Snow, Ice and Water – Obergurgl, Austria

Snowshoe Hike - Obergurgl, Austria

This story begins high above the alps.  It is a story of change. Of transition and of voyage.  It is a story of simple contrasts, long trips, and the small details that define the world around us.  It begins in the uppermost reaches of roiling clouds as they form along the border between the Austrian and Italian Alps. Casually adrift they eventually find themselves caught; snagged on jagged mountain peaks dotted by the sharp protrusions of evergreen treetops.  As gravity takes hold and nature pulls the clouds downward a process as old as the earth unfolds. Water vapor rises, condenses, and crystallizes. Like a master tinkerer, the cloud crafts trillions of tiny stars. Each is an ever-so-slight variation of the star shape we picture as we close our eyes and dream of winter.  These newly born stars float suspended in quasi-darkness thousands of feet above the earth waiting to launch themselves upon the world below.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

With the gust of wind, a change in pressure, and a drop in temperature clouds struggle to free themselves of their mountain moorings. As they lighten their loads snowflakes begin their gentle descent.  Some find themselves falling quickly, others drifting as they are tossed from side to side by alpine winds. They descend towards fallen brethren.  Some revert to their watery origins – torn apart – by waves of heat.  Others are thrown together, crushed within the feathers of sharp-eyed golden eagles or the furrows of  an Alps-Crow’s black wings.  Most survive to continue their reckless descent.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

For some their trip comes to an untimely end.  Extinguished by the heat of a child’s outstretched tongue.  Others find themselves caught in the top branches of old trees and small spring saplings. A perch that lends a fabulous view of the valley’s white slopes and snow-covered fields, but which also offers them up as sacrifice to the sun in a way reminiscent of ancient Incan ceremonies.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

Others find themselves surrounded by their brethren as they cast a thick blanket across the earth’s rich soil.  It is a war of sorts. The war of seasons. In winter frozen snowflakes spread themselves across the soil’s surface,  blocking it from the sun and denying it the liquid hydration it demands to survive.  In summer, when the dark hues of rich humus and golden rays of the sun combine, the earth finds itself hungrily gorging itself on water that has long forgotten what it felt like to take the form of a frozen star.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

As day ebbs and night descends a full moon’s white light is reflected off a trillion sparkling points.  Each dreams of a life spent beside the moon in the deepest reaches of space as a small part of the Milky Way.  Instead, small gusts of wind cast snowflakes back into the air, tossing and turning them before allowing them to crash back against their mates.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

Morning’s early rays. Warmth. Blue skies. Sun.  The shimmer of heat rising, reflected off white crystalline shapes.  A reversion from tiny star to water and gas. A new voyage, this one slow but persistent. Soaking deep into the half-frozen soil.  Drifting across slicked rocks. Carried along by un-melted snowflakes.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

The birth of a small stream hidden beneath snowbanks. The soft gurgle of water splashing over stones as a trickle grows, freed by the sun.  The promise of spring as weather warms. Tiny crystalline star after tiny crystalline star giving way to heat, sun, and the caress of water.  Moments of uncertainty as the gentle onslaught of a stream slowly carves grottos beneath the snow’s smooth white surface. And then collapse as the strength of millions of interlocked snowflakes give way beneath their own weight.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

Moments. Hours. Days of tentative equilibrium as stream, sun and snowflake reach a fragile balance.  By day the sun beats down, forcing snow flakes to wither and drip their way toward the stream.  By evening, night and early morning the cold caress of alpine winds, fresh snow, and freezing air strive to re-claim lost snowflakes.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

Half-exposed segments of the stream re-discover their crystalline origins.  These re-freeze on a much grander scale.   Their struggle futile. Brief. But beautiful in its grand gestures.  Others struggle in transition.  Most of their form lost. They form pillars by gravity and circumstance that stand as bulwarks against the stream’s cold bite as they loom above the churning waters.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

I captured these photos during a two-hour snowshoe hike provided by the folks at Obergurgl Ski School and the Obergurgl-Hochgurgl Tourism Board just outside the city of Obergurgl in the Austrian Alps.  The weather was spectacular with blue skies and clean mountain air.  As we hiked along a small stream made up of snow melt, I was taken by the beauty of the ice crystal formations.  Those photos gave birth to this post.  One which I hope you enjoyed.  It is an incredible area full of stunning natural beauty.  Photos were shot on a Canon 600D.

