Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Glaciers, Mountains, Waterfalls and Whales - Part 2 of 4: Mountains

Sorry this post might be a bit messy - it's late though and I need to get a bit of sleep before my flight!

Beautiful vistas everywhere you look (weather permitting...)

Once again - links to pics with descriptions of any new additions: (8 new pictures at the end of Colonia) (no new since last post, tons of other great pictures relating to this post though)

So, on to part 2 - a description of the 4 night/5 day trek Ian and I took in Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile.

Last I left off I had taken the bus across the border and into Puerto Natales, Chile. The bus ride itself was fine - comfy seats, bathroom, ipod, etc. The scenery wasn't much to look at...just empty fields, but as we got closer we could tell mountains in the distance were approaching.

The border was a little annoying, we had bought some fruit to bring on the trek but it wasn't allowed into Chile, so Ian and I devoured some bananas and threw away the rest. As has been a theme in Argentina, everything is made too complicated and burdensome. Instead of having one place to deal with immigration, there were two separate buildings, way too many lines, and way too few staff. Anyways, it wasn't a big deal and an hour later we were in Puerto Natales.

I had no idea what to expect or how to get around - all we had was a card for the hostel that was recommended to us by our hostel in Calafate - so we proceeded to get ripped off by a taxi, but made it to the hostel without much trouble. The town itself was not very impressive, mostly run-down touristy shops, a couple supermarkets and restaurants, and a big statue of a giant sloth that lived there some thousands of years ago that they're very proud of.
Gotta love the hostel sense of humor

The hostel (Erratic Rock - the name for a rock picked up by a glacier and deposited far away in a foreign area), while not particularly impressive in furnishings, had an awesome vibe and was filled with friendly people. The owner, Bill from Oregon, was a late 30's early 40's guy who had been living in the hostel for the last TEN YEARS! The thought of that makes me cringe, but he seemed to be fine with it and is one of the most outgoing friendly and helpful guys I've met in a long time. He gave a short briefing (which he has done almost every day for the last ten years) at 3 PM about what to bring and how to go about doing various treks through the park which was critical. After stocking up on food, talking with some of the other trekkers, and getting some sleep, we hopped on the bus to Torres Del Paine and began our journey around noon on Monday.
Our route, the "W" starts at Refugio Pehoe, goes up to Glacier Grey, back down and over and up to Valle Frances, back down and over and up to Base Torres, then down to Hosteria Las Torres.

Day One
This sums up a fair amount of how the trek went

The group of other trekkers also beginning their hike maybe amounted to a dozen people. The high season doesn't really start until December, so we were glad to have more of the trail to ourselves. After a short catamaran ride through a huge glacial lake (which was actually really choppy thanks to strong winds - waves in a glacier lake were not something I was expecting), we got to our launching point at refugio Pehoe. Unfortunately, I realized I had forgotten my hat at the hostel, so I went inside to see if I could buy a hat off anyone. I found some employees eating lunch and asked them in broken spanish if any of them had a hat I could buy. It took a minute, but one sent a friend to go fetch one. My bargaining skills are clearly flawless, because when he asked me how much I wanted to pay for it, he accepted my first offer without hesitation (for C$14,000, about US$20 - I definitely overpaid for what I realized later was probably a hat from the lost&found). Donning my new hat, we started hiking up the western-most valley up to Glacier Grey, where we would spend night one.

We were greeted with brutally strong ice-cold winds that came from over the glacier, freezing rain, and hail. While this sounds pretty awful, because we were finally out in the park and starting our trek, we viewed it as part of the fun (our outlook would soon change). About five hours later we reached Refugio Grey, which had a paid camping site right next to it. We had heard the best place to camp was up past the refugio though, in a spot overlooking the glacier, so we decided to push on a bit, despite our soaked gear and sinking spirits. Well, all we eventually ran into was an enormous waterfall and a disassembled bridge needed to cross it, so we turned back around and sucked it up and set up camp next to the refugio. It turned out not to be such a bad thing to be near the refugio though, because we desperately needed to go warm up for a bit and maybe try to dry some equipment out.

Ian and I had been getting grumpy due to the weather and our ice-cold fingers (our gloves SUCKED) so we hadn't been in the most talkative mood. When we sat down in front of the wood-stove Ian broke the silence, asking me if my socks were dry. I responded simply 'nope', and after a few seconds passed, we were both hysterically laughing for a few minutes. No reason in particular, I guess you had to be there, but I think we both realized that this kind of pain and discomfort was one of the reasons why we came in the first place, and even though it sucked, we might as well laugh about it and press on. As we were getting ready to go back outside to run to our tent, a guy we had been sharing our crackers and dulce de leche with looked at me, looked outside, looked at me again, and just burst into laughter. I smiled and laughed with him a bit, as it was pretty ridiculous that we were being so stubborn as to insist on camping through the crap weather when we could shell out the US$30 for a bed in the refugio. Our pride won though, and we made it through the night in cold, wet sleeping bags. If it had been maybe 15% colder, I probably would have thrown in the towel rather than risk hypothermia, but I could tell we'd be ok - just uncomfortable (very uncomfortable) - so we decided to tough it out.Pasta with a can of tuna did wonders for our spirits

