Visiting Ushuaia

It was the 11th of December that I boarded the bus heading to Rio Gallegos, the last city on mainland Argentina. My bus trip was about to take 16 hours before I got there, so there was plenty of time to think.

The entire trip to Ushuaia was something almost instantaneous. Although I had been trying to get down here for the last three months, it was only after a chat on the 10th with my YWAM base director, Jorge Rios, that this trip came about. So everything happened extra quickly, and by the end of the day I had purchased my tickets needed to get me to Ushuaia.

Ushuaia over the Beagle Chanel

Ushuaia as seen from the plane while coming in to land.

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Conquering the Snow

A Day of Small Beginnings
It was a bleak day when I set out towards town, ducking down to follow alongside a burbling stream with the aim of walking along the rocky beaches facing Lake Nahuel Huapi. This was a more preferable route although a little longer than that of following the roads.

rocky beach
The rocky beaches of Lake Nahuel Huapi

The dark threatening clouds that I saw hanging ominously over the windswept lake when arriving at the beach threatened to make the day wet and gloomy. Yet a there were a few slender rays of sunshine forcing their way through this grey landscape, reflecting off the water’s surface and sweeping over assorted buildings that caught the eye in their radiant glow. This land of contrasts presented such an amazing scene as to remind me of just how fortunate I was to be in a place as beautiful as this.

Reaching the town around lunch time, I stopped by my favorite chocolate shop for a delicious hot chocolate and some lunch. With that rudimentary and yet delightful task completed, it was now time to conquer the snow. You see, it had snowed only two days earlier leaving the mountains covered even to reaching down as far as us where it droppd a little snow onto our lawn.

The Joy of Snow
Having lived in tropical and subtropical climates for my entire life, snow for me is still a novelty. Although my experiences have included moments of skiing on the mountains, the whole idea of living in a place where I could see the entire process of transformation from a green and sunny summer to a snow covered winter totally fascinated me. So when the snow fell that night I was as ecstatic about it as a young boy, running around wildly in the yard and covering myself in snow.

Rob covered in snow
Getting covered in snow and loving it

I swore to myself that I would head up one of those snow covered mountains on my next day off. The two nights leading up to today were extremely late and followed by mornings starting way too early, and the deep black circles under my eyes indicated that my body had a profound need for rest. Yet this was the only day available to me for the next two weeks, so my Aussie instinct of “She’ll be right mate” kicked in and I determined that nothing was going to deter me from getting to the mountains. After all, I had eaten well enough in the morning and had some food with me for the climb.

Cerro Catedral resort
The Cerro Catedral ski resort

Choosing the Mountain
To make things easier, I decided to get as close to the mountain as possible before starting my climb. Cerro Cathedral seemed to be the best choice as it is Bariloche’s main ski centre and the bus would take me right to the base of the mountain. So after climbing on the right bus, I sit down for the 40 minute ride and head out ready to conquer the snow.

Surveying the mountain as we are arriving, I see two main ski paths coming down from the top and decide to climb up the main one on the left. Being somewhat safety conscious I stop by a local worker to advise him of my intentions and then start off full of energy. Progress is easy in the thin snow at the base of the mountain and the slopes are not too steep when following the roadways. The weather was also good for this time of year with all of the menacing storm clouds hanging out over the lake and leaving the entire mountain clear.

First Mistake
With a strong sun and no wind it was not long before the clothes I had on became far too hot. The energy created by climbing fast up a mountain requires just the minimum of protection and so everything came off except for the singlet top which remained to provide a little protection from the sun’s rays. It felt more like spring than winter.

Lying in the snowSnow imprint

Ignoring the sign saying that I was leaving the area of the ski zone, I assumed that it would be possible to catch up with the main track by cutting through the shrubs. But after a heavy fall of snow, the shrubs are bent over and loaded with snow above, and present mounds of snow covered branches that end up trapping feet beneath you. So after struggling with the shrubs for 15 minutes, showered upon by snow from above and falling into it every time my foot got trapped below, I decided that it would be easier to retrace my steps and find another way up. There was, and it was only around the corner from the sign that I had ignored. Lesson learned.

