Alive and Well in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Sao Paulo, Latin America's biggest and most cosmopolitan city

The last week has been an absolute whirlwind of traveling efficiency.  But I’m happy to say that I’m alive in well in Sao Paulo, just a little bit out of breath from crossing overland through four international borders in the last three days.

On Friday, I bid farewell to Bariloche, and the morning of my last day of work was followed with an overnight bus to Buenos Aires.  I had spent more than four months in Argentina, and a visit to the elegant capital was long overdue.  On the plate for my short visit in Buenos Aires was a Brazilian visa application, a football game, and some tango.

Claimed to be the widest avenue in the world, Avenida 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires

My experience in Buenos Aires was a bit humdrum.  I wasn’t exactly inspired by the tango scene, nor the architecture of the city.  I’m not saying I don’t like the capital; I was there for too short of a time to critique it.  Experiences are what I appreciate in my travels, not the places.  And with no friends or warm welcomes, and a potentially 2-week wait for a Brazilian visa, I was ready to move on.

Feeling lonely in Colonia, Uruguay...the mouth of La Plata River

I made a quick visit to see Uruguay and its beautiful colonial center, Colonia.  With just a few days I wanted to seek out the subtle differences between Uruguay and Argentina.  My barber told me not many, and that perhaps Uruguayans drink more mate (how could that be possible I thought?) and their women are a bit less beautiful, but only a bit.  Good enough for me.  I guess I just needed a few days in Uruguay then and I hopped on the next high-speed 30-knot commuter boat 28 miles across the mouth of the La Plata River, and back to Argentina.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Next up, Iguazu Falls!  I bought a first-class “full cama” bus (champagne-included) and 16 hours later I was face to face with the most beautiful waterfalls I had ever seen.  I could understand where Eleanor Roosevelt was coming from, when upon her arrival to Iguazu, she proclaimed “Poor Niagra!”  While enjoying the falls, a Brazilian consulate processed my visa, and I was good to cross the border.

Iguazu Falls, Brazil

The Brazilian side of Iguazu proved to be just as beautiful, and during my visit I also crossed the border to see Ciudade Del Este, Paraguay.  This was the easiest border crossing I had done in years.  I negotiated a moto-taxi for 3 bucks (so good to be on one of those again), and we weaved through traffic and blew by customs.  I spent a few illegal hours in seldom-visited Paraguay and was back in Brazil again to catch yet another overnight bus, this time to Sao Paulo.

Moto-taxi into Ciudad del Este. These guys know how to cruise.

So after three overnight buses, and four countries in 48 overland hours of travel, I was in the Latin America’s biggest, most cosmopolitan city.  For the first time in six months of travel, I was greeted by a familiar face…Julia!  Julia is the girlfriend of my great college bud Rob and now a great friend of mine too.  She and her family took me in for a week of fun and relaxation in Sao Paulo, and now I’m off to spend the Easter weekend at their beach house.  I can’t do it justice enough to write what a wonderful family has hosted me here, so open-minded, thoughtful, and community-oriented.  Every family should be like this one.  Akin to my time in Buenos Aires, I was reminded that it’s not the places that make a trip, but the experiences you have.  Had I come to Sao Paulo solo, I would have departed within a few hours.  But because of the wonderful people I have shared time with here, I’m not ready to leave!

I audited a Race and Equity Law class. Enjoying pizza with the crew in Sao Paulo, home of the best pizza in South America.


El Superclasico – A Buenos Aires Football Classic

Utter chaos in a rainy Bombonero Stadium

On par with the greatest rivalries in sports, including Army-Navy, the Celtics-Lakers, and Real Madrid-Barcelona, there exists an inter-city clash of football clubs in Buenos Aires that causes more feuds than any other.  The Superclasico, an annual match between the Boca Juniors and River Plate is so intense that it tops the English newspaper The Observer’s list of the “50 sporting things you must do before you die.” (click here)

I had wanted to see just one football game before I left Argentina, and by chance I arrived to Buenos Aires 26 hours before the start of the Clasico.  Que suerte!  Signs in the tourism office and hostels were advertising tickets for 150 – 250 dollars, which included transport, pizza, and a guide.  Pizza and a transport would be nice, but what the hell does one need a guide for at a football match?  “To take care of you,” they said.  “I would never recommend a foreigner go to this barrio or inside the stadium by himself.”   What a joke.

