Sunday, April 1, 2012

Torres de Paine

The Plan

The plan is to fly from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas and then take a bus the three hours to Puerto Natales, the town that is the “gateway” to Torres del Paine national park.  The plan is to stay in the Erratic Rock Hostel in Puerto Natales, which is known for bringing hikers together at its daily talk about the park.  The plan is to meet other travelers at this talk, travelers who want to trek the complete seven-day circuit and who don’t already have a group to hike with.

On the bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, the plan starts to feel unrealistic.  The plane and the bus and the hostel part are easy, but how am I supposed to find people to hike with, people who want to do the same trek and in the same time frame?  And if I do find such a group, are they going to be people that I want to spend seven days with? 

The man in the seat next to me is asleep, the couple sitting behind is talking quietly in Danish, and the two men in the seats in front of me are conversing energetically in Hebrew with their friends across the aisle.  Out the window, there is an expanse of emptiness: flat land that stretches on and on and on, until finally the golden grasses collide with the horizon.  There, I imagine, is the end of the world.  I feel very, very alone.

Puerto Natales

The next morning I wake up to Bill, the owner of the Erratic Rock Hostel*, bellowing “Last call for breakfast!”  I tumble out of the top bunk and stumble downstairs to the kitchen, where Bill makes me an omelet and I drink real (non-Nescafe) coffee.  Sitting across the table from me is Jannis, a German who has been traveling South America for the last three months, and he tells me about his adventures trekking in Argentina while we drink cup after cup of coffee.  He is also, it turns out, traveling alone, also planning on hiking the circuit in Torres del Paine, and also hoping to start the trek within the next few days.  He met two other travelers in Argentina, he tells me, two Britts also planning to trek in the Park, and they’re all meeting up at the three o’clock talk the hostel talk.  Why don’t I meet them there? 

Everything, I realize a few hours later while I wander around Puerto Natales looking for a fleece and a camping knife and other necessities, is pretty much going according to plan. 

At the three o’clock “Talk at the Rock” Jannis introduces me to Ben and Kate, and after hearing about the different options we decide that we want to do the complete circuit in seven days (although Kate will have to leave on the third day to catch a flight to Buenos Aires) following a counter-clockwise route.  We spend the next day, Sunday, buying supplies and food, packing and re-packing our bags, and enjoying our last real meal—Patagonian lamb—before a week of hiking food (oatmeal, crackers, instant soup and polenta… can you say delicious?).  Early Monday morning, we leave for the park.

At the Parilla Don Jorge in Puerto Natales

Day One: Puerto Natales – Guardería Pudeto – Lago Pehoé – Los Cuernos (24.1 km)

A bus takes us from Puerto Natales to the park, where we pay the entrance fee and then wait for another bus, which takes us to Lake Pehoé where we board a ferry that takes us to the trailhead.  It is 1pm by the time we finally start the trek.

For the first hour of the trek we can see the effects of the massive fire that swept through the park in December, burning over 70,000 hectars and turning swaths of what had been trees and brush into charred skeletons, strokes of black against the landscape.  The wind is strong, and I am unsteady on my feet as I try to get used to the weight of my backpack.

After two hours we reach the French Valley, where we drop our packs at the ranger’s house and hike the two hours up to the end of the valley.  It’s hard to decide where to look—a snow-covered mountain rises at the end of the valley, it’s peak obscured by the clouds, and every so often a cracking sound tumbles down the valley as chucks of ice fall from the side of the mountain, sending small avalanches sliding down the face.  Looking down the valley in the other direction, we see a wide, turquoise lake, and even from so high above it we can see the wind whipping the water up into small cyclones that spin across the surface of the lake. 

By the time we reach the end of the valley, two hours later, the wind has grown stronger and the clouds thicker, and I am freezing despite the fact that I am wearing a long-sleeved underarmor t-shirt, a fleece, and my rain jacket.  Kate is wearing only a t-shirt and seems to be quite warm. 

I’m tired by the time we get back to the ranger’s house, but we have another two hours of trekking before we reach Los Cuernos, where we will be camping for the night.  We pick up our packs and trudge onwards.

These are by far the longest two hours of the day: it’s getting late and the wind is strong, so strong I almost fall over a few times as it grabs at my pack and I struggle to find my footing.  It isn’t raining at first, but when the trail curves down by the edge of the lake the wind is so fierce that it picks the water up off the lake and tosses it onto us.  I start to think that maybe I won’t survive these seven days in Torres del Paine, that if the wind doesn’t knock me over or the lake swallow me whole, the cold very well might kill me.  It’s here, when buckets of freezing water from the lake are being thrown into my face, that I start to wonder if Laura is right, if I need to reconsider my idea of “fun.”

