Continued from Valle Hermoso, Part 1: Inedito 4×4

Rio Tardillo

Rio Tordillo

My first trip with Inedito 4×4 was as a co-pilot in the Grey Bumblebee as it was lovingly referred to by its owner, Raphael (Rapha). In fact, it was the maiden voyage of the the abejorro gris as we departed from Las Leñas, having come to the end of 222. The moment we’d all been anxiously waiting for started with the shifting of a small lever, that 98% of most SUV owners use 1% of the time, which engages the second differential to the drive train and thus gives traction to all four wheels. [insert your own off-road soundtrack please]

As the co-pilot you have a HUGE responsibility and play an essential role. It can be extremely hard to navigate a large, top-heavy, traction controlled, high-powered and sophisticated piece of equipment through rough mountain terrain. So, for the pilot, having extra sets of eyes can be a big help, but there is also the need to check the maps, configure the GPS, communicate via VHF radio… and it’s also nice to have someone to tune up the Manu Chao, pour the mate [that’s “maah-teh”] and hand you a cookie once in a while. Thus, you can understand why Rapha needed me along… Yes, I have skills.

Yerba Mate

Yerba Mate

We started out on ground that presented some light challenges, but we soon came to our first test upon entering the Valle Hermoso. Our first river crossing would be the Rio Tordillo.

Now, I’ve seen some off-roading shows on television and watched vehicles run through a stream or a small river, but this was nothing like that and these experienced off-roaders were pretty laid back for the time being. The group approached the Tordillo pretty calmly. In fact, three of the six vehicles were on the other side before I really noticed what we were about to do.

Anibal (Animal) was the first to cross. He was always out front like a big Great Dane taking its master out for a run walk, followed by Mariano (Mari-almond), then Pablo A. (A) with his co-pilot Pablo B. (B).

The next to cross was Christian, the Argentine-German-Parrilla Style Pizza Making-Dentist (The Mummy). [That’s a short story and a very funny picture for some other time…]

It was at this moment, during Christian’s crossing that I began to realize the water wasn’t running as shallow as I had originally thought, although what I saw of his crossing was really only the exit on the other side. So I began to think this might be a nice video opportunity as we splashed through the narrow river. I had been digging through my wet-bag [it gets wet, your stuff stays dry] for my Handycam and decided to run it up to Diego (The Gardener) whose co-pilot at the time was Marcelo, who everyone refers to as… well, Marcelo.

We watched Diego cross. “Hey, it’s kind of deep”, I thought. The thing I didn’t know yet was that Diego’s truck has had custom shocks and extensions installed to give it added height. Not like some monster truck, but a few inches anyway. Then Rapha tells me I should have my window down for additional weight. “What the heck does that mean?!!” I know from casting in chest deep water, that having the river enter your chest waders is not a good thing. But apparently, when the water is deep enough and the river strong enough to wash your vehicle down river, having the vehicle flood actually helps gain traction. Forget the fly rod, get the net!

Maiden Voyage

Maiden Voyage - or - A River Runs Through It

A short while later we were on the other side with some of the river pouring out onto the ground once I had opened my door. I slowly recovered from shock and realized the trip was going to be something I’d never forget and might require psychiatric therapy.

I was actually enjoying my initiation to this new outdoor activity very much, but I couldn’t help being preoccupied with the opportunity to test the first promising looking body of water.

As we continued on I kept checking that my fly-gear was easily accessible so as to waste no time in making my first presentation to an unsuspecting lake or river dweller. Marcelo, who had joined Rapha and me, picked up on my nervous excitement and started asking about specifics of fly fishing, and said he’d like to learn more. Earlier, the group had discussed where we would stop for lunch, and Laguna de Las Cargas was chosen as a good spot to enjoy scenery and give me a chance to wet my lines. So, I promised Marcelo I’ll set him up with a rod and we could both test our luck.

FINALLY! Anibal radioed back and said he’d found a beautiful spot on the edge of Las Cargas. Even he knew what I was thinking and told me to get my fly rod ready. I explained to Marcelo that I’d set him up with my new STH reel which had 200 grain sinking-shooting line. I thought it would be a little heavier and help him learn a roll cast and allow him to fish a little, but without requiring a lot of instruction for the time being. 

Find this location

Find this location

It was a gorgeous day, as were all of the days we spent in the “cordillera” of Mendoza. There were hardly any clouds against a light blue, high-altitude sky, and the soft wrinkled mountains surrounded Las Cargas like a hound dog napping in the sun.

Once we unloaded, Marcelo was buzzing around me as I quickly set up his line. He was grateful and kept bringing me slices of cheese and chorizo that the others were putting out for lunch. I could tell there were eyes on me and I felt like the center of attention. I began to think I’d better produce something, anything. I was on the spot. After all, this was my passion, and a chance to share what keeps me awake some nights in anticipation. It was time to do my thing.

