Monday, January 27, 2014

Trekking the W at Torres del Paine - Part 1

From my very limited research of Patagonia, and from what I had heard from my fellow travelers as I began this journey, I knew that I wanted to see Torres del Paine.  I had heard so much about this being the epitome of natural beauty and representative of the entire region.  However, I had also heard about nice refugios where I could stay the night along the trail - places with warm food and comfortable beds.  What I hadn't realized was that the beds and meals at the refugios are a bit cost prohibitive for someone on a RTW backpacker budget. 

As I began to hear the other side - people walking for miles by themselves carrying tents and sleeping bags and camping stoves and food, encountering heavy winds and rain and blizzards - I began to get nervous, and I wondered if I even really wanted to do this!  While I love hiking, I haven't done much of the actual hiking + camping variety, where you actually carry gear and food.  In fact, I'm kind of a terrible packer for such adventures (remember my music festival incident), and I still remembered the horror of the weight of the rental gear I had carried (briefly, since I hired a porter to carry it the remaining days) on the Inca Trail.  And the thought of hiking all that way by myself didn't sound all that great either.  

Then I met Jimmy, a photographer and travel blogger from Australia, while I was in Bariloche.  He had just returned from Patagonia and was editing his photos.  There was absolutely no way I could pass being able to see the sights that he was showing me.  I had to try it at least!  As I made my way south, I heard from another couple, Nick & Frances (whom I had met while biking in Bariloche), that they were headed to Puerto Natales to do the W in a few days.  I jumped at the opportunity to join them and started moving in that direction.  Along the way, I met Frederick, a Belgian guy from my hostel in El Calafate, who was also interested in joining for the W.  Suddenly I had what would turn out to be a phenomenal trekking partner and an amazing group of four to experience the W with.  Sometimes, things just work out.

Day 0 - Prep

Frederick and I arrived in Puerto Natales just in time to meet Nick & Frances at the daily trek overview at Erratic Rock, one of the local hostels.  I highly recommend attending this information session if you're planning on trekking Torres del Paine - even if you don't follow all of their advice, you can pick up some great tips and meet fellow trekkers.  Once the session had ended, we had only the rest of the afternoon to run around and get gear and food for the next few days.  Having a trekking / camping partner definitely eased the stress I had around carrying everything - rather than carrying everything on my own, we could share the burden (ie, Frederick carried most of it - thank you, Frederick!) instead.

The W is so named because it's shaped..... like a W.  This map includes part of the full circuit, but we basically covered the ground between where Refugio Grey and Base Las Torres is marked, spending each night at the points where you see the red pushpins.

While Erratic Rock does offer rental gear, we got a tip on a hostel a few blocks away (Rent Equipment Victor at Eleuterio Ramirez 540) that had good quality gear, so we decided to check it out.  Here's what we got:

  • One two-man tent.  This place actually had an older and newer version of the tent (for a slight price difference), so we went with the newer version.  Definitely make sure you test out your tent before you rent it - as silly as it looked, we set up our tent in the front "yard" of the hostel.  The hostel owner showed us the odd pole set up, and we were able to get in a good test run without the ridiculous wind we would face on the trail.  Plus we could see that the tent was in great condition and could easily fit two people AND our gear comfortably.
  • Two sleeping bags.  We opted for the colder weather coverage option.
  • Two sleeping mats.  Somehow these were lighter AND far more comfortable than the brick-like pads I slept on on the Inca Trail.
  • One cooking set (burner and pot) and one tank of gas, which was actually plenty for two people for four days cooking lunch & dinner.
  • Two sets of kitchen utensils and bowls.
  • One set of hiking poles.  Frederick opted to go without, but I can't tell you how happy I was to have hiking poles.  They may look a little goofy, but I had learned from the Inca Trail that they're invaluable for stability, especially on the downhills, and they keep the blood from rushing to your hands by having them at your sides all the time.  

We also had to stock up on food for the next few days.  Here's what we loaded our packs with:

  • Pasta.  We brought along a larger pack of noodles (500g, which we split between two days) and a smaller pack of shaped pasta (200g).
  • Dried soups - these were the best little appetizers ever.  Seriously, there's nothing better than a cup of hot soup when it's cold and windy out and you're waiting for pasta to cook.
  • A tiny jar of pesto.  BEST PURCHASE EVER.  Seriously.  This lasted us for two pasta preparations, and the amount of flavor it added was phenomenal.  I've looked for tiny jars of fresh pesto all over South America ever since, and I can't find them.
  • Beef bouillon cubes.  We thought this would be a good idea for pasta flavoring one of the days, and it only sort of worked.  
  • Tiny packets of parmesan cheese.  For the pasta, obviously.
  • Fresh slices of salami and cheese, and fresh bread rolls for lunch.
  • Two fresh yellow peppers, sliced up.  These were intended to be a good on-the-go fresh snack, but mostly wound up being tossed into pasta.  A bit heavy as food items go.
  • Snickers bars.  Lots of them.
  • Peanut Butter M&Ms.  So, I found a giant pack of the fun-size M&Ms that had clearly been shipped to Chile on accident or as part of a Halloween special.  They were phenomenal.  Other best purchase ever.
  • There is a small shop that sells dried fruit and nuts (as well as hats and gloves and assorted things) just down from Erratic Rock, where we stocked up on mixes of raisins and nuts and banana chips and later dumped in a bunch of plain M&Ms for some pretty awesome trail mix.
  • So I forgot about breakfast, somehow.  I would recommend bringing along some oatmeal and dried fruit, but I wound up purchasing breakfast at two of the refugios (not a terrible deal), and just eating a Snickers the other day.  It worked.
  • We also picked up some hot chocolate packets from the freebie bin at our hostel.  A great post-meal treat just before bed.
Note - there's plenty of incredibly clean, fresh glacial water available from any number of rivers along the trail, so there's no need to bring along a bunch of drinking water or even a sterilization kit.  I brought a small water bottle that I refilled frequently along the way. 

While we heard quite a bit about all of the environmental / weather challenges that we could experience along the trail, each day wound up having a bit of a theme...

Day 1 - Wind

Leaving the hostel was a frenetic mess, as we had stayed up way too late the night before packing and repacking our bags, leaving us literally running to the bus station and, as I would discover later, at some point losing my nice Marmot rain jacket in the process.  Ugh.  Sometime during the two hour ride to Torres del Paine National Park, our group of four made the final decision to hike the trail from west to east, so once we paid our park entry and listened to a mandatory video reiterating the need for fire safety, we loaded back onto the bus and continued until the catamaran dock at Lago Pehoé.  We were some of the last to board, so after dropping our bags inside, we made our way up above to find a spot to sit in the open air.  The wind that day was intense, causing waves and massive sprays of water as we made our way across the lake.  Sitting up top gave us some great views, but it was definitely an effort in splash avoidance!

Nick & Frances huddled against the wind on the catamaran roof.  The guy in the black got massively drenched by the spray from the lake!

View of some of the towers and bizarre cloud formations from the catamaran.

Upon arriving at Paine Grande - a refugio / campsite located just next to the catamaran drop-off point (one of the nicest - and busiest - in terms of amenities) - Frederick and I immediately set up our tent and dropped our bags inside.  After a bit of lunch, the four of us began to hike up the western part of the W towards Glacier Grey.  Nick & Frances carried their bags, planning to spend the night at Refugio Grey at the top of the W, but I was happy to get a bit of a hiking warmup without the full pack.  We were constantly inundated with wind as we hiked through the valley, towards Laguna Los Patos, a small lake situated high above the glacial lake down below, Lago Grey.  We passed a number of trees that had been burned in a massive fire two years ago - while seeing the destruction from the fire was certainly sad, it was beautiful to see the contrast between the stark black and white remains of the trees and the new growth beneath them, in the form of bushes, grasses, and flowers blanketing the ground in green, red, and purple.  As we made our way past Laguna Los Patos, we could see chunks of glowing blue ice floating in Lago Grey, small icebergs that had been pushed away from the glacier by the wind.

Wind across Laguna Los Patos.

The fire damage left a stark contrast against the new growth.

We eventually reached the mirador (lookout point) for Glacier Grey, with some of the strongest winds I've ever experienced!  We struggled to take some quick photos without getting completely blown off the lookout point, taking in the amazing view of the massive glacier in front of us before continuing down the trail.  Once we re-entered a wooded area, Frederick and I turned back to Paine Grande, while Frances & Nick continued on to Refugio Grey, where they were able to do some extra hiking and get a closer view of the glacier.  Personally, I was pretty happy to get back down the trail to an already-set-up tent, especially after being pummeled with wind and running into some light rain on the way back.  

Attempting not to get blown off the lookout point - Glacier Grey in the background.

Another example of the fire damage surrounded by regrowth.

Lago Pehoé, near the campsite.

