Land of Fire

I finally made it. It took several years but I have arrived, to el fin del mundo. Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego was our southerly destination goal for the first South American burro romp, but we didn't quite make it, we actually didn't even get close. So to say now that I have made it this far, all on my own, feels like quite the accomplishment in itself. 

The flight from Puerto Madryn, was all but direct, stopping in El Calafate, Rio Gallegos and Rio Grande before making a final touchdown on the tiny airstrip on an even tinier island in the middle of the Beagle Channel. I must have looked as if I were flying for the first time in my life- face glued to the window, with a look of absolute awe in my eyes upon beholding the impossible landscape below. To stand at the foot of a mountain, looking up at it with the eyes of an ant evokes a sense of great appreciation and respect for it's mass and grandeur, but to suddenly rise above these giant beasts and fly over them with the eyes of a bird, gives an all together greater understanding of their vastness. From the plane I came to comprehend the true enormity of the Patagonia. For hundreds of miles there is nothing, just flat, endless plains, but then, out of nowhere, errupts some gigantic chain of rock and earth, exploding towards the heavens from nothingness. There is no slight increase in elevation building up to these things, they just sit there, heavy and huge, born from colliding geographic plates. 

A glimpse of Cerro Fitz Roy in El Chalten. Already enchanted from the air, little did i know... to be continued
landing in Ushuaia
Just a 1,000km stones throw from Antartica, Ushuaia is the southern most city in the world. And it is wild. A place where mountains meet ocean, meet valleys, meet humid native forest, meet rivers that run into lakes that melt off glaciers... To think that where I'm standing used to be covered in hundreds of meters of ice is simply mind blowing. The story of the ice age is painted into the landscape; jagged mountain peaks are smoothed into gentle curves sloping into deep valleys, where glacial ice long ago eroded and softened the rough rocky edges of the cordillera. The indigenous tribes of this land survived in this severe climate and landscape for thousands of years, relatively untouched by European influences until the 1834 expedition of British explores, Capt. Fitz Roy and Charles Darwin. An earlier Spanish exploration named the area after seeing the islands dotted with fires made by the Yaghan (Yamana) people who lived in this freezing archipelago barefoot and virtually naked, warmed by the constant presence of fire that they carried with them even while travelling in their bark canoes. The Yaghan, Alacaluts, and Ona tribes survived on the abundant marine and wildlife, smearing fish and animal fat on their bodies to protect their skin from the harsh cold. But like virtually all ancient indegineous populations,  their communities were wiped out by European disease brought over from the sailors. The last full-bloodedYaghan person is a woman who now lives in Puerto Williams, on la Isla de Navarino, Chile. 

Darwin Range
The island of Navarino looms just in front of Ushuaia, across the Beagle Channel that cuts its way through the islands, separating Argentina from Chile, drawing an invisible boarder that has caused a long history of conflict between the neighboring countries. And just beyond Navarino, 700 miles across the ocean, is the South Pole. This place is the frontier of all frontiers, a place where legendary expeditions into the icey waters have brought a history of lore and exploration into these far reaches of the globe. Dientes de Navarino is a five to seven day trek through the famously temperamental Darwin Range, and is regarded as one of the toughest circuits in South America due to the unpredictable and almost guaranteed storms that sweep in from the ice fields of Antarctica colliding with the incessant Patagonian winds. But with a little luck and good weather, the views are rumored to be unsurpassed. This was the plan for the two Canadian fellows I met in the hostel. They had come from El Chalten specifically to tackle this world famous walk. Being the adventure seeker I am, I joined on the balls to the walls bandwagon. Why not, right? Well, here's why not: the entire island, with it's teeth like spires, was covered in dense, grey, snow-filled clouds. The wind stung your face throwing a constant spray of freezing rain drops, and white caps in the channel as far as the eye could see. And lastly because the trail was still covered in three meters of snow, with an almost certain risk of blizzards on the highest pass. So... sometimes you must concede to Mother Nature and accept the fact that you simply can't do it all at once, this one would have to go back on the 'to-do' list. 

