Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

The great up, up, up

15 December 2010. Wednesday.
So, um, a week has passed and more. Besides the number of days themselves, we’ve also passed through three climates, 1,000 kilometres, and various versions of wine-flavoured ice-cream. When in Mendoza, do as the Mendozans – and that means waffle cones full of merlot.

To catch up to here – I caught the Bariloche-El Bolson bus by the skin of my teeth, as it transpired, with the operating company being different from the ticketing agent. Word to the wise: always good to ask every bus driver you see whether he’s driving the bus you want. More reliable than simply knowing the destination signs, the bus logos, or the scheduled parking bays.

Anyhoo, the 2-hour ride south was mostly breathtaking. An otherworldly ridge of giant tyrannosaurus-tooth mountains ringed the expansive network of azure lakes, and megaton accumulations of snow clung to the steep slopes with what seemed to me a gravity-defying tenacity. When the avalanches come, they will make a mighty rumble, but thankfully the only rumble I heard was that of the bus engine, driving us further and further south. I shot photos from the bug-splattered windows, my mind at once awed by the vista, as well as focussed on meeting M in just short minutes. It was an exhilarating ride, though every minute seemed to slip past like a second, and with a heartskip, we were arriving in town.

Once pulling in – a town without a bus station – I kept my eyes out for a short-haired backpacker girl cross-legged with a sketchbook, and indeed found her. On spotting her, it immediately felt like months and even years had passed: but once I tipped my hat, saw her smile, and lifted her up, it felt as though we’d been apart maybe a week. We were giddy and tongue-tied and full of laughs. Maybe altitude had something to do with it? Hee.

We ate trout and drank wine, caught up on all adventures and silly banter until a bit late, then to the hippy-commune of a hostel where she’d arrived that morning – a 20 minute walk up a dark gravel road, guided by starlight and random aggressive dogs – we kept stones in our hands for worst-case scenario warning shots against them, and happily never threw a single one.

Straight to next day: hiked around a small lake, Lago Puelo, picknicked and (as she’s now wont to do) some birdspotting. Snowy peaks framed the turquoise lake, purple lupins (like snapdragons) and yellow gorse brush held the dry soil in place, with flashes of ponderosa and grassy-leafed bamboo sporting wheat-like flowery blooms – supposedly exceedingly rare. We ran for the hourly, and hour-long, rural route bus back into town: a bus filled with mulletted teenagers with a super-distinctively eighties fashion sense that brought me way back to school bus memories of my own distant past.

The next day was epic. We plotted a three-day trek up and around Hielo Azul, a 2000m summit near to town. Three days sounded all very leisurely at first. Well ho-lee-shit. The weather was against us from the start: heavy drizzle that soaked through my camera case, so I packed it away. We crossed an Indiana Jones-esque suspension bridge over the glacial Arroyo (Stream) Azul – all dangling planks and swaying cables, and from there would begin the 15km trail upwards. They recommended seven hours – minutes were certainly not slipping away like seconds during this hike, I can tell you. It was really a torturous, freezing and soaken climb, a relentless day where even pausing for tomato and cheese rolls offered no relief – only more wet and cold. M is better practiced at the trekking, though both our spirits were struggling a bit. Swamp-crossing, thorn-scratches, no views at all, clinging to muddy rock-face by torn fingers, beaten all the while by lashes of rain. I’m afraid humour was really gone for a good part of the day. Only burning thighs, blistering feet, angry lungs, sweat, and ice. I laugh now. But there was a lot of FFS action going on at the time.

We reached Refugio Hielo Azul by just gone 6.30pm, two bags of bones. We were greeted by two military-minded Israeli-hikers and an American couple with a Vermont lentil-soup ethic. The refugio’s manager, Luciano, a young, serious Argentine, brewed his own cidery beer at the premises. I ordered a litre. We told jokes, explained family histories, and played backgammon by the woodstove and a dangling light bulb until the wee-est of hours, then slept in the loft, sound as houses, joints and muscles scolding me throughout the dreamscape.

Day two presented snow. There had been a slushy dusting at the Refugio when we left, at a very civilised 11am. (!) for our revised walk to the nearby Refugio Natacion. It was literally only a 5km route, but solidly up, through thickening snow, muddy streams concealed under the white powder, and a lost path. Trailmarkers were normally yellow and red stakes pounded in the ground to no more than a foot’s height, and before long, the snow had covered everything.

