Day 1: Warm Up
There is nothing like an easy start. At 10am, the ski lifts at Cerro Cathedral open for summer visitors, and we quickly escalated to 1,700m for the beginning of the hike. I was going to miss that cable car over the next few days.
We were a group of five, three guys and two girls. Aviran and Oz completed their army service in elite infantry units not so long ago, and Naama and Moria were hiking guides in Israel. I hiked with the girls in the south-most tip of Argentina, Ushuaya, and they were strong, very strong. On top of that, they were religious, and it felt as if the gods of good weather were present anywhere they went. Always stick with the good weather. It’s the difference between a hellish ride (my Torres del Paine trek, with 150km/hour winds, constant rain, broken tent, sleepless nights and full days of walking soaked wet) and a heart-lifting experience.
I was of course the oldest one in the group. Seems as if at the age of 32 (or more accurately, a week before turning 33), I was doomed to be the oldest of the clan anywhere I travel in South America, and referred to as ‘grandpa’ by my fellow travelers. Oh well, at least I’m fit.
The hike started with an hour’s traverse across boulders and unstable rocks, with promising views of the mountain range around us and the green valley below, and then starts a very steep descent towards the valley. Every step down the 300m drop was a painful reminder that my knees hadn’t yet recovered from previous weeks’ treks. Luckily, I had my hiking poles to rely on. Argentina was the first place I used hiking poles. I always thought they were for old people (read: older people) or for Germans hiking in the Italian Dolomites. Well, there I was, with my hiking poles, facing the reality of grown-ups. Seriously though, the poles are immensely helpful in taking the stress off your knees, and improving your balance when carrying heavy loads up an down steep slopes. Highly recommended.
After the descent, we had an easy hour of walking in the valley, without realizing it’s the last time we are going to walk on a flat terrain. Soon we started a steep climb towards Bercha Negra. The sun was high in the sky, and we were soaked with sweat when arriving at the pass. Wow. What a view! As the passes bridge between adjacent valleys, reaching them is always rewarded with stupendous views and an excellent place to catch one’s breath, boil water and enjoy much deserved tea and cookies. There is nothing like a granola bar after a long climb!
We rested for a short while before starting the last steep descent towards the lagoon. No clear path to follow, we were sliding down the slope of loose rocks, in a 500m vertical descent that seemed to never end. You could feel the ‘end of day’ atmosphere in the air, and had to watch very carefully as one wrong step could end up with an injury. Rushing to camp at the end of the day is usually pretty dangerous, as your muscles are tired and you are anxious to arrive. ‘Patience’ I told myself, ‘Patience’ and hoped my knees would not send a sudden ‘end of trip’ signal up my spine.
Camp! A nice thing about the Nahul Wapi trek is that every day ends up at a Rifugio, a small chalet built by the mountaineers in the early 20th century. Not only it provides a shelter should the weather get brutal, they also have little expensive perks such as semi-cold beer. And if tea and cookies are the reward of a long climb, cold beer is the ultimate reward of a long trekking day, best to drink before cooking dinner, for a light buzz.
I was surprised to see Nepalese praying flags in an Argentian Rifugio, but I guess the gods of the mountains are universal. Dinner was delicious (pasta), and were off to our tents after a nice day.
Day 2: Oh My God
The 2nd day of trek is notoriously dangerous and officially closed for hiking. Most hikers avoid it by descending through the valley, but it was rumored to be the gem of the region and part of what excited us about the whole journey. We received a few important route tips by the person who ran the Rifugio, and I did something I haven’t done since my Bar Mitzva, 19 years and 350 days ago: I put Tefilim and prayed. Divine intervention or not, at the moment I put the Tefillin on, the sun emerged over the mountains, promising another a beautiful day.
The crux of the day is an unaided climb of the exposed face of Pico Rifugio, where one misplaced footstep could lead to fatal consequences. The beautiful Laguna de Los Tempranos is a few hundreds of meters below, so if you tumble, at least you end your life in a beautiful spot. I of course enjoy living very much, and had no intention of cutting it short. Paying attention to every step, the scary climb was rewarded by a visit of two large condors that accompanied us all the way to the top.
From the top of the ridge, we traversed across a few ice patches and reached the first pass of the day. The view was absolutely stunning. We closely checked the map and realized the beautiful mountain ahead of us was actually our next climb. Oops. To sweeten the burden we decided that the next peak is also our lunch spot. A very important decision, as with every step up the mountain I could imagine the taste of the Avocado sandwiches we’ll prepare once we reach the top.
After a post-lunch siesta we started yet another 500m descent into the next valley. The route started with a nice surprise – a large patch of ice, 200m long, which just called for some fun! I managed to ‘ski’ down on my feet most of it, while the others enjoyed extensive bum-sliding.
We continued walking down. The route became steeper and steeper, at an angle which would be unforgiving for an accidental slip.
Across the valley we spotted what would be our last climb of the day, and it wasn’t pretty: yet another steep route that climbs to our destination for that night: Laguna Negra. But, this was still at least two hours ahead, and we were busy struggling with loose rocks, river crossings and terrain so muddy your boots go all under with hardly a chance to keep your socks dry. And, as if the Jewish people haven’t suffered enough, it also started raining. Perfect timing!
The climb up to Laguna Negra was a killer. I think I never sweated so much in my life. I was so tired and exhausted that the only thought I had was about my hiking vector theory: no matter how hard things get, as long as you continue putting one foot in front of the other, you are making progress in the right direction. It may take hours, but eventually, you’ll reach your destination. Vectors or not, I was almost a zombie in the last hundred meters, and spotting the Rifugio was a moment of pure joy. I immediately regained my energy, and walked into the Rifugio with composure of someone who had just been strolling next to the lake. It’s always easier to act tough than be one.
Beer, dinner, And for 45 peso (~$12 US), the guy who runs the Rifugio prepared a large tasty pizza that was eaten within two minutes. As lightnings were striking not too far away, we decided to sleep inside the Rifugio. I fell into deep sleep while the rain was pounding on the roof of our shelter.
Day 3: No Mercy
I got a bit tired of writing the hike’s account thus far, so I’ll make this one short. A 300m vertical ascent up the ridge to the peak of Capo Bailey Willis, followed by a long easy descent into a green valley.
We enjoyed lunch, a twenty minute nap, and got mentally ready for The Climb. Seriously, I think the person who came up with this trek was a hiking sadist. At any possible junction, the trail would follow the most difficult route up the mountain. And the upcoming climb was no different. 500m of a vertical climb, as steep as a climb can be, on rubble, boulders and scree that threatens to roll you down the mountain. Step after step, I felt as if slowly the soul is leaving my body, and I was pretty sure it was giving up on me in and moving on to someone who prefers relaxing on the beach. Step after step, the vector moves forward. Naama of course was running up the mountain like it’s a walk in the park. That is, if your park has a vertical 500m drop in it. Slowly the top of the mountain approached, and suddenly: WOW! What an amazing vista! 360 degrees of lakes, mountain tops and valleys where lying under our feet, and the view was out of this world. Someone even had the sense of humor of installing a bar stool on the mountain top, and I imagine this could be one of the best bars in the world.
We ended the day 300m below, next to the cozy Rifugio Lopez.
Day 4: Chill Down
We woke up to a stunning sunrise, finished all the remaining cookies with the morning’s coffee, and headed down to the road by an easy 3-hour stroll. A bus to Bariloche, a quick shower and straight for a large steak at the best restaurant in town.
It has been one of the best treks I’ve ever done. A rare combination of amazing vistas, challenging terrain, a great group of people and perfect weather.