Sunday, April 07, 2002

Torres Del Paine (or Pain!)

Before I leap into the grand tale of Torres Del Paine and Dan's unfortunate accident, I will catch you up on how we got from Coyhaique to the park...

In coyhaique we had four days to fill (or kill) before we could fly to Punta Arenas in the far south. This is 'the' area that sporting fisherman flock to. Even some street signs are shaped like fish, and every mini market, hostal or restaurant seems to have photos of the owner gripping a massive trout or salmon - his proud catch. As Dan's luck would have it, this was NOT the ideal time for fishing, as a recent storm had muddied the churning waters of the Rio Simpson. Fishing, fishing, fishing! - both Dan and I were frustrated. He, because he was dying to experience the thrill of reeling in a big one, and me, because I was going crazy with his daily fishing schemes. Over the course of three days, Dan tried fruitlessly to catch a pesca. One day, we did a short hike near the usually abundant river, peering into the unfishable brown water. After a night in Aisen, we visited a new privately owned park, called Aiksen del Sur. We knew that the park was on the cusp of a lake, but learned too late that fishing was forbidden. As we stood on the dock, fish literally jumped out of the water in front of us. Dan's jaw was clenched. We had just entered the most expensive park, and been forced to take a guided tour, all in Spanish, only to be teased so. Our final day in Coyhaique, we stayed at an excellent log cabin albuergue on the outskirts of town, in an alpine forest with alpacas roaming between the trees. I had had enough of trekking in search of the elusive trout, and was happy to let Dan go on a search of his own...

Dan's take: The truth be told... Be it rain, wind, restrictions, location access or just poor skills!(as I'm sure my brother Rob would attest)I haven't had the best opportunities to snag a lunker down here. I can honestly say I caught a trout in Chile but is was just as big as the lure I was using and I didn't have my camera so Sarah still doubts this likely story. Sarah, however, has been EXTREMELY understanding throughout my botched attempts and I do appreciate it. I often explain that "I don't travel to surf or fish, I just enjoy surfing and fishing when I travel". I find both of these hobbies, when done overseas, create an opportunity to strike a rapport with locals immediately. It's very true surfers can be rather protective of their turf. In Easter Island however, I shared the waters with a handful of locals eager to chat to the Gringo. Fisherman on the other hand, worldwide, have always been helpful and eager to share secrets and tackle to assist me. I've received the same here in Chile where Trout fishing is BIG business. I would have to spend about 150 dollars (4 days worth of budgeted funds) to hire a local guide to get closer to a guaranteed fish. I was ultimately content to hitch hike on my own. Using my limited spanglish I managed to get 4 separate rides to a lake 20Kms in the outskirts of Coyhaique. Hiking through the Autumn kissed valleys I managed to get to the lake only for the wind to be howling so hard I couldn't get my lure in the water. I spent an hour amidst the whisping waves and stared at the Andes backdrop in the distance, forgeting about the fish was rather simple. As soon as I decided to head back, I was fortunate to get one ride which would take me the whole way home. I shared these 20 minutes of swerving curves with a 82yr Merchant Marine retiree. He comes to the lake every morning to finish the house he is building. We listened to tango and since he spoke as many words of English as I know Spanish we talked the whole way home about Chile, music, distant family and traveling the world. He dropped me off at the supermarket so I could buy food I couldn't catch, but I didn't mind paying for that, since I had managed to catch a whole lot more that there is always ARGENTINA!!!!!


"To say that the Chilean landscape is beautiful, is a masterful understatement."

This has been the part of the trip that I have been anxiously anticipating the most. We have been in a rush to get down south in order to insure that the weather would not be unbearable for trekking this famous patagonian park. The 'right' season to visit is generally between late DEC & FEB (summer). There is the possibility to encounter good weather between OCT and APRIL, but you are risking snow, storms, lashing rain, and the possibility that not all the refugios (cabins) will be open. Upon arrival in Punta Arenas it seemed that our timing was all wrong. We checked and learned that a storm front was coming and that our last days on a 6 day trek would likely be plagued with storm. However, the more we discussed and learned about the unique micro climate that exists in the park, the more we realized that there was still a good chance that we could enjoy ourselves, as the weather changes multiple times in one day. It is not possible to predict what the weather will actually be like. I made the call that if we waited a couple of weeks, it was likely that it would become more cold and much worse. Thus, we embarked on our trekking adventure. In Puerto Natales (the nearest village to the park) we spent a day preparing for our coming week. We rented waterproof pants, sleeping bags, reserved our nights at various refugios along the popular "W" trail, and shopped for enough food to cover at least 1/2 of our camping meals.

