Lost and found in Patagonia

Setting off … registration is mandatory and very sensible!

The Cerro Negro trek takes you to a peak above Villa Traful (North of Nahuel Huapi national park in Patagonia, Argentina). With perfect weather and the sight of the rocky peak too much to resist, we set off on the steep path.

In April the sun is fairly low in the sky creating a magical light, and the colours of the trees have turned into yellows and flaming reds. The town has emptied from the high season leaving behind the core of a few hundred residents, one or two tiny shops, and a restaurant or two. We had the route to ourselves.

The route starts in woods with a steep climb, and the climb does not ease off. With legs burning, we pressed on through the trees until we came to the tree line where you access a ridge offering a panorama over the lake below.

Wonderful panorama over the valley

Soon after this we started to hit some intermittent snow patches so decided to have lunch before heading for the top.

The snow started off as shallow but slowed us down and in places deeper drifts came up our knees so we carefully picked a route where grass could still be seen sticking through. The absence of footprints told us the route had not been done since the snow had fallen some days before. This is not a busy route off-season and having some of the finest mountain scenery in the world to ourselves was a true pleasure.

Route finding was tough in the snow with no trail visible. However, careful searching for cairns and route markers (the latter being permutations of red paint, yellow paint, or strips of plastic tape) combined with some selective zig-zagging kept us on route plus we could always retrace our steps and the mountain is not glaciated so we had no concerns about crevasses. When you’re in snow and high up, you stay pretty focused and alert.

We had started the route quite late (“baby faff”) and set ourselves a hard-stop at 2.30 to turn around, an approach I would recommend as when you are so far along a route temptation is to keep on pressing on regardless to reach the summit. Coinciding with this the snow deepened to a point where we could not continue, so after a few obligatory photos of ourselves waist deep and with plenty of daylight remaining we turned back. It had been a tough climb but the scenery, snow and sun had made it worthwhile and the joy of the outdoors outweighed the small nagging disappointment of not reaching the summit. However, common sense had prevailed.

With gravity on our side and the thought of a cold beer pre-5pm we moved rapidly.

As we descended a dog suddenly bounded up behind us leading my wife to think one that a Puma was about to eat her. He had long dreadlocks and we promptly named him Jack (Pirates of the Caribbean). We were bemused as to how he had got there until we met two Americans who had set off after us and stopped at the snowline. He had followed them up from the very bottom as a personal guide!

We got back to our lunch spot with Jack in tow (after he gave an excellent demonstration of how not to catch a rabbit), and stopped to top baby Bertrand up with milk.

Back to our lunch spot with Jack in tow, feeling relaxed and thinking about a post-walk beer

We were relaxed: off the top, out of the snow, and on familiar ground. We could see the town just below us through the forest.

Within half an hour we had got well and truly lost and within 2 hours we were so deep in the forest that we could no find any route down and nor could we find a way to retrace our steps back up.

We had missed a turn somewhere, but on the ascent various diverging animal paths had converged again so we were not unduly alarmed by the increasingly unfamiliar route. Spotting some red paint and then some tape tied in the trees after about an hour was very welcome and with confidence boosted we pressed on in the wrong direction.

It transpires that a large storm had damaged the paths in the prior season, and that the red paint and tape where from old routes which were long since blocked by fallen trees, brambles, and bushes. We met the American couple who had made the same error by following the dog who was clearly familiar with the old route, and had the significant advantage of being able to pass under bushes. Absent a baby they had a similar advantage and clearly found a way through the undergrowth.

After an hour and half of climbing and descending on every iteration of path we could find, reality set in. Every path ended in dense and thorny bushes. With arms bleeding and unable to push a baby through, we could not get down. The decision to back-track was made a couple of hours too late, and we could no longer find the route up either: every single route looked the same and our footsteps were everywhere.

We had completed our compulsory trek registration and informed the lodge we were staying in of plans and timings so we know at some point the alarm would be raised, but its a huge area.