I was told not to go because it was too dangerous, which for ten-year-old stubborn me, made it pretty much mandatory.  General tickets were sold out months ago, so I figured I’d test out my scalping skills outside of La Bombonero, the home stadium of Boca Juniors.  I arrived five minutes before the game started, in an all-out downpour and what seemed to be a good market for a buyer.  Within minutes I found a dealer.  He wanted sixty dollars for nosebleed seats.  I moved on and soon found a guy who was selling for twelve.  The only hitch was that it was on the visitor’s side.  I was told to root for the home squad, Boca Juniors, but a cheaper ticket would easily sway me in favor of River.

The Bombonero was in absolute chaos.  You could hear chants and classic Argentine songs modified to cheer on Maradona’s old squad from more than a kilometer away.  The rain was pouring down, and I was going in.  Because I had a visitor’s ticket, security told me I had to enter the stadium some ten blocks away.  As I walked through a gated corridor for ten blocks, I realized I had made a major mistake.  I was wearing my blue Boston Marathon shirt under my yellow raingear.  These were the Boca colors, and I was sitting in the River section.  Bad news.  I had made this same mistake at a UCLA – Oregon State Football game, but this was a whole new level of risk.  I had no other clothes to change into, so I devised a new strategy.  I ran to the nearest bakery, and bought a dozen brownies. Brownies!  These were the first brownies I had seen in South America.  I figured I could ease any potential hostility of the River fans surrounding me by sharing my pastries.

I walked up to the fourth level of the stadium to see the start of the match.  Truthfully, I didn’t care much to watch football.  It was the ambiance I was there for.  In fact, amid the downpour and puddles, the match was more a comedy act than it was a display of skilled footwork.  The players slipped, slid, and collided on a drench field, and it looked more like a youth rec match than a battle between two of the world’s most storied clubs.

But as for the fans, they weren’t about to let the weather nor the poor play deprive them of their standard mischievous activity.  Across the stadium, tens of thousands of Boca fans were covered in an enormous team banner, singing their chants when the home team took the field.  When River came out, there was harassment unlike any I had ever seen.  A fifteen-meter high fence stood between the field and the fans, as to keep the players protected from these caged animals.  The Boca fans climbed the fence, and shook it like monkeys, screaming obscenities at their rivals across the stadium.  The River fans surrounding me retaliated by pissing into water balloons, and dropping hundreds of urine bombs on the Boca fan section below.  The stadium is nicknamed The Bombonero, or “Chocolate Box” because it has several spectator areas that are boxed off from the rest of the stadium.  It was no coincidence that we were in one of these boxes, isolated from the rest of the rival spectators.

Boca has the reputation of a working-class fan base while River, dubbed “Los Millonarios” was once a more “elitist’s” squad.  But as I gazed at the 50,000 spectators across the stadium, they all appeared to be just a bunch of football punks to me.  In the “elite” River section, I was sandwiched between hordes of drunk, disrespecting, street kids, and across the way it was just the same.  By the match’s start it was no matter that I was wearing the wrong colors because I was helplessly enveloped in the madness off it all.  There were no seats, just cement steps, and the the section was so dense with River fans, that just to see the field I had to forcefully create a tunnel of vision with my arms.

Within eleven minutes the match was called on account of the wet conditions.  This was followed by unsurprising amount of boos and trash thrown on the field.  I rode the masses out of the stadium.  Drunk river fans harassed the police officers outside, as if it was their fault that the field was drenched.  As visitors, we had a ten block guarded escort out of the stadium.  As I munched on crushed brownies, a die-hard River fan and his daughter chatted me up.  “This is such a shitty organization,” he said, “and a shitty field.  If this game were at River’s stadium, none of this mess would have ever happened.  And what a shitty neighborhood we are in here!”

The gate corridor emptied out to a fleet of buses that took us all back north, minimizing any contact between rival fans.  Full-on riots between fans had taken place here in the past, and security knew much better now.  As we rode out, kids threw rocks at the bus, threats were exchanged out the windows, and I was enveloped by a scent of marijuana.

I got off somewhere downtown, oriented my map, and walked through the puddles of Avenida Corrientes to my hostel.  In my room, I stripped off my soaking clothes, and exhausted, I fell asleep within minutes.  Eleven minutes of El Superclasico was plenty enough for me.

To be continued…The Superclasico will now be played this Thursday, March 25 at 15:00 local time.

Outward Bound Patagonia

Eleven years and two university degrees later, I’m back to the same job I had acquired during my sophomore year of college.  Outward Bound is my employer once again.  Not that I’m complaining.  It’s exactly where I want to be.  The last Outward Bound course I instructed was almost five years ago, canoeing on an alpine lake in Washington.  Today I find myself in a remarkable similar setting on the opposite side of the Earth – Patagonia, only this time I’m working alongside warm Argentines, sipping mate, crossing Andean borders, and lesson-planning in Spanish.

