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March 26, 2007

Exploring Patagonia

The land here is still wild, its grand expanses of earth, natural and untamed by man.

From the Atlantic Ocean all the way west for the width of Argentina, nothing but pampas, scrub land plains. Some is grazed by sheep and cattle, but mostly, there's just horizon to horizon empty. It's difficult to imagine how big an emptiness it is, but try this: You could look around before falling asleep on a bus and wake eight hours later to find the scenery unchanged. Then continue west all day, and night, waking again the following day and the scenery remains still unchanged. Like Africa's Sahara, it's the big empty of this continent.

Further west, compressed into the narrow strip of land claimed by Chile, nature's grandest splendors are on show. As if to compensate for the the monotonous flatland to the east, the earth lifts to the cloud-piercing heights of the Andes mountains. Their impressiveness starts on you from hundreds of kilometers away as you approach them, and consume you when in their midst.

In these southern latitudes, their western slopes nurture the impossibly large Hielo Sur, the southern ice fields between the mountains and the Pacific. The land is as it was millions of years ago during the ice ages. Blue ice, hundreds of meters deep blankets everything for as far as the eye can see.

Branching off its edges are untold multitudes of glaciers. These massive rivers of ice flow in between the mountain peaks in channels they carved out of the solid, seemingly indestructible rock. The glaciers' enormous weight pushes them down the slope and over millions of years, millimeter by millimeter, the scratching of ice on rock reshapes the landscape.

Standing among them, looking down from their heights we feast on literally breathtaking sights. U-shaped valleys stretch out from where the glaciers have receded. At their feet, the altitude lowered, the temperature a few degrees warmer, the ice begins to melt. Liquified, pouring out of solid ice into waterfalls, pooling into crisp mountain lakes of ancient and pure water before flowing downstream into the green valley bottoms.

In the Fitz Roy area of Los Glacieres National Park, we were just two tiny specs of microscopic magnitude, high on the grandiose magnificence of it all. We carried in our packs all we needed to not only survive alone, but be comfortably at home apart from civilisation's support. Well, at least for a few days at a time.

We walked ten to twenty kilometers a day through forest, picked our way over the exposed tips of rocks that occasionally stuck out of the dozens of streams we crossed. Sometimes stopping to drink their delicious water, sometimes to splash it on our sweaty faces. At one point, needing to scale up golf cart and car sized boulders covering the width of a river we could hear but not see beneath them, leaping from the top of one to the side of another. A balancing act in any condition, but with twenty kilo packs strapped on, a feat we would congratulate each other for.

One morning, we rose a little after 4am and climbed most of the way up the mountain in the dark with headlamps to a lookout to watch the sun rise and light the peak of Fitz Roy into a red glow. Awesome.

Another day, we paused mid-trek in a gorgeous valley surrounded by snow-capped and glaciated peaks. The cloudless skies let the full brightness of the sun be known. Topless, in shorts and barefoot I appreciated the contrast to the experience in Torres del Paine, where we'd wear absolutely every layer of clothing we had with us, gritting against the harshness of the climate. For hours, we sat, meditated, practiced yoga, strolled barefoot through shallow, grass-filled streams and generally felt the paradise of this paradise.

During the first treks, the distances and weight we carried would tire us quickly: aching and sometimes blistered feet, sore muscles, and bruises under our pack harnesses were common. But our bodies adapted surprisingly well to the five to eight hours a day of mountain traverse. Still, as surely as the setting sun, we would find with satisfying familiarity the high of accomplishment and bodily exhaustion strike somewhat simultaneously, and decide to stop for the night.

Picking where to set camp was one of our favorite times of day. Our packs would come off, hitting the ground with a thud that was always met with an audible "aaaaah". We'd scout the area with new-found nimbleness for a spot that featured an area of land that's both flat and dry, near a stream, and with enough tree cover to shield us from the heavy winds typical of the mountains. Invariably, we found a place that called to us to call home for a night.

Because of our good fortune with the weather during these hikes, we would sometimes strip out of our stinky clothes, hop into the edge of a frigid stream, bathing in brisk splashes, washing ourselves and our clothes, coming away reinvigorated and ready to set up camp.

Clear the ground, put the tent up, take our supplies out, gather firewood, strike a fire, and cook dinner. Routine. Until one night, we cooked a casserole of rice, sautéed garlic and sausage with sharp cheese. Mmmm! But as I went to serve it steaming hot, I dropped the whole thing on the ground, which was littered with decomposing piles of horse manure. Mmmm? After a moment's consideration, Jo said: "Don't scoop up any shit, let's eat". Such a comment, inconceivable just a few months ago, but we realize this journey has already changed us more than just a little.

