Monday, February 29, 2016

Antarctica - touching the bottom of the world

      While kayaking in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam we met a fellow traveler who told us about going to Ushuaia, Argentina where the cruise ships leave for Antarctica. With some flexibility to your schedule it was often possible to pick up a last minute cruise to the Ice Continent for a steep discount if they are leaving with empty cabins. With low expectations we arrived in Ushuaia to see what might happen. To our joy we found there were two expedition ships leaving that week that had discounted cabins. Sarah and Gabriel at Freestyle Adventure Travel helped go through the trips available leaving in the next week.  The discounts were not quite as much as we hoped since many other people have discovered this trick so the supply and demand is not as favorable as it used to be. The trip was going to be a budget breaker but after discussing it we decided that since the trips were only going to become more expensive as the years went by (or even travel to Antarctica banned) and since we were returning to jobs in July that this was the time to do it. When we found out that one of the expeditions was called “Base Camp Antarctica” and offered ski mountaineering, mountaineering, kayaking, and camping out on the ice we were 100% sold on going. The highlight was ski mountaineering, so we raced around Ushuaia and found a teli and AT ski set up for the week but then were told 2 days before the trip left that they had made a mistake and that the ski mountaineering was full. This was very disappointing but there was so many other cool things to do that this feeling did not last long.
MV Ortelius - former Russian scientific vessel
      Getting to Antarctica by water means crossing the Southern Ocean, one of the roughest areas of sea in the world. In between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula is the narrowest part of this ocean where the Pacific Ocean meets the Atlantic. This area south of Cape Horn is called the Drake Passage and is renowned for horrible weather and huge waves. This was not to be the case with us. The crew called it the “Drake Lake”. Some of the crew had never seen the Drake Passage that smooth and on the return trip it was even flatter. Some people on the ship still became queasy but nothing like would normally have happened on the “Drake Shake”.
Sunrise on the "Drake Lake"           
      From the minute we reached Antarctica amazing things started to happen. As we were going down the Gerlache Strait we were greeted by a large pod of Humpback whales. Spray shooting up from the blowholes and tails were flashing all around.
Humpback whale tail
That day we also visited our first penguin colony. There we discovered that penguins make people happy. Their adorable look and silly antics just makes people laugh and smile. So much so that we thought there should be penguin psychiatric therapy. Depression would be immediately cured when surrounded by a colony of penguins and their chicks.
Thousands of Gentoo Penguins
Kathleen wanted to keep it       
Super goofy on land                 
      Over the next 5 days there would be many other opportunities to watch (and smell) penguins and seals. There were snow shoe hikes up several small hills to get better views of the areas. It did not take much of an elevations gain to get spectacular vistas of the surrounding bays, mountains, and glaciers. With no trees or other familiar objects to judge size from made perspectives really difficult to perceive. Things always looked much closer or farther than they actually were. 
View from above Brown's Station
View from Stoney Point              
Another Stoney Point view         
View above Neko Harbour         
Antarctica can be a meditative place to be. We would find a quiet corner of a beach and sit there and just listen. It was very quiet but full of noise with the water lapping the shore with ice clinking together, the sound of air bubbles popping out of the brash ice like a giant bowl of Rice Crispies, and the occasional thunder boom of an avalanche, glacier calving, iceberg breaking up, or just the sound of the glaciers moving.
A good place to meditate         
The weather continued to be much better then could have ever been expected with bright sunshine and blue skies. It was so nice that for dinner on the second night there was a BBQ on the helicopter landing deck on the back of the ship. I have never had a BBQ as seals on icebergs floated by.
Outdooor BBQ on the heli-deck

