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Llamas Gordas

Torres del Paine

CHILE | Wednesday, 5 December 2007 | Views [1071] | Comments [3]

Patagonia as a region grips you--and never lets go. It enchants you. Captures your every glance. Tantilizes your senses! It is no wonder that men upon men have written of this wonderous place. This trip truly has been one through Patagonian terrain, and it is here that we have seen some of the world's most beautiful treasures, especially that of Torres del Paine.

The granite steeples of Torres del Paine grace the cover of almost every Chilean guidebook. It is revered as the most beautiful national park in South America, and equally as reknowned in the world.  Within the park, one can reach glaciers, lakes of different blue hues, streams, calafate bushes (patagonian berries), and the Torres-granite peaks that stand so magically against the sky, that you can't help but imagine wizards conjuring the worlds energy within the towers. All that beauty is accessible by several hour hikes! No problem, right?  

But a backpacking trip begins well before you start hiking.  You need to buy food, check your gear, make sure you have enough stuff but not too much.  You also need to make sure you are feeling well, because the physical demands of hiking for several hours with 40 or 50 pounds on your back can easily make a beautiful trip miserable.  Meli and I hit the stores, stole some plastic bags from the fruit section, and bought a bunch of stuff for eating on the trail.  We ditched our extra weight - who needs a Spanish dictionary and eye makeup when you are watching condors right - and took the bus up to the park, which in itself is spectacular.  Along the way you are assaulted by the views of the park and entertained by herds of llama-like guanaco who can bound away at amazing speeds and leap to dizzying heights and are just damned cute.

We finally took the catamaran across milky green Lago Pehoe and made our way onto the trail (of course not without buying a Coke can for Meli that, with a little duct tape, would later be turned into a mug).  After about 15 minutes, Meli started to feel the burn and I started to worry.  The true physical demands that are made of a person during a backpacking trip can only be appreciated once you have been on one, and Meli was getting her first taste.  It's friggin tough.  But she kept on, and we reached a vista in about two hours that took both of our breath away.  As we came up over a rise, we were able to see the full extent of the eerie blue Southern Ice Field - a glacial steppe that stretches as far as the eye can see and holds more freshwater than you can imagine.  As we stood and marveled, two condors swooped down low over our heads from a hidden cliff.  We were both on sensory overload.  This is the payoff for the backbreaking work of backpacking.

We finally made camp later, exhausted, famished, and with one fatality - my left big toenail.  We did some scenic hiking down to the glacier itself to touch and lick little growlers from off the glacier and marvel at the bergy bits floating in glacial milk.  We set up camp for the night and began to make preparations for dinner.  This was when we noticed the second fatality - the f$!¡ing stove!  That's right - our piece of s$%& Whisperlite blew a gasket - literally.  This problem was further exacerbated by the "let's use more force" tactics that I usually use to fix things, which then led to a break in the plastic and the total dehabilitation of the whole thing.  So, the choices - starve, leave, or depend on the kindness of others.  A beautiful Mormon couple who had hiked out to the glacier with their newborn strapped to her mommy made that choice easy.  They tried to fix the stove and lent us theirs for the night and left it out to use in the morning.

So far so good right.  Wrong - nightfall was a different story.  As we sat outside chatting with a fantastic Brazilian couple, our core temperatures, worked up to toasty by the hike, had dipped to relfect the fact that we were camping next to a freaking glacier.  This was not so much of a problem for me, since I have plenty of insulation to deal with such cold.  Poor little Melo on the other hand froze her little bedonka off.  Every thirty minutes or so I was roused with a frazzled "Are you cold?", not so much to see if I was OK, but more to see if she had a companion in her frozen misery.  Needless to say, this was a sleepless night for both of us.

In the morning, I borrowed the stove again to heat up as much stuff as I could for the cold little Melo.  Miserable, she crawled out of the tent, which is a tough act any morning after a cold night, and got right to her feet and started to pack up.  I asked her if she wanted to quit and leave the park, but she said no, and that was the end of that discussion.

The hike back out from the glacier towards Campamento Italiano (no I did not name this myself!) was as beautiful as the day before, but unfortunately twice as long.  Add to this the fact that Melo did not sleep a wink the night before, and you can imagine that this hike was a bear - an 8 hour, 12 mile hike, up and down and up and down and up and down.  At one point Melissa sat down and stated, in the words of one of our students, "Leave me here to die".  Fortunately, I don't always do what she says, and after the grueling 8 hours and crossing a rickety, wobbly bridge over the rushing river coming out of Valle de Frances, we made camp and set up shop.  Meli made quick work of asking to borrow another stove and dove into her sleeping bag and her Nutella.  We were joined later in the night by our Brazlian friends, who were really beginning to become friends.  The night passed, warm and peaceful, being lulled to sleep by the sounds of the river rushing by and the occasional thundering of an avalance rioting down the valley.

In the morning, we were woken by a duet of disasters - yet another huge avalanche vibrating the trees, and a 70 year old Australian man, shouting god-knows-what and also vibrating the trees.  The gregarious Argentines next to us did not help either, as they seem to want to yell all the time - it must be the Italian blood.  Anyways, we hiked up into the valley with our stuff safely and un-ponderously left at camp, witnessed a few avalanches, and allowed our tired joints to rest a bit from the hike the day before.  The view inside the valley was spectacular - the mountain was marbled with the eerie blue glacial ice, snow and rock, and the river gave the perfect soundtrack to the setting.  After marveling and reflecting, we headed back to camp, met up with the Brazilians, and were approached by the sweet Mormon couple, who had found Melissa's hat on the trail.  How did they know it was hers?  In classic-but-odd Meli fashion, as the man who found it said, "How could you miss it?"

