Sunday, July 25, 2010

Week 6 – Life goes on in Patagonia

Matt and John walking home from work in ever decreasing snow

Like a clump of hoodies at a shopping mall, the snow here at Lake Diserto is still hangin’, but like blaring classical music this week’s combination of warmer temperatures, sunshine and rain has made some progress towards shooing it away.

Gauchos on their way up the valley, dogs in tow
Photo Graham Laing

It seems that life in Patagonia goes on in spite of the adverse conditions. The traverse we are building intersects a horse trail regularly trafficked by farmers aboard the ultimate of all terrain steeds; horses. With four legs to balance on, the horses are unfazed by unstable rocks or a metre of snow, plodding up gnarly slopes without a neigh of discontent. It was on a frosty Tuesday morning when we first met a trio of caballo riding granjeros or gauchos heading up the valley. Clad in llama chaps, ponchos and baseball caps, we conversed briefly in our best spanglish, discussing the snow, cold and their horses.

Only yesterday we saw a lone rider head up the valley, returning a few hours later with a motley herd of sheep in varying states of woolliness. Herding them down from the valley to greener pastures, the sheep unfortunately chose our carefully crafted track down the hillside, rendering it a muddy mess. While the damage was a bit disheartening it looks to be a one off and once the winter is over the racks should dry out and become a bit more durable for hooven traffic.

While Patagonian farmers ride horses, our recent supply deliveries have been getting to the lodge aboard a Unimog. Big tires and high ground clearance make this the mechanical equivalent of a horse, and the decrepit state of this specimen would prompt us to call the SPCA were it actually not inanimate.

Unimog in all her glory

With a bonnet strapped on with a bike tube, spouting pipe for a snorkel and scabs of rust on chassis and body this ‘mog has clearly seen some miles. Despite her age, the ‘mog still ploughed through the rivers and snow to the lodge with ease, only a low growl from her diesel engine giving an indication of the effort required. While food and supplies are welcome, arguably the best result of the Unimog’s visit is the pair of foot wide tire tracks it left, making it possible to ride our bikes to work without the momentum sapping snow of earlier attempts.

The completion of our multispan bridge monstrosity (dubbed ‘bridgezilla’) was one of this week’s milestones. In fact, it is such a masterpiece of engineering I’ve suggested we submit it to bridge builder monthly, the structural engineer’s equivalent of Playboy. River crossings can now be made gumbootless in dry-footed comfort. To prove a point I even piloted the El Terremoto across the planks, and will probably choose this way to commute while we work on this track. The alternative is a hub deep mash through a wide braid further downstream and while it is a rush, the risk of icy water ending up inside your gumboots (rather than the normal and preferable external location) was hard to stomach.

Matt's dismembered feet walk bridgezilla's planks

Officially past the halfway point of our time in Patagonia, and with body well adapted to the rigours of spade and pick work in trying weather, I’m really starting to enjoy the work. In particular the diverse building challenges that we face each day. Best of all is that all the skills I’m learning will be transferable to trails back home in NZ.

Mountain Pedaler out...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Week 5 - Gustatory delights of Patagonia

Lake Diserto on a foggy morn...

and when the sun comes out.

With all of last weeks melodrama over metre deep snow drifts, the omnipotent being responsible for allocating crap weather must have taken heed, as this week we were treated to seven days of the sunniest blue-bird days that Patagonia could muster. Nice.

Situated as we are at the base of a valley bounded by towering ridges, we are allowed the luxury of sunshine from about 1 to 3 in the afternoon. Temperatures sky rocket to above zero and we bask in the warming rays, garnering a much needed dose of vitamin D.

Last Sunday, an expedition to our hill side digging site revealed the normally 45 minute stroll had become a waist deep snow trudge which pushed the boundaries of a reasonable commute at almost three hours. Not really an option, and coupled with the ever present risk of snow and rock slides, we made the decision to start work on a new track.

This track began across a swiftly flowing river on the road out. With precious gumboots stashed high up the mountain, the prospect of wading across the icy waters in leather boots was not a welcome one. Years of experience at Playcentre waterplay followed by an illustruious career as a Civil Engineer helped us formulate a crossing to keep toes dry. Stomaching a day of wet boots ‘for the team’, I set about piling rocks a step apart to allow the gumbootly impaired to cross in dry footed comfort.