      We were able to do activities we had never thought possible to do in Antarctica. We signed up for the advanced mountaineering group so we were able to climb on some 50 degree ice and cross a glacier while roped up to get up to a ridgeline overlooking a place called Jougla Point.
Ice climbing on Jougla Point    
We were able to kayak in the Melchior Islands with seals swimming around us and icebergs floating by.
Kayaking in Melchior Islands  
Views from the kayak              
We even camped a night on the ice in bivy sacks and warm sleeping bags. There is nothing like waking up with a penguin waddling by your head.
Sleeping on the snow             
      The magic even continued on the trip back to Argentina. In the middle of the Drake Passage at the convergence zone where the cold water of the Southern Ocean meets the warmer water of the Pacific/Atlantic interface it was decided that it was calm enough to put the zodiacs in the water and to go on a cruise. The Captain had never done this before since it was never that calm. Even with the water as flat as it was it still was a challenge to get into the zodiacs. The gangway would alternate between being knee deep in water and then seconds later it would be a 2+ foot drop to reach the zodiac. It seemed like a bit of a liability risk but the crew was very experienced and skilled so everyone that wanted to go was loaded safely. The swells were still big enough that the waves would block sight of the ship at times.
Even calm the swells were big
Amazingly enough the boats came across a couple of Emperor Penguins swimming in the middle of the ocean. One of them let us get very close while it bleated and cried out. It sounded stressed but if it had wanted to swim away it could have without any problem.
Emperor Penguin at convergence zone in Drake Passage
Since the ship made such good time across the Drake due to the calm conditions we were also able to sail to Cape Horn and were able to steam past it going from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. It is something I have always read and dreamed about but never thought I would go by it on the water. Another life dream unexpectedly filled.
Cape Horn from 3 miles away
      It was a week and a half of being in a dream world. It had been a dream to go to these places and once there it had a dream like feel to it. The air is so clear from the lack of pollution and the dry air that vast distances can be seen. The light, clouds, water, and ice is constantly changing in appearance.
A constantly changing view  
Every 15 minutes the view would be completely different even if you were sitting in the same place. The sound of the wind, water, ice, and penguins has a hypnotizing effect. Both of us along with multiple other people we talked to were brought to tears at times by the magic of the place. We have only been back in Ushuaia for half a day and we already want to go back.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

FidEgan's FastPacks - Episode 10 - Tierra del Fuego - running at el Fin del Mundo

John and Kathleen are currently on a world trip where we plan to pursue our passion of trail running through the various landscapes and environments of the world. As we pass through each country we want to post our top pick for a trail run (or hike) that we did. This does not mean that this is the best trail to run in that country. It just means that it was our favorite that we did. We are both using Ultraspire Epic Fastpacks to carry our gear, hence the name of the column.

Where: Glaciar Vinciguerra, outside town of Ushuaia, Island of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Facilities/Trailhead: No facilities. The trailhead is about 10km outside of Ushuaia at Turbera Valle Andorra. A taxi is the easiest way to get there for about 130 Argentine pesos (~$9). We hitchhiked to get back but this may take walking down the dirt road for a bit. 
Fees: Free besides transportation costs to get there.
Terrain/Trials: This ended up being a combination of a run and a hike. There are very flat and rolling sections good for running and very steep sections that we had to hike.  The trail is marked by orange and blue markers.
Trail markers on trees                           
Distance: 13km
Description: We had run in the Tierra del Fuego National Park the day before and enjoyed these trails a lot more. The park is a bit of a scam between the high prices the minivans charge to get there and the park entrance fee. The trails in the mountains north of town are more scenic and free so we would recommend going there. 

This trail starts at the end of the road at Turbera Valle Andorra which is a peat cutting operation. The gate says in Spanish “No entrance” but it is referring to cars. It is permitted to walk across their property, just make sure to close the gate behind you. Follow the road a couple of hundred meters and then go left when a trail/secondary road breaks off. If you reach the buildings you went too far. 
Peat cutting farm in front, glacier in back

The first 2 km is along a pretty flat section as you pass through areas of cut bog with a gentle river flowing to your right. The trail is marked by yellow stakes and is obvious as you cut across the fields. This was a great section to run through. This eventually led to a bridge that crossed the river where the climbing began. 
Riverside running                                  

There are numerous muddy sections where log boardwalks have been built. Better for twisting an ankle on then running.
Log boardwalk after crossing bridge    

This led up to the first steep hill which was a series of switchbacks that led up to a trail intersection. For an added bonus the right trail goes up to Laguna Encantada which would add another hour or more to the experience. Going to the left continues on to Laguna de la where the trail alternates between runnable traverses across the hillside and steep uphill sections. 
Uphill section                                     

Eventually it leads up to where the Rio de Leche is flowing out of the lake. There is a flat area where beavers have built two dams and a large lodge. 
Beaver flats with snow rainbow       

From this flat section of terrain it then becomes steep glacial moraine up the last section to get to the lake. 
Last climb to the lake                     

Despite being late summer here (the equivalent of August) it was snowing sideways with a bitter wind, while at the same time it was sunny, and behind us a rainbow could be seen lower in the valley. Be prepared for every weather imaginable when hiking/running in Patagonia. 
We had to hold each other to stay warm

It was a quick trip back down the hill. The guide books say that the hike should take 5 to 6 hours round trip but with running the parts we could the trip took us just over 3 hours with a quick lunch break. We were also told that from the same trailhead there is a 31 km trail that crosses Paso de la Oveja that would make a great trail run but at the same time they said that camping at the lake near the Pass was really worth it so it might make a good backpack/fastpack also.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Cerro Aconcagua - the highest mountain outside of Asia

15 years ago John came to Argentina to climb Cerro Aconcagua by a more technical route. This year Kathleen wanted to try so we agreed to try the “Normal Route” which on the surface is considered a walk up. That walk up however is to an altitude of 22,841 feet (6962 meters) which makes it a serious climb no matter which way you go. Typically the summit success rate for this mountain is only about 30%. This year the strongest El Nino in history is making the season one of the most difficult in 30 to 40 years according to the guides there so the success rate is far below 20%.

