Thursday, December 15, 2011

1st semester midterm. So you wanted a test right?

I started off this noble adventure with the idea of learning something about myself. I was expecting there to be trials, moments of discomfort, reaching out for support in friends, strangers, God...having to dig down deep to find that extra ounce to keep on keeping on. I had this romantic idea of learning through blood, sweat and tears, and from the comforts of home, I typed that thinking how hardcore it sounded.

Then I got schooled. Really schooled. I had my first real test and in my ignorance I thought I would ace this thing. It can't be THAT tough, I've been prepping for this. At first I laughed at the discomfort and welcomed it as my first real trial. Then I met the moment where I hurt. It beat me down, one km at a time, one painful step at a time, one throbbing foot at a time, one sharp shooting pain in the hip that spread into my back at a time. I was cold, I was wet, and I wanted nothing more than to sit down and cry, crawl into a nice, dry, warm bed and nurse my blistered, tenderized feet. What am I doing here? People do this shit for fun? Am I out of my damn mind?! Thank goodness I had a friend there with me to pull me back together, tell me that everything I was going through was perfectly normal and that, yes, I would be just fine. He was right. Eventually the rain stopped, the wind died down, I was fed, the pack got lighter, the pain just went numb and I started to rebuild myself from all the snot covered pieces.

Torres del Paine, you are beautiful, amazing, and completely unpredicable. What's that saying about being broken down so you can be built back up? I think just experienced that, and I never knew it could be so...humbling. But that was the whole point of this right? I wanted to learn? I wanted to grow? I wanted to find out what I could take? What I was made of or if I would break? Torres del Paine AKA towers of pain.

Turns out I like pain.

If I could sum up the experience it would sound like this: 7.5 days, 125 Km, 2 friends that didn't kill each other, Armadillo! a sunburn on perfect clear day, How's your pack riding? My hip bones are bruised...oh, that's normal? m0th$@#%! mosquitos, bi-polar weather, bloody nose and bloody cuticles, my first glacier...again and again and again, making friends with porters and guardaparques, yup, we're on the"W" now, was that kid in jean shorts? limping to camp, thanksgiving in the rain, reaching out for spiritual support, blown over, Dr. Rob - that's how you know a true friend, too much cheese, running up towers, getting greedy for sunrise, mmm...nothin' like the smell of horse shit, all I want is a shower and pizza, napping on the grass.

Of course it wasn't that simple. It wasn't that fast...and not nearly as easy.  Don't get me wrong, I realize this entry probably sounds like complaining, it's not. If I could do it all over again, I would and wouldn't even think twice about it. I would pack up my bag and be waiting for the bus to take me back to the park and meet those challenges head on with a smile on my face and say, "what now bitch? I've got this." But first, I had to be brought down, dragged through the mud, and have a pity party.  I had a really good pity party, but now the party is over. Fortunately, Robert was there to slap me around a bit when I needed it to pull me out of my funk and point to the incredible view in front of me and say, hey! snap out of it. He was also there to literally take a load off my shoulders when I simply couldn't go on anymore and never once let me feel like a pansy for it.

So what did we actually do? The full circuit of course. None of this "W" nonsense, we're too hardcore for that. Our plans changed with the weather, but the final itinerary looked like this:

Day 1: the catch afternoon bus from Puerto Natales and arrive in the park at about 5pm. Hike from Laguna Amarga to Campamento Seron (14 km/4.5 hours)
Day 2: Campamento Seron to Refugio Dickson (19 km/6 hours)
Day 3: Refugio Dickson to Campamento Los Perros (9 km/4.5 hours)
Day 4: Campamento Los Perros to Campamento Los Guardos via Paso John Gardener (18 km/9hours)
Day 5: Campamento Los Guardos to Campamento Italiano (22.5 km/8 hours)
Day 6: Campamento Italiano to Campamento Chileno (18 km/8 hours)
Day 7: Campamento Chileno to Campamento Torres and day trip to Campamento Japones and Mirador los Torres (14 km/5 hours)
Day 8: Pack up camp to go Hosterra los Torres and bus back to Puerto Natales (11 km/ 5hours)

The first day was pretty smooth...almost too smooth.  It was a fairly flat walk, the trail was well marked, the weather was perfect. The only thing was that my pack was heavy. I was only carrying the basics, but apprently I eat a lot. We were carrying everything we would need for the next 7.5 days, including all the food, gas, stove, cook kit, tent, sleeping pads and bags, food, rain gear, layers, first aid stuff, more food. We had a lot of food. By the time we got the camp I noticed that my feet were talking...they were not so pleased with what was going on. My hip bones too were making a racket about carrying all this weight. When I took off my pack I noticed that they were tender to the touch. The guardaparque showed us that there was a scale there and he wanted to know how much we were carrying. I put my bag up there...24kilos. The guardaparque did that hand shaking thing like it was burning, "pesado!!" yeah, tell me about it, I know it's heavy. But I was too excited to let it bother me...yet.  We got to camp and set up made easy pasta for dinner and called it a night. For some reason, I was tired.

