I once cycled in Tuscany, Italy. Days in advance of our arrival in the fortified city of Volterra, people on the roadside and in the towns along the way would ask us, “Are you climbing the Volterra hill?” By the time we reached the Volterra hill (It was a good climb.), we were pretty freaked out. But climbing the hill had also become our goal, our objective. Our success in making it to the top would prove our cycling prowess.
On this trip, making it to the Tigre Glacier — the Tigre — became the same sort of test. Not only would it be a long climb up, figuring out how to get there was a major challenge as well. We were told by many people that it was a great trip, but no one seemed to have actually done it themselves. For weeks we had been asking people about it. Is there a trail? Can we take a packhorse? Is there food for the horses along the route? And so on.
Finally, on February 18, we left in pursuit of the Tigre Glacier. We had provisions for six days or more. Beto had discovered what he could about the route and we’d studied our topo map. We also had a hand-drawn map courtesy of Julio. We had been assured that there would be plenty of food for the horses and we would be crossing three major rivers so water wasn’t likely to be a problem.
We were also well rested. We’d been “holed up” for four days at the lovely Lago Cholila Lodge where we’d been treated to hot showers, soft beds with fresh linens, dinners beside a roaring fire, rich coffee, a good selection of wine and an excellent library. At 400 pesos ($80) per person per night it wasn’t cheap but it sure was fun. They also pastured our five horses at no cost, which was pretty cool.
My bee stings (5 of them) had cooled down after a few days and some antihistimine, but they were still really itchy. Judy had about twice as many stings as I had, but without Alex there reminding her to not scratch, she’d rubbed them raw. So she was looking a bit beaten up. Otherwise, the horses were fat and sassy after a few days off.
We headed up the back side of Lago Cholila. A glacier-fed lake, it is aquamarine blue, crystal clear and not as cold as you might expect — not that I would swim in it. We followed a small road that would occasionally disappear into the lake. At times, the water was almost up to Judy’s belly. We’d had some pretty good rain while we were at the Lodge and the water level was high. To start, we travelled through some flat green pasture where a few cattle and an occasion horse grazed. Most cattle were up in the high mountains for the summer. The fields gave way to forest consisting of ratamo, dwarf lenga (a type of beech), a leafy tree called Laura and cana. From time to time we passed through some reforested pine and spruce that was being logged for building materials. The forest, we’d discovered, was surprisingly lacking in diversity. It was scrubby and looked as if it would stand up to some harsh conditions. The bird-life, however, was rich and birds chirped and squawked and sang us along our way. The medium-sized green parrots that appeared from time to time never ceased to amaze me. What were parrots doing in a temperate climate?
After riding for about an hour and a half, we crossed the Rio Turco and climbed up higher into the mountains. When we came across a lookout, we could see back over Lago Cholila and the rolling hills beyond the town of Cholila. When we looked forward we saw craggy snow-topped mountains stacked one on top of the other. We had never heard of the Tigre Valley before we’d arrived in Cholila, but we would end up staying in some part of it for almost two weeks. With few people, glorious peaks, roaring rivers, the spectacular Lago Cholila and productive farmland, it caught our fancy.
After riding for about six hours, we arrived at an old broken down log house. It was deserted and we decided to set up camp nearby. With the warm sun still high in the late afternoon sky, we remained warm on what had been a clear but cool and breezy day. It was a great relief from the heat we’d experienced earlier. Furthermore, the recent rain meant there was no dust. Despite a pretty long day in the saddle were didn’t feel exhausted. I hadn’t realized how much the heat had zapped us.
The log house looked like it belonged on the set of a spaghetti western. Sheets of plastic that were no longer providing any protection from the elements flapped in the wind. The logs sagged and it had been some time since the windows had had any glass in them. Skins of a couple of cows, a goat and a wild boar (jabali) hung from large lenga trees that cast deep shadows on one side of the cabin. The Jabari skull with its enormous flesh-ripping incisors sat on a shelf beside the cabin. I couldn’t help but worry that a wild-eyed Charles Manson would appear in the middle of the night.
We checked our topo map and realized that what we thought had been the Tigre Glacier was not. In fact, the object of our adventure was a valley deeper into the high mountains. We wouldn’t be getting there in a hurry.
The next morning we set off to see where we could get to. We crossed the Rio Villages and serval other streams finally arriving at the Rio Tigre – and what a river it was. Big and fast-flowing with the aquamarine blue colour of Lago Cholila. If we made it no further, finding this river was well worth the trip. As we followed the small road along the riverbank, we spied 18-inch long trout idly floating in eddies. Alex, the fly fisherman, licked his chops.
Not long after finding the river, we followed the road as it left the riverbank. After passing through several closed but unlocked gates, we arrived at a big wooden one with an enormous padlock that barred our passage. Alex went on a reconnaissance trip and thought we might be able to pass with the horses over a spot where the wire fence was weakened. Beto, however, was unwilling to do this. Instead, he and I set out on foot hopeful that we might find a house up ahead and could gain access the legal way.
We were encouraged when we soon came across tire tracks that had to be fresh that morning, but eventually the trail went cold. It seemed we were no “Mantracker.” After walking for over an hour and fording a river, we returned hot and discouraged to where Alex waited by the locked gate. We were not much more that day into our adventure; could it be over so soon?
We decided to find a camping spot for the night beside the river. With visions of his fly rod bent double as he hauled in an enormous trout, Alex’s spirits rose. It was a spectacular afternoon, so we all just put thoughts of that big padlock aside. Alex failed to bring home dinner despite having fun trying, but we did enjoy a tasty chicken that we roasted over an open fire. It was delicious.
As we turned In later in the evening, a truck came down the road headed back to Cholila. It was the source of the tracks Beto and I had seen earlier. Unfortunately for us, although the young men in it had keys to the gate, they would be gone for four or five days. They told us that the locked gate and fence were new. You used to be able to pass through unimpeded by these blasted locks. It was a mystery to us why Argentinians felt the need to bar access. Beto assured us that they were to discourage cattle and horse rustlers, but we were unconvinced. A pair of bolt cutters would make short work of these locks and of the wire fences, so why bother. But padlocked gates would continue to plague our progress.
The next morning we rose and agreed that we would alter our plans. Beto, who needed to get back to Maiten for a day to pick up some medication, would head back on his own. Alex and I would stay for a few days near the Tigre River and enjoy the backcountry. We thought we might also try to find our way up the Rio Turco valley before returning to camp next door to Lago Cholila Lodge in three or four days. To make up for our disappointment, we focused on the fact that we would finally be travelling on our own. We’d learned a lot from Beto and were excited to be self-sufficient. We also looked forward to a break from Beto. Travelling with a guide, we were discovering, had its challenges. Lovely as Beto was, we needed some time to ourselves. Our Volterra hill, it seemed, would have to wait for another day.