When speaking the word Patagonia the average Slovene would get the stereotypical idea of a distant place, a somewhat mystical world, a somewhere far-off civilization. A maybe more educated person would know that Patagonia lies in the most south of South America in the countries Argentina and Chile, and that there is mostly bad weather there. But only the most knowledgeable person would know that this is the land of adventures and dreams coming true, a place which hides under its rather dull appearance the most beautiful and romantic stories you can think of.
This land is one of the most desert living areas on Earth. Its sheer volume of 1 million kilometers makes about 1/3 of Chiles and Argentinean territory, but there are only 5% of its inhabitants living there. Even in Tibet I didn’t get the feeling of emptiness as much as I do here in Patagonia. If you drive on the road “Ruta 40” to Bariloche, you will drive for almost a day without even seeing a single house. But that is just the way it has always been there. When Patagonia was a province of Gondwana, their first inhabitants were dinosaurs. 4 million years ago they died out, only to be succeeded by almost as huge Mylodon bears, which have named and shaped a well-known disco in Puerto Natales to this day
From the very beginning of the 16th century, when the first Europeans came to visit, there lived mostly Indians of the tribe Mapuche and Tauelche. The first European, which started to colonize their land, was the poor Juan Diaz de Solis. He went down the river Rio de la Plata and searched for a way through the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. But instead of finding that, he found a Uruguayan tribe, which ate him where he stood.
A really fruitful European exploration of Patagonia was made by the Spanish Francisco Magellan, who is also the godfather of Patagonia. The word “patagon” means “big foot”. The feet of Indians were covered in thick animal skin and their footsteps in the snow were therefore really big. And the same Indians, with their countless tribe fires, also caused the Terro del Fuego – the fiery earth on the whole south continent.
Such a rare settled land has always been a sort of an oasis for peace-seeking people, who sought it out for many different reasons. Besides economical immigrants there have also been many political refugees seeking its distance. The former president of Argentina, Juan Peron, also invited some of the Nazi soldiers after the lost Second World War. It was precisely by these soldiers that they managed to build a true enclave for themselves and lived in peace and quiet, until in the year 1994, when this peace was abruptly over when they arrested the well-known Nazi Erik Priebke.
You can also find a lot of Slovenes living there, those who through differently and sough the peace of Patagonia. They established a model organization of Slovene culture and with it they preserve the Slovene culture and the language for generations. Slovenes from 3rd generations still speak fluent Slovene language till today. Some of them were famous alpinists, which managed to undertake some of the very first and ground-breaking expeditions to the Patagonia Mountains. In 1954 Dinko Bertoncelj, as a member of the Argentinian expedition crew, made his way to Dhaulagiri (8167 m) and managed to climb a height of over 7000 m, which was a Slovene record at that time.
The joy of travel
I always looked at Patagonia as an alpine showdown place, full of piercing cliffs and bad weather, as any alpine fanatic would think. I was not wrong thinking that, but after living and climbing for over 5 months in that region, I soon discovered many, many more things…
Just the journey getting there was a real different experience than any other elite alpine undertaking you would normally make, like for instance, in Asia. There you travel around squeaking uncomfortable busses, ones you aren’t eve sure they will make the trip in one piece; in Argentina you have sleeping busses, which can be easily compared to a first-class ticket on a plane. In Asia you have to be careful at every step, making sure what you eat, so you won’t spend the next week on the toilet; in Argentina you get real beef fillets, the best in the world and in Chile you get excellent seafood everywhere you go. Both melt in your mouth like butter, and to top things off you have excellent deserts called Dulce de Leche, which is a kid of a caramelized spread. Heaven or earth? For Europeans this can be easily said, but for the Argentinians themselves, especially in the last few years, absolutely not! Till 2002 you could find a handful of tourists and almost no “budget” travelers. Their switch rate from the Argentinian Pesa to the American dollar was 1:1 so the average coffee for “1000 bucks” was too expensive. In 2002 the boated monetary system completely collapse and the country became 3-times as poor just overnight. The exchange rate of 1:3 shaped the country new and because of their mentioned natural beauties, they attracted tourists and because of their even more attractive heavily supplied markets in the cities, they became real tourist magnets, and 10 years after this, an even heavier inflation made the prices go up even further.
Weather, weather, weather…
The first time I visited Patagonia was in 2002. Our goal was to climb the walls of the national park in Torres del Paine. I came back a few times and undertook quite a few climbs in their local mountains. But the mountain tops themselves were always just the cherry on top, always focusing on the adventurous trips it took to get there. From Buenos Aires we normally flew to the south to Rio Gallegos. The city was the capital of the Argentinian military because of the fight for the Malvinas or Falkland Islands, but still managed to stay the same old boring city is always was. The journey onward was through the borders of Puerto Natales and a backbreaking hike to basecamp, which were a real welcome difference from my boring sitting sessions on plains and busses on other expeditions. My home, for the next few months, was the beautiful Valle del Silencio (Silent valley) beneath the magnificent tops, which we arrived to after a good 2 days hike and a decent amount of equipment and food we carried along.
