Recovery & the return home

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Yesterday was the culmination of one of the most physically demanding experiences of my life. Over four days, we completed the W circuit — about 50 miles — in gale force winds, horizontal rain and the occasional snow shower. It was trying, it was difficult. And it was absolutely amazing.

Last night’s dinner — pea soup, home-made gnocchi and a marshmallow soufflé — really hit the spot. But after expending so many calories, we woke up this morning starving. We fueled up on granola and eggs and then boarded a van. Today was a recovery day, allowing us to give our legs a rest while cruising around to those parts of the park we had not yet gotten a chance to see.

Our first stop was the Paine Waterfall, which was overflowing with glacial runoff.

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Afterward, it was a short drive to Laguna Azul, a lake named for its vibrant blue color. The strong winds turn what should be a placid pond into a churning ocean.

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Herds of guanacos feed off of the grasslands that lead to the lake’s shores while the Torres sit imposingly in the background.

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The van shuttled us to Laguna Marga, whose calcium formations give the body of water a power plant green color.

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We stopped for lunch at a nearby marsh, where birds walked the shores, guanacos playfully galloped by and small and colorful wildflowers dotted the arid plains.

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Back at the EcoCamp, we rested, packed and enjoyed the amazing weather. That evening, we were treated to a farewell lamb asado. Tomorrow, we will return to Punta Arenas for another overnight at Cabo de Hornos and dinner at Remezon.

On Monday, I’ll head back to the States on a 24-hour, four-flight trip, via Puerto Montt, Santiago and Atlanta. It should be exhausting.

But if it were easy to get to a place as spectacular as Patagonia, it wouldn’t be nearly as special.

The mighty Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

We had gazed at them since our arrival in the park – and this morning, after Hernán removed a monstrous thorn from my foot, we set out for the Torres, those awe-inspiring towers of granite that rise above all else. The sky was clear and it looked like it was shaping up to be another beautiful day. “We have to be ready for anything though,” Hernán cautioned.

Hiking from the EcoCamp, we connected with the winding uphill path to Ascencio Valley — the valley that supports the eastern face of the Towers’ base. Dry mountain spots, beech forests and small rivers were passed as we made our way along the scenic route.

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At a rest point about 3 hours in, the group was broken into several teams, based on speed and condition. The last several days had begun to take their toll on some members. Burt’s knee was also bothering him but he remained determined to making it to the summit.

Our final challenge of the trek was the moraine, a steep mountain of stones and boulders. Here, you can see the “trail,” marked by orange rods — as well as a shot (taken level) that provides some perspective on the angle we were hiking at.

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And then, slowly, suddenly, they came into view.

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My lead group, sweating and panting, hit the peak in 28 minutes, a good 15 minutes before any of Hernán’s past groups. It usually takes a solid hour, he said. Before us was one of the most magnificent sights that I’ve ever witnessed.

Three gigantic granite monoliths — the remains of a great cirque sheared away by the forces of glacial ice — stood beautifully before us. And in front of these famous Torres del Paine sat a vibrant glacial lake. We observed 5 minutes of silence, simply taking it all in.

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More than half the time, the Towers, which rise almost 10,000 feet, are hidden in clouds. Yet we lucked out today, and even had some sun to partially illuminate the rock wall.

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On our way back down the slippery slope, we kept the Torres in our rear-view mirror. It was simply hard to take our eyes off of them.

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At the EcoCamp, we rested and waited for the others to return. Two hours later, Burt was back. Hopped up on ten Advil, he had made it with his bum knee — but now, was not feeling great. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this trek’s toll on us is through a visual representation. Here is Burt three days ago, upon our arrival. Look how happy he is!

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And this is Burt upon his return.

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Was it all worth it? As our Canadian friends from Ushuaia would say: you betcha.

Onward to Grey Glacier

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

When the alarm rang at 6:30 a.m., most of us were already up. It had been a terrible night’s rest; the sleeping bags had been confining, our room hot and the fellow hiker we were sharing a room with had snored away like a jackhammer. All ingredients for morning grumpiness.

Peering out of the window from my top bunk was a sight even worse — thick clouds and rain. We fumbled around in the dark and pulled on some still damp clothing. The refugio power kicked on at 7 a.m. and we finished packing up before a terrible breakfast of instant coffee, rubbery eggs and cornflakes with dehydrated milk. We were not happy.

