Wild Patagonia – A wilderness expedition through wind, wet and cold

During February and March this year I went to Central Patagonia with my packraft for a 36-day solo wilderness trip in the vicinity of the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields. I hiked and paddled from Cochrane in the Chilean Aysen Region to El Chalten in Argentina, passing through some areas that seldom see any human visitors. In many areas I planned for several route options depending on both weather and terrain conditions. A part of the trip passed through the dense valdivian rainforest in the fjord landscape close to the Pacific which asked for severe bushwhacking.

I will not write an extensive day by day trip report about this adventure. You can get a sense of the trip by looking at the video and the slideshow. I will just enumerate a series of idiosyncrasies and peculiarities about this adventure in this post.

I arranged two main food resupply points at the start of the trip by sending a food package ahead to the village of Villa O’Higgins with a local bus company. The other package was given to a local Chilean farmer when he passed by Cochrane. I visited his isolated farm near Rio Pascua later during the trip.

To be honest, this trip was not a very enjoyable adventure for me, especially because of often cold, wet and stormy weather and illness at the end. Simply put, it has become the weirdest trip I’ve ever undertaken. The weather during the trip was far from average for the time of the year. It was very wet which was not that unusual though, but it was especially too cold for the austral summer in Patagonia. Temperatures dropped to around freezing on many nights, even at low altitudes and daytime temperatures often barely exceeded +5°c during rainy days. Snow fell down to around 1100-1500m on most days and on a few days even down to 600m. I think the warmest temperature I encountered during the trip must have only been around +15°c on the first two days of the trip and during the last few days. Patagonia is well known for its strong winds and I certainly had my share of it.

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Because I had planned many crossings over fjords and big lakes with my packraft, the course of the journey was very dependent on wind conditions. I took measures before the trip to be able to plan ahead accordingly. A meteorologist was sending me wind and weather forecasts on my Delorme Inreach SE whenever I asked for it. These messages proved a huge help. Without this help I would probably never have crossed Lago O’Higgins. At the time I had to paddle long distances over the fjords, the weather was by chance always fine though and I even encountered two brief moments with complete windless conditions with the fjords as flat like a mirror.

I didn’t shoot much footage during the bad weather moments and during the harshest bushwhacking and when looking at the video and the pictures, it will probably give an unbalanced impression of how the trip really was. The weather changed completely during the last week of the trip. It became mostly sunny and no rain fell anymore. I became sick and felt weak however during the last week because of all the hardship in the wet and cold earlier during the trip, but I didn’t want to quit the adventure and continued at a slower pace. All this contributed to an almost continuous feeling of disappointment during the trip.

The satisfaction of such an adventure sometimes only appears afterwards when a sense of pride for what you have accomplished starts to predominate. I had a similar experience during my trip on Southern Greenland six years ago, only now this feeling has become much stronger with this adventure. As I said before, this trip through Patagonia has become the weirdest trip I’ve ever done within the meaning of the experience.

I choose to not disclose the exact route travelled and simply notify the bivouac spots on the map. Drawing the exact route followed is an impossible task anyway.

If I would do this trip over again at the same time of the year, I think I wouldn’t change much to my gear list, except perhaps a change from the Inov8 Mudclaw 300 trailrunners to a Rocklite 315 or 295 because of the stiffer sole. The trailrunners were almost new at the start of the trip and were almost worn out at the end. My gear list was not adapted to the coldest conditions encountered. I did not anticipate for such cold conditions deviating so strongly from the long therm average and would have been much more comfortable with warmer clothing in the rain and during the coldest nights. Despite this I think my gear list was perfect for this trip.

Finally I would like to thank the following persons for their additional help before or during the trip: S. Behaeghel, K. Ghijselinck, I. Verelst, M. Perez, L. Schindele & family, Señor H. Guelet & family, Señor R. Flores, M. Salgado. Kudos to all of you!

Bikepacking the roof of Belgium

Three days of splendid weather. What else to do than to try a bikepacking trip over the GR56 trail in the east of Belgium? Up here at this time of the year the valleys of the small peat rivers turn into yellow flower carpets of Daffodils, the perfect time to head to the roof of Belgium.

This trip has been a little experiment for me as after a few multi day bike trips with friends from youth hostel to youth hostel, this was the first time I actually took my camping gear on my bike. As a seasoned lightweight hiker, it was not difficult to fit all the gear in a few bags on the bike, including almost 4 days worth of food. I didn’t find a safe spot on my bike for my camera though and finally took a small backpack along too, just for my camera and tripod. I’m still overthinking how to take fragile electronic equipment like a camera with me on a mountain bike while keeping it easily accessible, so I could leave the backpack behind in the future.

On a late afternoon I put my feet on the pedals, starting from Botrange, the highest point in Belgium. Red flags hung motionless along the nature reserve on this nearly windless day, indicating a prohibition of access because of the fire hazard by the recent drought of this year’s spring. No problem for me as the GR56 trail just swings along the edge of the nature reserve. Some nice single track followed along the Rur river and a steep ascend out of the valley to pass the little village of Monschau on German territory. Up in the Fuhrsbachtal valley I left the GR56 trail behind and biked into the military domain of Elsenborn. Warning signs along the border announced daily shooting exercises between 8AM and 5PM this week. I was safe to enter the military training area now this evening but became a bit worried for tomorrow morning as I had the plan to bivouac in the area. I was a bit upset too as on the website of the Belgian military free access and no single shooting activity at all was announced for this week, once again erroneous information on their website.

