El Chalten, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina.
Saturday, February 27, 2016
This is a very special place: a little village of small businesses
in the center of many hiking trails into the National park, with a backdrop of the incredible rock towers of Mt.Fitzroy (named after the captain of Darwin's Beagle), and surrounding towers, peaks and glaciers. We have spent two days hiking here, with two more to go before we head back to El Calafate for a short night, then back to Puerto Natales, Chile for one night before heading to 5 days and 4 nights of trekking in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.
A big thrill yesterday was seeing a flock of 4 or 5 Magellanic Woodpeckers as we returned from Lago Capri. This was a relatively short hike of 4 km each way, but quite steep. Today we took it easier, but still had a beautiful hike with views of the mountains as clouds cleared while we rested at the base of a big rock in a high meadow. This walk involved quite a climb, too, and we were warm enough that we were in shirtsleeves by the time we reached our stopping place.
We have also enjoyed connecting with Eva Borsody Das, whom I first met in Morocco in 2009, and her friend Virginia from London, sharing evening meals in restaurants here and in El Calafate.
There is no cell phone service in El Chalten, and almost no businesses take credit cards. Internet is via satellite, and very slow. Kent and I are staying in the lovely Hostel Patagonia (an IYH hostel), where we have up-graded to a room with private bath since we found out that the price of a room had fallen by a third (because of the dollar's strength relative to the Argentine Peso) since we had booked it in November.
We are having the best weather we have had since our trip began, with some wind, but sunshine and mostly clear skies.
Torres del Paine. March 2-7, 2016
Torres del Paine
Paine Grande Refugio
This is the morning of our 4th day of the W hike in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. The hiking has been much harder than we anticipated. There are a handful of walkers who may be over 50, but most are fit young folks in their 20s and 30s who zip past carrying packs much larger than ours and quickly disappear on the trail ahead. I was amazed yesterday as I pondered how to navigate fallen logs and twisted roots to see a lithe young woman in bright yellow jacket hesitate for just an instant before leaping on top of the log that was a foot or two above the ground and continue on her way while I stood by in awe. Likewise, at a steep slope with ropes and thigh high boulders, a young man in bare feet skidded down an alternate dirt route as I painfully negotiated each step of the rocky descent.
The scenery is spectacular with blue lakes, rushing streams, glaciers, and and towering pinnacles all of which constantly change in varying light and with our slow progress around them.
We have seen little wildlife. One bird on a lake yesterday afternoon, the loud tap of a woodpecker, small sparrows looking for dropped crumbs, and yesterday a black and white hawk buffeted by the strong winds that suddenly arose, nearly knocking us over at times.
We are stiff and tired this morning after a very long day up the Frances Valley yesterday. We did have a long night sleep with nice sheets and duvets in a six-bed dorm room all to ourselves.
Later in the day, March 5
3.5 hours is the suggested time to go 11.5 km between Paine Grande and Lago Grey. Well, it took us about 5.5 hours, lots of steep rocky climbs and descents. When I thought we had perhaps half an hour to go, we came upon a sign indicating we were only a little more than halfway. The overlooks to the Glacier were magnificent, but the winds were almost too strong to stand in to look. Our room at Paine Grande was lovely, with windows looking out on lake and mountains, while from here, where I thought we would see the glacier, we have no view other than of a mountainside with burned forest. And here we have other people in the room--at least 5 of us.
Above: dorm room at Los Chilenos
Our first days on the W hike
Leaving my larger back pack and Kent's smaller one with books, my Antarctic parka, our electric toothbrush, my iPad, and all but one change of clothes, hats and layered jackets behind at Pire Mapu Cottage, we took a 7:30 a.m. bus to Torres del Paine, then once through entrance procedures, took another shuttle bus to the Las Torres area, walking along a road to the hotel where we used the restrooms. We passed guanacos along the entrance roads, and bright pink flamingos in Laguna Amarga.
The day was sunny and surprisingly warm, and we hadn't gone far, crossing a bridge over a rushing stream, before I shed my fleece, zipped off my pant legs, removed my lightweight long-sleeved shirt, and slathered on sunblock. This was the warmest I'd been since leaving Buenos Aires over a month before.
The trail climbed relentlessly with little shade for over two hours. I wrapped my bandanna around my head under my hat to keep the sweat out of my eyes. Many walkers passed us, as I struggled to catch my breath and we found a few places to rest near the occasional gaunt tree.
