Hello - this is a short "interim" blog spot just so you all know were I died if you don't here from me again (!)...
I'm just about to attempt the Circuit of Torres del Paine, on my own. Ooer! Some people do a day drip to the park, fewer do the 4/5 day W trek, even fewer attempt the whole 8/9 day circuit and definitely even fewer attempt this alone! Ooer!
I've bought a shed load of un-nutritious food, rented a small 2 man tent, bought gas, a stove, mess gear, hat and gloves. The rest I hope I already have. (I'd better have, all the shops are closed now!) Only the bare essentials are to be taken.
There should be sun, rain, hail and snow! Could be worse... um?
For those of you who may be concerned that I don't know what I'm doing - don't worry, I'll put your mind at rest by spelling it out - I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING!
I hope to make contact again in 10 days-ish... no promises!
Right - I gotta go and get my last meat fill for the next 2 weeks at a restaurant before they close too... I leave first thing tomorrow morning.
Up at 07:00. I didn't sleep at all. Even I'm worried about this little adventure! I booked the bus for 07:30 with the hostel last night. When it turned up it was largely empty, leaving plenty of room for my oversized back pack and my box of food. The bus was old, shabby looking, lacked any power whatsoever and really struggled up the meager hills during the 2½ hour ride. That might account for the driver having his foot permanently stamped down on the accelerator. For everywhere but the hills he was taking straights and corners far too fast for any ones comfort!
A couple of nice Israeli girls on the bus try to talk me into trekking with them on the W trek. But I can't have couple of flouncy females, no matter how attractive, deter me from fulfilling my destiny :: The Full Circuit - Solo & Self Sufficient!
On entering the park I pay my dues (15,000 pesos - £15) and see a white Mercedes Sprinter van marked Las Torres. Following a tip off from the free talk about the trek, I walk over, tip the driver 300 pesos and he takes my food cache. With a bit of luck I'll see it again in 5 days.
I don't get off the bus with everyone else, instead I stay on until we reach the CONAF Administration (on Lago del Toro) - I'm the only one on the bus! Today I'm doing an extra leg on top of the circuit. (Crazy, I know!) I remember being told the views on this leg are fantastic and unlike anything else I'll see on the trip, but only if the clouds are high and the sky clear. I put my coat on in the CONAF front porch amidst rain, drizzle and thick low cloud. Hmm. Too late now! Hey, you never know, it may clear up!?
I set off at 11:30 with my bleeding heavy rucksack (which must weigh at least 15 Kg easy) - then turn back again. No wait, this way. No, that way. Where do I go? Bugger. I stop, take the pack off and dig out my map. Where the hell is the start of this bleeding trail!? With the help of the map and a park ranger I find it, 5 minutes down the road in the opposite direction to where I want to go! Come 12:00 I've begun The Circuit.
The walk is no different to wandering the hills in a wet and windy Wales! I wonder why I left! I stop for lunch at Campamento Las Carretos - a wooden sign and an open backed wooden hut (shelter). 2 tortillas and pork pate. Yum! I also scramble to Rio Grey to take some much needed water. I try out my stove for the first time and make coffee for my Thermos. It works!
An Irish couple, Frankie and Don, are staying there the night. They recognised me from the Ushuaia bus! But being made from sterner stuff I soldier on for another 3 hours to Camping Paine Grande - a place on the official circuit! Not the usual starting place mind. I am doing this somewhat differently to everyone else! It's windy, cold, damp, 17:30 and I decide to stop so I can set up my first camp in daylight.
In the shelter / kitchen an Irish couple, Rachael & Michael, seem keen to meet me and intent on plying me with Red Wine! They had a crap camping night last night at Glacier Grey whereby the wind destroyed their tent. For tonight they've borrowed one from the campsite owner and have a need to get drunk. It's a good conversation which takes us back to their tent for more wine. I'm waxing lyrical about Guyana and the Jungle again. It seems I still haven't got it out of my system.