The hike that day was markedly different than the two the days before.  My hiking style is bang-it-out, ala the trips I have taken with Team MC and Kev.  Very American if you ask me - all business, let's screw around when we hit camp and earn the night kind of stuff.  The Brazilians had another idea.

In typical Brazilian Bossa Nova tempo, the Brazilians changed the pace of our hike. Pedro and Claudia´s mantra for hiking: I am in no rush. No problem. So we were in no rush. We lackadasically walked through the various bosques (forests), sat down when tired, drank mate (pronounced Machi in Braz. Portuguese), talked of consumerism and threat to ecological systems (Pedro is a biologist), nibbled on trail mix - in a sense had a picnic. Understandably, when we arrived at Los Cuernos Camp, we were not tired!

And this was a good thing, because our next day´s hike was so so damn difficult, Melissa found herself cursing all the elements of nature: the cold, the mountain, the wind that whipped around every corner, everything. Our hike was not without any pleasure points though.  At one point, Claudia shrieked something unintelligible, jumping and pointing to the sky to signal on oncoming condor only a few meters away. Approaching soon after was a fleet of condors, 12 all in a line, flying in unison, no doubt to a dead guanaco or possibly a dead hiker.

The rest of this hike could be characterized as an ascent. We started to notice that we were walking and walking up and up with not one descent in sight...I think it was here when Melissa started to blaspheme against nature!!  I took the wimpy route and followed her - I just kept an eye on her boots and the ascent did not seem so bad.  But Melis was at the lead most of the time (with the Brazilians in tow), so she could see that our ascending had no end.  When we though we were finished the ascent, finally making it around the formidible peak of Almirante Nieto, we were greeted with an amazingly powerful sight, all the way up into the valley of proportions grander than any of us had ever seen.  We were also greeted with more ascending.  The beautiful, back-breaking hike led us into the valley, and about an hour in, all of that ascending had seemingly been for naught when we made it all the way down to the river.  Weary, but with only one hour left, we decided to keep going to the final campsite.  Well, this hour (estimated by faulty park maps) must be for fresh hikers with light packs, because it took three.  Described in the guidebook as "knee-popping", this one was where I too started to curse the mountain and deem that nothing is worth this Bataan Death March stuff and so on.  But Meli persevered, blazing the trail, at one point disappearing far ahead of the three of us and yelling from a point out of sight the very very last thing I wanted to hear at that point: "It just keeps going up!"  We stumbled into camp frozen and weary, kind-hearted Pedro and Claudia made us dinner, and we slept soundly with plans of rising at 4:30 to attack the peak mirador for a sunrise show that is supposed to be spectacular.

Anticipating an amazing morning and eager to begin the hike, I roused at 2 AM to the starriest night I have ever seen.  The weather was perfect - cold, but perfect - and I was dying to begin the hike.  At 4:30, our designated meeting time to check the weather, I heard the first damned rain drop (or so I thought),turned over, and went to sleep.

We awoke to see the world blanketed in snow. It was if we had been placed in a snowglobe. Pedro and Claudia, overjoyed at the sight of snow, pratically skipped around camp. We all reveled in the snowfall, and we even hit Pedro with his first snowball! It was both a dream and a nightmare though. Not only could we not climb the mountain to see the Torres up close, but we also had to climb down and out in slippery snow and bitter cold. At this point Steve and I were both on a mission: Get the F&%$ out of Dogde!  The next few hours entailed Steve sliding down a mountain in a trail-turned-mud-river from all the snow.  It was ultra-glorious, ultra-empowering, and ultra-satisfying, especially because we knew at the end of this hike, there would be a nice asado dish (meat) awaiting our tired bones and empty bellies!

The feeling you get when you finish a backpacking trip is indesrcibable.  Whether four days or four weeks, you have this sense of accomplishment that is so special because, all in all, you have been self sufficient.  You get the feeling like "If society crumbles, I´ll be OK".  You are sore all over, but the soreness is sweet in a way, because when you get to rest, you know you have earned it.  You have never appreciated things like a shower, clean clothes, soap, or meat so much.  It really is one of life's reset buttons - you feel ready to re-enter life the way you see fit, with all the vigor and energy you put into the mountain.  And you end up prouder of the people you were with that you can imagine.  Four days and 50 miles is more than I have done with heartier, bigger, hairier people.  But I can say with conviction that Meli held her own, and at times, even more than the rest of us.  Like I said, I was proud - and you all should be too!!!

Tags: The Great Outdoors




It's funny how, though you both are on nearly the exact opposite side of the globe from me right now, your description of your adventures in Patagonia seem like they could be in my backyard here in Alaska! (Only here it is eagles that swoop down at you instead of condors!) The old paradox rings true, the farther you travel, the smaller the world seems.

  Katie V Dec 6, 2007 12:33 PM


that was an awesome blog. i love the unintentional references you made to me..."bear" and "heartier, bigger, hairier people." haha. i love you guys. can't wait to see you in a couple of weeks.

  Matt Dec 7, 2007 3:20 AM


The way you describe things makes me feel like I am there!!

You two should definitely go on the show "Amazing Race" - - it sounds like a perfect adventure for you guys!


  Michele Dec 7, 2007 10:11 AM

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