Monday, February 29, 2016

Arriving in Ushuaia

[Kyle]The sun came up in Ezeiza just as we were getting dropped off for our flight to Ushuaia. There were only one or two other cars dropping off. I realized I my have overestimated the time required to check-in, but at least we wouldn't have to worry about not making it.

Once inside the building, I had the opposite thought. The entire ticketing area was standing room only with crowds of people crushing this way or that toward some general goal with hardly any order evident. I turned toward the check-in machines and got pushed by the people behind me into the people ahead of me until the guy in front of me turned and pushed his way back, revealing my part of a bank of machines. I checked us in under the prying eyes of the woman behind me and then ducked out sideways at leg level to find Maryanne, who had sensibly kept out of the fray while looking after our luggage. We repeated the process a couple more times with each one becoming less chaotic before we all calmly boarded busses to our plane, a wide body Airbus 340.

The flight was mostly over an undercast layer obscuring the route. We watched a couple of movies, occasionally lifting the window shade to peer out for changes.

It wasn't until after the landing gear came down that we finally got a glimpse of the ground below. We flew past and away from the edge of the giant cloud that had enshrouded the whole east coast. Suddenly we had a view under a bright blue sky of the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel . A peek out of the window on the opposite Argentinean side showed us to be at the same level and very near to some very steep mountains. Something didn't seem right. On our side, we were way up in the air. On the other side, we were way too low. It did not seem possible that the mountains on our right had enough room to end in the space under the plane. The mountains backed away a little, a small Mesa appeared on our side and, bam! We were on the ground. The pilot did not even try for a smooth landing as he did not have the luxury of enough runway to do so. Everybody clapped.

We collected our luggage and were heading out to hail a cab when we saw someone holding a card with our names. It turns out G Adventures sent a ride for us anyway, even though we were technically a day early. A short ride later and we were deposited at the Albatros Hotel right in the middle of town.

We dumped our bags and immediately headed down to the front desk to order a cab to take us to the Martial Glacier. I had originally intended to walk there since the map indicated that it was just at the edge of town, but we wanted to be sure we got back by dark. {Maryanne: in other words, I gave him 'that look' when he suggested walking}

Ushuaia was a little bit bigger than I thought. I was glad we weren't on foot, although I did feel a bit lazy as our cab passed hikers on the switchbacks to the top.

At the top was supposed to be a ski lift that would take us to the trailheads going farther up the mountain. We went in to ask about it and the guy inside told us it hadn't been running for two years now. No problem! We'll walk.

The trail started on the wide swath that made up the former ski slope. It had been unmaintained since the lift closed, but since nature moves slowly at this high latitude, it looked like it had closed more recently.

We neared the top of the tree line and started to see glimpses of the majesty beyond peeking through the vegetation. There was a big, u-shaped glacial valley that started in the foreground as a river flowing through a mossy field. It curved upwards to ring of bare scree above which precariously clung fields of snow and ice. Farther up was a ring of cliffs with jagged tops that wove their way in and out of a clinging mist.

Since we were short on time, I made the goal of climbing above the tree line and making our way over to a viewpoint that was said to overlook Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel. Maryanne (yes, my Maryanne) was convinced that wouldn't take too long, so she suggested we try to get as far as we could up the much longer and harder trail leading up to the main glacier before finishing with the viewpoint on the way down. Her reasoning for starting with the glacier was that it was facing away from the sun so would be the first to lose the light.

We climbed clear of the trees just after passing the top of the derelict ski lift. The trail followed the river and then could be seen in the far distance breaking off and traversing the slope at a forty-degree incline before disappearing behind a small ridge in the vicinity of what appeared to be our target glacier.

We had only been out in the open for a minute or two before we encountered our first williwaw. The Wiiliwaw is the name for the local katabatic wind, similar to the Greek Meltemi or the Italian Tramontana. Air along the slopes cools, in this case with the help of glaciers, and then races downward picking up speed. Sailing stories of vessels passing through the region are rife with stories of boats getting knocked down (when the mast hits the water) by sudden williwaws before the crew had time to reef. The Tierra del Fuego/Cape Horn parts of the stories of circumnavigations or voyages of discovery are invariably the most gripping and fraught with the dangers of powerful nature dispensing humility to even the bravest, most experienced mariners sailing the stoutest ships.

One moment it was dead calm and then the next, a blast of cold wind would try to take us off our feet. We hunched into it. Every time we would take a step, the leg not planted on the ground would get blown away from the path. This would go on for two minutes or so and then it would stop just as suddenly, returning us to a nice summer day. We had twenty or so episodes of this by the time we reached the end of the path at the base of a big expanse of slushy snow and ice.

Even though it had been a tough trek, the views of the city, the channel and the mountains on the Chilean side were totally worth it. {Maryanne: it wasn't that bad - only a couple of hours of actual walking - and a great choice to fill our arrival day}

What an amazing thing it was to be stood on a rock looking down at the Beagle Channel after having read so many dramatic accounts of the place.

At 54° South, Ushuaia is 5,000 to 7,000 miles south of our "normal" latitudes of 30° to 50° North. There are a lot of places on the beaten path that are separated by this range of distance. Most of the cities in North America and Europe are approximately this removed from one another. The thing is, If you flew from San Francisco to Paris, you could just keep going and find yourself in Moscow or New Delhi. Do it again and you could be in Tokyo or Sydney. Stop in Hawai'i and before you know it, you're back in San Francisco. In this way, most places, even far away places, feel like they are on the way to places even farther still.

To get to Ushuaia, though, it is necessary to turn 90° and leave the beaten path behind. Beyond Buenos Aires and Santiago, roughly at the same latitude as Cape Town and Sydney, the major cities of the world are left behind and what is left of civilization exists almost entirely on another thousand miles of increasingly narrow and inhospitable land that terminates humanity's cul-de-sac at Ushuaia. Down here, they call it "El Fin de Mundo"- "The End of the World". It really does feel like it, like all of humankind is far behind us except for a hearty few perched in this place on the farthest tip of the planet.

We have been planning to come here for a very long time. Even so, it seemed astonishing and unreal to finally find ourselves actually in this place, bracing against williwaws and crunching through the dirt of Tierra del Fuego as if it were the most normal thing in the world. It isn't, though. It's an amazing, incredible thing to be able to do.

We are constantly looking at each other in wonder and disbelief, not only in the beauty of the place, but just in the fact that we are actually here. We get that feeling a lot with our travels. You'd think we'd get used to it, but we never do.

After leaving the trails, we shared a cab back into town with an Irish woman in her twenties who had been hiking all over South America for months. It seems like we are about to start meeting a lot of people who spent months travelling around South America.

We swung by a grocery store for some provisions before heading to a restaurant for dinner. We were served by a genial waiter in a bow tie. Bow tied waiters at the end of the earth... astonishing. We were pretty hungry, so we ordered a lot. We hadn't yet learned that portion sizes around here are geared towards super fit mountain climbers with super fast metabolisms. We left feeling Thanksgiving stuffed, wishing that we had ordered for one and then split it. Fortunately, getting back to the hotel required only a two-block waddle.


Mommy Dearest said...

Your ongoing sense of wonder and humility at the incredible opportunities you have is always so refreshing. It gives me a peek into that child-like wonder that you both still have about these incredible adventures. So good to feel that amazement through your eyes.

kate rodenhouse said...

I missed the part about where you stashed your luggage so was worried when you started the climb. Clearly the usual 'the view is always worth it' held true - amazing vistas! Good to hear you're experiencing every famous wind in existence, though at least you weren't trying to sail in it, haha.