I retire to my tent but wake up feeling cold. Later still I wake up with the tent collapsing around my head - the wind is howling. I try to ignore it (I'm knackered) but am forced to get up, take action and re-peg a few. I'm several pegs short. Later still, with the rain and wind battering the tend around me, I wake up cold again. Only this time I'm already wearing all my clothes - I'm not going to get any warmer. I think back to last night in town when I was wandering about in a T-Shirt. Not now, the weather is officially crap!
Up at 09:30 to try out my Brekkie (porridge with milk powder, sugar and fruit & nut) - it's good! Then I have to put my tent away - it's still raining hard, everything's wet and cold. I score some 4 pegs off the camp site owner for free. Result! (I only lost the 1 giving a net result of +3) I'm finally ready to leave at 11:00. Most people stay huddled together in the kitchen, no-one wants to leave or endure the adverse weather. No-one except me!
I arrive at Campamento Italiano in a very soggy state. Decision time. Am I to endure hardship to Campamento Britanico (part of the W) or continue round the circuit? If I went to Britanico I'd have to camp there but a couple who'd just day tripped there said it's a mud pool with a torn and tattered tarpaulin shelter exposed to extreme wind. Given last night, I feel my tent wouldn't last and I'd get hypothermia. Also looking at the map and planning ahead (who, me?) if I continue round the circuit there's a chance I'll get to see the Torres at dawn - one of the main reasons for being here. Everyone else I speak to have / are skipping it too or are just buggering out of the park completely - they can't take it anymore! What sold me the decision to continue round the circuit was another couple who said, "You can't see anything up there, but it's sooo beautiful!" Frigging Tree Hugging Hippies.
So I bug out of Campamento Britanico and round the lakes I go. I'm not impressed with the trail. It's a manicured gravel path and the scenery isn't that impressive. Maybe it's the bad weather or the bleeding heavy rucksack but I find the walk a bit dull.
Camping Los Cuernos is a little bit of paradise. As I approached the skies cleared and the wind became warm - 24°C warm! The wind was still there, but warm! Perfect drying weather and dry it did - my tent, my sleeping bag, my clothes, my stuff, all dry! Plus I'm able to pitch up in the shelter of trees. Using all my pegs and huge boulders to keep them pegged in I build me a rock solid home. I' m well impressed! I'm even able to get a hot shower at the Refugio. It's all good!
Then during the night comes the wind. Boy'O'Boy is there wind! And it's not me either! These gusts were a blowin' and a howlin'! They flattened a couple of tents but not my rock solid effort! Next morning, wind was the talk of the camp site.
I'm up when my alarm goes off at 08:00. Despite the wind it's still a warm and beautiful clear morning. I can even see the mountains behind me for the first time! After porridge, packing up, etc I leave at 10:30. At 11:00 it starts to rain. Bloody typical! The whole day is rainy showers interrupted by spells of sun shine.
As I start to climb higher into Valle Ascencio I appreciate the walk more - the views of the valley below and the mountain range behind me are spectacular. The talk of walkers (including Matt & Rosie, an outdoorsie American couple) was a river crossing with no bridge. They all found it treacherous, wet and very difficult. Strangely enough, I didn't perceive it a problem and simply hopped over. Matt & Rosie also kept being blown over by the gusty high winds, sustaining scrapes and blood injuries. I admit I lost my balance once and wobbled slightly.
After the hard hike uphill to Camping Chileno I realise I have another 1½ hours left to Campamento Torres. Sigh. It's a free campsite with no facilities but where I can base myself for the 1 hour accent to see the Torres (towers) for dawn tomorrow morning. It's a nice woodland trek, even with the bleeding heavy rucksack! The campsite is a lovely picturesque woodland reserve with a stream running through it. All the girlies say, "Arrr..." As the night draws in I begin to feel tired...
Up at 05:15 and on the trail for 05:45 to see the Torres by dawn. This takes a lot of motivation on your own I can tell you! In the second half of the climb I decide to do without torchlight. I loose the red spray painted dots on the rocks that mark the trail but I figure as long as I climb up I can't go far wrong. Then, the Torres present themselves as I reach the top of the ridge for 06:30. Fantastic! It was a hard slog but I made it! Only there's nobody there. Unusual, I'm not usually the first person to a viewpoint. So I walk on for 15 minutes to the end of the ridge, navigating strong winds and near vertical drops expecting to happen upon some people. But still, nobody there. Oh well, I walk back to take some photos of dawn over the valley horizon. It's only as I start my decent that I notice groups of people hanging about some distance below. Arr, that would be the official viewpoint I overshot then! So I descend on to the onlookers from above, much to their confusion. "Where have you come from?" quiz one couple. "Wales!" I cheerfully respond!
