Sunday, February 24, 2013

Torres del Paine Solo

I do not hike alone.

I run alone most of the time and happen to really like trail running in the Wheaton Woods with or without a partner. I'll bumble around the base of La Luz or the Sandia foothills solo any chance I get. I've been rocking the one in a two-person tent thing for the past month and happen to love using the entire space just for myself and my pack. But hiking alone? I will always drag a friend into joining me for short jaunts in the Sandias since solo wilderness escapades, even for very experienced outdoorsfolk, can go very wrong.

I'm sitting because I literally cannot stand. Awful weather that doesn't look it.
In that case, it's pretty odd that I decided I wanted to spend my amassed days off from my volunteer program to not only hike, but backpack, alone for five nights. I was a little bit intimidated by the thought, my dear mother quite a bit more so, but this was a very calculated decision that I even could have pushed further in retrospect. Why? Because Torres del Paine National Park is essentially the Disneyland of national parks. You must try very hard to be alone at any given time here, and try I certainly did. My reasons for why I was okay doing this: Peak season, so you will not be alone on the trails. Camping only in the specified campamentos is required, so your tent will never be alone. Cooking of any kind is required only in the designated fire shelters, so you cannot even eat alone. In that case, I had a system of keeping groups a few hundred meters in front and behind me whenever I was hiking alone, but otherwise I was very much so subjected to safety in numbers.

Tent city #1: Refugio Grey
This turned out to be great, although I still would have loved to have had more time alone on the trails (read: I'm planning on returning at non-peak season as soon as possible). It happens to be extra handy knowing both major trail languages, so I generally have the ability to make friends with just about anyone in the park. In fact, I ended up meeting some pretty great people, all of us having rather similar itineraries on the W route. My first night staying in the Refugio Grey campamento was great thanks to a band of three very friendly Santiago trekkers I met at dinner. They laughed at my weird dehydrated potatoes and lentils concoction and invited me to play cards with them later that evening, which I miraculously pulled off entirely in Spanish.

The Tufts clan plus one Wheatie at Glacier Grey

Another group at dinner to laugh at my lentil-potato attempt was a group of four students from Tufts who were taking a quick trip to Patagonia before heading off to each of their South American study abroad programs, just like me. They were really great company on the trail and we would bump into each other every so often or end up hiking together for entire stretches of trail. Also running into this group of students and myself was a pair of faculty from Cornell University on vacation themselves--it was just a giant party of small New England school people in Patagonia! Very odd to be able to talk about Norton, Massachusetts, to people who actually had a vague idea of its existence.

Cornell Alum advisor with Flat Stanley!
Honestly the strangest part was the fact that I wouldn't just meet people on the trail, they would recognize me. A solid 60% of my interactions usually started with "Hey, you're the girl from the bus!" or "You're from that hostel, right?" from a group of trekkers I completely did not recognize, more often than not. I did happen to pull off a paid hostel-sitting job at one different from my own while I was on my pre-trek days off in Puerto Natales, and got a fair number of people recognizing me from the CONAF bus job there, as well. Regardless, it was still a little jarring to realize that a huge number of anyone who enters the park at any given time does encounter me at Laguna Amarga with the CONAF rangers. One guy said it was the hair. I guess you can't really miss the English-speaking, redhead girl working at a park in Chilean Patagonia. Perhaps I stick out?

Cerro Paine Grande and Los Cuernos from above Lago Pehoé
Glacier Grey, mirador near extinct Campamento Guardas
 The trek itself was phenomenal. Just absolutely my happiest time in Patagonia, even if the weather was the worst I had ever seen it in all of my five weeks in the park. I cannot explain how calming it is to walk alone for days in the most beautiful scenery I can imagine. This park is quite seriously utopia in so many ways: you can drink the water straight from the glacial streams, there are at least three berries that are edible and proven so by my still being alive, rainbows are all over the place, bear bags are unnecessary as the main predator will not seek you out in your tent (plus the main cause of death is wind), a rumble heard is never thunder--it's a distant avalanche, and that's not even mentioning the landscape itself. Just throw some unicorns in and we've got a party. Glacier Grey was an incredible sight and truly encourages me to go for some glacier hiking later in life. I have always wanted to see an iceberg and perhaps go to Antarctica; at this point, I'm seriously considering Antarctica if I could pull that off. It was also impressive to walk through this entire area, as it was burned to a crisp just last season. I have learned from the resident biologist with the volunteer group that at this latitude and climate, a natural fire in Torres del Paine would only occur every 900 years--fires have occurred in the park almost every other year in the past 100 years, thanks to human error. It is incredibly sad to see this, especially as now there is only one section of forest near Campamento Perros that has not been burned thus far within the park.

