Early on the morning of August 18th Konrad, an Italian family of four and I, along with 22 of our finest Siberian Huskies set off to Argentina where we would team up with Hernan Cipriani, owner of Huskies de los Pehuenes, on our mission to cross from Argentina to Chile and back again. These two companies combined are the only companies who can offer this trip. It was first completed in 2009 where TV channels documented their successful completion as the first people to cross the Andes by dog sled. The number of people who have achieved this is less than 50. If successful, the guests would be the first Italians to complete the crossing and the two girls, aged 13 and 11, would become the youngest people to achieve the feat. More importantly (for me) I would become the first British person to achieve this!
Needless to say, as a guide on the trip, I was both excited and nervous about the week to follow. We made the journey to the border where we first left Chile, all relatively easy, and then arrived at the Argentina border control. Argentina has strict financial controls in place which effectively mean nothing can be imported. Unfortunately, one of the problems of this is that, like every other country in the world, Argentina doesn’t make EVERYTHING that it needs and relies on imports for certain products. One example of how the government is seeking to get round this issue is with mobile phones. They are purchased through the government from countries like China, South Korea, Japan etc. They are then shipped to Mexico where they are disassembled before being imported to Argentina where people reassemble them and the products are given the ‘Industria de Argentina’ stamp. As a country I liked Argentina a lot and I can only recall positive experiences from the people I have met but their politics are failing and the politicians are watching in blind ignorance as the economy crumbles. Rant over, this meant we had to secure the fact that we wouldn’t sell the dogs in Argentina, or the car, or even the sleds, tents, ropes etc. To do this they took photos of everything, including each dog, as though they would compare them when we returned. It took me the best part of 2 months to get all the dogs names so they would have no chance! So Cristina, although unlikely, if you’re reading this, sort it out!
Well after a couple of hours at the border we finally made it to Hernan’s place. It was an isolated property, 50km from the nearest town. Its isolation was matched by its untouched beauty, situated on the side of a valley in the heart of the Andes. As we got settled, I met some volunteers who wre doing a similar thing to me. I felt very privileged to have found Aurora Austral where I had my cosy bedroom with wifi and electricity that worked even if it wasn’t sunny. I liked the place though and would recommend it to anybody wanting to do dog sledding or horse trekking in Argentina.
The following morning, after feeding the dogs and ourselves we packed everything back up and drove a few kilometres from the house. In some winters it’s possible to start right from the house but with the warm weather and amount of rain it wasn’t to be for this year. There was quite a crowd as we set up the sleds. As well as the volunteers and organisers a local hotel owner came along to watch and a number of the cars driving past the nearby road also watched with great interest. It was a chaotic last few minutes as we set up the 40+ dogs on to the lines and packed up all of the sleds. As we only brought 22 dogs from Chile, Konrad and I would be using Hernan’s dogs. They are all Alaskan Huskies so I was looking forward to experiencing something a little new. The chaos was immediately stopped once we set off on the sleds and we had time to take in our surroundings, familiarise ourselves with the new dogs and make our way towards Camp 1. The first day was a relatively short journey, only made longer by having to avoid where snow had melted and smaller rivers had become exposed. By mid-afternoon we were at the camp where tents and stake outs were set up, dogs attached, watered and fed and then we ate ourselves. The weather was incredibly warm and dehydration with the dogs was the main concern.
Day 2 started in the same fashion of preparing breakfast, feeding the dogs, cleaning up and getting the dogs set up in front of the sleds. Once again, the weather was very warm which was a good opportunity for the rest of the group to work on their tan. I lived up to the typical British reputation of turning red rather than brown. We covered a lot of kilometres on Day 2 and early-mid afternoon we crossed the border back into Chile. It was a new experience to be able to hop from Chile to Argentina and back without any bureaucracy. It also happened to be Michele’s birthday so a bottle of champagne was shared amongst us to celebrate both the crossing of the border and another year older for Michele. We set off again and made it to Camp 2 late afternoon. It was a beautiful spot in an Auracaria forest, sheltered from the strong winds but with great views. A camp fire was enjoyed by all before we settled down for the night. Another one of the jobs as a guide is to check on the dogs if anything unusual happens. This night, the dogs started barking at around 3am and I went outside to discover that Shiva was loose. Luckily, she crawled up to me looking very guilty and it was easy to take her back to her spot where I found her chain wrapped around a branch. I returned to the tent to find Hernan catching one of his dogs just before he found the dog food at the back of our tent!