At last we reached a summit and other hikers joined us from an even higher trail, the shortcut from Los Cuernos that we would take down the next day.
A descent, then more uphills followed, but at least here much of the trail was fairly smooth. At a rushing steam walkers filled their water bottles. We were told the water in the streams was safe to drink, and we did drink it, with no apparent ill effects.
Finally, far below us we saw a green roof among trees in a narrow canyon beside a rushing stream. The building looked so small! But it was our home for the night, Los Chilenos Refugio, which I had booked months before: dinner, a bunk with a sleeping bag, breakfast the next morning, and lunch the following day. I was glad we had brought our silk sleeping sacks, as I'm sure the sleeping bags and pillows did not receive frequent washing.
We were given an enthusiastic welcome, brief tour, and explanation of the rules, then headed back out into the sunshine to eat our snacks, surrounded by many other walkers.
We then walked further up the valley for another 2 hours, stopping at the base of the 45-minute steep climb to the Los Cuernos overlook, which probably would have taken us much longer. I regretted not making the climb, which would have been another 1000 feet in elevation gain, involving scrambling on all fours, but we were others tired already after 4-5 hours of mostly uphill climbing.
We made it back to the Refugio in time for 7 pm dinner with ample time for showers fresh clothes, sitting by the stream in the last of the sunshine, and visiting with other walkers, many of whom we would meet again in days to come -- a very Camino-like experience. We purchased glasses of wine and sat on benches at long tables, eating huge slabs of tough meat, some kind of lumpy orange vegetable and potato mix, and a sweet dessert.
I think we were asleep before most of our other bunk mates (in stacks 3 high) had arrived and before the sun had set.
Day 2. Los Chilenos to Los Cuernos. We left early, meeting four young women on the climb out of Los Chilenos. We would meet them often again, and I came to think of them as our muses or chorus urging us onward. It was good to walk in the cool of the day, up and down many hills, past lakes and waterfalls and circling below spectacular peaks. Rough though the walking was, it was one of our easier days. We had booked a private cottage with a double bed with sheets. The cottage was nice, with skylights, but nowhere to hang anything. We hung our towels and shirts and underwear we washed on the porch railing. The bathrooms, reached by an overgrown, but thankfully short trail, were not the greatest with toilet stalls so tight you couldn't shut the doors before sitting down, and rather crowded showers, but with hot water for which we were grateful. We had another communal dinner on long tables and benches in a crowded dining room. To my amazement, the young man who'd shared our room at Los Chilenos handed me my headlamp which I'd been regretting, and berating myself for having left it in my bed that morning.
We also had access to a hot tub, a wooden barrel heated by a wood stove. Unfortunately it didn't look all that clean, so we gave its miss. In the morning the fire had gone out, but an empty beer bottle stood beside it, so apparently someone had enjoyed it.
From Los Cuernos there was a steep slog over to the Italian Camp and the Frances Valley. Then a very steep climb up the Valley to spectacular views of the Los Cuernos, the horn-like peaks. The climb up the Frances was estimated to take 2.5 hours one way. We climbed up for about 3 hours on some very rough trails, reaching one beautiful overlook (mirador), that was crowded by a group taking endless group pictures and then singing! It was hard to begrudge them their good time, but it was also impossible to concentrate on the view or even enjoy our lunch. So we moved on to a sandy stream bank without an expansive view, but the sounds and views of rushing water. We did not make it quite to the end, but turned back at a high stony open space. After returning to the Italian Camp, we rested a bit and then still had 2.5 hours (estimated) to go to Paine Grande. Much of this trail was fairly smooth walking, but during the last hour we finally met the famous fierce winds of Torres del Paine. It had been Avery long day, and when we got to the reception desk at the Refugio, they couldn't find my records. So I had to dig through my papers to find them. I was so tired, I could hardly stand up. Fortunately we were given a room to ourselves with beautiful views. We paid extra for bedding, as I hadn't realized that blankets were not included although we had our sheet sleeping sacks and towels. Someone actually came with us and made the beds. We joined some of the others we'd met along the way for dinner. I could hardly move, my legs were so sore. Even walking ups down the stairs from our second floor room to the ground floor bath rooms was agony. I slept very long hours those nights in Torres del Paine.
Rocky overlook in the Frances Valley -- as far as we got before turning around. Our longest, hardest day.
Farthest overlook we reached 5-6 km beyond Refugio Grey.