Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Patagonia 2017: Refugio Los Cuernos - Día Nueve

Patagonia 2017:  Refugio Los Cuernos - Día Nueve – 2/16/17 – 11 km

My theory stands firm that the second day of a trek is the hardest. This one was short on distance but long on discomfort.  At the end of the day (well, really at the end of the night, aka the next morning) it’s all worth it and a good story around the campfire.  But --

We slept in this morning at Las Torres, avoiding the early breakfast crush, the same menu in a more relaxed atmosphere. The drizzling raindrops sliding down the windowpanes did not invite us to step outside, but go we must.  [Go or do not go – there is no try.]  Full weather assault gear: rain pants over shorts, short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, rain gloves, rain jacket, Hokies ball cap, hood up, pack cover on.  Vamanos!

Nordenskjöld Lake, normally an intense opaque aqua color, was muted. The mountains on the far side were veiled in low mist and the sky was – hmmm – pewter? Dishwater grey? Let’s just say colorless.  But while watching my footing on the wet path, I began to notice the “view” up close, low growing plants and grasses that were quite beautiful, clumps of light yellow-green, dark glossy leaves and prickly stems.

I learned a new term:  pre-Andean scrubland, low evergreen shrubs that thrive on river banks and lake edges and have adapted to save water and withstand the fierce Patagonian wind.  Most common is the Calafate shrub.  (Local lore says if you eat the berries, you are destined to return to Patagonia.) 

Chilean firetree or Notro flower

Senecio miser cushion-plant

Who knows?

Can you see the Upland goose (aka Magellan goose) on the trail?

The wet was tolerable with no wind, just a slight breeze, and we hiked steadily all morning, staying within sight of each other, taking two quick pee breaks and one standing-up snack break. There were a couple of unbridged water crossings.

Rick pausing to take in Nordenskjöld Lake

Swinging bridge crossing over a rocky bottom – what must it be like to cross when there is a river of snow melt rushing underneath?

We’re getting close to the refugio

Refugio Los Cuernos

At the last side-stream crossing, someone has pitched their tent in what looks like an awesome spot – except that it’s dangerous to be so close to the water if the flow increases during the night, and it’s not eco-friendly.

Check-in at Los Cuernos was hectic and crowded as the multitudes sought shelter from the rain.  Anyone taking a chance on getting a bunk without a reservation was out of luck.  The dining area was cheek-to-cheek with campers drying out (unsuccessfully), people arriving and people procrastinating about leaving.

First things first – a hot chocolate warm-up

No cabin with hot tub for us. Our bunks were assigned in a room for eight; two bunks were triple high. There’s no place way up there to put stuff to be easily accessible, but it looks like it’s my turn to take one for the team.  The bigger problem was really no space for anyone to spread gear out to dry.  Every possible hanging spot was utilized with minimal success. We shared the room with another group of four (mom, dad, daughter and boyfriend).  Boots and backpacks everywhere.

With some thought and planning for later, I made decisions on what to keep in my bunk to minimize the up-and-down factor and it worked out okay. 

Hello down there!

With a long wet afternoon facing us, Cathy became immersed in a large puzzle project in a corner of the dining room, with Carol and others jumping in from time to time.  Wifi was available for $7 per 30 minutes, and I tried contacting home via WhatsApp, with limited success.  Rick had wifi and a book to read.

Of course, the refugio was not intended to accommodate this mass of people for long.  Two of the three women’s toilets were clogged. As I waited my turn for the one functioning stall (who knows how long it will hold up?) I chatted with an Asian woman named June, who works in IT in San Francisco.  She was hiking with a group of 14 people who travel the world hiking in locales famous and obscure.  She counted off Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, Nepal, Mount Whitney in California, many places in Canada, and small national parks unfamiliar to me in other countries. 

(June and her group were also experts in refugio living, commandeering space around the wood stove at the end of the hallway and stringing up multiple clotheslines to dry their gear.)

Late in the afternoon the staff kicked us all out of the dining area to set up for dinner.  We could look forward to more elbow-to-elbow while perched on those little stools.

Noisy conversation again, plus loud music, did not improve the atmosphere for me. Dinner was soup, a slice of beef with polenta, and a fruit mousse dessert.  Many trekkers on the “W” enjoy the vibe, and I don’t mind meeting and talking with new people, but my energy was waning tonight.  A little wine will help me sleep – if I don’t fall from my nest in the rafters!