Outward Bound, started by Kurt Hahn in Aberdovy, Wales, 1941 was intended as a school to take students out of their normal environments, usually into the wilderness and marine domain, and impel value-forming experiences, confidence, perseverance, and leadership skills.  Today, with some 40 schools spread out all over the world and 200,000 students annually, Outward Bound continues to maintain these objectives.

Instructing for Outward Bound means that you are a teacher, not a guide.  You provide challenges, not summits.  You have a curriculum to deliver, but no chalkboard.  It means that the content you teach is dictated by your course area, whether that be geological, cultural, historical, or technical.  It means that you are fully engaged in your job 24 hours a day for up to 72 days at a time.  It means that you surround yourself with inspiring co-workers, and work for students who are at a mental crossroads, and wondering what next?  It means that with time, you will have the opportunity to work in places like Colorado, backwoods Maine, Costa Rica, Brazil, Spain, Indonesia, South Africa, and India.

Instructing Outward Bound courses is a fabulous way of living, but for many of us, it is simply not sustainable.  When I checked in for staff training this year, I realized I was one of the oldest staff in the group.  By age thirty, most people are ready move on to things that don’t jive with the OB lifestyle…to settle down, buy a home, start a family.  Fortunately for my Outward Bound career, that isn’t me right now.  In fact, working for Outward Bound is a great complement to my travel bug, and I think I might pursue a few more seasons in places I’ve never worked.  Next up, the wildest course area of them all – New York City.

And some photos from the trips….

El Glaciar Torre

The complex Glacier Torre with Cerro Torre above

If you haven’t yet had the chance, make a point of exploring a glacier.  Go in the summer and find a “dry glacier,” one that is bare ice with all the previous year’s snow melted away.  Explore crevasses, drink from an “ice luge,” photograph the remarkable shades of blue.  In my view, a day out on a glacier can be even more aesthetic than a view from a high peak.  Find a place like this in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., the European Alps, and the Patagonian Ice Fields, where rock-hard glacier-ice is just a stone’s throw from a trailhead parking lot.

Like the popular Glaciar Perito Moreno to the North, El Glaciar Torre terminates in a glacier lake (minus the hordes of tourists)
Like Glaciar Perito Moreno, its popular neighbor to the south, Glaciar Torre calves into a glacier lake (minus the hordes of tourists)

I came to El Chalten in Patagonia, not to explore ice, but to see two of the world’s most inspiring peaks, Cerro Torre and Mount Fitzroy.  According to the first climbers, they were “mountains worth dying for,” and although I was not in climbing shape to attempt either one, I would be satisfied if that the Patagonian storms would halt for a moment and I could catch a glimpse of the climbing world’s most famous stone towers.  So on the last day of January, I left base camp, where climber’s had been waiting several weeks for a good weather window, and traversed El Glaciar Torre to the base of Cerro Torre.  I figured I could boulder around at the mountain’s base so that I could claim “I climbed on Cerro Torre.”  I never made it.  The glacier was a destination in itself, and as I lost myself in its mazes of crevasses I soon forgot about the infamous peaks above.

A maze of crevasses and seracs makes for some complicated walking

El Glaciar Torre has it all: a snout that cliffs out into a freshwater lake, a nearly impassable ice fall, surface-ice streams, deep crevasses, and subglacial tunnels.  Akin to the canyon country of the Desert Southwest, much of the glacier’s topography is carved by summer meltwater, streams running above, below and inside the deep moving ice.  As I gazed down at the debris-covered low-elevation ice, I noticed a remarkable ice bridge.  Glaciers typically have snow bridges that span crevasses and form over the course of a winter and melt out in the summer.  But this was something different.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that this bridge was the remnants of relict ice conduit, an extinct tunnel created by running water.  Measuring some three meters in diameter, one could only imagine the discharge that once poured through this tube on a late-summer day.

Remnants of a glacier conduit
A stream feeding a glacier!

