February 21, 2004

Argentina flagAfter a not particularly good night’s sleep, we got up at 8 am. We had arranged for us to have breakfast served at 8:30 am and Juan served it promptly, the usual bread, jam, tea, and coffee.

Yesterday Juan had told us there were a couple of buses to our trailhead, one at 8 am and the other at 10 am. We didn’t want to try for the early bus, so we had told him we would go on the later bus instead. That would give us some time to do some grocery shopping. However as it turned out, today Juan couldn’t get in touch with the company who ran those buses. But he could get in touch with a company who ran a bus at 9 am. “If you go there now you can get it, they are waiting for you” he said. It was then after 8:50 am. Luckily we had organized everything last night, and the bus stop was only a few blocks down the hill.

So we grabbed our packs containing the “go” stuff, told Juan where our “no-go” pile of stuff was, and trotted down the hill to catch the bus. We paid our fare (25 pesos each, one way) then waited about 10 minutes for it to leave. If we had known it was going to delay that long we could have gone to the supermercado just across the street.

The trailhead for the Paso de los Nubes trail is at Pampa Linda, which is 82 km from Bariloche. We had to stop to pay our park entrance fees (double for foreigners), and then we had to stop at a campground for a while. This may have had something to do with the fact that the road to Pampa Linda is a narrow dirt road, so sometimes it is one-way uphill and at other times it is one-way downhill.

The end result was that we arrived at Pampa Linda (“Beautiful Valley”) just about noon. Here the scenery was beautiful and the views of the giant glaciated Monte Tronador (“Thunderer”) were spectacular. Tronador got its name not because of its eruptions, but because of the noise made by blocks of ice falling off its glaciers.

Before starting the hike we had to line up to talk to the park ranger, because the park requires you to register for serious treks. This involved an interview designed to weed out the unprepared, so it was no problem. But he said in passing “Do you know there is a party at the Refugio Meiling?” Well no, we didn’t. The party, he said, was for the birthday of the refugio, and it would probably be noisy. Oh well, should be fun.

We had lunch before we started on the trek at about 12:45 pm. Initially the trail followed a dirt road along the valley floor until we reached the little footbridge over Río Castaño Overa, which flows down from the glacier of the same name.

On the other side of the river, the old road started climbing up a steep ridge. The foot trail is made of smaller switchbacks that cut off the big switchbacks that the road makes. Even so it wasn’t very steep, except that sometimes it was hard to guess which of the cut-off trails to follow. But the elevation gain to Otto Meiling was 1150 metres, and we were carrying packs, so it was tiring.

After about three hours we came to the tree line and the views were absolutely spectacular in all directions. It took another hour to reach the refugio, over a rock field made up principally of pumice and something like andesite. By this time the heat was getting to us and we slowed down considerably. We managed to find some flowers to photograph, and after a while we found a snowmelt creek to drink from.

The refugio sits at the foot of a snowfield on Filo de la Motte, which is one of Tronador’s subsidiary peaks. From there Tronador itself is not visible. It is a solid concrete building with two floors. The bottom floor is full of tables and the top floor is an empty room that can be filled with mattresses. There is a windmill and some solar panels for electric power, and a water pipe coming down from the snowfield. It even has flush toilets! No showers, though.

The refugiero told us that there was a special meal tonight for the party—pisco sours, barbecued lamb, fresh bread, and apple pie—and asked if we wanted to order it for 30 pesos each. We decided we might as well, the only problem being that it was going to be served at about 10 pm.

After taking some photographs and watching the condors fly over, we sat in the refugio and caught up on diary writing. We also watched them carve up an enormous amount of lamb for the barbecue, which was just getting under way outside. This is how they barbecue lamb here: they first burn wood until it is reduced to hot coals, then they put those coals under the rack holding fair-sized hunks of lamb. They repeat this process so that there is always hot coal but never flames under the meat. To keep the heat in, they put wet cardboard (a refrigerator carton) or scrap roofing metal on top of the lamb. They do this for about four hours or so while they alternate between drinking mate and smoking cigarettes.

We also met an English woman named Judy who was part of a British film crew that was making a documentary about paragliding and condors. It is supposed to be appearing on the Discovery Channel in North America in about February of 2005, so we will watch out for it. She told us that in the morning around 10 am we might see up to 20 condors flying over.

Sunset was beautiful with our 360-degree panoramic view, and watching its glow disappear was interesting. Just as the sun went behind the mountain, a group of skiers and snowboarders headed off up the snowfield; we guessed that maybe the snow conditions would be better just after sunset. For a while we stood talking with Mark (from Oregon) and Julian (an Argentinian graduate student at Oregon State) while we waited for dinner.

Then shortly before 10 pm we noticed a row of lights come over the top of the snowfield and swoop down towards us. It was the skiers and snowboarders, carrying torches to light their way down. When they arrived at the refugio, everyone was handed a pisco sour to start the celebration.

Dinner, when it arrived at about 10:30, was amazing. We each got a huge piece of lamb, mashed potatoes, and mushroom gravy. The pieces of lamb were very hard on the outside and so soft on the inside that you could eat the meat with a fork. It was the best lamb we had ever tasted! Dessert was apple pie with ice cream, by which time it was after midnight. The party started, and we went upstairs to find empty mattresses to sleep on.

However it isn’t easy to sleep when just below you is a speaker booming out dance music with a heavy bass. This finally stopped a bit before 3 am and we immediately fell asleep.

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