John, Millsy and Jack do the river crossing dance while Matt look on

While the stack of round boulders were wobbly at best and the morning ice made for some impressive Torvill and Dean impersonations. The crossing ingeniously used a tree that had fallen with the snow loads. Plans are already afoot for a more sophisticated version of the crossing using a bigger stack of rocks supporting slabs of wood from a nearby tree.

Apart from the joyous 2 hours of sunshine, we rely on vigorous snow clearing, picking and shovelling to keep warm, but a recent development for our crew has been a decision to light a fire at lunch and smoko times. Our resident pyromaniac Emil gets a fire cranking in no time, and those willing to take a face full of smoke are rewarded with warmth or at least a flickering glow that awakens a heartening primal instinct within us all. But even more sensational is the roasting abilities the fire provides.

Lunch for our crew typically consists of a packet of biscuits (usually a Chilean oreo called a Triton), a juice box and two bread rolls dubbed pann (Spanish for bread). Some days our pann can be as dry and brittle as one would imagine bread retrieved from Schakleton’s South Georgian stash to be. However armed with a suitable Y-shaped stick the pann can be toasted to crispy perfection. Sometimes inattention or overzealousness can lead to a pann bottom on the black side of crispy, but our crew is in unanimous agreement that the fire has made snack time significantly more bearable.

The crew gathered round the fire

Another culinary delight we are occasionally treated to and reserved for after work snacks is an amazing spread called manjar. This rich, artery-clogging caramel concoction is smothered over fried pann to yield a delicious snack worthy of a second helping.

Manjar being applied in the only way it should be; slathered on!

With the halfway point of my stint here in Patagonia almost upon us, it is the small comforts like manjar and roasted pann that keep spirits high. With a bit of luck and a spell of warm weather, the tracks may even come out from beneath their blanket of snow so we can ride our creations.

Mountain Pedaler out...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Week 4 - Snow glorious snow

Wind carved snow on a Patagonian mountain

The word of the past week here at Lake Disierto, Chile was snow. The week began with a light sprinkling of the fluffy stuff but built day by day in a crescendo of flaky flurries to the solid metre of depth that surrounds us today. As I write this now, snow it is still falling in hearty quantities but we have been spared the indignity of digging trails in it again after 6 days straight.

Terromoto cools off after the ride up the hill

Given the bad habit I have of lapsing into surliness when I don’t manage to get out for a bike ride, I was determined to ride up the hill each day, picking a path through the snow, attempting to eek every last bit of traction out of the slippery trails. Leaving it in the biggie and slogging it out singlespeed-style was a surprisingly effective technique for the conditions. This approach reduced the wheel accelerations that caused breaks in traction and in the worst of cases a knee/stem disagreement.

Snow clogged drivetrain on a Hope Snow 2 hub

The latter part of the climb here was on the techy side on the gnarlometer and had been dubbed ‘Gay Valley’ by the predominantly downhilling boys who built the trail. As a dedicated follower of the technical climb I love the challenge each morning but with snow depths growing into the meter range the boundaries of rideability are starting to be stretched.

Building trails in the snow also raises some interesting challenges. A blanket of snow makes it difficult to distinguish what lies beneath. It becomes a hit and miss affair as to whether a steep rocky slab or a slope of grassed soil lies beneath . The former could lead to an unrideable slipfest while the latter is what we are after, and is the starting point for the flowing trails that we know and love.

Another challenge is the extra labour that is required to strip the covered slopes of their snowy blanket, hopefully hitting (pay)dirt and not rock beneath. However our crew has mastered the steps to created benched singletrack perfection.

First step is to strip back the snow with a spade, revealing the soil beneath:

Next the top layer of topsoil and vegetation is scraped off with a pick:

Finally a spade/pick combination is used to dig the bench to a flat track at least a spade wide, with spoil scattered clear down slope. The bench is matched to the next person's down the line. Emil cowers in a particularly nasty snow flurry: 

Our team has taken all this in our strides, and this past week have managed to push on with 750 metres of new track. A few sections traversing waterfalls have been deemed unbuildable, let alone ridable, with sheer ten metre drops below making them a risky proposition. While the opportunity to deploy intricate bridges and or mining explosives is an exciting one, we have concluded that some sections will just require a hike-a-bike and are awaiting a rock drill to allow us to install handrails over the trickier sections.