I walked to the base of the tunnel and along the edge of the glacier itself.  As I descended down an adjacent gulley, I saw a phenomenon that I had never witnessed in all my time working and climbing on glaciers.  A stream came down from the mountains and disappeared into the glacier.  Usually glaciers contribute to streams, not the other way around!  I looked a little closer at this interface between solid and liquid, and crawled into an ice cave below.  Wow!  I was now inside the glacier.  The stream created a crawlable entrance and I was soon surrounded by ice walls.  On one side was sheer bedrock, the rest of the tunnel was pure ice.  As I penetrated with my headlamp deeper inside, it soon became evident that I was in a mote, a crack in a glacier that separates ice from the surrounding earth.  The white light above made me realize that I was already more than 100 feet deep.  I walked and crawled for another 100 meters to the cave’s terminus and found some of the most stunning displays of glacier hydrology.  This is what I studied for two years at Oregon St., and never before had I seen so vividly the dynamics of water inside a glacier.  Inside the cave, pipes of water exploded out the side walls of ice, like springs on a roadcut.  The pressurized flow converged to form a high-discharge subglacial stream which soon disappeared under the ice, probably forming yet another conduit below.  Spectacular!  If only I had the proper camera to shoot it in the darkness.

This is a system of glacier pluming that regulates the outflow of glacier.

I photographed and explored smaller crevasses and tunnels until the moon came up and it was time to return to basecamp.  I jugged back, skipped over blue crevasses in my tennis shoes, and by my fatigued headlamp, I tied a sling around my hip so that I could zipline across the river to my campsite.  As I traversed the line I pondered the future of the sport of sub-glacier exploration.  Would it retain its sense of awe in the same way of that of caving and canyoneering?   One thing I knew for sure.  This had been of my most spectacular days out in the mountains, and it came at a small price.  I didn’t climb a single pitch.

A supraglacial stream

Highway 40 Revisited: Hitching North on the Che Trail

The infamous Cerro Torre

Strapped for cash after my trip to Antarctica, I was stuck in Ushuaia.  While the rest of the passengers departed on flights and prepaid first class bus tickets, I had to improvise a way out.  I had spent a year getting to this point, and I hadn’t really considered (nor budgeted for) how I was going to get back north.  What I did have was camping gear, a willingness to hitch, and some ten days to get to Bariloche before I had to start work on another expedition.  Traveling by thumb back north would save me $150 and if the movie The Motorcycle Diaries was any indication of how fun route 40 could be, I was in a for a helluva time.

After an hour of hiking out of town, I acquired a sense of freedom, unmatched by any other feeling on the trip.  Hitching would compel flexibility, to go with the flow of other travelers, and the ability to travel to and explore places where buses don’t venture.  As I reflected on this mode of travel, a silver 2-door van with only one working headlight pulled over to see how I was doing.  Inside was Walter, an Argentine father and manager of a plastics dispensary, a man would be my best friend for the next thirty hours.  With Walter, I traveled out of Tierra del Fuego and across the Magellan Straits.  We shared salami sandwiches, stood together in line for 3 hours at the Chilean border, and spent hours discussing the best road trips in Argentina.  And then in an instant, we came across an intersection which split our intended routes, and I hopped out of the car, embraced him with a thank you, and said goodbye to Walter forever.  Welcome to the life of a hitchhiker!

Walking down a lovely road in Tierra del Fuego

After a second night sleeping behind a gas station, and then a night in a family campground in Calafate, I arrived on a Monday morning to El Chalten, the most important place in all of Patagonia.  It is here that is the starting point for climbing expeditions on Cerro Torre and Fitzroy, mountains so inspiring and challenging that the first climbers claimed that they had finally found a mountain “worth dying for.”  As a climber, this is one of the must-dos.  And for me, an out-of-shape ex-climber passerby, it was a must-see.  Now, it’s just a matter of whether or not the weather cooperates.

As I approached the base camp for Cerro Torre, I came across an all-too-familiar, even gut-wrenching site…climbers waiting.  You see, climbing in Patagonia is all about patience.  Climbers come to this very point, from all over the world and spend months here, just to give a shot at Cerro Torre or her neighbors.  Yet despite this investment in time and money, they know that given the unfavorable weather in Patagonia, they could sit out the entire summer without a single weather window in which to climb.  With El Nino in full force, this was bound to be another one of those years.

I spent the evening with a group from Buenos Aires, huddled under a tarp, playing cards, and sipping wine.  They had been doing this for two straight weeks.  The next day, they threw in the towel to the weather gods, and walked the three hours back to town, hoping to salvage their trip with a little bit of roadside rock climbing.  Despite the cloudy skies, I trekked out to the glacier (see “El Glaciar Torre”), shot the fantastic landscape, and returned to the road, happy just to get a glimpse of the historical routes that climb Cerro Torre.  Seeing the abandoned climber campsites evoked bad memories of tent-bound storm days in British Colombia, and did little to inspire a return to these infamous towers.

