Trip Report - Trekking in Patagonia

Stormy Lago Gray (Matt Pritchard) More photos below.

By Jody Pritchard

We knew our trip would be nothing less than an adventure as we stood in line at the American Airlines ticket counter at SFO. It was 5:00 AM and both of us had our eyes glued to the display case housing the 'forbidden' items. Our exact stove and fuel bottles were smirking at us from the other side of the Plexiglass; their twins carefully nestled in our packs. We knew there was a chance these items could be trouble, but we had done our research with the airline and FAA, thoroughly removed all fuel from them, labeled the items, and decided to let the sleeping cookware stay where it was, hoping to see it when we unpacked at the tip of South America.

After 1 1/2 years of planning we were finally on our way to Patagonia. Cookware or not.

Our travels took us on 5 flights through 6 airports: SF to LA to Lima to Santiago to Puerto Mont to Punta Arenas for a total of 20 hours in the air. If you thought American planes were cramped, consider checking out Lan Chile for some real fun. The cool colored fabrics and New Age meditation type music might help some people relax, but poor Matt was wedged between his seat and the one in front like an NBA player in a child's desk at back-to-school night. At least the in-seat DVD players helped take our mind off the cramped quarters and the stewardess' incessant, "Permiso!" as they attempted to thrust full meals in front of us every 2 hours. "Honestly, no tenemos hambre!"

If the design of the Punta Arenas airport was any indication of the type of weather we were about to encounter… we were in for it. This building looked like it could survive in Antarctica. Hell, throw in an earthquake too - it would still stand strong with its 3 whole gates. A quick check in baggage claim to see the stove and fuel bottles still in our packs (whew!), we hopped into a cab and headed for town.

Punta Arenas sits on the Straits of Magellan (yeah as in the first guy to sail around the world in 1520) and is the oldest and largest city in Patagonia (about the size of Salem, OR). After settling into our hotel, we went out to paint the town and promptly discovered the local cocktail of choice: the Pisco Sour. A cross between a margarita and the Brazilian caipirinha housed in a champagne flute, this is a tasty way to start a vacation. We were also able to pick up bus tickets to our next destination and cruised the main street for dinner along with our escorts; nomadic bands of stray dogs looking for the same thing. Check out this site if you have time...they've even been given names!

For $15 the amenities included a bed and a door and some sheets that had a funny aroma...

The next morning we embarked on the first of many bus rides to Puerto Natales. On the way, we were amused to see the bus stop and watch salty ranch hands get off in the middle of nowhere, hop over a fence, and start running across a field headed for some house we couldn't see on the horizon. This is sheep ranching land and it didn't take long to figure out why the area is known for its wool, after seeing an infinite number of these creatures grazing in the open green.

Puerto Natales is surrounded by snow capped mountains, water, and fishing boats, and one can't help but think this must be what Alaska looks like. As the gateway to 2 of the most popular parks in Patagonia, this town is packed with trekkers all looking alike in their hiking boots, packs, and Goretex. We all might as well have been wearing bumper stickers on our foreheads screaming "TOURIST" - there's just no blending in with the locals with that kind of gear. The stray dogs (they have them here too) also knew these folks were their best candidates for handouts and followed us all about town.

We decided to save a little money that night and settled in at Hospedaje Laury after looking into 5 different hotels at $90 a night. For $15 the amenities included a bed and a door and some sheets that had a funny aroma… but the couple was friendly and patient with our limited Spanish. At 7AM we boarded a bus full of fellow TOURISTS from all over the world and were finally headed into Torres del Paine (pronounced Pie-nee) a mere 4 days after leaving home. I will never complain about the 4 hour drive to Yosemite again.

Torres del Paine National Park

A few things became crystal clear about pack traveling when the bus dropped us off at Lago Pehoe for our boat ride to the other side:

  1. Always have your pack ready to walk with from the bus. (We had a duffle bag of things that would need to be strapped to the outside of our packs.)
  2. Don't just have your rain cover on your pack, TIE it on.
  3. The full zip rain pants are worth every penny over the half zip version.

It wasn't just raining when we got off the bus, it was a solid flow of water coming from a giant bucket in the sky, angled by a jet wind. And we were attempting to fuss with our gear. As Matt likes to say, "Like a monkey f*#$ing a football." It was that awkward of a moment and this land had already humbled us with its crazy weather. We couldn't stop glancing at each other and giggling… just what had we gotten ourselves into?

The term Paine means "pale blue" in Tehuelche (language of the original natives) and describes the color of the many lakes and rivers in this region. As we traveled across the water in a catamaran, we were stunned by the color of Lago Pehoe: a milky blue green color that you would expect to find in a paint collection by Martha Stewart. Minerals delivered by glaciers and suspended in the water create the color and our pictures just don't do it justice. After an hour spent staring at the water and recouping inside the vessel, it was time to go back outside.

We stepped off the boat and received a baptism of Patagonian proportions. "Blessed be the rain, and the wind, and the Holy Shit it's snowing sideways!"

