Cuidad del Fin del Mundo


After my long night of exploring Buenos Aires, I fully expected to sleep late and enjoy a lazy morning in the hotel, but clearly my clock was not yet fully adjusted and I was wide awake at 07h00 and ready for the day.  It was sluicing with rain outdoors, which led me to I enjoy a long slow buffet breakfast, perusing the passenger list and flight info for the expedition participants.  I tried to make sure I had an idea of the names and faces of all those who would be at the airport and on the same flight, so that I could get to know people immediately.  Eventually, the kick of cafe con leche wasnâ??t enough to keep me attentive and I drifted upstairs, shot off some last emails, packed, and met my 12h00 life to the airport.  The hotelâ??s driver didnâ??t speak a word of English and my Spanish was quickly exhausted, so we rode through the dense traffic in comfortable silence.  Well, silence bar the hoots of other taxi drivers and the clouds of scooters buzzing and behaving like gnats around us.  I relished the cool disregard the driver had for our mortality: more aggressive taxis tried to force us out of the way but he calmly ploughed on.  Cummings would have approved, as we constantly risked absurdity and death all the way to the domestic airfield.

Aeroparque Jorge Newbery had the typical chaos that travel writers euphemise as â??excitingâ? or â??titillatingâ? and the locals call frustrating.  Most of the check-in stations were manned but only three of the clerks were actually working; the rest waved hopeful passengers away with an irritation that implied large signs saying â??DONâ??T CHECK IN HEREâ? despite their absence in the visible spectrum.  I joined a queue which seemed to be moving well, which of course then took at least three times as long as the others.  Arriving at the counter, I was ignored by a clerk keenly intent of winning the â??Most Surly Airline Employeeâ? pageant.  I decided to treat his ignobility with cheerful friendliness, which earned me an excess baggage fee.  Câ??est la vie.

Having parted with the requisite pesos, I wandered upstairs to the departure hall keeping a close eye out for familiar faces.  I neednâ??t have bothered:  the entire waiting area at Gate 12 was filled with friendly older folk comparing names on Cheesemanâ??s passenger lists.  I quickly picked out birder Jim Danzenbaker, who introduced me rapidly to other staff and passengers.  The vibe was lively and ebullient; it was immediately evident that most of the participants were well travelled, and many veterans of previous Cheeseman trips around the world.  As time progresses it becomes more and more apparent that this is a unique group; I suspect between the lot there are very few parts of the world that havenâ??t been visited (and likely extensively photographed!).

Aerolinas Argentina continued to live up the example set by Check-in Surly, and we had thus had plenty of time to meet and chat while we waited for the take-off, delayed by almost two hours.  No reason was forthcoming, but we continued to be ebullient: the next plane-load of expeditioners arrived while we were waiting.  I was able to meet the original Cheesemans themselves; Doug and Gail founded the company in 1980 and have run several hundred expeditions around the world over the intervening 30 years.  They welcomed me like old family, and the concourse crowded with like-minded folk felt remarkably homely.

Eventually we boarded and got into the air.  The flight made two lengthy stops at airfields seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the first for undisclosed â??technicalâ?? reasons and the second to shuffle passengers.  I was seated next to Mark, a lawyer from Washington DC.  Predictably, we discussed healthcare systems and politics, Obama and Palin, malpractice and miscreants.  Eventually we were comparing systems of ethics… yes, you heard it, I made friends with a lawyer, and he knew the word ethics.  Miracles do happen.  (Note tongue in cheek).

Shortly before 22h00 (only a little more than 3 hours overdue) we dropped through the broken clouds to find Terra del Fuego resplendent below.  Snow-bedecked peaks rose from forested valleys; deep blue inlets wound inland and lakes of all sizes glittered between.  I was captivated.  The realisation dawned: here is Patagonia, subject of so many of my idle dreams and ephemeral plans.  I was glued to the window as we lost height over the Beagle Channel, watching mountains of the Darwin chain glide past, rising 1200m from the sea to proud peaks almost overhanging the water.  Ushuaia then slipped into view, nestled at the mountainâ??s feet, with a few expedition ships visible at the quay.  We dropped closer and closer to the water until passengers began to squirm in their seats.  At the last moment, the runway flashed into view, built partially on reclaimed land, and we performed a very positive landing.  After the first bounce it was not positive we had landed, but the subsequent bangs indicated lasting earthly approximation.  A round of spontaneous applause followed, although perhaps directed to personal deities rather than the pilot.