The endless wait for a good weather window in Camp

Crossing the climber's tyrolean to gain access to the glaciers of Cerro Torre

After a lovely German couple dropped me off at a remote and gusty Patagonia crossroads, I waited.  The wind picked up and I ducked behind a culvert.  Following a few chapters of Bob Dylan’s autobiography, a generous group of Israelis picked me up.  Upon finishing their mandatory military service, many Israelis venture to South America to let off steam.  Like many of the other groups, these folks were traveling in large packs.  Three in the front pick-up and four in the pick-up that followed behind, they had divided themselves into two groups: those who were kosher and those who were not.  I jumped into the front “kosher” vehicle.  My new friends joked to me that they were the good ones, and those behind were the sinners, the ones going to hell.  I think I was in the wrong truck.

I spent a great time with six new Israeli friends, and I’m absolutely convinced that I want to visit their country one day.  They took me on a mini trip through Jerusalem, we ate kosher together, and they introduced me to their favorite Borat tune, “Throw the Jew down the Well.”  24 hours later, when they took a left toward Chile, I got off once more.

Getting the truck stuck on Route 40

Four rides from truckers, and I found myself truly in the middle of desert.  Wind and darkness were rapidly embracing me, and I prepared myself for a cold night camping out.    An hour later, as I was pondering how my tarp tent would handle the high winds, I was picked up by yet another pick-up.  This time it was four men from the south, aged 18 to 45, on a 4-day road trip to find some a good joda (party).  It was a match made in heaven, at least I figured at that point in time.

We arrived in a small town south of Esquel where we negotiated a couple of hotel rooms.  The rodeo was in town that weekend, which meant that rooms had to be improvised.  We then moved on to a tasty small-town asado and I got to know these shady characters a little better.  They talked of their lives down south in Rio Gallegos, and of the beautiful prostitutes from the Domincan Republic who reside there.  One of the men claimed that in addition to his wife, he had himself a Caribbean beauty.  Figuring that the wine was getting to these fellows, and that Rio Gallegos was simply too frigid for a Dominican, I called them on their tall tales.  Besides, I reasoned that the last thing Argentina would need to import was beautiful women.

On the next stop, it turned out the boys were intent on proving me wrong.  I thought we were walking into just another shady small-town bar.  When I was instantly groped by a voluptuous Dominican, I soon realized that I was in just another shady small-town whorehouse.  I mean nothing against prostitutes, but this was not the place where I wanted to be.  I felt dirty.  In fact, I was dirty.  Not having showered in a week, I felt just as dirty as the other fellows in the saloon.  I told the woman who was all over me that I couldn’t cheat on my wife, bought her a cerveza, and escaped to the pool table for the evening.  When I left the joint I discovered that her drink cost four times that of ours.  Stupid gringo.

Flying by in the back of semi!

I spent the night on the floor of their hotel room, and the boys generously gave me a two hour ride to El Bolson.  That night, after some eight days of thumbing and walking up route 40, I stumbled into base camp, exhausted and filthy.  About to embark on another 39 structured days of work in the Patagonia wilderness, I was relieved that I had an extended period of wandering along the infamous Route 40.

Antarctica: Part I

(see more photos on facebook)

Day 1,   January 19, 2010   A Dent in the Wallet

I’m over the biggest hump on route to Antartida (Spanish for Antarctica).  Never mind crossing the windiest stretch of ocean on Earth… the decision just to get on a southbound vessel was the hardest part.  Just yesterday I arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina the most southern city in the world, hoping to have the same last-minute bargaining power that I had used on a boat in the Galapagos Islands.  Unfortunately I found a much tougher beast than I found in the islands off of Ecuador, and arriving at the peak of tourist season wasn’t going to help my ability to negotiate fares either.

For the last year I have mulled over the ways in which one could go to Antarctica.  They are as follows:

#1 On your own personal sailing expedition…I don’t have a boat, and I’m a pretty poor sailor, so this option did not make it on my life list.

#2 Get a job as a scientist, researcher, or service worker at one of the research stations for a 6-month Antarctic summer…Truthfully, I’m sick of jobs that take over my life and isolate me from the world, so this would not be an option either.

#3  Spend about six grand on flight….not the bang for the buck I was looking for.

#4 Spend $3-12,000 on an Antarctic cruise, which vary in levels of comfort from Navy-style berths to first-class cabins (champagne included).

My only option would be #4, a price which I could cut in half by scoring a last-minute deal in Ushuaia.  I debated for days about committing to it.  A few thousand dollars would last me for months on the road in countries I have yet to explore.  I have taken pride in traveling on a tight budget, and have insisted that doing so enriches the experience. At the same time, who knew when I would be back in Ushuaia again (if ever) and it would costs thousands to return.

