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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?”

Mountain guides, park rangers, credentialed photographers at viewpoints—all have great hair, cool shades, sharp uniforms. They are, Anne says, “gorgeous”—Ché without the murderous sociopath business—whereas the male norm in our group is nerd. Nerds lengthily discuss timber and mining potentialities; optimal siting of electrical generating equipment; durability and maintainability of various road surfaces; water seepage through moraine and earth dams.

The Cuernos del Paine overlook our first camp in Chile, a stunning sculptural group of mountains that’s like an assemblage of colossal chessmen. We plan on the “W” route up and back three valleys to (weather permitting) spectacular views of mountains and the Patagonian ice cap.  One leg ascends a steep moraine to the base of the Towers of Paine (pronounced “PAH-ee-nay,” though “Towers of Pain” doesn’t seem inappropriate), thousand‑meter blades of vertical granite. The central tower was not climbed until 1963. We’ve packed in bottles of Argentinean wine and hold a cocktail hour beside the tents, Dana pouring the malbec into our canteens.

It takes 500 miles, not all of them paved, and another double border-crossing to reach Ushuaia. We see condor (10-foot wing span), caracara (a mere four feet), rhea (New World ostrich), ibis, flamingo, and guanaco (related to llamas but, we’re told, good for nothing). Signs warn of land mines—the Argentina/Chile border has been fraught—but we see no direct evidence, such as exploding guanaco, of their presence. The proprietress of a roadhouse shows us her pet condor; blind in one eye, it bobs and weaves to take us in, ignoring the cat tearing strips off its dinner, a sheep’s head past its prime. Heaps of bottled water are shrines to an unofficial local saint, Deolinda Correa. She died of thirst in the desert, the story goes, but her infant son was found alive, days later, miraculously nursing at her breast.

After the hypnotic hours of semi-desert, a pageant of magical names and half-remembered history unfolds: Straits of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego (passing from steppe to wetter, greener mountains), the Gari-
baldi Pass, the Beagle Channel—where Ushuaia, ringed by snowy mountains, sits on a bay—and over the horizon, beyond the island cluster that defines Cape Horn, the Drake Passage.

For a few hours we cruise the Beagle Channel. The water, surprisingly, is calm, the sky sunny, and Mount Darwin, normally hidden by clouds, in full view. A camera pulling back would disclose our small knot of tourists standing on a hill, that sits on an island, that lies in a channel, that has a different ocean at each end—and would stop, having reached an unobstructed view of the end of the world.

David Guaspari is a writer in Ithaca.

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