Yesterday, I returned from an incredible backpack with Lora and Mike, which I describe below. Pictures will have to wait, but Lora has posted a couple to Facebook already. Today we ride the bus from Puerto Natales, Chile to El Chalten, Argentina so I've got some time to catch up...
One of the big attractions of the Patagonian Andes is Torres del Paine National Park. Like Yellowstone or Yosemite of the US, TdP seems to attract volumes of tourists wanting to see the iconic Torres (granite towers) along with the endless supply of glaciers and general awesome beauty. It's located in the southern portion of Patagonia and it's a couple hours from Puerto Natales where I'd been staying recently.
There are a couple of options for backpacking the park that vary depending on your own ambition, time allowance, and weather. The shorter and far more popular (read: busy) is called the "W", a hike that takes about 4 days and exposes you to the highlights of the park. The Circuit, a.k.a. the "O" takes 7-10 days and allows a break from the crowds while still taking in the W route. We chose the O, of course! None of the mileages are crazy, but there are not many switchbacks on this journey. But there are ladders. And stairs made of mud and tree roots. And mud bogs. All good stuff!
Without going into the details of every day of our trip, I want to describe some of the more memorable parts. Really, it began when we stepped off the bus after entering the park and were nearly blown over by the wind. The wind in Patagonia should have some other name, because the word does not fully capture the experience of it. I got a taste the week prior in Punta Arenas, but not quite like this. Some days you could hear the wind coming in waves that sounded like jet engines making their way down a valley. One day, we wore our rain gear as we hiked along a glacial lake, not because it was raining but for the walls of water lifted from the lake by the wind and blasting us off the trail. I have never found trekking poles more useful in my life! It was pretty fun, actually. In a hindsight sort of way.
Camping in TdP is nothing quite like I've experienced in the backcountry before. Most locations require some payment just to put your tent down, but offer bathrooms, showers, and water. Of course we ignored the shower option, but these sites were between about $8-12. Most of these also had refugios, which offered basic lodging and food as well (though not cheap). This is typically where we'd get weak and buy beer, wine, bread, chocolate, etc. It sounds nice, but in reality it's over-crowded and not the experience I was seeking. There are no real primitive sites in the park, but a few free ones, which helps. All of them seemed to have rodent problems...
The mice. I have not dealt with rodent issues while camping before, and though I suppose it beats bears I'm not sure it's by much. They are nasty, pernicious, and sneak into your gear in the middle of the night. My experience with one came on night two, at Campamento Italiano. It was the only rather miserable weather afternoon/evening we had, and I was already a bit stressed from digging trenches around my tent and fending off the rain splatter on my gear. So, lazily I chose not to hang every last bit of food from my bag to avoid going out into the rain one more time. Fatal mistake #1!
Between the roaring wind and pattering rain, it was hard to hear him (her?) at first. Eventually, I got my headlamp out and saw the horror unfold. While looking at my backpack perched in my tent vestibule, a little gray nose poked out of the hole for my hydration hose. He was IN MY BAG. Of course I immediately began yelling and beating on the bag, opening it up to release the demon. And out he ran, squeaking, "ain't no thang, monkey, I'll be back!" Oh yeah, he also crapped and peed all over before he left, including inside my shoes.
As far as I could tell he only returned to leave additional poops in my shoes, likely in a statement of disgust after I took away all evidence of food. From then on I secured my food immediately in camp and had no further issues. GROSS. It was little consolation to hear other campers wailing in terror later that night as they received visitors of their own...
The trails. El senderos in TdP were excellent, with some interesting components and only a few exceptions. They generally lead you to the most beautiful miradors, or views. Sometimes very muddy, other times incredibly steep. And then there were the crazy ladders through gullies, made all the more interesting with a pack. Overall, some of the most striking and beautiful hiking I've ever done. And though the mountains were incredible, it was the glaciers that took it to the next level. Like Glacier Grey, which spans for miles and miles and is only one finger of the massive southern Patagonia ice field. It's hard to conceptualize, even when looking at it. It's so big it makes it's own weather. But by some miracle, the day we hiked along it the skies were blue and the winds calm. Top it off with Andean condors soaring on thermals.
The wildlife. We didn't see a vast amount of wildlife in TdP, but what we did see was unique. In addition to the condors, there was the Nandu, or Rhea, a giant ostrich like bird we only saw during the bus ride to and from the park. Some woodpeckers that looked like our pileated, and others that were different. Guanacos, which resemble alpacas, roamed just outside the park but we saw very few within. A small, light colored fox was curled up for a nap outside our first night's camp. Hares with freakishly long legs scampered around our last site, along with beautiful Carra Carra birds that the cap host likely fed.
In all we took 7 days to complete the circuit, with mostly outstanding weather and incomparable scenery. The trails were busy on the W, but for the remainder of our route not so bad. I spent a lot of time being cold on this trip, but mostly just in the evenings and mornings.
And now, we leave Chile for los Glaciares National Park and the town of El Chalten where we hope to rest, do laundry, and gear up for another 4 day trek around Monte Fitzroy. Que bueno!