Tuesday, November 16, 2010

PATAGONIA: Tierra Del Fuego, Torres Del Paine & The "W"

On our last day hiking the "W" in Torres Del Paine National Park, Christina and I woke up and began hiking at 3:30 a.m. with our headlamps to make it to the lookout before the sun came up.  We sat atop a boulder, perched percariously upon the sea of endless odd shaped, volkswagon sized rocks which we had just scrambled up.  As the sun rose behind us, the Torres Del Paine was set on fire.  As I watched the sun creep down the granite towers, all thoughts of exhaustion and the bitter cold dissappeared.  But, I could not help but to think of the journey that brought us to the end of the world, to the center of a national park, to the top of a mountain, to watch the show before us.  What a trip it had been.

Getting to Torres Del Paine was no easy task, Patagoina is off the grid, man.  From Buenos Aires, we caught a five hour flight to Ushuaia, Argentina.  After two days in Ushuaia, we caught a 13 hour bus to Punta Arenas.  The quality of buses and subsequent rides vary greatly in S. America. If you sign up for anything over four hours, you better pray your bus was built after 1970, your driver is clinically sane, drug free, and drinks alcohol only sparingly while driving.  During our bus ride, we were locked in the passenger cabin (there was a door seperating us from the exit and the driver) and all windows were sealed shut.  After two hours of patchy sleep, the bus came to a stop.  The driver swung open the door yelling "Cambio! Cambio! Cambio!".  Though we did not know it was in the flight plan, we were all hurded off the bus and onto a similiar, slightly shittier bus.  Thirteen hours later, after two haphazard border crossings and having survived only on potato chips and peanuts for half a day, we arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile.  Having come from the charming sleepy town of Ushuaia, Punta Arenas seemed like a see nothing, do nothing kind of town.  Christina and I headed to the grocery, grabbed a roasted chicken and some frozen vegetables and headed to the hostel to enjoy some proper food.  Having subsided on a meat only diet while in Argentina for the past 10 days, our bodies were craving some nutrients and fiber.  We attacked our avocado and tomato salad like pack of starving vegans unleashed at a Whole Foods.  We woke up the next morning and after a a four hour bus ride, arrived in the small town of Puerto Natales.

It looked nasty, it tasted great!

We immediately felt at home in Puerto Natales.  Nestled in a fjord surrounded by the mountains, Puerto Natales is the kind of place you dont want to leave.  The streets are packed with throngs of Gore-Tex clad hikers looking to get their fix.  Everyone here is an addict and the drug is the same: The Torres Del Paine National Park.  At the advice of a friend, we booked a night at Erratic Rock Hostel.  Erratic Rock is run by Bill, an Oregonian socialist turned ex pat who built the Hostel with a group of friends.  They now run several successful hostels, guide companies, etc.  They make homemade bread every morning, they've started the first recycling program in Patagonia and they make you feel like you belong.  It's no shock that Christina and I feel right at home with a bunch of liberal, ex hippie, environmentalist nature loving freaks.  We came to Puerto Natales with no plans, but one lofty goal in mind: hike the famous "W" trail in Torres Del Paine. Luckily, Bill had just started a business next door called "Base Camp" that specializes in renting gear to hikers and holds daily information talks for everyone ambitious enough to take on the "W".  Five hours after arriving in Puerto Natales, Christina and I had rented all of the necessary gear, stocked up on ramen noodles and breakfast bars and were packing our backpacks for four nights and five days in The Torres Del Paine Park.  Christina and I both slept sparingly that night, both excited and nervous for the adventure ahead.

We woke up the next morning and ate a hearty breakfast before hopping on a bus to Torres Del Paine.  While on the bus, we met some great people with whom we would spend the next few days trekking together, on and off.  There was Scott, a burley, but light hearted Aussie from Brisbane with hands that looked like they could crush stone.  He was traveling for six months with his fiance, Leanne, a soft spoken sweet heart from Scotland.  There was Dave, the 23 year old Canuck with a loveable, slightly bizzare personality who looked like Fidel Castro and carried himself like a spider-monkey with ADHD.  Dave had been traveling the world for the past 11 months alone, which takes a very unique person. Dave indeed is unique.  Lastly, there was Sia and Tom, both Aussies, one with an MD and one with a PHD, both of whom had been traveling for the last nine months.  Sia and Tom were both extremely warm hearted, they struck up a conversation when we sat down and the entire group became acquanited rather quickly.  It amazes me how quickly you can become friends with fellow travelers, but how long it takes to develop a relationship in the real world.  But, I guess travelers have a lot in commom: although reigning from all differnt walks of life, from all over the world, they are usually in the same place, at the same time, for the same reason.  It doesnt take much to see how strong bonds can form so quickly.    Three and a half hours into our two hour bus ride, we arrived at our destination.  To get to the trail head, we had to take a catamaran across Lake Pehoe, a lake composed of glacial melt and so strikingly blue, it simply did not appear to be real. After an hour of staring at the lake in disbelief, we disembarked and we were on our way.

