Who are those guys?

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Tuesday, December 6, 2005

We have, over the course of the last two and a half months, crossed paths with many of our fellow travelers, and although each of them comes to South America with a unique set of expectations and plans, most are either very excited to see or very excited to have seen Torres del Paine. Despite its location at the end of the longest and thinnest country in the world, Chile's most famous national park was the next stop on our world tour.

It isn't like our foray into the Patagonian wilderness snuck up on us however; we had been thinking about it for several weeks. Nonetheless, as our bus approached Puerto Natales for the second time the pits of our stomachs sunk as we began to realize how un-prepared we were for the adventure that lay ahead. Our original plan had budgeted a little more time to sorting out the final details such as what we would carry, what we would eat and how we would manage to pack it all in the rather small backpacks we had been carrying. But when we learned that there was an afternoon bus from Puerto Natales into the park we decided to cram all of our packing and planning into a rapidly shrinking two hour window and try to begin the hike in the early evening. In most countries such a decision is impossible because hiking in the dark is ill-advised, but the fact that the Southern Chilean skies are illuminated well past 9 PM gave us a chance to safely get a later than normal start.

Those of you who know us can see where this is going, but much to our good fortune, things didn't turn out as badly as they could have. The second our bus came to a halt we were off like a pair of derby horses. Cori made her way to the grocery store to pick up some final food-stuffs and then proceeded to the hostel to retrieve the bag of hiking gear her parents were kind enough to ship to us from Colorado. Steven's tasks, on the other hand, were more simple but more numerous. After five separate stops he managed to obtain cookware, rain gear, cash, sleeping pads and hiking poles. Panting furiously, but pleased with his performance, he met up with Cori at the hostel and the packing commenced in earnest. Not only had Cori achieved her objectives, but she also had to good sense to procure empanadas (tasty Chilean meat pies), soda, and alfajores (the same delicious shortbread-like treat we raved about in a previous entry).

Much to our collective surprise we managed to squeeze everything into our bags and catch the 2:30 bus into the park. As we gobbled down the last of our pre-made treats, we planned our route and caught up on some much needed sleep.

When we finally arrived at the park gate we were met by some unfriendly park guards and some very pleasant looking weather. Every indication was that upon paying the exorbitant park entrance fees we would be given a small but sufficient map of the park that would be our guide for the next week or so. After paying the fee as politely requesting the map, however, the park guards told us that they were out of maps and that we would have to make due without one. There were several other travelers present who were also disappointed by this news, so we left the matter in the capable hands of four irate Israelis who tried without success to obtain either a map or a refund. When neither was forthcoming we decided to pursue an alternate course. We politely and as quietly as possible began approaching other tourists who had appeared to have finished the hike and were fortunate enough to run across a tired-looking German couple who was nice enough to give us the map they had been using. Team Israel nearly blew a fuse when they learned of this sedition, but their frustration and anger didn't convince any other tourists to give up their own maps. Luck was once again on our side.

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is one of Chile's most visited tourist attractions, and for good reason. Although it sits in the midst of the Andes, the Torres is a separate geologic formation created only three million years ago by magma that pushed its way to the surface, bringing up along with it a thick sedimentary layer of rock. The softer rock was worn away by wind and water erosion, but the main geologic formations still remain: the Torres - three pink fingers of granite pointing skyward - and Los Cuernos (The Horns) - a white rocky amphitheatre with two outside spires rising upward (the horns), all topped with a black sedimentary layer of rock. The park is also home to Grey Glacier, one of the hundreds of glaciers that form part of the Southern Ice Field. A calving glacier, Grey occasionally loses parts of its face to Lago Grey, and these bits and pieces are pushed by the wind across Lago Grey and accumulate in little colonies on the eastern edges of the lake. Finally, the park is home to some unusual animal species - not only can it boast of resident pumas (once again, Steve was enthralled by the notion and, if truth be told, disappointed by the fact that we didn't spot one, however unrealistic an expectation it was to believe we might), but it also hosts the guanaco, a strange and delicate cross between a deer and a vicuna (relative to the llama), and the nandu, a seemingly shy south american ostrich that features prominently on some menus in the area (we did spot both the guanaco and the nandu, but Steve somehow just wasn't appeased).

