Luke and Jason from 13 Degrees of Patagonia recently became the first people to packraft from Puerto Chacabuco to Caleta Tortel via the Northern Patagonian Icecap. In total, they travelled 457km in 29 days. Here’s the final part of their incredible journey.
Stranger Things on the Road
Jason and I are not very good at resting. We spent a week in Chaltén for the purpose of recovery but ended up hiking into the mountains to see the sights of the Fitz Roy mountain range and Cerro Torre. Jason even went sports climbing for a day. On top of that, we started the third leg of the trip on New Year’s morning so I was feeling fairly battered and hungover from a night’s shenanigans in our campground. I insisted it was a cultural experience not to be missed.
The road out of town was uncharacteristically interesting. We passed a snout nose skunk and a Picho (native dwarf armadillo), trying to mind their own business. Stranger creatures, however, announced themselves with a shrill whinnying. A flock of Guanaco, an ancestor to the Alpaca, loomed out of the early evening darkness. The alpha male followed us aggressively while the rest of the herd hung well back. We left the road behind and cut across the sandy tundra towards Lago Viedma, the wind whipping sand into our eyes.
Wind and weather dictated our movements for the next day as we had trouble deciding which way to navigate around the lake. An hourly live tracker would have shown us zig-zagging back and forth like lost children, indecisively weighing up the risks of crossing the lake. The wind eventually turned us around, away from the thickening of the Viedma glacial flow and back the way we had come. The paddle down the lake was a cracker of four days, with zero lake-like conditions: big surf, dangerous winds and rolling storms battered us. From the glacier east, the water was littered with transparent bowling ball size chunks of ice that gave us a start as they crashed into our boats with a thud.
The wind and waves shoved us down the lake, with the goodwill and benignly murderess power of Lennie from Of Mice and Men. A sharp eye was needed on the stern to be sure no freak wave was about to topple us out of our boats. That being said both Jason and I were flipped on separate days into the icy drink. We were both caught unawares while looking inland for a spot to land and eat, hunger overcoming fear.
Gauchos and Graveyards
The lake often became too dangerous in the high winds and swells and we were forced inland to escape its ferocity. The flat planes were composed of finely silted small dunes punctuated with prickly shrubs and tough patches of grass. The land was farmed none-the-less, with sheep running amok while the occasional Ram stood his ground. A Rhea, a Patagonian bird that looks like a small ostrich, sprinted across the landscape in front of us, kicking up small clouds of dust in its wake. Overhead our first Patagonian Pink Flamingos took to the sky.
The standout feature of the area was a little more ominous. Every square metre of ground was covered in scattered bones or rotting carcases – a heady mix of dead sheep, cows, guanaco and the occasional ornately horned rams head.
The flat grasslands did gift us with the more spectacular nights of the trip. The sun would set slowly and late in the evening, lighting up the land in an orange glow that would seep into an indigo sky specked with the first stars. It was a still quietus after an active day of extreme conditions.
For all the farm life, we didn’t see any Gauchos up close, although we saw the occasional small pile of dusty green Vino bottles next to sheltered resting spots. I couldn’t help but think of a small group of Gauchos laying on the bank, enjoying the same sunset and night stars that I had. The fence line gently coerced us up to the end of the lake and onto a sealed road. We gave a young couple parked at the lookout quite a fright as we lumbered up from the dunes sunburned and filthy.
Road walking was strange – the hard tarmac bounced underfoot compared to the sluggish sand and mud of the past months. Cyclists and tourist’s buses passed us, furthering the odd feeling of being out of place. We found our cross bridge with the wide, blue La Leona river powerfully flowing below it. We left the crowd behind once more.
Down the La Leona
La Leona river was unlike our previous rivers – it was thoroughly enjoyable. The rapids were well behaved and the water was deep, flowing quickly to the south. The river itself ran a pale blue, contrasting with the richly coloured banks and slopes of its surrounds.
The river bends carved out high mud stacks in the hills, the sheer cliffs hosting large black birds of prey that were nesting. They glared down at us as we paddled past. Small groups of Rheas scattered as we cruised by, but many smaller and flighted water birds were less concerned with our presence. Guanaco packs became more frequent, the alpha males had a habit of standing on the hill tops to look for any danger, darkly silhouetting themselves against the pale blue sky.
We made camp on the river delta after what had been the most enjoyable day in quite some time. Jason even caught two fish in the twilight and we climbed a hill to photograph the sunset while they roasted on coals. From the hilltop, we could see the bridge that would mark the end of the river and beginning of the Lake Argentino. It was a nice change of pace to not be suffering from a brutal day.
Lago Argentino and La Señoras
Lake Argentino stretched itself out to the horizon in the same fashion as Lake Viedma, the wind thrashing its pebbled shores. We walked down its southern tip before crossing the Santa Cruz river – a fast flowing drain for a city sized body of fresh water. To cross the river, we unpacked, paddled and repacked the rafts with the smooth speed of two tired professionals. With the last paddling done, we moved into the hills.
Rhea bones and old eggs crushed underfoot as we staggered in the rough direction of the Calafate airport, our way to town. Out of the hazy air, five dark figures on horseback appeared, moving steadily towards us. I felt fairly exposed and defenceless. As it turned out, the five riders were a delightful crowd of women in their 60’s. It was quite the sight –before us were five horses and their Señoras, wearing an odd mix of Gaucho attire and Western sports gear. They were starting their own month long horseback trip down the river we had just crossed. It was a brief crossing of paths albeit an interesting look at how everyone can have their own way of adventuring.
As we continued into the dust fields, there was no sign of civilisation other than the Boeing Jets flying in low above us. I could have sworn I saw the flash of a Puma disappear into the bushes but couldn’t be sure. The scat and footprints were abundant but we had yet to actually see one. Luckily there was no last-minute mauling as we awkwardly jumped the fence (we were on the wrong side) and ambled into the airport to explain ourselves to the baffled security guard.
It was late when we found a place to sleep at a compressed dirt campground in the middle of town. Maybe tomorrow we could sleep in beds, what a novel experience that would be.
Luke and Jason’s Gear Reviews
The Cool Tech beanies have been a standout item, Jason’s has not left his head for weeks at a time. He has the tan line to prove it. Their low profile makes them suitable for extreme bush and mountain passes while the Cool Tech material stays warm when soaked in the ice sea spray of the fjords.
All our apparel with the Larapinta pants and the Elabana hiking tops have withstood the barrage of thorns, bamboo, swamp wading and rocky scrambling of the month. Very little wear and tear shows they are tough and built for the hard adventures that are out there.
The Transient jackets have also done an outstanding job of durability. They are a constant of our daily wear with so much rain and sleet coming down. They have also withstood the roughness of the Patagonian terrain, whislt still being a lightweight jacket. The protection from the wind they provide is excellent, we have been wearing them over our drysuits for extra warmth in the water.
Cliff Bars formed the cornerstone of the daily snacking. We kept them tucked in the lifejackets for the long paddle days. Quick and easy snacking. They are going to be sorely missed for the remainder of the trip.
The Ultratek 470 Sleeping Bags have been through hell and are still going strong. Both have been soaked through repeatedly even in the drybags with the extreme rain and seas. Despite this we have been able to re-loft them whenever a sunny day comes around. They do come in slightly short as Jason and I are both around 6′ 2″. A nearly perfect bag.
The Cho La’s are doing a great job at keeping us warm/alive in the evenings. We both look forward to putting them on at the end of the cold days. They deal well with a little bit of rain and maintain loft over time. They have also been slept in repeatedly on the very cold nights.