There we'd sit, digesting our well deserved hot meal, sipping on the tea we made from berries we gathered during the day's hike. We'd stay for a while, beckoned into contemplative silence by the warmth of a crackling fire and its mesmerizing flickering flames. Occasional gazes skywards at the crisp, unobstructed stars, would likewise prompt awe-inspired thoughts.

Before long, we'd hang our foodstuffs suspended under a tree branch out of reach of any hungry night critters and crawl into our cozy sleeping bags, falling into the deepest of sleeps fueled by all-day exercise, full bellies and fresh mountain air, just as the fire settled into the warm glow of red embers.

The morning's rising sun would be all the invitation we'd need to do it all over again. The nomad's routine. We loved every moment.

March 22, 2007

Photos: Fitz Roy

We head back in to Chile to hike around the Cerro Fitz Roy in Los Glacieres National Park

Amazing sunrise hike

Photo: CIMG7150 (2007/03/14 07:36)
Photo: CIMG7163 (2007/03/14 07:40)
Photo: CIMG7172 (2007/03/14 07:44)
Photo: CIMG7136 (2007/03/14 07:32)

Sights from around the park

Photo: CIMG7202 (2007/03/14 08:21)
Photo: CIMG7218 (2007/03/14 09:30)
Photo: CIMG7227 (2007/03/14 13:50)
Photo: CIMG7229 (2007/03/14 16:18)
Photo: CIMG7239 (2007/03/15 10:50)
Photo: CIMG7240 (2007/03/15 11:04)
Photo: CIMG7245 (2007/03/15 12:07)
Photo: CIMG7290 (2007/03/15 14:11)
Photo: CIMG7292 (2007/03/15 14:13)
Photo: CIMG7294 (2007/03/15 14:15)
Photo: CIMG7341 (2007/03/15 16:01)
Photo: CIMG7036 (2007/03/13 12:23)
Photo: CIMG7047 (2007/03/13 14:14)
Photo: CIMG7221 (2007/03/14 13:11)
Photo: CIMG7223 (2007/03/14 13:20)
Photo: CIMG7334 (2007/03/15 15:51)
Photo: CIMG7346 (2007/03/15 16:55)

Yoga under the sun

Photo: CIMG7261 (2007/03/15 13:54)
Photo: CIMG7268 (2007/03/15 13:56)
Photo: CIMG7273 (2007/03/15 13:59)

Bearded, sort of...

Photo: CIMG6311 (2007/02/25 23:23)
Photo: CIMG6927 (2007/03/06 15:46)
Photo: CIMG7394 (2007/03/17 14:35)

I've wanted to do this for a while now... Wilderness called and, well, the razor didn't make the cut. What do you think? Send a comment with the link below.

March 19, 2007

Quickie: Argentina to Chile on foot

We just got phone service again as we enter Coyhaique after 8h bus north from Cochrane.

Outstanding adventure from Argentina through completely unpopulated area crossing into Chile in the wilderness, where a one day hike seperates the actual border in the middle of nowhere fom the passport control, also in the middle of nowhere near a town with a population of 3. Will blog more in coming days.

Will stay in Coyhaique for a few days to wash, blog, Internt, fix broken gear, etc...

March 15, 2007

Fitz Roy trek and next steps

We just finished three days hiking around Mount Fitz Roy in Los Glacieres National Park in Argentina. Awesome! Hot, sunny great treks with mountain and glacier views. We woke at 4:30am to catch the sun rise yesterday, hiked up with headlamps to a lookout under the mountain. The peaks of the granite burned fire red at sunrise. Spectacular.

We're back in El Chalten for the night to resupply and tomorrow morning take a bus north to the southern part of Lago Desierto, hike the day north past the lake and into Chile and make camp. The next day we will hike another 5-6 hours north to Lago O'Higgins to catch the once-a-week ferry to Villa Ohiggins, the southernmost town in Chile that is connected by road (only for the last few years) to the rest of Chile.

We're hungry and tired, so short and sweet this update is. We'll send another email Sunday if there is email in Villa O'Higgins, but there is no bank machine, and only 500 inhabitants, so I won't be surprised if there is no Internet. Otherwise we will touch base again from Coyaique later in the week.

