Tuesday, 31 May 2011

San Pedro de Atacama

What an incogruity San Pedro de Atacama is, in the desert of sand, gravel, multi-coloured rock, wiry desecated plants scarcely clinging to life, close to the Salar de Atacama, a dead salt plain with upwellings of water so saline that one can float in them unaided by artificial means, surrounded by volcanos some of which have wisps of steam and smoke, reminders of their deadly intent. There are endless open spaces threaded by scarce water, yet here is a town with trees, squabbling dogs and chirping sparrows, small boys playing football in the whitewashed square with its formal garden.

Visitors throng the narrow uneven main street of Caracoles, beset on all sides by offers of all kinds: food and drink in the many smart cafes and restuarants; tour companies offering excursions to all sorts of places; activities of desert mountain biking, sand boarding and skiing, trekking; boutiques offering indigenous multi- coloured handicraft at extortionate prices, ponchos, jewellry, artworks, tat; money changers raising suspicions; a North Face shop selling expensive Western goods; and somewhere to stay, from cheap hostels to expensive luxury hotels, all flattering to deceive with their rough adobe exteriors hiding well appointed interiors. And the plaza, simply called The Plaza, with the Church, the town hall, and, of all things in this the wilderness of the driest desert on Earth, free WiFi (which, in the best South American tradition, doesn't work).

These visitors, mainly young, travellers from all parts of the World, come to see the amazing wonders of this inhospitable place. For don't let the patina of civilization fool you, this is an inhospitable place. The scare water is toxic really, thanks to the arsenical deposits in the surrounding hills and volcanos, and to the mines high up in the Andes, and those who can afford to do so buy bottled water, leaving the poor to the effects of the poisons. Travel beyond the confines of this little marvel to smaller, more remote, settlements such as Tocanao and Socaire and the evidence of long-term consumption of the local water, combined with in-breeding, become very evident indeed.

San Pedro is an odd place in an odd place; it is a fusion of chic and sham, Chamonix Mont Blanc fused with Totnes and Sitges, an oasis of cool in a hot place,
¡que guay del Paraguay! but you come here, play and move on, leaving the local people dependent upon the next wave of tourists, for there appears to be little else for them to do.

Iglesia de San Pedro de Atacama
Caracoles, San Pedro de Atacama

Monday, 30 May 2011

To and over the high Andes

Three drive days from Los Gigantes to Tuzgle, with the first overnight stop in the northern town of Salta, where we partook of the eponymous beer, camped next to the largest swimming pool anybody had ever seen. It must have been 500m long by 100m wide. We would have done some lengths, held a swimming gala, a diving competition - but the pool was empty and the only activity  we managed was Rolf pitching his tent in the deep end.  Durng our second overnight Bob 'Dancing Master' Barnes held the highest swing dance lesson in the world, pirouettes at 3500m.  And it was cold that night: -10C inside the tents.  But those sleeping in the truck enjoyed balmy, almost tropical, conditions at -2.5C.  I know because I was there.  Somebody spotted the fresh paw print of what was undoubtedly a large cat...

The pass over the eastern Andes to the altiplano took us up to 4500m, then down to 3800m to the elegant, spacious, almost regency-like town of San Antonio de los Cobres, which has endless facilities for the discerning visitor, cafes facing gracious tree-lined avenues, fashionable shops, manicured public lawns, blazing flowerbeds rioutous with colour. Or not. Seldom had anybody seen a more desolate wasteland in which to build a place to live.  Passing through this hell-hole we carried on to our climbing venue, a canyon in the altiplano at 4200m, under the dark brooding cone of the Volcan Tuzgle after which the site is named. The first climbs had been put up by the Petzl Climbing Team and by virtue of its isolation (i.e.it's in the middle of sodding nowhere) it's very likely
we were only the second team to visit. So it's very likely the routes we did in traditional style were all new routes.  So when you go look out for such new classics as 'Gibson's Corner' (HVS 4c) and 'A bridge too far' (6b), both new routes by Nathan 'Ginger Lanky Bastard' Gibson.  Lots of bouldering too, on huge pink boulders scattered by some giant hand. And llamas, loads of them, herded by llama-dogs, running across the plain with only one thought in their minds: "Llamas, llamas, llamas". Only to round a corner to see a bunch of gringos: "Mierda, people, what the hell do I do now? ... I know, bark ... Mierda, they're not going anywhere ... I'll bark some more ... Nope, no good ... " and so they disappeared to get their llamas by some other route.

