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.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, sounds like it's time for a trip to REI for a "real" tent, one with snow flaps, a cook hole, and tested on K2. You certainly had a grand adventure, where adventure is defined as the level of uncertainty in surviving the experience.