Patagonia, Buses, and Tasty Sandwiches Part I

Written by Brian Burnham of Cirque Productions, Creators of TREK – A Journey on the Appalachian Trail

When I first began my career as a climber, my friends and I would go on trips in search of THE perfect route. Our quest took us everywhere in the US, into Canada, and also overseas to Europe. Occasionally we would claim to one another that we had found IT at some epic crag like the New River Gorge or Fontainbleau France. The search would obviously not stop; what fun would it be if we quit looking.

This carried over into my backpacking obsession and led to our group constantly searching for the best valley or ridge or summit. In 2001 I thru-hiked the AT, hoping to find some new contenders for ‘the-most-killer-section-of-trail.’ One could easily grant victory to The Whites of New Hampshire, or the 100 Mile Wilderness of Maine. However, I couldn’t settle for such and easy and local victory so…..this summer I stuffed a sub zero bag and other gear into my pack and went searching in the far reaches of South America, the infamous, often discussed, rarely visited, Patagonia.

I must admit, I was a bit nervous on our arrival. First of all, my Spanish is a bit weak; the few classes I had in high school have worn off a bit over the decade, and the thoughts of being plunged into the monstrous city of Buenos Aires in the pitch dark had me a bit on edge. I stepped off the plane and quickly realized that the shorts and T I was donning for a North Carolina summer were not going to work for a South American winter, especially one of the Patagonian flavor.

We avoided the mobs of cabbies trying to screw us on the fair, and got a good ride to a hostel. My fears didn’t subside much during our journey through the city. We drove through the most desperate slums I had seen in my life; people living in the rubble remains of houses, and in piles of garbage. I was busy being aghast at the living conditions when I noticed someone being mugged in broad darkness. I would say broad daylight, but at 8 in the morning, there still wasn’t any light to be found.

We quickly moved on from the sprawl of Buenos Aires in search of the back-country. Our first stop brought us to the lake district of Bariloche, Argentina, only quick 24-hour bus ride away. We began our research into the Patagonia region here. A stop at their local mountaineering shop ‘Club Aldino’ had us very discouraged. In their very fluent Spanish, they claimed Patagonia a non-option for this time of the year. Based on cold, snow, road access, bus schedules and general winter weather, they said visiting there was not even possible in June. They recommended rerouting north into better conditions. We were bummed. The first stop on our trip and Patagonia already seemed out of reach. While contemplating our situation over a Quilmes, the local Argentine beer (available mainly in 40’s), someone sat down next to us that also looked like a weathered traveler. We jumped right in and probed him for all the information we could, and discovered that one, he spoke English, and two he had just come from Patagonia and raved about its remote, desolate winter landscapes So we finished our beer and hopped on the southbound bus. What did the professional mountaineer in the Club Aldino know anyway?