The Good, the Bad, and the Muddy

Trip Start Sep 26, 2010
Trip End Jun 10, 2011

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Singing Lamb

Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Thursday, December 23, 2010

One of the places Adar and I were most looking forward to visiting was Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonian Chile.  From pictures in magazines to friends' stories, the mountains called to us.

We flew into into Punta Arenas, "sandy point" in Spanish, named for its beach by an early explorer.  We huddled in a small hotel lobby out of the bitterly cold Patagonian wind until we could catch a bus to Puerto Natales, our staging town for Torres del Paine.  This was to be our first of many memorable experiences with the Patagonian wind.

We arrived in Puerto Natales after a several hour bus ride across the expansive and flat Patagonian steppe.  Puerto Natales is a charming porttown with two town squares and two main streets lined with restaurants, tiny shops, adventure agencies, and bus companies.  The area is famous for the Milodon, a 20' foot tall, long-extinct sloth like creature.  There are life-sized reconstructions of the creature poised as if it is dancing the waltz at each main entrance into town.  We find The Singing Lamb, a dorm style hostel run by a do-it-yourself Kiwi named Susan. The Singing Lamb was to become our home for several nights and one of our favorite hostels because it was clean, organized, and came with Susan's breakfast of porridge, poached eggs, and homemade bread and jam.

We prepared to hike "The Circuit," a 75-mile loop around a magnificent rock formation which was formed by a volcanic intrusion.  In this type of volcanic activity, the magma flows in between layers of the earth's crust and raises the ground above it.  The other type of volcano you may be familiar with is the surface cone in which magma spurts upward from the earth's thin crust (Mt. Saint Helens, Vesuvius, Mt. Kilimanjaro). This volcanic intrusion caused a mountain formation of granite with darker sedimentary rock above it, most of which has been worn away but some of which remains leaving an uncommon and eye-catching formation. We would be hiking around this bulge across valleys, through forests, over a snow-covered pass, past glaciers, and up large valleys.  Along the way would be a series of Refugios, Spanish for "shelter," with camping, running water, flush toilets, food for purchase and some with places to sleep.  Our plan was to walk from one Refugio to another as we completed our hike around the circuit.  With rented gear and rations of peanut butter, chocolate, starches, and oatmeal, we embarked.

Day 1: Las Torres to Seron.

On the bus ride from PN to the park, we still cannot decide whether to start with the front side, the "W" as they call it because of the shape the trails make when viewed from above, or to go around the back side first.  At the first bus stop (Las Torres), we decide to get off the bus with a fellow traveler named Brian and hike the back side first.  Hiking under clear skies we meet some other hikers and walk with them to Seron, our first camp.  The path is marked by orange wooden stakes or yellow ribbons tied to trees and is easy to follow.  Sam, Bunny, and Mark, all from Colorado, and Brian, who is from Indiana, turn out to be our good friends for the next several days as many stories and experiences are shared.  The weather is cool and windy and the scenery picturesque as we trace our way along a curvy fast running blue river across many fields of grass and flowers.  Today's hike was relatively flat and easy and made for a good first day of hiking with heavy packs.

Day 2: Seron to Dickson.

