“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile

We did the "W" trek through Torres del Paine National Park in Chile--the most famous and popular trek in Patagonia.  We jumped off from the town of Punta Arenas, the southernmost point of Chile, near the southern tip of South America and far enough south to still hit us in the face with harsh conditions when we flew in from Santiago in early November.  It was the beginning of Spring and the weather was still sketchy.  We stepped off the plan in Punta Arenas into snowy, cold, windy weather.

A good day to acclimate to the weather that would be facing us for the next seven days.  After a day nosing around Punta Arenas we caught a bus into Torres del Paine National park and the heart of Patagonia.  We made a brief stop at Milodon Cave, the site of the discovery of prehistoric evidence of extinct Paleozoic creatures.  Our last stop before entering into the gorgeous and wild lands of Patagonia.

And we quickly discovered how wild Patagonia really is when we sighted a healthy and stealthy
puma loping along a gravel bar alongside a river.  He didn't seem particularly surprised to see us and didn't seem too concerned that we were there.

He didn't seem too interested in us.  Guess we didn't look tasty.

EcoCamp with Torres del Paine in background
 We checked into our cozy dome at EcoCamp, an environmentally friendly camp nestled under the watchful gaze of the three towers.  I can't say enough about EcoCamp; the food was excellent, the sleeping was comfy, the scenery excellent plus it is designed to have minimal impact on the environment.

The next day we were up early to start our week-long trek.  The first day was an easy intro; four hours of relaxed hiking along the edge of the glowing turquoise Lake Nordenskjold.  We followed the Paso Los Cuernos trail below the Paine massif with the granite horns of the cuernos looming over us all day.  A leisurely half day trek brought us to Refugio Los Cuernos.  We made the mistake of telling our guide Alejandro that is was very easy and he suggested an extra hike after we reached camp.  Our mistake.  It turned into a grueling climb from the refugio to a summit 2100 feet up the mountain--brutal enough but we were trapped in high winds that slapped us back and forth on the mountain.  After two killer hours we summited, had a quick rest and rushed back down the mountain to beat the darkness. 

Site of the avalanche

Oh well, a warm up for the next day, a long tiring uphill hiked up French Valley.  This was a long slow slog, with a quick stop at Camp Italiano before continuing up the valley to Mirador del Frances.  Halfway up we heard a load and ominous rumbling of thunder--except it wasn't thunder, it was a massive avalanche, fortunately across the valley and we had an awesome views of a huge shelf of ice break away and rumble down the mountainside into the valley.  After that show we continued up the valley to take in the view of the Frances glacier at the end of the valley.  A challenging hike and we had to descend yet and make our way across low fields to our next overnight at Refugio Paine Grande, an easy flat hike but long and tiring and we were beat by the time we hit the refugio.  Refugio Paine Grande is a dormitory style lodge and after a quick dinner and a couple of beers we tumbled into our beds in a shared room with another hiker from Brazil.

Day three was a short hike to Mirador Grey and Grey glacier.  Short, but not easy.  We were slammed in the face with powerful, gusty winds.  Winds is too gentle a term.  Were battled headwinds that would nearly (and in one case did) sweep you off your first.  I have never encountered anything like it. 

Finally made it, caught a boat across Lago Grey and saw the most surreal blue glaciers ever.  They seemed to be lit from some unnatural but beautiful light within, a breathtaking blue.

It was well worth the tough hike.

Drink and a toast with whiskey and glacier ice.

But we looked forward to the next day's trek--a hard hike of eight hours roundtrip up to the foot of
the granite spires of El Paine.  A difficult hike through forest and then across a wide moraine field littered with large boulders.  But Wow!  what a view at the top.  The three towers overlooking a glacier lake.  Incredible.

Our last days were spent hiking the steppes around Mirador Laguna Azul, gawking at 6000 year old petroglyphs, herds of guanacos, Andean condors, breathtaking scenery and grasslands littered liberally with the skeletons and remains of guanacos--the result of predation by pumas.  More skeletal animal remains than I have seen anywhere--including the  Serengeti.

Bottom line--on of the most beautiful places anywhere.  Go.

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