After reading some stuff in my guide book and visiting the tourist office on Sunday (which was a rainy, boring day), I got up Monday morning ready to do some hiking. With all these mountains around, how could you not? Scaling up a mountain to see the nearby Marital Glacier seemed like just the thing to do. If you believe the guide book, this particular glacier is much less impressive than some of its counterparts in the Chilean lake district, but who cares?
After a shower in the gross bathroom of the hostel Cruz del Sur, I was pleased with myself for reserving a bed at a new hostel. I packed up my stuff and hoofed it five blocks to my new residence. It had turned really cold outside - probably dropped a good 15-20 degrees from yesterday. Isn't it summer here? When I got inside, I was happy - the Yakush hostel was a big improvement. It looked newly renovated, had clean floors, a pool table, men's and women's large multi-purpose bathrooms and even had a living room upstairs with a book exchange and couches. All of this for the same price as the other place. A no brainer indeed. I couldn't check in until 1:00, so I left my bags at the front desk with a little gal named Mercedes, and set out for the day.
After visiting the Tourist Center once more just to make sure the Glacier was open on Mondays (things can close on you at weird times you know), I grabbed a taxi for the journey up the mountain. All the taxis are metered in Ushuaia, which is a pleasant change from some of the places I've been (My Spanish taxi fare negotiations are getting better, but they aren't fool-proof yet). The ride meandered south, into the foothills of the mountains behind the city. A light snow started to fall as we drove through town. We passed through several residential areas of the city I'd not seen in the two days prior, and then hit a set of switchback roads taking us up into the trees. We passed a large hotel tucked into the forest which eerily reminded me of the "the Shining". It looked open for business, but was extremely vacant. Only a few cars adorned the lot, barely enough for the staff. Probably not a good sign for a hotel in the summer near a tourist attraction. Strange murderous happenings over the winter will kill your reputation...
After about 10 minutes, we pulled into the dirt parking lot of the "visitor center". There were a couple buildings, including a log-cabin restaurant to the left and a large building which appeared to be the welcome center. By this time, the snow had picked up a good bit, but added to the moment: It was snowing on a mountain at the end of the world - in the summer! Something to remember to be certain.
I went inside the welcome center, and weighed my options. At this point, you can either hike/walk up a really wide trail to the left of a small mountain stream, or take the chair-lift up the mountain. It's only about a kilometer or so, but it was really cold. Plus, the lift was only 20 pesos. I paid my fee and got in line behind a group of people speaking British-accented English. The lift looked pretty old, but sturdy (or so I hoped). As my orange chair swung around the giant wheel, two guys worked to clear it of snow as best they could, then guided me in. Once off the ground, I chipped away some ice from the safety bar and realized two things - it was colder than I thought, and I was moving really slow. Even if it was just a kilometer, I was going to be on this ride for a while. At that point I thanked myself for bringing along my gloves and hat. I probably should have worn two pairs of socks and some long underwear, but I really hadn't expected the wind to be blowing about 30 mph, and wasn't snowing when I left. Oh well, "...it's all part of the experience, honey."
Once at the other end of the lift, I walked to a fork in the road. To the right was a little mountain lodge with signs for hot wine and hot chocolate. Tempting, but I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I wussed out this early in the trek. I headed left, starting up a fairly obvious trail which went right by the little stream I passed by on the lift. The snow was getting stronger. I walked on up to a bridge which crossed the stream, then up to a snow covered hill to my right. It had a little rope tied to a two metal posts, one at the top of the hill and one at the bottom. The signs to the glacier pointed straight ahead, but I thought I'd check out this little detour first. I pulled myself up and kept on trudging through the snow. It was pretty deep in places. I was up to my calf in a couple places.
The weather changed frequently here - It would be cold and snowy one minute, then the clouds would pass, blue sky would show itself, and you'd get some breathtaking views. Then, just as quickly, the clouds and snow and wind would return, forcing me to hold on to my hat. For the times you could see, it was absolutely beautiful. I was high enough to be offered some great looks at Ushuaia and the bay. I took a few pictures, then headed back down to the main path. About five minutes later I realized I'd dropped my sunglasses somewhere. Now, after losing two pairs of Oakley's while in high school, my expenditure on sunglasses is minimal at best. This particular pair cost approximately 10 dollars at Target. However, never one to leave a man behind, I tried to go find them. With the snow already on the ground and the wind covering up tracks almost as fast as they are made, it was pointless. Oh well. I liked those glasses though. They were nearly indestructible.
I headed on up the trail, which was poorly marked, especially in the accumulating snow. At some point you'd think I'd wise up and actually think about what I was doing - hiking up a mountain in a summer snowstorm trying to see a glacier with out a guide or anyone else with me. For whatever reason, these thoughts escaped me. However, after about 30 minutes of hiking, I began to wonder - about the situation a bit. I really didn't think it would be this far, or this hard to get to. For all the advertising they did for it back in town, I had in mind a short walk to a national park-esque "viewing platform" with 25-cent binoculars and the like. Not the case. The signs which said "Glacier" I was passing kept pointing toward the mountain in front of me, which quickly proceeded to go from a ten degree incline to a 50 degree rise. I started to think that normal folks probably wouldn't be doing this without a guide (and, funny enough, I found out later you aren't even supposed to attempt the climb without a guide for fear of "a real danger of falling into a crevasse." - awesome). This is probably doubly true while the snow is coming down en masse. However, from time to time the snow would subside, the clouds would pass and the sun would shine on the entire area. It was absolutely beautiful. I could see some people up ahead of me, hiking high up above me. Hell, if they could do it... (One of them was probably a guide)
I kept on hiking. I was actually enjoying myself. It was a hell of a lot of fun to be outside in the snow. It was the first snow I'd seen all year. After about 20 minutes of pretty vertical hiking, I reached a good resting point where took a load off. At that point snow stopped, the clouds cleared and I was treated to a stunning view of Ushuaia and the channel in the valley below me. I thought it a good point to rest for a bit, and actually started thinking about turning back. I hadn't seen a sign for a while, and with the snow being as it was, I could have been hiking on the glacier itself and wouldn't have known it. I saw another wave of clouds and snow coming down from my left, and figured it probably wasn't going to stop anytime soon.