By the time we arrive at the campsite it’s raining—standard, miserable, vertical rain—and the campsite is packed and muddy.  It’s high season for tourists in Torres del Paine, and this is one of the easiest campsites to get to, meaning that there are tents pitched every few feet and you have to step nimbly around guy lines while at the same time avoiding patches of mud.

We have two tents for the four of us, but we huddle in one to create more heat, cooking dinner—polenta and instant soup—by lighting the stoves just outside the door of the tent, leaning out the door to stir so that we don’t have to sit in the rain.  We are all slightly miserable and delirious, and we can’t stop laughing. 

Fire damage along Lake Pehoé

Looking down the French Valley

View up the French Valley

Day Two: Los Cuernos – Campamento Torres (14.9 km)

The campsite seems to be caught under a constant drizzle, so we leave as quickly as we can in the morning, rolling up wet tents and trying to keep our packs as dry as possible.  As we set off on the trail Kate and Jannis race ahead, hiking at a speed that I would have before thought impossible. 

Ben and I stick to a reasonable pace, marveling at the way the landscape and the weather changes over the course of the day: we see snow covered mountains, wide smooth lakes, rivers that curve through valleys.  It rains for a while, the sun shines for a glorious half hour, it rains again and then the rain turns to sleet, the wind comes and goes, there is sun for another few moments and then, as we climb closer to Campamento Torres it begins to snow. 

When Ben and I make it to the campsite Jannis and Kate are huddled in the cooking shelter, a three-walled wooden structure that is no warmer than being outside but a huge improvement over trying to cook from inside a tent.  They have just gotten the water to a boil, and we make hot chocolates spiked with whiskey and warm our hands over the tiny cooking stove fire. 

About an hour later, we are still in the shelter when the sky clears, letting sunlight filter through the trees into the campsite.  After a quick discussion, we decide we have to hike up to the Torres, the most famous part of the park, while the sky is clear.  The weather is always unpredictable in Torres del Paine, and if we wait until the next day to hike to the Towers we might not be able to see them.

Despite the fact that we have already hiked for eight hours that day, I am surprised to find that I’m excited to get going again, looking forward to moving and warming my body and feeling the ground beneath my feet.  Halfway up the trail, the clouds roll in again, and we almost turn back.  We decide to go all the way up anyway, just in case, and just as we reach the end of the trail the clouds begin to clear, revealing the Towers of Paine, three huge columns of granite that push up into the sky.  The towers are solid, heavy granite, but they are constantly changing: as the clouds drift overhead the sunlight skimming the stone dims and then grows bright again, shadows grow and shift and the rock seems almost alive.  We stay at the rocks at the base of the towers, watching, until it becomes too cold.

The group!

Los Torres

Day Three: Campamento Torres – Hosteria Las Torres – Campamento Serón (13.9 km)

We hike down from Campamento Torres to Hotel Las Torres a huge, beautiful old hotel that sits on the open plains below the mountains.  Here we have a picnic in the sun while we wait for the bus that will take Kate away, taking off our hiking boots and laying in the grass in front of the hotel.

Later, as we leave the hotel and start off towards the Campamento Serón, a pack of horses run across the field in front of us, unbridled and free, tossing their heads and letting the sun shimmer over their manes.  We stand and watch, too stunned to even pull out our cameras.

As we leave sight of the hotel, the trail widens and takes us uphill gently, and we walk at a good pace for a few hours, debating political theories and the benefits of the word cookie verses biscuit, pants verses trousers. 

We take a snack break before we begin the descent into a wide, flat valley where a river meanders from one side to the other and the wind is warm.  As we start up again, Jannis’ leg seizes up and all of a sudden, despite the fact that he had been perfectly fine only moments before, he can hardly walk.  He tries stretching his leg, and resting it, but nothing seems to make a difference and it is getting late.  Finally, we decide that Ben and I will take Jannis’ pack and walk ahead of him, so that we can get to the campsite and set up the tents before it gets dark.  Without his pack, Jannis can at least walk slowly, and the campsite, we figure, can’t be very far away.