We did not realize how good we had it on the first day until we wake up to sprinkling rain and grey skies.  We were told two things here: 1) the weather is unpredictable and 2) it's pointless to ask about it. Thinking it might change, we started hiking hoping for blue skies and sunshine. If yesterday was pleasant and windy, today was cold. Bitterly cold.  Imagine being cold, as in entire body cold.  Now imagine being wet, to the bone.  Socks, underwear, everything wet.  Now imagine it is raining and very windy.  Your hands did hurt, but now you cannot feel them because they went numb.  Now imagine hiking in 3 inches of water or mud for 7 hours.  You are beyond cold and the incessant tap, tap, tap, tipptiy tap of the rain against your hooded coat begins to drive you crazy.  This is one of those days where all gear will be pushed to its limit. The scenery around you is pretty, a forest, a swamp with a partially constructed boardwalk, mountains in the distance, a river to your right.  After what seemed like far to long we topped a ridge and spied our destination a mere 20 minutes away.  In a large field under towering cloud covered peaks and next to a lake with huge chunks of blue ice was Refugio Dickson.  From a small chimney were wisps of smoke meaning fire and hopes of warmth and dryness. Jubilant comes close to how I felt.  Adar was having a tougher time and the thought that we had 20 more minutes of hiking down a muddy slope almost brought her to tears.  When we reached Dickson, there was a small pot belly stove inside and one by one we gathered and huddled next to it thaw our limbs and bodies.  This was also the place to dry our soaked clothing, initially against the emphatic wishes of the local management.  As each part of the crew from that day would wander in, we would make space and allow them to feel the restorative effects of the warm fire. This day was hard, for Adar and I and for everyone who started that day.  We ended up meeting many more comrades by the fire: Jeff and Vicky, Peter, Eyal and his friend, Spanish Ana and her quiet boyfriend, the English couple, and Jason and Emily.  It was a tough day, but as we all thawed out we bonded over such a day.

Day 3: Dickson to Los Perros

In the morning our boots, socks, and rain pants were dry and after a good night's sleep we were ready for a new day.  If yesterday was wet, today was windy, really windy.  Climbing up to a ridge we saw Dickson Glacier, the source of the blue ice yesterday and what we would later learn to be the headwaters of the many blue-green lakes on the front side.  We dropped into lush forests out of the wind and crossed many streams, sometimes by rock sometimes by wooden bridge.  It was slightly muddy from the rain of the day before but it was comfortable hiking.  With dry socks and boots it was easy compared to the day before.  Every so often we would glimpse the jagged snowy peaks above, all the while following the orange and yellow trial markers.  Near the end, we spied a large glacier and began to climb from the trees onto the rocky moraine and into the katabatic wind.  This is not your ordinary wind, this is the Patagonian wind we were warned about.  Imagine walking and being unable to look forward because the wind is blowing so hard.  It's not uncommon to be walking in the sunshine while being rained upon because the wind is blowing rain from who knows where sideways.  With trekking poles in hand so that we had four points of contact with the ground, we crouched and stumbled forward, looking only at the ground.  Twice each, Adar and I were lifted slightly and almost completely lost our footing. This is with heavy packs on.  This was strong wind like we had not ever experienced.  We rounded a corner back into the shelter of the trees and were immediately in camp at Los Perros.  Despite the name there were no dogs, only a small store and a cook tent with a smoke-belching 55 gallon drum for a fireplace.  Another fun night with our many new friends corroborating stories from the day and warming ourselves by the

Day 4: Los Perros to Refugio Grey.

Some days of hiking are beautifully scenic and easy some days are beautifully scenic and really hard.  This one was the latter. Immediately from camp we began to climb.  It was not that steep but it was muddy and we were climbing through a thick forest.  The trail, where there was one, was either 4" inches of sloppy mud or a tangle of tree roots buried in the same sloppy mud. This trail made the West Coast Trail in Canada look dry.  Hiking required concentration with foot placement and despite care, Adar and I both slipped at least once and buried our foot ankle-deep in the cold mud.  We cleared the trees after about two hours of uphill muddy torture and spied our next task, a snowy pass.  Up, up and up we climbed through the snow until we reached what would turn out to be the first of three false summits.  The snow was deep and occasionally you would sink in up to your knees no matter how carefully you placed your steps. Up top it was beautiful with ragged pointy peaks towering above the valley and a view of the bowl that we just climbed out of