As we set out along the shores of mountain-lined Lake Pehoe, the rain momentarily picked up. Prepared this time around, my GoreTex pants kept me dry. And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it was gone. The rest of our hike was dry and relatively easy — just 11 kilometers. At certain points, winds off of Grey Glacier, which was our destination, topped 90 kilometers per hour. A gust was enough to make you wobble, if not completely knock you over.

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A few hundred yards from the glacier, we had lunch before boarding a zodiac that would take us to the Grey II boat for a closer look at this massive (27 kilometers long and 6 kilometers wide) piece of ice. Even after witnessing Perito Moreno, it was an impressive sight.

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The boat navigated the iceberg filled waters so that we could get a closer look. Pisco sours (with hunks of glacier ice) in hand, we headed to the upper deck.

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Earlier in the day, another boat had dropped a dozen tourists off to walk the moraine. A huge piece of the glacier had calved off, filling the water with massive pieces of ice — and preventing the boat from retrieving its passengers. As our smaller zodiac zipped off to shore to rescue the stranded hikers, we realized why we had moved in such close proximity to the glacier, which provided an opportunity to snap some great, detailed shots.

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Our boat turned around and headed south. Suddenly, the wind picked up, turning the placid lake into a rough ocean in the blink of an eye. We were soon engulfed in rolling swells and stomachs. Not fun. After reaching the lake’s other end, the zodiac whisked us to the shores of Grey Lake. Gale-force winds whipped up the beach’s small stones and pelted us in the backs.

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The drive through the park back to EcoCamp was almost dream-like. The sun pierced through thick clouds, playfully lighting Los Cuernos. Horses roamed golden fields. Waterfalls overflowed with glaciar runoff. “Just one more photo,” the reverend called numerous times from the backseat as our van pulled over and we all fruitlessly attempted to capture this beauty on film.

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We were beyond thrilled to be back in our dome and treated to a dinner of pumpkin soup, beef stir-fry with rice and key lime mousse. It was comforting to have returned here when rest and food were of the utmost importance.

Because tomorrow we were tackling the greatest challenge of all.

Stepping into the Valle Frances

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

We were warned that today would not be easy. In fact, it would very well our most difficult. “Twice as far and twice as strenuous,” Eduardo told me during the morning’s briefing. That might have been an understatement.

The challenging trek would take us deep into the Valle Frances (French Valley), a steep trail that goes to the very heart of the Paine Massif. The day’s hike was also said to be one the most beautiful stretches of the W circuit. We fueled up on a breakfast of eggs and coffee and began trekking along the lake beneath a huge Patagonian rainbow.

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The first leg was difficult but we settled into a moderate pace and by the time we arrived at Mirador Italiano, a camp at the foot of the valley, we were all feeling well. As we turned upward, the trail became increasingly difficult and the weather temperamental, as rain moved in off of the nearby glaciers. We reached the first lookout where gusts of winds almost knocked us over.

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After lunch, the group split up. Those who wanted to move forward to the next camp did so with Hernán. The other two guides would take us brave folks past Mirador Britanico to the second lookout. It was another 14 kilometers roundtrip. “Jonathan, this must be your hundredth time doing this, right?” we inquired. “No, only my fifth,” he said. “The weather, it’s always bad. No views.”

Our pace picked up considerably. To keep up with our guide, we often broke into a jog — which was difficult when much of the hike involved scrambling over boulders. As we climbed higher, the weather worsened and the temperature dropped. At the peak, breathing deeply, snow began to fall. And alas, there were no views.

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We headed back down, precariously scrambling across boulders that had become slippery with the precipitation. Crossing the French River on a hanging bridge (only two hikers allowed at a time), we descended through an undulating terrain of mixed grassland and light forest on the final 2-hour leg.

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About 15 minutes into it, the skies opened up. For the next 90 minutes, pouring, horizontal rains drenched us while winds whipped through our clothing. By the time we arrived at Refugio Paine Grande, on the banks of Lake Pehoe, we were completely soaked, completely freezing and completely ready for bed.