Nearly a year ago, I bought a Men's Journal in an airport while waiting for a flight back to Chicago.  While flipping through the magazine, I came across a section titled "The Ultimate Bucket List". This section gave first-person accounts from writers who set out to mark off long standing items on their bucket lists.  Among the list of items were kayaking the Sea of Cortez, multiple day adventure racing in New Zealand and hiking the "W" in Torres Del Paine National Park, Patagonia. The outdoor lover that I am, this last item was caught in my mind.  It contanied a detailed itinerary, a workout regimen and a list of necessary gear.  I read the article twice, earmarked the page upon landing and threw it underneath my coffee table when I got home, where it collected dust along with a stack of old food magazines I could not bear to throw away.  I shared this with no one but Christina.  Like those who read luxury boating magazines and dreamt of what could one day be, I planted a seed in my conscience that I would one day hike the "W".  Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that nine short months later, I would step off a boat and onto the "W".  It took lots of planning and traveling nearly to the end of the world, but I made it happen. Fucking A!

Moments after entering the park.

On the Catamaran heading to the trail head.

Glacier Grey.  We slept right on the side of this giant ice cube.

Quick stop for a photo opon day one.

Action shot.

The next day we got a real taste of what we were in for.  To hike "W" in its entirety there is a lot of backtracking involved.  Our first full day, we woke up and hit the trail at 8:00 a.m.  Four hours later, we arrived at the spot where we had been dropped off the day prior.  We grabbed a seat and a lunch of tuna and crackers.  After only four hours, we were a bit tired.  But, having only looked at the map sparingly, we did not realize that we had to hike 24 kilometers that day (15 miles).  We cleaned up our mess kit and set off for the rest of the day, completely unaware of the pain ahead.  This was the first point where I realized that the gear I had was completely insufficient.  My shoes, which were much lighter than hiking boots, had significantly thinner soles.  If you stepped on a softball sized rock, the sole of my shoe would bend and flex instead of remaining rigid as it should have.  After walking on softball sized rocks for over ten hours up and down steep inclines, my feet felt as if they had been beaten endlessly by a broom handle.  Nearly an hour from our camp site and after nine hours of hiking, Christina and I traded glances, both of us questioning what the hell we had gotten ourselved into.  We left our first campsite at 8:00 a.m. and arrived at our 2nd campsite at 6:00p.m. dog tired.  We made a quick dinner of pasta and powdered soup and called it a night.  The following day was supposed to be our longest yet, Christina and I both went to bed a bit concerned about the day ahead of us.

On our way up the FrenchValley.