March 10, 2007

Torres del Paine - Gloriously Unpredictable

All night long the winds howled, shaking the windows of our hostel in Puerto Natales. The rain was relentless, and the icy cold air that blew through our heater-less room made our convictions of getting out of bed before sun rise to head into Chile's most famous National Park, Torres del Paine, wane for the first time. The thought of starting out soaking wet put even more of a chill over us. While lying in bed, we contemplated postponing our departure for a day. While it's difficult to hear the voice of reason that early in the morning, we knew that waiting would probably not help. Patagonia's weather patterns are absolutely unpredictable and change moment to moment. So, out of bed and onward we forged.

Our goal was to complete the "Paine Circuit", 120km of trails across grass, mud, rivers, and glacier debris fields. This would take us around, over and through the spectacular Patagonia region in the south of the Andean mountain chain. We could look forward to soaking in the constantly changing views of dry steppe, peaks, snow capped mountains, lakes, glaciers and forests over the next 8-10 days.

Should we accomplish this goal, it would be double our longest backpacking experience to date. The thought of being in nature and needing to be completely self sufficient for this long was simultaneously exciting and scary. Knowing that each step, each hour, each kilometer, each day that we headed deeper into the circuit; we committed ourselves that much more, while decreasing our accessibility to civilization. Could we do it?

Torres del Paine's weather is an enigma. We've learned that there's no point in discussing it, or trying to predict it. It simply is what it is at that very moment and has a high probability of changing drastically in the next minutes. So when it WAS sunny, we soaked it in, enjoying the feeling of its warming rays. The next moment, we would be protecting ourselves from the strong winds, rain, hail, snow, frost and often a lovely combination of any one of these! It was a mini strip tease all day long: hat off, gloves on, hood off, jacket open, hood back on and cinched tightly closed, rain pants off... You get the idea. I never implied it was a sexy strip tease. This is part of the allure of Patagonia.

We had done a lot of research in choosing the gear that would accompany us into the wilderness, but in the end, in order to keep our packs as light as possible, not all our "goodies" made the final cut. We decided to leave our heavy duty hiking boots behind and use our walking shoes. I took one t-shirt and Paul took two, Paul took one pair of socks and I two, and just one pair of pants each. Light we were, and stinky too! In perfect weather conditions having no change of clothes would be no problem, but we were a long way away from the predictable sunny California weather that we had grown accustomed to. Knowing that our options were limited to wearing what we had on our bodies, staying dry was of the highest priority. Here, this is often quite a challenge.

Our first day started and ended with rainfall, soaking our shoes and socks. The next morning, putting on our cold, wet shoes in close to zero degree temperature was not something we enjoyed, but there was no other choice. Fortunately, the 100km/h plus winds we experienced later that day dried them quickly. On the third day, the trails got muddier and wetter as the rain came and went the entire day. By lunch time Paul's feet were swimming in his shoes. We found our way to a nearby fire to dry ourselves off. Intent on dry feet, he put his socks too close to the fire and burnt a hole right through them! Oh well, at least they were dry again, just in time for the snow and hail storm we walked into later on that day. Most of the time the weather would change so often that there would be enough time to dry off completely or at least mostly while hiking before the next change of season took place - except once. We hiked in a full-on rainstorm for the last 3-4 hours of the 7th day, soaking us through and through. Even our Gore-Tex jackets were soaked. As long as we kept moving, we were quite warm, but the moment we stopped, so did our internal furnaces, leaving us very cold within a few minutes.

This unpredictability in the weather made us efficient and fast in setting up and taking down camp. The moment we felt the first drop fall from the sky, we would turn it on! Each one of us taking to our roles, knowing what needed to be done. We learned we could even do this while cooking breakfast. The one most important goal was to keep the inside of our tent and sleeping bags dry. I am proud to say that through it all we did just that.

Once we were in our sleeping bags and had them cinched up so just our noses, cheeks and lips were exposed, we would enjoy the sounds of the rain and the howling winds that would often rattle our tent as we fell into the kind of deep sleep all-day exercise brings... Until I would realize that I had to pee!!

Without fail, every evening I would wake in the middle of the night and with all my might try to convince myself that I did not really need to leave my sleeping bag and brave the cold to answer nature's call. Invariably, nature's call would always win! The upside: being hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest city, the star gazing was outstanding.

The circuit around the park can be roughly split into two parts, north and south. The northern part of the circuit is far less traveled and rustic. Few services if any can be found in this "wild" half. Despite the presence of a refugio (refugee sleeping hut) at one part, most trekkers preferred to camp in their tents in the north. As we passed into the southern half, there were fewer campers and more and larger groups staying in the refugios, which became more and more luxurious. By the end of the trek, when we arrived to where the road met the park, a resort type hotel (with reception desk!) could be found. This contrast was very odd after the primitiveness we came from.