The Bieley rock outcrop offered a magnificent view over the Perlenbachtal valley. I made camp in the nearby forest. The next morning a thin layer of fog draped the valley and the Daffodils meadows where wrapped in a layer of frost. While breaking up camp I suddenly heard gun shots in the distance. It was exactly 8AM and the sounds of the shooting continued for at least one hour. Luckily my area was safe and I slowly left the military domain while enjoying the morning sunrays on the yellow flowered banks of the Perlenbach river. Later during the day I biked through the rather desolate Olefbachtal valley, followed by the valley of the Holzwarsche river with the latter definitely being the ice on the cake regarding the wildflowers.

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A bit too much asphalt to my taste appeared under the tires along the Our river and around Burg-Reuland. I finally found a nice bivouac spot at the edge of a forest about 10km before Sankt-Vith. I felt exhausted that evening after a day biking a distance of 88km through the hilly terrain, especially since this trip was the first time I touched my bike again after my return from Patagonia. Now I could finish the trip tomorrow after 3 days instead of the 4 days I had anticipated for.

The last day offered more pedaling through quiet forests, flowery meadows and some challenging single tracks. Finally I took an alternate route along the nature reserve of Hautes Fagnes where the GR56 follows some hiking trails forbidden for bikers. At the end of the day I returned back to Belgium’s highest point after a first nice bikepacking journey that definitely asks for more.

Club H-A through a snow loaden Hautes Fagnes

Last weekend two groups of forum members from Hiking Advisor went for a snowshoe overnighter through the Belgian Hautes Fagnes. Me and five other enthusiasts chose a longer trip through the unspoilt valley of river Helle and along the burnt trees of Geitzbusch and Noir Flohay which are still standing like ghosts in the fenns after the wildfire of 2011. We broke trail once more along river Statte and had an exciting wild camp in the forest along this little river. The next day we ascended the plateau again through the valley of river Hoegne and searched our way through long lasting snowfall back to our starting point at Centre Nature near Belgians highest point of Signal de Botrange. It had been snowing a lot earlier during the week and snowshoes proved to be indispensable on the higher grounds. There is nothing better than spending the weekend in good company and in a wonderful surrounding to get in shape for my upcoming trip through Patagonia.

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The gorges of the Haut-Allier – The jewel of paddling in the Massif Central

Last May I spent four days packrafting on the upper Allier river in the French Massif Central. After multiple small streams gather together from the northern plateaus of the Cevennes, the river gains some volume and throws itself in a shallow but wild forested gorge downstream of the town of Langogne. Here the river bed contains one boulder garden after the other. There are even waterfalls up to one and a half meter high and several rapids rated class 4. Water levels were however very low in the upper reaches during my trip, actually too low to run everything smoothly as the dam of the Naussac reservoir did not release any flow (it does however during the summer months).

Despite the low water during the first two days, I had lots of fun and portaged the more tricky passages. After a night tarp camping in the gorge along the river, I continued passed the town of Chapeauroux towards Alleyras where the valley changes to a deeper canyon. The river has a more gentle flow here. It did remind me of the Tarn river further south.

Paddling is forbidden between Alleyras and Monistrol and so I hiked through the vast forest on the plateau to the next section, probably the most famous part of the river. After another bivouac along the river, I exchanged ground for water again below my feet in the morning. Monistrol to Prades is often paddled and thus here I met the first other paddlers. The canyon becomes quite remote and deep here. Despite from the train track on the canyon slopes, there is no single hiking path running through the canyon. Once on the river passed Monistrol, the only way out of the canyon is following the river for the next ten kilometers, forcing yourself a way through the many rapids. Bigger rapids followed as the famous “Roche qui Pleure” or the “Crying Rock”. Passed Prades the canyon walls gradually lowered and the river soon started to flow over a vast alluvial plain with long flat water sections alternated by short gentle rapids.

After another night along the river I took the train in Langeac to Monistrol to run the last part yet one more time. There will certainly be a next time on this river for me, hopefully then with some water release from the dam! Lots of fun on the Haut-Allier. The jewel of paddling in the Massif Central as many people describe this river, it seems to be quite true.

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North to the Cape – a thruhike through Scottish snow and water

During March and April earlier this year, I went to Scotland to hike through the northwest part of the Highlands between Fort William and Cape Wrath, the most northwesterly point of the mainland. The Cape Wrath trail was my guide, but I departed from the route many times to more than double the total distance of the official trail. The weather was typically Scottish with 33 days that counted at least a few hours of rain among the total 37 hiking days of the trip, including 7 with rain (or snow) all day long. Up to half a meter of snow fell on day 3, snow which still lasted a long time in the mountains for the remainder of the trip. Spring and more sunny days finally arrived during the last week.

It’s been a relaxed walk with a camp on the ridge of Suilven and the final hike along the coastal cliffs towards Cape Wrath (much more recommended than the official route over the inland peat if weather permitting) that have been the two main highlights of the trip. The pictures complete the story.

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