Saturday, February 28, 2009

Cerro Castillo

From Coyhaique (Co-YIKE-ay) we took a small bus, bike and luggage strapped to the roof, southward along the Carterra Austral to Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo. "We" were me, Josh and Brian, the two U.S.A. backpackers I mentioned earlier, and Sadrah, another USA girl they'd met on their way to Coyhaique, and I'd met at the hostal there. It was good and comforting to have some cool common-language companions to hang with.

We found ourselves a place to camp tucked out of the wind in some trees near a small river on the west side of the little Villa Cerro Castillo. The evening was upon us, so we gathered some firewood and Josh and Brian fired it up. Above the valley, a glaciated crags of mountain began to silhouette the setting sun. The closest and most impressive of the peaks was in a continual state of not-quite-out-of-a-cloud. The wind was blowing strongly up there (and pretty steady down where we were as well) and the upwind side of the crag was visible. But it didn't seem to matter how long I stared at the cloud whipping past. It never actually went away, and the top of the mountain remained in mystery.

It was great to chat merrily around the campfire that night, as the clouds blew and cleared overhead, opening windows to the starry southern sky. Southern Cross blazed brightly. Bright mass of the Milky Way. And the fuzzy spots of the Greater and Lesser Magellanic Clouds -- actual visible gallaxies! I hadn't had as good a view of the Southern night sky since New Zealand. (2000) The starlit peak, however, remained in its cloud.

In the morning, with fast-moving clouds opening to frequent sunshine, we headed off for a hike into the Reserva. I cheated by riding my bike along with the others for the 7 km gravel approach to the trailhead. We passed along the muddy Rio Ibanez, which looked like it had overflowed onto the road during the recent rains. Passed flocks of ashy-headed geese, and a large raptor -- southern caracara? -- dining on something dead, maybe a goose. Then we were all hiking up a steep trail, aimed at the sharp peak of Cerro Castillo. Beech tree fairyland forest and open brushy slopes were we found wild strawberries to sustain us. We started seeing fuzzy grey caterpillars, and were soon walking though denuded forest. Sticks but no leaves. At the time I didn't put 2-and-2 together, but I now suspect that the lack of leaves was the result of so many caterpillars, which littered the trail where we squished them.

The Cerro ("hill") itself was a thick spire of rock, not unlike its namesake "castle". Quite impressive to view, and we hiked hard to get an "ultimate" view, but ran out of time before we ever got one, if there was one to get. Plenty of very nice views of it as we went along, the clouded spire spiking into the sky above us.

I dallied for a bit as the others blazed back toward town and camp. Then I sped down and rode fast -- at first on some great hiker/sheep-made singletrack -- to catch up with them back in the little villa, were we got some snacks and headed to camp for a jump in the cold river, sunset -- during which the top of the mountain cleared (at last!) and another campfire burning into the night.

Sadrah had been traveling alone, and she was enjoying the company as much as I was. She is on a WWOOF tour, and has been working her way through South and I think, Central America, and getting away from home in the Philadelphia area. Josh and Brian were based out of Montana, and were backpacking, hiking and fishing their way though Chile and heading to Argentina. They did win my award for best adventure story I had heard along the way. Goes like this:

They were camping along the grassy banks of the Puelo River and awoke after midnight with water lapping under the tent. In the few moments it took them to grab all they could and stuff it into packs and get the tent door open, they were waist deep in water. The straight path to shore was through thorny, impenetrable bushes, but they tried that way first. The other way was around the bushes, which resulted in them swimming with their packs on, and finally dragging themselves onto the dark shore. They were wearing nothing but jockey shorts and were shivering with the wet and cold. Only the very crest of their tent was visible above the water. One sleeping bag was soaked but the other was alright, so they found high ground and both crawled into it trying to stay warm. In the morning, the tent was still there, staked out and wet. The unusually high tides of the full moon had backed water up the estuary and had retreated again. They found most of their stuff, including their frying pan lid -- stuck in a tree at eye level. And after drying out in the sun, and with the help of some local folks, they salvaged almost everything. Lucky that it was river water and not salt. But they did ruin an iPod, a camera, and their electric water sterilizer. 

Quite a bad moment in their travels. But they survived, their trip goes on, and they have a great story to tell. 

Since I was heading home, I gave them my water filter on credit, and after our second night of camping, I packed up and rode out of Villa Cerro Castillo, back toward Coyhaique. Beautiful day, filled with the kind of riding I had hoped for more of on this trip. Great views as the morning's road took me through beech tree forests and past pale orange scree-topped mountains and grey basaltic spires. Afternoon's view opened up to wide pampas (prairies), rolling and cliffy hills, and distant snow-capped mountains under a wide sky. Similar and comfortably familiar in many ways to the open country of the western US. There was also a  head-wind, but not enough to hold me back. 

I rode into the evening, looking for a place to camp, but didn't find one that would work unless it was dark, so kept riding and made it all the way to Coyhaique. Bunk in the same hostal as before, some laundry, and a political discussion over dinner with some Chileans who translated for me. Mostly about how to "sell" Patagonia as a scenic tourist location in order to prevent it from being used up and wasted by extractive industry and messy future projects. 

These last two days of great weather, and scenic hiking and riding were very satisfying and helped make up for the rainy days and few miles I had put on during the rest of my trip.

Just one remaining challenge: getting my bike and I back to Santiago in time for my flight. Stay tuned!

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