3lb Nemo tent, meet day 30 of Patagonia wind
My second night, now at Paine Grande, was when the concern for my tent began. The location has a gorgeous view of Cerro Paine Grande, Los Cuernos, and the mouth of Valle Frances, right on the shore of Lago Pehoé, but it also happens to be a wind tunnel. In Patagonia. Feel free to exaggerate your imagination, it probably will still be rather realistic. The weather, which had just been cloudy and rainy before, was beginning to get ugly and only lead into an uglier day three for my trek of Valle Frances. This was a rather long day with easily the worst wind I had experienced to date, complete with my pack on and plenty of slanting rain-hail. Walking between Paine Grande and Campamento Italiano to drop my bag before day-hiking Valle Frances was awfully difficult and rather reminiscent of how a penguin hobbles, but with more falling over (again, feel free to exaggerate your imagination). Finally getting to Italiano, I dropped my pack, speed-ate some peanut butter (a luxury anywhere outside the EE.UU. A whopping $5 for 395g!) and turned for the 2.5 hour one-way up Valle Frances in even worse slanting rain-hail. I questioned my decision of actually hiking it at all far too often for comfort, but I still hiked the full Valle and it was gorgeous even if having ridiculously severe weather conditions. Immediately upon getting to the elevated mirador, I nearly got knocked completely off my feet. Thus, my time here was very short and I could only just see the incredible rock spires surrounding me in what is often the favorite part of the entire park.

The best I saw of the spires above Valle Frances
Getting back from the Valle Frances round trip, I trekked on to Cuernos, intending to continue an additional two hours to go back to my illegal stay in Valle Bader, followed by the best sunrise seat in the entire park the next morning. Arriving at Cuernos, I was exhausted and pretty okay with just collapsing, so I elected to stay and opt for Valle Bader the next day. Ultimate bad decision. Camping at Refugio Cuernos is the most expensive and the worst in the park (free for volunteers, though), so I ended up with an outrageously windy spot in a completely unsheltered area. Prepare for the worst, oh dear Nemo tent. 

I finally saw an avalanche on the gorgeous Cerro Paine Grande above Glaciar del Frances
At 4AM that morning, I heard an incredibly loud snap which woke me up to the thought of "that wasn't just wind." Without glasses and in complete darkness, I hurriedly tried to fix my now thoroughly broken tent poles all while fighting the obscenely high winds. Realizing it was hopeless, I threw all my stuff out of the tent, clung to it so it did not blow away, and collapsed it as quickly and gently (again, in Patagonian winds) as possible in order to not furthermore rip the tent itself. This ended up being unsuccessful, so now I have a ripped mesh vent window and a tent pole that has peeled itself apart so severely, there isn't even hope for splinting or duct tape. At this point, I was sprawled across the rest of my tent sans poles in order to not have it blow away, watching one of the more phenomenal sunrises that I was missing from Valle Bader, and thought "welp, all I can do now is make breakfast." That is exactly what I did. I then had to cancel the rest of my wonderful trekking time (sunrises at Valle Bader and Las Torres, both I luckily have already seen but are my favorite parts of the park) and hike directly back to la estancia, thoroughly homeless.

The most I saw of los Cuernos through the weather.
My final days in Patagonia after the tent disaster were not particularly swell in many ways, and also as good as they could have been in others. I am incredibly grateful for my fantastic friends who helped me out in my homelessness and I am so grateful I got what trekking I could in while my tent was still happy with life. In all honesty, my 3-pound backpacking tent survived 31 days of straight Patagonian winds, so I'd say that's a success! Also, I am completely ready for more [solo] trekking and am absolutely planning on returning to the park as soon as I possibly can, for as long as possible.

Lago Nordenskjöld, after the awful weather before the tent fiasco.
Unfortunately too tired to swim.

I am now comfortably in Mendoza, Argentina, with my fantastic host family, all of my belongings, clean clothes, and a real mattress. Nevertheless, I completely and utterly miss Magallanes and living in Torres del Paine. Still, I have my ways of getting to places I want to go so... if I fought my way to Patagonia once, I think I can pull it off a second time. Perhaps this time I'll bring a mountaineering tent. And not have the airlines lose my bags.