DAY 1 March 31, 2002
At 7:30 the following morning, we were on our 3 hour busride to the starting point of our trek. The morning was absolutely glorious, with clear skies and the parks' mountains looming before us in all their splendor. Our driver stopped along the journey so that we could take photos of the wildlife - condors, rheas, and guanacos. I felt like we were on a mini-african safari!

Eventually, we were ready to start our 2 hour plus hike to the first refugio, El Chileno. I was NOT looking forward to carrying my heavy backpack for this long. Especially, since the first leg of our journey was entirely uphill! Within 15 minutes, my calves were burning, my shoulders were aching, and I had stripped down to a tanktop, drenched with sweat. We were entering a mountainous canyon that would house our first refugio, and would eventually lead to the closest mirador (lookout) of the stunning Torres Del Paine. Once we had shedded our backpacks and eaten lunch, I was ready for the remaining hike to further heights. We walked through a stunning forest glowing with autumn colors. The trees reminded me of delicate japanese maple trees with black shiny bark and leaves in shades of fire red, lemon yellow, and 70's orange. We climbed higher to our final destination, scrambling thru a massive boulder fall and courting the edge of a laughing stream. Ahh...the Torres - 4 ragged searing mountains, piercing the sky like daggers, a mint green pool of water at their feet, and ice periodically roaring and crashing to the ground. We were so lucky to be blessed with a clear view of these giants. Unfortunately, my camera had seized an hour into the hike, so Dan and I will only have the digital photos (and our memory!) to remember this grand sight.

DAY 2 - April 1, 2002
5-6 hours of hiking with backpacks! We descended down to the center of the park on our trek along the Lago Nordenskjold. This hike seemed easier, probably because we were going downhill or flat for the majority of time. Either that, or I was getting used to playing the mule. We crossed many streams and rivers, hopping from one rock to another, precariously balanced. We tramped through bogs and mud, searching out dry clods of land. The day had once agan begun beautifully, but by the afternoon mother nature had decided to make thngs harder for us. The ferocious wind that we had been warned of, began gusting through the valley. All of my fragile girlyness became pronounced as I was pushed to and fro by the wicked wind, fighting to keep upright and not be swept off the trail. Light rain lashed sideways as we forged against the might of air. Our hike seemed to take forever with no end in sight. Where was the refugio? All of a sudden, I heard Dan tripping behind me. I turned to watch him fall and tumble down the rocky path, landing in a sprawl with his massive pack under him. He started to scream as he curled up in a ball, yelling "Oh no! My ankle!" I was absolutely horrified. He yelled "My ankle! The bone is sticking out!" I looked at his boot, and saw this horrible protrusion underneath his sock. He had broken his ankle! Tears were springing to my eyes as I bent down to the ground, crying in fear. In a state of panic, I was trying to take off Dan's backpack and calm and comfort him as best as I could. As I reached to touch his boot, he started to laugh. Was this a joke? "Why would you do this?!" "April Fools!" Dan shouted, as he pulled a stick out of his sock. I would have been angry if I hadn't been so damn happy that he hadn't broken his ankle. We had a long hug and a good laugh, and resumed our fight with mother nature, all the way to our warm refugio Cuernos and a hot shower.