Back at camp I need a new strategy to packing my rucksack - I'll be picking up more food later and currently it won't all fit in. So I externalise my twin dry bags and stuff the tent in the main pack. Enter Twin Torpedo Subsonic Rocket Man Stevie! My pack now looks cool, so different to anybody elses. I feel like an Action Hero! I keep yanking the dangling straps behind my back expecting the Nitro Boosters to kick in and propel me up the hill. They don't but I keep yanking anyway, just in case! I find my new twin turbo packs distribute the weight a lot better. The pack feels lighter and I power down the hill.
I'm pleased to note that despite being days into my trip and trekking under load I'm still mighty cool and looking super sexy! (See inset.)
I coin a phrase - Day Walkers (stolen from Blade) and I loathe them. They're people on a day trip to see the towers, bounding up the hill with nothing but a day pack or a water bottle, complaining about the lack of facilities the mountain has to offer and marvelling at how the weather is always gorgeous in the park. I just want to drop my 20 Kg pack on their heads and kick them in the river to simulate spending all day in the rain. We'll see how well they cope then! Worse still are the Day Walkers with trekking poles, striding on superiority because they're faster! Grrr... I hate them all!
Down at Las Torres I get annoyed, tired and angry that the Refugio is a long way away from the main complex and isn't signposted. Grrr... Anyway Rosie and Matt are there, waiting for the bus. They've just finished the W trek. Matt saw the towers last night and also went the wrong way up the ridge! In the Refugio reception I show the man a photo of my food cache (box) and he retrieves it for me. Result! I grace the AMA charity with 4,000 pesos (£4) for keeping it for me and wonder how I'm going to pack the extra 6 Kg!
A sparkly clean, whiter than white, fresh American couple in reception were horrified to receive their first experience of a foreign country outside of a 5 star hotel. "What!? There's only one connecting boat across the lake a day? We can leave our bags but there's no-one to take responsibility for theft whilst we're out walking? And what do you mean you won't or can't tell us what the weather is going to be like for the next few days?" They look at me and seem horrified. I look homeless. I smell. The receptionist laughs - I'm their typical customer.
The original plan was to stay at Las Torres for the night and consume the 2 bottles of Pale Ale and the ¼ bottle of 12 year Chevas Regal whiskey. But it's only 14:00 and in only 4 hours I could be at the next camp site, fitting 2 days worth of walking into 1! Hmm... I load up, decanting the whiskey into a plastic bottle. I'm carrying the heaviest rucksack ever - I can barely lift it on to my back! Still, come 14:30 I set off in good spirits amidst the sun shine. Come 15:00 it rains again! Great.
I have a good stride until the last hour where my shoulders really being to ache. Damn the pack is bleeding heavy. I've started the un-popular trek round the back of the circuit and there's a noticeable lack of people. In fact, the only people I see are a Polish couple who overtake me 10 minutes before reaching the camp site. It's cold, wet, muddy and it's only the thought of a hot shower, a warm shelter and XXX that keep me going. I arrive. The camp site is closed. No facilities, no shower and no shelter. The Poles are just happy they don't have to pay the camping fee! Then they start slapping themselves in some bizarre Bavarian dance cum Monty Python sketch. I found it quite amusing for a whole 2 minutes until I too was set upon by the hordes of mosquitoes! 1000s and 1000s of them! If I kept my hand still for just a couple seconds, 3 would descend upon it and start sucking up blood. We both set up home as fast we could and dived inside our respective tents. I had reason to believe the camp site wasn't closed but the owners had been eaten alive by mosquitoes and their corpses were still decomposing inside! I drink my beer and count the number of mosquitoes clamouring to get in through the mesh on the tent door. It averaged 8 per square foot.
