And so it begins

Continued from Puerto Natales:

2016.12.12, Day 1 Hotel Lago Grey to Refugio Grey

There was a new update in the morning: the boat is supposedly running after all, but not until the afternoon. After some deliberation we decided it’s worthwhile volunteering to go on the new engine’s maiden voyage, as we do have all our camping gear and food in the event of another breakdown… 

The weather, surprisingly, is looking quite nice. We’re treated to a double rainbow, with sunlight streaming obliquely through some misty showers as the skies are beginning to open up. Unfortunately this is going to be about as much good weather as we’re likely to get, and we’re still stuck at the hotel!

The walk to the ferry docks turned out to be a 2-mile hike along a tangle of dead trees and brush, and a very pebbly lakeshore (the locals also refer to Lago Grey as the Iceberg Graveyard, apparently), which almost caused us to miss the boat. Finally we are on our way… Just as we're disembarking, we're waved down by a film crew. It turns out they’re journalists documenting local tourism, so we may or may not turn up on Chilean TV at some point… 

A short distance from the dock, Refugio Grey happened upon us as a somewhat of a surprise. Following the trails we found ourselves suddenly emerging from trees onto a massive field of haphazardly strewn, neon-colored tents. Ann stalked the refugee encampment for a good ten minutes, and found a relatively flat site sheltered from all sides by cypresses or some such scraggly tree. We pitched and ditched our heavy packs, and merrily went on our belated afternoon walk.

Doubling back towards Camp Paso, the trails were pretty benign, if a bit hilly. Overall, the scenery was much woodier than we expected (frankly we didn’t know what to expect), festooned with patches of wild orchids, mosses, ferns, and a kind of weird, spongy yellow globular mushroom (will have to seek input from the experts at BMS).

En route we encountered two suspension bridges that were barely more than dangly bits of wood and steel over deep valleys, their planks spaced such that a small person could plausibly fall through. Watching Chewie sway and fumble with camera parts mid-crossing didn’t assuage Ann’s anxiety. But the views of Glacier Grey from the bridge, unobstructed by foliage, were phenomenal.

We were at a higher elevation, and so could actually see a continuity of white all the way to the horizon, textured on the surface by turquoise melt ponds and dark crevasses. A passing ferry in the distance, size of a grape, gave some ideas of the sheer verticality of the frozen giant.

Upon returning to our campsite we walked into a terrible realization that in our absence a French group had unceremoniously metastasized into Ann’s lovingly chosen nook. They somehow managed to wall us in by squeezing 3 tents in such intimate proximity that we could in fact see them through our cuben fiber tent walls. (There was also some awkward thing going on with a guy talking into a tent, his voice full of pity and remorse.) Ann sighed but we were hungry and decided to eat first. The mess hall was overcrowded and humid with boiling water. By the way, who ever thought it’d be a good idea to cram several dozen people burning propane stoves into an enclosed room…?

The spectacle that is us continues. A guy came over to ask where we were from. He didn’t seem to like our answer as he abruptly did an about-face and left without a word. Lost a bet? After dinner we went for a stroll to the nearest Mirador (lookout point). By the time we got to the end of the trail there was already an older couple enjoying a whiskey–carried in a Sprite bottle–on the glacial rocks. They too seemed befuddled by our not being Japanese.

Back at camp the awkward situation was deteriorating… We decided it may be for the best to relocate. Chewie folded our deflated tent like a taco and hightailed out of the Quartier Français, and we resettled on an open grass field with a view of the mountains next to the Barrio Chileno, complete with the familiar aroma of cannabis. Around midnight, some rando came by and took a picture, with flash, of our translucent, definitely not all-weather tent.

2016.12.13, Day 2 Refugio Grey to Refugio Paine Grande 

Last night the temperatures dipped below freezing and it was drafty out in the open, but we lived. To warm ourselves we gulped down hearty portions of Mountain House Breakfast Skillet and a ramen. As promised, a fox came by around 10am looking for camp mice, and Chewie managed to snap a quick shot on the iPhone (Ann was dismayed to have missed it).

Today is our first full day of hiking with full packs. It’s an 11km straight shot to the next campsite, with some modest hills in between. Burdened with probably way too much food, we’ve resolved to eat everything as quickly as possible. At least the weather is nice for now.

Just out of Refugio Grey, we catch a last glimpse of the glacier before it recedes for good (not literally, we hope). We travel along mostly gravel paths lined with shrubs and wildflowers–more orchids and foxgloves–and it’s about here that Ann discovers an alternate use for trekking poles: when deployed in a forward-facing dual-helicopter rotor formation, they make a formidable anti-butterfly force field, especially when accompanied by a “Woop! Woop! Woop! Woop!” sound effect. 

Today we’re beginning to appreciate the extent of damage wrought by the last several forest blazes. Fire-gnarled trunks and branches litter every bend, and the ghastly skeletons of charred forests have become a ubiquitous and surreal sight. No wonder the park has such draconian cooking rules now.

Along the way, we’ve also started making a few friends. A trio of Chilean girls who’d somehow crammed into a tiny two-person tent next to ours last night, tumbled out of it in the morning like clowns from a car. An American father-son-and-friends group is on the latter half of the longer O-circuit. One of them, Rick, is a wilderness guide and quick to point out the many giant hares scampering around the mountainside and the spread wingtips of the condors gliding overhead. They joked about seeing the elusive Patagonian puma, but Chewie later did stumble upon a paw print in the wet mud. Per Rick the print was likely under two hours old and from a puma if it were bigger than a chapstick and had no nails, and it surely didn't! We also saw a red-billed woodpecker. 

By now we’ve crested a few hills and yo-yo’d past our friends a few times. Ann is miserable and complaining of sore feet. Just then the girls a few hundred feet in front of us began to ululate. We reached the hilltop and on the other side the wooden roof of the Refugio and a field studded with multi-colored tents came into view. Salvation! We could scarcely recall a sight so beautiful.

Refugio Paine Grande sits on the shore of the exquisite Lago Pehoé, and is protected from the worst of the weather by mountains to the north. Tent pitched, we enjoyed a long-awaited lunch of Austral cerveza and canned tuna with water crackers (the heaviest food items in our bags). Here Chewie also learned a surprise lesson in the difference between hot and iced instant coffee mixes. We enjoyed a congee of undissolved sugar and milk solids that kept unfolding like fractals into ever-smaller clumps. Satiated, Ann went back to the tent for a (per her) much needed nap.  

We are hunkering down for the night as the clouds roll in, bringing with them the promised rain showers that will last a few days. Tonight we find out if our tent will stand up to a Patagonian summer squall. So far we’ve not seen a flimsier setup. 

And then, Long days ahead...