Much love from the tent gods (or perhaps not),
Massachusetts winter vs. Patagonian summer.
Proof that redheads can... be less albino.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

All the Mountain Woman Points

Wow. I have absolutely no idea where to start to attempt to catch you lovely blog readers up to date on the last few weeks of my life. There is both so incredibly much and so very little to be said. I have been struck speechless so often that I don’t quite know how to approach trying to explain this place, especially when both words and photos fall so terribly short. I fear I may bore you to pieces attempting to cover everything but not be able to tell the actually interesting stories… that I suppose I’ll have to leave for when I talk to you outside of le blog!

After my awful baggage fiasco, any expectations about my time in Patagonia had essentially disappeared. I knew little to nothing about what I was getting myself into with the next step, and I suppose in retrospect reality and whatever expectations I did have ended up being wildly different. This was fine, as there were very few expectations to uphold. I am at the bottom of the planet no matter what happens, so whatever is thrown at me I will take. The bus in was a fairly bewildering and uncertain experience of being the only gringa aboard surrounded by Chilenos happily sleeping through two hours of gorgeous scenery I thought was impossible to sleep through. Still, my name was on the list, so I figured I was in the right place.

First night in my beloved tent, came back to horses grazing
Asado with the guides and fellow workers from la estancia
It turns out this was much more of a base camping experience than trail crew backcountry work. Actually, backcountry does not exist in this entire park, but that’s another story. I learned upon arrival that the sleeping Chilenos work at Hotel Las Torres, a Patagonian luxury hotel at the base of the Torres trailhead. Hotel Las Torres, along with the refugios in every direction (Refugios Cuernos, Chileno, and Serón) are located on a giant chunk of private land smack dab in the middle of the park, owned by a rather rich Croatian family that has lived here since the 19th century. (Don't hold me to that fact, it's just what I've heard). Furthermore, AMA Torres del Paine, the group I am volunteering with, is also owned by this monopoly of a family. AMA had a reserved and rather gorgeous campsite a fifteen-minute walk along a dirt road from the hotel, the bodega, and the casino. The bodega was our work hub for the recycling program and the woodworking projects, and the casino does not involve slot machines. Instead it is the tiny and loveable community base for the workers of the hotel and AMA volunteers: where we eat and mingle for breakfast, lunch, onces, and dinner (onces = elevensies. Tea, more white bread than I'd like to believe I eat on a daily basis, and dulce de leche on special days!). I just refer to this entire base camp area as la estancia, my home for the last few weeks.

La fresadora practice
Evidently, the day I intended to arrive was a mutiny, where all those who were supposed to be my fellow month volunteers left immediately, angry at the surprise involvement with the hotel. By the time I arrived three days later, there were six volunteers in addition to myself: Sarah and Kate, from Colorado who I had met briefly at Erratic Rock, Liz and Drew, friends from New York, and Celine and Basile, an adorable couple from southern France. All of us had been misled in many a way: the fee we paid for volunteering with AMA was entirely profit to the hotel, we only work on the private land, and the majority of our tasks were only as a visage for the hotel—seemingly caring for the environment by having an entire organization dedicated to this work is appealing to the patrons who can afford several hundred US dollar rooms. This frustration of the arrangement with the hotel has persisted throughout my time here and I could elaborate, but those of us left have tried our best to stick to the positives and make the best of the situation regardless. As long as you maintain a positive attitude, even the job of trash compacting recyclables for hours at a time can be alright, even if it is definitely not trail work.

Last night with the first volunteer group, sitting in the hotel
On a lighter note, the time with this first group of volunteers was fantastic! We worked very well together and had a great group dynamic going on; I really loved hanging out with this bunch of ragamuffins for the two weeks they were around. One of my favorite traditions was our nightly dinner discussion: the AMA group plus our friend Scott, a Canadian intern at the hotel, would spend hours after every dinner debating intense questions from whether or not there are truly any unforgivable acts to whether we would take a few million dollars and leave our home countries forever or turn down the money and still be allowed in any country on the planet. Things got heated and it was such a great way to rethink each of our worlds.