The San Telmo Market in Buenos Aires

Plaza de Mayo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Upon my return to Buenos Airies I immediately backtracked from the Airport to the hostel I had stayed in previously.  Located in the heart of the San Telmo District Tango Backpackers offered familiar/friendly staff, a good location, and excellent facilities.  The girl on the front desk, a Bulgarian who had temporarily re-settled in BA, recognized me immediately and welcomed me back with a warm smile.  I settled into my room, then set out to explore areas of the City I’d missed previously.  It was Christmas day and the world famous Sunday San Telmo outdoor market was taking place near by.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

After walking a few blocks to the northwest I stumbled onto the market, which shuts down the entire street and stretches at least a mile across the heart of the city. A narrow cobblestone street it’s lined on both sides with hawkers before eventually dead ending in the main square where the more traditional and established market vendors have their stands set up. There’s also an in-door area but more on that later.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The market is home to everything from small handwoven silver goods, to tango shows and gaucho (Argentinian cowboy) equipment and artifacts. It’s the embodiment of everything I love about outdoor markets, only missing one key element – the food! While you can find just about anything at one of the stands, apparently Buenos Aires has a law against streetside food vendors. As a result the only real food available along the market was fresh pressed orange juice.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Luckily, there’s an old turn of the century style wrought iron marketplace located just off the main square which serves as home to a number of great vegetable, fruit, and meat stands. Sandwiched between old antique shops, and an odd mixture of electric, perfume, and clothing stands they provided a chance for some fresh food. As you’ll note in the picture above, it’s not exactly the most airtight building, as the Pigeons made a strong showing and casually patrolled the space, not unlike local Police officers in their dark blue-gray uniforms.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The level of vibrant color constantly bombarding my senses in the market was absolutely delightful and a fun contrast to the more muted tones I’d grown accustomed to while in the southern part of the country.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

It’s impossible to visit Buenos Aires without breathless mention of the Tango dancing, salivating praise for their steaks, and words of caution about the pickpocket scene. While I never had an issue with pickpockets, I was more conscientious than normal. The market isn’t just world famous for its size and antiques, it also has a reputation as a pick-pocket mecca. As I wound my way through the crowd I was always aware of my belongings, and regularly transferred my backpack from my back to my chest. Backpacks in particular are always an easy target and one we usually assume to be a bit safer than our pocket-based wallets.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The collection of People along the route is also a great mixture of characters. Some gorgeous…some colorful. All vibrant and full of life. Of the hawker’s wares some of my favorites included beautiful silver work done with hand woven silver wire often worked in beautiful patterns around polished gem stones and aged fossils. Some even included peacock and parrot feathers. Others created similar works of art but with a waxed, hemp like, multicolored type of thick string gator and jaguar teeth. One gentleman was selling beautiful leather maps, while another sold handcrafted leather bracers and bracelets. Some of the more cultural pieces – vintage Tango posters and the stands with Gaucho saddles, lassos, whips and spurs left me wishing I had the funds, space, and time to make a few purchases.

San Telmo Market - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Starving and a bit frustrated by the lack of any quality food stands, I eventually found a small doorway into a tiny, steaming hole in the wall sandwiched behind two large vendor’s tables.  The place boasted the standard open faced grill Argentinians are fond of with a smattering of meat thrown onto it. The place was dingy, the chef a rather hefty older man with sweat tracing its way down his face.  Near the door two old men sat and motioned me in as they relaxed and read the paper.  I dodged the young waitress as she barreled towards a nearby table balancing a load of plates, and pulled up a chair across from a group of federal police on Lunch break.  Slightly intimidating, there were at least 10 when I arrived and over the course of the meal another 6 or so piled in and quickly gobbled up the remaining chairs and tables.

