Meeting at the airport in Santiago, Chile, Jon and I opened a new chapter to our Matthew Baxter Award. Our adventure to collect simple, repeatable, and useful photographs of climatic changes in Patagonia was underway. While we had collected similar evidence while trekking over two hundred miles along the spine of California’s Sierra Nevada this past summer, the language on the buses, the mazes of the subways, and the numerous unknown faces seemed to contrast our initial journey. Our skills in Spanish were infantile and our expenses were more than we had hoped. We were on a serious shoestring and needed to overcome these barriers to understand how people and water are connected Patagonia.
Plastic water bottles filled Santiago’s trash bins on the summer solstice. The arid heat kept Jon and I looking east toward Aconcagua where the temperatures would be cooler and the water more abundant. This bustling city caught our admiration, with a strong sense of history and culture, yet we quickly concluded that to conserve our money we should get the base of Aconcagua, the roof of the Americas.
The winding road over and through the spine of the Andes left us by the roadside in Puente del Inca. On Christmas Eve, we had to argue with an angry hostel owner for our dinner, because he disliked our choice to camp. He offered us stale bread in a garbage bag, but we wanted to share in the wine and steak. Without too much drama and in the face of our beginning Spanish, we procured a decent meal.
At the foot of Aconcagua
Despite our unsavory welcoming, Puente del Inca is a beautiful town residing at the foot of Aconcagua with the Rio del Delascuevas cuts deep through the scree. Yet, every chance for uplifting ourselves on Christmas day was destroyed by round after round of artillery. The Argentinean mountain division was celebrating Christmas at 3 in the morning. A resounding encore of echoes through the canyon and howling dogs ensured this was not our ideal silent night.
Christmas morning inspired us to practice a new technique called, “hacer dedo,” literally “to do the finger” or hitchhiking. We chose our best finger to catch a ride with a mountain guide from Los Penitentes. While we weren’t even sure if the bus stopped in this little closed ski village, but we were glad to celebrate our Christmas anywhere new.
The telephone booth beside the road cast the only cool shadow in this village. Certainly we were not in favor of the Christmas Spirit as no busses or cars were driving past Penitentes. Most sensible people were spending their Christmas with loved ones, not chasing wild dreams in the desolation of the Andes. Wasn’t it somewhere around here that the Uruguayan soccer team ate each other? I looked to Jon and wondered what was for breakfast. After a delightful breakfast of instant coffee, some powdered crème, sugar, and a thankfully shot of whiskey, I was ready to stand in this minuscule shadow with Jon for the rest of Christmas Day.
As it happens when you travel, you find the goodness in the world. Unable to conjure a bus on Christmas, a group of three Canadians and a lad from Santa Barbra, also found nothing mad about venturing to the foot of Aconcagua for the holidays. On the dusty and desolate side of the road, we found ourselves conversing and making connections around soil, water, and perspectives on world-wide corruption. I was greatly surprised when Laurie, the man I took for an ego driven mountain goat, helped me evolve empathetic communication through a Buddhist understanding of individual needs. This was truly and enlightened guide. It turns out, Lorenzo, as they call him around Aconcagua was the first Canadian to summit Everest. His daughter, Tasha, and the others were bound to summit Aconcagua on New Years day, the same day Jon and I were headed to summit Tronador. Uplifted by this confluence, we met again for drinks in Mendoza.
Without the work of others, this project would not exist. To repeat a historic photograph, you first need to have a photo to repeat. In Argentina the people who know this best are Ricardo Villalba and Mariano Masiokas from CONICET, Centro Cientifico y Tecnologico. These gentlemen were putting together Argentina’s catalogue of glaciers, a bold five year project. We had heard of their work and were eager to help them document the recession of glaciers in the Andes. After an afternoon of work, we had plenty of historic photos of glaciers that had never been repeated. Now we needed to go out and find them, to get to really know the landscape.