So, with fresh legs, buoyed spirits and the enthusiasm that comes from starting into a new adventure, we made our way down the trail towards campemento los torres. The plan was to spend the first evening hiking and to spend the night at one of the 8 free camp-sites that are spread along that 100 kilometer trail that make up the 'W' and 'The Circuit' that is Torres del Paine. We had initially planned to proceed counter-clockwise around the larger route, but the surely ranger and several park visitors informed us that a rock-slide had temporarily shut down access to one of the more beautiful and treacherous parts of the Circuit. We reasoned that if we first walked along the 60 or so kilometers that comprise the 'W' we could make a decision about weather or not to proceed over the closed section of the Circuit (which several other hikers had done) with a little more information about how bad the rock-slide was, the weather, and of course our own physical condition.

We won't bore you with a blow by blow description of each leg of the hike because the photos we were able to snap along the way do a much better job of depicting the majesty and splendor of the park. If you have not already done so, you can access our pictures of the park (and other the rest of our trip) by going to www.stevecori.smugmug.com. The text that follows is merely an overview of our trekking experience and focuses primarily on the most interesting and potentially relevant bits of our Patagonia experience.

Two things struck us on our first day of walking, both of which, it turned out, we were completely wrong about. We made it through the first few legs of the journey in a fraction of the time suggested by our map. We knew this was partially a result of the great weather we enjoyed the entire first evening, but we foolishly concluded that the hike would take us less of our time and require fewer of our warm clothes. As we tried to dry out our down jackets in the late evening sun we had no idea how wrong our assessments could have been.

Although the good weather and our rapid progress was giving us a false sense of confidence, the quality of our food and sleeping equipment was rapidly becoming a source of great concern. Hiking for 5.5 hours generates a significant hunger, but predictably, the food we whipped up did almost nothing to excite our appetites. Using our new cookware and our imitation Ramon noodles we boiled up a dinner that can only be described as revolting. To add a little spice to our Ramon noodles we obtained flavored soup packets, but the beef flavoring from our noodles did not mix too well with the nearly identical form of chicken-flavored spice from our soup packets. With our bellies full of over-salted noodles we were sure we would dream of the salt flats of Southern Bolivia, but as it turned out, neither of us would be so lucky that night.

The other weak link in our camping expedition was our sleeping bags. In general we had been having great luck the gear we had obtained for the trip, so we felt confident taking a chance on a new type of sleeping bag materiel that promised to be lighter and warmer than conventional sleeping bags by several orders of magnitude. As it turned out, the high-tech Eliotex sleeping bags we spent time waiting for in Punta Arenas were not sufficient to the task. We spent the entire first night huddled together in the middle of the tent cursing our bad decision through chattering teeth.

When we 'awoke' the next morning it became clear to us that our thin sleeping bags were only partially to blame for the sleepless night. Over the course of the night the rain that began to fall when we got into the tent had turned to snow and continued to fall throughout the night. By day break two inches of the frozen white stuff had coated the surrounding area and had certainly contributed to our ice-cold night.

Lacking both the desire and dexterity to prepare a breakfast, we kept the oatmeal in our packs and broke camp. Our camp was a short 1.5 hour walk to the upper right wing of the 'W' and in good weather was said to provide unparallel views of the main towers from the los torres mirrador.

Conveniently, we have decided t write the next bad decision of the trip up to lack of sleep and under-nutrition. Instead of leaving our tents set-up and stowing our moderately heavy backpacks inside, we decided to lug everything we packed on the entire round-trip journey up to the mirrador. Had this been a simple leg of the journey this may not have been such a bad plan, but of the entire 100 kilometer journey, this was one of two segments that the park rangers had labeled 'difficult'. As we soon learned, this moniker was used sparingly in Tories del Paine and had been reserved for only the steepest and most rocky slopes. The climb to the top of the mirrador required active use of arms and legs and it was on this point of the journey that we were least happy to have had any weight on our backs.