Isla de Navarino, so close yet so far...
 So with the trek out of the question, plan B came beautifully into action. My friend Ari, who is from Ushuaia arranged for her dad to leave me the keys to their little family cabin in the woods. Though having only known me during the short ski season in Bariloche, she offered up this quaint forest retreat, encouraging me to make myself at home. I invited the two Canadians, Andrew and Adam, as well as our other hostel mate, Christian, an unstoppable fountain of British humor (whether intentional or not). These three are a trip, I laughed so hard in the few days we spent together, non-stop, wholesome entertainment. Into the woods we went, in search of the hidden keys to some cabin in a national forest near the home of a pack of sled-dogs. It was like a real life scavenger hunt, following directions written on a small piece of paper, until we finally stumbled on a little cabin that fit the description. And oh what a little story tale place it was! The first afternoon was sunny and warm, so after a leisurely picnic lunch, we hiked up to Laguna Esmeralda and I had my first encounter with turba. Turba (peat moss) is quite fun to walk on at first, like a squishy mattress, until after five steps your shoes are completely wet and then you try to hop and skip your way around the wetter looking spots until you must altogether abandon any hope of keeping your feet dry. We arrived to the half frozen lagoon sodden but content, skipping rocks and plotting an imaginary ascent to the glacier looming above us. The wind began to blow and our soaking feet were chilled so back to the cabina we go, the rain turned into snow, and a quiet dust of white began to paint the ground. The boys went to work chopping firewood, mate was served, card table set, shoes and socks hung by the chimney. This is how we passed the evening...and the next day...and the next night. Huddled around the fire, watching the snowflakes accumulate outside, drinking tea and wine, swapping stories and engaging debates (mind you this was pretty much the first time in four months that I had spoke any English), laughing a lot, and being incredibly thankful that we were not sitting on top of a snowy mountain pass, four people freezing to death in a three man tent...
Andew and the turba
Adam, Laguna Esmeralda
Christian doing work

crazy eyed sled dog

springtime in Ushuaia

We returned to the city and the snow continued. Said farewell to the cabin boys, befriended the next hostel mates, and went prepared with rain boots and all for the Parque Nacional de Ushuaia. Spent the day wandering along the trails, through muddy forests of lenga trees, over flooded turba lakes and along the shores of the Beagle Channel. 

notro, indigenous flor de Patagonia

with French guy (name?) and Martin, lovely old soul who reminded me of a friend I spent time with in San Augustin, Colombia

Glaciar Martial, bluebird day, freshtracks
Nacho y Juan Pablo, capos
Since I wasn't going to hike Navarino, and I couldn't afford to sail to Antartica, I decided that I was most certainly going to shred gnar en el fin del mundo. One of the guys who worked at my hostel was a ski instructor from Mendoza, so not knowing anyone else down here that had experience, I asked if he would be interested in one last epic snow session of the season, to hike and ride Glaciar Martial. I had been hiking up the glacier a few days before and scoped out a route. It was beautiful that day; sunny, fresh layer of creamy snow,  nice little cardboard coating over top. Pretty perfect springtime conditions with skiers abound, and I was dying with a desire to ride one last time. It had been really cold the last few days and had been raining in the city so we assumed it was probably snowing on the glacier, making for even better shred conditions. I convinced him to come along and we arranged to leave two days later with another skier friend of his from Bariloche. We got an early start on a grey morning only to find the lovely bluebird day spring snow replaced by wet, rainy, end of the season slosh snow. But we were already there and we were going up. The staircase of tracks that were there a few days before were gone, so I, being on foot, hiked towards the rocky parts to avoid sinking in the snow. Legs are screaming, yoga breathe pulling me up the mountain. After a 'snack break' at the halfway point the battle really began. This is the kind of moment when backcountry skiers like to re-iterate why skiing is so much better than snowboarding, and the moment when I'm wondering why I didn't rent snowshoes (and sending up a wish to Santa for a split board).

Up we must go...10 meters from our break spot and I'm already sinking up to my thighs so I scramble/growl/crawl/claw my way to the rocks while the boys zig-zag their way up on their skins. An all too familiar feeling of the frustration I experienced climbing to Refugio Frey came rushing back. I wasn't getting anywhere and still had another 50 meters of snow to cross to get to the next patch of rocks. I unstrapped my board from my backpack to use it as a pick in front of me to gain some leverage. Little by little I made my way up. As I got closer to the rocks I uncovered a startlingly large hole, the snow in front of me falling to the bottom of the shallow crevasse. I don't think my heart has ever beat so fast. I collected myself with a few deep breathes and carefully and methodically threw myself onto the rocks. Holy adrenaline overload. I took a moment to pay my respects to the Mountain Gods, strap my board back on my pack, and climb up to meet Nacho and Pablo who were waiting anxiously for me to appear. They too had a bit of a sketchy climb and we still had another 70 meters or so to the summit. The snow was really heavy, conditions were less than ideal and a storm was blowing in so we made a collective decision to abandon ship. Geared up, strapped in, high-fived, and wished each other a good ride.....ladies first of course. Two turns down the chute and that crispy cardboard layer turned into an icing of super glue... weight back, nose up and straight shot it to the bottoooom.

last ride of the year- Glaciar Martial, Ushuaia Octubre 2012

the climb is always worth it
sticky but sweet
zoom from the base: made it to the top of the little patch of rocks just below,left of center 

One end of the world activity checked off the list... will be back for #'s 2 and 3 ... (notice how I strategically leave things undone to ensure a return trip...........)