Travelblog SA#35: Torres Del Paine – Chile

24th December 2018 – 3rd January 2019

I spent Christmas in Puerto Natales, a little town by the banks of Señoret Channel where the Magellan Strait begins to ford. After months of staying in dormitories (and on occasion, my tent) I treated myself to my own a room and spent a few days drinking wine, watching movies and catching up with friends and family, as well as taking occasional walks along the water front. It was a time of recuperation, but I also prepared for my upcoming trek, the Torres Del Paine Circuit, an eight-day journey through Patagonian forests, mountains, lakes and glaciers.

 

Day 1

It was a two-hour bus journey to reach the headquarters and then I had to queue for ages while the rangers checked everyone’s reservations and documents to make sure all was in order. They are very strict and spaces are limited. The park’s growing popularity has caused it to become infamously difficult organise if you want to stay there overnight, and the situation is not at all helped by the fact that the campsites are privately-owned and have separate (and confusing) booking systems. I reserved my spaces several months ago and even then the process was so hair-tearingly frustrating that I almost gave up.

But I was glad I didn’t. I had to wait behind a French guy for twenty-minutes because he had a night missing from the bookings he needed for the three-day trek and thought he could just make do, but they were having none of it and wouldn’t let him in. It made me realise that I was very lucky, for I had a full eight day to explore this natural wonder.

3

Despite how many people were at the headquarters, once I began on the trail I found myself almost completely alone for most of the day because most of the visitors to this park are only here either for day trips or a shorter trek known as ‘The W’. This northern region I would be spending the first few days in is quieter.

1

My backpack was heavy. Carrying not just a tent, sleeping bag, stove and all my other gear, but also eight days worth of food. Luckily this first day was fairly short, taking me just four hours, and the terrain was reasonably flat. I passed through meadows, intermittent patches of woodland and snaked along the side of the River Paine for a while. There were strong gales, but I had expected that. This area is famous for the bitterly cold winds which peak during the summer months.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I reached Serón by the mid-afternoon, set up my tent, prepared dinner, and started getting to know the other people who were also trekking the same route as me. It is called ‘The O’ and it circles around the quieter regions of the park before joining up with the more trodden ‘W’.

 

Day 2

I slept well that night and was awoken by rain. I waited for it to break before I started to get ready but I was still forced to pack my tent up wet.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

It was a tougher hike that day. The terrain wasn’t as flat and there was intermittent rain. The gloomy light created an eerie atmosphere and, a few hours in, I reached Lake Paine and the sky cleared, revealing ice-capped mountains in the distance.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The highlight was at the end when I curved around the side of a mountain to find myself looking down upon Camp Dickson, where I was staying that night. It was beautifully perched upon a peninsular jutting out onto a lake of the same name.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

 

Day 3

7

This was my favourite day so far, waking up in Camp Dickson to sunshine and a backside view of the Torres. Finally, we had good weather. I lingered for a while, taking a walk along the lake after breakfast.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The air got colder as I reached higher climbs and the bitter winds returned in the afternoon. The trail went through lots of different kinds of forest and I saw many wonderful views.

9

Not just of Lake Dickson, behind me, but glacial mountains and Los Perros ahead, which I reached just after lunchtime.

10

I took some photos but didn’t linger for too long as it was very windy. As I walked away, I heard a thunderous roar of ice breaking from the glacier into the lake.

11

Of all the campsites, Los Perros was not my favourite. Despite how close it was to the lake, you couldn’t actually see it as there was a huge mound of earth in the way, but I guess it was sheltered from the extremes of the weather, clustered within the trees. A good thing, as not long after I settled it began to rain.

I was, weather permitting, crossing Paso John Gardner the next day. It is the most challenging part of the entire trail and it is not uncommon for the park to close it if it gets too windy.