The valley is beautiful.  The grasses on either side of the trail are tall and slender, and they wave and bend in the wind.  Scattered throughout are bright yellow flowers, shining like wishes.

The valley is also impossibly long.  Ben and I expect to see the campsite behind every cluster of trees, but instead all we see is another expanse of open grasses, another bend in the river to pick our way over, another patch of trees that this time must be right in front of the campsite.  We go slowly, trading Jannis’ pack (although Ben carries it much longer than I do), resting frequently.  Finally, just when we are at the point of despair, we reach the campsite. 

Jannis, it turns out, was not very far behind us, and he arrives just after we have set up the tents.  Soon after, the sun begins to set, and we watch it slide while we make dinner.  The clouds in the valley are incredible, shapes that have been stretched out long and then folded over each other, layered in yellow and peach.  That night, for the first time, I am warm.

View along the trail

View from the Hosteria Las Torres

Jannis and Ben asleep while we wait for our absurdly expensive coffees

Incredible clouds above Campamento Serón

Day Four: Campamento Serón – Refugio Dixon (19 km)

We have a slow, lazy morning, knowing that the hike that day will be mostly flat and easier than what we’ve experienced before. 

Easy, of course, has a different meaning in Patagonia than in most of the world, and midway through the day the trail turns, bringing us into a new valley, and we are suddenly hit by the most ferocious winds I have ever experienced.  The trail is high in the valley, a narrow stretch of flat ground between the hill that climbs sharply to our left and the land that slopes quickly to our right, land covered by a scattering of bushes that tumble down towards the lake at the valley bottom.  Jannis is only a few feet in front of me, yelling into the wind, loving its force, but I don’t know what he’s saying, I don’t even know if he’s yelling in English or in German because I can’t hear him, can’t hear a single thing over the sound of the wind screaming past my ears.

It’s exhilarating, the wind, the way it pounds against my skin, beating it back to life, but it’s also terrifying.  With every step, every time I lift one foot of the ground, I fear that it’s going to take hold of me and throw me into the blue water at the bottom of the valley.  It does push me around, enough so that for a good few minutes I’m not even walking on the trail at all, but am planting my feet, one after the other, on the slanted rock face to my left, somehow held up by my hiking poles and the wind.  I almost laugh at the absurdity of it until a sudden, stronger gust flings itself up the trail, catching me and tearing my feet from the ground, sending me spinning into back into Ben and knocking us both into the rock face on the side of the trail.  We sit for a minute, a little shocked, tallying ripped shirts and skin.  For a few moments I think that I won’t be able to stand up, that the wind will keep me pinned against the rock forever, but in a moment of almost-calm I pull myself and my pack up off the ground and we continue, step by step towards the campsite at Refugio Dixon.

Just before we turned into the windy valley


The best view in the world--the campsite! (Dixon)

Day 5: Refugio Dixon – Campamento Los Perros (9 km)

Today is the day we have been looking forward to, the short day, and we wake up late to sun in the campsite, a view of mountains sparkling with snow, a glimpse of a glacier.  When we start hiking we get, as promised, a pleasant, easy hike that begins with a hot sun-drenched ascent but then leads us down a flat, shady trail through the last of the ancient forests in the park.  The trees are tall but slender, covered in green mosses, and through their branches we catch glimpses of the mountains, of waterfalls cascading from unbelievable heights. 

When the trail breaks out of the forest we climb to the viewpoint that looks out over the hanging glacier.  There, leaning casually against a rock, our Israeli friend Asaf has set up his stove and is making coffee.  He offers us a cup and we accept, it’s deep smell too good to resist (they would never, he tells me, drink Nescafe in Israel.  It sounds like a wonderful country).  

When the coffee cup has been finished and we have grown tired of watching the glacier melt, ancient drop by ancient drop, we walk the last half a kilometer to the campsite.  It is still sunny and there are hours left in the day; we celebrate with cold beers bought from the campsite kiosk, Cerveza Austral that we enjoy in the sun.  I rinse my clothes in the pristine water and hang them from the trees to dry, take a nap in the warm rocks that have been baking all day in the sun, and I am completely, blissfully, happy.

Refugio Dixon in the morning

View from the trail

The hanging glacier near Los Perros

Only half a kilometer until the campsite!

Day 6: Campamento Los Perros – Refugio Grey (22 km)

This is the day I have been dreading, the day that we have been warned will be very, very difficult, the day that we have to hike up over the John Garner pass (which can’t be done if it’s snowing or raining too hard) and then descend two thousand meters. 