The third day was even hotter than the first two days and we set off to do a loop where we would return to the same spot. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours Porky, one of our Siberian’s, was clearly very dehydrated and couldn’t continue. We made the decision to return to the camp with Porky being carried on the sled rather than running in front of it. We had lunch and waited until later in the afternoon when the temperature was dropping to go out again. We enjoyed more fantastic views as we made a long loop returning just before dark. That evening we attempted to eat most of the supplies we had with us. The following day we would return to Camp 1 where we had more supplies waiting. The lighter the sleds, the better!
Day 4 again started with the dismantling of the camp. By mid-morning we were on our way back. By now, after four days of hot weather, more of the snow had melted and the main difficulty was finding a route back which didn’t involve river crossings. Fortunately there were still a few ‘snow bridges’ and after a few attempts we traversed the more difficult parts. It was another hot day and the Siberian Huskies, with their thick coats, were definitely finding it harder going than Hernan’s Alaskan Huskies. I swapped sleds with Michele as he was travelling much slower than the rest of the team. To keep up I ran most of the uphill parts where the dogs were lagging. That way I managed to keep a reasonable distance to the rest of the group. After a long day we approached Camp 4, which was also Camp 1 and ate a hearty lunch to get some energy back. We then discussed the decision of whether to stay the night there or attempt to return to the start today. The reason for this was that the weather for the next day was rain with warm temperatures. This would melt yet more of the snow and as our altitude had dropped there was a chance that we wouldn’t have snow to cross. As the guests, it was the Italian’s decision and they voted unanimously to return that day. I think the idea of a warm bed rather than another night in the tent was the major factor! So after a quick feed and water of the dogs we once again set off on the final leg. It was a good decision to return that day as we passed several areas where the snow had disappeared and large areas of water now replaced it. Narrowly avoiding getting wet, we made it back to the road where we started. We had prepared for snow storms, white outs and long, cold days. Instead we had hot weather, snow issues and dehydrated dogs. Just more evidence of the challenges mother nature can throw at you. A celebratory meal was enjoyed that evening and we all rested well. Plans were made for the following day which was now free.
The next morning after taking care of the dogs we went for a hike where we scrambled up a nearby mountain. More great views were aplenty and we got to know the area around Hernan’s property. It really is very isolated and a great place to enjoy a dog sledding tour. In the summer horse treks are also offered which can last up to 10 days. The day finished with a traditional Argentinian asado, lots of meat cooked on an open fire. Of course, I was delighted by this, a perfect way to end the trip. Next morning all the gear was packed up and we set off to recross the border. Of course, none of the Argentinian border guards looked at the photos of the dogs or the rest of the equipment. This time, as we crossed back into Chile they wanted to see inside all of the boxes and bags so it meant unloading everything less than an hour after we had attached it to the roof. Once everything was put back on to the car we made our way home making great time. Unfortunately the weather had been just as warm and the decision was made that we would have to cancel the race planned for the following week. It was going to be a 180km endurance race with a 48 hour time limit. It was a great shame for me as I had been asked to compete in it but I was more disappointed for Konrad and Inge as it effectively meant the season ended a month early. There is still a chance of more snow but for now, it’s impossible to run any of the tours. I now only had one week left with Aurora Austral and less than a fortnight in South America. Of course, not being one to sit around, I planned another adventure or two which will appear in my next and perhaps final blog post.