Project Patagonia #3: Into the deep end
With our legs still cramping from the Huemul Circuit, we gingerly stood on the waters edge and surveyed the challenge ahead. Our final task was to become the first people to ever stand up paddle-board between the two glacial lakes of Viedma and Argertino, and the La Leona river that joins them. Our route would meander through pre-historic canyons and past petrified forests, the old stomping ground of the dinosaurs.
Our credentials on paddle-boards were questionable at best, having only stood on them once before arriving in Patagonia. This however didn’t phase us, we had been in the position before, and the best way to learn is to jump in the deep end, and hope you float. We unpacked our Red Paddle Co inflatable boards, loaded them with our tent, dry bags and supplies, and pushed them out into the freezing glacial waters.
We pushed off the bank, with no real idea of what lay ahead of us. We had surveyed Google Earth, and the river looked like it had water in, so that was good enough for us. As we kicked off from shore, and nervously rose to our feet, the power of the river was immediately evident. The bottleneck from the monstrous Lake Viedma meant the flow was quicker than anticipated, but with over 100km to cover this could only be a good thing.
The La Leona river snakes violently through an area of Patagonia frozen in time. In 1894 the famous Argentinian explorer and scientist Francisco P. Moreno, was attacked and killed by a female puma (Leona) on the banks of the river, and from that point it was named La Leona. The cavernous hills also made it a perfect place to hide, and it is known that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid took refuge here after robbing a bank in a nearby town. Surrounded by such historical and archaeological riches, it only seemed fitting that two idiots from London should become the first to glide down the Patagonian treasure on paddle-boards.
As we got swept further down river, the honeymoon period came to an abrupt halt. We could see in the distance white water, and a number of large rocks protruding from the surface. Not really knowing what to do, we simply stood there and waited to be dragged through the rapids. Fast forward 30 seconds and JW is chest deep in the icy depths of the river, and TC is now racing down the rapids facing completely the wrong way, reversing out of control. This sequence of events occurred every 200 metres or so for the next 10 hours. To add insult to injury, the wind then decided to get involved.
It is worth stating that almost everyday up until that point, we had faced strong northerly or westerly winds, as these are the prevailing’s in the region. This was perfect for the SUP, as it would provide a nice tailwind to further our mileage, and push us gently downstream. Not the case. On this one day, the only day, that we would have been assisted by those winds, they flipped entirely and became a relentless southerly. Now, we had been warned that on the boards, winds would be our biggest adversary, but this was a joke. What followed was the most frustrating, angered and infuriating day of the trip.
Due to the quick flow of the river, the whirlpools created by the rapids, and the storm force winds, we were constantly being spun around, tipped off, and pushed into the banks. We would paddle with every ounce of our strength and not move an inch, our boards would run aground, and we would be stranded. The serenity of the La Leona was shattered by a plethora of the most barbed swear-words in the English language. It totally broke us, and our morale sank.
After battling all day, we had reached our limit and pulled into shore to set up camp. We were absolutely exhausted, and after refuelling with food and drink, we crashed into the tent. As the night grew later, the wind grew stronger and we lay there shivering with cold. This was the third night on the trip that we did not sleep a wink. We lay side-by-side, eyes open, praying that we would drift off, but only to realise the sun was rising and it was time to crack on. We didn’t care though, we had 65 kms until Project Patagonia was complete, and the feeling of being so close was all the motivation we needed. No matter what weather was thrown at us, we were making the finish-line that day, by any means possible.
Day two was the stuff of dreams. We left early, and beat the wind. The river was like a different beast, and instead of being the choppy, boiling mess from the previous day, we cut through mirror like waters, surrounded by utter silence. We soon realised that in the physical battle of the day one, JW had snapped his fin off the board, so was essentially descending the river on a tea-tray. We descended the river together, with no currents to separate us like the previous day, and we began to plan the food, drinks and festivities of the night ahead.
The final day gave us time to reflect on what we had achieved over the past three weeks, and what had been without doubt the toughest challenge we had ever faced. We had taken on three separate adventures and combined them into one, pushing ourselves to the absolute limit on each, and then moving on to the next. We had started as total novices, and yet were about to achieve two world-firsts. Not only this, but we had completed this epic adventure completely out of season, so we could beat the tourists and suffer that little bit more. Our faces were red and swollen from the punishment from the wind, our legs and feet were in the worst shape of our lives, and we were mentally exhausted, but we have never felt more alive.
The growth that comes with operating outside your comfort zone, is a powerful thing. For us, it is the secret ingredient that makes up the world’s high-achievers, those who are grabbing life by the horns and leading the way.
In the evening of October 19th, we pulled into the shore next to Lake Argentino and collapsed to our boards. The relief was intangible, and every ache and pain washed away. We released a beacon on our GPS unit, which alerted a local travel agent to send a taxi our way. We sat on the banks and gazed out across Lake Argentino, and the mountains in the distance, and realised how special this place truly was.
We hope that these blogs have acted as more than just an account of our own trip, but have in some way lit a fire within you. As with everything we do, our main goal is to inspire others to take on their own Patagonia. We cannot emphasise enough how our lives have changed for the better since we realised a simple idea, that we are capable of more. There were times over those three weeks where we wanted to simply give up, and be back at home, safe and secure, but those thoughts are few and far between. Looking back now, from the safety and security of that very home we longed for, we crave adventure.
For now though, we rest up and recover. Then, we go again….