After getting cleaned up (okay, full disclosure:  I didn't shower the entire trek...  I took a packet of baby wipes for daily "tent showers" and some no-rinse camping shampoo that was handy on the second day.  I learned on the Inca Trail that it just wasn't worth the extra weight to carry a towel and shampoo and such, as cold as it was, and as long as my hair is, spending a night with soaking wet hair didn't exactly sound appealing, and given that I was wearing the same set of clothes every day to hike in, baby wipes did the job well enough.  Judge away.), we set up in the cooking area of the refugio for our first camp meal of warm, comforting tomato soup and pasta with pesto and parmesan cheese.  Despite all the wind, we had a beautiful, clear evening, with the soft red glow of sunset fully visible against the mountains in the distance.  We enjoyed the view with a nice, cold beer from the nice, warm interior of the refugio bar, then collapsed into the tent to sleep, ready for a long day of hiking ahead.

Frederick poses with our still-standing tent, despite all the wind.

The pre-sunset glow and relatively clear skies on our first night - view from the campsite.

To be continued...

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Change of Plans

I've still got plenty of stories to tell about South America, but I wanted to give friends and family following along here a bit of an update on where I'm headed next, since that always seems to be one of the first questions that I hear. (The other being, "what will you do when you get back?" to which I still have no concrete answer.)  


When I first set out on this journey, I debated between buying a round the world airline ticket versus buying flights as I went along.  I had the potential to save a lot of money by prebooking everything, but I knew that I would want flexibility along the way, so I went with the latter option.  I'm especially glad now for having made that decision, as I'm sort of tossing out the original script for the next step in my journey.

Originally, I had planned on attempting to fly directly from South America to South Africa.  It made sense from a "moving from the west to the east" perspective, and I had always heard that Cape Town is pretty amazing in January.  I had always planned on skipping out on Europe - I've already been to many European countries, it's an "easier" place to visit later in life (when I'm less willing to deal with hostel dorms and squat toilets), I would want slightly nicer clothes than my current backpacker set, and it's just flat out more expensive.  Even with one of my closest friends studying in Scotland for the year, I simply figured that Europe wasn't a great option.  

However, in the last few weeks, some long conversations with that friend in Scotland and another in Portugal, as well as a few other details falling into place have led me towards adding Europe back into the itinerary…

While Cape Town is phenomenal in January, the rest of the southern part of Africa is brutally hot around that time as well.  And given that I have an actual tour already booked for India in March, it didn't leave me a ton of time to really explore Africa the way I wanted to.  I could alleviate my concerns about timing by visiting fewer places on a more relaxed timeframe.

Also, my parents were now coming to visit me in Buenos Aires just after Christmas, so they could actually bring me a few bits of my winter wardrobe, which I could then ship back home before leaving Europe.  

I've never actually been to Scotland or Ireland, and with my friend's class schedule giving her much more free time than we had originally expected, I could easily stay for a while and potentially explore more of the area.  While I've been to Portugal once before, it's been one of my favorite destinations, and it would give me an opportunity to spend time with a friend that I met briefly on my first visit, but who I've kept in close contact ever since.  Portugal also happens to be situated very close to Morocco, a country I've been dying to visit for years, but didn't fit easily on my pre-existing round-the-world circuit plan.  

I started looking up flights, just on a whim at first, and I actually found a good one - relatively inexpensive, even.  It was on Turkish Airways, which would mean a ridiculous connection / layover situation in Istanbul in between Buenos Aires and Lisbon.  Except that meant I could actually extend my layover - make it a stopover, if you will - to an entire week.  For an even lower price.  A week in Istanbul, some time in Portugal and Scotland (and friends to visit), and a potential trip to Morocco.  Suddenly this seemed like a pretty attractive option.


So, I've decided to take advantage of my decision to not pre-book everything and have a bit of adventure in and around Europe (and northern Africa!).  I'm pretty excited for the opportunity to not only see some completely different places and cultures than what I had originally planned, but also to see some familiar faces that I've dearly missed.

Now don't get me wrong, I still want to visit southern Africa - Kenya and Tanzania and South Africa and many places in between.  But perhaps they'll wait until later in the year… whether it's after India or after southeast Asia, or even if I need to make it a trip unto its own… I will definitely spend time there. 


This also means that my time in South America is coming to a close today.  The last nearly four months have been absolutely incredible, and it seems surreal that I'll be leaving the food, the language, the wonderful people I've met along the gringo trail, the entire continent… in just a few hours.  But, the journey must go on.  And don't worry, there will be plenty more photos and stories about South America - Torres del Paine and the W, Ushuaia, Iguazu Falls, and a few weeks worth of time in and around Buenos Aires - still to come!