 

Day 4

I woke up at 5am. As it turned out, it was windy that morning but none of the rangers came out to stop me and the other early birds as we left the campsite.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

So far, during this journey, I had hiked alone and enjoyed solitude. The lack of noise meant I saw lots of birds, but I had been getting to know some of the other trekkers during the evenings and that morning I decided to walk within the company of a group of Americans I had befriended.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The first hour was uphill, through wetlands and alpine woodlands, but as we got closer to the peak it was rocky, exposing us to winds. The trail was slippery and, combined with the winds, you had to be careful to maintain balance. I could see that it would have been quite easy to slip, but it wasn’t anywhere near as dangerous or difficult as the Rangers made out.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

When we reached the top we were rewarded with a breathtaking view. We had reached the Patagonian ice field of Glacier Grey.

14

According to the rangers the trek was supposed to have taken us six hours that day but it actually took us not much longer than four – and that is including plenty of stops along the way to admire the ice-field. When we reached Camp Paso, our destination, it was still morning so we ventured to a nearby viewpoint for a while but otherwise spent the rest of the day chatting and relaxing.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I ate dinner early that evening and went to my tent to read a book. In some ways, I actually like the way I had to book all the campsites in advance and follow the park’s strict rules because it forced me to take my time and enjoy the experience. I have, in the past, had a tendency to rush through treks.

 

Day 5

Much of this morning was spent trailing alongside Glacier Grey. There were several viewpoints along the way so I got to see it from all angles as I got closer to where it merged with the lake.

17

I was hiking alone again that day and saw lots of wildlife, including a caracara and even a giant woodpecker, both of which I have videos you can watch. For the first few days of The O Circuit, everyone stays in the same campsites but once we across the pass it joins up with The W where we have more options. That morning I said goodbye to some of the friends I made.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

As I passed Lake Grey, with all of its icebergs and views of the glacier, the wind picked up. It became so strong by the afternoon that I actually felt it pushing me along the top of hills. I felt sorry for the people heading the opposite way, having to fight against it.

18

It began to rain too shortly before I arrived at Paine Grande. I saw a rabbit which I managed to catch for a few seconds on my camera but as the downpour got worse I rushed to the registration desk where I sat for a while waiting for the winds to calm down so I could set up my tent. They never eased completely and the day transitioned to a blustery evening. I did manage to set up my tent in the end though, and then I had my first shower for three days.

It turned out that some of the friends I said goodbye to that morning were at Paine Grande too, using the ill weather as an excuse to not venture further. Despite having strict rules concerning reservations before you enter the park – as well as several check-points along the way – the actual campsites themselves can actually be quite flexible, particularly when it comes to safety concerns.

We were on ‘The W’ trail now, and it was much busier than the northern reach of the park. The Refugios were bigger and more modern. Most of them even had hotel rooms and restaurants.

But those weren’t the only changes. There was a different energy in the air. There were a lot of people wearing trainers and tracksuit bottoms and carrying just small day packs. I hate to be snobby, but there was a greater sense of comradery between people who trek The O circuit, there being so few of us and most being quite experienced hikers, whereas a lot of the people who trek The W seemed a little out of place. Many of them were – for reasons which I will never understand – walking through the park with earphones in (or in some cases, rather annoyingly, playing their music on loudspeakers) instead of enjoying the sounds of birdsong and the wind stirring the trees.

It was New Year’s Eve and the communal kitchen was packed with more people than I had seen for while a while and, after days spent on The O trail, I found it jarringly loud. I and some of The O People sat in the corner together and I think some of us missed the serenity we’d become accustomed to.

 

Day 6

I was woken up a few times that night, both by strong winds and drunken people stumbling around the city of tents. I couldn’t really afford to binge at the prices the campsite was selling their beers so I just had a couple of and went to bed early. It was very quiet in the morning because most of the people were hungover. I spotted an Andean Colpeo fox wandering through the campsite, looking for food.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The wind calmed a little since the previous day and I had the trail mostly to myself. It only took a couple of hours to reach Camp Italiano and, once there, I set up my tent and ate a quick lunch before setting on the trail into Valle de Franco. I got to leave my backpack behind and just take a bottle of water in the pocket of my jacket, which was heaven after six days of carrying the thing.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

An hour in, I reached a viewpoint for Glacier Franco. I have not just photos of but also a video (which can be viewed by clicking here) to appreciate it in its full glory.

