Monday, March 26, 2012

Day 3: Up to the mirador, down to the lake

***Posting has been delayed of late because Dad was in town, and classes have been in full effect.  I'm making a conscious effort to get these up more regularly.  This series is going to take a while though***

Today started fairly early - just as the first glimmers of sunlight started to come into the camp.  For some reason, I've never been very good at sleeping in while camping.  I've narrowed it down to 3 options:  sleeping on a wildly insufficient ground pad, every light molecule that hit my tent illuminated the inside like the 7th day of Hanukkah, or the fact that I was screamed at to wake up on every camping trip between the ages of 11 and 16.  The answer lies somewhere in there.  

Regardless, I was up relatively early to try and get a good look at the mirador.  Supposedly the morning sun illuminates the towers in red, making for a spectacular sight.  I left my tent and gear back in camp, and set out on the 45 min hike up to the mirador.

The way up was steeper than the initial part of the trail the day before, but not having my 50 lb pack on made a world of difference.  I blew past a decent number of other hikers on this part of the trail, stopping only for a few photos and water breaks.
 The goal, just beyond the cloud.

A little closer to the top, still just within the treeline.

Self-timed magic.
The final part of the trail - a switchbacking section over skree that ended at the mirador.

Once I got to the mirador, I realized what all the fuss was about.  This is truly a natural wonder here on earth. These 3 stone towers rise over this serene aquamarine pool, decorated on all sides with a cavalcade of different rock formations garnishes with patches of stubborn snow.  Truly a sight to behold; my camera felt wildly insufficient for the views all around.

After spending some time at the mirador, I hopped back down the trail and broke down camp.  My legs were feeling surprisingly fresh at this point, but that all changed within about 500 yards after the pack was back on. Stupid 3 man tent.

The descent out of the Torres run was actually quite lovely.  A long stretch of the path was fairly level, so I was able to actually enjoy the magnificent view in front of me as I hiked down the hill.  My toenails were also freshly cut, so there was nothing to hold me back (those who have backpacked before know exactly what I'm talking about).

After getting out of the Torres valley, I walked through a grassy area lining the south side of the range.  Here I ran into our first batch of wild horses on the trip.
 Taking the shortcut down from the towers.  Instead of the 2 hour ascent from the day before, it was a 5+ hour slow descent, mixed with some gradual ascents over riverbeds.
 This horse was grazing right next to the trail, where a horde of Israeli trekkers were taking pics of him eating. As I walked by, he looked up and said hello to me.  It's a blonde thing.

View of the ridgeline on my right side.

One of these little birds (called ibis, I believe).  They have comically long beaks, which they were using to poke around the soil for grubs or whatever it is they eat.

Approaching the lake on which I'd spend the rest of the day walking around.  Little streams kept coming down from the mountains, and had eaten out parts down to the rock beds.  Outside of that though,  it was a pretty lush land.

Some of the paths had been worn down pretty significantly into the earth...
 ...and some of it was just climbing over boulders.

Around to the other side of the ridgeline, it started to look a little more ominous.

Right about this point, I started to run out of steam.  I originally planned to make it all the way to Campamento Italiano this night, but I had to call it about 2.5km short of the goal.  After getting to camp, I checked the map for the day's distance.  The final count was just shy of 19km total.
 Plus the camp I walked up to had this view.  I couldn't say no to a night here.

Notice 2 pairs of socks drying out.  It was a long sweaty day for the feet.

At camp, I met Alex and Kelly from California.  They were in the campsite next to me, and I watched them cook their tuna surprise while I went for my classic tuna un-surprise, with mustard and white bread.  They told me about a great backside view of the Torres del Paine from a closed trail up French Valley.  I thanked them, and mentally planned to make this run tomorrow (more on this next post).

Before the sun set, I walked down to the side of the lake to sit and think, and take a few pictures there as well.  I saw one guy doing yoga down by the beach, which looked like a really, really good idea to me at the time.  Having never done yoga though, I just opted to do some old football warm-up stretches and then find a comfortable place to sit.  From that seat, I took pictures of what I thought were some of the most beautiful views I had the entire time in the park.

