Saturday, September 22, 2007

I Left my Love Handles in Torres del Paine

Title owed to my hiking companion, motivational coach, and primary source of entertainment for the past week, Tracy McGuinness.

Just over a week ago, I finished eating my last of many empanadas in celebration of the Chilean Fiestas Patrias (Independence day) and hopped a 4:00 bus on Friday out of Punta Arenas, setting out on my first leg of a long journey to the neighboring town of Puerto Natales and beyond.

See, I had spent two glorious days of pure gluttony, stuffing my face with empanadas, anticuchos (sticks of meat), bread and pevre (chilean-style salsa), cazuela (Chilean style-stew), alfajores (cookies) and pastries smothered in manjar (Chilean dulce de leche) at the 2-day celebration held at Escuela Argentina. (Photo showing one of the many spreads available)

The vacation that followed these indulgent celebrations, I consider to be something like a Spring Break, because the seasons are opposite down here. And I certainly took into account that most people in the US go on diets leading up to this painfully self-inflicted rush to go somewhere warm, put on a bathing-suit and expose their sad, pale winter skin to a few days of intense sunlight. But I wasn’t worried about my extreme non-diet, nor the fact that I hadn’t seen my bare arms and legs for nearly two months down here in frigid Patagonia. My vacation was going to be something else entirely—and though I hadn’t done much in the way of planning for it, I soon found out that it had plans for me.

The W: Lonely Planet- Chile briefly summarizes the experience as a minimum 3-to-4 day hike that “neatly packages” the highlight views in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine into the tightest possible time period. It also casually mentions that hikes are not without difficultly, and hikers have suffered serious injuries out there and even died.

Equipped with this minimal information, two massive backpacks filled with food, tents, sleeping bags, outdoor gear and the occasional change of clothes, and one great big sense of adventure mixed with even greater uncertainty, Tracy and I set out—just the two of us—at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, to begin what was perhaps one of the most intense, prolonged physical experiences of our lives.

The walk from the bus stop in Puerto Natales the night before to our hostel, under the weight of what couldn’t have been any less than 50 lb backpacks, was unbearable. Tracy and I had no idea how we were going to carry these things (our food, our shelter, our life-lines) for the next 76 Km through rocks and snow and mountainous terrain, if we could barely even make it 10 minutes through town on well-paved sidewalks.

In addition, I was equipped with nearly two years of office-place laziness, lethargy and ass-fat that had just barely begun to make a turnaround thanks to my new, always-on-foot lifestyle of a teacher. In other words, I was almost completely out-of-shape.

After getting dropped off at the base camp around 11:30 a.m. on day 1, we set up our tent and began our hike to the base of the famous towers, which the park is named for, around 12:30. We had about 7 hours of sunlight left, and an 8-hour hike ahead, and hoped to move as quickly as possible, but half an hour into the hike, when the uphill began, reality struck. This could take a while.

Along the way, Tracy and I walked across gravelly trails and places where landslides had left a deep wide trail of featureless rubble across the face of mountains, fearing that a slight shift in step, an inevitable slipping of dirt might take us down the mountain and into the deep ravine with it. We stopped often to catch our breath in the changing altitude, at one point to fill our first water bottle full of pure glacier water from a river, arguing over the possibility of the water containing Giardia, and daring each other to take the first sip. As we got over our fear, we sat by the river drinking the coolest freshest water imaginable—millions-of-year-old water melting away from the glaciers left by the last ice age, and cracking large pieces of slate off a massivle slab and writing chalky messages, then tossing them into the nearby river, watching them get carried away in the relentless rush. This place, far away from cell phone reception and electronics, cars and computers, screaming school-children and nosy, demanding 4-year old host sisters—miles and ages away from civilization—held endless possibilities for entertainment.

On the trails we met Spaniards, Dutch, French, Chileans, fellow Americans, Brits—the Patagonia tourist season had just begun and it became clear that this place was like no other I’d ever been to in my entire life. Completely primitive and completely cosmopolitan all at once—an exciting and disappointing dichotomy as one held the possibility of destroying the other.

