Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Anathema and the Road To Cafayate

Anathema and The Road to Cafayate
Gracias Virgen de Huachana.. Patron saint of truckers? This was painted on a Bumper of the semi next to us in the morning traffic...

Horrors! Anathema! A guided tour at sunrise and heading into Salta commuter traffic. But it makes sense to finally do a tour. Time is short and because public transport is just 30 pesos less round trip and this way we can be lazy and jostle elbows w argentine retirees and be better turistas and maybe glean a bit of minutia...

Rodrigo our bilingual guide starts with, "today we visit Very funny formations of rock, but they take a bit of imagination - the titanic, the frog, the friaile (friar?)... Today not necessary the coca tea, Cafayate is only 1800 meters." Our tour guide is a 12 year transplant from the center of Bolivia, he moved his fingers together if i asked if he liked it better- meaning the $ is better here. It was a fairly cloudy and hazy morning so I was not confident we would get the bright sunlight needed to really pop the colors in the landscape.

Of the 16 passajeros we are the only two non Spanish speakers, and except for the four 20 something's maureen pointed out to me that are asleep and drooling on each other in the back, we are also the youngest. The back four seats are two girls, from Belgium and Switzerland, and two Portenos. The rest are semi local retirees as we have hit the low season for international tourists.

So far Salta has a much better feel then mendoza. I think I like the saltenos more than the mendocinans as well. More tranquilo. My dreams are more pleasant and vivid here too in our Salta por siempre hostel which has many arabesque flourishes like ablaq (black and white tiles) and a large enclosed but open o the sky lush central garden/patio with numerous plants and cactus, a few arches... Architectural Holdouts from the time of the Moors that the Spanish colonists held on to, and a style re-copied in Ojai my hometown where our arcade (Spanish Revival) on Main Street and pergola and fountains are pretty much exact copies of what are ubiquitous in the facades along the plaza of downtown salta.

Except in Ojai (which began 100 years prior to northern Euro settlers arrival as a spanish land grant to Ferdinand Tico and before that as mission/conquistador controlled ranchos pretty much the same as nearly all of California, the s. western US as well as the rest of Central and S America further enforcing the reality that the flow of conquest and dominant culture came from south to north... it seems it has always been more dominant and perhaps still is, certainly more so than the original 13 colonists moving from vacuum domicillium to adopting manifest destiny and pushing westward- there was plenty of conquesting and genocide still to be had but the Spanish in particular had already established a very enduring hold in many ways...) missing in our plazas are the busts of generals and the numerous 19th century convents that are common in Salta... We share the stucco and redroof tiles, the sweeping languid pepper trees, sycamores, palms, eucalyptus - and the imported wild mustard and Spanish broom as well.

As we walked through Salta we reached the teleferique (gondola) and rode it to the top of the local mountain yesterday and walked down the road passing dozens of runners, walkers, cyclists. Much cleaner city surrounded by high and greener mountains, lots of blooming flowers and much less trash and prices about 20% cheaper for groceries and at restaurants.

is the spirit Of Mother Earth here in the north. Many days of celebration for her and many blooming flowers and trees in the squares. In the summer all the trees are blooming and it is beautiful."

Without a breath pause he suddenly flipped from mother earth celebrations to a "60% of Argentina tobacco is grown in the salta region." Then he droned on about the shipping Of it to buenos aires for cigarette production and quality of the blond and cj and I instantly thought of mr. Garrote from the tango show. Making sense why he spent so much time here. Definitely a healthy population of smokers... Oxy moron? Hmm... Obviously a huge part of the culture and cultural pride, tje second national pastime after futbol because he is still droning on about cigarillos in his soliloquy 10 minutes later.

We pass Alemania, named for the German railroad workers- it is now a hippie commune of artists. It took rodrigo a few seconds to get my deadpan question Asking if we can buy marijuana from them later at the crafts fair we will stop at.  He quickly continued with "the number of kilometers of train travel went from From 55000 to 8400 km since last century." This I can believe, but rodrigo just unloaded a huge load of horse pucky claiming that condors here mate for life and if the female dies first the male flies high and commits sucide. "But the female no commit suicide if male dies. She finds a younger more handsome condor with green eyes and a bigger nest. No, no last part no true but the male does commit suicide which is why it is the national symbol of Argentina."

Apachetas - pile of stones along 23 thousand km of Incan roads. People would walk the roads and leave something for the spirits there, coca leaves, a stone.. For good luck and For pachamama- and since Incan times so you have now some "very pretty piles of many stones."

"The colors tell you how old he mountains are and what they are made of. The classic argentina postcard from the north. The green color in the rocks for example is from copper and ancient seaweed..." . Hmm...

The driver is surprised and asked to make sure we are from estados unidos. "No from Alemania?" For a second I thought he meant the hippie commune a few Kms back but he really meant Germany.

The driver called us over in the amphitheater to show us an arana pollita (little chicken spider) but it was closer to the size of a regular chicken. He poked at it so we could get a better shot but wouldn't let me use the flash. If I understood the Spanish correctly it sounded like the prehistoric arachnid may be endemic to the Salta region.

At the next stop I remarked to Maureen that the Devil´s Throat, a slot canyon we hiked up, resembled more the devils colon and all us tourists were being excreted out.

Rodrigro was filling us with lots of sound bytes of quality info... Apparently the quick thinking Spanish conquistadores and friars brought crosses that they thrust into all the apachetas they found so the natives could begin to share or supplant their religious values with the catholic cross.., inca roads, sacred spots, highest points.... Someone yelled, "Rodrigo! Condor a la derecha!" But he ignored him to point out a school where kids live and study five days a week, Monday through Friday.

Cardon cactus, sandstone, limestones, conglomerates upthrust and twisted. Llamas tied up for photos at many pullouts and the hippies and locals selling jewelry, ocarinas, ceramic bowls... (When we stopped for a pee break in tiny san roque an Argentine man yelled and clapped his hands for his wife who was inside the tiendita and she came running out bringing pesos for a very lackluster ceramic salsa bowl.) Lots of ruins from colonial times and one looked Incan. Volcanic rock swirled in to the colorful landscape.

