2016.12.14, Day 5 To Base Camp and Torres del Paine

We ended up repacking a lot of things last night, and checked about 20lb of stuff at the hotel reception: there’s a postmortem waiting to determine why we have so much excess weight. We set off in the late morning, feeling so much better after one night’s sound sleep and a hot breakfast.

Today was trek was almost entirely uphill. It started with all sunshine and blue skies, but the stream of trekkers coming down the mountain, all in full rain gear, didn’t bode well. Indeed, we didn’t make it to the top of the first hill before the rain started coming down.

Two hours in, we reached Refugio Los Chilenos, but by then its canteen was overfilled with people seeking shelter. We joined the cowering throngs for coffee and ramen, one of which was this amazing Sabor y Queso, aka liquid Cheetos flavor. Still hungry, Chewie suddenly recalled that we were still lugging a chorizo at the bottom of one of our packs. And so with jubilation we broke soda bread over the unexpected bonanza. Envious looks abounded.

The walk from Refugio Chilenos to the base camp was stunningly verdant, with the beech forests and hanging moss… It felt like we were walking inside a densely planted aquarium. Before we knew it we’d reached camp. Campamente Torres (not to be confused with Hosteria Torres) is primitive but well sheltered and welcoming with a giant Santa. 

It’s still light in the mid-afternoon, so we decided to go up to the Mirador to have a look. The trail, though steep, isn’t very tricky until the last leg. Here the path gave way to a field of enormous boulders that made the trail markers harder to spot, especially since it’s started to hail. (And in typical fashion people gave us very much underestimated traveling times.)

When we finally got over the giant rocky humps, a magnificent view opened before us. We arrived just in time for a small break in the clouds, as the Cordilleras del Paine so very briefly unveiled its famous facade.

A few wisps of dark grey are seeping through the peaks. Uh oh. We hunker under a giant rock, and so here we are, all alone at the Mirador, waiting it out with our eyes glued to the towers. So far, no luck, but maybe, just maybe it’s going to get better...?

And it did! For about five minutes a hint of gray-blue crept in and the sky lightened up just so little bit. But the towers were loathe to give up their faces in entirety. We could almost see it all… 

We make the most of the brief reprieve. But just as suddenly the weather's a taken for the worse. And... it's a much darker grey coming our way. Ann says it's time to book it back to base camp and we make a run for the tree line when heavy, goose down-like snow and hailstones all came down with a gust of wind. While we are clambering down as fast as we can, we run into two even more foolhardy guys on their way up. Chewie takes a photo of them and jokes that we’ll keep it for the search party later.

Bonus of the day: while we were resting in the wooded region between Chileno and base camp, a fox came right up to us. It didn’t seem to mind people at all, and in fact followed the trail until it was within 5 feet of us before veering off with its very bushy tail.

 2016.12.15, Day 6 To the Mirador and Back to Lago Pehoe 

Yesterday we timed our dry run for the Mirador: a ~70 minute ascent. The plan was to go up early today and see the sunrise drape over the towers. At 3am, we woke up to the desperate ringing of our alarms, almost entirely drowned out by the angry howling of gale-force winds and pounding rain (on cuben, ugh!). We came to an instant consensus: fuck it this is a terrible idea and we’re going back to sleep.

Two hours later, the rain and wind have abated a little, and a grey light is just beginning to filter into camp. We finally decide to get up for sunrise, or whatever. But first, we’ve to put up with the foul sensation of slipping into our clammy clothes… ugh. With the crepuscular light there’s at least no need for headlights, and we scramble up as quickly as our half-asleep, cold, and starved bodies would allow. At the boulder field, we could just see the sunlight creep into the valley below and wash a layer of warmth over the canopy… 

And like a fiery blade, the morning light has sliced through the darkness… It’s one of the most sublimely beautiful sights we’ve ever seen.

We’re at the Mirador, but it’s still cloudy in the fickle and unforgiving north. A smattering of other hikers, some of whom must’ve been up here a long time with their sleeping bags, are around to soak in the sight was well. We join them, and to ward off the morning chill we pile on every piece of clothing we brought. 

We stuck around for almost an hour before another enormous storm cloud rolled in and obscured everything in minutes. It was time to go. Say goodbye to the Needles of Cleopatra.

The hike back down was largely downhill, but hardly easy on our aching joints. By the time we passed Refugio Chileno the weather had improved considerably, to the point where Ann’s MacGyver’d (but majestic) gaiters–made of shower caps held up by Velcro ties–drew bewildered glares as well as compliments. Still miles from our hotel, we’ve consumed the last of our consumables and are starving.

At last, we’re back. After replenishing our caloric stores with an outsized lunch, the exhaustion caught up with us. Ann claimed the sole lounge chair in the common room, still clad in her shower cap gaiters, laughing diabolically like an unhinged homeless hobo before promptly falling asleep.

We woke up in time, barely, to catch the bus to Lago Pehoe. Along the way we saw so many guanacos, individually and in bachelor herds, leaving us wondering how we spent 6 days on the trail not finding more than one.

All in all, not bad for the first backpacking trip. We learned some valuable lessons and are eager to do more hiking. But in the mean time, we fly back to Santiago and continue on with rest of the South American trip...

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