First view of mountain from road 

On John's first summit (Polish Glacier Route) there was months of planning and organizing from the US involved. This time there was almost no pre-planning. We had some gear and clothing with us but the plan was to arrive in Mendoza (the gateway to Parque Provincial Aconcagua) and figure it out on the fly. Limited with our packing space since we are traveling for several months afterwards, we opted to supplement our cold weather clothing with anything extra we needed for high altitude mountaineering at a local rental shop. We would also arrange mule transport to carry food and equipment to Base Camp and arrange permits to climb the mountain there. In two days we were able to get everything done that we needed though it took some scrambing and our credit card company shut down our credit card due to the large amounts of money we were spending. While we were doing this we heard that so far only 15 people had summited instead of the usual 350 people by that time of year and half of those “successful” people had to be evacuated for frost bite and one had died by accidently walking off of the South Face. Not an encourgaging statistic. We met a girl named Bri from Seattle at the gear rental store who gave us some great information about the mountain; most notably about the high winds and heavy snow that she and her team had just experienced while there.

Once the preliminary work was done we caught a 3 hour ride back up the road toward Santiago, Chile to the little ski resort of Las Penitentes. This is where the two trailheads to the mountain are located depending on which side of the mountain is being climbed. We were to head up the Horcones River valley to the Base Camp at Plaza de Mulas. It is a two day hike to Plaza de Mulas but as soon as we arrived at the intermediate camp at Confluencia we started feeling the effects of the altitude. This camp is at 11,119 feet and neither of us had had any signs of AMS (acute mountain sickness) at this altitude before. The trick with big mountains like this is distinguishing between the annoying mild symptoms and the more life threatening moderate to severe symptoms which can progress to fluid buildup in the lungs or brain swelling. John had never felt that poorly at that low of an altitude and Kathleen didn't feel that great either. Because of these symptoms it was elected to spend an extra night at Confluencia and to spend a day hiking out to a place called Plaza Francia and back. This was well worth the time since the hike takes you to the bottom of the magnificent South Face of Aconcagua. This is the side of the mountain where legends and climbing carreers have been made. A person has to be pretty much crazy and extremely skilled to climb routes here due to the very steep nature of the terrain and severe avalanche risk.
View near Plaza Francia                           
Shrine near Plaza Francia                          
Mules carrying loads up Horcones Valley

Spending the extra day here helped with our symptoms so that the next day we were able to continue on to the Plaza de Mulas Base Camp. This is a small tent city where 100 to several hundred climbers are located depending on the day and time of season. We were self supported but for people willing to pay for it there are dome dorm tents to sleep in and full meal support.
Sunset behind Base Camp

From here it was time to start a process called double carrying following the principal of “Climb high, Sleep low” as we moved up through the 3 high camps. We would spend a day climbing up to the next high camp, leaving a cache of food and fuel. We then would climb back down to where we started and spend the night. The next day we would grab our tent and clothes and make the permanent move up to that higher camp.
View from Camp Canada 

We were fortunate with good weather until we had our food and fuel for 7 days stashed at Camp 2 which is called Nido de Condores. Here we heard that a large multi-day storm was coming so we elected to leave our supplies there and retreat to Base Camp where we would be more comfortable during the storm. Nido de Condores is very exposed to wind being on a ridgeline. We were glad we did this as the next couple of days were rough. Snow and thunder where we were with heavy rain in the valleys below us. We have not been in too many thunder-snowstorms and they are always intense.
Lenticular cloud and fresh snow

Multiple landslides washed out the road between Penitentes and Mendoza. This caused the parks rescue helicopter to be busy further down the valley. Since there was no ability to rescue climbers the Park Service closed and evacuated the entire upper mountain. The linked video clip shows what was going on lower down as climbers were trying to hike back out to the road. It was a bit of a mess.

We ended up being stuck at Base Camp for 4 days waiting for the weather to break. We had to ration our food for these days as our best food was at Camp 2 but luckily some of the things that we hadn't wanted up higher like pasta had been left at Base Camp. We played lots of cards, took some short hikes, slept a lot, and obsessively checked the weather report.

