Hitting our stride (sort of)

Continued from Day 2.

2016.12.14, Day 3 Refugio Paine Grande to Campamento Italiano 

Today we’ll be packing it out of our beautiful refuge towards Campamento Italiano. We woke up to the now familiar sound of rain tapping on cuben, but by the time we emerged from the tent the sun is out again amidst fast-moving clouds. At least 8lb of consumables down, we’re hoping that the trek will be more manageable today.

It's beautiful beyond words...

On the way out of Paine Grande we pass through more groves of burned trees. Their bone-white cores continue to stand in defiance of death after the winds have blown off the charred barks.

It's a gorgeous hike...

We reached Italiano before long. It’s a barebones facility with no running water, so no sinks or showers (there is however the furiously gushing Rio Frances nearby). Tall, leafy trees shelter the campsites from the winds coming down the valley.

After a lunch of salami, crackers, and Milka bars and filling up our water pouch, we set off on our day hike up Valle Frances. We inch slowly towards the Glaciar del Frances following a rocky river-side path. Every 5-10 minutes, a canon shot-like boom would punctuate our trek, and we’d raise our heads just in time to see an avalanche tumble down the cliffs. Directly behind us, the massive and turquoise Lago Nordenskjöld is also coming into view. It’s hard to decide which way to look.

A few hundred meters up, the trail turns inwards through a forest of southern beech (alive, woohoo!) and whispering streams. As we’re musing what the park might’ve looked like before the fires, we re-encounter our jovial American friends on their way down. Rick advises us that the orange-yellow mushroom balls are in fact edible, so Chewie braves a chomp. They taste like bland grapes.

A while later we pass through an unmarked collection of individual primitive lean-to shelters–and no wonder, the winds are howling overhead. We figure this must be the defunct/emergency shelter Campamento Britanico. Imagine what truly terrible weather would force one to pitch here!

With little warning, we hit a clearing, and out of nowhere on our right arose the namesake of the park: Torres del Paine. Of course we’re thrilled to see it for the first time, in gorgeous afternoon sunlight no less! 

Without the tree cover, the winds are wild enough here to blow Ann over. Between marveling at the view and trying not to fall over, we didn’t quite notice a giant storm cloud gathering in the north, nor the departure of other hikers. In less than ten minutes, beads of rain have started to gather on our DWR’ed clothes, and a menacing reduction in visibility has moved into the clearing. It’s time to turn back.

For the next two hours it’s a race against the incoming front. Each time we paused to take a picture the sky would look a little grimmer, the earlier sunshine just a little more unfathomable. We move full speed ahead, so preoccupied that we didn’t even notice Britanico on the way back. Yet we couldn’t outrun the increasingly large and frequent raindrops, and before long we gave in and donned full rain gear, and put Ann’s camera bags to the test. 

The way back was dark, slippery, and took forever. Gone were the brilliant views of the glaciers and lakes, replaced by full gloom and an eerie sense of man vs. nature, and we know who the loser will be. By the time we could see Rio Frances again our knees were ready to quit, but there was another ~1000ft of descent…

We could hardly move by the time we got back to camp. Chewie hobbled over to the river to get more water so we could make dinner, while Ann languished on a rock pondering whether the trail runners were a wise choice after all. Cold and hangry, we stared blankly at the young and rowdy campers here… too much alcohol, yelling, and music for our sorry beat body and spirit.  

Chewie says today is a day characterized by sounds. Rhythmic tapping of trekking poles. Raindrops falling on rocks. The whoosh of swaying trees and grasses, dead branches creaking and humming in the breeze. The wind howling over clearings. Waves breaking and water blown out of Lago Nordenskjöld. Whispering rivulets in the forest gathering into gushing rapids. Waterfall crashing from a mountain. The echoing thunder of avalanches and the terrifying silence before a storm. We could’ve been blind and heard the changing landscape of TdP through the sounds. 

 2016.12.14, Day 4 Camp Italiano to Hotel Las Torres, aka Salvation 

Today’s the long hike we’ve been mentally gearing ourselves up for. Just after 9am we left Italiano, sans breakfast and eager to get going. Turning south out of camp we follow a mostly downhill track, through Camp Frances towards Refugio Los Cuernos. The path is too narrow for trekking poles and muddy from last night’s rain, but otherwise easy on the feet after the rocky climb yesterday.

