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Finishing the W, 3 nights, 4 days

13 Feb

The third and last night of camping may have been the most disheartening and difficult. I arrived just as the sun was setting, and finished putting together the tent just before it went pitch dark.

I unloaded my gear and prepared to make dinner when my flashlight went out. It wasn’t the first time the little guy had failed me (the first time was in Costa Rica), and I cursed it relentlessly.

I thought I was being resourceful when I decided to use the stove’s light instead. But just as my soup was boiling and ready to eat, karma came knocking on the door and the soup spilled all over the tent. I had tricked the camp grounds into letting me camp for free and it seemed like the evening’s events were my punishment.

I scrambled to clean the soup and even ate some of it : ) Hey, I was hungry. But I was worried that the strong smell would attract animals throughout the night and I blindly stumbled across the dark campground to the refugio. I borrowed a towel and did the best I could to mop the rest of the mess.

That night, no animals (or none that I know of) showed up at my tent. Instead, I was met with a flood of rainwater that permeated through my tent and wet half of my sleeping bag. I was happy to be going home. And after my earliest morning yet, I set out to do the last portion of the hike.

It was the nicest day on the trail yet, and I saw more sun than I’d seen all week. The day was still intermittent with rain and at times you could see multiple weather systems at once.

It turns out a walking stick can actually be really useful. By the end, I was so happy with the branch I had found, that I almost had difficulty letting it go. It was like Wilson from Cast Away, though I promise I never talked to the stick. Still, it had the perfect shape and carried me harmlessly through rivers and steep ascents and it had been with me for the last two days.

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The end of the hike led to a beautiful valley with a view of the last refugio, my would be exit point from the park. It was surreal and the last few miles were tiring and impatient. Unfortunately though, I would not be able to complete the W. To truly have finished it, would have taken another 5 hours past the refugio to a glacier set up top the mountains, and another 5 to get back.

As it turned out, I didn’t wake up early enough to do the last portion, and to be honest, a part of me was glad. I was tired and sore and when I finally arrived at the refugio, I passed out immediately on one of the comfy couches in the lobby. In the end, I could have completed it all by staying for another night, but we had a plane to catch to Iguazu Falls and to stay for another day would have meant to miss it.

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When I got back to Argentina and told the tale to Danny, he said it seemed like I hated it. Indeed, the blog might seem like a laundry list of complaints. It was a challenging few days but they were far from miserable. In the end, Torres del Paine wasn’t the most beautiful national park I’ve visited (I think El Chalten takes the prize), and none of the trails were particularly difficult or steep. But it was my first trek longer than two days, and my first time sleeping outside (apart from summer camp). And it’s definitely something I will want to do again when I get back to the states, next time for even longer.

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Bottom of the World, or the Top. Depends on how you look at it…The W

10 Feb

Date of Events: 2/10/09 – 2/11/09

I felt bad about my last blog entry.  I was worried it would read too hyperbolic. But as it turned out, everything the newspaper predicted had been true…

It was a three plus hour bus ride from the hostel in Puerto Natales to the mountains of Torres del Paine. I boarded the bus and was quickly met with a loud, “Paul!”  It was two Belgium girls, and a Seatlite named Becky.  We had all stayed in the same hostel in El Calafate.  I realized quickly that my plans for solitude and introspection were quickly going to be abandoned for dinner and wine with the trio.  It was a peaceful ride and the bus was filled with an air of excitement.  For others, it was a last chance to catch some sleep before a long week.

The bus finally stopped. We were told we would be transfering to a boat to complete the rest of the trip.

The moment we stepped foot out of the bus, we realized exactly what Patagonian weather might look like.  It was as if we arrived right into the middle of a storm.  Scramblilng to get our stuff together, and trying to keep things dry, we made our way to the boat – which was something inbetween a fishing vessel and Bruce Wayne´s speedboat.  Despite the wind and rain, I managed to make way to the roof of the boat, and snapped a few while I was trying to keep my balance.

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I finished setting up camp around 7 30.  The plan was to hike for about three hours to a glacier view-point but I was an amateur at putting together tents and the bus had taken longer than expected.  I was feeling a bit lazy anyway and we decided to open the wine and make dinner instead.

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We agreed to wake up at 4 am (Patagonia has ridicilously long days of sunshine. Something like 18 hours a day).  We also agreed it wasn´t going to happen. So we pushed it back till 7.

At 10:30, I opened my eyes.  It was a rough night.  I was awoken countless times by some earthshattering winds that really beat up my tent. I remember lying there at night, looking up at the trembling tent, and I wondering how I wasn´t being blown away.

The next day the winds persisted and Inga, one of th Belgian girls, took a picture of herself leaning back against what seemed like an invisible wall.  It was the wind that was holding her up and prevented her from falling.

There were times on the hike that morning (the hike we were supposed to do the night before), that I had to completly bend my body forward, to keep aeroydnamic and to keep from blowing away.  The girls had trouble keeping up and I decided to keep on going.  I don´t think it was a testament to my physical abilities.  I just think I was more used to hiking at that point.  That´s when I met Eric, another casualty of the recession from New York, who was doing an 8 day hike alone.