Expedition ships at the quay in Ushuaia

Stepping from the plane, I filled my lungs with cold clear Patagonian air.  54 degrees latitude, in the most southerly city in the world, the air coming off the Beagle Channel was good and clear.  I chuckled at the recollection of a phrase describing this type of fresh air: risk of oxygen poisoning.  I was elated, and stood gazing at the mountains and islands over the water while the other passengers queued to enter the terminal building.

Kudos to the designer of Ushuaia airport:  the building is actually quite good looking.  With a steep sloping roof and wooden-on-stone construction, it bears more resemblance to a swank alpine lodge than an airport.  We were out the other side and into a waiting bus fairly swiftly.  I carried on meeting members of the expedition at a rapid pace â?? many Americans, a handful of Canadians, some Irish, Aussies, Germans, Brits and even a Finn.  The bus delivered us in the centre of the city del fin del mundo â?? at the end of the world â?? at a very pleasant hotel, the Albatross.  Oh yes, it has broadband internet… should I not have been surprised?

Jim and I were sharing a room, but he had to be up early to lead an outing the next day (today) and hence progressed rapidly to bed.  I lingered chatting to guests, and ended up eating dinner with Craig, the trip historian, and Lauren, his lady.  Eventually I too retired, still without a clear plan for the following day.

This morning dawned cool and overcast, with an ambient temperature of about 15C, but a chilling wind.  After seeing off the guests who had booked excursions (the official expedition only begins tomorrow), Doug, Gail and I breakfasted together at the hotel restaurant, and then I set off to see Ushuaia and pick up some supplies.  Not having a fast plan, I packed for hiking as well as museums, and decided to let the wind be my tiller.

A stroll through the centre of Ushuaia sorted out admin (changing money and acquiring maps and the supplies) and allowed me to spot the interesting museums, but there was a call I couldnâ??t ignore any longer:  the mountains.  Despite squalls of rain, a pamphlet for the nearby Martial Glacier was the last straw, helped along by the promise of a chairlift to the attraction.  Other than the novelty of riding a lift (which Iâ??ve never done before), the it sounded like a good way of getting out when the weather looked changeable, and would make the trip quick enough so that I could still hit the Museo Maritimo later to see the models of the Endurance, Fram and Discovery kept there.  I grabbed a 20 peso return shuttle ticket for the 7km drive over to the Centro Montano Glaciar Martial.

The mountain centre turned out to consist of the ski club (closed for summer), chairlift building and a pleasant wooden refugio from which I was able to but a wrapped torta de jamon y queso and some chocolates.  The chairlift brochure promised a height gain of over 1000m, which judging by my map would be nearly at the summit of the mountain.  The map didnâ??t seem to indicate this, and as I rode the lift up I realised the mistake â?? it was about a 1000 foot gain.  Walking was clearly in order.

The chairlift rose through beautiful green forest, paralleling the river running down from the split glacial valleys above.  A quick glance at old photos in the refugio showed a three-tongued glacier flowing down into the central valley, but from the lift this was mostly hidden in the waves of cloud.  It was still raining on and off, but as I arrived at the upper station the sun broke through and the steep valley with its fast-flowing stream was illuminated by the amphitheatre of shining snow-covered peaks above.  I extended, shed my shell jacket (full shell donned below for the rain), extended my hiking poles and began the walk.

Walking up to the Glacier Martial

A good trail wound up through the thinning trees, crossing the river via wooden bridges.  Several other small groups of walkers were on their way up and down, greeting cheerfully in Spanish in passing.  I suspect I greeted several native English speakers in this fashion without us ever knowing.  Soon I reached the tree-line, and the first sections of ice overlying the gushing stream.  It was a far cry from Antarctic ice:  slushy on the surface, dirty and dust-stained, and clearly struggling against the summer temperatures.  As I climbed higher, warming to the task, the ice gradually thickened and other walkers thinned out, until I was straining uphill next to a 80m-broad glacial tongue with very few people in sight.  It began to snow, alternating heavy and light with the occasional ray of sunshine.  I still felt very warm in my t-shirt despite snow crusting my hair and sliding from my forearms with each thrust of the trekking poles.  Cresting a rise, I prepared to look on the splendour of the Martial that I presumed awaited.  I was spectacularly underwhelmed.

