We were back into Argentina for the fourth time and were being welcomed with a most spectacular tailwind. It also happened to coincide with us crossing the 20,000km mark. As we sailed along and I counted down the kilometres to our biggest milestone yet I asked Herb if he wanted to stop and celebrate the moment. In short the answer that came back was a resounding “NO”. At first I was a little put out, as I enjoy any excuse to stop and have a mini roadside party. However as I was counting down, 1 kilometre to go, 500m to go, 250m, 100m. I realised that crossing the imaginary 20,000km line was much the same as all the other kilometres that proceeded it. The bit of tarmac under my bike was no more special than any other bit of road we’d previously cycled over. The pedalling didn’t suddenly become much easier. We still had a fair amount to go. Why was I suddenly imagining 20,000 as a more special number than 19,999?
Anyway, it was a small and uneventful celebration.
“Herb, we just crossed 20,000km – woohoo!”
“Oh, ok. Cool”
And we just kept pedalling.
We were heading for a municipal campsite for the night, always incredibly cheap in Argentina and more often than not come with a scolding hot shower. As we were sat post skin burning wash and demolishing our supper, a ludicrously enormous tank pulled in. Nothing about this tank was subtle. Firstly it was about the same size as our London flat. Secondly it took about 15minutes to do an 87point manoeuvre to shoehorn itself into the campsite. And, thirdly it was canary yellow.
As soon as it was parked a flurry of activity erupted. People scrambled out, tents was being erected, an industrial sized kitchen was being set up and orders were being barked at various hiking boot and zip off trouser clad tourists. I know it’s rude to stare but that’s all we could do.
After a little investigation we discovered it was an overland tourbus. From what we could work out it’s a coach holiday. The only difference is that instead of being on a coach with pensioners, you’re travelling in a converted nuclear warhead, do a little bit of camping and the words ‘extreme’ and ‘adventure’ are thrown in for good marketing. Apart from these small changes everything else is the same. You pay lots of money to get chauffeured around to all the classic tourist destinations and spend 8+ hours a day sat on a bus.
Maybe I’m being a little bit mean…. The coach tourists were all about our own age and were very lovely, they even offered to share food with us! The next day they were leaving at 7am and spending 8-9 hours driving towards El Chalten where they were to spend a few days hiking before getting back on the Warhead and heading south.
‘Oh, we’re heading to El Chalten too’ I mentioned.
‘Maybe we’ll see you there?’ replied a friendly English guy from St Albans.
‘Probably not, it’ll take us about a week’
Cycling has turned me into a grumpy old Englishwoman. The jury is out there as to whether I was one of those before I left. Anyway, the thought of spending four weeks on a bus with people I don’t know racing through a whole continent to tourist hotspots has about as much appeal as running naked down Oxford street. On Christmas eve. But it just goes to show, if you want to travel there is something out there for everyone.
Leaving town the next day, laden down with huge quantities of food we were followed by the cutest little white dog. The roads were pretty much empty and she galloped as fast as her little legs would carry her desperately trying to keep up. I was non secretly hoping we could keep her and was mentally re arranging my panniers in order to accommodate my new little companion. We agreed that if she was still with us when we stopped for cafecito, normally about 2hrs into our ride then we would bring her along for the adventure. Alas, it was not meant to be, after about 20minutes her little legs grew tired and she must have seen the road sign stating the next town was 130km away. Stopping abruptly she turned on her heels, with a wave of her paw and a bark for good luck she launched herself back in the direction of town. (This might have been every so slightly over exaggerated).
The wind was once again ferocious. It’s something extremely hard to fathom, a landscape of nothing but pampa. According to the extremely reliable source (that is my father), there is only one square mile of ‘nothing’ in the UK and it’s found in Lincolnshire. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to travel along the M180 towards Grimsby, you’ll have an inkling about what I’m trying to explain. No change in the landscape, no hills, no lakes, no buildings, no trees. Roads which are poker straight for 80km at a time. Bends in the road become points of great fear or huge celebration depending on which way the wind is blowing, the only refuge being the occasional drainage tunnels built under the road where we’d hide like gruffalos, slurping hot chocolate until we found the courage to face the wind again.
Staying on one side of the road was tricky business. A cross wind meant cycling in my lowest possible gear, previously only reserved for intense days in the Andes and using all remaining physical and mental strength to keep myself upright. Occasionally I’d sneak a look behind me, a slight shift in position usually sending me off balance and swerving wildly to regain composure. If there was a vehicle approaching I’d stop on the side of the road, waiting for it to pass before setting off again, such was my confidence at being able to stay in the confinement of only one half of the road. Herbie would inevitably pull ahead of me, with the landscape it was difficult to judge if it was a few hundred meters or miles. I’d find him sheltering behind a road sign or in a drainage gutter, sometimes having waited more than 20 minutes for me to catch up. The only upside of the endless pampa en route to El Chalten was the lack of rain. The three great ailments of cycle touring, or any outdoor misery for that matter are wind, rain and cold. It’s possible to cope well with two out of the three. We had the wind and cold in great abundance, but (and almost as a mantra) I kept repeating to myself ‘at least it’s not raining’.
