Thursday, March 6, 2008

The First Third: Torres del Paine

Well here we are at the bottom of the world in Chile's most famous national park Torres del Paine. After a long flight to Punta Arenas and bus to Puerto Natales we were ready to begin final preparations for the circuit . We did some last minute gear and food shopping, and had a fish dinner at a nice restaurant.

Into the park the next day on the 8am bus arriving at Laguna Azul at 10. We received the Chilean discount because of our new national I.D. cards. (foreigners pay $40, Chileans - $10). Expensive entrance fee and expensive park in general actually. Anyways, we were on the trail by 11am.
We would hike the circuit taking us 8 nights 9 days, and here on Day 1 we felt fresh, strong and ready for anything!

Our first goal was campamento Seron. The trail took us along the eastern edges of the park through a tall grass plain(forest was burnt down by a careless camper a few years back). It was a nice hike along Rio Paine at points, with nice side views of the Towers. It was a 5 hour first day and gave us an idea what our routine would be hike...hike and hike, and rest and hike. Upon arrival at Seron we set up camp and cooked some food and talked with some other trekkers who we would be seeing everyday if they kept up the pace. There were some kinks in our packing that were worked out that night. We had a lot of weight especially with the food so we drank the (small) box of wine that first night.
Day 2 took us up a pass and around the bend to a long hike along Lago Paine. The early up and over was a challenge and once around the bend we really felt the power of the Patagonian winds. Until this point we had been sheltered by the mountain we hiked alongside, but now we were exposed and it was really something else. It's one thing doing a leaning walk into the wind but doing this while hiking a narrow trail that drops off to your right is delicate. We were glad to have new pieces of kit - our telescoping hiking poles that helped balance our pack weights and these crazy patagonian gusts. We expected this day to be grueling because of the 19km to the next camp and with this wind it made for an even longer day. After the pass we went down through forest, into grass plain, around through marsh, soddy, swamp, and then up up and down down down into campamento Dickson on Lago Dickson fed by glacier Dickson. Spectacular views. It was an early second night!
Up early for hot tea and hot cereal. Day 3 took us up through a forested valley giving us great views back onto the lake and glacier. The forest was thick and made for a humid, but peaceful, hike. We crossed a nice river fed by a small waterfall, and then scrambled up some rocks for a great view of glacier Los Parros. It was then down into campamento Los Parros for food and rest. We meet our two friends Annina and Grant, the Swiss-Aussie duo, who we had travelled with on the plane into Punta Arenas and the bus up to Puerto Natales. We had different schedules into the park but they managed to catch up to us by putting in two hard days at unmarked campsites. We'd bump into these two at most camps hiking the circuit.
Day 4 promised to be a difficult one. Talking with a guide the previous night he'd described it as the most difficult of the circuit, and with bad weather even harder. We'd had great weather up till now, but this day called for overcast and showers. The trouble wasn't so much getting up the 800 meter pass as it was going down the otherside. So we hiked out of the forest in the morning, in the drizzling rain, and out onto the rocky traverse that brought us to the base of the pass. Up the pass in the rain wasn't really that difficult. It brought us face to face with the flanking mountains and mist. At the top we were greeted with a cold wind and spectacular view of the southern ice-field. Having never seen anything like this before it is hard to put into words. It was spectacular and awing and made you want to put on warmer clothes eat some food and think how great life can is and how inspiring nature is. We were only seeing the part called Glacier Grey and others that fed it, but this field covers 17,000 km2 and runs for 350 km! We took it in and and then moved on....the hard part of the day was still to come. The 800 meter switch back up was really nothing compared to 1500 meters down( and not too forgiving with hardly any switchbacks). It had stopped drizzling so instead of our descent being suicidal it was just dangerous, very angled descent that left no room for mistakes. I was amazed to see porters almost running down this trail with heavier loads than our own. One wrong step and an easy tumble could lead to a sprain or worse. It was a painfully slow descent, physically and mentally and without being too dramatic we made it to the camp in one piece.

