Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Day 2 – On which we hike too far, too fast, and hurt ourselves.

Camp Carretas had a shelter and we hung gear to dry over night, camping in our floorless pyramid shelter in the lee of a pile of logs.

While our first day had been windy and rainy, the cold and wet whispering “hypothermia my pretty”, the next morning dawned sunny and new, elaborate bird trilling and song in the forest overhead. While yesterday I wondered why anyone would come to Patagonia, today I saw why.

We slept in until noon, luxuriating on our two inch thick, full length Thermarest pads (5 pounds each with chair rods and covers) and warm sleep gear. The sun warmed the interior of the ‘Mid. It was the best rest we’d had since leaving Anchorage four days ago.

We slept in long enough that other hikers arrived to make camp before we’d climbed out of bed. A conversation drifted into our tent between an American finishing the W and a young Aussie-American couple just starting.

I heard the words “Circuit” , “closed”, “giving it a go, anyway” and decided to get out of the tent and join the conversation.

Lucien and Carey were at the end of their five month tour, mostly in South America, and, like us, had come to expensive Paine just for the Circuit. And they, like us, were going to give a go.

“It’s only about seven hours to Guardas,” I butted in. “And it doesn’t get dark until nine thirty. Are you guys going to camp here tonight?”

We gave them our spot and hustled out into the wind at three in the afternoon.

“This wind is bi-polar,” Peggy observed. “It’s just crazy, how it goes from blowing you over to dead calm.”

The trail paralleled the Rio Grey, a high-volume, smooth flowing river that drained Lago Grey, a main Park’s highlight as the huge Glacier Grey dropped off the Southern Patagonia Icecap and disgorged its calving bergs into the lake. Bergy bits floated downstream.

“That water looks nice,” she commented. I was pleased to hear this, as I hoped we would finish our week-long trip with a float down the Rio Grey, the two of us in our big packraft. “It looks like the Noatak.”

The trail wove in and out of thickets of southern beech, bonsai’d and bent from the wind, then through wind-blasted meadows saturated from the spring rains and melt.

The Cuernos – or Horns – were out in full splendor.

“They look like some of that chert we’ve seen, worked into arrow-heads,” Peggy commented and indeed they did, like the big chunk of rock that stone tool makers cleave their heads from.

The first ten km went quickly and we passed through the surprising development of buildings, lodges, eco-camps, tents, and the catamaran dock that made up Refugio Lago Pehoe. Climbing above the small village – not sure what else to call it – we were running late. It was already six and we were coming to a hilly and windy section along Lago Grey.

We moved into stunted nirre scrub. It clung to the raw glacier scraped landscape like alders, but with smaller leaves and smoother bark. The nearby icefield, big glaciers, and icebergs in a glacier-carved, gray colored lake, cast a more Alaskan look than any place I’d ever been. It looked like the Kenai. Hell, it looked like the terrain above Skilak Glacier where it dumps into its own iceberg filled lake. But two aspects said not-Alaska: first was the tourist-choked trail and second were the rime encrusted black spires and white granite towers above.

Peggy, in her always pragmatic way, had insisted we bring the mega-foam pads, our car-camping sized, Deluxe Thermarests. And in her responsible way, she’d insisted on carrying them, because “I don’t want you to hurt your back.”

But now, with me pushing the pace to get to the Camp Guardas (which was free – most campgrounds in Torres del Paine cost around $7 per person) our camp luxury burdened us. I felt like Col. Randon on the River of Doubt expedition, wishing for lightness but happy to be comfortable. But unlike Pres. Roosevelt I didn’t step forward to help.

So in the fading light of a southern beech, when kilometers feel like miles and hours pass like minutes, a whimper drifted up the trail. Peggy had strained her knee.

I should have taken those pads, I thought to myself. Peggy soldiered on.

Soon after, we crossed a brook bouncing down a rocky gully, and there was Campamento Guardas.

Beneath a gap in the spring green canopy of 60 foot lenga trees, we pitched the ‘Mid, dressed warmly, and ate a Jet-Boil dinner. Soon after I fell asleep, but Peggy, like a horse that had been ridden hard and put away wet, couldn’t eat much and didn’t sleep as I learned in the morning.

But so far we could see no reason not to push on with the Circuit. We headed onward and upward for the most remote part of the Circuit, the pass from Lago Grey to Rio Perros.

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