The other distraction was occasional sightings of wildlife. The extremely inhospitable pampa is home to Rheas and Guanacos. The former being a huge bird similar to an ostrich or emu, the second is a lama like creature related to the camel. Unfortunately we saw more dead guanacos than alive ones. All along the endless roads were barbed wire fences, it seemed lots of guanacos weren’t wonderful high jumpers and we saw many who had failed to clear the fence. Their bodies hanging halfway over and in various states of decay.
Coming into El Chalten was like arriving in paradise. People, shops and hostels were abundant. We had long since decided whilst traversing the pampa that we would be staying a few days to recuperate. While lapping the town looking for somewhere to stay we were stopped by a Slovenian couple also on bikes. They were stuck in El Chalten waiting for the Villa O’Higgins border to open in 10 days time. Like us they hadn’t thought to check if the border closed and as they were under less time pressure had decided to wait it out rather than brave the Argentinian pampa. We reassured them it was a good decision!
They’d already spent over a week in town so had discovered many of the brilliant hikes on offer. Over beers they introduced us to the Huemel route, a four day trek through Los Glaciers National Park, they’d completed it the day before and absolutely loved it. Daniel and Jerry were prolific hikers, having spent the last month in Patagonia doing more hiking than cycling. If we were only going to do one hike in the whole of Patagonia, don’t bother with the mega touristy ‘W’ or ‘O’ in Torres del Pine (of which they’d done both) the Huemel had to be it. Four days of mountains, camping, glaciers and no single other soul in sight, we were instantly hooked in.
We only had a few minor setbacks to overcome. No hiking boots, no backpacks, no poles and no harness or rope (for a 20m zip line across a deep gorge). However where there is a will there is a way. The next two days threw awful weather at us so we were able to spend the time sourcing and renting all these things in the small town. We bought a map, downloaded ‘Southern Patagonia Ice fields’ on maps.me, arranged storage for our bikes, stocked up on five days’ worth of food and off we went.
Because of the severity of the terrain it’s necessary to register with the ranger station before you set off. They ensure you have all the compulsory gear (stove, harness, 20m rope, map, compass), check you are a proficient mountaineer by making you tick some boxes to say you have experience of glaciers and zip lining, provide them with your intended route and a guesstimate of when you will return*. Setting off I was particularly concerned at just having lied about my zip lining experience. Technically I didn’t lie, I’ve been zip lining a ton of times but always in the relative safely of somewhere like ‘Go Ape’ where an instructor does all the safety bits for you. But here we were, tramping off with a harness tucked safely in my backpack expected to traverse a gorge somehow. Herb was eternally more optimistic. ‘It’ll be FINE’ he insisted, how hard can it be? Everyone we spoke to who had completed the route made out it was simple. But these people were proper mountaineers, yes we’ve done our fair share of trail running in the Alps, but we’d never before encountered anything of this magnitude. We made a pact. Traversing the gorge was on day two of the trek, if we got there or at any point decided we were out of our depth we’d just turn round. We weren’t out to be martyrs. Fit, strong, expert campers and stubborn minded we were. Experienced mountaineers in the southern Patagonia Ice field we were not.
Day one was spectacular, the three proceeding days of stormy weather had abated and we trekked up into the mountains. It was glorious to be doing something different, away from the roads, jumping streams and meandering through forests. It was a six hour walk towards camp number one and we stopped regularly for hot chocolate and enjoying the views. The change from cycling was welcome and we readily agreed that we needed to tackle some of the haute route through the Alps next summer. About a mile before we get into camp we were caught by two other hikers. CAUGHT?! This was something completely new to us, were we THAT slow? Are these people mega hikers? It turned out to be Val and Mark, a Canadian / Kiwi couple who were on a whirlwind Patagonia tour, yes they were mega hikers and I suppose being our longest walk in over a year, Herb and I were also THAT slow. After quick introductions we let them pass and they scurried off into camp ahead of us.
Sharing the camp with Val and Mark was brilliant. It turned out Mark was even more of a fire bug than me and we quickly set about lighting a fire, erecting tents and cooking up a storm of super noodles. We sat for hours around the fire, gossiping about anything and everything. It felt like we’d been great friends for years, not the barely a few hours of reality. They had flown over from New Zealand specifically to do the Humeul route but the previous days bad weather had thwarted their plans. In order to make their flight back home in a few days they had decided to only go to the first pass which offers spectacular views of the glacier, then turn back the way they came. It was ether to be 2 or 3 hiking days depending on the weather. They were both super skilled in the outdoors and Mark had experience like ‘winter mountaineering courses’ under his belt. I felt much safer knowing we were sharing the mountains with them.
The next morning they were up and out ahead of us, leaving all their equipment in camp and travelling light to make the pass and back. We left a short time afterwards, knowing we’d cross paths again later during the day. After about an hour or so we came across the infamous gorge. A river runs out from underneath the glacier, meandering down the valley before being forced through a tiny gap in the rocks. The result is a deep narrow gorge, deafeningly fighting to contain the ice river.