Graffiti in Plaza de Mayo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

The thoughts you have in a situation like that are always interesting.  On the one hand I took their presence as a positive sign that the food was good, and that I was in an extremely safe place.  On the other side a little paranoia set in as I processed that with that large a gathering of officers, if anything was going to happen, it would probably be targeting them.  If I had been in a place like Israel, or even more dangerous parts of Brazil or Argentina known for active terrorist/drug war attacks and bombings, I’d have probably been nervous enough to debate re-locating. As it was, I ordered the daily special and a coca cola, then settled in to read my book, watch the locals, and relax.

Plaza de Mayo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

I spent the remainder of the day wandering through Plaza del Mayo, where a group of mothers of vanished political protestors have maintained a longstanding protest. Then wound my way through the districts streets somewhat randomly before striking back towards my hostel.

San Telmo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Once there, I set to the task of booking/exploring and researching the next major leg of my journey. It promised to be somewhat daunting and would be my first major introduction to long distance Argentinian Bus travel.

Stay tuned for a detailed break down of the experience, how to book it, and the costs associated with a RT ticket from Buenos Aires to Iguazu.

The Fitz Roy Hike – Exploring Southern Patagonia

Mount Fitz Roy Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

Mount Fitz Roy wouldn’t qualify as a small mountain under any circumstances, but by that same token, it’s not one of the world’s greats…size wise that is.  At a hair over 11,000 feet the mountain has earned a ferocious reputation for it’s sheer cliff faces and near-impossible climbs.  With sleepy glaciers resting at its feet, not unlike hunting dogs warming before a hearth, Fitz Roy stands tall and imposing over the surrounding countryside.  In truth, as I reflect on the mountain and region at large, I can’t help but imagine authors from several hundred years previous taken by flights of fancy,  creative minds compelled to write about Fitz Roy and its siblings the Cerro Torres as the jagged, sharp teeth of some sort of sleeping titan.  A creature at rest with giant maw or spiked carapace protruding violently from the icy snows that decorate the range’s slopes.

Valley Near El Chalten - Patagonia, Argentina

The howling winds that had terrorized us the evening before had died down slightly leaving the three of us to dress, shower, and prepare for our hike.  A light rain threatened but had temporary submitted to the buffeting winds and splotches of sunlight which burst through the clouds in ragged spurts.   Eager to begin the adventure we grabbed our maps, identified where the trail left El Chalten, and began our walk.  We paused briefly at a small market to pick up a tin of spam, several loaves of bread, other small snacks, and three victory beers.  The plan was to hike along the 12 km (24km round trip) path which cut through the foothills and led to a base camp at the foot of Mt. Fitz Roy. The weather was mixed and threatened to deteriorate further, we weren’t in the worlds most amazing shape, and it was already 11 o’clock. I suppose in retrospect, the decision to pack beers with us was a solid indication of the relaxed general approach we were taking to the outing.

Start of Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

We wound our way across the town and past a small corral which serves as home to a small group of gorgeous horses. Fit, stout, hearty and a little wild, they fit the region perfectly.  Unfortunately, the closest we’d come during our hike to a pack horse was whomever ended up lugging our sole backpack. True to form the pack was loaded down with our beverages, food, and camera gear.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

Once on the trail proper we wasted no time cutting towards the heavens in a steep zig-zag pattern. Legs burning we trudged along enjoying the scenery and refreshing sharpness of the cool, clean mountain air. Before long we found a small overlook and paused to take in the river as it spread out and slithered its way out of El Chalten.  The water was a wonderful blue-gray and the clouds teased at a break in the weather.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

It wasn’t long before we reached the next break in the trail.  A large, open gravel space in the saddle between a small hill and the main one.  The small gap offered a great view down the valley and left us grinning at the pure natural beauty of the vista. It also left us grunting in surprise as the wind blasted our faces, tore at our clothing and ripped off one of the guys aviators, blowing them along the ground back the way we’d come. With an anxious lump in our throat we also noted the visible haze of wind-blown rain drifting further down the valley. As it turned out, it was only a matter of minutes before it found us.  As we continued on from the gap the trail cut across a meadow and clung to the steep sides of the mountain. It was then that a light rain began to tease at our jackets and dampen our hair. Undeterred we continued on, smiling and waving at hikers who had struck out early in the morning and were now finishing their hike having given in to the weather.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