For the first 20 minutes we were convinced that when people asked us what Patagonia looked like, we would have to say, "The inside of my hood." As we hiked up the trail leading to Lago Grey we could see a white wall of snow barreling down the canyon ahead of us. We literally counted the seconds until the wave came crashing with its stinging sleet in our faces. But eventually things let up and we had to start shedding layers to accommodate the sunshine.

Once we reached the ridgeline we were treated to our first sightings of real, live icebergs. These were giant chunks of floating ice that had calved off of Glacier Grey (our destination) and had floated to the far end of the steel colored lake. The trail leading to the glacier was not the well-maintained path we're used to in the Sierra. In many cases we were climbing down waterfalls and using ropes to keep our balance on the steep slopes. I was traveling slowly with my knee injury from October, but Matt had hit 'the zone' and machined forward towards camp pounding his knees on the final downhill stretch. I struggled behind, tired now, and thirsty.

The Wet Campground (Campamento Grey) Nights 1 & 2

By the time we reached the sandy campground, and rushed to get the tent up in the rain, it was clear that Matt was in trouble. His left knee was in worse shape than mine now and all he could do was lie in the tent and try to let his body heal itself. We were in a group campground next to the water's edge and a mere 30 minute walk from the glacier. I went about getting the necessities in order and walked to the lake to find an ice spattered shore (hmm we could ice both of our knees tonight…) and began to pump water for dinner. After the third pump of nothing, a cascade of black gruel splashed into the container. I was speechless… hadn't we dealt with enough today? Was it the new replacement filter or the silt infused water? I was exhausted and near the edge of losing it. "One thing at a time," I told myself, "find a different water source and get dinner ready." My fingers were frozen from pumping (I did find a different source) and it took a solid 5 minutes to get the stove lit in the damp, chilly air. That night we ate two dinners and were relieved to finally snuggle into bed.

We stepped off the boat and received a baptism of Patagonian proportions. ‘Blessed be the rain, and the wind, and the...Holy Shit it's snowing sideways!’

The next morning we packed all of our gear up to head back to Pehoe. Just before we took down the tent, Matt's knee said, "Uh it ain't gonna happen today Buddy." This would be the first of our two rest days in the park and the beginning of our mission to set the world's slowest record for the completion of the 'W' shaped circuit around the Paine massif. Most groups finish the trek in 4-6 days… we took 8.

After we unpacked, the penetrating cold started to sink in and Matt and I headed to the Refugio (a mountain style hut at the campground where you can make reservations for indoor accommodations) for a hot drink to warm up. The smell inside was a combination of incense, smelly socks, and wood smoke… but it was warm and we were happy to be there. The wood floor was scarred from years of use and people were playing cards, chess, and reading books on the benches. After listening in on conversations in English and Spanish, we headed back to the tent to nap and read the day away.

The next day was Thanksgiving and I was first out of the tent to see an iceberg the size of a greyhound bus floating by camp. It was on its way somewhere and we were too. Matt powered through and we headed back on the same trail we came in on, this time with tremendous wind gusts at our back that threatened to topple us both over. At one point I crouched down, afraid to walk because it would mean having only one foot on the ground. The nylon I was wearing roared like a jet engine around me and I huddled in place to keep from falling. The wind was so strong that it whipped up sections of water from a small lake on our hike and we were able to take some snap shots. Check 'em out below.

The Windy Campground (Campamento Pehoe) Night 3

Back at the beautiful blue lake where we started, the wind became our next obstacle to contend with while trying to put up the tent. Each campground seemed to have it's own personality, and this one was windblown. For this reason, a community cooking room had been established so that people could prepare and eat their meals in peace. This campground also had 'hot as home' showers and it had been 4 nights since I had washed my hair. This was the most delicious shower I have ever taken.

While I was in the shower, Matt had discovered the local 'vino in a box' El Gato Negro at the small, adjacent Amalcen (store) to accompany our Thanksgiving dinner of lasagna, mashed potatoes, and homemade biscuits. That night we met a cast of characters that we would continue to bump into along the rest of the trip and share stories with about our experiences on the trail. Rob was from Colorado and was the only other American to share in our holiday… but we made sure to share with all regardless of nationality and gained popularity with the fellow Germans and other foreigners with our chocolate bars, vino, and surprisingly successful fried cinnamon biscuit venture. Matty's culinary talents don't end at home folks. That night was full of great stories, hearty laughs, and new friends… truly Thanksgiving as it was meant to be, regardless of where we were.

The wind had died a bit by morning and we were treated to a whole different weather pattern in the park on our next section of trail. It was a warm and balmy day with spring around every corner. We saw multitudes of wild flowers, butterflies, birds, and lush areas with flowing streams and green grass. Imagine a mountain fresh scent laundry commercial minus the clothesline.This little hike was surprisingly tiring for me considering the short distance (too much vino from the night before??) and I was thankful but fearful of the rickety suspension bridge that crossed the river into our next campground. I remember thinking, "I wish this trail bridge was in my Dad's territory…don't look down, don't look down"

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