‘Ah, this looks easy enough’ I said, dropping my pack and stepping into my harness.
‘Er, I’m not sure Loz, maybe we should wade the river?’ Herb replied.
Looking at the river in early Spring it looked pretty shallow and probably only 3/4 meters across, through it was apparent from the banks that the river severely swells as the snow and ice melt during the warmer months.
‘Wade? and get wet feet?’ by this point I was already clipped in and was launching myself off the safety of the rock. The only problem was going in this direction meant zip lining uphill. Luckily it was only about 20m and my weedy little arms just about managed to haul myself across to the other side. Once I was across it was just a case of using a pully system to get the bags over and eventually Herb making his way to join me.
‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you just did that?! I was supposed to go first to get the bags off’ Herb said as we were sat on the opposite bank, celebrating our success with hot chocolate.
‘Well, you were being a chicken’ I replied. ’Someone had to go first!’ Whatever, it didn’t matter who went first, or that Herbie was the one who ended up having minor reservations. We were safely across and at no point felt out of our depth, next stop the Glacier! The trail at this point led up through the side of the valley, sometimes being easy to follow. Other times there was no trail at all, just a case of picking our way over rocks towards the next trail marker. I must have been getting mightily excited about approaching the glacier because barely 100m before it I was suddenly very aware of a rather pointy boulder hurtling towards my face. One moment I was picking my way over rocks, then everything started happening in slow motion. I was falling forward and could distinctly see the rock which was about meet my forehead, it was almost as if I could taste the ‘clang’ as connection was made. The next thing I was very uncomfortably lying headfirst and downhill with an immense pain shooting from my left knee. My eyes were squeezed tightly closed.
First thoughts, ‘Ok, I’ve dislocated my knee. I can feel something wet trickling down the back of my head. Oh yes, my head! No, head doesn’t hurt. I’m not unconscious. My knee, my knee! Hang on, my face is wet, don’t open your eyes. Is that blood or tears? My knee!’
By which point Herb who had been 10 or so meters behind me came rushing over.
‘F*ck Loz!’ Was pretty much all he managed to say at first. Having had a slight head start on the situation, and the fact I couldn’t see what my face looked like I managed to remain reasonably composed and think back to the countless first aid courses I’ve done over the years.
‘I’m ok, I’m ok, just my knee’ I replied. Herb then managed to unwedge my left foot, which was stuck between rocks at an angle of 180degrees opposite to how I was lying. The searing pain in my knee was instantly relieved.
‘Loz, you’ve hit your head and there’s a lot of blood’ Herb was saying to me.
I was still holding my eyes tightly closed.
‘I’m ok, it doesn’t hurt, is it swelling up?’
‘Yep, there’s a pretty good egg forming, you’ve missed your eye but there’s a nice 1.5inch gash, did I say there was lots of blood?’
This was all brilliant news. A big egg on my head meant that hopefully no swelling was going on inside my skull. I felt ok, my knee which I was convinced to be broken only a minute beforehand felt completely fine again. My eyes still tightly closed. ‘Can I just lie here a minute please?’
The only problem was that I was lying downhill, which is not the best when trying to stop blood trickling out your head. Especially as head injuries are notorious for bleeding, making them look much worse than they actually are.
Herbie helped me squirm out of my backpack, get upright and comfortable(ish) sat on more rocks. Out came the first aid kit and nurse Herbie set about trying to clean the blood and assess the damage.
We sat on the rocks and looked at the glacier considering our options. We were 1.5 days walk back the way we came, or 2.5 days walk if we were to continue. As much as I know we both wanted to continue, the deal was we weren’t going to be martyrs. I’d hit my head, yes I felt completely fine but what if I got concussion later that day, or the next? I’ve had concussion before, therefore I know how bloody awful it is. I did not want that feeling when I was miles away from anything in a tent. We had to turn back. The good news was that we got another go on the zip line, this time zipping downhill!
On our walk back we were caught again by Val and Mark, they’d been wondering where we got to and worried they might have missed us. It turns out they didn’t make it to the pass either. The previous few days of bad weather had meant a ton of fresh snow and as they got higher there was no visible trail. Traversing the mountain in deep snow without crampons or ice axes, where one slip would mean sliding hundreds of meters wasn’t their idea of a great plan either. They made their ‘summit’ about 30m from the top and turned back. In a way hitting my head was a blessing in disguise, by the sounds of their experience Herb and I wouldn’t have made it over the pass either.
We all trekked back together, conversations ranging from deep and meaningful to complete rubbish to pass away the time. In the end it took us 9hrs of walking from the time of my accident to arriving back in town.
The tiny hospital was closed when we got back so I did my best clean up job and whatsapp’d a couple of wonderful A&E doctor friends back home. After showers we all went out to celebrate with a well earned beer. We’d survived the mountain with only sore legs and maybe a little dented pride, but most importantly we’d met some wonderful new people and I now had a brilliant black eye.
*When you return it’s compulsory to check back in wth the ranger station. If you haven’t checked back in they give you one day in hand, just incase you have been tent bound caught in bad weather. After this they start trying to investigate where you might have gotten to.