Cruising the Zodiac
Chamonix: To Climb
or Not to Climb
Twight's New Route
|It's always been irresistible, now it's comfortable.
The man fell from the second story of a bright blue building. He looked
like a goner, but the rope caught him a few feet from the pavement. He
laughed and climbed back up, ready to try the hard route on the
artificial climbing wall again.
Patagonia used to be, truly, the end of the earth. Arguably it still is,
it no longer feels that way. Until recently, this windblown, ineffably
beautiful tip of South America saw, in the way of tourists,
only a few hardy climbers or adventurous trekkers. A visit to
Patagonia's famous mountains and lakes was even more exotic than a trip
to the Himalaya, and badged the traveler as hardcore.
|"I'm grateful I arrived in
time to see these places before... before they become as crowded as
But this is no more. The future has caught up with these southern
Chile and Argentina. The traveling is more comfortable, the border
hassles more reasonable, and the amenities well, we're talking
After a month in the Falklands, I was beginninng to feel the stab of
homesickness. This climbers' oasis, this strangely familiar scene way
down here in Puerto Natales, looked like the requisite tonic. The sign
said "Amerindia Concept," which wasn't very descriptive, but lower case
letters proclaimed, "slide shows, coffee, beer." Home at last.
I was greeted in English (music to a monoglot such as myself) as
I entered a sunny coffee shop that would fit in any city's university
Pages clipped from the Mountaineers calendar decorated the walls. From
aroma I could tell that I wouldn't need to swill Nescafe for a while. I
about a room: $10 to $15 per person, double occupancy. The lower
rooms meant a shared bathroom.
Once settled in my own digs, I found my view was of a
Chilean fjord leading toward the
glacier-clad peaks of Parque Nacional Bernardo O'Higgans. Just beyond
the spires and walls of Torres del Paine, one of Earth's loveliest
I met with the proprietors, Hernan and Romualdo, who spoke warmly about
the huge climbing and trekking potential of the area. Both were ardent
climbers using their hostel as a means to finance their
true love. In addition to running the hotel/restaurant, they guided
climbing, and kayaking parties on the Chilean side of the mountains.
|"Cars drive on the wrong side until a driver with right of way
forces them over. Despite this... I saw no
evidence of human carnage..."
Before discovering the Amerindia Concept, I spent my days among the
of Torres del
Paine (pronounced "Pine-Nyay") in a state of high excitement. The
dwarfed Yosemite's El Capitan. Glaciers rivaling Alaska's largest
the valleys and calved into aquamarine lakes. Guanacos grazed and
under the attentive eyes of soaring condors.
Astoundingly, I repeatedly bumped into old acquaintances bound for the
big walls. Patagonia has become comfortable enough to attract swelling
of climbers and
other visitors, almost all from Europe or North America. One can huddle
tent among the spires or relax at a pricey lakeside lodge. The weather
down for weeks, but here in high summer, I saw the peaks, often
in sunshine, every day.
That's the good news. On the
hand, Chile is still an emerging country with a cumbersome
infrastructure: climbers must apply for permits before arriving at the
park or risk
or weeks of bureaucratic delay.
Across the Chile-Argentina border lies Parque Nacional Los Glaciares,
Cerro Torre and the Fitzroy massif. Cerro Torre and its neighbors are
spires, inaccessible daggers of rock that only in the last 25 years
first felt the footsteps of
men. Wind deposits a meringue of ice on the west faces
Antarctic winds sweep across the Patagonian ice cap and condense
the cold rock. Climbers spend weeks or even months waiting for the
calm enough to allow sorties on their targeted routes.
Travel to either park is easy by bus or with a rental car. I found the
parks in Chile to be better organized campgrounds, restrooms,
"agua caliente" showers heated by wood fires. The Argentine
tend to be rough a la the Alaska Highway circa 1970. Chile saves money
paving only one lane. The road from Punta Arenas to Puerto
Natales consists of one paved southbound lane and one dirt northbound
Cars drive on the wrong side until a driver with
of way forces them over. Despite this unusual economy, I saw no evidence
of human carnage, but lots of deceased machinery.
One thing chilled me more than the winds that can come up from nowhere
to wrap the car door around the fender: the world is poised to discover
these grand parklands. The
old days are right now. Go, but go now. I'm grateful I arrived in
time to see these places before...before they become as crowded as
James Martin, Mountain Zone Contributing Editor
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