The longest argentine river flows through here an gets five or so name changes on its way to the sea. At the next stop we saw the green trunked and branched brea tree contrasting against the red rock. Apparently the hippies in Alemania are always drinking tea made from the leaves for visions. The stocky, very hairy save his shaved head dude took the opportunity to eat some leaves. "No hay problemA!" He said as he grinned at us as he got back in the van.

Somehow I keep thinking of Cheech on the Los Angeles city tour in the timeless classic Born in East LA. "You might be saying to yourself that this landscapes looks on awful lot like Mexico. That is because it once was." Cheech eventually goes crosseyed trying to figure out what the tour guide is saying...

All the tours, and there are many, stop at one giant craft store. They greet you with sweet wine and date samples. Rodrigo made it clear that if we planned to buy souvenirs "this will be a very good place." Maureen and I thought the grinning and over enthused owner had to he the brother of the mayor or the cousin if the minister of tourismo. He blew on an ocarina. "Music!"

For lunch in cafayate we escaped the group as they were suckered in to a set $50 peso meal of little goat stew (cabrillto) and walked around he square on our own to a cafe for pizza and empanadas. I tried to order mate and he tried to ignore me. I asked again and he said in Spanish that I had to go by the mate gourd and bombilla at  the tourist shop next door and he would serve it to me. I though he was kidding but he didn't return with it. I asked again and he made it clear no mate would be served before 5 pm even though it was on the menu. I would be breaking a holy law if the served me. It just is not done. It would have helped my coffee addiction if they would only serve it early in the AM and at 5.

Next it was a tour and tasting at the oldest bodega in Cafayate, Visaja Secreto. I had to excuse my self from the museum/tour as the overwhelmingly heavy smell of ancient wood and spoiled wine with chlorine challenged my grease soaked stomach.

Now we will go and spend 20 minutes to take pictures at the road side where they will no doubt try to charge us to pet and fondle tame llamas... There was quite a build up to this as it was pointed out when we passed in the morning that we would be sure to stop on the way back and this was our second reminder that we were nearly there...

One llama spit at me when I ran out of kernels and still tried to pet it. They were tied to the lacy skeletons if cardon cactus. They ate hard corn kernels that we fed them. Crazy teeth! We never got any purell to clean our hands and I can still feel llama slime on mine. Our guide is horribly congested and sneezing nearly non stop now. Maybe he is allergic to llamas?

The head shaved gorilla is drinking his 5 o'clock mate and sharing it with the driver. The rest alternately gab on cell phones or doze as we drift our way passing a million blurred and blooming roadside daisys and quite a few blood red blowing flags staked to the dirt and tied to tree branches, stacked water bottles and tiny roadside shrines giving homage to Pachamama in the fertile Lerma Valley.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

San Martin, bikinis, blown tires

San Martin, bikinis, blown tires.

Traveling North up hiway 40 the full moon has just set. some 13 hours post Mendoza we are moving into semi temperate nearly tropical geography from scrubby desert. To the west is the impossibly high relief of the Andes from the plains. The plains are green with what look like sugar cane fields stretching like Kansas corn fields as far as the eye can see. But there are also fires and black smoke spewing from burning of garbage in the pueblos and tiny farmsteads. There doesn't seem to be any garbage service. There are Distant rows of trees in lines to mark boundaries, egrets and the first real wide four lane highway. Sunday soccer (futbol) games in all the towns and cities we pass through and in patch of spare flat grass along the hiway.

Easy to imagine all this sugar cane blowing in the light breeze feeding the dulce de leche and coca cola addiction and the millions of cattle slaughtered for daily parillas. The only things supersized in this country seem to be sugar and salt packets that are about 10x the volume of US counterparts, the carne loads at asados and parillas, dulce de leche products, Coke for breakfast lunch and dinner and the Andesmar penchant for shitty pop videos and music blasting all the way to salta, 20 hours worth from dusty hot Tuscon-esque Mendoza.

We were in a serious rush to escape el Tierra del Malbec. We toured a few 120 year old vineyards/bodegas via bicecleta for a mere 35 pesos for the bikes, but each vineyard charged between 30 and 50 for a tour or tastes. We were alerted at Hostel Savigliano. by Salvatore the transplanted Italian, that Maipu was poorer and less snooty and less expensive to visit than its neighboring upscale Lujan.

I asked Salvatore why he gave up on Italy. "Argentina is way better." We were not as moved by the region around Mendoza, not much character - save the two old vineyards most were just a couple years old and relocating here To take advantage of wine tourism with discounts, deals. It is a gateway to the Andes but is shadowed by the lower and less attractive brown and stunted pre cordillera with the snowy majesty of the cordillera hidden behind.

Termas del Cacheuta was a total waste. 1.5 bus ride and we got a one minute soak in the Wally World wannabe with luke warm pools stewing to capacity with over-bloated ancient locals. Over Half the park was shut down since Easter and looked nothing like the photos. Zip tie spines on anthropomorphized grinning cactus to take photos with was the highlight.

Maureen's skimpy swim shorts didn't pass the bikini test and we were promptly ejected from the property and a nightmare ensued trying to get our money refunded because vouchers were bought via upsallata bus line and not at the gate so they refused to refund even though their policy was discriminatory and likely illegal. Upsallata flatly refused to cough up the hundred pesos so I demanded to talk to a manager. the manager happened to be all the way in Peru and laughed in my face when I said it was not my problem but theirs. I was ready to go ballistic as was Maureen.

I decided to walk to the nearby tourist info booth to find someone who spoke English as well as Spanish because everyone else suddenly claimed to be solely mono lingual when an issue of refund arose. The young info woman was shocked when we told her what happened so she accompanied us to the Upsallata counter and within 3 minutes we had 80% refunded. We found out they over charged us 10 pesos earlier but they refused to acknowledge that fact. We were keen to lodge a complaint with the ministry of tourism but were too exhausted.

