Friday, May 11, 2012

Motorhome mechanical woes continue

After over two years and more than 30,000 miles (50,000 kms), much of that on rough, potholed roads, the transmission went out on us. Yes, after getting what has amounted to become an almost useless service in Punta Arenas and being assured that there was no problem with it, the transmission spewed oil and smoke on highway 3, on the way to San Julian. At the time, we were about 130 miles from Rio Gallegos and perhaps 120 miles from the village of Piedra Buena. In other words, the middle of nowhere. After driving the motorhome onto the shoulder, it shuddered to a stop. Fortunately this is a well travelled highway and almost immediately two trucks pulled over and volunteered their help. It was decided that Tom would ride with one of them to Piedra Buena and I would stay with the motorhome and Winston. It was already 3pm and I knew given the distances that he would be gone at least four hours which would be dusk or nearly dark. Sure enough at around 7:30, a car pulled up and Tom jumped out. We were going to take it to Rio Gallegos and a tow truck was on its way. It was almost 2am before we arrived there and we were drained. We had passed through the town on our way to Ushuaia and it is actually only 40 miles or so from the Straits of Magellan. In the morning, the trucking office telephoned mechanics in town to try to get someone who could help us and in the afternoon, we were towed to a mechanic’s shop. They put fluid into the transmission and eventually decided that it was some seal ring that needed replacing. They also discovered that the radiator was leaking, again. This will be our 4th attempt at fixing that problem, the first time in Punta Arenas and then twice in Puerto Natales. After two days of work, the motorhome was running and everything seemed to be in order, so we left once again for San Julian. This time we did make it to Piedra Buena and as we were filling up with gas, Tom noticed – a leak. From the transmission. Same place. I could have cried. Our only option is to turn around and go back to Rio Gallegos. Piedra Buena is really nothing more than a hamlet and had no mechanic that could deal with the problem. We were also told that San Julian was much the same. Tom bought a large container of transmission fluid, filled up the truck and said we might be able to get back without a tow. Well, almost. About 35 miles from Rio Gallegos, the motorhome was spewing fluid as fast as Tom was filling it. This time a couple in a pickup stopped and they said they would tow us the rest of the way. Once in town, we again telephoned the mechanic shop and Jose; the owner sent one of his workers to get us back to the garage. This is more serious. After checking it out again, they tell us that our only option is to pull the transmission and send it to Buenos Aires to be rebuilt. Buenos Aires is 1,500 miles (2,500 kms) to the north. We tried everything. We contacted Ford Motor Company in the US and went to the local Ford dealership and service center in town. No-one could help us. We started making arrangements to send the transmission to the capital and Jose showed us a small studio apartment that he owns around the corner from the shop. There is cooking facilities, heat, hot water, television and Wi-Fi. There is no refrigerator but we can use our own in the RV. They think it will be at least two weeks for the shipment, repair and return of the transmission. I look around the small studio which will be “home” for the next couple of weeks and sigh. Oh, the joys of travel. At least the three of us are warm, safe and relatively comfortable.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

El Chalten and Mounts Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre

After spending one more night in El Calafate, we made the 220 Km (about 150 mile) drive to the northern end of the park and El Chalten. Los Glaciares is a national park with an odd setup. Entering in the south to see Perito Merino Glacier which is a paid entrance and then north around Lakes Argentino and Viedma to El Chalten which is situated inside the park’s boundaries and to which there is no admission fee. In the middle is a sort of “dead zone”, where there is no road and is inaccessible to all. The lakes are fed by glaciers so they are the milky blue, sediment filled waters that we have become used to seeing. Occasionally, even being so far from the mouth of the glacier, you can still see icebergs. It really is amazing. After El Calafate, the village of EL Chalten was a surprise. It is the entire opposite of its southern counterpart, even though both really exist only to support the tourists that visit the national park. But where El Calafate is upscale and teeming with well heeled visitors from all over the planet, El Chalten is devoted to trekkers and climbers, catering mainly to the backpackers and mountaineers who come to climb its famous peaks primarily Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. It is reminiscent of an old gold or mining town from back home. We had the name of a camping facility and after a stop at the tourist office, found it easily. Located just off the main street and close to the trail leading to Mount Fitz Roy, it is small with few amenities. Kind of like the town itself. Few tourists pass through EL Chalten, even during the high season (November thru February) when climbers from around the world descend on the small village. Now, in April it is darned near deserted. But from our campsite, when the clouds clear we can see Fitz Roy, so Tom is happy. At a height of over 3,400 meters (10,800 feet) it was first climbed in 1952 and is reckoned to be one of the most technically challenging mountains on earth for mountaineers. Following Chouinard’s climb and film in 1968, it also became the basis for the Patagonia clothing line and logo. Fortunately for the rest of us there are several paths which make trekking up the mountain relatively easy. Cerro Torre is a different matter. It is a sharp craggy peak that has a top with a “mushroom” of rime ice formed by the winds. Because of this, many who claim to have climbed it did not actually reach the top, the most famous of those being Maestri. The first undisputed ascent was not until 1974 made by an Italian expedition. Since then many others have climbed and perfected the route, adding more bolts and rope. The next big controversy came this season. In January, two men, American Hayden Kennedy and Canadian Jason Kruk made the ascent and on their return back down, removed many of the bolts that had been used. Some of these bolts had been drilled in earlier expeditions close to cracks used by climbers for protection but debate remains whether the North Americans had the right to remove them. Dilemma reigns in the climbing world. Of course, this made no difference to me. Nothing on this earth would get me to traverse a mountain. We stuck to the well worn, well trekked, walking routes and that got us close enough to be happy. Unfortunately except for a few breaks, clouds shrouded both peaks for most of the time. Tom did manage to get a few photos which I will post after I sort through them all. We stayed in the village for a few days before beginning our way to Bariloche. We have also decided to go the long route taking the paved highways in lieu of the gravel dirt roads.