Two hours later, with throbbing legs and shacking arms we made it to the top. Fortunately, it was soon clear that it had all been worth it. A more careful reading of the map may have made this clear long before we got to the top, but the imposing twin towers of Torres del Paine shot up not just from the top of a massive mountain, but also from the shores of a verdant greenish blue glacier fed lake. The surprise at finding the towers and the lake caused us to let out audible expressions of surprise and awe. We plopped ourselves down on a large flat rock that over-looked the lake and sat for about an hour in silence gazing at this marvelous spectacle. This one view made the climb itself, as well as the entire Torres del Paine excursion, well worth the time and money we allotted to the endeavor.

Three salmon colored spires soared toward the sky from a circular stone amphitheatre that appeared to grow out of a milky olive green lake. It looked mythic - exactly something one would expect to see in a Lord of the Rings film. Shadows cast by a fickle sun danced over the face of these granite minarets, and a chilly wind whipped over the lake and down the hillside. It was a raw and majestic place.

Reluctantly we headed back down the hill, as much because we were sorry to leave such a beautiful spot as we were to have to scramble back down the hill over car-sized boulders with our packs on our backs. Balance wasn't on our side. But with some dexterity and several more portions of luck, we made it back down and resumed our six hour and eighteen kilometer march toward Albergue de los Cuernos, our camp for the next night.

Despite our experience the night prior, the day was perfect: a brilliant sun shown in an electric blue sky, bursts of red Chilean firebrush blossomed everywhere, and a carpet of green stretched over the gently rolling hills along an improbably turquoise blue Lago Nordenskjold. Initially, our pace was to good to be true - we passed groups as if they were standing still, running up and down hills and power walking the flatter stretches. After two hours, though, lack of breakfast and proper conditioning caught up to us: we had slowed considerably and thus decided it was a good time to break into our 2.5 lbs. of chocolate. After consuming a whole bar, we felt better but realized our feet and knees did not. Alas, we spent the remainder of the afternoon hobbling half the distance we had already covered in twice the time, only to arrive and find a swollen and un-bridged river standing between us and the albergue. We considered the lack of a bridge to be rather inconsiderate and quite inhospitable, and a European couple we encountered in the same predicament agreed. After some time spent scouting, we located a suitable crossing point, and Steve dragged a smallish dead tree truck there to facilitate passage without getting soaked. With a surprising amount of deftness, given his heavy pack and much-taxed joints, Steve hopped across the a few large boulders in the river and then onto his dead tree, and then onto the opposite shore. With some assistance from Steve, Cori performed the same maneuver. We chuckled when we glanced back and saw the European couple removing their socks and shoes to wade across. And fate later chuckled at all of us when we learned that there was, indeed, a brand spanking new footbridge across the river if we'd only known where to look.

The night was warmer and passed without incident, meaning we only woke up a few times due to cold or uncomfortability. We slept in a bit, so, after packing up and grabbing breakfast, it was already ten thirty. This put us behind schedule, since we had another trek of eighteen kilometers planned. Regrettably, the day was not as lovely as the one before, and ominous clouds hung overhead, warning us to make haste. Unfortunately, bad genes, manifested in ill-functioning knees, is something we both inherited, and something we both complained about that day. Nevertheless, we managed about six kilometers in two hours, arriving at the free Campamento Italiano site around twelve thirty. Our plan was to set up camp there, drop our packs, and do a day hike up France valley and back. We set up the tent and locked up our stuff in the space of half an hour and then hit the trail again, rejoicing in the freedom that came with pack-free walking.

