Los Cuernos

First off, I just want to assure everyone that I am safe and sound. I am in Chile, but am currently about 2000 km south of the earthquake’s epicenter. Though I am moving north tonight on a 3-day ferry ride along the Pacific coast, I will still be staying about 500 km south of the epicenter for the next two weeks or so. I am scheduled to fly out of Santiago to the north of Chile on the 19th – not sure if those plans will be scuttled, but I am taking things day by day now and I will get up to Peru somehow, most likely through Argentina if Santiago Airport is not operational by that point.

I actually did not hear about the earthquake until about 24 hours after it happened as I have been hiking in Torres del Paine National Park for the last week. Although we heard often conflicting rumors about something having happened in Santiago from other travelers in the park, it wasn’t until I got back to Puerto Natales yesterday that I really was able to read and see the news and understand the devastation that occurred to the North. I can say, first hand, that the whole event has the nation in its grips. Walking around town last night, every single bar and restaurant was full and had the news on every TV ranging from CNN to local newscasts. Yesterday, for me, was certainly a day of conflicting emotions as I had the opportunity to watch Canada beat the US in the gold medal game at the hostel I’m staying at (which is by far the best hostel I’ve stayed at to date – Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales). On the one hand, I was thrilled, smiling and happy, yet it was difficult to stay that way when surrounded by news of the disaster. I know the hearts and prayers of everyone in Chile is reaching out to those affected right now.

As for my travels, Torres del Paine National Park was amazing. Considered by many to be the crown jewel of Patagonia, it for me quite possibly represents the greatest outdoor experience I’ve ever had. The hike I took is often called the W because of its characteristic shape, and it gives an excellent 5 day overview of the park. The wide range of landscapes we encountered over 5 days was amazing, from glaciers to mountains to prairies and valleys, it truly is a sight to behold.

Day 1

Woke up very early to catch the first bus out to Torres del Paine (TdP), which is 2 hours north of Puerto Natales, a fairly small town in the far south of Chile. The W Trek at TdP can be done in two directions – the traditional way (east to west), and the non-traditional way (west to east) which is becoming the defacto standard way. The trek is extremely popular, particularly because of its accessibility. Sprinkled throughout the trek are campsites and refugios (dormitory style full-service cabins). As a result of the refugios, the entire trek can be done with nothing more than one or two sets of clothing. No camping equipment or food required, as the refugios are capable of providing three meals a day. Since I’m not traveling with camping gear, nor is Kirsteen, my trekking partner whom I met in Ushuaia, we opted to stay in the refugios, and eat dinner there, and carry only clothes as well as foods for breakfast and lunch. As the refugios are very popular, all the guidebooks say to book them well in advance…we did not. We arrived in Puerto Natales and booked on two days notice. As a result, one of the four refugios we wanted was full but we were able to rent a tent and sleeping bag at the refugio. With plans in check, we started the trek by getting off the bus at Lago Pehoe, where a small catamaran took us across the lake to the western tip of the W. Our plan for the first day was light, a 3.5-hour trek to Glacier Grey. Well, we quickly learned that the times on the map are designed for speedwalkers as it took us nearly 4.5 hours to get to Refugio Grey, at the base of the glacier. The trail itself was quite dull, with only a couple of nice viewpoints, and the glacier was underwhelming compared to the massive Perito Moreno I saw a few weeks earlier, but I was nevertheless enjoying the park. At sunset, the sky turned a deep red and lit up the entire glacier as well as the icebergs that had collected in the bay. I’d heard that the meals at the refugios were not good so my expectations were very low. Maybe this explains why I was pleasantly surprised at the massive plate of tasty turkey and rice we were served as part of our 4-course meal. Talk about luxury in the backcountry!

Day 2

Another easy day, the reverse of Day 1 back to Mountain Lodge Paine Grande, on the shores of Lago Pehoe and where we had to do our one night of camping. The Lodge is absolutely massive, brand new with hundreds of beds and completely sold out even at the end of the high tourist season, which I think speaks to the popularity of the park. Camping was an interesting experience. Patagonia is famous for its wind, and we found out why this night as the winds wreaked havoc on our tent. Sometimes we could hear it coming off the lake and were able to brace for it, other times we got caught by surprise, but essentially imagine sleeping in a tent and having someone run up to your tent every 30 seconds and shake it as hard as they possibly can…all night long. Between this, and the mice scratching away at my bag every hour or two, needless to say, we did not get a lot of sleep this night.

Day 3

The first of our big hiking days, two hours to Campamento Italiano, followed by 5 hours return up the Valle Frances and back, followed by 2.5 hours to Refugio Cuernos. The first part was easy, but hiking up the French Valley was as hard as the hike up to Fitzroy in El Chalten. Unlike Chalten though, which was a hike up to a climax, the French Valley had great views all along. Finally landed at the Refugio where I slept at another altitude – on a 3rd level bunk that nearly touched the ceiling. I was so high up, I couldn’t see anyone else in the room when I laid down making me feel almost as if I had a single room to myself.