Morning routine :: Change back into daytime smelly clothes, mend feet, pick nose, make porridge, pack tent, make coffee for Thermos, pack pack. It all takes 2 hours. I leave at 10:00 before the Poles. I expect them to overtake me before long - they have trekking poles and look the business.
The sheep trail path takes me around and through the lakes! It's bonkers. I really didn't want to start wading through freezing mountain rivers!
I climb a hill, turn a corner and woah! I get blasted with 65 mph winds (as measured on my Windmaster watch)! It's so strong I can't walk along the path. Instead I have to lean forward down the hill at an obscene angle as if I was abseiling and side step along the path like a crab! It's brilliant! My eyes were constantly streaming water as the wind perforated my eye sockets. I've not experienced much like it before. I try shouting. My voice carried about a foot and half away, if that!
After walking the wind tunnel I powered on around the fantastic lake scenery on the lovely clear day. I reached the Dickson Refugio in good time (5 ¼ hours). It's dead. Very pretty but very closed and very dead. No sign of the Poles - I've seen no-one all day. I have lunch until 16:00 and decide to carry on for another 4 hours to the next camp site. It's good weather, clear skies and dry. If I'm going to push the boat out on any day and compress another 2 days walking into 1, today's the day. For the next few legs get substantially harder. As it'll be dark by the time I finish tonight and no-one knows I'm here, I leave a note for the Poles as an insurance policy. I feel a need to increase my insurance premium!
The next 3 hours is a fantastic woodland trek through thick forest. The ground is a mass of dead wood and logs, as is the canopy. Dead trees lie twisted and contorted from the wind, holding each other up in precarious canter lever positions. As cool and creepy as it is - it all looks the same and after a couple of hours there is no measure of progress. All you can see is dense woodland. It's not quite Blair Witch ("I've seen that tree before!") but it's not far off! All this time I'm speedily powering along like a stream train, trying to make the most of the fading daylight. I keep myself occupied by thinking about what little boys think about the most! (Nope, not Monster Trucks this time!)
Dark comes, the head torch comes out and now, where'd that path go? Is that a foot print in the mud? Have people been here before? Does that patch of gravel look more worn down than that other patch? Is that a red marker dot or just an orange stone? All these details are really hard to make out by torch light - it gives no definition. I had to back track a couple of times to get back on the right trail.
Working my way round a glacier lake (Glacier Los Perros) I begin to wonder if I had overshot the campsite - because if it wasn't obvious, I wasn't going to see it! Then a torch light in the distance gave me a destination to head for. Success, 2 German girls and an American in the closed (again!) campsite. They were as surprised to see me as I was them! This last leg look them over 6 hours in daylight - I did it in under 4! I rock, I rule! The girls weren't impressed. Regardless, I had Irish Coffee to celebrate.
Up at 09:00 and as well as my usual morning routine I also wash feet and socks in the freezing mountain river. I then walk back to Glacier Los Perros to take some pics as it was too dark for photos last night. I finally leave the campsite at 12:00. Man, my feet hurt. I can do nothing but hobble, nay, limp along. Yesterday I gave it my all - practically jogging along for hours on end. Today I'm drained and exhausted - I have no energy. Every step, uphill, downhill or on a flat takes a huge amount of effort. I am slow, real slow. And today is one of the hardest days on the circuit, up and over the mountain. Still, I take baby steps - lots of them. I figure if I do that, I have to make it eventually! And I'm right, visible progress is slowly made.
I drag myself up and over the John Gardner pass and Wow, Wow, Wow! Look at that! Wow! On the sunny horizon looms snow capped mountains, looking like an idealistic ski-resort. A few steps forward and I see a glacier winding it's way down between them. The next few steps reveal the giant Grey Glacier river flowing along at the foot of the mountains below me. I'm compelled to sit and stare at it right there on the spot. The landscape is stunning. I've never seen anything like it before. As I try to take it all in I realise I'll probably never see anything like ever again either, for I'm viewing the vast glacier from above. Whereas the norm is to view it from below - or even on it. I stagger forward out of the wind and take a lunch break.