I recalled a visit to Chamonix, France when I was just 18 years old.  I had the chance to climb Mount Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak, with a friend, but I eventually backed out because I was too cheap to shell out thirty dollars to rent a harness and ice equipment.  I regret that decision to this day and now scoff at the idea of missing unique opportunities to save on money that you’ve already saved.  What’s the point of saving money in the first place?  For some, it’s to buy a house, or to save for a child’s education.  For single, irresponsible. and selfish me, I save so that I can embrace these types of opportunities.  This could be my one life opportunity to get to the world’s seventh continent, and once I arrived at its closest port, I realized that my decision to go had already been made.

"The Ushuaia" leaving the port for which it was named

I boarded the 70-meter, 80-passenger ex-research vessel, the “Ushuaia” at 4:00 pm today.  As I unpacked my bag in the smallest cabin on the boat, I soon forgot that my savings account was just half the size it was the day prior.  And so began the trip.

Day 2, January 20, 2009  “Dazed on the Drake Crossing”

I went to bed tired last night…and awoke to light this morning.  I mistook the ceiling light that my roommate left on for a sunlit window, and I jumped out of my upper bunk to check the time.  1:30…shit…we had slept for 14 hours, and had missed the morning Antarctic lectures.  Apparently the swaying boat and the uniform sound of the motor below us had put me in a sleepy daze.  I dressed and climbed the stairs above.  There must have been a conference going one for I was the only one in hallway, but soon looked out a porthole to darkness, realizing my mistake.  The dark Antarctic sky called me out.  It’s 1:30 in the morning you asshole.

We spent all of day 2 crossing the Drake Passage, the narrowest section of the Southern Ocean, which connects the Antarctic Peninsula to Cape Horn, South America.  At this latitude, unobstructed Westerly circumpolar winds build up to produce nasty swells and the world’s most daunting waters.  For better or for worse, we encountered a peaceful sea today, and swells rarely amounted to more than a few meters.

With not much to look at but an open sea, I used today as an opportunity to meet some of the seventy passengers onboard.  Fifteen were from the Netherlands, a good few from the States, five from Argentina, a couple from India, Pakistan, and China, and quite a bunch from Australia and Europe.  My roommate Benny, a native of Vancouver with Chinese blood, born just a day after me, was on a similar journey to that of my own.  He too was traveling for 2-3 years, but his trigger was a fight with his dad, and the need to get of his family’s business.  Remniscent of Chris McCandless from Into the Wild, he packed his bags for seemingly endless journey.

Day 3, January 21, 2010   Land in Sight

Three Chinstrap Penguins provided a warm welcome

“Off.”  That’s how I could describe my condition so far on the trip.  I don’t know if it was the swaying boat, the loud engine next to my bed, the lack of exercise, or all the junk food I was eating, but for some reason I was lethargic, achy, and surprisingly unexcited about the expected landfall later that day.  My excitement and hopefully my energy level would increase as we neared the Antarctic mainland.

By lunchtime, some 800 kilometers into the trip, we encountered the South Shetland Islands, an archipelago just off the Northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Small islands, flanked by cliffs and narrow, iceberg-filled channels…this is what I came for.  At 2:00 pm, we boarded a train of Antarctic-proof zodiacs and landed on the Aitchos Islands.  A line of two feet-tall chinstrap penguins welcomed us to their smelly home.  Tens of thousands of Penguins on an island the size of a Manhattan city block makes for a high density of penguin shit, and I’m now convinced penguin feces rivals only those of humans in the gross factor.

We walked across the drizzly desolate island, strictly staying 5 meters away from all wildlife.  As the winds and rain picked up and temperatures plummeted to about zero, my rubber boots sucked all feeling out of my toes.  However on this trip, I need not worry about the shivers for a hot shower is never more than a few hours away.  Our zodiac return to the ship was quite exciting as the swells picked up to three meters.  Following each wave crest, the bough of the zodiac would crash down and completely drench the front four passengers, as if we were in an Antarctic water amusement park.  One U.S. lady upfront was so horrified that she began to cry.  This was good for her I thought.  As we approached the ship the zodiac crashed against Ushuaia’s massive metal hull, and if someone had their fingertips on the outside of the tube, fingers surely would have been crushed.  One elderly man was so paralyzed by the situation that we literally had to lift him out of our boat onto the deck above.  Passengers were completely wasted when they got onto the deck, and I think some were questioning their decision to come here.