During the first part of our trek through the north, there was little contact with other people. At most we would see between 4-6 people per day. The trails were open and clear for us as far as the eye could see. We reveled in the solitude, but should help have been needed, there were definitely sections in the north that were inaccessible to any speedy assistance, where even the horse rescue service couldn't reach. When we arrived in the south, we found ourselves passing small herds of 5-10 hikers at a time, many times a day.

Interestingly, the type of people we met changed depending on our position along the circuit. In the north, we met mostly young Europeans, while in the south where the scenery could be enjoyed without "roughing it"; we met people of all ages, including a lot of retired North Americans and Europeans.

While taking a rest and enjoying some wild calafate berries one day, we heard the distinctive loud crackling clap of a thunderstorm. We assumed a storm was headed our way, hey why not; everything else had seemingly come our way. But it didn't rain. The skies stayed a clear, crisp blue. Yet several more times during the next hours of climbing, we heard the thunderous crashes. We soon realized what we were hearing was the deep crackle of the nearby glacier as it shifted and pieces of it fell. We were fortunate enough to see several of these resulting mini avalanches as the glacial mass tumbled down the mountain with "front row" seats.

Surprisingly, the 9 days flew by. The mountain air and late sunset, not until 9pm, invigorated us to hike for 6-9 hours each day. The changing vistas and varying terrain kept us curious and wondering what was around or over the next bend. By the end of each day, we would stop and set up our home, cook ourselves a much deserved meal of instant soup and pasta. It's amazing how good the same meals can taste, day after day following a full day of trekking. Then, with smiles on our faces, we would fall into our sleeping bags to dream of what the next day had in store for us.

Initially, we took much more notice of the weight of our packs and the ground that we covered while wearing them. We were pleasantly surprised that for the most part, our bodies were up to the challenge. We had almost no muscle soreness. But unexpectedly, Paul's feet hurt from all the extra weight that they were being forced to endure from carrying our gear and food. My hips were bruised from my backpack's belt that hugged them tighter than that one relative that we all have that insists on hugging the air right out of you making you feel winded and flattened. Amazingly, within days, our bodies had adapted, accepting the challenge we put forth, and the bounce in our step returned. Our packs became extensions of our bodies, leaving us free to appreciate and enjoy the most stunning vistas we have ever seen in our lives. From this point on, if I was breathless, it was only from the beauty that Torres del Paine offered us every day.

Back in Puerto Natales, it's a pleasure and a luxury to enjoy a bed, a shower and clean clothes again, but none of this outweighs the satisfaction that we experienced during these glorious and unpredictable 9 days. We enjoyed some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery the world has to offer while tackling all of the challenges that came with being enveloped in nature in Torres del Paine.

March 9, 2007

Photos: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Here are a few of our favorite photos from the trek. We took over 650 photos, so picking these was tough... If you'd like more, see the 50 best on our Torres del Paine National Park photo set on flickr or see them as a slideshow

Photo: CIMG6328 (2007/02/26 12:18)
Photo: CIMG6416 (2007/02/27 18:51)
Photo: CIMG6458 (2007/02/28 16:15)
Photo: CIMG6470 (2007/02/28 16:51)
Photo: CIMG6479 (2007/02/28 18:33)
Photo: CIMG6573 (2007/03/02 10:52)
Photo: CIMG6586 (2007/03/02 11:10)
Photo: CIMG6588 (2007/03/02 11:10)
Photo: CIMG6589 (2007/03/02 11:19)
Photo: CIMG6613 (2007/03/02 12:06)
Photo: CIMG6673 (2007/03/02 16:57)
Photo: CIMG6717 (2007/03/04 11:54)
Photo: CIMG6737 (2007/03/04 14:48)
Photo: CIMG6768 (2007/03/05 15:14)
Photo: CIMG6801 (2007/03/05 16:55)
Photo: CIMG6856 (2007/03/05 17:33)
Photo: HPIM0262 (2007/03/06 07:29)
Photo: CIMG6888 (2007/03/06 11:19)
Photo: CIMG6907 (2007/03/06 13:50)

March 5, 2007

Video: Valle del Frances at Torres del Paine

Check out the gorgeous 360 degree sweeping panorama of the landscape half way up the Valle del Frances in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Pure gorgeous!

Click play above or visit the page on Google Video.

March 2, 2007

Video: John Garner Pass at Torres del Paine

After a long climb that started early in the morning, we stop to take this 360 degree video of the mountain landscape just before we cross through the John Garner mountain pass that marks the peak altitude of the big circuit trek around Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.

Click play above or visit the page on Google Video.