The next morning we got up to see the sun was shining. The makings of a perfect day. But I was a little stiff...just got to get moving is all. Get them pegs moving. We were in no rush. It was a pretty easy day, and we were told that it was mostly flat. "Flat" in patagonia is almost like "up" they both seem totally relative. The topo map we were using was pretty much pointless, the lines were too far apart to really do us any good, and we had no real idea of what to expect as far as elevation gain on the trek. Fortunately we were not in any kind of rush, so we were slow to get going in the morning and took our time to stop and admire the view along the way. It was an incredible view and it was a noble battle for my attention raging between my feet and the vista. Most of the time the view would win, but I was limping a bit and favoring one side. Robert was a bit concerned for me I think and being a trained guide wanted to help. I learned that there are multiple ways to tie a shoe. I did not know this before and his new method did help prevent my toes from jamming so much into the front of the shoes. But I fear that at this point the damage was done and the blisteres were already well into development and my toenails were all tender to the touch. I kept thinking that I hope they don't fall off...that just wouldn't be cute. Just when the battle was really raging between feet and view and the feet were winning, the view took pulled out an amazing swing and nearly knocked me out. BAM! Lago Dickson and glacier Dickson and the most picturesque campsite the world has ever known. (I stole this picture from Robert who gave me permission to do so and to link to his Flickr pictures as well. To see those click HERE)
It was like being given a fresh shot of adrenaline. I could see the destination. I could make it and then I could drop my pack and take me shoes off and hobble my way down to the water to stick my feet in them. Nature's ice bath. But honeslty, who wouldn't be thrilled to call this home for a night?

Fortunately the next day was an even shorter walk. Robert took some of the weight from me to lighten my load and I felt like a baby but also had enough sense to realize that I needed the help. Besides, he told me that if I was feeling super strong he would happily give me the extra gear back. It turns out the I needed the the help because even with a shorter day ahead I was still struggling a bit to finish the day. I think it may have just been residual tiredness. Or maybe I'm not cut out for this multi-day backpacking business. This day it was raining, and we got to perros campamento with lots of time to make dinner and rest. There was a little shelter made of a tarps and with a little fire pit in the middle there for just that purpose, apparently this camp tends to be wet and cold.  We were invited in to the shelter by the guradaparque (the park ranger) that worked there. He took notice of the fact that we were alone and wet. The shelter was occupied by a relatively large group. We had seen them at the other camps and kept getting passed and passing the same group of porters. I talked with them a little bit at Campamento Dickson and they had invited us share their lentils when we got to Perros camp. We would cross paths with these porters several times along the way and having little snippets of conversations with them along the trail and at various camps. Perros camp is the camp before the big hike, the one that takes you over the pass. It is supposed to be the most difficult day not only because of the elevation but also because the terrain. There are portions of the trail that are a bit dangerous and we had been advised by the park rangers to use particular caution on this next leg. I slept as best I could that night, but it was colder than previous nights and I was excited about the next day.

The next morning came early and Robert took even more weight from my pack. THANK GOD. I had a great day and I think part of the reason was that I was carrying significantly less weight than when we started...and we had eaten some food. We had a good climb in front of us and it was my first time trekking through snow. Robert made it a point to teach me the proper way to lay and maintain tracks so people can follow easily behind you. For whatever reason that day I felt great. Maybe it was the excitement of snow. Maybe it was seeing a glacier like glacier gray for the first time flowing like a river of ice. Maybe it was slipping and falling in the snow and using it as an excuse to slide as far down as I safley could - apparently this is a real mountaineering technique. :) Not the slipping and falling part, but the sliding.