Even after lunch I have to stop and stare every few minutes. As the sun sinks it highlights ripples of crevasses set deep in the ice. I'm watching a river literally frozen in time. It's spellbinding. I hit trees again, they obscure the glacier view. Now it's down, down, down. A serious amount of straight down. (Jez, I think your knees would have suffered! Mine did!) The glacier popping out into view every now and again during breaks in the tree line. I stagger into camp for 18:00. The trails for the past few days have been great! Proper wilderness tracks with no people. Not like the front W trail which was a well groomed gravel tracks harbouring a large population.
Today marks my 3 month travelling anniversary. It's a milestone because I always estimated I'd be away for 3 - 6 months. It means I can go back to the UK at anytime and not be seen to be wimping out! More Irish Coffee (+ some neat whiskey) to celebrate.
Hey, not only do I look like a homeless person but I smell like one too! The American and 2 German girls made it here too. One of the German girls spends the night with a Park Ranger in his little lodge on the campsite. When you're camping, there are no secrets! I fall asleep wondering what qualifications I'd need to become a Park Ranger.
Up, packed and out by 11:00 - a lot later than I wanted. I still feel drained, have no energy and hobble along. I think I've bruised a few bones in my feet, they kill! I'm pleased I have an easy day today. I reach Campamento Guardas and stop for lunch. It turns into a feeding frenzy! I eat 3 (not 2 but 3!) tortillas with cream cheese, 2 biscuits, some fruit & nut mix (usually reserved for breakfast) and a toffee mint! Gee, I must be starving!
For the past week I've been wearing a neoprene ankle support on my left ankle and it's worked wonders to settle the pain I'd been feeling. But for the past few days I've been crippled by a different pain on the heel. I decide to take it off... and instant relief! It seems the bruising had been caused by the support seam digging into my heel with the tight boots.
During the past week I've passed a lot of people on the path (well, on the W) and I assess their looks, decide if they're British / American / Native English Speaker (usually rather easy) and greet them with either a "Hello!" or a "Hola!" Now what bugs me is that every single person I've passed greets me with "Hola!" I mean, do I look Spanish? For some reason it's really beginning to grate.
I literally stumble into the Camping Grey campsite. Despite my huge lunch (compared to other days) I have no energy. I set up home and grab a hot shower (well, a hot dribble!) and exit reborn! I no longer smell like a homeless person! This campsite is back on the tourist W trail so stuff is open. I pitch up in a cool spot - on the edge of a dirt beach overlooking the lake and gigantic floating glacier chunks. It was cool until some Americans decide to pitch up right in front of me, stealing my view. Yeah, cheers.
I stick to my original plan which is to go on a glacier ice hike tomorrow and book myself in with Big Foot Adventures for $135 US. My plan also allows me to eat an evening meal at the refugio to give me energy for the ice hike. I wanted to be self sufficient for the circuit and as there's only a 3½ hour walk left (which I could stagger right now if I had to prove myself), I've practically completed my original goal.
Booking so late (17:44) I was lucky to be fitted into a second 20:00 dinner seating. Dinner (compared to my usual dried noodles) was pea soup, pork chop and cream potatoes and salad with tinned apricots for dessert. Lovely. Washed down with a couple of beers of course! I got talking to Liz and Claire who (forgive my sweeping first impressions again) appeared to be a couple of middle aged lesbians. Liz had been working at a research station in Antarctica for the past 18 months, stabilising the stilt legs on which all the buildings sit on. Previously working as a chippie in the UK she said she found the job advertised in the paper! They both should be joining me on the Grey Glacier tomorrow.
Everyone assembles in the hut behind my tent for 09:15 and are given a waterproof day bag (Black Diamond) containing a cup, harness and crampons. Cool! The food and rest from last night seem to have worked, I practically walked out of my tent without limping! There's a boat which does a mini tourist cruise twice a day, departing from much further down the lake. We use this to hitch a lift over to the Grey Glacier in the morning and back to land again in the evening. The firm has a rib which they use to ferry us Ice Hikers on and off the Grey II vessel. Boarding it I felt like a pirate. Rape, pillage, rampage! Or just sit there and admire the pretty floating ice-burgs!