I looked around at everything again. About 200 feet ahead of me, up the mountain I saw what appeared to be a man and a woman. They waved at me, and motioned for me to hike up to them. Well crap. Now I couldn't quit. I got up and marched on. As I got to them, it turned out to be some random Italian dude with a pale orange snow jacket and an Australian girl in a light blue snow suit who looked frustrated. As I approached, the Italian dude came towards me and asked if I could take his picture. No problem. As I took his camera, the girl said bye to me, and then made a quick escape. She headed down the mountain in a hurry. It didn't take long to find out why. In the span of 60 seconds, the guy had asked me to take his picture from every angle imaginable. He was even setting up the shots and telling me where to stand - all in Italian. I didn't understand a word he said, but I got the idea. After the 6th one, I was getting a little frustrated, and a lot bored. He was giving some orders on a new shot, and I said "I have absolutely no idea what you are saying." He didn't understand and didn't care. He just repeated the same commands over and over, slower and louder. I was starting to get pissed off.
I took one last shot and forced the camera back into his hand. I said Ciao, waved, and started hiking further up in an attempt to remove myself from the situation. I went up for about 5 minutes when I stopped to rest. I looked behind me, and saw the Italian guy following my path. Damn! As soon as he reached me, he asked me to start taking pictures of him again. Holy crap. I politely took a few, then again made a hasty departure and headed up the mountain. When I stopped to rest, there he was, about 200 feet behind me, following path like a delayed shadow.
I rested for a while, trying to figure out how to get rid of him. He was killing my chi. About then, a guy came over the ridge above me. He said hi, and we had a minute to chat before the Italian arrived. I found out his name was Mark, and he was from Canada. I asked if I was even close to the glacier. He said he didn't think so - he'd hiked a good bit of the way further up, and didn't see anything. He pointed to the bowl of snow up toward the peak of the mountain and said he thought it was likely over the top of there. He'd turned around because of the wind and the snow, and for the fact that the trail wasn't marked at all further up. He too wondered if we were supposed to have guides. He was on his way back down, and I used it as an excuse to do the same. No way am I hiking up over that bowl without better gear or a guide.
About that time the Italian dude showed up. He immediately started working Mark to become his photographer. Amazing. Mark was kind enough to take a few - not knowing what he was in for. Two pictures into the first series, the guy asked/demanded to have Mark's goggles for a few pictures with them on his head. I was really starting to dislike this guy. I visualized giving him a shove to see how far he'd roll down the mountain.
After three or four pics, Mark and I headed down the hill. And, of course, the Italian followed suit. I had a chance to talk to Mark for a bit while we walked - He was a crew member of the cruise ship "Infinity" which got into port this morning. While they were provisioning, the crew had a few hours of free time, and he decided to do some hiking. We talked a good bit on the way down, some about my trip and some about his desire to do an around-the-world snowboarding trip.
For what ever reason, I was leading our little trio, and in the process lost my original upward-bound trail. I tried to find the best way down, and ended up leading us down a pretty difficult little stretch which ended up requiring us to scale some short rocky drop offs - but it was fun. True to form, the Italian guy kept asking Mark to take his picture. I was at a point where I wanted to punch him. Once he stopped us and turned his camera to video mode, and asked us to repeat some Italian phrase into the camera. We had no idea what we were saying, but we did it, in hopes of getting him to finally put the camera away.
We continued on, finding a few flat points in the descent. I didn't realize how high we'd come. At one point the Italian was right behind me, and started going too fast. He tripped and fell into me, taking me with him. We went headlong into the snow. Fortunately it wasn't around rocks, and not near a drop off. Then, while picking myself up out of the snow, he wanted me to stop and have Mark take a picture of us. Hell no. I was cold, getting tired, and in no mood for this. I'll have Mark take a picture of me punching you in the face, how about that?
The further down we got, the more it leveled off, but the stronger the snow became. The wind was as strong as it had been all day, and our visibility was limited. I could actually feel ice in my beard, which I thought was cool. I had ice in my beard - words I've never said before. We finally made it back to the path by the little stream, at which time I felt a little better about things. As we walked along it toward the chair lift, we passed two pretty girls and stopped to talk. The Italian dude quickly made them say his phrase for his camera. His persistence was amazing. Anyway, between pictures, we found out they were from Israel, and wanted to head up the mountain to see the glacier. They had no gear, and were wearing cute little winter outfits which didn't look very warm. We warned them, telling about our adventure, and pointed to the gray clouds coming in and the trees bending in the wind. "We'll try it" they said. Good luck.
I finally headed up the path to the right for a warm beverage in the little lodge. It was nice and warm inside, and was home to about eight people, also ducking the elements. I sat down and had a hot chocolate (which amounted to some warm milk and a chocolate bar stuck in it, but it was good, and I started to recover. About 20 minutes later, as I was paying for my drink, the door opened, and in came the Israeli girls, red faced and teeth chattering. I took the lift back down, which was extremely cold. At least when you're moving, some heat is generated. Sitting on the lift, it's just frickin cold. The wind was slicing right through my clothes. I found a cab in the parking lot, and was happy to get back to my hostel and warm up.