We start early, knowing we have a long day ahead of us, and although the trail shows the effects of recent rain (huge puddles of mud that have to be avoided by stepping from tree root to tree root, one of which I slip into and find not just my boot, but my entire calf submerged in mud) and the sky threatens a downpour, the air is mostly dry as we start our way up the pass.

The trail—at time distinguished only by rocks splattered with orange paint—is hard, but not impossible as we climb higher and higher, watching as the valley below us shrinks.  The map tells us the ascent will take four hours, but two hours after we left camp we are pulling up over the top of the pass, the huge glacier below us breaking into view, and we run and yell and throw our hiking poles into the air.  I can hardly believe that we have already made it, that we have conquered the pass, that we are standing at the highest point in the park and I don’t feel exhausted, I don’t feel okay, I feel amazing

The descent is tough, steep, and long—at times I feel like I’m jumping from tree to tree, grabbing hold of skinny trunks, rather than walking downhill.  We have to keep stopping, time and time again, to take photos of Glacier Grey.

I have seen many glaciers at this point, glaciers hanging and melting and growing, speckled by sun and shrouded by clouds, but I have never seen anything like this glacier.  It is huge, filling the entire valley and pushing it’s way out towards the mountains as far as I can see.  It is blue and white and gray all at once, changing where it catches the light, holding the sun somewhere deep below it’s surface.  We hike and we hike and we hike, the kilometers falling beneath our feet, and somehow we are still alongside the glacier. 

We camp that night at Refugio Grey and here once again the campsite is packed.  We are back to the crowded side of the park, the part that can be easily reached by a day hike from the ferry, and it is strange to be around so many people again.  I feel accomplished, too, as we talk to hikers who are just starting or who are turning back after only a day or two—it’s our sixth day hiking, yeah, we just came over the pass—what do you mean you don’t have time?  You have to make time for the circuit!  We try to convince everyone that the circuit is the way to go, that the shorter “W” trail isn’t worth it, but of course everyone smiles and no one changes their plans.  We drink whiskey and hot chocolate in the Refugio with our Israeli friends, and then, for the last time, fall into an exhausted sleep in our tents.

At the top of the pass!

View of Glacier Grey from the top of the pass

It just keeps going

I have a thousand pictures of this glacier

Ben and Asaf

I love you, hiking poles!

Day Seven: Refugio Grey – Lago Pehoé (11 km)

Our last day brings a short, fairly easy hike, but there’s a pressure we haven’t experienced before, a deadline.  We have to get to the end of the trail before 2:00 in order to catch the ferry that takes us to the bus to Puerto Natales. 

There is not much to say about this hike.  It was beautiful, of course, but the day was gray, the clouds still heavy with rain from the night before, and we put our heads down and hike and hike, merely wanting to get there.  The last two hours we hike through fire damage again, glad that the rain has left the ashes moist and that the wind isn’t strong enough to pull them from the ground. 

And then, we are at the end of the trail, at the ferry port, and we eat our last trail lunch in view of the turquoise water and the Horns of Paine, and then the ferry comes.  I am giddy on the ride back across the lake, loving the cold wind, the smell of the water, the not-quite realization that we did it, we completed the circuit, I am still alive—more alive then I’ve ever been, in fact, aware of the life in every inch of my skin and every breath of air that moves through my lungs. 

I watch behind the ferry as the end of the trail falls out of sight and I am exhilarated, amazed that we finished, craving a real meal, and terribly, terribly sad that it’s over.  You just have to let it go, Jannis will tell me later when I ask him how he does it, how he travels and meets so many people and sees so many places and then leaves them all, each and every one, no matter how incredible.  You have to learn how to let go, he says, but I don’t know how.

The ferry

We made it!

Los Cuernos de Paine - Cerveza Austral, anyone?

* To anyone who is traveling to Puerto Natales, I strongly and wholeheartedly recommend the Erratic Rock Hostel.  It is exactly the kind of place you want to stay in before and after a visit to the park; it’s cozy—warm and busy and full of movies and blankets and books—the breakfast is delicious, the coffee is real, and the staff will tell you everything you need to know about trekking in the park.  Bill, the owner, is an Oregonian who is loud and friendly and will remind you of all the things you love about America.  

1 comment:

  1. It is exhilarating just to read it and must've been 100 times that in accomplishing what you did Megs. Incredible adventure, incredible girl.