We land on a rock and are given our ice-axes... cool! A bit further and we don our harness and crampons... cooler! With 12 huge spikes protruding out from my feet (especially the 2 that stick straight out the front) I feel all set for a game of football! Once we're suited and booted we're led out onto the ice for a few Mickey Mouse lessons on safety walking for any would be American tourists. There's no self arresting on the glacier because if you don't stop within 2 seconds, it's too late. Instead they assume you're going to slide all the way to the bottom of a crevasse and it's a rescue mission from there on in. Hence we all wear a harness.
Far from the flat ice-rink I was expecting the glacier is full of hills, bumps and deep crevasses. The surface isn't smooth but pitted, uneven and crunchy like a meringue. The Grey Glacier as a whole is literally a river suspended in time and the part we were on was less jagged and more undulating. Apparently the reason being, we were behind a large rocky island and walking on the still, calm, eddie that forms downstream of it - just like what you get on a river! We were taken to some different formations like deep crevasses and waterfalls before we saw and went inside some ice caves and tunnels! It was awesome! There are rivers and streams constantly flowing in and through the glacier. And the blue hues and colours are mind boggling. Apparently the glacier looks blue because that's the only colour that has enough energy to escape the ice (blue being the highest visible frequency).
Then it was time for the Coup de Grace. We were led to the bottom of a 3 story crevasse whilst the guys got busy chiseling and anchoring belays on the top. Time for a vertical ice climb up the glacier! What a treat! Ice-axes were the weapon of choice. Minimal instruction - just get up there and give it go. Brilliant! T-Bone, get jealous!
I blagged dinner at the Refugio again and ate with the lesbians. Only one of them, I swear, kept rubbing my leg with her foot! Unfortunately for her, she was tired from the days activity and had to retire to bed early. I wandered back to my tent a bottle of wine later, unzipped the front and... Crack... Donk! One of the poles snapped in half, crumpling the front of the tent. Great! At least it wasn't windy and the elastic held the two halves together. Pleased it was to be my last night camping I left it as it was, crawled inside and passed out cold as usual.
Up, packed and out by 08:30 - it's 3½ hours to the catamaran at Camping Paine Grande that I need to catch to get back to civilization (for 11,000 pesos). Only I'm not sure what time it leaves, 12:30 I think. But as there's only one a day, should I miss it I've another night in a wasted tent and I would have squandered one of my previous good walking days. So I give it pace, lots of pace. Bones and feet hurt but I need to make the boat. I keep it going and make it in 2½ hours! Ye hah! I sit by the dock and eat the rest of my food as a queue forms behind me. I was the first one there. I was very impressed with the cat when it turned up, it looked like a bullet proof military gun ship and the twin diesel engines throbbed with a bass any club would be proud of!
At the end of the ½ hour ride across lake Pehoe we were met by a horde of buses to take us back into town. I settled into my empty Israeli bus and solemnly gazed out of the window into the sun. On exiting the national park I stuck two fingers up at the mountains; they didn't get me.
On the walk back to the Jewish commune I chat to a couple of Israelis who were on my bus. They didn't understand how / why I'm at Castle de Juan. "It's an Israeli only hostel!" they say. "It was!" I reply. "But, of course you are welcome, friend." I need to escape. I also need to get some laundry done, a massage, go out, be sociable, and get drunk. It's all been too long! But I'm informed it's Good Friday - every where's closed. Great.
I check when the Dragoman truck arrives in Santiago to see how many days I have to meet it. I have zero, it arrived today. I decided in the park that given half a chance I'd meet up with Isi and the truck. So despite feeling shattered I scour the town for Internet and make a plan. I book myself on a bus back to Punta Arenas for first thing in the morning (for 3,000 pesos - £3) whose airport has several flights a day to Santiago. I email Isi to say I'm on my way and to ask where the hell she is! Over a big meaty mixed grill I muse over the possible downfalls of my plan: No flights on Easter Saturday, not able to buy flight with my stupid Visa card and Isi may not reading her email before she flys home. It's perfect, nothing can go wrong!
I return my broken tent to Erratic Rock. Bill, the ex-army drill Sergent, wasn't happy I broke it and wanted retribution. But as it was given to them for free and they could fix it, I was let off. I go back to the commune to pack for tomorrow.