A sixteen-hour bus ride south, on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, we found ourselves feeling at home for the first time in Bariloche. We were welcomed with wonderful hospitality from Eric Fine, Diego Magaldi, Jeff Phillippe, and the folks from the Outward Bound Patagonia base. These fine people helped equip us with ropes, pickets, and maps, and we were given invaluable local insight. We were bestowed new ideas for the project and a greater sense of the community. With our inventory finally assembled we are poised to climb Cierro Tronador, “the thunderer,” and begin the second phase of our journey.
Refugio Otto Meiling
At 3.491 m, Monte Tronador is one of the largest volcanoes in this region, and also one of the areas that has a significant number of historic photographs. To obtain our Tronodor photos we set up a base camp beside the Refugio Otto Meiling. This humble abode is perched on a ridge of volcanic rock splitting the Castaño Overa and Alerces glaciers and provides a relaxing atmosphere to those on a different budget and not accustomed to the mountains. From here we set out to to have our first real experiences in the Andino.
The winds brought the ash cloud from Puyehue volcanic eruption and quickly changed our original plans. Instead of repeating our most anticipated photo of Tronodor we looked above Refugio Meiling toward a beautiful ridge called Lamotte. A short hike gains this ridge giving the spectator wonderful views of two of Tronador’s three summits. From this vantage, and above the ash cloud, it is easy to appreciate the former scale of these incredible glaciers that still descend off this volcano’s flanks. Here, we repeated two historic photos. After a short jaunt to a nearby summit to scouting our next two adventures, we descended back to the refugio.
On our second day the skies cleared. We climbed Cierro Constitucion, a summit seldom climbed due to the adventurous approach. Despite the bushwhacking through lenga bush and tabanos, or horseflies, we were able to summit and obtain the best historic repeat to date. Alberto M. de Agostini took this photo of Tronador in 1949. The truly spectacular part of this project is standing in a location and seeing how that view looked in the past. The differences last 63 years on Tronador are stunning.
Later that day, we descended thousands of feet to the base of the Frías Glacer to document the retreat from the mountain base. There were three photos in this area but it was late in the day and the onset of darkness we only obtained one. These photos show the most startling changes we’ve witnessed so far. Where there were once a massive icefall and glacial lake, there is now a gravel riverbed with a series of breathtaking waterfalls pouring off a cliff above. It was a long but rewarding hike back to the refugio.
Our most difficult decision was to forgo taking our oldest photos. We were able to determine the aproxímate sites of three other century old photos near Tronodor´s true summit, Cumbre Internacional. However, unusually warm night temperatures wasn’t allowing the snow that melted during the day to freeze at night. This meant that the loose and broken volcanic rocks were free to crumble off of the summits to the glacier paths below. We chose to climb Cierro Argentina, a smaller peak, since it had far less rock fall danger. We were living our dreams, celebrating the sunrise as we welcomed the spirit of adventure and gave our prayers to Travis Lizotte, whose life was taken very near our route. His presence was felt and this was truly a magnificent place to rest.
We arrived safe in Bariloche, returning with some real heartfelt treasures. Besides the pictures, the fantastic folks we met here have been an incredible resource and we are glad to call them friends. We literally would not have been able to accomplish this without the kindness and time that Eric Fine invested into our project. Our greatest appreciations to him and his wife Erica for their hospitality and patience with our broken Spanish. We wish the best for their new home and have faith in their dreams. Diego Magaldi’s insight, equipment, and assisting our immigration back into Chile was indispensable and timely. There is no doubt that this man has earned his radio handle, “Black Hawk,” as charts new territory in providing well trained Argentinian guides. A strong shout out to our friends, “Lea” and Kevin Shon, both distinct characters who live their lives well and with passion. Thanks to you both for bringing in the New Year as if it were the last! Lastly, to Flavia and Paulita, las flores del Tronador and our hosts at Refugio Otto Meiling, whose interest in our project guided our travels through the mountains. These two took the time to scan photo archives, identified photo locations, and like true mountain guides gave us the route descriptions to be successful.