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

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