85. Mount Tronador 3 (Bariloche, Argentina)
The first step was the 8:30am minibus out of Bariloche - I preferred to pay $50 pesos for the round trip than risk breaking something else on my van. On the way we stopped to pay our entrance fee to the national park, and Ruth and I got in for free - since we're Bariloche residents. As a foreigner Mark had to pay $12 pesos. Finally, being a "local" had a payoff!
By 11am we'd arrived at Pampa Linda, and after filling out our trekking registration form with national parks to let them know our plans, we set off at 11:30am. Destination: Refugio Otto Meiling at 2050m, an 18km trek with an ascent of 1100m. 4 to 6 hours trekking time. We'd spend the night in the refugio and descend back to Pampa Linda the next day, catching the bus back to Bariloche at 5pm.
The first hour was cake - all flat. Then we crossed over the Río Castaño Overo (Peachy-Brown River) across a fallen log, and the "fun" started - an unrelenting 2.5 hour ascent, zig-zagging through the forest. The start was nice, through giant Alerce and Coihue trees, and it was cool catching glimpses of the glaciers above us through the trees on the way up, and seeing how the trees got smaller and smaller as we climbed. But what made the climb a living hell was the tábano, a local version of the horse-fly.
Big, slow and tough, they chased us the entire ascent, 10 or 20 per person at a time, nipping at us to draw blood to drink. I'd known that they were drawn to both dark colours and carbon dioxide, and since we were puffing the entire time on the ascent they were having a frenzy. Ruth, with her black hair and black duffle bag was copping it worse that any of us, so she covered up with a light-coloured sarong, resembling a Muslim on the hajj in the process.
The tábanos would usually stay off any moving part, so whilst we walked they kept off arms and legs, but would usually settle on my hair where they'd try to bury down and nip at my scalp. To keep them off I'd be constantly waving my arms like a madman as we walked. Whenever we'd stop to take a photo they'd be all over me as I aimed the camera, making even taking a photo more difficult.
Now, you couldn't just swat them away and expect that to work, because they're so tough that a swat doesn't phase them. The only defense was to clap at them or splat them against your skin, then they'd fall to the ground and you'd have to stomp on them. If you didn't stomp they'd wake up and come at you again. A guide had told me his record on a rafting trip was killing 18 tábanos in a day. Well that day I swat-stomped 120 of the bastards! Lord of the Flies!
Ruth's shoulders were starting to get a bit raw as her bag wasn't a backpack but just a duffle bag, so the narrow straps were cutting into her shoulders. So I carried her bag for most of the ascent as well as my own. But fortunately we weren't travelling too heavily, just a change of clothes and lots of cold pizza for food, as well as water and a sleeping bag.
Finally we made it to the top of the ridge, where we stopped for a cold pizza lunch. Mark had already gone on ahead of us with his stove so a much desired maté we had to go without. From there it was another hour through bushes and tábanos, making it to above the tree line. At this point we saw a couple of Andean condors swooping around looking for food. I don't know what they eat since they're scavengers, but I guess they have some food source. We still didn't know how much further to go to the refugio, but every time we'd summit a hill it would be a false summit and the refugio still wasn't to be seen. The tábanos were still following us, and I wondered if they were the same ones that had followed us from the bushes. I stopped to kill the 10 or so around me, only to quickly be set upon by another group. Evidently being above the tree line didn't make a difference, they still lived here amongst the rocks.
Finally we made it to the snowline, and finally the tábanos dropped off. The last kilometre or so took us an hour, as by now we were spent - my thighs and shoulders more than anything. I'd done hardly any trekking this summer and for Ruth it was her first ever trek, so she was getting thrown in the deep end.
At last, after six hours of trekking, we made it to the refugio. Mark was already there, dozing in the sun. He'd arrived about an hour before us. We fired up the maté, had some cold pizza and wound down. Ruth wasn't happy one bit - the refugio didn't have beds, just 40 or so mattresses on the upper-level floor, and it didn't have any showers either, not even icy cold ones. So we'd arrived covered in dust and sweat and had to lie on a no doubt already sweaty and dusty mattress - and pay $25 pesos each for the privilege of "sleeping together like dogs", as she put it. I was frankly too tired to care and by 8pm I'd lain down to rest my aching bones and not gotten up again. So much for enjoying the amazing night sky!
The next morning I got up early to take some photos. The refugio is spectacularly located, right on the snowline between two glaciers, with mountains below and in all directions for as far as the eye can see, and within sight of the summit. Indeed, Tronador can be summited from the refugio, weather permitting. You leave the refugio at 4am with a guide, summitting at around midday, and back at the refugio that afternoon.
Ruth got up a fair bit later than everyone, as is her custom, and by 11:30am were were practically the last ones to leave the refugio for the walk back down.
We would have made it back in 3.5 hours but we took a detour to visit a lookout of the bottom of the waterfall. Then we had to hustle to get back to Pampa Linda by 4:30pm, just in time for a beer before the 5pm bus. The walk back was infinitely more pleasant, obviously since it was less strenuous going down, and Mark had hit on the idea of swinging a branch from shoulder to shoulder to keep the tábanos off his head, which worked great. How I wished we'd thought of that the day before!
So, to sum up - the views from the top were great, and I'm glad we did the trip. 40km walking in two days, most of it on an incline. Ruth, for her part, has sworn off trekking for the rest of her life - unless it's in a tábano-free zone and there's a hot shower waiting for her at the end of each day!
So, tomorrow Ruth and I bid Bariloche a permanent farewell. In the van will also be Mark, as well as Hamish and Lisa and their 2 kids. We're heading to the Atlantic coast for a week of sun and sea before heading to Buenos Aires, while Hamish and family are heading north to Mendoza for a couple of days, before flying back to NZ from there. We're gonna miss them.