Torres del Paine – starting out

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As mentioned in the previous post the strike by the Chilean border guards did have some impact on my travels, but in the end it was merely an additional four hours waiting on the bus at a windswept border outpost until they would open the border again at 5pm. It still got me into Puerto Natales on time to check in and attend the gear check at Erratic Rock at 7pm. Met my co-walkers Colleen, Amanda, Alex and our guide Mauricio. The next morning we met again at 7am to catch the bus to the park.

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The bus takes you to Laguna Amarga from where you either take a shuttle bus to Hosteria Las Torres or you can start walking straightaway, which is what we did. It was a pretty easy walk, fairly flat, meandering through the fields and along guanacos, those camelids of Patagonia. Part of the way was through areas affected by the 2006 fires and it was terrible to see the devastation that has wrought on the trees. It takes a lot of time to regenerate, much longer than anywhere else and it will take decades before any of them look reasonable again. We stretched out our walking legs, our packs a bit heavy with the food we were carrying, and got to know each other a bit better. We went at a good pace, much to Mauricio’s delight and got to the Puesto Seron camping area in good time. A pleasant grassy spot and with nice weather , so we could enjoy setting up our tents and settling in. There were even showers, even if a bit unpredictable in temperature, so I made use of that while the opportunity was there. Meanwhile Mauricio had started dinner preparations and before too long we were eating a very tasty dinner of meat stew. First day over and after our briefing for the second day we all retired to our sleeping bags.

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The second day dawned bright and sunny, although that did develop in some light rain at lunchtime, but nothing too dramatic or that required too many clothes. The trail was long, 19Ks, and offered a varied landscape. First more grassland until we got to a lake from where we started climbing steeply to a windy pass where you had to brace yourself in the wind as it gusted at you. We then descended along mountain slopes having magnificent views of lakes, rivers braiding through the landscape and some fairly impressive looking mountains. We reached the Dickson campground in good time and set up our tents! promptly to be attacked by mosquitoes that literally bit through every piece of clothing. One decided it would kiss me on the cheek creating a nice bit red welt. At least the bites didn’t itch, which was one bonus. In any case the wind soon came up and blew the mozzies away. Through Mauricio’s connections and the kindness of the guys who run the Refugio (more on that in another post), we got to indulge in hot showers, which were pure bliss. Still can’t get over these luxuries on the trail; so different from bushwalking in Australia. Another great dinner awaited (meat ravioli with tomato sauce) and then it was bedtime. During the night the tent rattled and shook in the wind and rain and at times almost flattened, but it held up, which was not something you could say about every tent as I saw the next morning.

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Day three dawned sunny though, despite the rain overnight, and we now started heading uphill to the last campsite before the John Garner pass. It wasn’t a long hike, so we started late and it took us through pretty forest, with spectacular views of the mountains around. Walking wise it wasn’t my best day; my left foot was very painful, but ultimately got to camp and followed Mauricio’s advice to soak my feet in the river. Given the river comes straight off the glacier one can barely hold them in there for ten seconds before it becomes too painful, but three dips and they did feel a lot better, even better the next day, although that was of no use as I will share in the next post. Dinner consisted of an awesome lentil stew with rice and chorizo. So much for trying to lose weight on this walk. I can’t stop eating! Camp is cold, so we all go to bed early, also given that we have to start early tomorrow to go over the infamous pass. Or so we thought… To be continued.

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Glaciers, mountains, tempests and strikes

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Just back in El Calafate from Fitzroy and arrived in the midst of drama: the wind is howling at close to 100kms per hour cancelling all flights in and out of the place. To add insult to injury, the Chilean border guards have decided to go on strike and are not letting people through, except very piecemeal. So Agustina at La Estepa had bad news for me when I arrived this afternoon, that the bus tomorrow is cancelled, putting at risk the whole Torres del Paine part of my trip. An hour later we found out they will go, but don’t expect to cross the border until 5pm tomorrow, so it is going to be a long day and will be a case of embracing the unexpected. If I still don’t make it in time for the trek, I will take that as a sign from some higher power that I am not to do this trek. Twice unlucky in one year?!

Meanwhile, Fitzroy and El Chalten where magnificent and an absolute delight. I was blessed with medium to excellent weather; the day I arrived was windy and spitted a bit, but nothing too bad. First night was at Campamento De Agostini, near Cerro Torre, for me one of the most beautiful mountains in the world and I was keen to see it, but it had been shrouded in cloud on the walk in. After setting up my tent I had a wee rest, despite the fact that the walk wasn’t hard, but hey, it’s a holiday too! My new pack needed a few adjustments, but otherwise all good and the new sleeping mat is a dream – I was out for the count. Woke up at around 6pm from my snooze and decided to meander down to the lake to see how things were from a visibility point of view and was rewarded for braving the furious wind that howled off the lake in which floated various large chunks of blue ice, because the clouds were slowly unveiling Cerro Torre. I spent quite a bit of time in the hope she would reveal all, but she kept her summit covered, but I was still grateful for the view I had and the moody pictures it enabled me to take. Returned to my tent a happy camper. Dinner, sadly, wasn’t much chop. The freeze dried meals I had bought in São Paulo where not very nice or tasty, but I didn’t have much choice. Sleep on the other hand came fast again.

