After the smog and stress of Buenos Aires, I was keen to get down south. I knew only a few things about Patagonia – that it is cold, remote and beautiful. Thankfully, all of these turned out to be true and was the perfect antidote to the urban fatigue that two weeks of city living had wrought on me.
After a short four or so hours on the plane, I turned my attention away from my book and looked out of the window. I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw. Vast emptiness, stretching out in every direction. Bleak. Arid. Utterly beautiful. It really did seem like the end of the earth, and the single airport runway of El Calafate accentuated the effect; a tiny sliver of concrete solitary in the scrub around it; there was barely so much as a building to be seen. In the background, the beginnings of the Andes capped in snow, holding the Patagonian Ice Field like a table cloth behind it. Before this, a huge lake stretched out promising clear icy waters, and while the town of El Calafate is nothing to write home about (so I won’t), the hostel I stayed in (America Del Sur) held a prominent position on a hill lending itself well to magnificent sunsets and sunrises. Truthfully however, there is only one real reason to visit this town, and it has nothing to do with the tacky chocolate shops and winter gear stores that seem to be the only businesses that operate on the high street.
Perito Moreno Glacier (named after a completely bad ass explorer/mountaineer/possible superhuman Francisco Moreno) is the only glacier in South America to still be actively advancing. The cliff face of ice at the nose of the glacier is up to 40 metres above the waterline (130 feet in old money). It extends anything up to 100 metres below the waterline. It goes up to the Patagonian Ice Field… 19 miles away! This ice cube is seriously big. I was fortunate enough to go on a 2 hour boat trip up to the ice face and really get a good feel for its size and beauty. It is possible to walk on the ice (which I did not do), and if you see the people crunching up the top, you really understand how huge this glacier is. Small mobile specks on the glacier. Incredible.
Now and again you hear cracks as the ice moves – it’s like a gunshot mixed with the crunch of snow under foot. If you are very lucky (which everyone except me seems to have been), you will get to see a large piece of ice calving from the main glacier. Even if you don’t see it, you will hear it as a massive splash is formed when a hundred tons or so of ice fall in to the water. It truly is a world wonder.
Across the border in Chile is a gem of Patagonia, known to everyone who has a decent pair of walking boots (I don’t…) – the Torres del Paine. To get to these marvellous mountains, one must first travel to Puerto Natales. If you thought El Calafate was bad, don’t expect much from this town either. Mostly constructed of corrugated Iron, the town really gives off an odour of “why the hell are you living here?” It has all the facilities you need for trekking however, and more besides. Countless agencies and hostels will let you ask questions and rent gear – it is after all a town that tourists only visit for two reasons, one being the Torres, and the other I will get to in the next post.
The only real way to see the Torres is to do one of the two treks that are offered around the mountains – the “W”, and the Full Circuit. I opted for the former as I have never done anything like this before, and didn’t want to bite off more than I can chew. Regardless, if done fully this is still an 80km+ trek over five days over heavy terrain with a heavy backpack, so more than a light stroll. The full circuit takes 8 or 9 days. If there is one thing that one has to remember, despite the number of people walking the trail, is that it is not to be taken lightly. True, if you are blessed with good weather, it is not a difficult trek. This is Patagonia however, and if you mention that you think the weather might be okay today, the mountains will hear you. Wind can come from nowhere, rain can fall from a cloudless sky and if you are really lucky, you can experience what is possibly the most extreme weather of your life. Like I did.
100kph winds? We have them. Rain that falls from the ground, the sky and the front all at the same time? Easy. Visibility falling to twenty metres or less? No problem. Just make sure that your bag has a rainproof cover. Oh, the wind has blown that off? No problem, just make sure you have wrapped all your clothes and sleeping bag in plastic. Oh, you didn’t do that? Well you are a tit then. Such is how my first day went. This is not a quick walk either – 11km from disembarking from the boat to the refugio at Glacier Grey. What I should have seen was mountains towering above me; pristine lakes and finally the enormous glacier Grey. What I actually saw was various shades of grey and the ground, as looking up meant icy rain lashing my face. Fortunately (if that word can be used), the rain had abated by the time I reached the refugio, so after emptying my (waterproof) shoes of water, and wringing out my socks, I could at least set up the tent in the dry. It was at this point I discovered how wet my things were. Let me tell you that you don’t know suffering until you sleep in a cold tent in a wet sleeping bag. The temperature dipped to 4 degrees Celsius. Did I mention that the sleeping bag zip was broken? Because it was, so add sleeping in a fridge, in a sleeping bag that you can’t do up… which is wet. Hopefully what you will take away from this is not to mess around with camping equipment in Patagonia, or anywhere else for that matter. Get the best you can, and pay whatever you can for it. Also, wrap everything in plastic bags. Also, if you are fortunate enough to be well equipped, you may take it upon yourself to pity the poor schmuck who isn’t so lucky and give him a cup of red wine you cleverly brought along, such as a very kind American group did for me. Thus endeth the lesson, and the moaning.
Oh who am I kidding – that’s not even close to the end of the moaning.
The following day started well. The sky was blue from horizon to horizon. My breakfast was big (if there is one thing I did well, it was plan for food. I ate very well – pasta and soup base with chorizo is surprisingly tasty!) and my shoes were kind of dry. Ish. In any case, after packing up I set off earlier than most, back the way I came (due to the “W” being so shaped, you do cover the same ground a couple of times). The experience couldn’t have been more different. While the day before I could only see grey lashing rain, today I could see the true splendour of the area. The glacier. The mountains. The lakes. It was breath-taking, and I took to the hike with a spring in my step, which was something of my undoing.
I have never walked these kinds of distances before with a heavy pack, and it turns out my knees don’t like it so much. Without hiking poles (big mistake – take hiking poles, kids!), the tendons around my knees protested in a big way. 15km later, on the second stretch of the walk, they were on fire. This is the middle of one of the most wild remote environments on earth, so I couldn’t exactly call a taxi. So on I went. The defining feature of much of the western half of the trek is the charred woodland. Twice in the recent past, stupid idiotic cretins have ignored the rangers’ warnings of the fire risk and so their cooking stoves in undesignated places have caused fires that have destroyed huge amounts of vegetation in the park – 13,800 hectares.
By the time I set up camp in the atmospheric site in heavy woodland, I was limping in some quite severe pain. My codeine was expended in Brazil beforehand and let me tell you, Paracetamol does approximately dick for pain like this. I’ll stop complaining about it, but what it meant was that I had to change my hiking to accommodate my handicap. Sadly this meant that I missed out on some of the most spectacular parts of the trek – Valle Frances and the Torres themselves on the final day, and only managed around 50-60 km in total.
Getting back to the hot showers, the warm comfy bed and the dry of the hostel in Puerto Natales was life changing. So much so, I’d nearly take back some of the bad things I said and thought about the town. Nearly.