21

It was another hour or so to reach Mirador Britanico, climbing through rough rocky terrain and patches of woodland. It was snowing, and the wind, which I had become all too familiar with by now, was persistent.

22

Unfortunately, because of the clouds, I didn’t get the best view of it, but the Britanico range was very impressive. I took a panoramic photo, but it doesn’t quite capture its full majesty or the awe you feel seeing it surrounding you from all sides.

23

 

Day 7

By this day, I was spoiled. And I knew it too.

24

I had reached a point where I had seen so many breathtaking sights that the azure waters of Lago Nordenskjöld, with views of Bader Valley along the way, woodlands, and everything else I saw that day did not awe me as much as they would have a week ago. Magical, surreal landscapes had become the norm for me.

25

This was one of the longer days and the last couple of hours were a bit of a slog. For some reason, despite the fact I had eaten most of my food by that point and it had been getting lighter, my backpack felt heavy. I was happy by the time we reached Central for my final night of camping. My friends and I sat and made ate dinner together one last time.

 

Day 8

My alarm went off at 2am, and I started to get ready for my walk up to the Torres. I met my friends outside and we left, lighting the trail by torchlight as we made our way up the valley. It was steep, but we were quite fit after a week of hiking and this day we weren’t carrying our backpacks.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

First light was at 5am, and by then we were at the final part of the ascent. When we reached the Torres they were partly obscured by clouds. We waited, and it was very cold. I found a little niche within all the rocks which was sheltered from the wind. A French guy who had brought his stove with him gave me a little bit of his coffee to warm me up. The clouds began to clear and, later on, sunlight hit the rocks, illuminating them.

27

 

For more photos and videos from the Torres Del Paine, click here.

Advertisements

Travelblog SA#21: Cusco & The Sacred Valley Part 1 – Peru

15th-18th October 2018

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

You would think that I’d have grown bored of historic highland cities by this point, but I was certainly glad I saved Cuzco for later in my trip because it topped them all. Once the old capital of the Incas, and then after, a colonial centre, it is a city with multiple layers and, as you wander around its streets and alleys, there is always something which catches your eye. Some of its original walls, built by the Incas, still stand today, and they were so masterfully shaped to fit into each other they baffle historians. I have not been to a city that I can be so happy to just freely wander and get lost within, since Kathmandu in Nepal.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Cuzco has many sites to see but most are ones you need the boleto turistico for. This ticket is initially expensive but allows you to wander around dozens of museums and ruins not just within the city itself but the entire Sacred Valley. It has a time limit though, so it didn’t make any sense for me to buy one yet as I was heading to do the Salkantay trek in just a few days.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

There were a few places within the city which can be visited independently of the boleto turistico though, such as the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, which I was very impressed by. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I have a fascination with history but even I have to admit that sometimes endless cases filled ceramics and artefacts can bore me. This museum is one of those places which manages to make ancient relics engaging. They concentrate on quality rather than quantity and every single item they put on display is fully annotated with information of its context.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

