The W-trek was awesome.
04.03.2012 - 08.03.2012
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I am still in Patagonia, but I have crossed to the Chilean side. I was sad to leave Argentina, but curious to see what would change when I crossed the border. The first noticeable difference is that Chile is more modern than Argentina. The grocery store is nicer than at home, and they have a lot of the same products. Another welcome difference, is that the prices printed in my travel book are similar to what I they actually are. In Argentina, the inflation was crazy! My Lonely Planet was published 18 months ago and prices have doubled since then. I am actually finding that the hotels and restos are nicer in Chile than in Argentina, and they cost 10-20% less! I had heard Chile was the most expensive country in South America, but clearly the world is changing.
My adventure in "civilized" Patagonia continues. Puerto Natales is the gateway to the spectacular Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Unlike Chalten, day hikes from town are not possible. The park is enormous. To see the main highlights, the standard route (the famous W-trek) involves 4-5 days of hiking. If you are really ambitious, you can embark on the 0-trek, which includes the W route as well as a trip around the backside of the mountain ranges. It takes 9-10 days. I didn't think I was up to the 0 and opted for the W. I was a bit nervous about this part of the trip. I like day trips. I was not interested in carrying 40 pounds of gear on my back (i.e., tent, sleeping bag, portable stove and 5-days of food) while hiking 20 km a day. If my back hurts, I am not enjoying the scenery. I had originally hoped to go with an organized tour (i.e., have porters and a guide), but that did not work out. This turned out to be for the best. For whatever reason, a couple of private companies own a swath of private land through the centre of the park. They have built a series of what are called "refugios" (simple but comfortable accomodations) at strategic points in the W-trek. Wannabe trekkers therefore have the option of taking a day hike, then spending the night in a dormitory with showers and meal service, including a box lunch for the next day's trek. March is shoulder season and I was able to choose a route and reserve spots in the appropriate refugios with only a few days notice!! The trails were well marked and it was no problem hiking on my own, I met a lot of other trekkers at the refugios following the same route, or coming the opposite way. Because of the placement of the refugios, on some of the day hikes I had to carry my extra gear (clean clothes, flip flops and my toiletries), but it was totally manageable.
Despite a few hiccups that added more colour than hardship, I am grateful to report that the weather has continued to defy Patagonia's reputation for being nasty. There was one night of pouring rain which stopped shortly after dawn and another of howling, gusting wind (80km/hr plus) that contined through the day. On the windy day, I had a short section by the lake that was crazy. I thought the wind was going to pick me up by the backpack and carry me away! I would try make progress on the trail when nature was winding up and then grab a rock, or crouch down, during the bursts. The gusts were also picking up water off the surface of the lake so sometimes their arrival included a built in shower. Fortunately, my hike that day was mostly in a valley which provided significant shelter, but others were not so lucky. I heard someone fell down a hill and another person fell into a river (there are a lot of streams to cross as numerous glaciers melt, and the run off drains into the lakes below). Other than this, I had great hiking weather and reasonably clear views at the lookout points. I was pleased.
I tackled the W from right to left, hiking for 4 days. Everyday included amazing scenery and views, but the variety of terrains and different levels of effort required kept it interesting. My first day was the hike to the Torres del Paine lookout point. The last section was a long, steep climb, but you were rewarded with views of a glacier, a lovely lake and (if you were lucky), the 3 towers as a back drop. The second day was a flat stroll through meadows with gorgeous Lake Nordenskold and a mountain range to your back. The third day was the hike into the famous French Valley. It was a highlight, but at 26-km return, a very demanding day. Reaching the first look out point involved a 1-hour scramble uphill through a very nasty field of boulders. However, the upclose dramatic view of the blue and white rippled French glacier with its mini-waterfalls dulled the pain. The second lookout point was a particular treat. The trail went through the forest so it wasn't clear that you were hiking into the valley-version of a cul-de-sac. When the trees cleared and you arrived at the dead end, voilà -- you were surrounded on all sides by a panarama of mountain peaks close enough to touch. Some were pointy, some were flat, some were grey, some were tan. Extraordinary!
My fourth day of hiking was another flat stroll along a lake, but with a difference. There was a huge forest fire in the park in January and 14,000 hectares or 7% of the park was destroyed. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/04/chile-fire-national-park-reopen) The story of the fire is that a tourist decided to burn his toilet paper instead of hauling it out with his other garbage, and it got away from him. I walked through a piece of the affected zone. It was very sad, but not what I expected. One part looked like the wind had whipped the fire through the meadow at rapid speed. Trees were singed on the outside but the leaves, withered and orange, were still attached to the tree. It was like they hadn't been burned at all, but rather dehydrated by the heat. The first part of the valley next to Grey Lake was a different story. The valley is small and walls are close to the trail. The ground was black with singed rocks and ash. There were black stumps sticking out of the ground and the occasional log of charred wood. You could still smell the burn. It was creepy. It will take some time, but the park will recover, some grass was already sprouting in places. On a nicer note, my hike ended with a beautiful view of the enormous Grey glacier. Icebergs had broken off and were floating down Gray Lake.
So ends the hiking portion of my holiday. I am kind of relieved, my hiking boots are getting really stinky. I am off to Santiago next week!