We made the joint decision to escape mendoza and not trek up 5500 meter Vallecito because we would have to use Upsallata again for transport. When we tried to pay for the bus ticket to Salta it set off alarms at visa and they froze Maureen's card so we had to wander to some 5 banks before we realized it must have been frozen. Then a 15 minute call to answer extremely particular questions about dates and locations of previous transactions from a ticking peso clock at a locutorio to remind visa a second time we were traveling in Argentina and charging things here and not to shut off the card.

We decompressed by hiking several miles through downtown to the far western edge of the city through Parque San Martin, past the zoo and up Cerro Gloria where there was a gargantuan statue of San Martin complete with cavalry, infantry, angels breaking chains memorializing the successful battle with chile. On the coracoles (snail tracks or switchbacks) it seemed each city group or union needed their own cerro gloria memorial with the seemingly canonized and saintly martin.

He apparently slept beneath an apple tree and had a vision near Los arenales and they named the place Manzano Historico and it is quite the pilgrimage site. On the bronze wall o fame the bus drivers union was representing as well as nearly all other sectors of civil society that couldn't be left out had ponied up cash to get their bronzed names with the carved relief of Martin with accompanying angels, peasants, soldiers, indigenous, condors, bare breasted mothers.... seemed like one of these plaques in bronze relief had been commisioned every year since 1900.

We got some scrappy views of the megalopolis to the north south and east through the inversion and haze and between leafy branches of towering eucalyptus as the city scape flowed across the vast flatness that eventually  became the pampas that we had flown over from Santiago two months ago. Flowing unbroken in its flatness all the way to buenos aires and the atlantic.

For a second, looking west to the pre cordillera Andes I thought a bus ride through the Andes from Mendoza to Santiago, due west just 7 hours, sounded fun but Salta would win out. There was said to be extant history in salta, old buildings, indigenous culture still intact, folklorico music at the end of a 20 hour bus ride.

As we hiked down the glorious mountain, really just a dusty cactus strewn hillock some 40 meters high, but the highest thing for a thousand miles to the east- we passed a huge extended family group with photographer/videographer in tow. A young girl grabbed Maureen's arm and made her understand she wanted her picture taken with her. I was a few feet ahead and turned to see them posing and a young man at the bak of the ascending entourage held up his his fingers, one and five. "Quince anos!" The girl had turned 15 and it was part of her quinceniera to climb La Gloria. A big deal in latin cultures to turn 15. I felt a little slighted for not getting to pose as well. We had just posed with signs for our own photos at the opulent statue at the summit for my moms birthday card....

We passed the grand Marley horses, more memorialized busts of generals, before exiting the massive ornate victorianesque gates onto Calle Sarmiento. Not hard to imagine this country as a military dictatorship as it had been for a time just 30 years ago. The constant reminders with busts of generals in every spare patch of browning grass in every city we have been to and the streets named for them in every city...

Just been kicked off our flat tired bus to another with the promise that the flat tired bus will follow us to tucuman city once repaired. It better because our bags are still in its belly. The pudgy coke spilling sweating bus attendant spoke so insanely fast I could scarcely understand a word so had to ask the British girls behind us. A full bus and only a few non Argentinians and pretty much all non tourists are very dark and indigenous looking... I think the north will be quite a different experience.

Running about four hours late... I miss the train.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Argentina Musings and Minutia

Climate change:
-Federico the refugio keeper of piltriquitron in El Bolson said 5 years ago and before never lightning storms, not part of the weather patterns but now with climate change electrical storms are happening at least once a year. I had wondered if lightning was common because on the "w" trek talk they said fire was not a normal part of the Eco system, so it made sense that they did not get lightning/lightning caused fires which is why it was so tragic when the ancient forests burned due to human-stove or cigarettes - as in Paine and near Cerro Torre.

-Ancient cars are the norm here, must not be stringent inspections because many limp along the edges of the roads, sputtering, spewing smoke, often diesel as they are very popular here.
-Most roads in towns are still unpaved in Patagonia.
-Pedestrians don't ever seem to have the right of way.
-Only over the border in Chile were drivers courteous and stopped for us.
-Huge roundabouts some 200 feet across are common.
-As are one way streets, the street sign-if it isn't absent-will tell you the expected direction(s).
-There are a million San Martin streets here, Belgrano, Sarmiento, Moreno in every city. Again, pitting character against history lessons and homogeneity.

-Rain from inside a tent (carpa) always sounds like it is much heavier than it is when you get outside. Same with the wind.
-Zippers have a much shorter life span than u think. Packs, tents, jacket zippers will get wonky at the worst times - esp if you are like me, a cheap bastard, and hangs on to things too long.
-My helmet styrofoam spontaneously combusted three pitches up (while belaying, the most benign action possible) and I had to catch and stuff the pieces in my pocket - but I digress. I guess the lesson is to assess lifespan before committing with that piece of suspect mandatory and potentially irreplaceable piece of gear.

Food and drink:
-Dulce de leche is as ubiquitous as peanut butter is absent.
-I have learned to appreciate Yerba mate and the culture around it. Quite an industry w thermos, gourd, bombilla and tea sales. Hot water is free on the buses and most places give it out free as well. "Wait for the music of the mate!" Sllluurrrpp... "Ok es fin!" And apparently you cannot say gracias if you still want to get reloads as gracias means you have had enough.
-Red sauce on pizza is not popular. Generally they have no sauce. Eggs on pizza is popular. Pizza is homogenized, expect zero character beyond the expected mediocrity.
-don't come to Argentina for the cheese. It is worse than Turkish wine...
-tenedor libre (free fork) are all you can eat places. Bano libre lights up on the omnibus LED screen along with time and temp to let u know the bathroom is free. We went to a pizza libre and found out they cut you off at 12 slices...
-it's not exactly food but tampons with plastic applicators never made it over the border, we looked high and low.