Down at sea–or Lago Nordenskjold–level, the trail broadened into a stony beach where camping equipment (along with their campers) were strewn about to catch some meager but welcome rays. The inviting cerulean hue of the water belied its icy bite, and we moved onwards.  

Unfortunately that was the end of the downhill portion, but we were getting close to Refugio Los Cuernos. Having spent the night at Italiano, we beheld this oasis with envy: raised camping platforms and cabanas with a view, including one with a hot tub–what?! The kitchen area is new and clean and the bathrooms spotless. It’s noon, but not too late for our reward: Mountain House-and-Ramen breakfast combo time! 

Further unfortunately that was also the end of Ann’s willingness or ability to carry her share of weight (though per her Chewie was not playing fair to begin with), and we were only about a third through the day. Some reshuffling of things later (during which Chewie re(dis)covered a one-pound, wonderfully calorically dense bar of Milka from Ann’s bag so it wasn’t a total loss), we were back climbing uphill through gravel and rocks, but hey the view is unbeatable, and Milka! 

And then there were more rocks. With each one Ann’s feet were getting more acquainted against their wills with the Mohs hardness scale. Another hill, another ibuprofen. Knowing that we’re continuing along the rim of the lake, we’re starting to dread a little the sight of the endless blue. (And before long we’d rechristen the lake as The Fucking Lake That Never Ends).

Along the route we met more people–day hikers with enviably light packs; a French girl whose ankle was swollen and didn’t fit into the boot anymore, now hiking in flip-flops; American college students, also toting DSLRs but way faster than us. These encounters, plus the suspension bridges whose novelty haven’t quite worn off yet, helped break up the route that was just going on for far, far too long. The sun was also beating down on us hard, the clouds long ago vanished (where on earth was this rain?!). It’s just sheer punishment now.

During one of Ann’s most despondent moments, sitting moribund by the trail with head hanging low, Chewie came over the hill and started yelling “Guernica! Guernica!” That elusive Andean creature, spooked by Ann’s sudden resurrection, bounded back up the hill, its arched tail disappearing into the mountainside. How a 5-foot-tall animal just vanishes from view is still beyond us.

The guanaco chase rejuvenated us a bit (unfortunately that was the last of our sighting). But as we turned the corner the wind really picked up and the landscape changed into one of red grasses and mounds of yellow-flowered, brain coral-like shrubs. Thankfully, the trails have also flattened out, and we could finally see the end of the hateful lake!

After cresting yet another hill, Ann yelped, and that unforgettable mirage–the red buildings that could only be Las Torres–arose in the distance. With renewed vigor, we took off again, only to discover that our eyes fooled us: what looked so tantalizingly close was in fact another few miles away, another few hills to climb over and rivers to cross. We trudged on.

Just over the last hill we stumbled upon a daisy field. The wind was snapping the flowers back and forth and Chewie was absolutely captivated. Ann took the opportunity to croak on a flowerbed while Chewie snapped a few (to the tune of 200) shots:

We reached Hotel Las Torres. Eventually. To the lobby we slovenly bums trudged. One guest cheered us on, a few gave us looks of knowing pity. Chewie discovered, as a last hurdle, that our passports were buried all the way in the bottom of his 60L pack, and our stuff exploded all over the lobby area as we searched for them. At last, we could retreated to our luxurious room, with a king sized bed, heater, and bathtub (soaking in that tub was divine). We made ourselves presentable and wobbled over to dinner. It was fantastic, if for no reason other than it not being rehydrated freeze-dried food expiring in 2046. We ate everything with gusto.

We surveyed the damage. Chewie’s nose is red as a calafate berry. Today we walked 11mi, elevation ±1400ft (or delta 0 as Chewie had told Ann in the morning... definitely not a state function). We suddenly found so much respect for porters.

Also today, Ann would like to note: Horse. Shit. Horseshit. Everywhere.

Tomorrow we go up to basecamp!