I don't think these pictures really do justice to how utterly awe-inspiring the area was.  Sitting on the beach, exhausted, in the presence of this other-worldly beauty, my mind couldn't even come close to comprehending the views before me.  The worldly and extra-worldly factors that had to come together just perfectly to create this scene are practically countless - a spot on Earth that won the geological Powerball.  I would have stayed and sat on that beach forever, but it got pretty cold once the sun disappeared behind the mountains, so I went up to the refugio and played jenga with a Chilean family of 5 for a while.  After that, I sat outside my tent for a while and stared at the stars until it was time to fall asleep.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Day 2: Into Torres del Paine

Today started semi-early, mostly because everybody else in the hostel got up early.  Puerto Natales has a lot of day trips and things to do like whitewater rafting or ziplining in addition to Torres del Paine, so everybody starts pretty early in the hostels.  Plus it's not exactly 5 star accommodations, so sleeping in isn't really a favorable option.  I had a leisurely breakfast with a fellow hostel-mate, a Basque girl named Meri who was just leaving town.  She had nothing but good things to say about Torres de Paine, which only further fueled my desire to get into the park.  After that, I went to the supermarket to load up on food for the trail.

As I made the trip solo, I had to end up carrying the gear which would normally be shared between two people, like cooking equipment and a tent.  Plus, the tent that I bought (from a Swedish guy moving back home) was a 3-person tent, less than ideal for backpacking.  This meant that, in the name of my back, I would forefit the stove and all hot food during my time in TdP.
Trail lunch of champions.

My bus wasn't into TdP until 2:30 PM, so I spent the rest of the morning wandering around Puerto Natales.  The city itself is clearly based upon tourism, every shop was either for outdoor adventures, internet cafes, or hostel.
This is what most of "downtown" looked like.

I also saw this little guy, who looked awfully familiar...

On the edge of town, there's a little bay which separates the city from some magnificent landscapes in the distance.

In case any of you (Dad) were interested in what our latitude was.

Back at the hostel, I grabbed my very full bag and hopped on the bus.  It was a bit of a drive to get out there, but the landscape itself was so interesting that the time seemed to fly by.

Here we stopped so everybody on the bus could take a 10 min break to smoke cigarettes.  In reality, we were probably there for 25 mins.  Chilean time.

These are creatures called guanacos, which are in the same family as llamas.  We saw a decent number of them in the flatlands outside of the park.

Finally at about 4:30 PM, we got into the park.  There were a few guides there to give us pointers and remind us to not start fires, but after that we all hopped into a slightly smaller bus, and took off on the trail.

Map of day 1 on the trail:
The first 1/3 of the blue line was covered by a minibus that bussed a bunch of us in.  I rode in with a couple from Belgium, and Philip, a German superconductor engineer.  He had a really nice digital camera, the first of many I saw which made me realize how inadequate my little brick was in capturing the majesty of this park. 

Officially the last picture taken with fresh clothes and legs.

I got started a little late (about 5 PM), so I had to move quickly if I was to make it to campamento Torres that night.  Supposedly one of the best views of the park is the Mirador los Torres just after sunrise, and I wanted my morning hike the next day to be as quick as possible.  So off I went.

Starting off on the trail - a nice gradual downhill.  The next 2 hours were pure uphill.
 Crossing a little river over a rickety bridge with 25 kilos on my back.  Every bad action movie I've ever seen flashed before my eyes with each step.
 Finally getting over the 2 hour uphill, took a break before walking along the trail.

As you can probably see, my face is significantly redder than in that first picture.  I was also wearing my Michigan Football t-shirt, in hopes of catching some fellow wolverines on the trail.  The second guy I met was from Ohio State.
(This was also the last day I wore any cotton)

Crossing the river again, right before Campamento Chileno.

One of the ravines, cut into the hill over years of melting snow and earthquakes.