Day 4, January 22, 2010  Touching Ground on the 7th Continent

Last night the Ushuaia cruised across the Bransfield Strait (otherwise known as the mini-Drake because of the swells it generates) and into the Antarctic Sound.  As we entered the sound, icebergs became so frequent that the boat had to slow to just a few knots as it navigated around them.  They were absolutely massive, some the size of city parks, so large that they would circulate the Southern Ocean for years before melting.  Unlike normal islands, icebergs migrate with the currents, so it requires two crewmembers to be on iceberg watch to ensure we don’t pull a Titanic with these unmapped obstacles.  They pose such a challenge that we have an ice captain onboard, exported from Russia, who specializes in this type ice navigation.  Enormous seals slept on these rolling ice beds, and if you had the right light, you could see the aqua blue bottoms, the majority of the iceberg mass below water.

Deep-blue iceberg drifting in the Brainsfield Strait. Up to 80% of an iceberg's mass is submerged underwater.

Encountering the beautiful ice bergs reminded me of a slide show I went to of my child-hero, the late Alex Lowe, one of the world’s great mountain climbers.  He showed pictures of his “Sailing to Climb” Antarctic expedition, where he joined a southbound sailing vessel to ice climb the world’s tallest icebergs.  With envy, I pictured him carefully cramponing off the rubber hull of our zodiacs, swinging forcefully on his first pass into the ice, as to avoid slipping into the ice-cold or slashing the inflatable boat below.  The perfectly cut blue ice floating at sea would be my fondest memory of Antarctica.

We intended to cruise to Paulet Island, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula, but the pack ice from the Weddell Sea extended out into our route, much farther than expected.  This was the same ice that trapped Shackleton’s expedition in 1914, crushing both his vessel The Endurance, as well as his dream of making the first traverse of Antarctica.  But while he and his crew spent 14 months getting themselves out of this epic, we were only inconvenienced for a morning.   As a nice alternative we cruised south and made our first landing on the Antarctic mainland.

At 9:30 a.m., the zodiacs landed, and many of the ships’ travelers had just touched their final continent.  Located at 65 degrees South, we had landed on the Northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, but we had yet to cross the Antarctic Circle.  In the Northern Hemisphere, there are many towns and small cities scattered across greater latitudes in Norway, Alaska, and Russia.  But Antarctica is a much different from the Arctic.  With a landmass extending from the South Pole, temperatures and winds are much more extreme than in the high boreal latitudes.  Consequently, 98% of Antarctica is covered in ice, and options for landing on dry ground are few and far between.  Today we found a sliver of that two percent, a volcanic outcropping called Brown Bluff, where we set up base for three hours to admire the surrounding glaciers, icebergs, and penguins.

Antarctica: Part II

Day 5, January 23, 2010   Best day yet!

What make my travels so worthwhile are the small memorable moments.  Moments, when you look around, and you’ve realized you made a right decision to come here, and confess that there is nowhere else in the world where you’d rather be.  One of those moments came for me on Day 5, when Ushuaia slowly navigated through the Isles, and the evening sun emerged through the clouds for the first time on the trip.  There was finally a contrast between the sea, land, and sky.  I knew right then that the Antarctic Peninsula was the most spectacular landscape I had ever visited.  Standing out on the bough, I turned to my new friend Luis, a photographer from Valencia.  He stopped shooting for a moment and we shared that “holy shit” grin.  After traveling solo for so long, it was nice to share a moment like that with a good companion.

Virgin walls waiting to be climbed

Yosemite-like rock walls emerged from the narrow, ice-filled sea.  On each side of these massive cliffs lie blue crevassed glaciers which extend to horn-shaped peaks above.  Having climbed in the glaciated Ruth Gorge of Alaska I have seen a similar landscape, but in place of a valley glacier is the wild Antarctic Sea, speckled with deep blue chunks of floating ice. The climber in me (or the one that used to be in me) couldn’t stop admiring the number of first ascents to be completed in this range.  If this were a personal expedition, one could easily tackle a dozen virgin peaks in just a few weeks.  Perhaps another day…

Day 6, January 24, 2010  “It’s not personality, it’s penguinity.”

Last night during a debrief of our day’s journey, one crewmember suggested that during our landings we pay attention to one penguin, follow it, and observe its humorous “personality.”  An elderly Indian woman immediately stood up and made her first public comment of the trip.  “They’re penguins. They don’t have personality, they have penguinity!!!”  Impressed with her clever comment, I committed today’s landing, and many more, to observing Antarctic penguinity.