-Politically we have heard some strange things here... That Local Bariloche citizens had an election for a new mayor and pressure to vote is said to be applied by potential denial of passports for travel.
-Also in Bariloche An intense group of fire fighters for the park service blew whistles and banged on snares and other drums quite intensely, hung banners at the park headquarters in el centro for multiple mornings demanding better working conditions.
-As many as 30k were among the disappeared during the more gnarly military regime from 79 and 83. I imagine the older generation still have many scars from this era.
-Close to 10 presidents in just two weeks in 2003 I believe.
-Seeing graffiti demanding a stop to immigration and "anti-yanqi"... Seems to be an undercurrent against US policy and animosity toward Israelis in general, blaming the whole country they are from instead of the individuals (who were supposedly israeli) for the fires in the two National parks. I suppose I would find some similar negative currents within the US if I paid attention too...
-Margaret Thatcher passing was reported on the radio and seemed to make the very dower Refugio keeper smile with delight, the first and only time we witnessed any sort of mirth from him. (Graham- who is English- clued me in to this observation as we hung out in the refugio together staying dry from the storm) No love lost on the British empire as evidenced with Islas Malvinas/Falklands. I think this year marks the 30th anniversary of the "war". Thatcher's response was more intense than expected by the undertrained and ill equipped argentine army... They are still pissed. I think Britain likes the Falklands/Malvinas most as a jumping off point for their stake in the Antarctic.

Patagonia Express

Patagonico Express
Castelano is spoken in Argentina - four types Of Spanish apparently, according to Alexi, the very nice older man that shares his yerba mate with us and is fond of saying, "Deutschland Über Alles" and then conspiratorially "shh, shh!"

He left Buenos Aires for Bariloche, a Porteno but he felt overrun by Peruvians, uraguayans, Paraguayans. More tranquilo in Bariloche and better fishing. He worked for the oil industry in Venezuela, Guyana, Ecuador, brazil and spent a year in Germany learning German and a year in the states. For half an hour he showed us cell phone shots of miami, North Dakota where his son lives and he goes fishing, and finally of coastal venezuela, very green and lush rolling hills. According to Alexi they speak a different language in chile and in Mexico. He graciously encouraged me to speak in Spanish and said if I stayed three months I would be fluent. He is fond of talking with miming and heavy gesticulation. Loves to talk incessantly and share wisdom. Like why he dislikes miami because it is the door to the US and too many foreigners there. Too many blacks for him in the Caribbean. When i asked if the food was good on the train he shook his head. "Food on trains is never good, not anywhere in the world."

Alexi Bakes his own bread which he enjoys eating as evidenced by his belly and uses fake sugar in his 5 o clock mate and drinks diet Pepsi. He tells us to share with others that we are German and not gringos, that we will be treated better. Small evidence of this in Bariloche- spray paint on a wall on Salta street said "Anti-yanqi" and in a heladaria I had a young man purposely withhold the proper change and I had to ask for it - but that could have been merely because I didn't look Argentinian, or was incapable of counting which I can't really fault him for. I point out to Alexi that that his name is Not German but Russian. He shakes his head... "Slovenski - but from a very long time ago."

The train rocks and bucks like an angry horse at times when we pick up speed, thumps into the darkness but I like it more than the buses. Totally different crowd, almost all locals. You can easily walk around, more room, no traffic at all, not passing four semis at once, just pushing onward into the vastness.

Western Patagonia is not rock starved the four hours we have before dark we see dozens of crags, from a dozen meters high to a few hundred. Granite, conglomerate, basalt columns, flowing sandstone... Estancias drift by. pulling into tiny towns and getting to hop off and shoot a few photos in the dust of rusting car bodies, the daisy patches and old water towers, ramshackle houses... The backside of Patagonia most tourists never see.

Blue blinking sign "Hotel" next to the train station in Ingeniero Jacobacci, close to half way across-. We have been stopped a while now. 8 year old and toddler in front of us are jumping around, toddler getting vocal. I think they are waiting for the 9pm dinner seating. The second is at 11pm. Sergio was right to call Argentinians vampires.

8:30 pm and I am worked from the high calorie last three days at Frey and the hike in and out. Maximized weather window and remaining time in Bariloche as well as in the vertical but it took a toll... Had to buy patches for my bulging disk in my back, 400 mg IBU... Spent 90 pesos or nearly 20$ and had to get a taxi to the train station so I could avoid carrying my two packs... I bought a 10 peso cold soda at the hostel whilst waiting for the taxi which was as close to icing as I could get. On one of he cruxes at pitch four before traversing beneath a large roof I twisted into a corner and felt a bang in my back and massaged it back in and it improved. But hiking out with some extra weight added some more recovery time... My attempts to roll out the spasm with the Nalgene bottle managed only minute success. Slowly improving as Maureen's stomach bug appears to be too. Luckily it did not take much convincing to get a taxi from the hostel.

The train is proving positive for injury recovery -provided we can get some sleep, that is if the vampires let us, and the teen ruffians. To my suspicious mind the skinny jeaned bad haircutted ipod listening way too young to be smoking gutter punks appear to be touring the train cars for potential thievery items once their owners have passed out. A little strange to travel with both our large packs - above us, we buckled them in so they wont kill us as long as they don't topple - and our day packs at our feet. Alexi has mentioned several times to guard my camera adding to my growing paranoia. The toddler is screaming more regularly, train is pulling out. Kind of wish I had a sleeping pill... Maybe I have some earplugs... Hmm...

Train system in Argentina was said to be awesome before it was privatized I think in the 1989 and since it had suffered, fallen into disrepair, service disregular.1855, or perhaps a bit before, it got underway. Now the Patagonia express runs once a week from Bariloche and in the last few years there have been a few heinous crashes injuring hundreds and killing dozens but these have apparently been the commuter train around Buenos Aires. Maureen just had the unnerving epiphany that it may be difficult to know, if not impossible, when we pull in to our stop at San Antonio de oeste... It will likely be dark, 4 or 5 AM and they announce nothing... Our bus connection is from San Antonio, not the end of he line in Viedma some 180k beyond.