Eventually a weather window started to form that looked like it would be our only chance to make the summit before our permit ran out after 20 days. The first few days of climbing would still be during the storm but if we could get into position higher up on the mountain then we would have a couple of nicer days to try to reach the top. On 27 January 2016 we started up and spent the night at Camp 1 (Camp Canada). During that night it started to storm and snow heavily again. Waking up the next morning was discouraging and this was the morning of John's crisis in confidence. Our options weren't good no matter what we did. Staying at Camp Canada was the poorest choice as we were going to run out of food and fuel that day. Choice 2 was to descend to Base Camp basically giving up on the summit and we still would have to go back up to Camp 2 (Nido de Condores) to get our equipment. That left Choice 3 which is what Kathleen pushed for – to climb up to Camp 2 in the midst of the storm. It would suck for several hours but then we would be in better position for the weather to end and we would have pretty much unlimited food and fuel. This is what we ended up doing. John's mantra for the day became “Just a typical day in the Alaska Range” as he reminded himself that it had been as bad or worse when climbing Denali.
Just another day in the Andes

Once we had made the move we were happy though the next morning the park rangers informed us that we had set up our tent in the helicopter landing area so we had to move.
Move it before a helicopter hits it

From here we got our break. The weather improved so that we were able to move up to Camp 3 or Camp Colera which means Camp Angry though we thought at first it was named after Cholera, the disease. Either way, not the best named camp. We didn't spend much time there.
Scramble section up to Camp 3  

That night we woke up at 3am to start melting snow for the day and to eat breakfast. At 5am we started up on our summit push. We could already see a line of headlamps dotting the hillside above us as other people made their way up the hill. It was intensely cold. Kathleen is very sensative to cold in her hands and was having some issues at first but we were able to get things under control with chemical hand warmers, and 3 layers of gloves/mittens. By the time the sun came out and we were able to turn the headlamps off we were about 1/3 of the way up. The sun burst with a red line on the horizon that then spread to the clouds below us and eventually we could see the shadow of the mountain cast onto the sky.
Sunrise shadow of Aconcagua

Soon after this we got stuck behind the group that we dubbed “The Boy Scouts”. These guys did not look good. Some of them were staggering and barely moving along. John had kept warm until this point where upon he had to put his big puffy parka on. There was no room to get around these guys since the trail was very narrow with ice on either side. They were the first group that we had encountered that did not allow faster people behind them to go by. Very frustrating to be stuck behind and it was cold to be standing there waiting for them to move. After an insuffurably long time they finally took a break and we were able to get by. The top 1/3 of the climb is called the Canuleta. It is an area of very loose dirt and small rocks that is frustrating to climb as one slides back a foot for every two feet climbed. This year the extra amount of snow turned out to be a blessing. Cramponing up this snow made the route much easier though the thin air still made it rough. We would take a few steps and then stop for 4 breathes or more. It was slow but steady going. The Canuleta led up to the summit ridge and then the summit block.
Summit ridge and South Summit
View down South Face               

We had been able to move efficiently enough that by the time we summited we were the 4th and 5th person on the summit that day. Now that the sun was out it had warmed up and we were able to spend about 20 minutes on the summit. 3 Chileans arrived right after us. There were still extensive views but there was a growing number of clouds building up below us. The Chileans and us took turns taking picutures for each other and then it was time to start going down.
Summit - 22,841 feet

At the bottom of the Canuleta we came across a party of South Africans that we had been climbing next to pretty much from the first days of the expedition. They had become good friends and we had said that if they did not summit then our expedition would feel like a partial failure. Their expedition was led by a man named Alex Harris who had climbed all of the 7 Summits (highest mountain on each continent), skied to the South Pole, and most impressive to John, had been part of the first team to cross the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert self supported by pulling a 1000+ pound cart of food and water along with Marco Broccardo who was also on the trip. Their team had all sorts of problems. Team mates had lost their luggage on the flights to South America, people had gotten sick, tents and equipment had blown away, along with a bunch of smaller problems. They also ended up summiting but then when they hiked out it turned out that there was a bridge washed out so they still ended up missing their flights back to South Africa which cost them an extra $1000+. We felt pretty sorry for them but were psyched that most of them had succeeded.

After taking 16 days to climb to the summit it only took 2 days to hike back out to the road. We were ready to be out of there and put our heads down and hiked out as quickly as possible. For days we had been fantasizing about food. As soon as we got back to the hotel in Penitentes the first priority was a shower. This was rapidly followed by finding cold beer and a good bottle of wine. The climatic finalle of the night was dinner. John had one of the best steaks ever while Kathleen had a huge hunk of salmon. Fantasy and reality merged into an explosion of culinary delight.

We were glad to be done and to have made the summit. Neither of us planned on going back and trying again if we hadn't reached the top so it felt good to have accomplished our goal. We had made friends from all over the world, climbed in a beautiful part of the Andes, and overcome a lot of obstacles. The next day we caught the bus back to Mendoza and started our process of moving south into Patagonia for further adventures in the mountains.