Saturday, December 20, 2008

Day 7 -- The longest, most scenic.

The problem with the "W" is it's all "front-country". Refugios are common and full of party-goers, swapping lies, drinks, and bunks. Great if you're 20 or 30-something, single, and multilingual, but not if your late-40's, married, and tired, with your best Spanish phrase being "Hablas usted Ingles?"

The problem with the "Circuit", the way most people do it, is that you miss the most scenic viewpoints in favor of remoteness and variety. The most scenic sections include the Valle Acsension, Valle France, and the trail linking the two. The two valles get you up into high country with spectacular views of the signature and namesake peaks.

Our intention was to do a full Circuit, all the way round, clockwise (most people go anti-clockwise), a visit into the two Valles.

Jeroon had told us we could make Campamento Cuernos in two hours. Maybe the Roman Dial of Arctic1000 fame could, but not the Roman Dial watching birds and hauling two 6' by 2' by 2" Thermarests around. We dallied in camp until 10 AM.


It sounded enough like "Roman" that I spun around to see the lanky form of Lucien and his sprightly girlfriend Carey. This was the couple we'd met our first morning. They'd caught us by walking the full distance from Lago Dickson to here in a day -- 30 km or so.

It was good to see them and Lucien and I shared stories about conditions on the "closed" Circuit.

Our packraft had not, but likely could have, sped up our journey. Instead it had added another dimension. A two-day river trip with wildlife and whitewater, plus a chance to get off of, rather than beat up, our feet.

Yet even among our new friends, Lucien and Carey, Jeroon and Jenny, I was struck by how hydrophobic most hikers are. Similarly I knew how even dorky ducky boaters in inflatable kayaks and pack-catamarans weren't willing to walk more than a single overnight.

Like other amphibians worldwide, it seemed, we packrafters just don't fit in.

Lucien and Carey planned to spend two nights here while doing the Torres look-out as a day trip. We, too planned to see the look-out without overnight gear, but still planned to make it to Cuernos, directly below the signature peaks of the Park and near the shore of its most complex lake, Nordensjold.

This would prove to be a bit ambitious......

We stopped at the new lodge and looked at the bird and plant books to identify all the neat and painful creatures we'd encountered over the last week, putting names to colors and shapes. It's there we discovered that what we thought were slipper orchids were exotic, Patagonian snapdragons.

A mile later we slipped into a wind-stunted nirre grove and dropped our packs, taking just shells, a handful of food, and a water bottle for the three or so hour trek to the Torres viewpoint.

The trail was steep and eroded, crowded with people with big bodies and little gear or little bodies and too much gear. We passed them in bunches of two, four and eight. We jogged down the trail when it rolled along a contour above the steep and rocky Rio Ascension and hustled in the woods upstream, catching Lucien and Carey after the scenicly located Refugio.

I announced our presence and we hiked together, they picking up their pace to match ours. They told of us of their travels around South America and how they had reached into their December dollars to fund this trek. But the Paine Circuit had lived up to their expectations of scenic splendor, and like us they found the closed Circuit challenge especially rewarding.

The crowds were thick, picking their way up the final 1000 foot climb over granite boulders and along a sparking snowmelt stream. But in the intense southern hemisphere alpine light, engaged in conversation with this young couple from South Australia, time and people passed by easily.

They told us of wine tours (free!) by bicycle and Kanagaroo Island, of hiking the Summer Grampians, their local range, carrying water. Lucien was Australian but of American parents, both professors at the University in Adelaide. No wonder we liked these kids.

We told them we planned to be in Adelaide in February or March and they gave us their emails and invited us to see them there. We said we would look them up and take them to dinner.

Leaving them to soak up the sight of the Tres Torres del Paine, we hustled back down the talus, through the woods, and along the eroded trail to our waiting packs, famished.

The up-and-back had taken five hours and much more climbing than we'd expected. The map was to blame in part. The contours were something like 200 m and the trail locations and hiking times often wrong.

I am a map-reading fanatic, treating their symbology as spatial literature. But this Torres del Paine Trekking map was like bad pulp fiction -- a horrible read with missing contours, misplaced trails, and fragile printing paper to boot, like a novel posing as non-fiction and telling a bad story as it the book itself fell-apart.

We were running low on food, with at least 40 km to go to the bus stop for our return.

The windy trail along a series of ponds and lakes was long, rocky, and empty of other hikers. They must have all stopped early. It was 5 PM when we left our packs' hiding place, and it soon became apparent that the "two hours" Jeroon had promised looked more like five.

It was beautiful, if windy, and sunny. Long views of rugged lake coastlines with grassland foothills and distant, glacier-covered peaks, all the while with the Paine Massif rearing to our right. The walking went on for hours.

"Let's just camp there." Peggy pointed to a bare spot beneath some nirre.

"No. You're not suposed to camp anywehere but the campgrounds, and I don't want to get caught, right alongside the taril.

"It's just another hour." It was 8 PM. "Let's keep going."

As it got late we hustled onward, knowing that the campground might be full when we got there.

We jogged down the hills to find the campground small, rocky, brushy and full.

"No more racing! Why does every trip have to be a race! From now on we're going to set some new rules."

It was the end of a long day. We were camped at Campamento Cuernos on lumpy grass surrounded by horse-sh*t. A stiff wind blew down the icy Horns of Paine. We'd eaten nothing for hours. Our feet hurt.

"From now on, we're not going more than ten miles a day, we're going to stop early, and we're not running down the trail!"

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