Through the park, you could see the treeline fighting to climb each mountain.  Some were easier for mother nature to scale than others.

Finally arrived at about 9:45 PM.

Note the jeans hanging on top of the tent.  They were soon to be buried deep in my bag.  I was exhausted by the end of the day, but still in awe of the surrounding landscape.  

As I was sitting outside my tent eating a tuna fish dinner, a little red fox scampered through the campsite.  Nobody else noticed, but he came about 15 feet away from me and froze.  We stared each other down for a couple seconds, then he darted off into the woods.  A nice little bow on top of the first day in the park.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Patagonia Day 1: Punta Arenas/Puerto Natales

So, as my loyal followers may have noticed, I was in Patagonia for the past 10 days on one of the best trips I've ever taken.  I saw so many cool and beautiful and otherworldly things that it doesn't seem possible to sum it up in a single post.  Thus, I'm going to break it down by day, and give a more detailed account of what happened in the southermost areas of the Americas.

Day 1 started in Santiago.  My flight left at the crack of noon, so I got up early.  Real early, like 9:00 AM early.  Packed up, I threw my backpack on and started to walk to the subway.  It was funny, as soon as I started walking through the streets of Santiago like that, I went from a perceived "possibly a local" to "GD tourist".  I felt a few strange looks, people wouldn't hand me flyers, and gift-sellers pursued me harder than usual.  All in the 3 blocks to the metro station.

Once at the airport, I picked myself up a little light reading for the flight.
Surprisingly, this turned out to be a great tool for tweaking my Spanish.  The pictures help determine the context, so its relatively easy to figure out what any unknown words mean.  Also, since they all end with a "joke"  (signified by the appearance of "Plop!"), it usually indicates a double entendre.  So really, reading comic books makes me smarter.  Take that, teachers.

Also, the security for national flights in Chile was about as airtight as a screen door.  Here's a shot after getting through security:
The security rivaled the strictest of public libraries.  But they have no terrorism problems, so why bother?  Everybody kept their shoes on, photo IDs were not checked, and the X-ray machine conveyor belt was set to "overdrive".  It was great, I haven't felt so unmolested at an airport in a long time.

Even the flight down was very enjoyable.  The trip was 4 hours in total, broken up by a 15 min layover in Puerto Montt (approx halfway to Punta Arenas).  It sounds like it would be annoying to have a layover on a flight like this, but it sort of kept things changing and interesting.  We ascended, got an in-flight meal, had another 30 mins, descended, then repeated it again after the layover.

Now, I know what you're thinking.  "Sure, you repeated the cycle, but no way you got a second in-flight meal, right?"

WRONG.  TWO in-flight meals.  And they weren't just some peanuts and a plastic grin.  These were full meals.
I took a picture of the first, but I didn't feel comfortable taking a picture of the second.  The guy next to me was clearly surprised when I took a picture of this meal, and I didn't want to come off any more asian than I already did.

Anyway, once we arrived in Punta Arenas, I decided to try and get a bus right away to Puerto Natales so I could get into Torres del Paine the next day.  I was able to get a 7:30 PM bus out, so I had about 90 mins to kill in the city.  Punta Arenas is right on the Straits of Magellan, so I hiked down and got a look.

The town seemed unique, albeit a little vanilla.  I would spend a little more time here at the end of the trip, so I wasn't worried about exploring much further.

Puerto Natales was about 3 hours away by bus, and by the time we got there it was about 11:00 PM.  It was cold and windy, especially compared to the last 3 months of Santiago summer nights.  I ducked into the first hostel I saw, bought bus tickets into Torres del Paine the next day, and relaxed a bit.  There were 3 girls who had just finished their time in the Israeli army, and were traveling around South America for a year.  They had this method of trimming stray mustache hairs by twisting up a piece of strong threat, and using it like scissors on each other.  We spoke for a little while, and then called it a night.  I slept that night with images of enormous mountains and lush forests splayed through my dreams.