The fire burned intently in the hearth, a mother coddled a baby in one arm and slowly stirred a simmering pot of soup on the range with the other; eager rosy-cheeked children sat around the simple wooden table, waiting expectantly - suddenly simplified, all was good in the world.
A cozy scene indeed, but we shivered in the cold as we pressed our noses harder up against the window pane; onwards transport was vague and the only facilities here were a lonely park bench and a rather sad looking dilapidated bus, anchored here permanently as a wind break aside the boat master's cottage cum gendarmerie post.
The wind howled and every so often a powerful whirlwind whipped along the lake shore where we were marooned, blowing grit and dust and anything else it picked up into our faces and every crevice of our clothing. The sole gendarme had muttered something about the possibility of potentially perhaps some transport tonight but it was uncertain at best.
Feeling sorry for us, the mother gave us some hot water and we drank our last instant noodles (all of our remaining food, huddled under a tree, behind the boat master's cottage sheltering from the incessant wind. We watched as he headed off reel and bait in hand to catch their evening meal...
Adam and Felix amused themselves skimming stones and I began sourly scouring the area for a place to setup camp...it was approaching 11pm and our hopes were fading fast as the last light and colour drained away from what had been a long and tough day of travelling.
Then, just as I was about to strike the first tent peg, a beam of headlights penetrated the inky night, accompanied by the angry roar of an over-revved engine - our ride had materialised! There had been a ring around amongst the locals and a special pick up had been organised. And it didn't matter that it was a beat up mini-van on a bone shattering track with a driver who had brought his wife for company and drank tea and ate his dinner as he drove, for we were out of the cold and heading towards civilisation.
They also seemed to having a domestic in the front seat, or perhaps this was just how it goes at home in the Latin world, as the driver's wife waved her hands about wildly and gushed what seemed a torrent of abuse at him, drilling her finger into his chest so hard I thought he'd enter cardiac arrest. She also collected the money for our trip.
El Chalten was like a poor man's ski town in the off season, but unfortunately that also meant it was swamped with backpackers and everywhere was full. Without an equivalent "No Vacancy" protocol, we were reduced to knocking on doors (it was past 1am now)...eventually negotiating an "unconventional triple" (strange looks) at a boutique French-owned and operated chalet - complete with bidet and cable TV...from paupers to princes in an instant. We ordered toasted ham and cheese toasted sandwiches and a bottle of beer and slept, too tired to dream.
Breakfast was pure Parisienne with young beautiful things (she moody and disinterested, him fretting and anxious) and the well preserved, immaculately coiffed and wardrobed elderly couples (him reading Le Monde down his nose, she adjusting her designer après ski gear over her stylishly gaunt frame). Croissants, jam and espresso, no poodles though. We were perfectly out of place...
We had a leisurely morning strolling the main drag, past artisan shops, cafes, hostels and trekking supply shops. We ate the world's biggest hamburger for lunch - bigger than my outstretched hand - and stocked up on supplies before setting out on our next trek: FitzRoy Base Camp or "Poincenot" as it is known here - in memory of Jacques Poincenot, one of the members of the French expedition that first conquered Fitz Roy in 1952 (died same year when he fell attempting to cross Rio FitzRoy, drowning tangled in his climbing ropes).
Our muscles still ached from our efforts the previous day, but we pressed on; it was a hot afternoon and without the normal cooling winds the sun beat down on us as we laboured up the the initial steep section (a few kms), deep heaves required to lift our tired legs, packs onboard, up the relentless climb.
Soon we were literally soaring with the condors, high above the valley below, the dirt track we'd travelled on the night before just a thin grey scar on the carpet of forest. Adam and Felix took an extended rest in an eyrie, deep in conversation, it amazed me at how they could "talk about nothing" endlessly amusing themselves. Never an angry word or argument just wry observations about something they'd seen or heard or some other topic that amused them. I would often drift ahead or behind them on our treks - leaving them together, happy for them to be enjoying themselves and thankful for my own personal solitude. That's of course when you're not greeting passing trekkers with the obligatory "HOLYA!" or "BUENOS!"...
After clearing the mountain-side heath we turned inwards for more cool verdant forest walking (track had levelled now) before we emerged onto a high alluvial plateau, with marshes and still ponds, and a curtain of other-worldly jagged granite as backdrop.
Making camp had evolved with a certain rhythm now - with Adam dropping his backpack to the ground declaring "well, that was a good hike, I'm ready for dinner now" as Felix and I diligently located and cleared a suitable camp site and erected our tent. Although to be fair, Adam did pick out a few twigs and was always offering helpful suggestions from the sidelines.
We were famished and after a long trek under cooked pasta and tomato paste never tasted so good, all washed down with a large pot of tea we all drank from (Felix was chief tea maker too...)
In the long twilight couples and families picnicked along the nearby stream, soaking up the last rays of the sun and taking in the magnificent vista. I also found an errant group smoking a joint and wondered for what effect.
In the morning we did it all in reverse, finding it hard to resist the tug of the mountain on your attention, craning our necks backwards as we descended.
A group of Czech trekkers stopped us as we passed saying "Hey, aren't you those crazy guys we saw just near Cajon del Azul ?? You were about to take the trek UP (emphasised) the side of the canyon."
"Yes, that's us."
"You know, NO ONE ever does that trek in THAT direction?? It's 8kms of some of the hardest and most challenging climbing you'll ever do. You climb vertically almost one thousand metres, it exhausting".
"Yes, we know"...Of course I had hopelessly mis-read the map, realising my mistake only after we had "summited" the beast, but too proud to confess my sins at the time (and partly because literally we were not "out of the woods yet") - and it would have been demoralising anyway - I had let it slide.
Back in town the boys each devoured an Argentine prime cut with a giant serve of French fries and soft drinks and I returned to he humdrum of arranging bus tickets and accommodation.
Onwards to El Calafate!