Day Two

Waking up in freezing weather in a wet sleeping bag is probably one of the worst feelings ever. You know that you are cold and miserable right then, but if you get out of your sleeping bag to pack up your camp, it's going to mean 15-20 minutes of even colder conditions. Well, around 8 AM we finally went for it and packed up as quickly as possible. Thankfully we had the drill down from setting up and taking down camp before at the hostel to practice, so we were efficient about it, and back on the trail not long after.
So happy to have made it through the night - morning by the glacial river

Nicer weather on the way back down the valley, glacier grey in the background

We backtracked and made our way east to Campamento Italiano, in the middle valley of the W. The weather was great and we warmed up very quickly once we started moving, so our spirits and bodies were rejuvinated. After we set up camp we got really cold again, so we boiled some water and made some cocoa which we shared with a German guy we met who was trekking on his own, Max. He reciprocated by giving us some dried fruit which was a nice treat, and after chatting with him for a bit we quickly fell asleep by 9PM, just as it was starting to get dark. As we were falling asleep we heard a really loud rumble - it sounded like fierce thunder, but it lasted for 10, 20, 30 seconds. We eventually realized it was an avalanche, and I must admit for a brief moment I thought "oh shit, what if it's a huge friggin avalanche and it comes and buries us right here in 5 seconds", but thinking about where we were located (nowhere even near a slope or snow), my worries dissapeared. The avalanches continued, and I soon learned to enjoy the sound of them as they put me to sleep.

Our camp at Italiano - note the hanging sleeping bags, trying to get them dry

At some point Ian or I crushed my sunglasses which I had foolishly left outside on the ground, which was a bummer. I blame Ian.

Day ThreeDay-hiking up and back to the lookout point in Valle Frances

Panorama from near the top of Valle Frances

Day three definitely had the best weather and views of the whole trip. We left our camp up and took our day packs up to the lookout point of the valley we had began to enter the day before, Valle Frances. At one point hiking up, I saw the towers (torres del paine) off to the east (they separated the valley we were in at the time from the next valley we were headed to), and it was a great sight. I made sure to get some pictures of them then, because we knew the weather might change and we could be unable to see them from the other side. Four hours and dozens of pictures later, we were back at the campsite dissasembling, preparing to head east about half-way to the next and last valley.

Ian on the right - on the way up Valle Frances

On the way out of Valle Frances

There's always time for a quick boulder break

On the way there we came upon a really beautiful beach by the big glacial lake and we decided to take a break there. It was there our friend Felicia (from the hostel) crossed paths with us (she was going the opposite direction, east to west) and let us knew Obama had won! Ian and I celebrated briefly by throwing a couple stones in the lake in his honor (don't really know why). After hanging out there for upwards of two hours we continued on to our 3rd campsite "Camping Los Cuernos". It was here I set the alarm on my clock for 2AM so I could try to spend a bit of time stargazing, but when I awoke it was freezing cold, and a quick look out the zipper of the tent showed completely overcast skies. I grumbled something tiredly to myself, half annoyed because I couldn't see any stars, and half because it was bad news for the weather the following day.

Ian and I taking a break by the glacial beach

Day Four
At last! Our last campsite is in the background under the tree cover

We were up early and hiking by 9AM, and sure enough the weather only held out until late morning, when some light rain started. Even though we knew the rain might dissapear quickly, we had to take a break to put on our rain gear, because our stuff would otherwise get wet. We made it up into the last valley, and after a delicious ramen lunch we pushed on to our last campsite, "Campamento Torres". The weather had improved, and after we set up camp we pushed on the extra hour to make it to the final lookout "Base Torres". It was a tough climb over steep rocks, and by the point we could see the top, a few snowflakes started to fall. I shouted back an overly dramatic "NOOOOOOOOO" back to Ian, and sure enough, by the time we got to the top the entire area was grey and the snow was pouring down.

The view was still actually really nice, but the torres were completely shrouded in snow and clouds. I wasn't really bummed, it was a great feeling just making it up there, and I also knew that maybe the next morning would be better (we had been suggested to get up before dawn and hike up again to catch the sunrise in front of the Torres). So, we made the slippery descent back to camp and cooked up some dinner in a little shelter.
Do you see the 3 big beautiful majestic Torres in the background? Neither did we. Oh well.