They also have an audio guide (which costs extra but I highly recommend) and have divided the rooms of the museum in a way which takes you on a journey through Peru’s different pre-colonial civilisations. Many ones I had encountered before during the last six weeks. It was great to have a museum which brought them all together into a meta-narrative.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Qorikancha was another attraction I went to see. Being a Christian monastery built over the ruins of an old Inca palace, you could almost say it is the very epitome of Cuzco itself.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Although they might not look like much now, these bare-looking stone chambers within what is now one of the central courtyards of the monastery were once an astronomical observatory and series of temples. All of them were completely covered in gold, the recesses in the walls were filled with offerings to the gods and even the space in the middle was filled with shining statues. When the conquistadors arrived they were said to have been awestruck but that didn’t stop them having all of the gold melted down as part of the ransom for Atahualpa’s – the last Inca emperor – life, and building a church on top of its foundations.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Interestingly, despite the Convent of Santo Domingo’s shady beginning, the monks of this place eventually took a more humanitarian approach later down the line and became advocates for indigenous rights and even helped to catalogue some of their myths and traditions. The modern convent, as it now stands, is host to a collection of colonial religious art where one can see some of conscious steps the clergy made to lure the natives into Christendom as part of the development of Peru’s mestizo culture, such as paintings depicting Jesus as dark-skinned, several examples of Incan deities assimilated with Christian saints, figures such as Mary chewing cocoa leaf, and even Inca-presenting women (in both features and attire) present in the biblical scenes.

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESUnfortunately, I can’t show you any examples of this as I was not permitted to take any photos of the artwork, nor the church of Santo Domingo itself (which is unfortunate, as it has a wonderful interior and great atmosphere), as well as a few other religious spaces within Convent grounds. This is probably the only criticism I have of the place, but I did find it to be a bit of a double-standard on their part, as they have no problem at all with you taking snaps of the ruins of a sacred Inca site they built over.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Otherwise, I found Qorikancha a wonderful attraction. It is a great place to help gain insight into the history of not just the grounds, but Cusco itself, and the addition of an audio-guide you can download onto your phone enriches the experience. It is one of the cheaper attractions to see in Cusco and great value considering the amount of effort they have put into making it engaging for people.

I wish I could say the same thing about Cusco’s cathedral, which I had planned to visit that too but decided against it when I found out the quite frankly disgusting entry fee they are charging people now.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Not many people pass through Cuzco these days without going to see Rainbow Mountain, which says something of its allure considering it is a very new attraction and not even made it into the current version of the Lonely Planet yet.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

All the tours which go there leave very early in the morning as it is quite far away. During the journey you from an altitude of 3400 meters to over 5000, and almost everyone will feel some degree of altitude sickness when the bus arrives at the car park where they have to finish the last leg of the journey by foot. All of the tour guides carry oxygen tanks and medication with them and the walk takes about one to two hours depending upon your fitness level. Many people end up hiring a horse to carry them and some even have to turn back.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The views, before you even reach the ‘rainbow’ part, are stunning. Which is good, as taking photos gives you an opportunity to catch your breath.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

When you reach the top, the real struggle is then managing to get a decent snap of the view between all the crowds of people posing in front of it

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

It was shortly after this photo was taken that something I was certainly not expecting happened to me.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

A storm was approaching – we had heard some rumbles nearby just a few moments ago – we were suddenly enveloped within a cloud of mist. The rumbling repeated, this time directly above us.

And then I felt something strike my head. There was a snapping sound, and it was followed by a weird sensation. I put my hand to my head where I’d felt it and a weird crackling sound spread across my scalp. Several people were staring at me and it took me a few moments to realise what had just happened.

I had been struck by lightning.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t a particularly big one, otherwise I would have been in trouble, but still, I think it’s quite cool that I am now one of a small number of the population who can say such a thing.

15.JPG

It happened so quickly and I didn’t really have too much time to dwell on it because we were then engulfed in a snowstorm. Cold winds came, and with them, heavy snow. I wrapped myself in my coat and covered up my backpack. Within a just a few minutes, the Rainbow Mountain was white and its colours could no longer be admired. The winds were so bitterly cold I decided to start making my way back down to the car park. On my way, I passed people who were still on their way up and felt sorry for them, not only were they having to finish the ascent within a storm but they were not going to be able to see the mountain at its best.

SAM_8533_Moment

The next day I got ready for the next step of my journey, the Salkantay trek, which will involve four days of hiking through mountains of the sacred valley and ultimately conclude with me seeing Machu Picchu.

I will be returning to Cusco though, and when I do there are plenty of other sites I plan on seeing.

