Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Uncharted: Exploring the Hidden Depths of Patagonia's Turbio Valley

The morning sun dances across the valley's peaks filling the sky with purple and pink hues. Spray from the boat's wake clings to our clothes and the wind drives it into our bones with a frigid bite. We are beginning our journey to the depths of Patagonia, but not where you might expect. Unlike the popular tourist area of El Chalten, we’re on our way to a less traveled part of the range known as the Turbio Valley. Inspired by conversations with Argentinian climbing legend Saber de la Cruz, our team of eight relative strangers hailing from the USA, Brazil, France, Chile, Argentina, and the UK - are brought together by a shared love of exploration and discovery.


Arriving at the shores of Parque Nacional Lago Puelo, our boat finds its anchor secured to the weathered jetty. As we step onto solid ground, a gaucho in a worn green tractor approaches us, signaling for us to place our bags onto the trailer hitched to the back. With a collective effort, we load our belongings, ensuring they are secure before climbing aboard and settling amidst the cluster of duffel bags, providing us with a makeshift seating area.

We cling tightly to the side of the ramshackle trailer which shudders and shakes as we make our way through the woods. Light flickers through the trees, and the sweet smell of wood smoke permeates the air. As we approach a clearing, the rhythmic knocking of the motor slowly rattles to a halt. “Estamos Aqui” beckons the driver through the rusting cab window. Glancing around, we could see four horses bridled to a tree, three dogs sleeping in the shade, and two cows bound to the wooden tongue of an ox cart. “Saludos amigos” sounds from behind us. A short man wearing a sleeveless sweater and a Tyrollean style woolen hat stands in the road. It’s Javier, our Gaucho and his compañero who will lead us on the 2 day horse pack up the Turbio Valley. Climbing down, all eight members of our team help transfer the carefully weighed bags of food, equipment, and climbing gear that will sustain us for the next 3 weeks from the trailer to the ox-cart. Before we can begin our journey however, we must first cross a large open section of the Turbio river that separates us from Javier's ranch where we will pick up a further six horses. 

The ox-cart goes first, accompanied by Javier’s compañero on horseback. We watch from the shore as the cows reluctantly pull the cart into the ever deepening water, our bags and their heads barely able to stay above the current. We breathe a sigh of relief as they pass through the deepest section, and emerge on the other side. Using the extra horses that Javier had brought with him, two by two, we mount the horses and take our turn to cross. The water is frigid, even the great height of the horse isn’t enough to keep our legs from getting submerged in the glacial runoff. Once across, we hike a short distance to Javier’s Ranch in the woods where we will complete our final “duffel shuffle” of gear from the ox-cart to the horse packs. 

Constructed with hand milled planks, its faded red paint facade reflects the region's challenging weather conditions, and its aging interior generations of family history. Outside, animal skins of varying origin hang atop the mortise and tenon fence, shrinking and twisting in the relentless summer heat. Unloading our gear beneath the shade of a large cherry tree, we gather on the crooked porch to share Yerba maté whilst Javier fetches the remaining horses. “Maté”, as it is more often referred to, is a traditional hot drink of Argentina. It’s made up of ground Yerba with hot water, and served in a small round cup called a “Gourd”. Using a metal straw or “Bombilla”, each person consumes the cup in its entirety after which it is refilled with water and passed along to the next person. It is the cornerstone of Argentine social culture and a great way to get to know each other. 

After several rounds of maté, Javier returns with our horses and we join him to load our gear into the saddle bags. The process takes longer than expected, and the sun is now at its most suffering position in the sky. Starting so late, our goal of reaching the first Refugio seems grueling and improbable. Making a final check to ensure the horses are loaded evenly, we shoulder our backpacks, and begin the long hike up the Turbio valley.

Despite our late departure, our group sets off in high spirits. Taking turns to ride the two horses designated for river crossings, we follow Javier as he leads us along a faint trail that skirts the river. Our expected journey will take us 2 days to reach a simple Refugio roughly 40km up river. From there, the terrain switches from riverbanks and cobble flats, to dense jungle. Unable to travel past this point, the horses will return with Javier to Lago Puelo, whilst our team will continue the remaining 20 km to a final refugio at the end of the valley. 