At this point I need to say I am usually pretty comprehensive in what I take trekking. I did Duke of Edinburgh plus was in the Air Cadets and it was drilled in to me to carry a full set of equipment to cover all eventualities. However, when we were setting off for previous hikes in the South of the park, we were told the route markings were clear and there was no need for a map (I was trying to buy one at the time!), so for the first time I had no map and no compass. And no torch, no whistle, no lighter. We had taken plenty of layers though in case the weather changed and plenty of food.

We were acutely aware that situations can change rapidly. Within 2 hours the sun would be gone, the temperature would drop to below freezing overnight, and we would have no means to be found. We made the right decision, and for the first time in my life, I dialled the park emergency number knowing we had to get help. Our Spanish is non existent and he didn’t speak a word of English. At this point, I started to believe we may spend the night in the woods with a baby.

I called one my sister Deborah. A friend of hers, Dave, had undertaken an epic bike trip through South America with his wife years ago, and is fluent in Spanish and an ex Marine so pretty qualified to coordinate a rescue. With instructions to stay put and with the aid of GPS coordinates from google maps, help was summoned but it would be a race against time to find us before dusk.

The Naheul Huapi rangers were superb and I can’t praise them enough. It took a couple of hours and the sun had dropped behind the mountains when we saw a figure appear on the ridge above us, and our exit from the forest began. With confidence that only years of walking on the same mountain can bring, they led us to where they had parked and we were out. By the time we reached the car it was pitch dark and we were greeted by a full complement of emergency services. We were lucky, and I had expected it to take several hours longer.

Would I have called for help of alone? No: I would have scrambled to the high ridge and traversed back over. But with a baby, the equation changes and the risk and consequences of slipping or spending a night in the wild increases. Making the phone call was 100% the right move.

I felt fairly embarrassed by the whole incident given that I have plenty of experience and training and should have known better, so I felt it helpful to note down what I would do differently:

  1. Always take a map and compass into the mountains. With a map I could have taken a couple of bearings and would have known where we were and how to access the route. When hiking in Chalten we were the only people carrying a map and several people stopped us to task us to confirm locations and timings. Also, use the map. I normally carry the map in my hand so I can keep on confirming where we are on an ongoing basis
  2. Always take a torch and lighter and whistle. They weigh nothing and I’ve carried them so many times, but did not take them the one time I would have used them. I could actually see the guides setting off from a farm along the valley and they were flashing torches, but I had no means to respond to them
  3. Don’t place too much trust on old route markings. Sometimes they a superb, but these led to routes that were long since grown over and redundant. When you’re tired, you tend to grab hold of any indicator that confirms what you want to believe (in this case that our false route was fine) and critical analysis and rational thought goes out of the window
  4. If you go wrong, make the decision early and retrace your steps. My wife had wanted to do so much earlier and it was my fault that we had not done so
  5. Finally, don’t relax until you’re down. Even though we ended up less than 1km from our car, we could have spend the night in below zero conditions due to impassable terrain. Worse, it could have rained or snowed overnight. The wild is not forgiving and it demands respect

Also what we got right:

  1. We had plenty of layers and warm clothes even though it had been very sunny when we left. And we put them on as soon as the temperature started to drop
  2. We had plenty of spare food and hence energy
  3. We registered the trek, and informed our lodge with a set time to raise a call for help. They raised the alarm at 6.30pm as agreed (we had already called by then but it was insurance for the worst case)
  4. Call for help when you need it, don’t leave it too late. And make sure you battery is charged and you have the emergency number with you! Had we called an hour later, it could have taken several additional hours to find us in the dark
  5. If you are lost, then find a spot which is most visible, get layers on before it gets cold, and make lots of noise to assist being found

We will be off again on more adventures, but we won’t make the same mistakes. If any readers have additions to the list above then please add as a comments!

Alastair, April 2018

Useful links:

National park website with maps and for registration: http://nahuelhuapi.gov.ar

Info on national park:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nahuel_Huapi_National_Park

Villa traful: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_Traful

More info on Villa traful: http://www.patagonia-argentina.com/en/villa-traful-2/

The lovely place we stayed: http://www.marinaspuertotraful.com.ar/


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