Exodus from Ushuaia was a hard landing. According to my grand plan, the preceding all nighter dulled the pain of the subsequent twelve hour bus, but only momentarily. I slept upright for the first time years, for a full three hours. Feeling refreshed and clean, we were slowly herded through the double border crossing and into the void of Tierra Del Fuego's western (Chilean) half. Yay, more desert. Unfortunately, this segment of the trip was also devoid of paved roads, which, in addition to the ferry ride en route, lowered the efficiency of this day's journey to cringingly low levels. But no matter, we were on a mission: to consume as we've never consumed before.
Punta Arenas is nearly as unremarkable as Rio Gallegos, with the exception of a few mediocre restaurants and a trump card: Zona Franca.
Being wholly within Chile and not even on an island, it's a wonder who bribed who to get tax free status assigned to this square kilometer. 'No importa', as they say. We were in desperate need of gear to make Torres Del Paine a reality. Gear, gear, and more gear (some of which now hangs precariously on the back of my pack) was turning this into the most expensive day since Carnaval. The shopathon seemed to go one for days, perhaps because it was punctuated by an inconveniently timed two hour siesta (shops closed, nothing to do) and the requisite beers and “Lomo Completo” (yummy beef loin sandwich with everything) that helped pass the time. In the end we came away with a tent, foam mattresses, and a veritable 'dry suit' of waterproof boots and pants, jackets and gloves for each. Having the combined experience of one seasoned camper, the four of us stumbled through planning our meals and buying food for the next five days (also duty free).
Along with our first sampling of Chilean seafood (perhaps the best meal in a month), and an enormous memory card to capture it all, our epic series of pre-trekking purchases made visiting this town of little gray streets at the end of the world a smashing success.
Having said 'hi and goodbye' to Punta Arenas, we boarded (you guessed it) a bus; off to Puerto Natales, hub and base camp for the vast majority of expeditions to our next destination: Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine. Still clueless as to what lay ahead (and unable to calculate the proper quantity of food for our growing team), we skipped the free lecture and scraped together the information we needed from first hand accounts and a little Patagonian traveler's newspaper aptly named “The Black Sheep.
” As “Team Noah's Ark” (we were soon to be called) grew in size, raiding the late night convenience store with overwhelming force in search of the town's last marshmallow seemed an urgent need (one of those moments I wish I had on video). As the night wore on, striving for the early morning bus seemed increasingly futile, and we became increasingly relaxed and excited to start the most difficult and rewarding phase of my trip thus far: “doing the W”.
Torres Del Paine has something for everyone, from the nose-pressed-to-glass bus tease, to the epic 14 day “circuit.” Yet, for all the “everyone at his own pace” lectures, we came through with team unity that paid off. Being a perfectly average group of ten average-aged young adults of average fitness level from five perfectly average countries (hence “Noah's Ark”) with an average amount of time to spend (5 days) here, we followed the somewhat diminished shoulder season herd through the course of average difficulty and length, known (seemingly in all languages) as “the W.
sunrise at Mirador de Las Torres
” Assembled erratically through random encounters in Ushuaia hostels, bus stations, and Puerto Natales buses, we unknowingly created an unusually compatible group (everyone said '6 is too many'): 2 Americans, 2 Israelis, 2 Britons, 2 Germans, and 2 Italians. OK, well the Italian Stallions only lasted a day, but other than than that we stayed together, and they were good for some initial comic relief.
Having said average more than you'd like to hear, I'd be remiss if I didn't explain that some of this experience was really quite tough. Two days of trudging through rain and mud, two nights of extreme tent-toppling winds (see album) and one of extreme cold, and a back-breaking 8 hour “pack day” to the summit that brought all of us to the brink of exhaustion were all features of the trip.
peculiar beam of dawn light on Las Torres
As every masochist outdoorsman will preach, though, we were handsomely rewarded for our efforts. From the epic 11 hour pack-less hike to the storybook sights of Glacier Gray under sunny skies, to the bizarre beam of light projecting on the Torres themselves at sunrise, to the nearly tearful reunion with our German friends who hiked on one good leg
beginning at 3 am only to tell us "you're late!", this was the most memorable part of Project South America to date. I camped, hiked, and cooked more than I have in years (at 5 days, this puts me just at the upper end of the lazy bum stratum of society, edging into normal territory), and this felt good. I also fired up the metabolism, a much needed change after the beach-binge-shop phase the two weeks prior.
I had good times with countless friends we met and re-met along the way, some of who are continuing the march northward with me. Dare I say, I even had a few 'moments' in communion with nature (thanks to the views, staying ahead of the pack at times, and an iPod stuffed with a fellow traveler's collection, following a catastrophic encounter between said iPod and an unfriendly minilaptop). Basically, this Tour of Pain rocked.
The photo album says it all, but Torres Del Paine is Patagonia at its best: raw nature at he extremes of what the forces of the physical world can muster, tucked in a little corner of a continent nearly at the end of the earth. Glacial valleys (and glaciers) recalling 'Lord of the Rings' were the most obviously distinctive, but the peaks and panoramas (of which I've seen many) also managed to raise the bar.
It will be hard to top Torres Del Paine in any future outing in a temperate climate zone, which is why I'm desperate to record every foggy beach and feeling I can. While you need to come prepared (as some disgruntled souls discovered, before leaving early), I would, for the casual to the extreme hiker/climber, never hesitate to recommend it.
A footnote: as 'traveler's unity' is often nonexistent in this life chapter bearing the mantra of 'no plan, no obligations', it's worth mentioning that I have the distinct impression I'll stay in contact with (and in some cases visit) Team Noah's Ark more than most travelers I'll meet.
Germans prepare for the Blitzkrieg
The e-mails are shared, of course, but so are the photos blogs, and thank you notes; the pain and redemption shared by all will hopefully create a bond that lasts a bit longer, and that's worth something.