My route thus far, nearly four months through South America.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Patagonia - Hiking, wind, and icebergs in El Chaltén

I took some sage advice from a new friend and kept my time in El Calafate brief, in order to go ahead and get to El Chaltén sooner rather than later.  I'm so glad I did - as it turned out, the first full day that I had in town was my only day of great weather!  Plus, Chaltén is one of the only relatively cheaper towns in tourist-friendly Patagonia, so if I was going to spend some extra nights somewhere, better to be in a less expensive hostel.  I took a mid-day bus from El Calafate, having thankfully booked a hostel in advance the evening prior.  At this point, high season was creeping up in Patagonia (December being the official start), so it became more and more important to book things in advance.  Coincidentally, I had booked the same hostel (Patagonia Hostel) where my friends Mike & Kirsten from my 30 hour bus adventure were staying, so we met up that evening and planned to hike to the base of Fitz Roy - one of the longer hikes that's possible to complete in a single day - the next morning.   We enjoyed dinner that evening at a spot called La Cerveceria just two doors down from our hostel - warm and cozy, with beautiful natural wood features and low light, they had two excellent beers on tap and a fantastic menu full of filling comfort food.  

There are two basic options for hiking to the base of Fitz Roy in a single day - you can start directly from the town of Chaltén, hiking up and back the same route, OR you can start from a spot called El Pilar and hike in from the opposite direction, allowing a spectacular view of one of the glaciers in front of Fitz Roy on the way (and providing two separate sets of scenery rather than the same to/from route).  To get to El Pilar, you can either walk down a long, boring road, or catch a bus from your local hostel.  We chose to do the El Pilar route, and we caught a relatively cheap bus from our hostel around 9:30 the next morning.  The bus should only take half an hour, but after some driving around to pick up people and whatnot, we didn't arrive at El Pilar until 10:30.  Not a big deal - the sun doesn't set until incredibly late during the Patagonian summer, so we had plenty of time, but we did wind up missing some clear views at the base of Fitz Roy by about an hour.  So, my advice is, get started as early as possible!

The view of Cerro Fitz Roy from our drive to El Pilar, the start of our hike.

Now that the logistical part of the post is over… the hike was absolutely incredible.  We started off in an area full of trees that appeared to still be hibernating for the winter, and many that were dead or falling over.  But the tops of many of the trees were full of leaves, and the ground beneath our feet full of grass and small plants, providing a striking contrast as we made our way through the forest.  This part of the hike was relatively easy, with rolling hills and smooth ascents, as we walked parallel to the Rio Blanco, catching occasional overlooks to the river below and the mountains surrounding us, including an incredible viewpoint of the glacier and Piedras Blancas glacial lake, with Fitz Roy towering in the background.  We finally emerged from the forest onto a flat grassy area where our path intersected with the one from town.  From here, we turned into base camp, a wooded, flat area near the river just before the steep ascent to the base of Fitz Roy where camping is allowed.  From here, hikers can camp out to get in an early morning sunrise hike to the top.  We weren't *quite* so adventuresome this time!  We continued through camp, crossed the river, and began a very steep ascent up numerous switchbacks towards the top.  The loose, rocky path had very few trees, providing excellent views of the valley below.  We finally reached the summit at Laguna de los Tres, a glacial lake covered in ice and drifts of snow at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy.  Despite a cloud having permanently encamped itself over the top of the rock towers, the view was still amazing, and well worth the long climb.  I sat down to enjoy a quick lunch of some fresh rolls with bits of cheese and salami as we admired the beauty of our surroundings.  Thanks to a few tips from friends, we made sure to check out the small path around the left side of the lake, which led to an even more striking view - a steep look over the deep turquoise water of Laguna Sucia, over which is perched another section of glacial ice at the base of the left side of the tower.  Small streams of glacial runoff fed the lake, and as we watched, a large chunk of ice tumbled down, creating even more flows of water into the lake below.  

A view of Fitz Roy and one of the glaciers, during the first part of our hike.

The view of the river valley below, from near the top of the trail.

Fitz Roy, partially obscured by clouds, and Laguna de los Tres, covered in ice.

Laguna Sucia with my new friends Mike & Kirsten.

Having spent about an hour at the top of the trail, we finally started heading back down the steep path towards base camp.  We made quick work of the path, and after noticing ominous clouds moving in from the west, we decided to make a fairly rapid return to town.  We passed over a boggy area with a long wooden bridge fashioned out of halved logs, and entered a forested area similar to the one we had seen as we started our hike.  We took a small detour off the main path to swing by Lake Capri, getting a nice view of the lake just as the sun decided to peak out from behind the clouds.  We continued our rapid pace, walking along the edge of a gorgeous river valley as we quickly descended towards town, passing thorny shrubs and towering boulders (great spots for climbers, by the way), until we finally made our way back to the hostel.  