Passing through the old ranch gate, I spend the first few hours of our hike getting to know my new friends and enjoying the unique challenges of the journey. From Brazil there was Jose Luis “Chiquino”, a veteran climber who had been to the valley 15 years earlier and was returning to complete the route. Vianney was from France but now lived in Bariloche as a trekking guide, he and his partner Belen had been the organizers of the trip. Belen Prados was from Buenos Aires, Argentina and worked as a biochemist at the national atomic laboratory looking for ways to create power from bacteria. Standing barely 5 feet 5 inches tall, her backpack towered above her but she didn’t seem to mind. Oscar Nicolas and Andrea Caceres Fonfach came from Chile, mountain guides for a living, they had heard about the trip to the valley through the grapevine. John Collis and Mike Coyle were from the USA. They both worked as guides and had shared time together on Denali. I had hired them as safety consultants for a celebrity TV segment I was producing and we became friends. It was shortly after the TV shoot when they told me about the expedition. Hearing about some of the challenges we would face getting to the valley intrigued me. Never one to miss an opportunity, I asked if I could join them which is how I now found myself deep in the Turbio valley.

The many river crossings on horseback and by foot are both novel and exciting to us all. But as the journey progressed, the trail and crossings became more engaging. The benefits that the horse brought by carrying weight we soon realized, came with their own set of challenges. Ticking off our 3rd major crossing of the day, I crest the bank onto the sand flats above to find the horses tied up and concerned looks on everyone's faces. 

“One of the horses fell, another escaped. Javier has gone to look for it” said Vianney. 

We had barely covered 20km, and whilst I was concerned for the 1 ton animal that had just used our duffels as a crash pad, this is not the start anyone was hoping for. Roughly 30 minutes had passed when Javier returned with the missing horse in tow. Saddling our backpacks, we continued once again on the trail. 

Traveling until dark, we fail to reach our planned destination of the refugio and decide to set up camp alongside the river. The flat ground is inviting, and I welcomed the opportunity to remove my backpack which weighed more than my own body. Laying out our sleeping bags, dozens of goat heads and needle grasses make their way into everything. Spending the last of my energy to remove them from my clothes, I surrender to my exhaustion and accept the remaining spikes before falling asleep.

We awake early to the sound of bridles clanging and horses neighing. The day has arrived sooner than anyone would like, our bodies bruised and our legs sore. Javier prepares the horses with traditional furs and panniers whilst the team fixes coffee. With fewer than 15 km remaining to reach the refugio, we are eager to continue our journey and we waste no time in getting the convoy moving once again. 

The trail from here consisted mostly of river cobbles. With our heavy packs, they’re awkward on the feet, the horses don’t seem to like them much either. We don’t travel far when we come across our first obstacle of the day. A deep and fast flowing section of river that even the horses struggle to cross. Hesitant to risk the horses in the treacherous river after the previous day's mishaps, we decide to ford the river on foot by forming a tripod shape and holding onto each other's bags. We march in unison into the frigid water. The current is strong and the water creeps ever higher above our waist stealing our breath. Even with our strategic group tactics, the water causes us to stumble and for a moment I fear we’re all going down. Step-by-step, we shuffle our way to the far side and escape without swimming. A few hours and several river crossings later, we reach a fork in the river where we decide to stash our packrafts for the return Journey. Hanging our equipment and supplies high in a small grove of trees, we break away from the river and continue uphill into the woods on a narrow and winding trail which leads to the refugio “Don Ropo'' and our destination for the day. Upon arrival, we promptly drop our bags and assist Javier with unloading the horses. Shuffling the bags from the saddles onto the grass, Javier bids us farewell and heads back to the Ranch where we began, now with all 9 horses. From here on out, we’re on our own and must carry our equipment. As the sound of hooves slowly fades into the distance, we make our way inside to get acquainted with the Refugio.

Situated in a small clearing, it was rustic and rudimentary. Constructed with hand made planks and held together with a winch cable. Plastic sheets are nailed to parts of the roof and windows, a hasty repair from a previous winter which had now become a permanent feature. Inside was a kitchen with a sink and cupboards, a dining table with 2 benches, a window bench adorned with animal skins, and a cast iron stove which we were told was carried in by horseback. There are images on the wall of a long bearded man in a beat up old truck smoking a cigarette on the walls. We’re told this is Don Chule, a vagabond pioneer of the valley who was highly respected by the locals. Beside the kitchen was a steep ladder that led to the second floor where old carpets had been laid down to create a sleeping area. It was simple living, and we quickly settled in. We celebrated our arrival with hot coffee and a game of Farkle which would become our main source of evening entertainment. 

