the trail toward Fitzroy. As usual, Fitzroy is so huge and dominant that it is an impressive sight for most of the approach, its glaciers coming into view as one approaches the Rio Blanco. I did not know it at the time, but Lago de los Tres is probably the most popular hike in the entire El Chaltén area. Poincenot, the last campground before the lake, was a virtual tent city, and there were perhaps thirty people already at Lago de los Tres, all taking the same photo of the the turquoise lake and Fitzroy’s white granite, partly obscured by an intervening choss ridge.

Madsen from lake

Heading toward Madsen, I picked my way up the talus, eventually locating a line of cairns and bits of trail. Madsen is mostly made up of the red and black rock common to the Chaltén foothills, more friable than the main peaks’ granite, and therefore usually reduced to talus. We made our way toward a more solid rib, where we found some decent scrambling on large blocks and bits of narrow ridge. Toward the top we crossed an incredibly loose gully, then found slightly harder scrambling to the summit block, with one move perhaps fourth class. The final move to the summit was an exposed mantle, reminiscent of Clarence King in the Sierra, but considerably easier.

Lower Fitz Roy Glacier

Madsen has the view the Lago de los Tres tourists don’t know they’re missing. It is high enough that the choss foothills do not block Fitzroy or its surrounding glaciers. Looking around to the north, you can see the confusingly-named summits of Cerro Electrico, the impressively broken tongue of the East Fitz Roy Glacier, and farther away, Cerro Vespignani and Lago del Desierto. To the south and east are three levels of lakes: Los Tres, Madre and Hijo in the forest, and the huge Lago Viedma fed by the Viedma exit glacier. The start of the ridge to Velluda looked tricky, and I could not see enough of it to tell whether it would go for me, and I would certainly need to cross some glacier to get off Velluda, for which I was not equipped. I think my original plan would have been a good day, but… oh, well.

The ants come marching

We retraced our route back to Lago de los Tres, where Oli, sensing my impatience, told me to go ahead while he spent some time at the lake. By now the tourists had arrived in force, with probably a hundred people at the Instagram spot, and a solid line along the trail. Many were the expected European tourists, but there were plenty of Argentinians and Chileans mixed in, including a few overweight older women with walking sticks they had picked up along the way, going all-out up the steep, eroded trail. The crowds put me in a bad mood, but it was hard to be resentful or contemptuous of people who are totally unprepared, but still giving maximum effort to see their country. I was back at the Casa de Ciclistas by mid-afternoon, wasting hours of windless daylight, but part of me was glad for this, as it would allow me to recover more before the next day, the last of the current perfect weather window.

Pliege Tumbado

Lago Torre and peaks from summit

Loma de Pliege Tumbado is probably the best value-for-effort hike out of El Chaltén. It is the first of a line of unremarkable peaks on the ridge separating the Rio Fitz Roy and Rio Tunel, with a trail to the summit from the visitor center just south of town. It has mostly unobstructed views of both Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, nearly as good as those from its higher neighbor Cerro Solo, but with much less difficulty and effort. It felt like a waste of perfect weather to just do a hike, but I had spent eleven hours fighting a headwind the day before, and was not feeling up for a full day or an alpine start.

Final summit grind

I rode down to the visitor center, locked my bike, and headed up the trail. Perhaps a quarter-mile in I met a ranger, who asked me where I was going and if I had a map. Perhaps I was supposed to register, but she seemed fine once I told her I had the map on my phone. I continued grinding up the trail, passing a few people also headed up through the woods, as well as some “savage cows,” which I was not supposed to approach. Breaking out of the trees, I entered an open meadow with Fitzroy poking out, as it does from almost everywhere here. I followed a trail marked with stakes to the summit, passing more people on the final, steep grunt, tagged the highpoint, then retreated to a windbreak just beyond to relax away from the “crowd” of ten or so people.

Condor on ridge

I could have turned around there, but I would have felt lame, and there was another red dot on Peakbagger farther west. I continued along the ridge, now without a trail, finding mostly easy walking and a bit of easy chossy scrambling. I spied a condor perched on the crest ahead of me, looking much bigger than they do when up in the sky with nothing else for comparison. It took off before I got too close, but circled for awhile before getting bored and heading off southeast. The final bit of the ridge was made of a sort of “millefeuille” rock with many thin layers, which created plenty of loose debris but was actually reasonably solid underneath. The view from the summit was similar to that from Tumbado, but there were no people and a pleasant place to relax, so I took in the views of nearby Cerro Solo, and Huemul across the valley to the south, then took a short nap before heading down.

Rio Tunel

Rather than return the way I had come, it seemed more interesting to drop south toward the Rio Tunel. There is a trail along the river that forms the start of the popular Huemul loop, and the terrain looked mostly easy. I continued south along a ridge, then dropped to the Arroyo Piedritas on ledges and easy scree. I could have dropped all the way to the trail, but it seemed like it might be quicker to contour high and pick it up where it crosses to meet the Tumbado trail. This mostly worked, though I had to do more side-hilling than I had hoped to avoid some very dense and woody brush.

I was hot and tired by the time I returned to the ranger station. I had heard that they were knowledgeable and helpful, and perhaps they were for trekkers, but when I asked about climbing objectives, the woman I spoke to impatiently told me to look at, Rolo Garibotti’s site. That was better than the likely Chilean response of “you’re not allowed to do that,” but still disappointing. As I prepared to ride back to the Casa de Ciclistas, another park ranger asked if I were selling my bike. I gather that Argentina has huge import tariffs, so foreign goods are expensive and hard to come by. I had to tell the ranger that, sorry, I very much liked my bike and planned to keep it, but it did make me think that if I return, I should come with gear that I would be willing to sell or give away. I could save myself the trouble and money of flying back with it, and dramatically improve some Argentine lives.

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.


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.