The trail began at the mouth of France valley, where the freezing and crystal clean France river poured into the nearby Lago Nordenskjold. The trail diverged from the river and headed uphill, tracking some smaller tributaries through an emerald lichen covered forest - again, we felt like we had wandered into some Hobbitt set on Lord of the Rings. To our left, through the foliage, we stole glimpses of a towering snow crusted mountain looming overhead, bearing the weight of a hanging glacier from a deep cirque cut into its middle. We emerged from the forest at another river crossing, where cascades plunged precipitously over smooth boulders. It was at this point that Steve resolved to watch for possible avalanches, realizing what a spectacular sight it would be to see snow tumble from its pack down the steep and rocky face. We continued to climb, Steve with one eye on the trail and one eye on the mountain, and he was rewarded in the space of minutes with a deep rumble and the sight of a small section of snowpack thundering down the slope. From then on, he was addicted, affixing his eyes to the mountain like a hawk. After another half an hour, the trail began to plateau and were we assaulted with strong, cold winds as we came to a clearing where, on top of a bald nub of a hill, we were afforded an absolutely breathtaking view. Gazing up the valley to our left, France glacier sat with such proximity we had to crane our necks to take it all in - an alpine outcropping of unbelievable proportions, frosted with a thick crust of snow and ice. To our left, the rock towers of Los Cuernos ("The Horns) rose in their distinctive slightly crooked horn-like shape - these are perhaps the formations most widely photographed in the national park and those that we always associated with the place. It was easy to imagine that Los Cuernos had been airlifted to the valley - in contrast to the snowy France glacier, Los Cuernos was the very picture of desert aridity - its two tiered white and black stone formations were chalky, dry, and lacked any trace of snow. Behind Los Cuernos peeked the backside of the Los Torres trio. And gazing down the valley, we were treated with unparalleled views of the turquoise waters of Lago Nordensjold and, behind that, rolling green fields leading to more distant snow capped peaks.

Ever intent on spotting another avalanche, Steve insisted on stopping at the top for a snack. His decision to prolong our time in this amazing, if slightly chilly location, was a good one because not only did we catch sight of another avalanche, but we also enjoyed the first meat of the trip. Before leaving town we picked up two lengths of salami and a package of crackers. We devoured these delicacies but knew it was time to head back to camp when we began to bicker about who got to lick the salami flavored grease from our pocket knife.

As we soon discovered, the only thing in Torres del Paine that changed more rapidly than the weather were our minds. Despite having set up our tent at campemento Italiano not more than three hours prior, upon return we decided instead to press on to the next refugio: Pahoe. We reasoned that another 3-4 hours on the trail would do us good and, that given the fact that it would be light outside for at least another 5 hours, we owed it to ourselves to press on. We chalked up our newfound confidence to the meat and were soon back on the trail.

The hike from Campemento Italiano to Pahoe was among the easiest of the journey, but as it turned out it was also one of the least enjoyable. In terms of physical beauty, this was one of the least diverse legs of the entire hike. The trail skirted along the shore of Lago Nordensjkold and afforded only occasional views of the adjacent peaks and valleys. What made this section even less tolerable was the rapidly deteriorating condition of Cori's feet and of Steven's knee. Our bodies were not performing to the level of the average 28 year old, so as we neared the Pahoe lodge we figured that our budget shouldn't be expected to either. We agreed that if they had room at the inn we would shell out almost any price for a nice bed in a warm room.

As it turned out, we were not the only travelers that day to have decided to stay the night inside the lodge. The weather was moving in rapidly and even some of the heartier hikers were sheepishly standing in line to beg for one of the few remaining rooms. Predictably, the rooms were overbooked, so instead of passing the night in relative luxury we were again destined to shiver the night away at the only pay for a spot camp site of the trek. As the storm clouds gathered and the temperature dropped precipitously, we beat the rush to the gear rental hut and checked out two warm sleeping bags. These 4 pound down cocoons made it much easier to get sleep that night, but the fact that we had paid 32 USD for two sleeping bags and a spot in the field gave us both nightmares. Our beautiful little cabana in San Martin was less expensive.

After crawling into the tent and tearing off our boots, we soon began to realize the magnitude of Cori's foot problems. In addition to the 6 large blisters that covered about 60% of the surface of her two small feet, she was dangerously close to loosing two of her recently painted wedding toe-nails. How she managed to drag herself this far was a minor miracle, but we both knew that it would be an equal task to get to the next camp and back into the civilized world.