DAY 3 April 2, 2002
A day of rest? We had decided to stay 2 nights at Cuernos refugio so that we would be able to visit the Valle de Frances unencumbered by our backpacks. Despite being less the load, we knew we were in for a long and difficult day, as it would take almost 5 hours to reach the final mirador (a 700 meter climb), and another 5 to return to our accommodation. The morning began with blustery rain. We geared up in our waterproof pants and jackets and began at 9AM. The 1st 2 hours were very difficult as we hiked on very rocky and muddy paths, skirting the lake Nordenskjold until our sharp right into the depths of the valley. Our first sight of the Glaciar Frances, partially hidden by clouds, was of high snow covered peaks, melting into a glacier that converged above a river. The weather was not ideal, and we were teased by moving clouds that never seemed to clear the peaks. Despite this, we forged on, determined to reach the higher plateau and hidden valley. More climbing, and twisting thru hobbit-like forests and we made it! We arrived into a glorious valley of vibrant orange-leaved trees, light blue rivers, white-rock riverbeds, all surrounded by a horseshoe of craggy peaks. The drizzle was now replaced with a light dusting of snow that bounced off our jackets. The mirador gave us an awesome view back toward whence we had trekked, with turquoise lakes in the distance, and the sky opened up - blue with fluffy clouds, revealing the outline of all the tall mountains that surrounded us. We were high on the beauty, and commenced our return journey. Our slow walk escalated into a rabbit run as we raced down the trail, hopping over obstacles. We returned to our refugio by 5PM, having completed the journey in less than 8 hours, utterly exhausted, legs a'shakin', and treated ourselves to a salmon dinner.

DAY 4 - April 3, 2002
The day we dread...our hike of yesterday involved two terrible hours at the beginning, and 2 terrible hours at the end. This is what we had to look forward to again, except this time with a backpack. We were woken early with the rattling of our refugio. Fierce winds were threatening to rip the roof off, and it had been periodically raining thru the night. No one seemed eager to begin the day. We stayed in bed longer than usual (past 8), and didn't hit the trail until almost 10:30AM. Poor Dan was suffering from some very large blisters on his feet. His heels were wrapped in moleskin, bandaids, and tape, and he minced with every step. The weather had quickly changed (as is the Torres way) and we had golden sunlight with gale force wind. This walk was beautiful, and deserved more pauses and appreciation, but I was anxious to make our 4 hours on feet, end as quickly as possible. We have now made it to Pehoe refugio, where we are warmed by a woodburning stove, and once again are smelling soapy clean after a long hot shower. We have mountains, green valleys and teal lakes to view out of every window. I'm toasting a glass of red wine to the pleasure and pain - "Salud". Tonight, we wine and dine with an enthusiastic crew of brits, euros, and new worlds. Gato Negro, red wine in a carton, is the way to go.

DAY 5 - April 4, 2002
A new day. We had been told that today's hike to the Grey Glacier would be easier than our previous days. Estimated at 3.5 hours, it certainly was going to be our shortest. Dan's blisters made boots unbearable, but he was not going to "wuss out" on the final leg of our trek. He donned a pair of flipflops, ready to traverse muddy mountain trails. This hike reminded us both of California, with walls of granite and big trees similar to oaks. We reached our 1st lookout to see icebergs floating in the lake. Crossing the next ridge, we could see the massive and impressive grey glacier, split by a rock island. We arrived at Grey refugio in time for a hot gnocchi with bolognese lunch. More trekking loomed before us, as we spent another 3 hours trying to get as close to the ice blue glacier as the terrain permitted. I'm utterly exhausted at walking. Tomorrow, we have the option to catch a $30 ferry from the Grey refugio, which will eventually bring us back to the main road, and our bus back to Puerto Natales, or walk back to Pehoe refugio (of last night) and take a different ferry for $15. This is big money on a backpacker budget. Are we strong enough to hike ANOTHER 3.5 hrs. up and down craggy mountains, or are we going to go posh and spend the dough?...

DAY 6 - April 5, 2002
Hell no, we're not going to walk! We spent the money, and we're very glad for it. It turns out that the ferry trip was also a tour that took you up close to the glaciers. There were only 7 of us on the boat, all gawking at the rich shades of ice blue. It is not until you are at water level that you can really appreciate the enormity of this mass of frozen water. We were treated to whiskey or pisco sours, with ice from the bergs, scooped right out of the lake. Nothing like a hard drink at 11 in the morning, on a near empty stomach.

Eventually, we made it back to Puerto Natales, where we spent two nights of rest. Dan did try to fish for salmon in the nearby bay. We had heard that only a week or so earlier, thousands of fish had escaped a piscicultura (fishing farm), and were ready to be lined out and plopped on a plate. A windy day and a rickety pier kept him out for a very short while and returned him empty-handed. (I think I might take up knitting now...dg) We are now in Punta Arenas, planning our next adventure. We will keep you filled in as we go along...

much love,
Sarah and Dan P.S.

We have more photos in the Aisen section and now a tribute to Patagonia Chile. Check out and


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