Porteria Laguna Amarga, CONAF guardaparque
Woodworking in la bodega
Paso de los Vientos, Valle Ascensio en route trail work
By day, we tried our hardest to find excuses to do trail work in order to hike around the surrounding trails with pick axes and trail signs in tow. The bodega is a shared space with the friendliest Chilenos around to help us learn the sawdusty ways of woodworking while a continuous playlist of Phil Collins, obscure Spanish tunes, and the occasional wild card (Britney Spears’ Toxic?) makes for a fun work-home. I have no idea what it is in English, but I run a mean fresadora by now for carving the signs we placed on the trail, if I do say so myself. Beyond work on the trail, my favorite job was hands down working at CONAF. CONAF (Corporacion Nacional Forestal de Chile) is the national park service of Chile, and in charge of the entirety of the park, sans the private land that AMA cares for. Working with CONAF was essentially what I had thought I was going to be doing here in Patagonia, and it was exactly what I liked best. The AMA exchange with CONAF was to provide translators for working with turistas entering the park. Most mornings were spent at Portería Laguna Amarga, the most popular park entrance, with an informational welcome on the buses and a quick video inside the ranger station. The CONAF rangers would handle the Spanish and AMA the English. It was always fun hanging out with the rangers of CONAF, practicing my Spanish, and actually getting to directly help out with visitors to the park. This job was what I felt most effective with and truly enjoyed. The funny part was that working at Laguna Amarga was generally the CONAF rangers’ least favorite part of their jobs, considering the rest of their time was spent manning Campamento Torres or working on the trails. It was just a laid back time that was entertaining and informative, both about the park itself and in a way to learn how not to be a crazy turista.

Sarah discovering the climbing shoes
Our climbing haven
One of my favorite moments was pretty early on in the first week. Hunting around in our little bodega office, Sarah and I found a giant wooden box filled with climbing shoes. Oh baby, bring it! ("Send it crimp it pimp it..." our mantra) After this treasure find, Kate, Sarah, Scott, and I trekked about fifteen minutes up behind the casino away from la estancia to a gorgeous rock wall at the base of Cerro Paine. I was pretty excited, but when we happened upon an old mattress crashpad under some chalked up bouldering holds and bolts further up the wall, I was PUMPED. This was a turning point in my volunteer time, when life in Patagonia felt much more like a home than anything. A groove had been met: stumbling through Spanish conversations with new Chilenos to meet at every meal, rocking the fresadora in the woodshop bodega, racking up Mountain Woman points (separate story for another time), trekking the Valle Ascensio every other day with tools in hand, and climbing every afternoon between onces and dinner before our question grilling session, followed by hanging out with the awesome Chileno friends I’ve been so lucky to get to know over the last few weeks (despite my Spanish being embarrassingly slow on Chile standards). Sarah and Kate had graciously brought my running shoes from Puerto Natales to la estancia before they started the circuit (I was RUNNING in PATAGONIA) so I took awhile off climbing in my last week, but just recently finished the bouldering problem we all had been working on before. I have now dubbed it "pandilla de vándalos," or “Band of Hooligans."

Dawn on Cerro Almirante Nieto: Easily the most-photographed view for me
Despite the odd ups and downs of AMA, the park itself… is phenomenal. I really just have no words. I have never been so incandescently happy just to be in a place before. The best life: to roll out of my tent, into my Chacos, and off to the casino under the dignified presence of Cerro Almirante Nieto, one of the most gorgeous mountains I have ever had the privilege to see in real life. I’ve considered this for awhile, but Almirante Nieto confirmed it for me—I am absolutely capable of loving mountains as much if not more than the living things in my life I love. Granted, a very different love, but it is certainly still legitimate love every time I stop to gawk at this indescribable landscape. I will never grow tired of this view.

Ukelele jam on the way down from my first time at las Torres
Although traveling alone has been rough at times, especially near the beginning while being the only solo volunteer, I have found a peace with it. I’ll have lonely afternoons without much to do, but have perfected ways to power through and remind myself of how remarkable this entire time has been. Important to me and most likely few others, I am most happy about how I have settled my mindset while here—I have had the opportunity to learn where, who, and what matters most to me and what I am capable of, without even yet starting my grandest test while here in Patagonia. There has been many a life revelation, with a few major thoughts in particular, each day that I really wish I had the ability to discuss with others. In short, I needed this time and I am incandescently content.

Sunrise light on las Torres del Paine
I was lucky enough to be able to take two side trips during my time with AMA thus far. The first weekend, I hiked up Valle Ascencio alone and camped at Campamento Torres for one night before climbing the last hour under full moonlight to see the sunrise on the Torres del Paine. It was absolutely incredible and a great time for my first solo backpacking test run. Perfect weather and the sun on the granite spires reminded me most of backpacking in Island in the Sky of Canyonlands National Park with my brother, Tom, last winter. The sunrise was so similar to the sunrises we saw, especially on Mesa Arch, and I would have loved to have had Tom there with me.