That night Vianney and Belen take the first shift to prepare a group dinner whilst the rest of the team pack bags for the following day. We still had a 20km journey through what had been described to us by Saber de la Cruz as dense jungle (Selva), and required the crossing of two Tyrolleans to reach the advanced base camp at the refugio “Don Chule”. Loading only climbing equipment and enough food for a day, we staged the bags on the porch and enjoyed our first group dinner together. We laugh, joke, and nerd out over maps and topo’s of the valley late into the night.

The following day we rise before the sun and prepare cowboy coffee on the old stove. We eat a simple breakfast of oatmeal mixed with honey that we found laying around in the refugio before heading out on the trail. We’d heard that finding the trail could be a challenge as it had not been maintained in years. Setting off into the thick jungle, that soon proved to be true. Less than half a Kilometer from the refugio, we found ourselves completely lost in a sea of cane. Unsure of where we lost the trail, we backtrack only to find ourselves where we began. Confused, we make a second attempt and are able to pick up a faint trail by observing man made cut marks on the tree’s. Crossing a ridge, the trail leads us down to a cliff where we come across the first Tyrollean spanning a gap roughly 40m across a torrenting river. With such heavy packs, we opt to attach them directly to the cable and ourselves to the home made pulley in case we get into trouble and need to ditch the weight. Once safely across, we continue through the dense jungle with a saw in hand. 

The trail continues through the dense jungle, testing our navigation skills and physical endurance. We push through thick vegetation, fighting against tangled branches and swarms of relentless insects. Sweat soaks our clothes, and the humidity weighs heavily in the air. But we persist, motivated by the promise of adventure and the allure of the unexplored.

As we hike deeper into the Turbio Valley, the scenery transforms before our eyes until we reach a clearing alongside the river which grants our first clear view of the mountains. Towering granite walls rise above us, their pristine surfaces glistening in the sunlight. Waterfalls cascade down the cliffs, creating a symphony of sound that echoes through the valley. We pause to take in the breathtaking beauty, our sense of wonder rekindled with every step. 

We drop down from the clearing and continue along the river's edge, arriving at the second Tyrolean late in the day. Slightly larger, it was an impressive 60-meter span over a deep gorge with a log diving board to step from. Equipped with another old pulley, one-by-one we make the difficult hand traverse. As we stand on the far side of the challenging Tyrollean crossing, John tells us that the refugio is just a stone's throw away according to his map. Our spirits soar with the knowledge that our destination is within reach, little did we know that the map John was referring to was an not exact, but a rough guess…

We pick up a faint trail that skirts the river and heads into the woods. Hiking a few miles up steepening terrain, we arrive at where the refugio was marked on the map. Standing in thick jungle, there is no cabin to be seen, there's not even a place that is feasible for a cabin to be constructed. “Are you sure this is the place?” I ask. “Well, it’s a guess from the other maps…” I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Visibility in the jungle was severely limited by thick foliage, we could spend days wandering around here and still not find it. Frustrated by my team for the revelation, and at myself for relying on others for navigation, we drop our bags and begin scouting in the hope that it's hidden nearby.  We searched for roughly 1 hour, but the cabin is nowhere to be seen. In addition, the light is quickly fading and we had not packed sleeping equipment. Hope of finding the refugio had all but vanished, and I called out to the team to regroup and discuss a plan B. 

Returning to our packs, a cheer rings out from Mike. “I found something,” he shouts. Excited to see what he had found, we join Mike at a small mound just a few hundred feet from where we had begun our search “Check it out!” Mike says pointing to a tree stump. Leaning up against an old felled Alerce tree were hundreds of hand cut, wooden roof tiles. I reasoned that if you were to build a Refugio in the woods without mechanical assistance, you wouldn’t want to carry material too far. It must be close, but where?