“I am sure it is a great mistake always to know enough to go in when it rains.  One may keep snug and dry by such knowledge, but one misses a world of loveliness.”  ~Adeline Knapp

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Patagonia 2017: Mirador Las Torres - Día Ocho

Patagonia 2017:   Where Are Those Towers? Día Ocho – 2/15/17 – 23 km

Nobody asked me, but so far breakfast in Chile seems poorly organized.  Following the rules and getting in line for our assigned time of 7:00 a.m. was a rookie mistake. Everyone wants an early start, both hostel guests and campers. The crush to show vouchers and grab tables was a little unnerving and the cacophony of voices was similar to last night, too much for easy conversation. Hostel food: strawberry yogurt, corn flakes, thick dry toast with butter, jam, Nutella, slices of Swiss cheese and scrambled eggs. We learned a trick watching a fellow make a sandwich out of his toast, eggs and cheese, which I employed every morning after that. 

[Okay, so this doesn't convey the crowdedness, but I promise it was noisy]

Today’s hike is the park’s most famous: out-and-back to the base of Torres del Paine.  What do we want to see?  Blue sky, towering granite spires above a glittering glacial lake.

The drizzling rain and misty clouds were not encouraging, but what else have we got to do?  Anything could happen as we hike up.  Other hikers shared our optimism as we crossed Río Ascensio on the bouncy suspension bridge.

Notro flower or Chilean flower bush

Two hours of steady uphill took concentration without conversation.  It was necessary to stop often and (catch our breath) take in the expansive views up and down the Valle Ascensio. 

Back over my shoulder, a sliver of Lago Nordenskjold

Up ahead, clouds are still moving

Valle Ascensio and robust flowing Río Ascensio

Danger careful slippery!

About halfway up the valley, another bridge crosses Río Ascensio to reach Refugio Chileno, smaller and more rustic than Las Torres but the best overnight option to see the Torres by moonlight or sunrise.  AND there are banós!  Here our little party of four took a l-o-n-g break.  The weather wasn’t clearing and there was a short debate about continuing but again – what else have you got to do?  Onward!

The trail soon crosses the river a third time and enters the forest, a dense tree canopy and low undergrowth of mosses and plants, no flowers, and yes, still going up.

Cathy must be ahead of us

On the back side of the sign

 An hour-and-a-half later the trail reached the turn to Camp Torres, where we are not going.  At this junction hearty hikers seeking the towers turn left and the serious work begins.  For a while the trail follows close by the tree line before veering out onto an impossible boulder field sprinkled with slippery moraine.  Yikes!

This giant gets everyone’s attention as a rest stop


Forty-five minutes after the junction for Camp Torres, we arrived at Mirador Las Torres…but there was no mirador today. We explored along the rocky shoreline, keeping one eye on the dense cloud hanging near water level.  My clothes were damp with sweat from the strenuous hike and soon I was chilled (as was everyone else).  We hunkered down to eat and recover, watching other visitors take turns posing on the edge of the “photo boulder.” The crowd gasped as the clouds teased, but ultimately the Towers were a no-show. 

We lingered for 90 minutes but saw little change.  Still, the scene was breathtaking, rivulets of water flowing down the sheer cliff sides to the milky green glass lake surface. Disappointing not to see the Towers against a sparkling blue sky, yet altogether thrilled to be immersed in the Patagonian landscape.

Okay, time to go
The return proved to be what’s good about an out-and-back hike: everything you missed while you were huffing and puffing and looking at your feet on the ascent. 
 Adventurers on horseback

During the hike back to the refugio, Cathy struck up a friendship with a young French-Iranian woman named Pauline who had been in the park for several days and was figuring out a way back to Puerto Natales.  Pauline was conversant in several languages, very outgoing and interested in each of us, as we were enthralled with her adventures.  Cathy bought her a bus ticket and a beer and we toasted her safe travels. 

Once again we endured the obnoxious dining room (chicken risotto - not salmon! - red cabbage salad, rice pudding) and Cathy treated us to a bottle of red wine.  Carol befriended a woman named Uta, who was eating alone at the end of our table.  Don’t get me wrong: I recommend Refugio Las Torres as very comfortable, clean and warm, but be forewarned that if you don’t love chaos, you don’t have to be in the first round at mealtimes.  Several communal spaces on the main floor have cozy fireplaces and floor pillows, inviting folks to gather and chat about what they’ve been doing and what’s next, and we all enjoyed chillaxing. 

Well, would you look at that?  Just before sunset

Tomorrow we move on to another refugio and the weather forecast is rain, rain, rain.

“A taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors.” ~Henry David Thoreau