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Homage to Patagonia

High adventure at the bottom of the world.

Jan 25, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 18 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego

Homage to Patagonia

The passenger windows frame nothing but Patagonian steppe—no roads, farms, domesticated animals—but the plane descends relentlessly and, at the last moment, El Calafate’s runway appears beneath its wheels. This tarmac was laid 10 years ago to service the growth in Adventure Travel, a passion of Baby Boomers refusing to go gently (or any other way) into the good night and hastening to remote destinations that new infrastructure makes not too daunting—e.g., after the locals have heard of vegetarians.

Our group is demographically mixed. There are three tough nuts in their seventies: Dan, a field geologist and recent age-group medalist at the Nordic World Ski Championships; and Bob and Dave, scoutmasters before the Boy Scouts switched from hiking and camping and hunting to computer programming, recycling, and AIDS awareness-raising. Bob used to march his charges 700 miles per year, and if they or their parents complained, he told them to find something else to do. Dave, retired from teaching elementary school, is a minimalist: While the rest of us were wrapped head to toe in high-tech climate-control synthetics, he seemed to have been outfitted at Sears Father’s Day sales. If this were a movie, Dave would be the quiet, unassuming guy with 12 bodies buried in the back garden and some filets in the freezer.

The remainder consists of Dana, a thirtysomething radiologist, and five authentic Boomers: Rick, who leads trips like this throughout the world (Nepal, Mongolia, Bhutan); Rebecca and Terry, a married couple who compete regularly in triathlons; and me and my significant other, Anne. Last year, she and I and Terry and Rebecca Adventure Traveled with Rick to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. That had a natural story line, but this trip is more of a highlight reel: treks in two national parks and a journey to Ushuaia, southernmost city in the world (with the southernmost golf course, a nine-holer).

All the campsites are cushy: A trekking company has packed in food and tents, by llama when necessary, and supplied an employee to cook. Our first four days are spent in Argentina’s Parque Nacional los Glaciares and dominated by the sight, in fluctuating light and clouds, of the Fitzroy Massif and Cerro Torre—8,000-foot granite walls that offer some of the most technically demanding and dangerous climbing in the world. Cerro Torre, a delicate, scary spire, plays the Chrysler Building to the Fitzroy’s Empire State, a jagged tusk. Though the summits are only 11,000 feet, and we’re mostly below 3,000, the glaciers and immense rock faces give the scene a big mountain look.

There was no guarantee they would be visible—Patagonian weather is “changeable”—yet the mountains were almost always out. Snows lingering through a late spring blocked one of our routes; and rain and high winds nixed a plan to strap on crampons and noodle around low-angle ice at the bottom of Glacier Grande. But the pyrotechnic blooms of fire bush are ubiquitous, small orchids have begun to appear, and we walk through a geologist’s dream—or an eighth-grader’s nightmare, a tangible display of vocabulary (moraines, glacial striations, intrusions, folds) that Earth Science class struggles to pound into adolescent heads. Dan—endorphins kicking in?—releases Too Much Information: He’s going commando.

We pause above cascades that plunge into a glacial river. I remove boots, dislodge one, and watch in horror as it tumbles toward the cliff’s edge—then catches on a shrub just before launching into space.

“When I saw that boot go sailing past,” Anne says, “I just knew it had to be yours. So typical.”

We leave the park and take a boat to watch the Perito Moreno glacier calve huge blocks of ice into the lake at its foot. The face is three miles across and reaches more than 200 feet above us, its scale difficult to grasp from photos that don’t show the boat. The ice looks tormented—wracked and split like some sinner in hell—and I recall that the innermost circle of Dante’s Inferno is frozen.

The drive to Torres del Paine requires prolonged paperwork on leaving Argentina and, just down the road, entering Chile. Our guide Facundo and the bus driver pass a mate (pronounced “mah-tay”) gourd back and forth, sharing its straw. The ritual: Fill the gourd with leaves from your five‑pound bag; recharge with hot water until the leaves are spent; scrape out used leaves; repeat, for miles on end.

“Hey, Facundo,” I say, channeling my mother, “how often do you run that baby through the dishwasher?”

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