Viewing the landscape at 3;30 AM I get the sense I am trapped inside my own museum diorama, not really shutting across Patagonia but merely in a swaying, creaking prop. I can reflect with a keen feeling of contentment on Frey. It seems to induce a sense of intensity perhaps from the slim weather or knowing the best climbers haunt the place. Immediately I felt strong and confident soloing up the chimneys next to Frey and the raps from Diedro de Jim. FFA via Jim donini- when I talked to him a few years back he said he had done some 40 expeditions to Patagonia I can see why. Bosco had been climbing just four months and was leading 6b which in Frey is a hell of a feat. Santiago, the other Refugio caretaker was a mountain guide and was "resting" at Frey having summited Aconcagua 10 times. I bought Bosco a beer the after he belayed me and shivered much of the way up a windy ascent of Sifuentes-Weber. He told me how the best, very strong climbers come there. This summer a team simul climbed the 5 piches of SW in 11 minutes. He saw a guy solo it (integral) in just 25 minutes w a rope on his back to rap... Bosco was kind enough to belay me in the last pitch so I could summit just before it got dark even though he stayed at the belay while I cleaned the pitch on rap. His fourth day on for climbing and had to be coerced to do SW, well after 3.30 pm and with the wind made it clear that he may opt to rap before the summit.

Bosco admitted to grabbing gear at the roof traverse and I knew from his tone at the spot,even not knowing the Spanish words, that he didn't want me to pull him off around the blind corner by belaying him too tightly. Once safely across he lit up a cigarette and I blitzed up the final pitch in pure flow mode, and u realized pretty much the whole route flowed. It had to given the time constraints, two ropes, Patagonian wind gusts, route finding on lead/onsight. Nothing was too hard but it kept me totally focused knowing I did not have the luxury to bumble around.

At the belays I could barely make out Mauren at our tent behind the Refugio where she was getting some good shots of us with my 300mm. I had brought the Panasonic but when I pulled it out just after i left the belay on pitch three the battery was dead.

Maureen complimented me saying I moved pretty efficiently, and wasnt slowed down much. Bosco said thickly accented, "you are a very good climber." It was nice things went smoothly, I felt like I had effectively channeled some good Frey juju and climbed honorably bringing my years worth of pitches in Yosemite valley and Joshua tree into "the fray" pardon the pun - even though there had been quite a span of time since I was vertical in either. The stone and how it climbed was reminiscent of both places, the color of jtree monzo granite and usually spaced bolts and runouts to anchors but splitter like Yosemite valley and finer grained like grano diorite... Lots if museum quality pitons I chose to avoid (although some were bomber), opting for thin gear or the odd nut placement. The metolious TCUs were magic and I never felt compromised even when spacing gear.

Maureen had our pasta dinner well under way when I returned to the tent site. I was amazed that just an hour after getting off the climb the sky went from cloud free to fully clouded over in what seemed a 10 minute span. As we pulled sleeping bags over us I could here the first drops of rain spatter the tent, brought in by massive wind gusts that twisted and pushed the tent down at least a foot. It was a hard night for sleeping but I was quite content thinking about the Elysium quality of the stone, M2, diedro (dihedral), good gear just when you needed it, watching the sun light up different parts of the valley below as it moved past the dizzying array if vertiginous spires... Truly a magical place and I felt I had truly maximized the day and half weather window.

I slept surprisingly well, till 3am. Writing this in the pre dawn darkness Alexi sees I am awake and speaks to me in whispered Spanish i cannot understand. He finally gives up and forces his loaded mate cup and thermos into my hands from over the top of the seat.

Sadly we were nearly to the minute of our scheduled ETA pulling in to San Antonio, and had left Bariloche at the stroke of 3. And I thought German trains were punctual. Now we have to sit and wait three hours till daylight and the bus "terminal" is a half hour walking from here. So we sit in the station, our four packs and red hobo food bag sprawled out on the bench with a heavy urine smell from the toilets mixing with the idling diesel of the patagonico express just behind us out the station doors as we swat at flys and stare at the peeling paint in the moldy ceiling water - damaged concrete ceiling where old light fixtures once hung. Climbing ivy has made it across a thin wire spanning the two support columns in the middle of the mezzanine, the four foot tall stoic conductor in starched dark blue uniform buys something from the tiny kiosco beneath the Virgin Mary icon.

Two bus companies operate from here, Los grutas and central argentino but of course not AndesMar. Two Los grutas buses are parked literally on the beach and in tide pools advertising the trip on the photo wallpaper of the sheetrock office housed within the station.

The train was kept quite clean by the small army of attendants, had been remodeled in 1994 but looks to be circa 1950 vintage with its pale pastel sky blue and yellow interior decor. Reminds me of the soviet era trains I rode in Romania. Preserved almost in a state of decay like the ghost town of Bodie in California. Headrest chaises with holes, seat recliner buttons that have dissapeared. Cracked plastic faux marble bathroom walls, windows coated in dust and streaked from the last rain.

the Patagonico Express has its other world charm for sure. When we asked if we could load our luggage in the luggage car they said sure but made us understand we really didn't want to. "Muy sucio." Everything in there gets coated in the fine sandy Patagonian desert pampa dust.

At 6am the train has finally pulled away and I poke my head out of the front of the station. A taxi pulls away into the darkness and I can hear distant roosters and dogs but all else is still. Distant streetlights blaze through scrappy eucalyptus trees but it will still be dark for nearly two more hours.. It's going to be a long stint till 4 pm when our bus arrives, then we have some 24 hours of highway time... I think Maureen hates me for imposing this ridiculous 24 hour travel detour "it just seems ridiculous... Especially while I am on my period."

I suggest asking for a map so we can walk to the bus terminal. "This town isn't even mentioned in Lonely Planet, they won't have one..."

We endure dozens of flys at the andesmar station and I manage to catch moments of sleep while sitting despite the flys. A pack of a dozen street dogs pee on the door, screw, fight, chase bicyclists, run from the angry men at the taxi office next door as they throw chunks of clanging metal at them.