Laguna de Las Cargas

Laguna de Las Cargas

Poor Marcelo. Looking back I realize I neglected an important rule among fishermen. He was so patient in waiting for me to get his line ready, show him a roll cast technique and thus introduce him to the sport. I really should have put my desire aside and dedicated the 40 minutes or so that we were there to his first attempts at fly fishing. Instead he got only a 5 minute lesson – hardly enough I’m sure.

...just a taste. I'll be back.

...just a taste. I'll be back.

In the end I came off looking great, catching three different species in 20 minutes. I even pulled out a Landlocked Salmon! This happened during the 5 minute lesson… While I was showing Marcelo how to cast, I turned to hand him the rod, and the rod… pulled back.

I give Marcelo credit for fishing the whole time we were at Las Cargas and throughout the trip. Unfortunately, Marcelo didn’t catch anything, while I felt a bit guilty and netted Rainbow and Brook trout  in addition to the earlier surprise catch.

Seriously, every time I think back now about the Laguna de Las Cargas I get a sense of “things unfinished”. A mouth watering lake only briefly tasted, flies untested on fish with lesser inhibitions, and the mentor that I wasn’t. [I owe you a real introduction Marcelo. I’ll make it up to you.]

Each day of our trip started at first light, after a night under a canopy of stars and below zero temperatures, with strong coffee and the emergence from sleeping bags, like the life cycle stage of a Mayfly entomology as it molts from aquatic form into winged adulthood.

Above Rio del Cobre

Above Rio del Cobre

The best adventures lay ahead of that first day. What the rest of the trip held in store for us was very similar to what keeps a fisherman returning to the water, regardless of the absence of luck from a previous experience. It’s the possibility of what could be waiting and what you might encounter. It’s also about enjoying the moment, the process, the experience that comes when you commit yourself to a challenge and to exploring new territory; not to mention the fantastic food and drink, indescribable scenery, complete disconnection from the outside world, and the hilarious antics of grown men with no limits and no supervision.

We continued on from Laguna de Las Cargas and over the next several days pushed our way up valleys and pulled each other out of rivers and marshes. At night the temperatures dropped blow freezing, and more than once confounded my plans to rise early from our campsite and fish for an hour or so before departing and continue our quest to reach Laguna Negra. The “Black Lagoon” was the quest of this trip and the reason we were out here in the first place.

Rio del Cobre

Rio del Cobre

The group had approached the lagoon from the south a year earlier without success. This year’s approach was from the north and would be through a narrow pass we suspected my be the gateway. This would be the challenge we’d face in the final two days. In the meantime, I kept on hoping for more opportunities to fish or at the very least, identify the spots I planned to return to at  a later date.

One day of our trip was dedicated to hiking the Peteroa crater on foot.

This volcano erupted about 9 years or so ago, and you can still see ash that covered the area everywhere for several miles and the residents of the region were very nearly evacuated. The ash is in the rivers, its on the roads… and almost like a fine sand. You can see it in the picture below [Cierro Castillo]. The areas that look as if they may be covered with snow on the lower slopes, of Castillo, are actually covered with ash.

The total hiking time, up and down Peteroa, was over 6 hours and a total of 24 kilometers. To give you an idea of how tough the hike was, Pablo A. literally hiked the soles of his shoes. That night we were camped near hot springs and I can tell you we were grateful for those nature thermal baths. They warmed our bones and soothed our aching feet.

Finally on the next to last day we reached the pass which would hopefully lead us southward to Laguna Negra. At this section of the journey we were close to the Chilean border. When we arrived at our mountain pass, there was a construction crew at work in the very entrance we had hoped to use. The Argentines are constructing a new road that will eventually connect to Chile and form a new border crossing point. We talked with the laborers and they were happy to let us pass through, but after a quick check on foot of the passageway we decided that is was in fact nearly impossible to manage.

La Cordillera de Mendoza

Cierro Castillo

If we proceeded on this course we would have to try and run straight up the bed of the stream at the base of the pass. However, the large rocks and uneven ground seemed too much to overcome so we decided to take a drive around the far right side of one of these large hills to see if we could find another pass.

Slowly we pushed up onto a rise with mountains to our backs and ahead of us. Off to the right we could see into Chile and the beautiful Laguna del Maule. Across a small valley was another even larger sierra. However, we thought we could see some tracks that must have been made by a vehicle of some kind, probably a 4×4 similar to ours. We started to think we might be in luck.

Anibal was immediately off testing different means of ascending the steep slopes. The trucks divided up and each tried different tracks, while a couple of us stayed back on the opposite slope and communicated, via radio, where we thought we could see an easier path to the top. We were at it for a couple of hours before we started to run out of daylight. We’d have to camp soon or we wouldn’t be able to see our way back down the mountain and nobody wanted to camp unprotected up in the wind and cold.

