Saturday, December 22, 2018

Chilean Patagonia: Tierra del Paine National Park

“This is not fun. It’s beautiful, but it’s not fun.” 
     –Jason, within half an hour of our first leg of the W

“But on you will go though the weather be foul… Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike.” 
     –Dr. Seuss (“Oh, the Places You’ll Go”)

“I made it through the wilderness… somehow I made it through-ooo-ooo.” 
      –Jason, with apologies to Madonna, as we were settling in at Cuernos at the end of our second day on the W.

The W trek is named for its shape, though it's more like a Russian "ш," and even more like a set of butt cheeks. There are three legs up, and two shorter legs connecting those three. The wonderful thing is, you can leave your pack at the nearest campground or refugio for the upward legs.

It was a difficult trek to plan for, because there is a ton of somewhat conflicting information out there. There were a few constants: the weather is unpredictable, so prepare for four seasons within the course of a day, and it’s windy AF. Also, you’d better make your reservations ages in advance. Even in June, when Jason and I made our reservations, one refugio was sold out of bunk beds and offered us a pre-set tent instead. Most of what I read online described the trek as moderate and not terribly challenging. Several people said that a reasonably fit trekker needed only four days rather than the standard five. Having completed the Inca Trail in three days rather than the standard four without trying, and in light of our tight schedule (and, thirdly, the high price of food and lodging in the park), we agreed to hike it—all 58 miles of it—in four days (two and two halves, really). Starting after only a day's break since the two consecutive hikes in Argentina (16 and 14 miles, respectively). My full-blown cold slowed me down for the first two days of the trek. The trail kicked our asses, but we did it.

There’s a debate as to whether it’s best to trek west to east or east to west (we chose the latter, or rather, the need to be back in Puerto Natales to check in for the ferry chose for us). The briefing at Erratic Rock that we attended the day before the trek didn't express a preference. The briefer did tell us to see Salta before getting on the Catamaran.

Puerto Natales


The view from the catamaran to Lake Pehoe

The briefer also told us to triple-waterproof our stuff, but don’t worry about getting wet and muddy because you will anyway. In particular, don't do anything stupid (i.e., jump to a boulder and miss) because you're avoiding putting your feet in the water or mud. Expect a crowded trail; if you were counting on a remote wilderness experience, you’ll be disappointed.

We didn't get a crowded trail, perhaps because of our odd itinerary. and we didn't get much rain (except our last night), but boy did we get wind. Our first stretch was from Paine Grande to Refugio Grey, and it was a wind tunnel. It was all we could do to keep going, and not get blown into the lake.
Even the landscape is windblown.

The standard trek has you going up to Refugio Grey and calling it a day; we went up and back, about nine miles each way. The advantage, though, was that we didn’t have to carry our packs with us since we were sleeping back where we started. We pretty much had dinner and collapsed; I’d wisely packed Nyquil, and I used it to refrain from waking up my roommates with coughing. The refugio dinners were universally tasty, wholesome, and nutritionally balanced. We power-barred lunch, which was appropriate (there aren’t a lot of good places to stop for a longer meal on the trail, and your dream picnic will merely blow away). But it was nice to get in, after a day of trekking, to a prepared, hot meal. I balked at the price when booking, but I knew it was worth it when I saw what we were getting (and that they nailed the special-meal request), especially in light of what it takes to get food out to Torres del Paine. Breakfast definitely wouldn’t have been worth the price, or the wait. We could take off as early as we wanted to, while the breakfasters were still waiting in line.

The next morning we set off for our second day, which would take us through the Valle Frances to the Mirador Britannico and back, and onward to Refugio Cuernos. We left our packs at Campamento Italiano for the uphill hike to Britannico; it was hard enough to haul our packs from Italiano to Cuernos (we’d originally wanted to stop in Frances, but it was sold out, which is just as well because Sunday was hard enough from the farther-along Cuernos). 