Tuzgle was distinguished also by the cold and the wind, the former being intense at night with hard clear skies letting the temperature drop to -10C, and the latter being ever-present and strong, strong enough to drive us away from the cliffs and boulders.  So four days here was enough, and we headed back to San Antonio and thence the Chilean border, seeing the occasional group of the rare vicuña and a single lonely rhea, prepared for a lengthy border crossing.

And we got one.  There is, at the Argentinian side of Paso de Sico, a whole series of canyons lined up one after the other, about 12 in all, all destined to be unclimbed as the isolated border outpost makes this sensitive territory.  Now, we all expected the entry to Chile to be difficult and time-consuming and the exit from Argentina to be swift and trouble-free.  Not a bit of it.  Consider this: you are a bored and career-frustrated immigration officer in the middle of sodding nowhere and a red truck full of grimy gringos turns up.  You are forced to interrupt your busy afternoon of doing sod-all to process them.  Do you:

A.  stamp them all through without delay - after all, once they're out of Argentina they're no longer your problem, let those bloody Chileans deal with them

B.  be really officious, read your immigration regulations and seek to delay the border crossing for as long as possible; after all, they've ruined your afternoon so why shouldn't you ruin theirs?

You are about to select option A when you spy, hanging from its hook in the corner, your peaked cap.  This decides you: option B it is.

And so it took us 2 and a half hours to get out of Argentina.  The wait did, however, give us a chance to watch the Northern Branch of the Argentinian Amateur Desert Watering and Flattening Society practice their activities in preparation for the next National All-Argentinan Desert Grooming Championships. It was either this or God knows what.  But they're very good at it - hardly a ripple to be seen under the desert sun.

So into Chile in the early evening, the setting desert sun turning everything pink around us, and a bitterly cold wind driving sand and dust ahead of it.  The first few kilometers passed without incident until we arrived at the SAG post of El Laco.  Which really is in the middle of sodding nowhere.  SAG is the Chilean organisation responsible for the defence of the Chilean Nation against all things malign related to plants and animals.  And so the chap practically emptied the truck, conficating such things as feathers, untreated wood, raw dried beans, and lentils.  When these last were confiscated a resounding cheer went up from the team, huddled in a shed out of the bitterly cold wind, a cheer that you might have faintly heard in Britain and thought "What was that? Was it lentils being conficated in Chile?"

The final hurdle in crossing the border was to pass through Chilean immigration and Customs some miles inside the Chilian border in the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, a reasonably swift process nearly ruined by Sam the Really Aged Canadian being too polite about pushing in front of a crowd of dwarfish Paraguayans who all made Gareth 'Stumpy' Thomas feel tall for once, something he was enjoying hugely.  Once through we headed for the hostal, which turned out to be a somewhat rustic affair made from (well, parts of it anyway, those parts not being part of the organic growth made from practically anything she could get her hands on) adobe brick and run by an enterprising middle-aged Chilean lady called Monica who called me 'hijo'.

Exam answer

And the answer to the exam question posed in the last entry:

"What is the colour of this post?"



Bonus point for those who know why.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

There might be giants...

(There is an exam question at the end of this blog entry).

Los Gigantes is a high and desolate place, a barren place, a place far from towns and peope and roads.  It is a cold and treeless pace, a place of thin bitter soils, of tough grasses, of thistles, and of rocks exposed to the harsh mountain sun. It is a wide place under giant skies. And yet, incogruously, there is here a church, white and stark against the black and grey of the unforgiving granite, a man-made outpost in this harsh and
unyielding land.

Like the squat square tower of the church the grantite also reaches for the sky, great rounded spires scored with grooves and cracks, slab-sides blotched grey and green with lichen and moss. Small shrubs, twisted and low, dark green, manage to survive in the shelter of the narrow confines of the few  riverbeds that seek refuge from the heights by wending their way down to the busier plains below.

To this place few come.  Farmers herding the few cattle able to survive here, hardy thick-fleeced sheep, birds with plaintive cries that get lost on the wind. And climbers, seeking adventure on the granite, battling their way upwards in cracklines, on slabs, in chimneys and on walls, seeking the protection of widely-spaced bolts, and of distant cam placements, small sharp holds torturing finger tips, tense feet, balancing.

The rains and mists come too, enveloping the spires, dampening all, and the white morning sea laps against the ramparts of the high land, submerging the lowlands beneath. The sun, blood-red, rises angrily behind its  ramparts of cloud, harbinger of dire forebodings, chasing the interlopers away. But when the rain is not there, in the full heat of the mid-day sun, these dark hills can be hospitable, green gullies hidden between great towers of rock, mica crystals catching the sun, limpid pools sparkling, hares starting from shelter and birdsong filling the air.