We crested the pass and were met with the largest glacier we have ever seen. We were approaching it from the side and in front of us was a huge valley completely filled with ice. Across and up the valley we could see smaller glaciers, large in their own right, flowing in slow motion into the glacier in front of us.  A spectacle to see and well worth the hike over the pass. Glacier Grey is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest source of fresh water on this planet next to Antarctica and Greenland.  We did not stay long as the wind was strong and bone chilling.  From here began the never ending descent.  If we thought the hike up was bad, this was three times worse and what seemed like ten times as long.  Seriously, this was hard.  Partly because it was steep, partly because we were exhausted, we both slipped several times usually with uncomfortable results.  The view however was exceptional.  To our right was a huge glacier that would glow blue when hit with the occasional sunshine.  We intended to camp at Las Guardas, but were cajoled forward by tantalizing tales that it was only another 30 minutes and all downhill to the next camp.  This was to become a running joke: no matter who you asked, wherever you were going was always 30 minutes downhill from your current location.
Of course, this was never the case, and after an hour of hiking that included plenty of uphill, we stumbled into the camp at Refugio Grey practically whimpering.  We had been hiking up and downhill for 11 hours and our bodies were protesting.  Unfortunately, Refugio Grey was also our first encounter with W hikers, most of whom had just started and were freshly showered and in possession of plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.  The situation is comparable to finishing a marathon and then having loads of people who just ran the 5K bouncing around you: they worked hard too, but aren't appreciating the fact that you are in much more pain then them.  However, we were both glad that we continued onto Frey, since it offered a stove to warm ourselves by and a campsite on the water with small glaciers floating by.

Day 5: Refugio Grey to Campimemiento Italiano.

Completely spent, we trekked onward on a clear, windy, and beautiful day.  Our circuit crew did not make it into Grey the night before and we felt slightly lonely amongst the more popular and much more crowded front side.  We were envious of the W hikers fresh food and felt less camaraderie with these people who chose the easy way.  Maybe that is a bit strong, but Circuit hikers are a special bunch and we were proud to be a part of that tough crowd.  Upon arrival at the refugio at Paine Grande, we immediately purchased more food and sat down to a tasty meat and cheese sandwich.  If we had put a little more thought into it, we would have stayed here for a much deserved rest day.  Instead we pushed on to our next camp, two long hours away.  This leg - from Paine Grande to Italiano - was the flattest part of the Circuit, with lovely views of the French Valley and the lake.  We were sore from our long day over the pass, but could still appreciate the incredible beauty of this place.

Day 6: Italiano to Refugio Los Cuernos.

Italiano is situated at the base of the French Valley and is a great starting point for a day hike up the valley.  A half day hiking without heavy packs was wonderful!  We hiked up the French Valley until the rain, wind, and clouds forced us to turn around.  Without the weight of the packs to hold us down, we turned into sails and the Patagonian wind again took us both off our feet. This wind is crazy.  Hiking up we had Paine Grande to our left, the tallest mountain in Torres del Paine, which is covered in glaciers.  These glaciers tumble down its steep walls and we witnessed many avalanches.  On our right were los cuernos or "the horns," steep bicolored towers with dark sedimentary rock above and lighter granite below.  If you have seen pictures of Torres del Paine, you have likely seen these giants.  We returned to Italiano, broke camp and headed to the next refugio.  The refugios sell hot meals and we were hoping to have dinner indoors at this one as a special Christmas Eve treat.  The hike there was beautiful and windy, over two ridges and along the lake.  I am captivated by wind and water and have not seen wind and water behave as I did this day.  A gust would come down the lake and actually pick up water off the tops of waves and create a sideways torrent of mist that would blast the shore with incredible force.  You could see the patches coming and you could do little to avoid them other than to hunker down so you were not blown over.  We arrived at the refugio and set up our tent in a deep depression in an attempt to escape from the wind and weighed the tent and tent stakes down with large rocks.  Even with this forethought our tent buffeted and swayed and several times we expected the rain fly to rip from the poles.  We were able to get dinner inside the refugio and were treated to what we lovingly dubbed "the meatfest."  After several days with too little protein, Christmas eve dinner was amazing.  Adar and I both ate respectable portions of beef, lamb, chicken, salmon, and pork along with the rice, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and bread.  We even had room for the delicious sampling of pies, cakes, and tortes for dessert.  Deeeeelicious. We had lost our main Circuit crew, but here we found Jason and Emily who had somehow caught up with us and learned that the others were well and missed us as much as we missed them.  With updates on everyone, we enjoyed our dinner with lively conversation from Nik and Lee, two adventure loving Americans from San Diego.  They taught us about the "paleo diet" and their company that sells "paleotreats," something we might have to try when we return to the US.