The view from Britannico

The view on the way down from Britannico

As pained and laden as we were, we remained in awe, and we always stopped to marvel. What separates us from the animals is not—as Clarice says in Steel Magnolias—the ability to accessorize, but the way our drive for exploration and beauty can overpower our animal drive for comfort.
The birds were happy to pose for us.

Cuernos was in a beautiful spot, and unlike the night before, the weather was perfect. We crashed just after dinner.
The view from the dining room of the refugio

Our tent under the Cuernos

We slept poorly and woke up for what we thought would be an easier day; after all, we'd be hiking almost half as many miles as the previous two days, albeit with our packs on us the whole time. Well, those ten or so miles took a lot of out of us. 

We got to Refugio Chileno exhausted. Jason tried to nap; I edited my photos. We had a lovely dinner and looked forward to the coup de grâce the next morning: the Torres themselves. We even considered getting up early to get to catch them at sunrise.

Except the sun didn’t rise. It rained all night and it was pouring it down when I woke up. I panicked: what if we couldn’t even make it to the Torres?? I’d thought on the way to the Mirador Britannico that the trail would be simply unsafe in the rain. We chatted with a couple who were taking their time through the park. They’d gone up to the Torres the day before and were planning on going again. They suggested we wait until noon when things cleared up, but we didn’t have until noon (we had a 2:30pm bus to catch at the base of the park). Jason said if we were going to go, we’d better go right away, so at 7:15am or so, we set off in the cold rain. It gradually warmed up, and the rain gradually let up, but the fog wasn’t clearing. We might make it to the Torres, but would we see them? Jason wondered aloud whether it was even worth it. I thought we were so close, we may as well go and see *something.* Even a square foot of Torres was better than none. Besides, what else were we going to do? “Sit by the fire,” he said. But I know him, and bitch as he may, he’s as unlikely as I am to choose comfort over Torres. So on we went, seemingly the only people on the trail (I’d seen a couple leave not too long before us, so I knew either the trail was open or others were defying the closure).

It was a beautiful walk in the woods leading up to the steep path to the Torres. The woods cleared to a lot of boulders. Luckily, though originally to my chagrin, I’d left my trekking poles in the refugio, and it was better not to have them to be better able to negotiate the boulders. In a way, the damp sand/dirt was firmer than it might have been if dry. Julia, the briefer at Erratic Rock, had told us the story of a man who tried to jump from rock to rock instead of just walking through the water (there were a lot of streams on the trail) and ended up leaving the park without his front teeth. I was emphatically determined to leave with every tooth I’d come in with, and that determination was with me throughout the trek.

We were approaching the top, hoping for the fog to lift, as a Scottish couple was coming down from the Torres. They said, “it’s worth it.” “Even in this??” I asked? They said yes, it was atmospheric. So on we went, later past another couple who said nothing and then a couple we recognized from the refugio who also told us, with no solicitation, that it was worth it. Well, then. On we went, until we came to a lake—wait, there was a lake?? How did we not know there was a lake? And a glacier (yawn) or two. And the Torres, partially obscured by fog. We didn’t get the sunlit view, but we got the foggy Torres entirely to ourselves.

We lingered a bit—we made good time—but once we’d had our fill and realized the fog wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, started to head down. 

We had a ways to go, though mostly downhill, to get to the bus. We picked up our packs and headed down—at first through more up than either of us wanted to see. We ran into a group who asked us where the next stream was for them to get water. The water in the park is glacier water—pure and snowy—and whereas there are streams from which to collect it, they were nowhere near one. I told them Refugio Chileno wasn’t too far and felt a bit bad for them; they were probably counting on streams at every turn. It was getting very warm (though the Torres were still shrouded in fog). Finally when we got down to the base of the park, they came out for us. 

We took what we could get and got on the bus back to Puerto Natales, where we checked in for the ferry and set out in search of dinner before collecting the rest of our crap, which we’d left at the hostel with a note on it (no one was there when we had to check out and catch the bus to the park; another group was frantically looking for help to call a cab, but no hotel staff was to be found). We had to hope it would be there (I’d miss that iPad) and it was.

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