 

For more photos, click here.

Travelblog#51: Trekking the Himalayas Part 2 (Gorsainkunda Trail) – Nepal

To read the first part of my trek through the Himalayas, click here.

 

15th-17th March, 2015

 

Day 5

In the morning I left the wonderful family at Paradise Hotel in Thulu Syabru behind and began making my way up the mountain. I was technically not on the Gorsainkunda trail yet; I was taking a lesser known trail as a shortcut to reach Laurebina. It wasn’t really signposted, so I kept checking with every local I passed if I was on the right trail and they corrected me accordingly.

???????????????????????

The first village I passed gave me a very bad first impression: a lady tried to demand chocolate from me because I took a photo of the mountains, and the second person I met was a man who replied to my greeting of “Namaste” by grunting, and then proceeded to harshly whip the yaks he was leading and throw stones at them. This was very different to the way that I had seen animals treated on the Langtang Valley trail. All the people in this area are reliant upon two creatures – yaks for milk, and horses for carrying provisions up to their mountain homes – and without them the lives that they currently lead couldn’t carry on as they know it today. Until that point I had only witnessed animals treated respectfully, as part of a symbiotic relationship I generally approved of.

???????????????????????

Just before I joined the woodland again I passed a Buddhist shrine where a monk was chanting prayers and people were burning incense. It was a nice scene to watch.

???????????????????????

It wasn’t long until I was treading through snow again, and the footpath was steep. I met a friendly man along the way who was guiding his vegetable-laden horse up the mountain, and when I reached his village an hour later I ate a lunch cooked by his wife.

???????????????????????

I was officially on the Gorsainkunda trail by then, and after I had eaten I set off for the next village. It was snowing, so I put my raincoat on and wrapped up warm. The whole terrain turned white and hazy – I could barely see more than a few meters ahead of myself. I began to worry: I was alone and all I had to go on for direction were footprints because the trail was completely covered in snow. If the footprints vanished I could be in trouble. I walked faster. The creeping altitude and steep incline were making me out of breath, but I dared not stop.

Eventually I saw the outline of a building and rushed towards it. A woman was stood outside.

“How far to Laurebina?” I asked.

“This is Laurebina,” she replied.

“I can’t see anything!” I exclaimed, casting my arm out to the white fog.

“You could see it in the morning, if you stay here,” she offered.

I spent that evening sat around a cosy fire, bonding with a group of Indians who were part of a spiritual society and, led by a female monk, they had come to sample the trek to see if it was suitable pilgrimage for their ashram. There were also three young Nepali students.

 

Day 6

It was on this day that I began to occasionally have thoughts along the lines of, Why am I doing this to myself? And contemplating the fact that nobody was forcing me to be here, and this was all of my own volition.

The wind howled all night and it was bitterly cold. Urges to visit the toilet became hour-long battles of will to leave the tenuous warmth of blankets. When the sun came up, it was foggy again, and snowing. Most people talked of spending the day inside as it seemed too dangerous to venture out.

It eventually cleared though, and I began to get ready.

???????????????????????

I was the first to set off and the uphill climb left me breathless; I was well over 4,000 meters above sea level by then, and the air was getting thin.

Why am I doing this to myself?

???????????????????????

The trail became completely lost to the snow and I couldn’t even see any footprints. I did not know the way and this would have been a dangerous place to get lost in, so I sat down by a shrine for a while, and waited for people who did know the way to come by.

Why am I doing this to myself?

???????????????????????

An hour later both the Indians from the ashram and an Austrian couple – Guenther and Christina – I had met briefly before while trekking Langtang Valley appeared. The sun came out, the wind eased, and my mood lightened.

???????????????????????

That’s the thing about mountaineering; you constantly flip between loving it and hating it. For every steep, exhausting climb, there is a new amazing view to see. Whenever there is cold and windy weather, you’ll usually find shelter and a cosy fire. Sometimes you feel very aware of the dangers when you are alone, but you encounter amazing people along the way.

