Windblown in Patagonia

Laguna de Los Tres. Photo: Rachel McCullough

This post comes from Rachel McCullough, an avid hiker, mountain biker, rock climber, yogi, skier and photographer living in Truckee, CA. Follow @rachelmcphotos on Instagram for stunning images of beautiful Sierra scenery. When Rachel isn’t enjoying her free time in the outdoors, she’s teaching skiing at Northstar California or building and marketing websites for her clients at McCullough Web Services.

Who: Rachel and Garrett McCullough
What: Day Hiking Laguna de Los Tres
Where: Patagonia, Argentina
When: November 2014

I was jolted awake as the bus driver careened around another corner. Baggage fell from the overhead bins and slid across the floor. The driver was probably laughing at the tourists scrambling to right everything for about the 10th time on the trip.

As I blinked away the blurriness of 40 hours of travel, I realized it was 9:30pm and still light out. This is November in the southern hemisphere, which is spring! And so my first night in Patagonia began. I say began because 9:30 is dinnertime in Argentina!

As we stepped off the bus, the Andes rose in front of us. They are a sheer wall of rock nested in the snow, rising above the cloudy turquoise river. There stood Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, as I had seen in so many photos, watching over the small town of El Chaltén. They would be much more elusive over the next few days, shrouded in storm clouds.

Fitz Roy in all of its glory. Photo: Rachel McCullough

Seemingly balanced with a big backpack on my back and my brand new Deuter AC Lite 18 day pack on my front, I made my way to my hotel and was nearly blown off my feet in the process. I would learn this was a fitting welcome.

Dinner at ten PM makes for a late evening. But, the sun was up around four AM and shortly after so was I. We hopped on the bus to the Laguna de Los Tres trailhead and planned to hike the eighteen or so miles back to town. Maybe you’ve read this post or this post and know that eighteen miles is a short day for us, had we been in the Sierra. But, this was a warm up to get to know Patagonia, on the most popular trail in the area. We did finish before darkness hit, but not before Patagonia showed us what it is really all about.

The hike started off easy enough on a winding dirt road, along a creek. The weather was pleasant, maybe fifty degrees with lots of sun, so we casually sauntered through the scrublands, forests and meadows. Everything was new to us, yet there were similarities in the landscape and vegetation with Truckee because both El Chaltén and Truckee sit on the eastern slope of big mountain ranges.

As we hiked further and entered Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, I realized everything in the Andes came on a much bigger scale. We saw the condor, with its huge wingspan, gliding along the cliff walls, scanning for carrion far below. We saw the Magellanic woodpecker, with its bright red head and sleek black feathers. It had to be 3 times the size of any woodpecker in Tahoe. And then the insects. Not just one or two. But thousands, all at once.

The enormous Magellanic woodpecker. Photo: Rachel McCullough

Being outdoors is my thing. Given the option, I will always take the table outside at a restaurant. I drag my laptop and cords onto the deck in the summer, I teach skiing in all conditions. Rain is no excuse to stay inside.

But there is one thing that doesn’t make my list of favorites. It’s not rain or snow, snakes or spiders. It’s the swarms of bugs that find your ears, your eyes, and your mouth. They seem to like me more than most. Even when they aren’t in swarms, they find me, and against all odds, I inhale them and eat them. No joke, I ate one nearly every day this summer. They are quite a disturbing addition to my otherwise vegetarian diet.

As we made our way to a gorgeous meadow that likely has stunning views of Fitz Roy on a clear day, the bugs attacked. They looked like flies but didn’t move when swatted at. At first my white shirt was polka dotted, and then it was just covered. I couldn’t talk, otherwise I am sure they’d turn into my lunch. All I could do was wave my hand in front of my face in a futile attempt to keep them away. I might have been making frustrated grunts as I walked, which were much less satisfying and a poor substitution for outright shrieks. We finally entered the woods and left the clouds of bugs except for the hundreds hitchhiking on our clothes and gear. I could finally take a deep breath as we brushed the bugs off of each other. While I enjoy hiking in silence, that wasn’t quite what I had in mind.

Clear streams and fresh mountain air on the way to Laguna de Los Tres. Photo: Rachel McCullough

As we continued, the trail steepened and we made our way up the side of the stunning valley we came from, with Lago Argentino as a backdrop. We continued switch-backing above the tree line keeping plenty warm even as the clouds rolled in and the rain started. I noticed all of the hikers on the way down looked like they had come from the Arctic, with winter gloves, hats, and heavy coats. I figured they must all be from warm climates or had gotten soft from too many days lounging around the warm Buenos Aires weather. I had Tahoe blood and was just skiing a few days prior so I was feeling good, but not for long.

We climbed and climbed, for a total of 2,500 feet on a well-worn and rocky trail. The wind picked up and the intermittent rain/sleet hurt at times, but we chugged along. The closer we got to the top, the windier it got. I struggled to stay on my feet and assumed a monkey-like walk to make forward progress. There were others making their way to the top as well, in various crouched positions. We struggled to don the winter clothes we brought before they flew away. Perhaps this is why our map stated: “not recommended on very wet and windy days.”

The noisy wind makes for a kind of silence. An isolation. Plenty of people were around, but talking was too much effort. We just staggered, zombie-like and in our own worlds, until we could descend to Laguna de Los Tres and hide behind the walls of a makeshift wind break. Then, we were able to fully take in the view of what was before us.

There was a patchwork of fast-moving clouds, all swirling around the sheer cliffs of Fitz Roy and its neighbors. There was an impossibly turquoise lake with icebergs, making their way to shore. And a blue glacier, traveling from high in the mountains, depositing its ice into the ice cold lake. Yes, I had to touch it just to be sure.

The climbing on Fitz Roy looked incredible. I’ve always been drawn to big walls, and spent many nights on El Capitan in Yosemite, looking out from the wall into the world. Of all those nights I was only caught in bad weather once. A cold snowstorm arrived when the forecast was partly cloudy, chance of showers. I thought of those long, cold nights and looked at Fitz Roy and imagined how difficult the climbing must be in the cold, wind and snow. Then, I happily descended the steep trail as we made our way back to town in the wind and rain. These mountains are for me to look at, not climb. At least not this time.

Icebergs in Laguna de Los Tres. Photo: Rachel McCullough
Clouds hovering on the mountain tops above the hanging glacier. Photo: Rachel McCullough
Laguna de Los Tres, looking a bit chilly. Photo: Rachel McCullough
Hiding from the wind. Photo: Garrett McCullough
Laguna Sucia was very turquoise from the glacier sediment. Photo: Rachel McCullough

I was sure to eat the calafate berry before I left, which once eaten ensures one’s return to Patagonia. It’s an incredible place, where nature rules and one must take the hobbling winds and bug swarms along with the blue glaciers, turquoise lakes, soaring condors, sheer rock faces, and the rugged beauty of the Andes.

The view from the trail as we approached El Chaltén. Photo: Rachel McCullough

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