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We all met back at the campsite, including Eric who would hang out with us until the next day, and we packed up our tents to go on.  And that´s when the real challenge started.  Up until that point, we never had to hike with all of our stuff; the boat had dropped us off just a few yards short of the first campsite.

We started to make way, with over 30 pounds of camping gear in toe, and a faint drizzle turned quickly into “full on rain,” a phrase I found myself repeating often.  It felt like trekking through a jungle.

It´s not that I was surprised by the rain.  All of the guide books had warned us of the weather conditions.  But I don´t think I could have imagined the extent of it.  Because once it started raining, it didn´t want to stop.

It made the hike that much more difficult and my new found friends had had enough.  The girls were clearly miserable and I noticed some internal bickering taking place too.  Becky, the American, was clearly used to being alpha and the Belgians weren´t having any of it – and it was completly comical to watch.

Sometime after dinner, which we all had in our own tents this time, the girls announced they were going home.  Then Eric said he was following suit.  After seven or so days on the road, the downpour had quelled his spirits as well.

Indeed, things were a lot less fun the second night.  We had set up camp while it was still raining and my tent wasn´t all that dry.  Neither were my clothes.  To make matters worse, the wind had bent my poles the night before and the tent could barely stand up straight.

I improvised and fortified the poles with a wooden stick, and put another branch right in the middle of the tent.  It looked old school, a piece of cloth slumped over a wooden stick, just like the Indians woulda done. I was proud.

Paul, a professional adventurer from New Zealand who was camped right next to me was impressed as well.  He had originally planned to kayak around Antartica but his sponsor pulled out at the last second and he decided to bike through Chile and Argentina instead.

That night I tossed and turned.  It was cold.  We were on higher elevation than the night before but the trees around us blocked most of the wind, and some rain, which was good.

The next morning Eric was gone and the girls were getting ready to leave as well.  Only Inga said bye which I thought was weird.  I figured the others were so miserable they were too hurried to get out of there.

Meanwhile, it was freezing outside and I stayed huddled in the tent until well into the afternoon.  There was no way I was going outside, that is unless nature couldn’t wait any more. I never used my tea pot again after that morning…Instead I read my book, The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo, which I was completely engrossed in at that point, and didn’t want to put it down.

I finally made it outside and realized the rain had subdued, at least for the time being.  I jumped on the opportunity and began disassembling my tent.  I also had to figure out my next move.  Everyone had left, and a park ranger informed me the campgrounds were closed.  He also warned me not to go up to Camp Britinica, which was a two hour hike through the French Valley.  His warning only piqued my interest further.

I learned that the crossing westward was made difficult by a flooding river that was waist-deep.  And when I saw a few spots of blue in the sky, I decided to go up to Britanica after all.  The ranger had said no, but a few hikers said yeh, and I decided to say yes as well. 

I set out and was met with a small stream crossing right away.  Indeed, my trek that day would cross many more streams, all made more violent by the steady wind and rain.  I was cautious on the way up and stopped often to take pictures.  I also entertained myself by thinking of the days events, and writing the story in my mind that I’m writing now. 

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I was interrupted by a hiker coming down the mountain.  He had gotten lost and never made it up to the top.  The message was clear.  Stop day dreaming and start paying attention to the trail. 

The scenery changed often and drastically.  When I wasn’t crossing rivers, the trail took me up huge boulders with dramatic views of the mountains and glaciers.  Then it would duck into the forest where it led me uphill alongside some class 5 or 6 rapids, which thankfully I never had to cross. 

The weather was starting to deteriorate rapidly.  Dark grey clouds began to surround the landscape and they did it without warning.  I made it to camp two hours and fifteen minutes after I started.  A bit disappointing considering the map listed it as a two hour hike, which usually meant you can do it in at least an hour and forty-five. 

I was decidedly creeped out that there was not a single other person there.  I got worried.  Maybe everyone had heeded the ranger’s warnings for a reason. 

What would come next is really goofy and I only include it because I want to remember the details of the trip.  I decided to jog back.  I wanted the exercise because we hadn’t been hiking as much as we could have with the rain, and I wanted to make up some time as I had another 4 hours to go before the next camp.  I held my walking stick like a spear in one hand, water bottle in the other like something from 10,000 BC, which we had just seen in El Chalten, and I jogged down the mountain for something just shy of twenty minutes.  In retrospect, it wasn’t the best of ideas as I worked up a sweat and got really cold the moment I stopped. 

I made great time though and finished the trail quickly, only stopping once to say hi to Sarah and Todd, who were hiking up to Britanica to spend the night. I had met Sarah the night before and found out they were doing a biking trip across South America, from bottom to top, and would do so for about 6 months, or as long as it would take to do it all. 

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A quick break afterward, and I was on my way again through the pouring rain. 

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