We woke up the next morning and hit the trail as the sun turned the peaks golden at 5:30 a.m. We had ahead of us our toughest day yet and we knew it.  We had to hike the French Valley on our 3rd day and we had heard rumors about it and the pain it inflicted from everyone who crossed it's path. The French Valley is, unsurprisingly, a valley that runs between two mountains.  It is the toughest portion of the "W" and makes up the middle line in the "W".  Many people only journey half way up to enjoy the views.  But, Christina was determined to journey not just to the top at Camp Brittanico, but half an hour past that point up a nearly vertical boulder strewn trail to the look out point.  Reaching the top of the French Valley takes a bit of intestinal fortitude.  It's a three hour ascent to the top over an endless field of odd shaped boulders, ranging in size from small cars to beach balls with avalanches sounding off in the background every few minutes.  Luckily, we had left our backpacks at our camp and packed only our day pack with the bare essentials.  But, when we set out that morning, having barely checked the map, we did not realize we had signed up to hike 26 kilometers (16.2 miles) straight up and straight down.  Whomever made up the phrase "it's all downhill from here" didn't know shit about hiking.  After walking down a steep vertical decline riddled with boulders for nearly three hours, your knees will feel like you pulled a career in the major leagues behind the plate.  When I finally saw flat land on our third day, I felt as if I was Columbus and I had discovered the America's; what a glorious site it was.  Eleven hours after we had set out, we stumbled back to our camp tired and nearly sick with exhaustion. Actually we were amongst a small group of people who collapsed on the beach twenty minutes away from the campsite, unsure as to whether or not we could tackle the last few kilometers.  Tired, covered in dirt and smelling like we had pulled back-to-back stints at Bonaroo, Christina and I arrived in camp and collapsed in a heap.  Less experienced than most hikers at camp, we thought that we had only completed 13 kilometers.  We had failed to count the return distance until we talked with fellow hikers and they gasped at the distance we covered (*it's important to note that there are different campsites and we picked our route beforehand, a route which few people did.  I can assure you, this was done out of ignorance only) Our last two days proved relatively easy compared to the two days prior.  On our fourth day, we slept in and trotted leisurely to our campsite.  Torres Del Paine is full of micro ecosystems.  The environments change daily and on this day, we had made our way away from the glaciers and onto the grass filled valley.  We stopped at a few streams to grab a drink and take in the view.  It's worth noting that the entire time we were in Torres Del paine, we never once filtered our water.  We filled up our Nalgene's directly from the streams of melted glacier water.  I was a bit concerned at first about the prospect of drinking directly from the stream.  Thoughts of microscopic amoebas in the water and ensuing weeks on the toilet made me cringe before I took my first sip. But after confirming from multiple people that Torres Del Paine is one of the few places on earth with unspoiled resources, I embraced the idea.  And, the water was amazing.  Screw the bottle of Ice Mountain Water, I was literally drinking directy from the stream, running off a glacier in the mountain.  I had embodied the illustrated graphic on countless bottles of water sold throughout the world, but this was the real McCoy.  Although we took it easy that day, we smashed the hike and arrived at camp a full two hours earlier than people who had left before us.  The thought of pizza and beer hung above my head, like a carrot driving a donkey in a cartoon. Having arrived at camp, I choked down another chicken flavored pasta dinner before calling it a very early night at 8:00 p.m.

A video on our way up the French Valley.

The trail sometimes disappeared.

Lake Nordenskjold.
They next morning we donned our headlamps and set out at 3:30 a.m. in time to make it to the towers by sunset for the grand finale.  Having gone to bed while it was still light out the past few days, I had not yet seen the stars in Torres Del Paine.  When I peaked my head outside, I smiled from ear-to-ear.  The stars were so numerable, it was hard to find the dark space between them.  Outside of my trip to New Zealand, I had never seen a sky filled so abundantly with twinkling stars.  We had ahead of us a two hour hike in the dark before we reached the base camp.  Afterward, we would have to scramble nearly vertically up a feld of boulders for 45 minutes before reaching the view point.  Our adrenaline was pumping when we hit the trail that morning, both from excitement and fear of life and limb.  It was drilled in our head before we left that if we were injured in the park, we might as well pray that our friends can carry us out.  Ranger Bill will not appear and rescue you like he does in the movies. Not to mention, the thougt of a Puma jumping out of the bush to eat my delicious human flesh crossed my mind more than once.  Each step I took that morning was premeditated.  The park has a handful of elevated water crossings, where streams become impassable on foot. Navigating these in the dark will make the hair stand up onthe back of your neck at times.  They look like they are constructed with second hand lincoln logs and you can feel their eb and flow as your tip-toe across them.  We reached base camp early.

The last 45 minutes before reaching the top of the look out was without question the most painful part of our five day hike for me.  When I checked the map prior to our departure, it had indicated this 45 minute ascent with an arrow pointing straight to the heavens. After four full days of hiking, my body was spent and running on adrenaline.  Christina tried her best to cheer me on, but she knew that I was losing steam.  With one last push, we made it to the top and quickly threw on all of the clothes we had stripped off on our way up.  As the sun eclipsed the horizon, I got a bit emotional, though I did not show it.  Nine months ago I had planted a tiny seed in the back of my mind that if I tried hard enough, I could make it to Patagonia and do the "W".  Now, here I was at the end of the world after over 90 kilometers of hiking, sitting on a boulder, taking it all in.  More than any other time in my life, I had proved to myself that if I put my mind to something, to anything, I can make it happen.  And, what an amazing feeling that is.

Torres for sunrise!

Kicking back with our fellow treckers, waiting for the bus back home.

Video from the Torres on the last day.

Just finished trecking!  Christina admiring her boots and the last of our chicken flavored food.

Made it to the lookout in the French Valley.

1 comment:

  1. Clay, this post makes my heart pitter patter. Really, your talking right to my soul here. The realization of your ability to do that which at one point you only dreamed of sounds so familiar. As I mentioned in concluding my blog-post of my travels in Italy (http://pizzicletta.blogspot.com/), belief in one's self is really powerful, allowing you to do something that most people only dream of. Bravo my friend.
    Enjoy your time... you will never forget these moments.