Winter on the Carretera Austral. Part IV. Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins

Cochrane (24th June 2017) to Villa O’HIggins (29th June 2017)

Villa O’Higgins, the end of the Carretera Austral and the start of our planned escape route out of Chile: to wade across the multiple freezing water channels of Paso Rio Mayer (next post). 16 kilometres before Cochrane offers an easier rideable road alternative to Argentina but it also means missing arguably the best and least transited section of the Carretera Austral.

The last few posts are all centred around Patagonia’s favourite subject: the weather. But down here in Winter it really is the primary consideration for any day’s activity and it’s a topic that’s hard to avoid. The stretch from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins certainly offered no exception.  Several ‘rest’ days holed up in Hospedaje Ana Luz gave us time to contemplate how bloody cold it might get. Dropping to -10C and lower at night with undeniable consistency, we woke each morning to predictably frozen water pipes.

Camping the first night out of Cochrane

But this stretch was very much a tale of two halves.  The first to Yungay went to our expectations, vast amounts of snow and nights well below freezing (with the added ‘twist’ of a rather undesirable mouse invasion at night). The second half from Rio Bravo to Villa O’Higgins, however, surprised us with some rather grim weather conditions: rain in 0C. Warm enough to rain but not enough to defrost the icy roads, progress was slow. I found myself soaked and slipping around with little control. Stopping meant an almost instantaneous reduction in body temperature and, with no shelters available, was not an option. Rain was something I thought I’d not see again until after Ushuaia. But I was….errr…wrong.  (In fact it’s raining heavily here in El Chalten as I write this at the end of July!)

What follows is a photo diary of our route to Villa O’Higgins:

The wood fire heating doesn’t quite reach our room in Cochrane so sleeping bag attire becomes fashionable. Significantly outgunned, my Marmot Never Summer -10C seems somewhat inadequate when Gurkan proudly unravels his North Face -40C.

After several days of rest and preparation it’s -4C when we head off in the morning.

With the sun out and no wind I question why no one cycle tours in Winter. My question is answered, quite convincingly, the next day.

Mouse infestation: The evening drops to -11C with a clear starry night that changes into heavy snowfall within a few hours. In the early hours of the morning I wake to a rustling noise. I am absolutely disgusted when my torchlight reveals a mouse standing on my bread bag on its hind legs sniffing the air in the vestibule of my tent.  It quickly becomes obvious it’s not alone. Searching for food and trying to nibble through my bags I decide not to take the situation lightly.  These little critters can only offer disease.  I am on guard for two hours fighting the buggers off. I manage to stun one with my shoe and I finish it off with my bicycle pump, somewhat violently, outside in the snow, I’m not proud to admit. (I get my punishment a few weeks later when my bicycle pump breaks in freezing horizontal sleet outside of El Chalten).

The tents are notably warmer when we wake due to the insulation from a covering of snow (knocked off before this shot).

You get the idea

Although there doesn’t seem to be ice I take it slow; you never know.

Oh stop it Patagonia!

The weapon of choice: Gurkan’s Winter studded tyres sent down from Santiago with expensive Correo Chile. (NB: My Maxxis Ardent 2.4in were definitely sub-optimum at times but I managed and there were only a handful of days where snow tyres were preferable. Overall I am happy with my choice, I only resorted to my anti-slide spray once (that I picked up in Cochrane) and my planned use of zip ties never materialised. (written in El Chalten))

One more

Seeking out tree protection from the exposure

My quick release wheel skewer snaps and coincides with a brief sighting of the protected Huemul. They don’t give me much time and this is the best shot that I manage to get.

Yungay and the free ferry waits.

Along with its free waiting room

Previous friends’ signing of the ferry guest book – almost like they’re with you.

A dry pair of wool socks – essential

Awaking to heavy rain and icy road conditions for a tough day.

By late afternoon we find refuge

…and dry out all our kit on the wood stove

Horror movie set for sheep

Staying at the cyclist friendly home of Don Hugo in Villa O’Higgins we get one evening of snow but it’s surprisingly warm and up to 7C or 8C. The climate is said to be less severe than Cochrane and Coyhaique even though a few hundred kilometres south.

