There was a lot of umming aahing... Not exactly unusual for us but this was probably more umming and aahing than usual. This choice was this: continue on South all the way to the southern most drivable point, tick the Ushuaia box and explore Tierra del Fuego OR turn around and join friends, Johny and Ruby in heading North towards some climbing spots (and for us, towards our final destination Buenos Aires).
It was now the 28 December so we had about a month to get up to Buenos Aires which is plenty of time but we had our eyes on climbing spot Piedra Parada and we needed to build in some time for potential car troubles or paperwork admin. While we would have liked to see 'the end of the world', we wouldn't have had time to explore it properly and taking the peopled route is always more fun so, after 16 months of heading South, we turned around and drove North. It was quite strange.
Johny and Ruby had jumped in with us as they had left their bright yellow VW Kombi 'Bluey' a bit further north having some repairs done. This meant we didn't have any space for hitchhikers (devastating) and off we went, north to stop at some of the places we had skipped on the way down. The first was the giant Perito Moreno glacier which is a glacial tongue coming off of the huge Patagonian Ice field up in the mountains. The glacier snakes it's way down for 23km until it joins (and forms) a lake. It's massive - over 70m high at the face and stretching across over 5km and by a trick of geographic location, the L-shape of the lake makes it easy to get up close and stand face to face with the larger than words can describe glacier. As the glacier pushes forward (on average 2mtrs per day), it blocks the lake off at the elbow making it into 2 separate lakes and then as the water pressure builds up on one side (apparently the water levels differ by up to 30m at times), the ice spectacularly ruptures, water smashes through and the lakes are joined again thus beginning the cycle once more. The cycle repeats itself every 2-5 years with the last rupture taking place in 2014. Our visit did not coincide with a grand rupture but we were lucky to see at least 3 huge pieces (we estimate about 3 to 4 times the size of Pepe) calve off from the glacier and topple imperiously into the lake. This event was always met with resounding cheers and excitement from the crowd on the viewing deck, as everyone was drawn into the primal enjoyment of watching ice falling into water. Just like the unconscious addiction one has to watching fire, we were all entranced by the giant groaning glacier and trying to spot the next piece that would fall.
We didn't actually have huge expectations of the experience beforehand, thinking it would just be a nice view of the glacier for an hour or so and maybe a lucky calve. Expectations – smashed, we totally taken back and mesmerised by the experience and it was truly a highlight of our trip. After 5 hours staring at the huge chunk of ice, we still didn't want to leave. The immense size, the incredible azure colours and shapes and the power of the massive chunks breaking off, kept us enthralled all day as we walked along the 1.5km stretch of walkways to get views of the whole thing drinking tea along the way (Johny and Ruby are huge tea drinkers, much to the delight of Bridget).
From Perito Moreno, we headed to El Chalten and the great Fitzroy range. Its majestic granite walls and famous peaks attract hardcore climbers and mountaineers from all over the world - especially its two most famous – Mount Fitzroy and Cerro Torre (or Tower Hill in English, little chuckle for Londoners). The peaks have been at the centre of legend, mystery and plenty of scandal, particularly Cerro Torre whose first 'ascent' by Maestri in 1959 resulted in the death of his partner and has been widely disputed (pretty much no one believes he did it) causing him to return with a huge compressor drill, bolting his way to the top. Climbers coming here experience some of the most difficult climbing conditions in the world so most climbers hang around for weeks hoping for a good weather window to take on a summit. Unknowingly, we stayed at the camp site where most of the long term climbers stay and we spent many hours reading and chatting about some of the famous first ascents (or alleged first ascents). We had never imagined taking on one of the summits ouseleves (Johny and Ruby have imagined) but, in chatting to some of the other climbers we realised its easy to become over-awed by the legends and mystery. Far from being superhumans accompanied by big expedition teams, most climbers are just regular groups of friends (usually pretty crusty!), living as cheaply as possible and hoping to summit something before the season ends. They were so normal and yet so awesome that they inspired us- perhaps one of these days we might also be able to scale one of the great summits. But not yet.
We spent a great week in El Chalten climbing the not so hardcore sport routes in the valley around town, celebrating New Years eve together (the end of a full calendar year on the road), cooking up a storm and hiking up to get a closer view of the legendary peaks. It really is a magnificent place but we were concious that one week in El Chalten could quite easily turn into four, so we made plans to head north again.
After El Chalten, we dropped Johny and Ruby off in Gregores for their date with Bluey (who would be fully functional in just 24hours) and continued up the long (and fairly boring) road North towards Esquel. We arrived after an uneventful drive 2 days later and stayed just outside Travellin to do a bit of catching up with the world before stocking up with 2 weeks of food and rejoining Johny and Ruby again at Piedra Parada.
Piedra Parada was to be the last place we'd be properly visiting with Pepe so it was a bit nostalgic but also a very happy time. It is the most peaceful and beautiful place even in high season with far more people around than the previous time we'd popped in and the climbing is just endless. We spent 2 glorious weeks there, chilling out by the river in the mornings, reading, dissecting the worlds problems, befriending plenty of beautiful people from all over the world (we are pretty convinced the climbing community has some of the friendliest people going around!) and of course getting in a fair bit of climbing. The weather was hot and dry – quite a treat after Patagonia and the steep sides of the gorge make perfect shade for many an afternoon of climbing (and lots of tea drinking).
It was to be fitting final place to be camped out with Pepe. An unforgettable setting, living a dirt bag lifestyle & shared with beautiful friends. After two glorious weeks, we said a very sad farewell to the absolute legends, Johny and Ruby who we made the grand presentation of our trusty milk frother to. Our milk frother was the vital piece of machinery in the creation of over 500 morning cappuccinos on the road, it lives on a new and happy life in Bluey.
And then we set off for Buenos Aires and the grand finale...