So, yes, we cursed and growled our way up the 45 degree incline out of the ravine, slipping often, clinging to the icy and muddy earth, to loose roots and branches, anything possible, as we crawled angrily to higher ground. It took us three hours, easily. We had these little crises of identity: do we like trekking, actually? Is this normal? Would anyone like this? 😦

Once plateauing, though, the snow knee-deep, pine boughs weighed down by the heavy white stuff of wonderland, spirits returned. We scoured the deep and frozen alpine lakelands looking for the lost Natacion – following old footprints for a time, before they trailed off, or reversed upon themselves, or met an intersection of confused footsteps, with trails radiating out hopefully in eight different directions.

By 3pm, we found the place. The refugio was smaller and colder than at Hielo Azul, with plastic-sheet windows, and populated by a subdued clique of porteno trekkers, and a French couple, Pierre and Sabine. It was only midday, but we stayed put. Thoroughly rustic – slow Scrabble games, slow pasta cooking, slow guitar on an untuneable acoustic, and constant fire-stoking. No beer or wine here, though there was mate tea to be sipped from a small gourd. It’s a bitter drink, but there’s something super stylish about holding a gourd of loose tea and sipping from a steel straw! Knackered, we went to bed in the frozen loft by 10pm, M and I bundled tightly together in a couple of sleeping bags, me wearing four layers, and with shorts on my head. Warming, and oh so sexay.

Day 3, the descent to Wharton, a farmhouse neighbouring El Bolson by about 20km. We went with Pierre and Sabine, which was very pleasant. She’s a translator in a school, and he’s an early childhood educationalist with lots of ideas about radical education reforms, including teaching Breton in Brittany’s primary schools and teaching kids how to find themselves as much as finding out how to multiply. We decided it would be good to bring backpacking hippies into classrooms to describe their experiences to the kids, and to encourage them to get out and go far. Bizarrely, the whole day was very nice. No slip-sliding down muddy or icy ravines down this face route: the snow-fed streams presumably washing out the westward ravine paths we’d taken on the ascent. The gorgeous snowy forest-scape and crooked rocky peaks soon gave way to panoramic views of the valley below and the Andean mountains opposite. This was a day for harrier-spotting, biscuit-eating, photo-taking, and after about six hours, coffee and cigarettes riverside back on the banks of the upper Arroyo Azul. The sun was hot, and sandflies darted around.

A 20km taxi returned us from Wharton to El B where, sadly, we lost P & S with vague plans to reconvene at the Jazz Fest at 9pm. By 9, our rice wasn’t even boiled. We did go to the jazz fest (and “jazz” it was – no zydeco or bluegrass stylings of Montreal’s festival, El B featured nothing but improv beep-beep toot-toot nonsense. But hey, it was cultural like) but no sign of our compadres. M and I had to sleep in separate dorms at the capacity-full hostel. Sleep! I listened to clandestine shagging and wine-fuelled ha-has till about 4am, before rising at 10, to pack again and to prepare the departure. We were Bariloche bound.

The trek and the relentless pace had made me very desirous of some lazy comforts – newspapers, laundry, internet, coffee. Our travel schedule is a bit tight – I don’t want to waste time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wince in envy at some fellow hostellers, lounging in hammocks, unbothered by pace or plans. M and I bickered mildly over this point. But, leave El B for Bariloche we did – her logic is just too sound.

In Bariloche, my second visit to the town, we found a glorious hostel, La Bolsa del Deporte. Happily recommend to anyone. We didn’t do much but prepare pizza (oh! Yes, we hitched to Bariloche, remarkable successfully, waiting about five minutes before being picked up by an agreeable trucker from Osorno. He was affable, and spoke to us both via Megan’s amazing ability with Spanish. She holds actual conversations. I guiltily chime in with grammarless comments punctuated with French) and lunch for the next day, and met Kenny and Sarah, a lovely couple from the Great British North (he Scottish and she English). Our plans didn’t quite match up, sadly, as we were only pausing in Bariloche, really.

We’d planned a one-day trek up Cerro Lopez, but infrequency of necessary buses scuttled the plans. M was despondent – noon, on a glorious sunny day, and we’re still nowhere! In absence of the day trek, I reverted to a plan to hire bikes, and so we did that. The “famed” (so the tourist info place wants you to know) Circuito Chico route, 30km round some of the lovelier bits of the lagos.

Yes, hills. That’s what it was. 30km of hills! My trek-ruined legs did struggle a bit, but we completed the circuit, and it was a treat. More harriers, incredible mountain views, and a quick peek into a small mountaineers’ cemetery – graves of the fallen. All the headstones were for local climbers, some who’d died climbing here, and some locals who’d died climbing abroad. With towering shale peaks and a bubbling stream nearby, I’ve never seen a cemetery so idyllic and so fitting a resting place, given the passions of the people who lay here.

Cor blimey – that’s the end of the notebook. Can’t write any smaller I’m afraid. Will buy a new one the afternoon… hold tight friends.

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