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We dried off and met at the bar for a round of Austral cervezas. All together, we had hiked 27 kilometers in some terrible conditions. Downstairs, we wolfed down some cafeteria-quality slop before heading back to the bunks.

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And, in what was another flashback to summer camp, lights were out at 9 p.m.

Warming up in Los Cuernos

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

“Wait, it’s so cold right now. I can’t get out from underneath my sloth skin,” Burt announced this morning. Indeed, the thermostat outside of our dome read just 30 degrees and our breath was visible. The double thermal sheets and top fur blanket — or “sloth skin” — had done a surprisingly good job of keeping us toasty overnight. But now, getting out of bed was a chore.

After a quick shower, we made our way down to breakfast: freshly baked bread, some solid scrambled eggs and a bowl of granola with yogurt. Today, Hernán told us, would be an “easy” hike of 13 kilometers — a “warm-up,” he said. We looked out of our dome at what was shaping up to be a beautiful day and thought about how lucky we had been with the weather. Common were stories of visitors to this park who saw nothing but sideways rain for four or five consecutive days. Hopefully our luck would last.

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We started our hike along a curly trail that ran alongside Lake Nordenskjold. Crossing rickety bridges, stone-jumping through creeks and meandering along winding paths provided an amazing introduction to the park.

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The group stopped for lunch on some rocks at the base of Los Cuernos (the Horns), sharp tusks of black sedimentary peaks that are one of the park’s focal points.

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Another few hours brought us to Refugio Los Cuernos, a camp alongside the lake. We were assigned Cabana #4, put down our bags and promptly took a 3-hour siesta.

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Dr. Jim woke us up for dinner, which was simple yet tasty: tomato soup, a well seasoned chicken breast served with quinoa and a blondie for dessert. Afterward, a bunch of us congregated on one of the cabana’s porches. We had brought some Jack Daniel’s in a plastic Pepsi bottle, which we broke out and passed around for swigs. The whole scene reminded me a bit of summer camp.

Except we were in Chile. In Torres del Paine National Park. On the banks of Lake Nordenskjold. In the middle of absolutely nowhere.

It was an exhilarating feeling.

The Patagonic adventure starts

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

The buffet breakfast this morning was the most impressive of the trip — but we didn’t realize that there was a made-to-order omelet station until we were on our way out. Bummer. Burt made a quick run to the North Face store for more gear before our transfer arrived to take us on the 7-hour journey north.

We booked our trek with Cascada Expediciones, a travel company based out of Santiago. There are many ways to experience Torres del Paine — from the über-luxurious 5-star explora to basic self-camping. Cascada hit the sweet spot, providing some luxuries while not breaking the bank. Plus, it had been named one of the best adventure travel outfitters by National Geographic. So, we would be in good hands.

After a stop at the airport to pick up a couple from Denmark, we started on the 3-hour drive to Puerto Natales. The paved road stretched for miles and miles into the horizon. There were gauchos rounding up cattle. A lake filled with flamingos. Sheep gazing in an endless field. This was Patagonia.

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We had some solid Chilean sandwiches before passing through Puerto Natales, a small but lively place of about 18,000 situated on the banks of Seno Última Esperanza (Last Hope Sound). Just outside of town is the Cueva de Milodón, a cave where a German pioneer by the name of Hermann Eberhard discovered the partial remains of a giant ground sloth in the 1890s. The massive prehistoric cave was formed by glacial waves that ate into sedimentary rock. And although the mylodons were hunted to extinction, there is an amazingly tacky replica perfect for tourists to pose with today.

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The road turned to gravel, and soon dust was filling the van. Perhaps the air conditioning was malfunctioning, the driver said. He advised putting jackets over the vents for the remaining 3-hour drive. When the Danish folks raised an eyebrow, he pulled over to give us all a breath of fresh air.

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Entering the park, we passed gazing guanacos, llama-like animals, flocks of ñandú, which look like ostriches, and an armadillo scurrying across the road.

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Our destination was EcoCamp, which sits at the base of the Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine) on the northeast side of the park. The camp isn’t an “ecocamp” — it’s an actual ecocamp in every sense of the word. It is run by renewable energy sources (both wind and solar), has compost toilets and biodegradable soaps in the bathroom. Yet, this no-impact commitment does not come at the expense of comfort.