It was during dinner we met two interesting duo's. One was a American guy and a French guy, both early twenties, who were in light jogging sneakers. When I first saw them I could barely hold back from laughing, because we had been through such awful cold that the thought of trekking through mud slush and snow in those shoes was incomprehensible. Sure enough, they had just started their trek with massive packs full of food, but no rain gear, and no boots. They were really nice guys and fun to talk with, but there is no way they lasted more than a day or two before giving up. His plan, he said, was to sleep in dry socks and hike in wet ones, which is a great equation for destroying and mangling one's feet beyond recognition. They openly admitted that they had dont no prep for the trek and were just trying to 'wing it'. I wished them the best of luck.

The other couple was an Israeli guy and girl, also low 20's, that were better prepared, but seemed miserable. They had just started the W, going east to west. They were very nice and fun to talk with, and I felt bad for them when I saw them back at the lodge the next day on the bus back to Puerto Natales.

That night Ian, the sneaky bastard, talked up my sleeping bag a lot and convinced me to lend him my sleeping pad for the night, because he hadn't got one because he didn't think he'd need it. As soon as he had it, I realized my mistake - the sleeping bag did nothing to prevent the ice-cold ground from sucking the warmth out of you at all points of contact. I was surprised he hadn't said something earlier in the trek, because damn, that night sucked. I considered trying to steal it back from him during the night, but decided a)I guess it was fair that I had a turn without the sleeping pad and b)things would have gotten ugly, so I tried to tough it out. I had the alarm set for 4:30 so if the weather was better I could catch the sunrise over the Torres, but it felt like an absolute eternity before that alarm finally went off. I'm not sure if I slept more than a half hour due to constant shifting and attempts to warm myself up.

Day Five

To drop my morale even more, the weather was even worse at 4:30, so I tried to go back to sleep and eventually we got up around 6, both of us freezing our asses off. I guess his sleeping bag was indeed worse than mine, because in the morning we were both writhing around in our sleeping bags trying to warm up. I eventually said "fuck it lets do this" and we both got up as fast as possible and took down the tent. The snow in the campsite wasn't too deep because we had a thick tree canopy sheltering us, but by the time we got outside of it we saw just how much had come down. Despite being cold and sleepless, it was nice being out in the silent snow-covered mountains before anyone else had woken up, making fresh tracks for our return to the lodge.
Lots of snow (compare with the picture taken from the same location the day before, posted above)

On our way out, we made our way through many wooded portions where as the sun melted the snow on the canopy, it would give way and snow would come crashing down onto us. I chuckled to myself thinking that this was the mountain's attempt to keep us from leaving. When we exited the wooded area, the weather drastically improved, again almost as if the mountain was trying to sucker us back into turning around for one more attempt at seeing the Torres. We continued on through the awful steep muddy trails that were impossible not to slip on. At one point I heard Ian behind me let out a curse and I asked him if he was alright. He responded "Yeah, I'm just so fucking pissed". I looked away quickly before bursting into laughter. Again, I guess you had to be there... Soon after though I lost my balance and fell backwards into a massive mud pile - karma I guess.

After four or five hours we got to Hosteria Las Torres. After a MUCH needed hot shower and change of clothes (gross and hilarious factoid - during the whole five days, my long underwear top+bottom, long sleeve shirt, and fleece, had NEVER come off my body), we celebrated with a beef sandwich and hot cocoa with Bailey's.
So. Delicious.

We caught the bus back to Puerto Natales, stuffed ourselves at our favorite restaurant "Afrigonia" (worst stomach ache EVER afterwards), watched Cliffhanger in the hostel with some buddies, and treasured our sleep in our bunks which felt like heavenly clouds. We caught an early bus back to Calafate, and a flight later on the same day to Buenos Aires.

Since then we have been taking it easy mostly - Ian and I took a short trip to Colonia, Uruguay today which was pleasant, and in...5 hours we are leaving for the airport to head to Iguazu Falls where part 3 will take place - so I should get some sleep.

Hope you enjoyed, comments encouraged, see you guys later!



Adrian said...


Becca said...

Those are some sick photos. I had been wondering what the deal was with the rasta hat, and it makes much more sense now. I'm glad you didn't get hypothermia or crushed by an avalanche! : )

rick said...

well, that was epic!
a new standard by which to judge everything else
agree with becca, the hat has all kinds of character, hope you either give it to someone worthy, or bring it back
guess you and ian will be arguing til you're 80 about who busted the sunglasses ...

aunt nan said...

noey- i've been emailing your blog entries to my friends and some of your cousins. my friends are WOWed! i'm relieved that i'm not with you. and yes, i'm wowed as well. stay dry! keep writing.xo

kenny said...


Great stuff! Keep at it. See the world for all of us. And, Happy Birthday! Another year passes by. Hope you're having a good one. Keep breathing air. Hope to see you some day again. Take care. Check out my new live music if you feel like it. The Knuckles

Take care. Kenny (Kunzul to you)