Each year, in peak season, Torres del Paine receives something like 5000 visitors per day, for a grand total of about 600,000 visitors per year. At night, they say its hard to even find a place to pitch a tent in the base camps. And recently, an inexperienced Czech tourist burned down 10% of the park trying to start a campfire, prohibiting all other hikers from building campfires. Lucky for us, tourist season did not officially begin until 3 days after we left, and peak season started in December.

Whatever the case, I could not help but to imagine myself as this tiny, insignificant speck moving slowly up and down trails in the shape of a W, up mountains and into valleys, spanning an area larger than Washington D.C. and containing one millionth of the population, located somewhere down here near the tip of the South American continent—and yet somehow never feeling isolated or alone—in perfect company among friends and fellow travelers.

The days to come held challenges I could never have anticipated… going off trail, steep summits barely manageable under the weight of our packs, freezing cold nights in our tent on hard frozen ground where 2 hours of sleep was a miracle, and day after day of new blisters and callouses and ever-worsening stress on our joints. But all was worth it for the incredible views I also could never have anticipated, and which could never be fully captured on camera.

Day 2 was tough. Our park map allotted 4 hours to hike 11 Kms (about 6.5 miles) from one base camp to the next along the glacial lake Nordenskjold. We thought it would be a breeze. 6.5 hours later, pushing through the worst part of the hike, I ran into Ana, another volunteer teacher based in Puerto Natales who I hadn’t seen in over a month. She was leisurely riding a horse along the summit of a mountain when I heard her call “Meri… is that you???” The dirt and grit and sweat on my face, accompanied by the scowl caused by one too many painful scrambles up craggy rocky summits made her ask, “Are you ok??”

“Yeah, having a great time,” I answered breathlessly with all the energy I could muster. I really was… maybe not in that particular moment, and maybe not for the hour that had preceded this encounter, but overall I was having a great time. I tried to hide my spite and jealousy over the fact that Ana was simply the cargo being carried by a big sturdy horse, and for all intents and purposes, I was the horse, carrying this goddamn heavy backpack. We talked a minute and then parted ways… Ana trotting swift and easy in one direction, Tracy and I on a knee-breaking descent into a river valley in the other direction.

The minimum “4-day” hike ended up taking us 6 days (5 nights). After 3 nights of camping outside in below zero weather, the last two nights we were fortunate to stumble upon a beautiful, new hosteria on the glimmering turquoise Lago Pehoe, that was not yet open for the season. The two caretakers of the place let us pay the camping fee ($5) spend the night in one of the rooms (usually $20 off season and $45 in season), and use the kitchen, shower, etc.

The highlights of the hike were the vistas from Valle Frances and of Glacier Grey across Lago Grey.

Our last day, we were finished with the W and had to be to the park administration to catch the once-daily bus at 1:00 that afternoon. To get out of the park, it’s a 12 mile hike up 3 summits and an otherwise flat-out burn across grassy yellow plains.

I don’t think I’d done anything close to 12 miles in a day since I ran a half marathon way back in 2003, and my current physical state was laughable compared to what is was back then. But I was determined to get this thing done, and in what Tracy describes as a bottle-rocket-like cloud of dust, I powered myself across those plains like my life depended on it. Five hours later I nearly collapsed at the entrance way to the administration and once again kicked off a massive eating spree, beginning with the remaining nuts and granola from my pack. Miraculously we had finished the W and were soon headed headed back to Puerto Natales for some warm beds, warm showers, hot dinners and cold beers.

Now, after two full days of stuffing my face once again… sandwiches, gnocchi, pizza, beer, late-night completos (Chilean- style hot dogs topped with guacamole and mayo), copious empanadas and bars of chocolate, I can’t seem to find my love handles. It seems I left them in Torres del Paine :)


Dina said...

Hey girl,
I read the whole thing--you should publish that :) I did take those Seattle photos--nice huh? Thanks for your response. I'll email you before I leave. Miss ya too!

Juan Andrés said...

Sounds like quite an adventure...
What about the BA trip?

I want to gooooo!!!!!

Stephanie said...

So funny, Meri! What a "vacation"...

Keep those updates coming!
- Steph