Now, here's the question: what is the colour of this post?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Review of Rio de Janeiro newspapers

I noticed some newspaper headlines and stories from local papers during our time in Rio, and I've reproduced some of these below.  The details are limited, possibly inaccurate, and my translation from Portuguese is poor but hopefully you will get some feel of what life in Rio is like.

Crack international climbing team hits town.
Today, Easter Sunday, a team of renowned crack international climbers honour Rio with a visit. Whilst some decide to stay out of the limelight on the edge of town, others less shy take up residence in the very heart of the beach district, in bustling downtown Copacabana.  The 14 distinguished visitors, including 2 Swiss, 2 Australians and  10 British, intend to scale the heights of some of the many morros {these are the steep rocky outcrops and peaks that Rio is famous for - Steve} that are dotted throughout our great city.  As we all know the most famous of these are Corcovado, crowned with the great statue of Christ the Redeemer, and the Pão do Açucar, and I am sure these will be among their targets. Indeed, when interviewed Rolf, one of the Swiss climbers and a man apparently renowned for his laconic delivery, simply replied 'Ja, ja, I will climb dese.  I can do it'. Story continued on page 6.

Rio City Council Trading Standards investigate local hostel for rules infringements
After receiving complaints by visiting travellers, Rio City Council Trading Standards division are to carry out
an investigation of the so-called 'Best Rio Hostal' on Avenida Ministro Alfredo Valadão in Copacabana.  Some of  the complaints made against this hostel include:

- housing guests in inhumane conditions (for example cramming 4 into a windowless room with no air conditioning and measuring just 2.5m by 3m);
- providing insanitary facilities (specifically, providing toilet facilites for which the doors fail to fully close, and showers that, although warm enough, are too small either to dress or undress in);
- causing stress through sleeplessness due to the need both to leave bedroom doors open due to the lack of windows or air-conditioning, and to have a portable fan blowing all night simply to make conditions in the cell-like rooms tolerable in the warmth of the tropical nights;
- breaching food hygiene regulations by failing to clean the guests' kitchen, itself a laughable description of the room provided for self-catering having as it did a total lack of useful utensils, crockery, space or furniture;
- failing to provide any public space for relaxation, beyond the 2m by 3m foyer area, thus contradicting the statement on the  hostel website saying that a guest sitting room was available;
- giving poor customer service, with staff being uninterested or unable to provide simple standard services such as recommendations for eating places or even a city map.

Don Alonso de Paiva, Head of Rio City Trading Standards, say he is very grateful for the complaints made as establishments of this kind give the city a bad name, and he is determined to stamp out such rogue practices.  More details on page 4

Naked man found dazed and confused on beach
Police this morning found Owen Phillips, 22, a visiting British tourist and and member of a visiting crack international climbing team, naked and confused on Copacabana beach, preserving his modesty with a small plastic shopping bag. When interviewed he claimed to have been 'skinny dipping' - an English term for swimming in the nude - after having, at seven in the morning, run back from Lapa where the previous evening he had been attending the weekly Friday night street party with his friends, and that somebody had stolen his clothes from the beach. The police were understandably sceptical of this blatant tissue of lies as when asked further why he had run back he claimed to have run out of money; what sort of friends, Sargeant Coelho, the investigating officer, argued, would leave a friend in such a situation, given the taxi fare back is a mere R$25 {about £10 - Steve}?  It is believed, but official sources have not yet confirmed, that these so-called friends could not raise the small sum of R$1,000 {about £400 - Steve} for police bail. Story continues on page 16.

Visiting crack international climbers scale the heights of Corcovado to Cristo Redentor and Pão de Açucar
Stealing a window in the current spell of unsettled weather here in Rio, a team of crack visiting climbers have
successfully conquered the dizzy heights of not only the Pão de Açucar but also Corcovado upon which, as the World knows, the famous Cristo Redentor statue stands gazing out over our great city.  Various routes have been successfully overcome, including K2 (a 150m climb that ends at the very feet of Christ), Dos italianos/Secundo (270 m long, that ends at the very top of the Pão de Açucar), and Coringa/Cartão, a classic combination leading also to the airy summit of that great Rio icon.  Visiting tourists at each of these world venues were taken aback as the intrepid climbers appeared as if by magic at the barriers erected to keep us more mortal beings safe. One, Rolf Arnold from Switzerland, a man renowned for his laconic style, said "Ja, ja, I knew I could do it" when asked in awestruck tones by our own reporter how it was.  Others among these brave men and women were heard to mutter darkly about 'slabby shit' but it isn't clear what was meant by this.  More details in the sports section on page 24.