Useful waypoints:

Route: straight down the Carretera Austral from Cochrane to Rio Bravo taking the obligatory 1 hour free ferry from Yungay (it’s one hour and leaves at 12pm and 3pm in Winter but double check).

Supply Options in Winter on the Carretera Austral:

Coyhaique is your last major supply point with reasonably (but not extensively) stocked adventure stores such as North Face and Patagonia. Plus you have cheap market options for basic warm socks, buffs, long johns etc (which is what I did) if you don’t want to spend big dollars . There are a few bicycle stores which are OK but not limitless (I struggled to find a good replacement 26inch MTB tyre for example, although I was successful eventually with a secondhand 26x2in Bontrager donated to me by Una Velocidad bicycle store). Cochrane has a couple of all purpose stores that can tie you over with very basic bicycle accessories, hardware items and some limited warm clothes options.  And then Villa O’Higgins is the next place with an even more limited supply of basic  stock.  In Villa O’Higgins there were limited accommodation options, all having shut down for the winter; we only managed to find one paid option for 10000 pesos. However we ended up staying with Don Hugo (recommended), who offers cyclist friendly digs at very cheap prices.

Further route notes:

Normally progress south of Villa O’Higgins requires use of a ferry across Lago O’Higgins followed by a rough dirt track / road and then another ferry across Lago Desierto and then a road to El Chalten.  It is this second ferry that shuts down in Winter.  However, it sounds feasible to hike and carry your bicycle around Lago Desierto several kilometres if you’re packing light. Cherry hiked this section (three or four hours) although sent her bike on the boat. We didn’t since the next Lago O’Higgins ferry was 12 days ahead (it seems to be every 15 days or so in Winter, check ahead). Plus we were somewhat intrigued by Paso Rio Mayer (next post).



9 thoughts on “Winter on the Carretera Austral. Part IV. Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins

  1. Nick, Reading this on a wet August day in England Grace and I are consumed with admiration for you down there. Bloody hell, what an epic finale to the ride. I ‘almost’ wish I was there having just picked my aged Giant XT1000 out of storage and been for a blast around the lanes. Enjoy the rest of the trip. Perhaps see you in the UK before too long? D&G x

    • Thanks David – Just hop an a flight (bring long johns!) 🙂 No fixed plan to visit to the UK the moment but maybe soon…

  2. Hi Nick, Google National Geographic 2017 Winners- photo of following taken where you visited on your Blog. You should enter some of your photos in various categories every year as lots of them correspond to to the statement below! Also, your latest Blogs on your snow route make me shiver!! As a Canadian snowbird that is why I escape to Mexico for 6 months of the year! Loads of admiration on this “Brrrrrr part of your journey! Using ties on tires- who knew?! Stay warm….Adele
    Honourable mention, nature category: Marble Caves, Clane GesselGessel travelled to Patagonia with his father earlier this year. After a 10-hour drive on dirt roads, they finally came upon the sparsely populated Argentinian region’s marble caves. Gessel chartered a boat to move his camera closer to the rock faces and waited for the light to be just right for capturing the caves’ intricate blue swirls.
    It’s exactly the sort of image competition judge and National Geographic senior editor Molly Roberts said catches people’s attention and draws them in.
    “Often people are hoping that photographers will guide them to places that they otherwise wouldn’t see,” Roberts says. “That’s what they love about it.”

    • Thanks for the tip, I will take a look! Considering it’s in Chile, I wonder what they’d make of “…Argentinian region’s marble caves.” (assuming it’s the same place!)

  3. This is fantastic! I was there from Jan-March in 2017 and the whole time I was wondering what it would be like in the winter. Looks amazing. I am curious about what gear you took to survive the weather. Do you have that posted somewhere? Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Steve, apologies for delay. Looks like this slipped through the net. I plan to do something like a winter tips post soon. In the meantime, my favourite addition was the 2 litre plastic bottle pogies to protect the fingers from the icy wind. I think you can see a photo of it on my Paso Rio Mayer post (hard for me to check right now).
      I’ll try to get the winter gear notes up soon!
      Cheers, Nicholas

  4. Pingback: Winter on the Carretera Austral! | Ransom's Notes

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