Anibal leads...

Anibal leads...

As it turned out that night was the coldest of the trip. I had decided to sleep without a tent after the first night in order to enjoy the canopy of stars that are indescribable at that altitude. During the night the temperature had bottomed out at -13o C. When I awoke, not only was my sleeping bag covered with frost, but the stream we’d camped next to, was covered with ice and stymied my hopes for fishing again.

We quickly had breakfast and packed up our gear. We’d spent our last night of camping. It was the last day of the trip and we all were hoping to reach Laguna Negra before heading to San Rafael where we would sleep in real beds before the long drive back to Buenos Aires.

We used the same strategy to find a good path up the mountain we had faced the night before. Two trucks stayed back and used binoculars and VHF to guide the trailblazers on the other side trying to find a gentle enough slope and firm ground. The ash and arid soil combine into a lightly packed sandy base which makes it really hard to climb. The team finally had to lower the tire pressure to about 10 lbs. which is what you’d do if you were driving on a beach, for example. This seemed to be a key ingredient among the many factors that contributed to our eventual success.

I was now riding shotgun to Christian in his Toyota Helux. After watching Anibal, Rapha and Mariano nearly make it to the top, only to be confounded in the last few meters, Chris and I took a path further off to the left were the first to finally break through and over, while appropriately accompanied by “The Great Gig in the Sky”.

The Ascent

The Ascent

The rest of the group eventually made it up as well. You can see the path in the picture here, and the last section which which is basically straight up was nothing but pure maxed-out horse power.

We still had very large and sharp rocks to navigate through at the top, and it was no small challenge. The results, however, were well worth it. Upon reaching the top we found two lakes down within separate canyons off each side of this three-sided mountain top. Although the side we had climbed up was rather steep, the other three sides of this mountain almost sheer vertical drops of between 300 and 500 meters.

The first lake we encountered was Laguna Guanaco in the bottom of a Grand Canyon-like expanse. The colors and contours of the canyon were amazing and the lake at the bottom contrasted sharply due to the minerals that washed down the canyon walls and gave it an opaque, emerald green-blue color. This lake was feeding the stream bed that we had originally considered using as a pass to Laguna Negra, but it was obvious from this vantage point that our choice to try a different approach had been a wise one.

Laguna Guanaco

Laguna Guanaco

Then we came upon a hidden lake which appeared to only be approachable on foot or by horseback from any side. In fact, one side of the lake had no coastline, but rather a mountain wall of what looked like sand rising hundreds of meters straight up. But unlike Laguna Guanaco, Cari Launa, was a gorgeous tropical blue and even from our height above the lake we could see straight to the bottom. Rapha and I both agreed that this lake would be logged into the GPS for a return visit to fish and scuba-dive.

We still had plenty of daylight, but our journey was now at an end. There was no way to possibly get beyond this mountain top. It was kind of bittersweet because we’d discovered these beautiful locations which we hadn’t known existed. They were the kind of sights that you only see a few times in a lifetime. We’d seen enough during the week to last a few lifetimes.

It was clear now that we wouldn’t reach Laguna Negra. It was obvious I wouldn’t have another chance to fish, and that my best fishing had been the very first afternoon of our voyage. But at this point I could hardly be disappointed. I’d spent a great week with a bunch of really good people and experienced things I’d never expected or imagined.

Cari Launa

Cari Launa

While Chris brought out the cold beer, I dove into his iPod and found some Manfred Mann to blare out over the surrounding peaks. We all had a sense of relief, accomplishment and exhilaration even though we hadn’t reached our intended destination. After all, it gave us an excuse for a future excursion in search of a new passage to Laguna Negra.

These 4×4 enthusiasts had unfinished business to go home, plan and prepare for, while I had a list of future hot spots and my own unfished business. I’ve already plotted the route to get back to all of these inviting waters including Cari Launa, although I may have to arrive on horseback… I may have acquired some of the knowledge and technique for this kind of overland travel, but I’ll have to rely on my friends, when it comes to the equipment, for now.

These trips are always followed by a dinner and exchange of photographs and video. I’m really looking forward to seeing what unique shots some of the other guys must have taken. I couldn’t include all of the highlights or pictures in this post. I’ve thrown a few more pictures into the picture page of this blog. There are really too many things to share from the trip, but I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about a little at least… and maybe someday experience it for yourself.

Inedito 4x4 - 2009

Inedito 4x4 - 2009

What I’ve decided to leave you with is a video prepared by “B” (Pablo B.) which captures just about everything I’ve attempted to relate in this blog, except that he didn’t include any fishing, but I guess that part was up to me even if it was just a small part of this adventure. Anyway, it’s burned in my memory and has left me anxious to return.

The video is outstanding. I think you’ll understand why I am looking forward to the next trip which, by the way, is already in the works. OK, check your adrenaline and play the video…

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