Valle Bader climber lean-to in the lenga forest
Just this past weekend, I took off a day and a half to hike out to Refugio Cuernos and meet Kate and Sarah, finishing their trek of the circuit, to then stay in Valle Bader. Now, this is a gem earned from living in this park for the past month—no one really knows about Valle Bader. We were completely alone the entire time, an unheard-of experience for the entire park. It is only accessible to those with climbing permits, and the trail is very disguised. We, on the other hand, decided to join the ranks of the few who break some rules and go for it without permit. (Sorry, CONAF friends!) It is going to be so incredibly impossible to beat how amazing the twenty-four hours of this trip were. After a bit of a steep hike back into the mouth of Valle Bader, we encountered a climber’s lean-to hidden within a small Lenga forest. Perfected by at least a decade of climbers visiting Valle Bader, this little base camp is one of those reminders as to why I love backpackers and climbers so much. This shack of haphazard wood and tarp is a great base: slightly stocked with canned food, spare gas canisters, and candles, plus the Edgar Allen Poe book Scott left up the week before that we read aloud while cooking dinner.
Immediately after the glacial lake swim. Cold.

Kate, me, and Sarah after drying off post-glacial lake swim

After dropping our bags, we spent two hours on one of the most gorgeous, difficult, and hilarious rock scrambles I’ve ever done to battle our way up to the top of the valley, hoping to find a fabled lake that doesn’t appear on the map. Miraculously, the glacial lake does exist!
And we had perfect weather...
And we were exhaustedly sweaty...
And slightly delirious...
So what did we do?
Went for a rather short swim in the glacial lake, of course! One of the more ridiculous things I’ve done in my life, and absolutely worth it.  We weren't entirely certain if we were going to dunk our heads as well, for fear of hypothermia, but we all did anyway and got out quite quickly. In retrospect, the weather was so perfect that hypothermia was far from being a possibility, and I'm so glad we went for it. I had a goal of swimming in a glacial lake while here—success! Plus, we have the video to prove it.

Lago Nordenskjöld and distant Lago Sarmiento

The next morning the three of us dragged ourselves out of our rather cozy two-person tent to perch on a rock at the mouth of Valle Bader for the sunrise. This point gave a panoramic view of most of the lakes in the park, the tip of the southern ice field (not quite Glacier Grey), the Cuernos, and Paine Grande to the west, as well as the distant peaks of neighboring Bernard O'Higgins National Park I have grown to love. Breathtaking. That view is 100% impossible to ever get old. There are no words. 
This view. Possibly my favorite in the park. Lago Nordenskjöld, Lago Pehoé, distant peaks in Parque Nacional O'Higgins

This is just paper labeled "Candle," no joke
After leaving Kate and Sarah and getting back to la estancia, it was about time for my 21st birthday celebration—Chilean style. I really love it, as Chilenos celebrate more so the day before, starting sometime around eleven at night. Coming to Patagonia, I was expecting to end up having my birthday in Puerto Natales to eat dinner quasialone and not really do much of anything. I was absolutely fine with this (I’m in Patagonia). Instead, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by friends who surprised me with a fiesta at my Chileno friends’ casita, complete with a pretty adorable little loaf cake and a rolled up piece of paper labeled “Candle” lit on fire right at midnight. It was perfect and I have had such a wonderful weekend and day with my closest friends from la estancia. Now I am in Puerto Natales after a content night of Skyping, writing this [hopefully not terribly boring] blog post, and bumbling over to the bar next door to eat as much pizza as I could find. Just had a conversation with a guy about how amazing pizza is in Patagonia, actually. Go figure.

Happily in sleeping bag at the base of las Torres for sunrise.

For now, I have a few nights in civilization to stock up on trail food before heading back into the park for my next adventure. I am outrageously excited beyond words for this chapter of my time in Patagonia, and I will inform the blogmabob all about it when I return to internet in another week or so. I already miss all of my wonderful Chileno friends at la estancia and my fellow AMA volunteers. I wish I could elaborate more on the people I have met and my Spanish language experiences, but I’m afraid that would take another few years. In exceedingly short fashion, I have met some of the most incredible people so far and had an outrageously fun time with them all, and my Spanish is leaps and bounds better than when I arrived.

The glacial lake does exist! Surrounded by glacier and granite spires
Anyways, I am absolutely certain I have left out about a thousand different tiny little things, including all of my funny stories and all the specifics about, well, everything… but I would love to hear from anyone if you would like to hear more about the last month or see more photos! Just writing that sentence has reminded me of a myriad of stories I would love to tell but alas, this is already terribly long. Hope life stateside is swell; evidently it snowed a smidge in the East? The New Mexican left, so clearly that had to happen without me. Sigh.

Much love from the pumas,

Rainbows are common and always welcome