Day 7: Los Cuernos to Las Torres

With our bellies refilled, we moved onward to Las Torres, a camp below the park's famous towers.  We have hiked a couple of places were you look out and think "Wow, I can see for miles.  This is really open country."  This was one of those places.  With a huge clear sky and
bright sun, it felt like summer, and without the wind it was actually hot.  It turns out we had come to enjoy a little Patagonian wind.  We hiked across a prarie along the base of a huge mountain and being on a slight hill above the surroundings, we felt incredible solitude as we were practically alone in this expansive land.  A neat feeling.

The night before we had noticed a funny symbol on our trail map, a head blowing puffs from its mouth, an icon for strong winds.  The places we had experienced wind did not have these icons and we were a bit concerned about what might lay ahead.  We started up and for the next two hours did not stop climbing.  Uphill, uphill, uphill,... it seemed not to ever end.  We rounded a corner and were literally blown backwards by the wind.  This was a bit dangerous as there was a steep slope to our right that dropped about 500' to a river below.  You could not hear above the cacophony of the wind against your ears and looked up only when needed to stay on the trail.  After the throat of the valley, the wind died down and the remaining walk to Refugio Chileno was pleasant. After a rest inside the refugio away from the wind with a snickers bar
dipped in peanut butter for refueling, we continued uphill for another hour or more until we came to a sign that made us so happy.  We missed taking a picture, but it essentially read, "Time to camp: 1 minute". Normally these signs read 20 minutes or 2 hours, 1 minute was awesome. We fell into camp and enjoyed a simple but delicious meal with chocolate for dessert for Christmas dinner.

Day 8: Mirador to Las Torres to Puerto Natales.

It was recommended that we wake up at 4am and climb up a steep hill for an hour in the dark to see the sunrise on the towers.  We peaked our heads out of the tent around 3:50am to find chilly air and a light rain. I am sure it was nice but after our hard but rewarding week, uphill in the rain at four in the morning was just not happening.  Back to sleep.  Up at six to find partly cloudy skies and the beginnings of the morning light.  We climbed the steep hill to the lake at the base of the towers and were rewarded with dabbled warm sidelight on the three gigantic monoliths of granite.  Lovely.  Back down to breakfast and to break camp and then back down to the refugio at Chileno.  The climb down was uneventful except for Adar being blown off the trail and having to hold on for dear life and scramble back onto the trail lest she slide down into the void.  We also met an injured hiker who I let borrow a trekking pole as he had hurt himself speed hiking the circuit in 5 days, something that left us exhausted in 8 days.  After a long wait and then mad rush to get onto the shuttle and later the bus back to Puerto Natales, we find ourselves back at the Singing Lamb.  We have a wonderful warm shower and then head out to return gear and treat ourselves to a job-well-done dinner at a fancy African-Patagonian restaurant.  As an appetizer, we had the salmon ceviche with coconut, lemon, and mango. Very different but incredibly delicious.  For dinner, Adar had wild ostrich in a rhubarb cheese sauce and I the minted lamb with potatoes.  A bottle of carmenere later, the meal was completed with chocolate lava cake.  Off to bed after a great meal and an incredible week.

Day 9: Puerto Natales

Today was a much needed rest day.  We washed our near toxic laundry, viewed and backed up our pictures, wrote postcards, booked bus tickets and our next hostel,  and talked with Sam and Bunny who had switched hostels to the singing lamb.  They had a good trek and were a day behind us but skipped the towers.  The comforts of civilization were nice, but we were already craving the outdoors again.