Granted, my concept of what a glacier should look like has surely been maladjusted since living for a year on a continent almost exclusively covered in vast expanses and thickness of ice.  Yes, I am surely a tad demanding after being a stoneâ??s throw from the second largest glacier in the world (the Jutulstraumen).  However, the Martial was a bitter disappointment… probably because I am 100 years too late.  Melting caused by climate change and increasing summer temperatures has decimated the glacier, leaving it barely recognisable amongst the exposed rock and moraine.  What I would have considered snowy slopes is all that remains of an entire geographical feature.  Sad.

The Glacier Martial, visible behind me, if you look closely. You can't easily see the snow blowing past, but check out the hair.

While I contemplated these less-than-inspiring concepts a bunch of people approached.  Two were Brazilians, who immediately accosted me in excited Spanish as if I was a madman.  I realised I was standing with ice in my hair and a mantle of snow on a ridge amidst what for tourist purposes constituted a glacier wearing nothing warmer than a t-shirt.  Their behaviour was perhaps understandable.  Fortunately, on spoke English, and I explained that I had plenty of clothing in my large backpack but wasnâ??t feeling the need to deploy it; mentioning living for a year in Antarctica seemed to allay their fears and need to escort me to a waiting white jacket with very long sleeves.  As they moved off the next two approached, who proved to be a couple of hikers from the local mountain club.  We chatted amiably, and they informed me that though the glacier was less than expected, the views from the peak were definitely worth the effort.  They seemed to think the snow was a phenomenon unlikely to last, and proceeded to give a vague route description (go up the glacier between the rocks, then  over the snow to the rocks, then left to some rocks, then up some snow to the ridge, the along the ridge to some rocks, then over lots of snow, then over rocks and snow to the top).  Righty, sounds splendid, I thought, and set off.

Forty minutes later I was slogging up a 50-degree slope through 60cm deep snow, with more falling harder and faster every meter I climbed.  I reached the long section of open snow and came to a halt: visibility had dropped to about 50m and contrast was down to nothing.  I didnâ??t relish the idea of striking out across this featureless section with unknown crevasses with no visibility, and so I plonked down in the snow, claimed the spot as â??Lunch Bivvyâ? and decided that Iâ??d work my way through the food and if the weather had not improved start to make a strategic retreat.  In the meantime, it was lovely to be sitting comfortably in deep snow, silent other than the hiss of the wind and patter of heavy snowflakes on my jacket, with subzero air filling my lungs and stinging my cheeks.  I was cocooned in a featureless white world.  Bliss back amongst the ice and snow â?? odd how acutely I had missed it.

Waiting for the weather to improve: whiteout and snow blowing uphill

Half an hour later the large sandwich was finished, and so were my aspirations for making the peak.  The visibility was down to less than 10 meters and the snowfall so heavy that my legs and pack were buried.  I packed up, zipped up and started down.  Passing the first rocky ridge I came to the steep slope and pulled a Shackleton, glissading down with trekking poles as stabilisers.  Within a few minutes I had re-traced an hourâ??s slog and began picking my way back around the glacier and then on down the stream.  It was snowing heavily all the way, with heavy flakes blowing up the slope and under my hood as I walked, and I didnâ??t regret the choice to turn back.  The tourists were gone but the chairlift was still running, and I glided silently down into the trees and out of the wind with beautiful snow still falling.  By the bottom of the lift, however, it had changed to drenching rain.  The refugio beckoned; inside the fires were burning and the vino caliente flowing.  I indulged in a slow process of warming up and drying out my camera  (assaulted by all the driving snow) while enjoying this Argentinean version of gluhwein.

Refugio Centero Montano Glaciar Martial

Later, I caught the shuttle back into town, arriving in time to share my story with some of the staff and two Australian guests over barbeque dinner in town.  Ushuaia has exceeded expectations even though itâ??s glacier has lost potency; there are many more attractions to see here and excursions to be done.  Like Buenos Aires, Iâ??ll need to return.

(No museums were harmed in the making of this post).

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