Our (seriously) early morning reverie was broken by the sound of other trekkers noisily clack-clacking their way, in complete darkness, towards the trail that led to the mirador, viewpoint of Laguna Los Tres; the thick blanket of cloud overhead did nothing to deaden the uneven sound of footsteps and poles finding solid ground, as they headed up to catch the sunrise. Probably just as well they had wandered into our camping space, as they couldn’t have been further from where they should have been.
We had, naughtily, elected to camp in a site that was designated for escaladores solo, base camp for climbers only. Rio Bianco. With not a tent in sight, a climbers hut that was closed for the season and vacant pitches, we had set up home the night before in a fabulous and quite airy lenga forest. The only curious visitors up until this point had been a few cheeky caracaras and little finches, none of which were strangers to the tidbits left behind by trekkers and climbers alike. In our defence (m’lord) the campsite we had passed, Campamento Poincenot, further back along the other side of the river, was in fact pretty chockablock and it was getting late to retrace our steps…
Matt was busy making “bed tea” when the first lost trekker appeared… Torch in hand a perfectly made up (seriously) Japanese girl (Hell, I wasn’t carrying a mirror, let alone mascara) demanded “the lake, Los Tres, which way, which way”. In the gloom, there were a bunch of other trekkers, drawn like moths to Matt’s head torch, stumbling around in the forest, behind her. Uh-oh!
Further exchanges occurred as two more trekkers, a couple of German lads, appeared in the camp. All had made the mistake of passing the signs for the trail and crossed the bridge into the woods at the base of the steps and signs for the viewpoint.
Curious as to why we were camped there, Matt did his best to explain (in pigeon Spanish-cum-English) we weren’t here to see the lake and were ‘climbing’ up the valley, hence our stay in this spot!!! Right… Slight bending of the truth as we had decided to skip the early morning ascent to peer at the lakes as the weather was coming in. And it wasn’t gonna be pretty.
Rain and wind whipped us as we followed the roughest trail yet, picking our way across rocky shores of the Rio Grande towards the border of the National Park and our intended destination of the “private” refugio at Piedra del Fraile. Haphazard cairns marked several possible routes across the rocky moraine up the valley towards, and past, the glacier Piedras Blancas. Boulder hopping (erm, more like scrambling) upstream and across a “small” tributary saved us from freezing our feet off – the alternative had been a wet crossing; knee deep in the frigid glacier melt waters. Not a tough call!
We ploughed onwards in the pouring rain, over the alluvial plain and scooted under the barbed wire fencing that marked the boundary of the park, a scrappy faded sign announcing privado. $100 Argentine pesos fee per persona. Bizarrely it now felt like a wilderness trek – a myriad of horse tracks and trails leading off to small streams and wooded temporary sheltering spots and no official markers to point us in the right direction. Or any that we could see.
The terrain changed as we made our way through rain drenched and heavily scented forests, scrub grassland and open meadows as we contoured the wooded slopes towards Lago Electrico in the next valley. So far we hadn’t bumped into a soul, much less anyone from the estancia demanding their dues! We spoke too soon, as in the distance we could hear the muffled engine of a dirt/quad bike making it’s way along a path, somewhere behind us… Tracking trespassers or bringing in supplies, who knew.
The rain and wind eased off just before we entered an ancient and dense beech forest; trees twisted by time and heavy winds, the ground littered with fallen trees and boughs; in the eerie silence we imagined forest trolls, goblins and the odd dragon lurking in the wooded grey graveyard before us… Maybe the enforced lack of alcohol was finally taking it’s toll after all??
Not before time, we spied the green sided and corrugated roof of the refugio. Thoughts turned to running water and (fingers crossed) the chance of a steaming hot shower. Either way, the campsite alongside the river and beneath the brooding face of Cerros Electrico Oeste would be our home for the next couple of days.