We find ourselves being incredibly critical of the town that for good reason never sees tourists, many of the locals twist their faces at us and one woman in a shop clears who throat loudly letting us know we are not welcome. Garbage is strewn all over, it's dusty, dismally grey with coastal fog and in desperate need of a dog catcher with piles of poop everywhere. We spend an hour in a small park that is filled with weeds and garbage, the climbing structures are falling apart and one of the chained, hanging oil drum "bulls" lays broken on the ground.

The bus is an hour late and we are in near panic mode of the thought of spending a night in San Antonio Oeste... A shrieking screaming toddler is chased the entire lost hour non-stop by his parents and grandmother as he grabs dozens of tossed cigarette butts, dog poop, tossed yerba mate detritus... Neither of us have ever been so excited to see a bus arrive.

Officially expressed out of Patagonia and back from the flat east coast to the skirt of the Andes, now much taller and snow capped. At 18 hours deep a close call in traffic. Our first heavy braking display in several thousand Km worth of bus rides. Our driver almost rear ends a semi at a light - nor sure if he is pissed because he had to follow him slowly. They are singing along to ranchera sounding music in the cockpit and we assume that might be part of the issue. A minute later he runs us aground on the bus terminal curb. The couple carrying the newborn off nearly smash it into the seat. Then, just two minutes later as we leave town we cross a busy intersection and we hear the driver yell from below, "Hola amor!" A woman in tights and tight black shirt waiting to cross the street holds up her middle finger at him. Lots of chuckles from passengers but it makes me a little nervous how compromised our driver might be... There are supposed to be two drivers and they swap out but they could be doing speed to stay awake - often here girls and guys laughing non-stop from the flight deck below... Who knows... Makes wish there was more complete train service here...

Monday, April 22, 2013

From Frey to Eternity...

I would say Frey lives up to the hype of being one of the best alpine crags in Sud America... well, I havent been to any others  yet but it was pretty rad and fairly sandbagged. Bosco, the refugio keeper belayed me on 6 stellar pitches so I got to lead all of Sifuentes-Weber on the Frey and Diedro y Jim, both rated 5plus which seems to be a catch all rating from anything 5.8 to 10b. Rapped SW in the dark. Bosco smoked at every belay and spoke perhaps a touch more english than I did Spanish. M2, a beautiful spire perched above the lake rewarded with a sweet single pitch crack, like 9plus in yosemite grades and an excellent 6b immediately right with overhanging hands. Stunning positioning over lago toncek. Poured rain the last night with the fierce Patagonia wind gusts. At 6 am Maureen woke to the alarm of diareah and vomitting. I added some weight to my 70 pounds of gear for the hike out so she could make the walk unencumbered. She kept the pack for an hour having perhaps zero strength, dont know how she did it... today we catch the 14 hour train to the dusty town of san antonio oeste, a slight detour to watch the sunset behind the andes via locomotive rather than bus. then its a 24 hour bus to mendoza - we both need the recovery time... to drool over Arenales, the other standout alpine Andean crag and wish we had more time and warmer temps...

Thursday, April 18, 2013

W Trek explosion cameo

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=iY0geByX0VAStove explosion Here is my 10 seconds of infamy caught by a rouge videographer whilst on the W Trek a few weeks ago in Chilean Patagonia. The scream at the end is Maureen's...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

El Gato Negra

El Gato Negra
We were informed by the Belgian there are More psychologists per person in Argentina then in any other country in the world... Hmmm... We met him for a beer after trekking the same route through Frey to Jakob. At Refugio Frey he had his tent up next to us. The local cat-named El Gato Negra-we had seen duck into his tent a half our before so we told him. He checked his open pack in the vestibule and said, "this cat likes vegetables. And he has eaten half a boiled egg! This cat and I are going to have a talk." Just then El Gato Negra leapt out from his tent as He was still leaning into his pack. He shrieked and Maureen and I nearly keeled over from laughter. Two days Later, he caught up to us as we both descended early and escaped the rain that was hovering over Refugio Jakob and the pass to Lago Negra on our way back to town. he shrugged off being interviewed because his story would be bitter but agreed it could be healing, cathartic. The rainy eve before we sat in the dimly lit Refugio and heard stories of being close to the frontline in Chechnya and many other war torn countries. "There is something exciting about being in a place after a war. Hope, rebuilding... " He and Maureen talked of the magic healing from EMDR which he had firsthand experience with.

Over 20 years of contracts w UN - doctors wout borders etc and been to dozens of countries. Rebels would steal UN rigs and repaint them but u could still see the UN emblem under the paint but now they had mounted guns on them. He very much wants to return to Whakan corridor and northern Afghanistan, thinks it is getting stable enough for trekking. Loves 10 to 15 day treks. Tall, thin, easy to laugh and quite witty- I hope he finds his way...

We also spent time with A Brit on the trek that we had met at the Cerro Catedral bus stop. He had just made it back from a 3.5 month stint at Halley in the British Antarctic where he pounded nails on the new Base and they enforce a two can limit of beer per night. Turns out we had been shadowing each other for the last month. He was trekking Torres del Paine the same time we were there and we stayed at campo Italiano the same night the stove exploded there. Apparently the cell phone video is on you tube. That same night i Saw the video on the phone and I am wandering around looking quite clueless waiting for it to explode.

He was in Chalten trekking and climbing the same time we were there as well but we only ran into him in Bariloche. Along with the Belgian we all spent an evening sheltered from the howling wind and rain in the Jakob Refugio. He shared that he had incredibly vivid dreams the first few weeks while at the bottom if the world. He climbed a stellar ice route in a sea cliff and hung out a day with a few hundred thousand emperor penguins but beside those couple forays spent 50+hour weeks in carpenter mode and in the first month never saw the sun dip below the horizon, one super long day.

We managed some sweet boulders problems and a solo on the super solid gneiss near Lago Jakob in the hour before the storm came in. He would wait out the storm the next day hoping to be able to cross the 4th class pass to Laguna Negra to finish the Nahuel Huapi Traverse. We traded emails because if he couldn't make it he would come back to bariloche and we could climb locally the day before his bus left. In his email he said the boulders we were on were covered in ice the day the Belgian and Maureen and I hiked out.

