El Chalten is a tough place to leave. It is an easy to settle into, close knit, climber community, in a spectacular mountain scene; and it is also surrounded by ice sheet to the west and desert to the east. There is always a day bus to a flight out of Calafate, or one of the monotonous long distance sorts that take you through the night up barren Ruta 40, the highway travelers pride themselves in completing for the sake of completing and little other sightseeing reason. I chose to let the views guide me.
A short shared taxi across the Rio Electrico, passing land prime for a tourism boom, – in fact, much was recently bought by Buenos Aires investors – to a 10km ferry ride across Laguna del Desierto, kicked off my exit. The lake flanked on either side by steep ranges, Cerro Vespiani being the most prominent, is a bitter reminder to the Chileans of how in flux the national Patagonian borders are. They lost it – the residents to the North used the word stolen – in a hostile border dispute fifteen years before. And it is a gem!
After passing through the lonely Argentine immigration post, I headed up the trail to the border crossing 5 km away. It was a muddy trail which wound through dense forest. Staying clean wasn’t an option. The actual border crossing was uneventful. If it weren’t for the “Bienvenidos Chile” sign I may have missed it. Shortly after though was the abandoned runway, a relic of more turbulent times amongst the two neighbors. From here, the trail turned into a rough dirt road, uneventful, until I glanced back from a high point and caught a clear view of Fitzroy far in the distance, where I had begun my day.
This is where the day started feeling long. I was carrying all of my possessions, ~25kg. Descending down the road another 5km, I arrived at Chilean immigration just after sunset. Like the Argentine side, I knocked on the door, interrupting dinner rather than breakfast this time, and had my information hand written in the log book. Another couple of kilometers, just past the Lago O’Higgins ferry dock, where the few travelers passing through here make their way North on the biweekly boat, and I was at the only full time residence in town, Candelaria Mancilla, with a spare room for my taking.
Over mate, the Patagonian customary hot herbal beverage passed around and sipped from a straw, I studied my topo map and inquired – all in my very basic travel Spanish – about how I could venture off the beaten path and experience the legendary Hielo Sur, Southern Ice Sheet, and its accompanying Glaciar O’Higgins; the ice sheet, with a summit attempt on Gora Blanca, had been a previous goal of the trip, shot down by stormy weather. The owner pointed out on my map another ranch, Carmela Mancilla, sandwiched between Glaciar Chico, the Hielo Sur, Glaciar O’Higgins and the lake. What an amazing place, the true Patagonia, I envisioned. And to top it off, he informed me they would be happy to put me up. Since my tent had gone home with my travel mates two days before, and this being the only other residence on the 40km Southern shore of the lake, also was my only option for travel in this wilderness.
The next morning I set off, backtracking 8km up the road to the sign posted track to my destination, “Candelaria 23km”, designated on the map as an unmarked track. And unmarked, apart from the first ten minutes, it was. Navigating this initial forest and river crossings wasn’t difficult, and this soon opened up to pasture leading to the 500m pass where I was headed. Flanked by two peaks easily fixed by compass, I quickly moved across the pasture, actually more like wet Patagonian bog, gaining my first icy view, Glaciar Chico.
Across a small channel in this finger, terminated by the ice sheet, of Laguna O’Higgins I sighted my destination, Carmela Mancilla. I descended the pass, crossed grazing land and stood at the shore, contemplating how to cross the ice berg inhabited lake. There was a small row boat on the other side, but thirty minutes of shouting, “Hola!”, received no response. Until, I was looking for a possible bivy for the night and the rancher appeared, rowed across and greeted me.
On the other side, we began a drawn out conversation of him asking me if I had a tent and me asking for accommodation; “carpa”, “no carpa, residencia?”, repeated to nausea. The assurance of accommodation I had received the night before was obviously based on much conjecture. I soon spotted three others camped on the ranch, three physicians vacationing, one of which spoke fluent English, Dr. Arturo. A lucky site indeed, as I was later to find out that the ranch only sees twenty visitors a year – and I was the only he could recall that didn’t speak Spanish! A friendly negotiation and I was set with a room for two nights, meals included, for 40,000 pesos ($20). Over a customary mate, I learnt the meaning of one of his earlier repeated phrases; “we don’t turn people away in Patagonia”. And the true Patagonia this was indeed.
The farm was a Patagonian paradise. Isolated by lake and ice sheet, it was subsistence ranching in its purest form. The owner had occupied the land for fifty years and currently cared for it with the help of his twenty something year old son. The ranch was complete, with a dozen cattle, several horses, goats, geese, a turkey and a few dogs. They farmed greens and fruits.
The next morning I headed up and over a pass quit similar to the previous day’s. Although, this one culminated in an even more grandiose view; the 60m high, lake terminated, moraine wall of Glaciar O’Higgins, and an endless view onto the Southern Ice Sheet. I hiked until I hit my predetermined 2 pm turn around time, with visions of a future return trip further in to the depths of the frozen landscape.
Another dinner, based around the goat they had slaughtered on my arrival, and the next morning I was off on my return hike to Candelaria Mancilla. Over breakfast we went over my route, and they convinced me to follow the trail along the lake shore rather than repeating the more direct traverse of the pass. The trail appeared relatively flat and straightforward, rarely crossing map contours. However, the reality was constant up and down on confusing cow paths. These wandering cows would often lead me down canyons which would dead end at the lake, leaving me retracing my steps or scaling the steep walls. The distance was also lost in translation. All and all, I would put the day at about 40 km, with a wild fire thrown in for added excitement.
Thirteen hours later I arrived at my accommodation of three days before, to a host impressed with my one-day traverse of O’Higgins’ southern shore. A couple of weeks later I met up with Dr. Arturo in Cochrane. He was delighted with my story and commented on how that return is generally given three days. I give credit to the inspiring wilderness, and not having a tent for spending a night in this rugged environment.