I consider glacier gray my first real glacier. I got to see it over and over and over again. The trail apparently liked to make us earn the same elevation time and time again, and each time there was another first glance at the glacier. I didn't mind....but I think Robert was probably not so thrilled about having to do that with all the weight. He never complained but there was one time where I heard him slightly exhasperated groan, "you've got to be kidding me!" after we had to re-climb for the umpteenth time. I was skipping up that mountain completely enamoured with that glacier. I had never seen anything like it. There was in fact 2 parts where the trail was a bit dodgey...there was a ladder that had to be descended and a rope to help us climb back up from the river bank on the other side.
Totally safe...and I only feared for my life once. But then there was that glacier again and I forgot all about it. The weather was crazy that day. It was typical patagonia...start off clear, then rain, then hail, then snow, then coudy but dry, then clear, then rain. So not only did we see the same glacier a handful of times by re-earning the same elevation, it really was like new every time with the changing weather.

Day 5 started off alright but then Robert and I took turns feeling like poop. Fortunately we didn't feel crappy at the same time, but still. It threw me off to see that my composed mountain guide had lost a bit of his composure. Turns out he's not a machine and that day going over the pass carrying more than the lions share of gear and food may have been harder than he let on. After lunch he was re-charged and the same smiling, optimisic Robert I had come to expect was back...and then it was my turn to mope at my pity party. The weather had turned sour, my feet were screaming, my back hurt (that was new) and there was a sharp pain in my right hip. I was walking like a seriously injured old woman. I was wondering what in the hell would posses me to want to do this...and it was Thanksgiving. I wasn't feeling very thankful, in fact I was quite busy ruminating on my general unhappiness at that particular moment.

I hurt. I was cold. I was wet. I was hungry. I missed my family and it was my favorite holiday and I felt - for the first time on this trip - really far away from home. The wind was fierce. The coulds were thick. My feet were soaked. All I wanted at that moment was for that day to be over. I knew that the next day would be better and that old mantra came to mind, that yes, this too shall pass. But at that moment it was hard to see that. Robert snapped this picture right before we reached camp that night. I was deep in thought...wanting to die. I promised myself that I would come back to this part of the trail and make peace with it, but that day we were enemies.

We set up camp in the rain. I hobbled down to the river to get us water and Robert started to make dinner. Bless his heart he was trying to make Thanksgiving out of this day regardless of how crotchety I was. He had hidden a box of instant stuffing in his pack, fryed up some apples in cinnamon and sugar and fried some sliced ham. It was actually really good. I was starting to recover from my previous state and remembering that yes, I did in fact have an overwhelming amount of things to be grateful for. I was spending Thanksgiving in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and even in my moments of unhappiness, the blessings of my life were overflowing.  I was glad that I had a friend there with me to remind me of this and didn't take my sour mood personally. After I was fed and warmed with some fresh socks I was already in a much better place. The clouds were still thick and the sky didn't look very promising.  We were hoping that it would clear up by the morning. The theory was that we would have a day hike in the french valley and then move camp in the evening. But for that night it was Thanksgiving and we had a thanksgivingesque dinner for it. Afterwards I excused myself to hide in the tent and read for a bit. I needed some time alone with my thoughts and to get them back where they needed to be.

I heard a voice from outside the tent tell me that there was dessert if I wanted. Dessert?! This really IS thanksgiving. Apparently Robert had been toting around a giant can of pumpkin pie filling in his pack too. So we had warmed up pumpkin pie filling while the sky insisted on spitting out rain. But by then the worst of it was over, I felt ready for another day. We talked about a plan for the next day. If the rain continued and the clouds hung low there would be no reason for us to day hike the valley since we wouldn't be able to see anything, so we decided that if that happened we would just move camp closer to the towers and try our luck with the weather there.

Morning came...I heard the rain all night and it was still raining in the morning. We tried to wait it out, hoping that the clouds would break for us. No luck, so at around noon we decided to pack up camp and move. Wouldn't you know it that as we packed up and started hiking to the next camp, maybe 2 hours into it the sky started to clear and eventually the sun came out. The valley itself was still completely socked in with clouds so we didn't regret our decision, but we were both a little sad that we never got to see the valley. I'll be back I told myself, not just to make peace, but to actually get to see it.

Walking along on day 6 we met the infamous Patagonian wind. It literally knocked me on my ass at least once and shoved me around a bit too. It was tricky because it was, like everything here, totally unpredictable. The wind would seem to come consisitently from one side, blowing hard enough to warrant me leaning all my weight into it and then suddenly and without warning it would completely change direction. I was still leaning into where it used to be only to find that there was nothing there to push against and I would be stumbling around like a drunk on the path. Our trail map warned us that this part of the path was windy, but I don't think either of us were prepared for wind like this. Apparently there have been people blown off the cliff here because of the wind...