Early Progress
After finding the entrance to the ski slope and making good progress, the ground started to take on a much steeper angle and the snow grew deeper. Although it was now more demanding my progress was still good. The fresh snow however proved a lot more of a challenge than first anticipated.

There were two layers of snow, the first was light and fluffy and reached up well over my boots while the second layer even with its crusty firmness could not hold my weight and would give way under each step, sinking each leg in almost up to the knees. This two-stage process for each step combined with the lifting of sunken legs from the deep snow and an ever steepening slope eventually took its toll. Progress became slow and laborious. There was no rest from the deep snow.

Gondolas across the snow
Gondolas seen over the snow

Slowly but surely, not giving up nor slowing down, I finally make it to the top of the first section of the slope and throw myself into the snow face first to make an imprint and to cool off a little once I am there.

After taking a detour and following the service road I continue my way upward following the skiing slope. The mountain continued straight upward, steep and hard. All seemed fine as I continued to push myself to maintain the same rhythm as before. Up ahead I could see the main cable car lift building and restaurant. The idea of stopping there for a rest sounded fantastic, but somewhere along the way I lost the ski track and ended up in snow as deep as my waist. The going got very slow.

Wearing Out
It was at this point that my body started to show signs of exhaustion. Lifting leg after leg high enough to drag through the deep snow, falling over and picking myself up again after discovering a rock or plant buried beneath my feet, and walking over unstable, semi-frozen snow that sometimes held me up and other times would let me sink deeply was enough to sap any remaining energy that I may have had left.

Mountain peak
Close to the mountain top

Finally coming out of the deep snow, I find my way along the service road for the last few hundred meters. The snow was still very unstable and many times I found myself stumbling as one foot sunk randomly through the semi-frozen surface. The struggle from the last part of this climb had exhausted me and this last unpredictable section seemed as though it would never end.

Highest Point
Finally reaching the complex, it was incredibly dismaying to see it not only closed but still under heavy renovations. I had been climbing a little over two hours to reach here. Looking around, the only place that I could find without snow was in a corner of the patio, with nowhere to sit. I stop here and take some highly needed rest, enjoying the view and cooling down after the effort of climbing.

Before long my feet are getting very cold and I quickly discover that my feet are sodden. The untreated leather boots were wet right through. The much colder weather at this altitude quickly started to strip away any warmth that I had generated during the climb. Layer after layer of warm clothes that had been stuffed into my backpack were quickly removed and worn to keep what little warmth remained in my body. With the heavily thermal clothes layered up to five layers deep I was warm enough to consider eating lunch. The only problem was that I had forgotten to bring it with me. In my pack the food that remained was a block of cheese and some stale bread with a packet of honey-drop sweets.

Drinking snowRecharging snow with water

Water was also a problem as I had run out of water on the climb. A nearby ice wall was dripping enough to be able to suck water from the melting snow and provided the liquids that my body desperately needed. The energy however just could not be found in the foods that I had brought with me. Even though I ate some of the hard stale bread and as much cheese as was possible to stomach at one time it was not any of the instant energy foods required by a worn and tired body. The honey-drops were the closest thing to what I did need but when I tried to eat them I felt sick and stopped. The idea of getting sick on top of a mountain that I still need to walk back down again was not a favorable idea.

The weather also had started to close in, with clouds of snow forming overhead and a wall of white cloud clutching the opposite ridge. My goal had been to reach the summit of the mountain, but when my body does not gain any energy after resting and with the weather closing in this idea is quickly put to rest. Where I am will have to suffice for today.