Day 10: Back to the Park

We had spent 8 days in the park, but one thing Adar and I missed was the view from the front of the park.  We had hiked at the base and literally under all the major peaks but had not seen the park from afar to get a perspective of exactly what we had just done.  It may sound funny but the park was so nice that we decided to return for a day trip, easy tour bus style.  The weather was perfect with partly cloudy skies and practically no wind.  I don't think the others on our bus appreciated it when our guide said that today's weather was unusually nice.  Nice indeed.  We had a very relaxing day touring the best of the front of the park, stopping at all the miradors (viewpoints) for incredible views of Paine Grande, Glacier Grey, the French Valley, Los Cuernos and Lago Pehoe, a glacier blue lake that forms an amazing foreground to the picturesque mountains above.  We learned a lot of local information, Lago Nordenskold and Lago Pehoe have their head waters at Lago Dickson, the lake we saw on day two, and the color of the water is a function of the mineral level that gradually declines as the water moves downstream. We also learned that Paine means blue in the local aboriginal language referring to the blue ice of the glaciers.  A completely different but enjoyable way to enjoy the natural beauty of the park and we are very glad that we experienced both.

For those of you who may be interested in hiking Torres del Paine, here are our thoughts on how to do the trip:

-  Stay at The Singing Lamb;  you'll appreciate the good breakfast before the trip and the clean showers afterwards

- Go to the 3 o'clock "rock talk" at Erratic Rock.  This 1-2 hour talk will answer all of your questions about how to do the treks.  Erratic Rock also rents gear, but we found equally good gear at the same price at other locations, so don't feel pressured  to rent from there.  Also, E.R. Is the only place that recycles fuel canisters, so bring your canisters back here after the trek.

- Make sure you have rain gear and trekking poles (chances are you'll need both badly at some point - if not, count yourself lucky!).  Also good to have are an eye mask (summer nights in Patagonia are short), a thermos for hot tea, a 4-season tent, and lots of waterproof bags or trash bags to keep your belongings dry.  We couldn't find beef jerky or prepackaged camping meals in Puerto Natales and dried fruit and nuts were ridiculously expensive, so it might be best to bring these things with you.

- Now for the hike....there are a hundred ways to do the hike and they are all spectacular. However, if we were going to do the trek again, here's what we'd do:

1). Hike in from Administration (the start of the "Q" hike).  The reason we would do this is to get a faraway view of the mountains.  Once you are in the W or the Circuit, you will not see this classic view of the park.  This adds 2 days to the hike, but most of that is supposedly easy
hiking (we heard it was only 30 minutes and all downhill).

2). From Refugio Grey, allow one day for a day hike up towards the pass. The hike between Grey and the pass has spectacular views of the glacier, but this is hard, muddy, steep hiking and would be more enjoyable without a full pack.

3). Do the W (days 5-8 as described above).  This includes 2 nights at Refugios where you have to pay for camping (Grey and Los Cuernos) and 2 nights at free campgrounds that have flush toilets but no other facilities (Italiano and Las Torres).

4). Plan on a rest day.  We didn't allow for a rest day, but it would have been good to have an extra day to spend wherever we wanted.  The weather is unpredictable and you might find yourself in the French Valley or Las Torres on a rainy day, or you may find your body or feet need an extra a day to recover, so an extra day is good.

5). Consider staying in the Refugios.  You can make reservations, but even during the high season we found a couple refugios with a few bunks available when we arrived.  While the Circuit hikers tended to feel superior to the W hikers (the Circuit is a lot tougher than the W) and the backpackers tended to look down on the hikers who slept in the Refugios only (and thus didn't have to carry a tent, sleeping pad, cookware, stove or food), I think that a night or two sleeping indoors would have enhanced our enjoyment of the hike.  Had we spent a night in a refugio, we could have taken a shower and dried all of our stuff out. However, since two of the best situated campsites (Italiano and Las Torres) don't have refugios, I would still plan on camping most nights.  We promise we won't even call you "soft" for allowing yourself a night
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Brian Zuercher on

The pictures that bring back memories of snow, wind, and mud, but best of all great hiking friends. The hardcore group that did The Circuit.

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