After yet another late start and a healthy dose of pain killers and anti-inflammatory medication we slung the packs on our back and were off to Refugio Lago Grey. Despite our condition, we knew that to come all this way and not go the additional 11 kilometers to the famous Grey Glacier would be a perpetual disappointment. With the help of a few Celebrex tablets that he begged from a Canadian hiker on Mount Kilimanjaro a few years prior, Steven was able to significantly dull the growing pain in his knee. Unfortunately, all the mole skin, bandages, and pain killers in our portable pharmacy did little to rectify the problems on Cori's toes. We limped and hobbled so slowly over the next 11 kilometers, including over one pass that might have well been a wind tunnel, dubbed Quebrada del Viento (Valley of the Winds), that it was past 6 PM when we finally reached Campemento Grey. To our good fortune, we arrived just in time to rent another set of sleeping bags for the night. We set up camp and situated Cori (and the bloody stumps she called feet) inside the simple lodge at Camp Grey.

The plan was to get up the next day and take a short ten minute walk to the Lago Grey mirador (lookout point) where we would spend some time gazing at the Grey Glacier before heading back to Pahoe to catch the boat back to the bus. Owing largely to his Celebrex induced relief however, Steven was not content to set in the lodge, and instead decided to venture back onto the trail that evening to see how much the views of the glacier changed with a few more hours of walking. So with two hiking poles and a very light backpack in tow, he began the hike toward John Garner Pass.

At first, this plan sounded like a good one, but it soon became clear that nothing much would be gained from a solo foray into the woods that the remaining daylight would cut off after 3.5 hours. Nevertheless, after another hunk of chocolate Steven was off. Proceeding counterclockwise from Lago Grey there are two small campamentos that hikers use as staging grounds for their attempts to cross the steep and unpredictable John Garner pass. Rumor had it that a recent land-slide that had prompted the park rangers to close the 'Circuit' was not too far past the second camp, but at over 10 kilometers, Steven knew he couldn't make it that far. Keeping a frenetic pace Steven made it past the first camp and about half-way to the second camp before the clouds opened up and forced him to turn around. Pouring rain quickly saturated the trail and prompted Steven to break out his emergency poncho. Several other hiker had not been well prepared for such a sudden burst of precipitation and were forced to take shelter under large trees and rocks. Eventually, Steven made it back to camp to find Cori contently curled up by the fire and deep into a good book.

Dripping and cold, Steve dried off and we sat for a game of chess before concluding that neither of us were interested in braving the elements to make dinner that night. Instead, we simply tucked into yet another chocolate bar and called it a night, dodging the rain on the way back to the tent. It performed admirably that night, even though the skies attempted to soak us all night along, and we awoke somewhat cold but, above all, dry. After some packing and many foot and knee related readiments - and yet another decision to bypass preparing a hot meal - we set off on our homeward-bound journey. The view of Grey Glacier was impressive, but both of us felt that further on-foot excursions may not have yielded a better wow factor to bodily pain ratio, and so we were glad for our decision to curtail our trek at the W. Thankfully, the going home was easier, perhaps because of yet more liberal doses of moleskin, compeed and celebrex, and we managed to wander, without a great deal of pain of difficulty, into Pehoe Camp, where we would catch a catamaran across Lago Nordensjold and to the bus station. We spent a few hours in the shelter there, preparing what would be the last of our lousy "just add hot water" food before boarding the catamaran, which whisked us back to the bus, which, in turn, whisked us back into Puerto Natales, and to a warm, dry bed.

It is difficult to imagine overtaking our virgin solo foray into backpacking in terms of scenery alone: the views we were afforded with a little effort truly may be unparalleled anywhere. It is fair to say that we caught the backpacker bug (and who wouldn't) during our days out. But it is clear that we have much to learn - when we next attempt these feats upon our return to Colorado, we will consult with our mothers extensively for advice regarding both pain management and menu planning.
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