Day 7 was our last full day and we moved camp for the last time. But first it was time to address these feet of mine. Dr. Rob got all serious on me and pulled out his first aid kit, sanitized a needle, took my nasty smelly foot in hand and drained all the fluid from my blister. Then, taped them up all fancy and moved to the other foot. He wasn't even fazed. I was ashamed at my own feet and wouldn't have wanted to touch them, let alone drain blisters, this is a friend. All bandaged up and nursed I felt much better...almost like new. The clouds were hanging low when we moved camp, and by the time we finished it had started raining again and the torres were completely hidden in the clouds. It's ok we told ourselves, we have all day here and tomorrow morning too. They are bound to come out some time. We spent the day bumming around camp and taking a fairly easy hike to the Japanese camp were climbers stay with special permits to climb the torres. I made friends with the guardaparque there, his name was Luis. He invited us in for matte and wine if we were interested, I respectfully declined the invite, but picked his brains for more information about other hikes in the park, the things most people never get to do. He was a wealth of information, but mostly I think he was just bored and was glad to have someone to talk to. I liked the excuse to practice my spanish, so in the end it all worked out. 

It was our last night so we decided to eat everything we could so we didn't have to carry it down. I love cheese, I mean, I really love cheese. I also really love pasta. Fortunately these things were the foundation of our diet and we still had quite a bit of cheese left. So we made cheesy pasta and gourged ourselves. I was actually so full I was uncomfortable - loosen your pants uncomfortable. Glutony in it's true form. It was uncomfortable to sit, it was uncomforatble to stand...Why did you make me eat that?! Then at around 8:30 that night I looked up and the rain had stopped and the clouds had lifted over the towers. I yelled at Robert that I think this was our chance. We were planning on getting up early in the morning to see sunrise over the towers, but we could see the towers now! So we did the only appropriate thing, we nearly ran up the path the toweres. In a moment of doubt Robert told me that we were going to miss the light. To hell we are! Where this energy all of a sudden came from I have no idea. Maybe it was the cheese. And then, there they were, in all their glory. The picture perfect torres with the lake below. There was even some couds for added drama to catch the light of the setting sun.
We made it up just in time and stood in wonder at the sight. So this is what has been hiding under all those clouds? Robert took some pictures (my camera was dead at this point) and then we headed back down...running, just for the fun of it. The trail map says it should take 45min-1hr to get up to the lookout. We, however, made it up, took pictures and back down in 1hr20min.  Take that trek.

We were absolutely thrilled that we got a chance to see the towers and went to sleep dreaming that we would see the sun bathing the towers in glorious golden light.

We woke up to rain and thick heavy clouds. It was 4:30 in the morning...

But, when in Patagonia you get up anyway and hope that by the time you get to the lookout that the weather has changed. The only thing that changed was my core temperature as my clothes got soaked in the rain. We tired to wait it out and at least we got to see the colors of sun sweep across the valley below. As for the towers, you couldn't even tell they were there, just a big mass of clouds. But they were so clear yesterday!

I stood on a big rock and with a mixutre of sadness and gratitude looked back at the valley and the path that wound down out of the park. In a couple hours we would be packed up and waiting for a bus to take us back to Puerto Natales and the next day Robert would be going home. It was in that moment that I realized just how far this trek had really taken me. Yeah, we were right back were we started 7.5 days ago, but I felt like a different person. Sure, a smelly and blistered version of myself, but a stronger version too. It was almost in disbelief that I traced our route on the trail mean, I walked all that? My low moment on Thanksgiving day felt like worlds away...and so did that sense of enchantment of seeing Campamento Dickson. Those moments of good, the laughing conversations, the mind-blowing too beautiful to be real views, the discomfort, the pain, the physical trials all seemed like worlds away.  And this too shall pass...

I remembered that when I was being challenged and vowed right there on that rock to remember that when the good happenes too, so I don't take it for granted and get caught up thinking about the next best thing. This is the next best thing. This life, this moment, this cloud covered view that last night was traced in gold.

I will be back and will take the lessons that this mountain tought me to move along her trails more gracefully.


  1. Epic.

    You know, I hear there's an herb that can help with pain. You could probably even cook it into a power bar. ;)

    Keep on keeping on, I'm jealous.

  2. Dang! Agreed, Rob's camera is nice...his photos are stunning!! You both took breathtaking shots.
    And ditto to Jeff's comment - Epic, indeed. I too am quite jealous :)