Heading Back Down
Finally it is time to return back down the mountain. Rather than return the same way in which I had come, I make my way over to the other ski slope that I had seen on my way in. I make a false start by trying to reach it by climbing a steep hill up to my armpits in snow that was impossible to climb and which sapped much of the little energy remaining. Instead I follow underneath the cable car towers, weakly struggling along until reaching a service road traversing the mountain that will take me there. From here the going is easier but with deeper snow and I stumble often.

Somewhere in my mind was the idea that upon reaching the ski slope everything would be an easy ride back down by sliding on my belly like a penguin. It was not to be. The snow was very soft and powdery and any attempt at sliding even on the steepest sections of the slope was stopped short behind a wall of snow. Snow plowing would have been a better word for each attempt.

Side road to the main ski trackSnow stream

Making my way back down the slope by walking, the ground beneath the snow is uneven and full of surprises. Every few steps I find myself falling or stumbling and having to lift myself back out of the snow. With already extremely low energy levels being sapped more and more by every fall I finally reach a point of sheer exhaustion and collapse into the snow. Every step had been an effort and every fall required strong mental as well as physical exertion to get back up again.

Calling for Help
As I lie there my thoughts turn to the task ahead. What would normally be a very easy descent had now become a massive task. The idea of trying to make it down the long and steep ski slope in my current state seemed somewhere between highly difficult and impossible. The signs my body was giving off indicated a desperate need for energy and rest, two things that were not available to offer it in my current position.

There on the deserted ski slope it felt more remote than it was. As I considered my options the idea came to me to call and ask for prayer from my friends. I had never prayed for something like this nor had I ever asked for prayer for something like this but it seemed a very reasonable option in my current state.

My feet on snowView down to the village

What happened next defies reason. At least from my perspective it does. While I had been lying on the snow I had also been monitoring my body and the signs it was giving me. Within a couple of minutes of asking for help all of the signs that had indicated exhaustion in my body disappeared and a new strength rose within me. It was not like a fresh strength as though I had not climbed at all but rather a strength that gave me a desire to continue my downward plight.

Lying there a little longer just to be sure this was not a passing feeling I rose to my feet to be greeted with a new strength. It was a strength that covered over the exhaustion that I was feeling, and not only a strength but also a fresh desire to get down this mountain.

The Final Return
Now back on my feet I head off walking through the snow. The same uncertain ground is beneath me yet I find that I am no longer stumbling. As I continue downward there comes a crest in the slope where I can see the base of the mountain and all of the buildings again. Progress is good but it still seems slow so I decide to start running, throwing myself down into the snow at times just to see if it is possible to slide. Each time I throw myself down I am stopped almost as quickly behind a wall of snow. Sometimes in using my arms to drag myself along I can make it a little further but the effort for the results is just not worth it.

The energy and stability with which I am descending surprises me. Not slowing down nor holding back I continue running down the mountain slope. My cold and wet feet are now freezing and starting to hurt with the cold yet the rest of my body is breaking out in a profuse sweat from the effort expended in the run. Finally I reach the very last section of the slope where it is covered with people learning to ski and enjoying the fresh snow. It is here where I discover a track in which by sitting down it is possible to slide freely, and do so all the way back to the car park.

My descent was now over, and the mountain adventure had ended. Energy levels were low but nowhere near as low as they had been at the point of the phone call for help. All that remained now was to wait for the bus to take me back home. I had done what I had come to do; I had conquered the snow.

Standing on the snow
Conquering the snow

Epilogue
After calling my friends again to let them know that I was safely down the mountain, I returned home on the bus and stopped at a nearby restaurant for a hearty, solid meal. Then after a short walk home, I threw myself in the bed and rested. Even with the extra energy that came through the prayers of my friends it had not taken away the exhaustion that I had previously felt. But I felt great for having spent the day in the snow, climbed a mountain, and seen another part of Bariloche that I had not seen before.

I had conquered the snow!

Bariloche by the lake
Bariloche, a city by the lake

Stream at base of first ski slope
The main entrance to the slope I climbed

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