With time slipping away, and the thought of spending an open bivvy unappealing, I decide its best to examine all of the information we have saved on our shared folder for possible clues to where the Refugio might be. Made up of miscellaneous images, trip reports, and general findings on the internet, it was a mix-match of data and hearsay. Browsing through, I stumble across a hand drawn map of the valley with the Refugio marked further up the canyon, at the confluence of the river. With nothing more to go off and night approaching, we take our chances pushing on through the jungle. We cover roughly a kilometer when tell tale signs of human passage begin to appear. Reflective plaques nailed to tree’s shimmer with our in the last of the day's light, and we frantically bushwack our way over to investigate. As we get closer, another plaque can be seen in the distance, and after that - one more. I’m unsure whether it was excitement or relief we felt, but what I do know is that we gained a sense of hope and we hurried along the faint trail, guided by the shimmers. Finally, after days of arduous trekking and navigating treacherous terrain, we arrive at the advanced base camp as the sun is setting.

The refugio "Don Chule" emerges before us, a beacon of warmth and solace amidst the untamed wilderness. With weary bodies, we ascend the raised balcony, carefully releasing the worn wooden latch and entering the room. The air carries a musty scent, evidence of its undisturbed state. Exhausted and hunger gnawing at our bellies, we scour the house in search of sustenance, as Saber had assured us it would be available. Amidst the exploration, we stumble upon a package of dried pasta, its sell-by date harkening back to 2006. With gratitude for any nourishment, we prepare a simple meal, sating our hunger before we finally surrender to our sleeping bags and drift into slumber. We have arrived.

With the sun's gentle touch, we rise, eager to lay eyes upon the vast expanse of the valley for the first time. It stretches out before us, a distant promise waiting to be explored. In the days that unfold, we become immersed in the climbing paradise that the Turbio Valley provides. Armed with binoculars, we scour the landscape, identifying a potential route that follows a mesmerizing granite crack system, leading towards the summit of Pico Tres Negros. With a collective goal set, we dedicate ourselves both physically and mentally to climb the towering wall. Over the course of the next ten days, we revel in the sheer joy of triumph as we climb challenging pitches, and we grapple with the frustration that accompanies setbacks when routes prove more arduous than anticipated.

The weather, ever capricious in this remote corner of the world, adds its own element of unpredictability to our journey. Rain showers descend upon us, drenching the landscape and turning the once-reliable rock into treacherous terrain. Cold temperatures nip at our exposed skin, testing our mettle and resolve. With supplies dwindling and an impending multi-day storm on the horizon, we come to the realization that our time in the valley is drawing to a close. Though our route falls tantalizingly short, a mere 20 meters from the summit, we understand that safety and prudence demand our descent and exit from the valley.

Leaving the refuge behind, we make our way back to our pack rafts and set up camp by the Turbio IV river for one final night. As the sun rises on the following morning, we prepare ourselves and our rafts for the 40-kilometer journey that will take us back to civilization.

Despite not achieving the summit we had set out for, a profound sense of accomplishment accompanies us, as does a trove of treasured memories. The challenges we faced and triumphed over have left an indelible mark upon us, serving as a poignant reminder of the indomitable spirit of the human adventure. It stands as a testament to the resilience that resides within us, the awe-inspiring beauty of untouched wilderness, and the profound bonds forged through shared experiences. The Turbio Valley has woven itself into the fabric of our hearts, a constant reminder of the transformative power of exploration and the boundless potential it holds.

As we bid farewell to the Turbio Valley, we carry within us the seeds of accomplishment and the nourishment of cherished memories. The challenges overcome and the obstacles surmounted serve as constant reminders of the power that resides within the human spirit. The echoes of our laughter, the imprints of our footsteps, and the enduring connections we forged stand as testaments to the transformative nature of adventure and the profound impact it has on our lives.

Though we may physically leave the Turbio Valley behind, its essence remains intertwined with our very beings. The sense of wonder, resilience, and profound connection to nature and humanity continue to fuel our insatiable desire to seek new horizons, to embrace the unknown. The Turbio Valley will forever hold a sacred place in our hearts, beckoning us to return to its untamed embrace and reminding us that extraordinary experiences await those who dare to venture off the beaten path.


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  3. Discover the untouched beauty of Patagonia's Turbio Valley, a hidden gem awaiting exploration. Join us as we traverse this remote landscape, uncovering its secrets and natural wonders. Perfect for adventurers and nature enthusiasts, this journey offers a rare glimpse into one of the world's most pristine regions. Plus, learn about the dedicated labrador breadeers who call this wilderness home.