Jake with completed trail in the background

In time when the weather decides to warm up a smidge we'll be treated to more buildable terrain, ableit with a transition period of sloppy snow and soil as the snow melts to liquid and flows to the river below. We are truly experiencing winter in its full Patagionian force. It is an experience that will help me value to relatively warm climes of my usual home, sunny Christchurch!

Mountain Pedaler out...

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Week 3 - Gumboots, puppies and a jet boat

A rainbow shines on our last day at Palmoa

As the damp reality of the Patagonian winter set in we faced a glut of rainy days followed by a sprinkling of sunshine. The persistent rain over the weekend had caused a number of slips, including one which destroyed the final switchbacks of one of my favourite Paloma descents; Super Cougar.

The section of Super Cougar mauled by a slip

We spent most of our digging time clearing debris and reinstating the tracks to their former glory. These repair works served as an ideal opportunity for some real world application of my other occupation as a civil engineer. Firstly we located the support posts and slats of a retaining wall which had been scattered about the hillside on a landslide’s destructive whim. Then dredging up distant memories of geotech lectures we set about reconstruction, laying down the all important drainage then layer after layer of reclaimed earth packed against the stacked slats. Initial confidence in our contracting prowess turned to dismay as the support posts wobbled more than the tooth of a child eagerly awaiting the dental fairy. Support posts and braces were quickly installed with a sledge hammer and nails to keep the main posts fixed to the hillside. While the resulting monstrosity would likely not win any architectural awards we were confident it would withstand nature’s onslaught. Only time will tell if this proves to be the case.
Gumboots in their element

Working in the post-storm slop one comes to value simple things. Notably water proof rubber gloves, and gumboots. Fred Dagg couldn’t have got it more right when he penned his ode to the Red band. My first few weeks of work had been plagued by saturated work boots, which is difficult to stomach at nine in the morning, especially when faced with a day of soggy toes. With this in mind I jumped at the chance to requisition a pair of gummers from the crew who were leaving for sunnier climates. It is hard to believe that a single item of footwear can make such a profound change to one’s outlook, but with gumboots afoot no bog is to sticky or snow drift too deep and a day of digging in the sleet has surely become less of a chore.

DJ Jazzy John rocks out a plate full of Pachunga

Our final meal at Paloma was everyone’s favourite Chilean artery clogging treat; Pachunga! When the departing crew had requested it they had no idea of the labour it would involve, but when the maids dished it up at nine in the evening after a good four hours slaving in a hot kitchen we were fully aware of the sacrifice and even offered to wash dishes as recompense. With even less of the healthy salad bits of regular Pachunga, the meal was a hit with the crew and the evening was notably quieter as food comas set in.

Jet boat Jake on his way to Disierto, cerveza in hand

The original plan was for us to head west to Lake Disierto on Wednesday but slips on the road pushed this back to Friday. Apparently the mud was so thick that our only way into the lodge was by jet boat. Swerving and dodging the shallow rapids linking the lakes made for a thrilling ride. This trip also gave context to our employer’s grandiose trail plans which aimed to link the two lakes by a ribbon of mountain singletrack.

On arrival in Disierto we were greeted by a pair of excitable puppies named after the trail crew’s favourite after work beverages; Konig and Becker. I’ve attached a video of their playful antics, if only to capitalise on the guaranteed blockbusting popularity of puppies on Youtube. Everyone loves puppies!

Their effervescent disposition makes for a stark contrast with nonchalant demeanour of Solo back at the Paloma camp. He will chase a stick with aggression reminiscent of his rugged past but on picking it up he’ll loose interest and look around like he was never interested in chasing anything as stupid as a stick.

With Lake Disierto as our home for the remainder of our Patagonian stint, I can’t wait to explore the trails that crews here have built, not to mention building a few more for good measure!

Mountain Pedaler out...