I got an email the following day letting me know he was back in town. He had spent the day with an Argentine army unit that showed up at the Refugio soaked to the bone and together they all decided they would try to cross the pass the following day. His mild fears , he confided, of being British in a country that had been invaded by England and lost just slightly before he was born proved unfounded. The Falklands, or Islas Malvinas as the Argentinians still obstinately call them, were fought over with guns the Argentinians had used in  WWII. On a bike ride a few years prior from Los Angeles to Argentina he had been yelled at by a police officer who was not a fan of Margaret thatcher. Strange that she had died the day before we got to Jakob Refugio.

We climbed together with the Brit the following day at piedras blancas. When we arrived an army unit was also there training, lead climbing in fatigues...

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Guardeparque of El Chalten

The Guardeparque of El Chalten

"Thee old lady who owns the property ees very seek in thee hospital so we can climb there now." I asked an El Chalten climbing guide about the supposed private property issue and the attractive multi pitch wall that the Andean condors favored that flanked town just over the meandering Rio Vuelta. When Maureen and i had gone to the parque office and visitor center earlier for climbing info The Guardeparque ranger told us the police would come and arrest us if we climbed there. "Oh, America, you understand the Leave No Trace? OK, very good.  If you camp out of bounds i will find your tent and ship it by by bus back to El Calafate. If you break the rules i will call the police or the army -you understand?"

And that if we planned on hiking near Rio Electrico and over Marconi Pass we had to check with the army first and the Chilean government because it was outside the park and Argentina boundary. "I have spent a lot of time in the Antarctic and the weather there is very much the same, it can change very fast and get very cold."

The ranger had a strong edge to him which at first pissed me off till I saw that it was just his way of relating and that he was actually very involved and cared about his Parque- but it was a good thing we weren't Israeli. "They burned down 40% of Torres del Paine," he told us matter of factly. The next group after us was a handful of Israelis and he was telling them, "I need copies of your health insurance for you to hike to Lago Tore so we  know who to call when you get injured... No. No fish in the lake." Why are there no fish there asked an Isreali. "Because there is NO fish."

The woman ranger earlier told me to go ahead and look at whatever climbing log I wanted to and I was. "Do not take anything out I will get it for you." He stopped mid-sentence to confront me as he was helping another couple. I was reading about first ascent descriptions on Poincenot. I said ok and kept reading. He kept glaring and Maureen said to put it back. I said oh, you mean I can't take it out of the bookcase, i thought you meant the binder... He glared another second till I put it back and then continued talking to the couple.

Ranger Danger we nicknamed him. He also told us we needed to register to climb anything locally, not just the Fitz Roy range but all the local crags around town. "It is not because we want to charge you but for your safety."

Before leaving we asked the woman ranger if we needed to register as we planned to climb around town later and she waved her hand and smiled, "just for the mountains."

We later wandered to the boulders north of town and met a sunburnt Australian from Newcastle. He had three pads set up for an overhanging highball problem he was working alone. We must have looked like lost tourists wandering off the trail to Lago Capri as his first words to us were. "Climb much?" Trying a bit of Aussie understatement I said, A bit. I asked about local trad routes on the cliffs surrounding town hoping to put the gear I had lugged to the bottom of the earth to good use. He told us to check out the multi pitch wall over the river next to town. -Will the police come and arrest us? He looked at me curiously, "I have seen people climbing on it every day since I have been here and so far no one has been arrested."

At 6 pm we came back for a visitor center talk that had been billed as a flora and fauna talk and the woman ranger swore she had no idea what it was about, "some people outside the park are doing it." I had asked about the climbing videos the lonely planet guide said they did every day at 3 but she said the TV had broken last year.

We hiked to a mirador above Lago Viedma and our return put us at the ranger station at 6. At the talk ranger danger was there and seemed thrilled the small exhibit room was packed with people. He excitedly handed out more chairs to those coming in, knelt and  interacted with the little kids. He was a totally different person.

It turned out to be a promo for a photographer/video duo which they claimed was really a plug for Patagonian wildlife and their book that was said to be forth coming but the loud rock opera presentation by German the video dude who was the obvious salesman/marketing member of the team stood in stark contrast to the almost mute presentation of the female still photographer. I heard German say  several times the words national geographic, Audubon, New Yorker... It was all in Spanish so I asked in English at the end what percent of the epic bird and animal photos were from captive situations. Instantly I got a response out of the tight lipped woman. ""Less than one percent. If you understood the Spanish we are producing a book on the wildlife of Argentina because there really is none."

The image stills and video clips had spun on along at a dizzying pace with both rock and symphony like some nouveau  vaudevillian show with their photo clients mixed in at opportune moments with crazy expensive cameras giving huge thumbs up because they were getting good pics if wildlife. Much of it seemed too close as the animals often charged and interacted with the photographers, snapping crocs, charging elephants. sentence in English appeared between photos saying "13 times stuck in the mud, 8 flat tires and five years later we are still at it." I think I lost consciousness when they began listing the # of times they had visited all of the globes photo hot spots.

After a week we managed some 8 pitches varying from chossy to sweet volcanic sport and stellar Yosemite style splitter rope stretchers - and never saw the police or the army and managed to keep our tent as well.

The El Bolson Bus and Blisters

Escaped Chalten at 3.45 am. -bus was on time. Now the International crew of passengers is pacing outside the Taqsa/Marga bus with overpriced fanta, Chips and Popsicles in the light breeze of a newish frontier town servicing central Patagonian route  40. 10 minute break turning to 20 as the driver opens the back hatch and bangs musically on engine parts with a metal pipe, then he walks around the bus with his attendant and they take turns hitting the tires...

 Three thick accented and sweating Irish from Cork find me tapping on my phone at the gas station corner. They light up cigarettes and surround me and we swear together about the blazing heat on the bus. "What the fouck is the problem? They got the heat and A/C on at the same time and its foucking crazy hot." Maureen is stoked she opted out of the long underwear layer.

About a third of the 24 hours covered so far. half has been on dirt with a surprising amount of wildlife beyond the fence line that parallels the endless road on either side at a 100 feet.