Day 4

A reconstruction of my thoughts during this day. Very tired. Uphill goes on forever. Wind so strong. Can count on one hand the number of times I’ve faced wind this strong. Electric storm in Killarney. Biking in Ottawa. Too tired to think of more examples. Must be at least 100 km/hr. Just gets stronger as I keep going up. Relentless. Glutton for punishment I am. Mother Nature’s test. You want to see my beauty, you have to beat my wind. Beating down on me now, no breaks. Need two steps for every one in normal weather. Baby steps is the only way up. I can beat you, wind! Getting near the top now. Still getting stronger. There are some people on the ground up ahead. I wonder if the wind knocked them over. I think it would knock me over if not for the heavy pack to stabilize me. Closer to the people now. I wonder if they need help. Closer now. Shock. Two Chileans are rolling around on the ground in romantic embrace, the guy has a beer in his hand, the girl’s hair is blowing everywhere uncontrollably. Stare in wonderment as this couple has the time of their lives while I get pounded by the wind. As I pass, guy raises his beer to me while his girlfriend gives him a hickey. I smile, give him a thumbs up and keep fighting the wind. Viva la vida! Two minutes later, I get mooned by a pudgy European in tight red spandex. Starting to wonder of the wind is causing me to hallucinate. Eyes are tearing but the wind evaporates it before it has a chance to hit my cheek. Can feel saliva from my mouth hitting my ear. What am I doing here? Can see the Refugio now. Focus returns. Must push on. Want to take a picture of beautiful open valley but stopping is impossible. If you’re moving forwards, the wind is pushing you backwards. Find some shelter. Am disoriented by the lack of forward pressure and nearly fall over. Get my camera and head back into the wind to take a picture of the valley below. Take 5 in hopes of getting one straight one. Back to my bag, thank god it hasn’t blown away. Push on for the final stretch. Refugio – refuge – no word could better describe that house right now. Vanessa Williams once sang about the Colours of the Wind. If wind had a colour, it would be blood red, full of hate and anger, and fire and fury. That was a random thought. I start to wonder if the wind knows that people don’t like it. I suppose wind has it’s perks – the hot day wasn’t quite so hot. But a gentle breeze could have accomplished that. BAM! Massive gust almost knocked me over. No daydreaming allowed. I suppose wind has to have it’s fun. Man has conquered wind in every other way. We’ve harnessed it’s energy, built buildings it can’t blow over. Letting wind kick my ass for an hour is fair game I suppose. Only a few hundred meters left. Bring it wind, let’s have some fun. I arrive and find refuge, worn and beaten. Find out the Refugio is powered by a nearby windmill. Go figure. Till we meet again wind, till we meet again.

Day 5

Wake up at 4:00 AM to hike up to the Torres for sunrise. The Torres, the park’s signature mountains, are well known because on a clear morning, the sunrise makes them glow deep red for about 10 minutes. The Torres are about two to two and a half hours from the Refugio, all uphill. It’s pitch black outside. Kirsteen wakes up to do the journey with me, as well as a middle aged British couple. Armed with headlamps, we set off. The first half is easy terrain and we get through it nicely. The darkness is not a problem. Between the four headlamps, we have more than enough light to make the way and the trail is marked with reflective posts as we are surely not the first to have tried this. As we get closer, we start seeing other headlamps in the woods and are soon joined by three Israelis. The final stretch is not easy, complicated by the fact that we can no longer see the trail posts. We look up to the Torres and see a line of lights ascending the boulder field under the mountain. We aren’t the first ones up this morning. We start heading in the direction of the lights. The climbing has turned into crawling as the trail dissapears, replaced by a large field of gravel and rocks. On all fours, we move from rock to rock like monkeys in the desert. The wind is picking up, it’s as bad as the day before, only now it’s picking up the gravel and sand and launching it around like a weapon. The final climb is the stuff of dreams. Getting pounded by the wind, climbing a loose boulder field, one wrong step could cause a rock slide and you worry as much about yourself as those below you. I look down and see headlamps stretching on forever. I get the feeling as if I’m on some sort of religious pilgrimage, and that this is my test. Get to the top and all your sins will be forgiven. The wind is so strong, I can’t move forward. All I can do is clutch some rocks and brace myself for impact. It’s in these moments that you ask yourself if you can make it. Like the final mile of a marathon, you’ve laid it all on the line. The wind relents. Given a chance, I push for the top, up, up, up. I see faces, huddled between rocks, waiting for the sun to show itself. I find two rocks and put myself between them. The wind is so fierce, and it carries stones and sand. The pain I real. So this is what it’s like to be between a rock and a hard place. My trekking partners arrive as do many others. We all carve out our spot on the mountain and wait. The sky is getting brighter. The sun appears, but a cloud is blocking it’s path to the Torres. The red glow never shows. The dissapointment is obvious on the faces of the many. I sit there awhile and think. It isn’t about the glowing red mountain. It’s about the journey, about pushing yourself, testing your limits, see where you can take yourself. I may not have seen the red, but I’ve been to the top and though I don’t have a picture to take away with me, I do have the experience. The way down is easy as the trail markers are more visible. Back at the Refugio, I run my hand through my hair. It’s coarse, full of sand and grit, nearly permanently embedded. I find it in my ears, I bite down and can hear nothing but the crunching of the wind I inhaled. 24 hours later, I’m still finding it in the oddest places. My camera is worse for the wear. The focus ring on the lens now exhibits a crunching noise. I’m starting to worry that it may not survive the trip.

More photos on Flickr but not as many as usual because of time/computer restrictions.

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