We encountered three species of penguins in Antarctica: Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adelie, all equally beautiful and hilariously entertaining.  In Brown Bluff, I watched hundreds of penguins walk together down a beach, stop to call at each other for a minute, and then dive into the sea from a specific stretch of sand.  They swam out to the open water ten times as fast as their waddling pace, taking frequent dolphin-like leaps above the ice-cold water to get a breath of fresh air.  Within a minute, a flock of a hundred more penguins arrived, only to perform the same ritual from the exact same launching site.  In the distant coastline, several more armies of picky penguins were waiting in line for their preferred beach.

I walked inland a bit to find stray penguins, waddling to the beat of their own drums.  They walked aimlessly, stared into the sky, carefully climbed rocks, and clumsily leapt from them.  They pushed off and land with both legs, as if they were performing a standing long jump, and they frequently face plant, dirtying their bellies, and bruising their precious beaks.  Unembarrassed, they pick themselves up, and waddle along in a rush to go nowhere.  Free of any responsibility, these were probably the penguins that had failed to have offspring the previous winter.

I walked a bit further to see a circle of some fifty penguin nests.  Mothers and Fathers sit in these rock piles, keeping their chicks warm and sheltered from the Antarctic winds, while their partners would venture out to find more pebbles for the nests.  Occasionally they would get lazy and steal rocks from unwary neighbors, and if caught, they would be in for a long chase.  Some nests were occupied by several chicks, who cuddle together for warmth.  These “nurseries” are part of a free Antarctic penguin child-care program, whereby parents can go out to feed at sea while a hungry neighbor sits and watches the local chicks.

Day 7, January 25, 2010  Iceberg Alley

This morning we had the luxury of stopping on Verdanksy, a Ukranian research station, just off of the peninsula.  This is where the British used to (and now the Ukrainians) monitor the thinning of the ozone layer, which is considerably more serious here than anywhere else in the world.  While not working lab equipment, the thirteen male scientists and support staff are proudly perfecting the distillation of vodka.  For a tourist, a shot costs three bucks. But if you are a female, generous enough to donate your bra to the lonely bartender, you can drink the day away, free of charge.  You be the judge of whether or not your donation is going to a worthy cause.

And the major highlight of the trip…Iceberg Alley.  Today we had remarkably calm and clear weather, perfect for some zodiac exploration of an iceberg-filled bay.  Approaching the bergs, we soon realized we weren’t the only ones enjoying the sun.  Seven hundred pound Leopard seals were sunbathing on tiny bergs, their heat creating puddles of water beneath them, and the ice melted out to conform to their bodies.  We came within inches of these sleeping giants, who, like the penguins, felt no need to respond to our arrival.  I will let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

Day 8-11,  January 26 – 29, 2010     Cruising Home

Antarctic weather returns!!!  Consistent 40 mph winds would alter our itinerary.  Instead of viewing wildlife on Day 8, we landed on a more protected bay and hiked to a volcanic crater.  Sulfur would be our last whiff of Antarctica and we boarded the Ushuaia for the last time, South America bound.

The heavy winds continued and unlike our first crossing, this one would give us typical conditions of the Drake Passage.  The Ushuaia has a shallow, flat-bottomed hull, effective for turning narrow Antarctic channels and navigating icebergs.  An unfortunate side-effect is that swells push it around more than any boat I’ve ever been on, even more than a 20-foot sailboat that we sailed up the coast of British Colombia.  Thirty-six straight hours of boat rocking kept many in bed for the entire crossing, and I slept more than I had in the last year.  The last night we anchored ourselves in the quiet Beagle Channel and the sailors, who normally remain aloof from passengers, invited us down to their meager living quarters to celebrate our return with a night of debauchery.  I finally had someone with whom I could share my dollar-boxes of wine.


I’m now heading back to Bariloche, committing myself to 35 consecutive days of work to pay off the trip, and I have no regrets about my decision to head to Antarctica.  Perhaps I will be back on another type of expedition, probably to a different place if the wallet permits.  Maybe the Vinson Massif, Queen Maud Land, or the Ross Ice Shelf.  But if I don’t, at least I can die, knowing that I touched just a small piece of the most beautiful and desperate landscape on Earth.  I saw just a tiny fraction of the Antarctic Peninsula, probably the most accessible points on the whole continent, but at the same time it was the most fantastic and untapped landscape I had ever seen.  It’s a place that will remind skeptics that the world still has unexplored ranges, unclimbed mountains, and unchartered coastlines…just pack some warm clothes and an ice axe, and hitch a ride on southbound vessel.