Wary knots of nandu, guanaco, spectral looking white sheep run from the fencline across the drab rolling landscape... more birds, water tanques, horses, estancias, trees... Much more than we saw coming down the atlantic side. Higher elevation... parts of the little town are flooded despite the piercing blue sky of the last week.

When we got to El Relincho where we base camped in el chalten the Gaucho that ran the horseback trips from there told me the heavy rain and wind we had that day was, " Normal... Ayer (when we had sun the day before) es exepccional." But we have had a straight week of blazing sun and more sun in the forecast. Ranger danger had told us that, "with climate change the weather changes faster and stronger. If you go prepared for it you are ok." I wish that wisdom worked here in the super-heated bus because I would be prepared to strip down if I had to but i might get arrested.

 We were promised breakfast lunch and dinner when we purchased the ticket and also got a spanish lesson from the ticket seller, "Quanto, no quando... It's noon now and still no sign of any food or drink.

The bus driver stops on the near straight arrow hiway next to another Taqsa bus that is heading south. After hugging They stand in the middle of the highway and share a cigarette. Then the drivers switch buses and we are on our way again.

Dead Patagonian fox in a roadside ditch. ahead are finally snowy peaks on the horizon to break up the low swell and sweep of lonely valleys. Still no food or drink at 1.20. Thank god we have emergency rations of sugary cookies and chocolateria chocolate. Now the A/C is cranked. brrr... Bastards...

It's now 1:40. "They aren't going to feed us, they f***ing lied. I am going to write lonely planet," says Mauren. I say it will be like the soccer team that crashed in the Andes. "Oh I will eat you before you eat me," she says. I tell her I probably wouldn't taste very good. "You're right. Probably like dirty feet."

Hmmm... Time to ruminate on my feet. Popping and squirting blister lymph from clear to white to light red has been an almost daily ritual. I have been looking forward to the long bus rides as times to heal my feet and to write. Lesson learned - Never will I again invest in thermal boots for trekking because they do not breathe and hold in the sweat for my feet to swim in.

Blisters will appear on top of old ones or underneath old blisters and even deep beneath callouses. several thousand hikes backpacking in the Grand canyon and i had one blister. so i didn't wear the boots at all yesterday and instead wore my sandals to give the toes a break even though i was tempting back the plantar fasciitis which has amazingly mostly abated. Now I have a painful crack in my heal from the switch up and the hair-clogged drains and scummy showers at El Relincho meant my endlessly safety pin punctured and split skinned meant my feet were swimming in heinous bacteria in my much needed scalding hot 2 am shower.

The feet definitely take a hit when traveling. While transfixed on on the grandeur of Fitz Roy I kicked an imbedded stone on the trail a week ago and had for a few days a decently sprained big toe I thought I had hairline fractured. Stuffed in old stinky climbing shoes, callouses pealing off, dried out skin crying for moisture... My dogs is tired.

Just after two we arrive at a half horse town of bajo caraole. The sandwiches at the tiny hotel/gas station/market/bar go too fast. I ask the drivers if we will be fed. "A noche." We pass a skeleton of some large ungulate in the dust and broken glass at the edge of the road. Ruta 40, for all its tourist hype, is so far just a long windy high desert road with occasional western views of the chain of Andes in the pale inky distance perhaps 50 miles away.

Perito Moreno was an early settler and explorer of Patagonia. We just passed through the sad and amazingly unpicturrsque town that bears his name. Poor guy. Not far is the massive lake and views of the Andes with twinklings of glistening glaciers and snowfields that still seem ridiculously out of reach as we parallel them.

 It seems Argentina is working on a massive but stifled project to pave much of the unpaved sections of Ruta 40. I think I counted 6 workers total in a couple hundred miles worth of grading and barranca channeling projects. We appeared to get lost in the construction zone and pulled a 180 at one point. The fence, unbroken, that borders either side of he highway is truly a work of architectural greatness, unwavering in its following of the highway curves. If they can do that I am sure the hiway is within grasp someday. The economy by most accounts is going to hell. Scrambling for the more stable US dollar the unofficial rate is 8 to one where the banks is 5 to 1.

We talked a while at mar del plata with a lifeguard who was also an accountant for several big hotels and a father of twins, had backpacked through Europe pre fatherhood. He told us the US is set up like a pyramid with its structuring of it government. He put a straight finger in his hand and said, "Argentina is like this... So one day the government flips and you go from having enough to having nothing. There is no security."

The innkeeper from Texas at the Tin House hostel in Puerto Natales Chile told us the same. "Argentina is screwing themselves in many ways. Chile is different." I asked if there was corruption in Chile. She said not like in Mexico but that there was Nepotism, political favoritism. A statue in town had recently been replaced because the mayor was buddies with the sculptor so a bust of a previous mayor was yanked out and replaced by a coal miner and cash flowed to the mayor's sculptor buddy. P Natales claim to fame is an ice age 4 meter tall sloth and another life size statue, this one a sloth, greets you as you enter town and appears next to the names on all the street signs looking a bit like a ghostly Barney or teletubbie.

Waiting for the bus this morning I overheard a loud American telling an Isreali how he plans to have US dollars wired to Santiago Chile so as to not be beholden to the bank exchange rate for Argentinian Pesos. "Nobody wants Argentinian pesos, they are worthless." The Chileans certainly don't, nor do the Argentinians.

We pass numerous roadside crash-site shrines with saints and tiny churches that look dog houses. Many are stacked with bottles of unopened water, presumably for the thirsty spirits that still wander the high desert hiways. Many of the people that live here and that seem to have indigenous blood are short and wide, built like plugs. Reminds me of the stout trees and shrubs, none growing more than a couple of meters high for a thousand miles in seemingly all directions. built to withstand the biblical Patagonia winds and this harsh landscape.

Occasionally the buses have stopped in the vast emptiness, nothing but a gated lone dirt road leading from the hiway and a gaucho would step off, shoulder a bag and walk into the void. At night it is like being lost at sea. A faint light occasionally appears way off in the inky darkness, a few cars might pass each hour.