Part of the return trail.

A gorgeous view of the river valley as we neared the town of El Chaltén.

This was also the evening of the now-infamous Iron Bowl (an annual football match between arch-rivals Alabama and Auburn), and despite the complete lack of wifi in the town, I found a decent enough spot to pick up the gamecast (a basic text play-by-play on a long delay) and receive some texts from friends back home.  The game had started during our return, so I sat down immediately to follow what I could.  Being an Alabama fan, the game (coupled with my inability to actually watch it) left me an exhausted, emotional, grouchy wreck, and I finally got some food, a hot shower, and a good night's rest late that evening after the game had ended.  

The weather the following day wasn't great (high winds, lots of clouds, bits of rain), so I took advantage of the opportunity to have a low-key day and get some rest after multiple buses and treks in not so many days.  I would up meeting a Swiss guy at the hostel who was also doing some longer travel in Patagonia, and we explored the town for a few hours, sampling empanadas and the "best ice cream in Patagonia" according to our hostel.  (Okay, it's seriously good - Heladeria Domo Blanco - go and try the Montaña, vanilla with ripples of dulce de leche, and the Calafate, the sweet berry that the nearby town is named after.  You will thank me later.)  I also decided to book an ice climbing trip on the nearby Viedma Glacier with Patagonia Aventura for the next day, in hopes that the weather would cooperate.  We then finished up our day of wandering the town with beers and bowls of incredible beef stew at La Cerveceria, perfect for a cold, windy evening.  

I got up early for my ice climbing adventure, boarding the bus at the nearby outfitter that would take us to the glacial lake, where we would board a boat that would take us out to the Viedma Glacier, similar to my experience with the Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate.  I was actually a bit surprised that the weather hadn't cancelled our trip, but as we rode towards the lake, it appeared the sun might just come out and give us a nice, clear day.  Unfortunately, the wind had other plans!  We began the one hour boat journey to the glacier easily enough, but as we grew nearer, we started hitting enormous choppy waves and navigating around enormous icebergs that had been pushed away from the glacier with the wind.  The closer we got, the more icebergs filled the water, and the more difficult the navigation actually became.  We wove in and out, backed up and tried again, but we couldn't find a clear path, and the wind continued to pound us.  Finally they announced that we would be turning back for safety reasons, as we all gave a collective sigh of relief.  Then we began to have engine trouble, apparently.  We started drifting, scraping across one of the smaller icebergs.  Thankfully, a larger boat from the same company (full of families who had opted to view the glacier from afar rather than climb or trek on it) was called over and rescued us - we were tied up to the boat and actually towed in the rest of the way.  It was certainly a bizarre and unique way to get a view of the glacier!!  Thankfully, the company also gave us a full refund.

We wanted to avoid any near-Titanic experiences.

With not much time left in the day, I set up at La Wafleria, a cute little spot on the edge of the town that serves incredible sweet and savory waffles, to do some writing and photo editing.  I also happened to hear from my friends Nick & Frances - remember the couple from South Africa I met while riding bikes in Bariloche? - who were headed towards Puerto Natales to get started on the W trek in Torres del Paine in a couple of days.  Having been fully convinced that I wanted to give the W a try, I jumped at the chance to hike it with such a fun couple, so I *attempted* to make arrangements to meet them in Puerto Natales the following day.  Unfortunately, travel likes to throw little wrenches in our plans, and as it turns out, the only bus from El Calafate to Puerto Natales the following day left at 8:30 AM.  Being in El Chaltén, I would need to ride 3 hours to even get to Calafate, and the earliest bus between the two points left at 7:30.  No dice.  Instead, I caught a mid-day bus to Calafate the following day, booked one more night at America del Sur, and planned to catch the bus to Puerto Natales the following day, giving me only a half day to meet my friends and find gear, but I was going to make it work!

Waffle with warm cinnamon apples, ice cream, and chocolate.  Incredible.

I departed El Chaltén the following day, a bit disappointed that I hadn't gotten to see and do more, but unwilling to wait around for the weather to improve, and excited to get to Torres del Paine.  And sometimes those logistical hurdles just have a way of working out.  I made it to Calafate and met a Belgian guy in my hostel that decided last-minute to venture off to Puerto Natales for the W as well, since the Big Ice trip in Calafate was booked up for the following day and he had a limited amount of time in Patagonia.  As a result, I wound up with a fantastic trekking partner and an amazing group of four for the duration of the hike.  But, more to come on that!