As we crested our first major foothill we entered moss-covered forest.  The slightly muddy underbrush consisted mostly of mixed grasses, blooming wildflowers, shrub, and moss-covered earth. The trees were a mixture of squat, ragged, scraggly things and slightly taller healthy trunks which supported a splotchy canopy.   Luckily the trees offered some protection from the light rain and blocked most of the wind, allowing us a brief respite and the opportunity to pause and enjoy some of the wildlife.  At one point we stumbled upon a gorgeous woodpecker with a raven-black body and scarlet red tuft of color around his beak. He clung leisurely to the side of one of the trees pausing periodically to evaluate us disapprovingly before returning to his war on small bugs and and ragged tree bark.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

Shortly thereafter we came across an amazing sight. As you’ll note in the photo above, one of the trees had literally been twisted to the point of shredding. Set to the back drop of Mt. Fitz Roy, I couldn’t help but imagine the hands of some massive giant reaching down and twisting the tree in its fingers as one might a water-logged pair of socks or piece of straw. It was yet another reminder of the ferocious and temperamental nature of the weather that periodically sweeps across Southern Argentina.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

As we continued along our path we paused from time to time to evaluate the weather and our condition. Though damp, windblown and cold we decided we had plenty of daylight, warmth and spirit and that the weather didn’t threaten further deterioration. So, with the invigorated spring of exploration in our steps we struck down and across the valleys which separated us from Fitz Roy’s base. The mossy terrain gave way to tundra-esque peat and incredible views of the mountains and winding glaciers they feed.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

As we continued to close on the mountain we would periodically pass hikers who had obviously made the trip to El Chalten and the region specifically to hike. As more city-oriented travelers on mixed backpacking and hostel-oriented trips, we lacked the dedicated equipment (waterproof pants, hiking poles, etc.) that stuck out as an unspoken uniform among the other hikers. As they trudged past us – often heading back to town – some smiled, others shot us inquisitive glances and mumbles.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

Growing tired and hungry but feeling tantalizingly close to our goal we continued to strike towards one of the nearby glaciers. Unfortunately, as we drew close and crossed through the main campground that feeds Fitz Roy, we came to the conclusion that it was time to eat, and perhaps call it a day.  The weather was continuing to nag at us and the water and reduced traffic levels had made the path nearly invisible. We decided it was time to ford one last river, pause, eat our late lunch and then begin the arduous trek back towards town and a warm shower.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

We paused for our cold lunch – a combination of candy bars and cold spam smeared across soft baguettes – before beginning our march back. As we chewed away gratefully we chatted and generally agreed that we’d accomplished what we set out to do, and more. After warming up a bit sheltered by a small grove we re-filled our water bottles from the river before turning back towards El Chalten.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

The area near the base of Fitz Roy is gorgeous. I can only imagine that there are a wealth of stunning glacial lakes and snow-covered valleys to be explored under better conditions. Despite the clouds, rain and wind we still enjoyed the small stream’s blue-tinted crystal clear waters and what we could reach/see. The view of rain-slicked, black mountains and of large glaciers slipping and sliding their way gently towards the valley below still rests pleasantly in my memory.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

The return trip was made largely in silence. Tired, cold, happy but exhausted, we retreated to our ipods and enjoyed the 12km return hike. Each relishing the feel and added mystical aura our custom soundtracks offered. It’s amazing the different emotions, connections and feel music can have when you’re traveling. For my part, the silken crooning of Il Divo and Enya served as a stunning backdrop for the remainder of my hike … all mixed in with some symphonic metal and classic punk rock to keep my heartbeat cranking.

Mount Fitz Roy Hike - Patagonia, Argentina

Back at the gap, as we neared town once again, we paused and cracked open our celebratory beers. True, we probably should have drunk them earlier but there were few things more entertaining than the bemused, startled, and periodically baffled looks of fellow hikers just starting down the trail as we approached the trailhead with frothy beers in hand and welcoming grins on our faces.

By the time we reached our hotel room we collapsed into our beds utterly exhausted. We had bested the mountain, but just barely. Legs feeling swollen and ready to burst we relished a day well spent. It was Christmas Eve. Time to find some food, drink, and celebrations.