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Our dome, #10, had commanding views of the jaw-dropping Torres, those iconic granite pillars, which were visible through a clear segment of the roof.

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The guides, Hernán, Eduardo and Jonathan, met us down at the dining dome with pisco sours for a trip briefing. We were given a brief history of the park, which has been part of Unesco’s Biosphere Reserve since 1978, before getting into the details of our “W” trek — so named because of the route’s resemblance to the letter.

After an overnight here, we would start a three-day hike, staying at basic refugios the first two nights. We would then return to the EcoCamp, which would serve as our base for the remainder of the trek. All together, we would cover 80 kilometers, or about 50 miles. Burt looked at me. I looked at him. What had we gotten ourselves into?

Dinner was tomato soup, steak with a pumpkin puree and rice pudding. Afterward, we had a chance to meet the rest of our group, who (somewhat surprisingly) was all from the U.S. There were several twenty-something guys traveling with their folks. A couple from Atlanta; another from Colorado Springs; and a solo traveler who worked for an outdoor adventure travel company. All seemed friendly and outgoing; many had done a trip like this before. “What about you guys?” they asked.

We grabbed one last microbrew from the keg and walked back to our dome under the clearest of night’s skies. There wasn’t time to linger though. Tomorrow would be a big day.

Into the heart of Tierra del Fuego

Punta Arenas, Chile

A bowl of cornflakes and cup of mediocre coffee got us on our way this morning. We checked out of the hotel and met Juan Cabral, our taxi driver and tour guide for the day. Our plan was to visit the beautiful Tierra del Fuego National Park, which sits about 12 kilometers from town. It runs from the Beagle Channel up to Fagnano Lake, which we visited yesterday.

We didn’t have a lot of time before our flight, so we opted to hike the Senda Costera, a 6.5 kilometer trail that meanders along the bay. The path brought us through dense Lenga woods and across the round, polished stones lining the shore.

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The hike was described as medium difficulty and we plowed through it in about 2.5 hours. “That was fast,” Juan said as we loaded back into his Chevrolet Corsa and he handed us bottles of water and delicious dulce de leche choco-pies. We felt good — maybe we were in better shape for our upcoming trek in Torres del Paine than we thought. Or maybe not.

Juan brought us to the end of National Road 3, which is also the termination of the 17,848 kilometer Pan-American Highway. We had him snap a photo while vowing to one day drive here from Alaska.

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Afterward, we walked out on the wooden platforms until you could go no further. This was it, the End of the World. Literally.

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Juan was big on taking photos, so we obliged when he pulled to the shoulder for a scenic overlook of Ushuaia. Snow, which had been falling just 20 minutes earlier, cleared up and we were treated with a great final view.

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The airport was quiet and we had no problems checking in. Our Lan flight to Punta Arenas left more or less on time. My seatmate was a true global traveler, a corporate attorney from San Diego who had been to over 100 countries. Inevitably the question arose: which was your favorite? Her answer: Antarctica, which she had visited four times.

We were landing not more than 30 minutes after we had taken off. After a Chilean immigration stamp, we hit up the ATM, hailed a cab and made our way to Cabo de Hornos, supposedly the nicest hotel in town. Located on the central Plaza Muñoz Gamero, it didn’t have much character, but our 7th floor room was spacious and had great panoramas of the Strait of Magellan.

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Punta Arenas is a pretty low-key city, essentially serving as a departure point for trips to Torres del Paine. We strolled through the Plaza, surrounded by exotic pine trees, and checked out the monument commemorating the 400th anniversary of Magellan’s voyage. Afterward, we walked to the Cemeterio Municipal, a quiet and sprawling place just outside the city center.

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The sun was starting to set and the wind was picking up so we returned to the hotel. We had pisco sours at the bar and then set out for dinner. The front desk clerk pointed us in the wrong direction causing us to have trouble finding the restaurant — we ultimately ended up at Puerto Viejo. We split a salad and then both had steaks and fries (surprise). Burt got a terrible frozen tiramisu for dessert, further bolstering our belief that finding a decent dessert in South America is impossible.

Our 7-day trek in Torres del Paine, the crown jewel of South America’s national parks, departs tomorrow morning.

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