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The next morning the wind was strong and shaking the tent. After breakfast – can’t go wrong with porridge – I packed up and headed out to Poincenot campsite via the Laguna Madre y Hija trail. It spitted a bit more than the previous day, but it was still fine to walk in. Strong winds though. The lagunas were very pretty and would have been a nice place to stop if it hadn’t been for the wind. I reached Poincenot campsite in about 3 hours, found myself a good spot and set up the tent and, yes, retired again for a nanna nap. At 5pm I realised that the winds had died down quite a bit, the spitting rain had stopped and when I stuck my head out of the tent I found that the clouds had cleared and showed Mt Fitzroy clear and visible. I decided there and then to tackle the 500 vertical metres uphill to Laguna de las Tres while the mountain was free of clouds. Who knew what tomorrow would bring? I think I almost ran the first third, but after that slowed considerably because it is a very steep trail. Laboured up and encountered only people descending, so when I finally came to the frozen shores of Laguna de las Tres I had the place to myself. It was almost eerie sitting there, taking it all in and trying to capture it in photos. It is truly magnificent and yes, the Laguna was frozen and snowed over, so I was glad to have taken my down jacket. I ambled down towards the lake to skirt around and reach the point where I could see down into Laguna Sucia, which is not dirty, quite the contrary a piercing turquoise and not frozen and looks pretty inaccessible. Back down at camp at around 8pm I ate another tasteless freeze-dried meal and felt I had earned my sleep.

The next morning was beautiful, with blue skies and Fitzroy was cloud free and magnificent. My original plan was to do Piedras Blancas today and chill out with a book! but then I figured with the weather so good I should do Piedras Blancas and try to push on to Valle Electrico. The trail to Piedras went along the riverbed of the Rio Blanco and was not too bad, but had a few ankle twisting rocks in there. I arrived at the Piedras at the same time as a couple from Buenos Aires and we tried to find the way to the lake. At first it was ok, but then it got more and more difficult climbing over great boulders and shortly before the lake I knew I had gone as far as I could manage and turned around. Sense had to prevail, particularly on your own. Even so had difficulty locating my pack again, lost my protective wraps for my camera and a bit of my confidence by the time I had relocated my pack and myself again. Had a bit of lunch to get a grip on things again and then started looking for the river crossing and then realised my best option was to return to Poincenot. The crossing was too high (for me anyway, and I can see friends’ heads nodding in agreement) and well, it just didn’t feel right. So I returned and found my spot again for my tent, but also found I had new neighbours who turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. Still can’t figure out where they were from, but they were a bunch of selfish shits, with no respect for others in that campsite. That night after retiring to bed, they arrived back from a walk, proceeded to occupy the logs in my little patch of camp and yabbered and smoked away. When I got up to go to the toilet I literally found them sitting facing my tent about 1.5 metres away from where I was trying to sleep blowing cigarette smoke my way. I looked at them and said “well, if you are really going to sit here at least you could do the courtesy of not smoking; you are really bothering me”. They looked sheepish and shortly afterwards retired to their own tents, but then continued to talk and giggle for hours. At least I had ear plugs, but by 5am someone in the campsite obviously had enough, told them to stop it and when they didn’t take that seriously proceeded to kick them through the tent, which finally shut them up. I must say I harboured my own violent thoughts towards them, so can’t really blame the guy, but geez, what a night!

Walked back to El Chalten the next morning, which was quite a way downhill, but a lovely walk for me (maybe not so much for those labouring uphill). Found a warm and welcoming hostel. Probably could have gone for something more upmarket, but it was cosy and welcoming and it rather grew on me during my two days there. Did some washing, read my book and booked for a trip to the Viedma Glacier the next day, which was very nice. Was pleased that two Americans picked me as an Aussie for my accent; given my mix of languages that doesn’t happen very often. That night I probably had the best Waldorf salad ever in Pangea; highly recommended.

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This morning it was an 8am bus back to El Calafate in ferocious winds. I had just enough time for a quick lunch before taking the bus to Perito Moreno, which was enormous compared to Viedma and calved off a few pieces of ice while I was there. The colours of these glaciers are really remarkable. They go from the lightest blue to periwinkle to indigo. I hope my photos have captured it to some extent, but nothing is as good as seeing it.

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Just finished a massive bife de chorizo at Don Pinchon and still polishing off a bottle of Malbec from Rutini wines. Life is good. We’ll see what tomorrow brings and whether I make it to the Torres del Paine. If there is a long hiatus between posts, I will have made it, if not, you’ll hear more tales from me sooner wherever I may end up.