Campamento Paso wasn't much of a place...not too level and lots of trees, we were still in the thick of woods and next to Glacier Gray, but we had a nice little spot by a stream and we were really happy to be down in one piece.
Day 5 was a long traverse alongside Glacier Grey slowly descending to its end at Lago Grey where the camp was located. We had lots of nice views of the glacier and crossed over many streams taking ladders down and out of gulches. While stopping for lunch at a point parallel with the end of the glacier where we sat eating our peanut butter sandwiches when we heard a great crack boom and look a big piece of ice has broken off! It was pretty awesome and we got a couple pictures of the ice chunks falling into the water. Down into Campamento Grey was gentle and we set up our tent on the sand next to the grey lake with bright blue icebergs floating in it. After having our usual camp stove dinner we joined Annina and Grant inside the reugio for pisco sours and austral beers and talk of the hike. It was a nice to put off getting in the tent once the sun set.
The morning of Day 6 got off to a slow start. Whether it was the pisco sours from the night before or the five days of camping/trekking before, but we didn't get out of camp until 11:30. So we slept in expecting todays hike down to lago Pehoe and up to Campamento Italiano to be not so difficult. The beginning of the day gave us a quick 'up' for great last views of Glacier grey and the Southern Ice-Field and then a gradual down to Lago Pehoe. It was sunny and we were sluggish and upon reaching Pehoe it was difficult to muster excitement about the amazing color of the lake. So we refueled and pushed on to campamento Italiano in Valle Frances. We had more luck with spotting things and on this part of the hike we were pointed out two Huemels. Huemels are small furry deer, they are Chile's National animal, and it is very rare to see them...especially in this region. We had almost come full circle completing the east, north, west, and now beginning to hike along the southern part of the park. Up to Italiano was quite windy, we have pictures of little water tornados on Lago Scottsberg. The last challenges of the day were getting over a wobbly suspension bridge and finding a decent spot to set up our tent. The night before it rained and the water washed right down the valley into the camping area. Many people abandoned packed up that night and all were wet in the morning so when we arrived at the camp there were litle flood ditches dug around tents and lots of gear hanging out to dry. With the help of our friend Grant we found a nice piece of property to set up on. Later that evening while doing dishes in Rio Frances Sean witnessed a little avalanche from Glacier Frances. The bark was louder than the bite. We woke up relieved to see that our water ditch was unnecessary and we packed up our gear to begin
Day 7. We got lost for the first time on the trail today winding through thorny brush and horse poop until the trail just ended confirming our suspicions we had taken a wrong turn. The rest of the day was an easy traverse past the Cuernos del Paine and along the beautiful Lago Nordenskjold. We had a second problem of the day crossing Valley Bader and its now raging 'stream'. The rain from 2 nights ago was making this a very dangerous cross. You needed to accept that you were getting wet. Well Sean didn't , he's like a mountain goat when it comes to rock hopping, but most people including Paula put on sandals and rolled up their pants for the crossing. We had to go about 20 meters down to find a good place to cross and after using all courage and will power we made it across. The rest of the day was peaceful. We traversed down to Lago Nordenskjold and the up and down into campamento Las Torres. We would camp here for two nights before leaving the park.

It was nice to wake up on Day 8 knowing that we didn't have to break camp and that are hike into Valle Ascencio was only with a light day pack. What a feeling! Today we would be hiking up for a look at he famous Torres del Paine(the towers). The trail took us up 700 meters to a bend that had powerful enough gusts coming around it that you would sit down in fear of being blown off the path and down the cliff face. This was very difficult to get around and almost made us turn back, but we pushed on and like the river crossing we survived....well Sean's sunglasses didn't make it. They were blown off his face when he turned to make sure Paula was still with him. So having rounded the top we hiked down into the valley where campamento chileno waited for weary travelers to rest and regroup for the rest of the climb to the towers. Paula had aggravated her knee a few days back and today it was bothering her so she sat out the 2 hour hike up to the towers. Sean armed himself with the camera and trail mix and tackled the last portion. It was a difficult ascent that seemed to keep going. It was gradual in some places but most were steep and the toughest was getting through the boulder field that led up to views of the towers. After a look and rest it was back to chileno where Paula was waiting. We had a drink in the Refugio and then climbed back out of the valley and hiked back down to our camp for our final night in the park.
The final day was here. We had conquered the circuit and the W and hopped on the bus back to Puerto Natales. We had a celebratory dinner that night with Annina and Grant with lots of food, wine, and beer. When your camping and cooking for yourself for 9 days having food prepared that isn't boiled in water is a real treat.
We decided to stay in Puerto Natales until our flight that Friday from Punta Arenas. It's a smaller town and we were quite comfortable not packing until we had to. So we explored the shore line and relaxed in our Hostel and then two nights later caught a bus to the airport for our flight to Balmaceda and the next part of our travels; the Carretera Austral.


pauline said...

wowsies you guys!! that's sounds like an awesome trip! where are the photos of the huemels?

(i would easily toss my sunglasses in the wind in exchange for a paula too..)


Dayle & Adrian Questionmark said...

Oh wow! I feel tired just reading about your trek. You guys sure are troopers. It looks amazing!! Good job you two! :)

(hope they weren't your Versace sunglasses, Sean!)