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Bergen Bound – A Ferry, Fjords and Fresh Adventure

Random Town - Stavanger to Bergen Ferry, Norway

There’s a sensation that every traveler is intimately familiar with.  It’s that lump in your throat, that nagging dull roar in the back of your mind and the slight quickening of breath as stale adrenaline oozes out your pores.  It’s the sensation of uncertainty…of adventure yet to be decided.  Will I make my ferry? Do I know where I’m going?  What if this Bus doesn’t come? Will my hostel booking still be good?  It’s that rush of adventure that lets you know that you’re pushing yourself, that you’re exploring new things and that you’ve taken yet another fundamental step outside of your comfort zone.

IrelandNorway-3778

As I sat reading my book in the crisp morning air at a bus stop in front of the Stavanger University Hospital I couldn’t help but nervously check my wristwatch.  Despite the book, I still managed to squirm perched as I was sandwiched between two backpacks and clinging somewhat precariously to the side of the narrow bus bench.  The bus was late which wasn’t an issue-if-I’d made the right guess on where my ferry was leaving from.  If I’d gotten it wrong though?  It was going to be a rough run down and around the old harbor and then up the coast to the industrial district.  What would I do if I missed it?  Bah.  I had to be guessing right, it only made sense that the ferry would leave from the main Tide terminal…right?

All Aboard! - Stavanger, Norway

Luckily, the bus eventually surfaced and spirited me down towards the city center.  From there a brief half-walk half-sprint got me to the dock with plenty of time to confirm that I had indeed guessed right.  Relieved I tracked down the ferry, then settled in – I was early. As I waited I chatted with a Dane who was somewhat lost and trying to figure out where to catch the ferry to Preikestolen. I offered up advice based on what I’d learned a day or two before before walking through a light sprinkle to the local SPAR minimarket where I picked up a healthy breakfast: A hotdog wrapped in bacon washed down with a Pepsi. Perfect food for 8:30 in the morning! Right?

Random Town - Stavanger to Bergen Ferry, Norway

The ferry was relatively small – a fast, jet powered boat that blasted across the water’s surface.  It had all of the usual amenities; a snack bar, several rooms full of comfortable chairs, flat-screen TVs on the walls and a wealth of windows.  The ferry ride was scheduled to last about 4 hours and would take me up through the inner fjords along Norway’s rugged western coast before dropping me off at Bergen. I’d planned it as much as a sightseeing tour as a necessary mode of transport.

Random Town - Stavanger to Bergen Ferry, Norway

The ferry was about 1/5th full leaving plenty of space to stretch out, though I’ll admit I spent most of the time wandering from deck to deck, reading or chatting in mixed English/Spanish with a group of Spanish travelers.  To my disappointment the weather wasn’t in the mood to cooperate and while the water was fairly smooth the air was cold, windy, slightly rainy and at times doused in fog.  It made it nearly impossible to stand outside unless you spent your time clustered with the smokers hiding in the bubble of calm air carved out at the stern of the boat by the ship’s cabin.

Random Town - Stavanger to Bergen Ferry, Norway

The ferry made a number of stops along the way offering an exciting view of some of Norway’s smaller communities. Some of the towns seemed mid-sized while others were little more than seaside villages.  All had a distinctly picturesque feel to them.  Luckily, as the trip progressed we gradually broke free of the fog, rain and wind which gave me the chance to see a bit more of the countryside.

Eventually we were informed that we’d be transferring to another high speed ferry – why? Who knows.  Perhaps it was a regular part of the trip, or perhaps something had come up.  Either way, it was nothing a few questions, friendly locals, and minute or two of absolute confusion couldn’t fix.  I wasn’t in the mood to complain, after all it added to the sense of adventure.

The Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

As mid-afternoon approached we reached our final destination:  The city of Bergen which serves as a picturesque gateway to the fjords.  Able to service large cruise ships and home to a UNESCO heritage site the city has an undeniable charm and delightful beauty to it.  As I stepped off the ferry and scratched my head trying to orient myself I instantly felt a smile spread across my face.  This city had a fun energy to it and undeniable beauty.  It was time to find my hostel, and then to begin exploring.  New adventures and beauties waited.  I could feel the tug as another chapter demanded to be written.