Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Torres del Paine circuit, Patagonia, Chile (9 days)

Let the hiking begin. While we had read about some hikes in Ushuaia, the robust winds which we awoke to on our first morning there helped us decide to save ourselves for better ones further on. In particular, for the Torres del Paine circuit, which is just north of the town of Puerto Natales. This is a 123km. hike which some very fit people do in 6 days. We took our time with lots of photo breaks and even the luxury of a rest day in the middle to hang out at a refugio for the day. Thus we did it in 9 days. Basically it is a hike which does a loop around a circle of large granite mountains. The harder days involve a hike over a mountain pass and two hikes up valleys which bring you right up close to the more impressive peaks.

Night before the hike, we had settled in at a Hospedaje (basically where someone treats their own home as a hostel) for a lenghthy packing session of sorting what we wanted to leave behind. Backpacking is really an art of creative organization so that you are not always searching for something (where on earth did I put...) and also of trying to minimize weight since you are of course carrying whatever you bring. Alison landed with carrying the powdered milk, peanut butter, cooking pot, extra fuel, camp suds, salami, bug spray... and me the wine, stove, knife, sunscreen, pasta, water filter (which we ended up not needing as you can drink directly from all the streams)... all very fair. We both had a bottle of Bailey´s, half the tent, soup, instant mashed potatoes, hot chocolate, cereal, nuts, dried fruit, minimal clothes, sleeping bag, thermarest. My luxury item was a big comfy fleece, Ali´s was a big towel and wool top.

Day 1- Arrive at park and leave a bag of everything that we don´t need for the first night at the park hotel for a small fee, to be collected the following morning. Hike up valley to camp at top of valley for the night. Meet great Canadian couple, Mary and Brian, who actually know someone we studied with, and play travel scrabble with them for the night at camp.

Day 2- Wake up at 5:45 to start hike at 6am with Mary and Brian for 1 hour in dark up to famous Torres peaks, in time for famous sunrise. Boil water at top for coffee to enjoy nature´s show. Sun shines red on granite faces, complete with rainbow. Spectacular. Hike back down, pack up tent, hike back down valley. On way down meet young Dan from Alberta who is headed off on the circuit also but in opposite direction. Pick up extra bag we had left at hotel, start circuit proper by hiking around a few mountains to camp Seron. Find a few tents on their own in one area, also a great big group of identical tents all pitched together. Clearly a tour of some sort. Find out Belgiums. Name them the Belgium Expedition Team (!), we see them again the next night. One perfect spot that looks sheltered is completely bare of tents. We look at one another and say, great, check it out, perfect... only to have park ranger come to collect money later and tell us this spot has more mosquitoes than the others (note to self- there is usually a reason when something looks too good to be true). As we have already found in past travels, we discover again in South America, it is usually a good thing to be travelling as two chicas. We get special treatment from the park ranger as he lets us cook our meal in his hut (others outside) and he gives us some bread. Drink wine, good pasta, learn some new spanish words.

Day 3- Hike to Camp Dickson. Hiking starts our flat in grassland. Then up over a low pass for a long view of valley. As we do many times on this hike, I cannot believe that we are about to hike as far as we are- the map shows the camp at the far end of this valley, as far as I can see- it seems to be an incredible distance. But as always, we actually do make it there by the end of the day. On the way there is some exposed and windy bits, some protected Lenga forest bits, a lunch stop at a stream where many mosquitoes live, and some brief rain. View of Camp Dickson is a welcome sight. It is down below us, on the edge of a lake, with a glacier at the end of the lake. Smoke is coming out of the chimney of the refugio. These refugios are great, similar to the hut system in New Zealand. Well, not that similar since on this trek they cost a small fortune to sleep in. Meet Murray from Australia who had his camera stolen by the Chilean border police (hard to believe) so he had bought a $2 notebook to try to learn to draw before he got on the hike. He had some kid-looking sketches in his book of the mountains, and was getting everyone he met to write in his book. Said he was so glad his camera got stolen because he would never had thought of learning to draw and wouldn´t have all the memories- cool! So we pitch our tent just in time for a heavy rainstorm. We duck inside the tent, unsure whether we are allowed to use the refugio to cook in. For 2 hours we read, until it is almost dark. The park ranger comes around to collect money. ´Dos mujeres?´ which means, two ladies? Si, yes. And he says in a voice that sounds concerned about us to come inside and use the refugio. Once in, the guys running it kept handing us the most amazing bread we have ever eaten, so fresh it is steaming hot, some with gooey cheese inside, others with rosemary. Drink mate sitting around the hot stove. Hmmm...

Day 4- Rest Day! We had already decided to have a rest day before we got to this camp, which was lucky since it turned out so good. No one stays 2 nights at a camp, almost unheard of (!) since everyone is just doing the circuit to get it done. There were 4 guys working there: a great older gaucho (cowboy) from Argentina; a punk cook all tatooed who talked a lot about food and played latino rap music in the hut while cooking, and we later found out owns a pitbull who fights (crazy) but wouldn´t let us watch in town since it is illegal (no kidding); the guy who ran the hut, who was in his early 30´s and very friendly (will you be my girlfriend- no); and a great younger guy from Argentina who is studying at Uni. and this is his summer job. He really tried to get the most out of his experience by getting the gaucho to teach him to ride the horses bareback and lasso. So this day was one of our favourites with them letting us have a hot shower in the hut (only cold ones for campers outside), inviting us to have lunch with them (oyster soup with potatoes and fresh yummy bread), and just watching them get on with their chores, play soccer, and work with the horses. We chatted with passing hikers including one American guy who will climb Everest in the summer, inspirational. At end of this day Canadian Dan walks into camp! He is a fast hiker. It was a great day.