The return of true style, by our fashion editor
This season sees a remarkable and long-awaited return to true style, with the re-appearance of that 1980's
iconic piece, the lycra tights. Many, including me, regretted their disappearance in the early 1990s, but I'm
delighted to say that they have been seen once again on the vertical catwalk of the city's morros, in
particular on a climb to the very top of the Pão de Açucar.  The models were two visting Britons Nathan and
Owen, members of a visiting crack international climbing team, who were sporting zebra stripe and electric
orange vein patterns respectively, and others styles available and in use are, notably, DPM (or camoflage) and floral pink.  These great statements of confidence and brashness will, I'm sure, be seen again in the coming months.  Story continues col 1, page 2 of the Fashion pull-out section.

Vice squad to raid Balcony Bar, by our religious correspondent
Imagine if you will - if you can - the tawdry scene: visiting middle-aged businessmen, corpulent to a man,
surrounded by, nay draped in, scantily-clad dusky-skinned young ladies of all shapes and sizes, voluptuous and provocative and shameless, all drinking strong liquor late into the night whilst decent, law-abiding folk like you and me try to block out the noise from this carousing assembly.  Such is the scene that would greet you - as it greeted a team of crack international climbers who innocently wandered into this pit of ordeal - were you unwise or unlucky enough to find yourself in that den of iniquity called the Balcony Bar on the Copacobana beach front, against which this paper has campaigned for so long on your behalf.  You can be sure that we will not rest until we have rooted out this evil from amongst us and so you, right-minded and God-fearing citizens that you are, will be able to rest more easily in your beds, to which you rightly retire both early and sober.  To that end we have urged the Vice Squad to raid the premises and we will keep you informed of the results.

Visiting Britons offend fellow travellers with offensive odours
Tourist chiefs are investigating claims that some guests at one of the city's many hostels so offended the
sensibilities of other travellers by their smell that the latter refused to move into their allocated hostel
room due to the overpowering stench.  It is reported that the offending guests were members of a ck
international crack climbing team visiting the city to scale the dizzy heights of Corcovado and the Pão do
Açucar, and the offensive odours were a combination of body odour, climbing shoes and long-un-washed towels. The hostel refused to comment on the reports beyond saying that all guests were welcome, even those who smelled as bad as these. More details in the Health pull out section on page 3.

Swiss visitor sets new record
Rio de Janeiro is rightly known as one of the great cities of the world, the scene of many triumphs and tragedies over the years.  This year the city of Christ the Redeemer has yet again been privileged to witness a supreme effort, an Austerlitz, an apoteosis of personal achievement.  One member of a crack international climnbing team, Rolf 'The Party Tiger' Arnold set, through a gigantic effort of will and perserverance, a new record in the consumption of the famously toxic caipirinha coktail.  The previous record, a paltry 10, was smashed by this Swiss hero, this latter day William Tell, who reached the unprecedent number of 15 of these potents brews.  When interviewed after the event he said "Ja, ja, I knew I could do it.  It was easy" before asking some local black citizens to "Turn the music up Brothers".  Reports that he suffered immediate liver failure have yet to be confirmed.

World class - Serra do Cipo

Serra do Cipo is apparently a world-class limestone venue, and is split across 4 sectors, two of which are traditional and two (sectors 1 and 3) of which are sport.  The area is a tourist hot spot, with numerous campsites and hotels, known locally as 'pousadas'.  When we arrived, in the run up to Easter, the campsite, overlooked by a waterfall and frequented by a family of big-yellow-beaked toucans, was clean, deserted and idyllic.  By the time we left at the start of the Easter holidays it was thronged, noisy and resembled nothing so much as one of the famous favelas of Rio De Janeiro.  This change was not due to our visit, let me assure you.

Sector 3 is spread out across a number of buttresses each with its own characteristics. Technical walls and
juggy overhangs predominate, with many routes being one-move wonders.  Sector 1 is very different, having been quarried in the past; here there are impossibly smooth slabs, technical 'crimpy' routes that demand much from the fingers, and tall pillers offering fine exposed climbing looking far across the campsite and beyond.
It was a frustrating place for me to climb, finding as I did many of the routes to have a single move that I
was unable to do at first sight. Most of these I managed after a few attempts but nevertheless I left Cipo with
a vague feeling of dissatisfaction with my performance.   It is a small comfort to know that these failures
were on routes at about 6c/6c+, which is generally my limit and therefore hard to climb on-sight.

The Pousada Curumbe just along the road from the campsite offered a welcome distraction from the truck and campsite. Cold - yes, cold! - beer, elegant surroundings, manicured gardens, helpful and friendly staff; the only wonder is that they let us scumbags in to use the place!