The Andes, the longest mountain chain in the world, soon started to show themselves around 100 million years ago, when the South American and Nazca tectonic plates collided. At the south of this chain the mountains didn’t stretch that far from the ground, but the influence of the glacier soon shaped them into their high form we know today. Mountains formed, which leave a very deep impression in everybody who sees them with their own 2 eyes. But the influence of both oceans soon began to play tricks on everybody and everything wanting to climb these mountains, even those, who would like to see the true beauty of these for themselves. The mountains tops are mostly covered in clouds throughout the year, covered in snow, which a heavy wind from the coast carries to the tops. Because of all this climbing on these “high school” alpine mountains they became the ultimate test for every alpinist’s nerves that are put to the test. It is not that rare to see climbers return from their expeditions without managing to climb on a single one of them.
After a few test runs and running up the tops and back to the valley because of snowstorms and whatnot, a true bad weather front started to emerge at that time of my visit. Between the constant howling of the wind and all the snowing, there were also some short 2 hours of good weather in basecamp, where good boys and girls were taking care of the mountain huts. A true pearl amongst them was the Chilean Milan. Each meeting with them was pure fun. The son of a Croat running the hut has an incurable disease, which slowly takes away his sight. But he was always in such a good mood. His knowledge of the Croatian language only substantiated a few words at most and he loved to show his interpretation of all sorts of Croatian curse words; it was so entertaining, that we mostly just held on to our stomach and laughed all evening. A few hours of chatting and a few cups of matey (a high dose of caffeine induced herbs, which are brewed with hot water) later and it was soon time to make out way back to basecamp. “Maybe tomorrow we will have good weather” we always said after drinking a glass or 2 of an excellent wine called »vina tinto« and off we went. But the weather was stable – stable bad that is.
Talks about the weather are the most frequent themes the alpinists from all over the world chatted about in basecamps amongst themselves. There were countless hypothesis about the interaction of air pressure, wind directions, temperature, the amount of water in the rivers, the number of annoying insects, the quality of sleep, the number of tourists and whatnot. But the weather was a surprise each time. Each time it would deny you access to a mountain wall or route. You constantly had to return to basecamp in hope of good weather conditions, while reading a book, playing cards or renewing memories of long forgotten times. Lucky, when you are in company of good friends the wait is much more pleasant that is would be alone.
But there were some good weather periods, almost always after a full moon, for 2 days straight.
As soon as dawn struck, the sky cleared and the fresh snowy mountain tops were glistening in the sun. Greg and I made our way to the mountains, and after a good 3 hours the weather started to turn back bad. The tops were covered in a blanket of clouds and then and there also fell a small snowflake. But there was no heavy wind like it normally is. “So, further we go, so it won’t get even worse…” There we were, 4 friends on their way to the North top, and both of us about 200 m higher from the Central towers. We took the English route, which was a true witness of a battlefield in 1965, of who could climb the famous top first. In a photo finish the legendary English alpinists Chris Bionington and Don Willians were first. And this really tough and sleep route was even harder to conquer because of all the thick snow, so were travelling much slower that normally. At constant look to the sky, we were climbing up slowly and steadily. “We climb till nightfall and then we turn back” we decided. At 10pm in the evening, 30 min before nightfall, we hugged each other at the top and our shadows stood tall amongst the beautiful shadows of the mountains in the deep snow, which was shining in a deep red color, and the glistening lake Argentina which was seen in the distance. A truly unearthly view that even got my goosebumps goosebumps… Night soon feel and after a climb down the rope and a hurricane-like wind and continuing worsen weather conditions made this the last of our alpine adventures for the season. The rescue ropes, which were carried away by the heavy wind, looking for anchorage… and after 24 hours, which could be easily stretched out to 1 whole week based on what we experienced, we finally dragged ourselves back to basecamp and into our warm sleeping bags.
Some time ago Beatrice, the local resident I know, said to me: “Here you have to see the mountains; you have to open yourselves up to them and trust them. If you are honest, they accept you; they take down their heavy cloud jacket and you are payed with beautiful weather and scenery fit for gods, which leave you breathless and stay within your soul for the rest of your life.” So the locals say. And in those weeks of bad weather I truly didn’t believe in those words so much, but there and then, when I stood upon that mountain top, I truly believed what she said. And even my hundreds of »Nunka mas (Never again!)!!!« soon turned into »Hasta la Vista Patagonija« !
I was born 1970 in Germany to parents, which were “Gastarbeiter”. There I also spent my first 5 years, after that we returned to Ljubljana, where I still live with my family till this day. My parents were never really into mountain climbing, and I really can’t explain where I got my strong wish for “conquering the useless parts of the world”. Till the end of middle school it wasn’t so bad, because I wouldn’t live out my obsession to the fullest yet. I was constantly daydreaming and this was also the reason I had worse grades, than I could have had, but I managed. I also briefly visited university, if I let out the fact that I got my diploma with almost gray hair. After a few years of teaching in primary school, I finally managed to gather my courage and cut the cord, which bind me to my regular job and I became a “full time climber” and mountain guide.