???????????????????????

We reached Gorsainkunda around lunchtime but, disappointingly, the sacred lakes – the main feature of the trail – were covered in snow and looked a little like this:

???????????????????????

 

 

Day 7

There is nothing quite like waking up in the middle of the night – fully clothed, under three thick duvets, your breath misting in front of your face – needing a drink to quench your parched mouth, and reaching out for your bottle of water to find that it has turned into a solid block of ice.

You think – Shit, what am I going to drink tomorrow while I am hiking? – and, as a premeditated action, choose to place the frozen bottle under the duvets with you, so it can thaw at your discomfort.

In the morning, when your mind has finally won the battle with your body – which is strongly against venturing to the colder world outside – you get out of bed, put your coat on – you never dared to take the rest of your clothes off, after all – and attempt morning hygiene. The toothpaste emerges out of the tube eventually, after much pressure, like a line of half-dried cement and, when it meets your teeth, causes a a shock of pain. You then wash your mouth out with water which has, somehow, formed icicles in the mere minutes since you poured it.

Shortly after, the owner of the guest house marches into the common room with a wet face. He has just splashed himself with water sourced from a small hole dug out from the ice covering the lake.

How do you live here?” you ask.

He just smiles and shrugs, and then carries on with his morning activities. He grabs some leaves, places them on a tray of hot embers, and begins walking around the lodge with it, letting the smoke drift around the whole building.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

“These are Juniper leaves,” he replies. “We do this in the morning to praise our God.”

“That’s interesting,” you reply. “In the West, some people who practice animist traditions will sometimes do the same, but with wild sage. It’s mostly used to cleanse negative energies. It’s called smudging.”

“Really?” he says, almost in disbelief. It is one of those kindred-like moments; when you realise that you are from opposite sides of the world but are distantly related somewhere along the line and not really that different from each other.

But I still need to get out of here, you think to yourself.

 ***

To get out of Gorsainkuna Village I only had two options; turn back, or brave Laurebina La (“The Pass”, everyone calls it). The Pass had been closed for most of the last couple of weeks because of the snow. A group of people had attempted it the previous day, but were forced to turn back.

My new friends Guenther and Christina had a guide who seemed quite confident in their chances to make it though, and I asked if I could tag along. We discovered that there were others who had similar ambitions so, with the idea of safety in numbers in mind, a whole group of us numbering twelve left together at 7am in the morning.

???????????????????????

Guenther and Christina’s guide led the way and the rest of us followed, carving a path through the thigh-deep snow. It was slow and arduous work. My toes hurt, at first, and then they went numb, so I wriggled them at every possible moment to get the circulation going, paranoid about frostbite.

???????????????????????

We reached the highest peak of the trek (4,600 meters) after about an hour, and we stopped there for a while to take photos.

???????????????????????

We could also see the steep ravine we had yet to descend through.

???????????????????????

It was nerve wracking. I had not seen any evidence of a trail for quite some time, so the footprints the guide was making through the snow was all we had to go by and have faith in.

???????????????????????

When we finally reached Phedi I was very relieved because the worst was over. We stopped for lunch to celebrate before we carried on towards Ghopte.

???????????????????????

During The Pass I had slipped in the snow and twisted my foot at a bad angle, and then carried on walking, not thinking much of it at first, but it had become increasingly painful throughout the rest of the day. By the time we reached Ghopte, I was limping and could barely walk. I removed my shoe and sock to realise that my foot was swollen.

By some strange coincidence there was a guy from Ecuador staying at the lodge who was a doctor, and he gave me some anti-inflammatories. He did warn me though that, while it was probably just a sprain, it was possible that I might have fractured it. I began to worry: with no roads or hospitals for miles, Ghopte would have been a very inconvenient place to be stuck with a debilitating injury.

 

To read part 3 of my trek, click here. For more photos from the Gorsainkunda trail, click here.