Day 5- After our rest day and seeing so many hard-working hikers passing through the camp while we relaxed, I challenged Ali to a hard-core long day the following day. Most people do the challenging John Garner Pass in one 6-hour day, but we decided to tack on the 4-hour hike to the next camp onto it and do it all in one long day. One lady in the refugio said ´You know that´s a hard pass´, trying to sway us, but that only made us want to do it more. It was my favourite day. Started hiking at 9am and arrived at camp at 7pm. Morning quite uneventful but great weather. Afternoon a long approach to the pass. Hardest part a one-hour slog through knee-deep mud through Tolkein-like weather battered old Lenga trees. Muddy bit a mystery to me since it would so easily be solved with the park building a boardwalk. But since there is none, hikers wanting to keep their feet dry have cut the widest swath imaginable of new trails through this fragile landscape. Sad. Coming over the pass was the best moment of the hike. I hadn´t looked at any photos of the hike prior to doing it and didn´t have any idea what to expect. What we got on top was a view of a valley between huge mountains that was filled with a great big glacier, Glacier Grey, which started somewhere way off up in the distance and spilled out in front of us to a lake where it ended abruptly. Seriously amazing view. Hike down the other side incredibly steep with ropes and all. Just before camp we sat and stared out at the glacier for half an hour. It was sunny, warm and the sun was starting to set. In camp we met up again with Australian Murray, and also met two Israelis, Renana and Ido, who we are still in touch and travelling with. This evening was a bad one for Ali. Since this was just a small camp, there were only about 6 of us in it. In the evening we all got together in the ranger hut around the hot stove for camp chitchat. Ali did not see that hot water being heated directly from the stove was piddling out of the tap and she put her hand under it for a moment. Thus resulted a very bad burn, a good 2 inch by 1.5 inch skin-removed-instantly large burn (much larger than a quarter, and if it is larger than a quarter, you know you´re supposed to get a doctor to look at it). She´s fine, but got lots of quizzical looks with a large dressing on it every day thereafter.

Day 6- Hike to Camp Glaciar Grey. This turned out to be a nice easy hiking day with a stop at a ´mirador´, means view in spanish, to see the end of the glacier as it breaks away into the lake. Arriving at Camp Glaciar Grey refreshing as it was fairly early in the day and a beautiful spot. Camped on the beach of the lake and hung out with our little group formed by us, Australian Murray, the two Israelis, and an older woman from Switzerland. We would hang out the next two nights also. By now we are getting quite tired of packaged soup and mashed potatoes. We experiment by adding the mashed potatoes to the soup to thicken it up.

Day 7- Windy, windy, windy day! We hike around the end of the lake but fairly high up and for the first 2 hours the wind is wonderful. Sky clear, all the leaves shaking around, beautiful colours, whitecaps on the water. But then I am tired of the wind and later in the day, very tired of it. It makes it very hard to hike and even wearing sunglasses you get dust in your eyes. The straps on my backpack whip around and smack my face and neck often. Come down a valley and out onto the bluest lake that I´ve ever seen- Pehoe Lake. Lunch there quickly in the wind and onto the camp that is at the bottom of the second valley, the Valley of Frances. This camp is dark and super windy. The Lenga trees resemble bamboo with them all close together and with no branches or leaves until their tops. The wind smacks them around and they knock one another. Under this canopy is our camp for the night. We hear the trees and the wind all night.

Day 8- Hike up the spectacular Valley of Frances (more spectacular than Day 1 Torres) without packs for a day hike up to see the incredible granite faces that ring the top of the valley. Large river, high granite faces, glaciers, big rocks, lots of big raw nature up this valley, great. Hike back down and move camp to Los Cuernos, named for a mountain feature that looks like horns. Have a celebratory beer in the refugio as this is our last night. Israelis prepare list of food for their next hike, having paid attention to what ideas anyone else had for food on this hike. My own food comes back up during the night as I get sick due to unknown reason. Soup. No more soup for me for a LONG long time- I overdid it on this hike for sure.

Day 9- Am sick one. Pack up and hike out in rain, not feeling very victorious. We had planned to have hamburgers with eggs on them for our lunch when we reached the hotel and civilization, but I am hardly able to have some tea. Ali and I look like wounded soldiers as we finish, her with her hand and me with my sick. Bus back to town and straight to bed for this sick puppy. Feel great the next day. We did it!!!!


At 8:44 PM, Anonymous jASON said...

Hi Elaine- quit eating the hiking crap and start eating some FRIED MEAT!! Preferably stuffed between a homemade tortilla shell-- and follow it with a bag of Coke. How many bags of coke have you had down there? I used to have 8 bags of coke a day when I was travelling. And lots of FRIED MEAT!
Hasta luego, hermanita


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