Saturday, January 2, 2010

Torres del Paine - Day One

"Ode to the Backpack" - I had been ruing the title of this blog lately. It's cliche. It's ambiguous. I teetered on the brink of being perceived as a poser, a lemming, naive.. and now.. there is no intimidation, no pretention - the Paine took it from me.

I may still know comparatively little about the life of a backpacker, about mountaineering, about outdoor subsistence, but in the park - for myself - I became a warrior, an animal. Two days removed, I still feel it in my stride as I fight the sporadic winds that crash through the concrete lanes of Puerto Natales. I might as well be charging across the foothills north of Lago Nordenskjold. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

This is a rather poor facsimile of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. It is surprisingly difficult to find a current and/or accurate trail map for the park online. Even the map you receive upon entering is filled with errors...

Day One

There are two roads to Torres del Paine. One is a relatively "new" dirt road reserved for buses. The other is an older and slightly more uncomfortable (but half the distance) dirt road reserved for cars.

Entry to Torres del Paine is like entrance to Peninsula Valdez or Glacier NP. The admission fee is incredibly inflated to be dispersed amongst the other national parks with less traffic. Between transportation and entrance into the park - you're already looking at over fifty US dollars.

Since we're feeling frisky and confident, we let the hostel staff plant the seed in our minds that there are "alternative" methods of travel. So we decided on hitchhiking. Since there are only two roads leading out of town..and one of them goes straight to the park..and there are two of us.. we figured the odds of catching a ride were better than average.. and the odds of that would-be ride being a psycho murderer were slim.

We were right on both fronts!

We left early in the morning and walked for over an hour as locals made various hand gestures (pointing left, pointing right, horizontal circular motions, finger wagging, the "wait a minute" frontal index finger, and so on...), that we can only assume meant, "Sorry friend, we're just going around the corner..." - but each one made a different signal..and we crossed the road multiple times, uncertain which side of the road was customary for hitching and unsure whether they hated us - if it even mattered at all.

After about an hour with no success, we thumbed a blue two-axel flatbed lorry charging over the hill we had just wound around while staring at the horses in the field - staring at us. The lorry slowed and settled about twenty yards infront of us. I'm not even sure what was said, I was so excited, skipping under my nearly fifty pound pack.

I did my best impression of an Italian footballer pleading for a penalty as I prayed to the man and the boy that smiled as we slung our packs onto the bed and jumped onto the wood planks. They were just going to Milodon Cave, where ever that was, but it was closer to the park and we didn't have to walk! Success!

The feeling as we sat with our backs to the cab and watched field after field come over our shoulder - was freedom. It was warm milk or coffee that you roll around your mouth, tasting, carelessly - then swallow.

Within fifteen minutes we felt the throttle kickin and the steady application of the brakes. We pulled over just as the road forked three ways - one way Milodon Cave, one way another 170 kilometers on the bus route to the park, and the car route only 66 kilometers to safety.

Everyone was beaming, none more so than the adolescent boy in the passenger seat of the cab, as we hoisted our packs and made our way across the empty highway to the grey gravel road that led into the vista of mountains.

We walked this road for no more than twenty minutes, surprised by the amount of traffic, but not so surprised that most vehicles were freshly washed vans shuttling people that pay - with no room for us. We kept our thumbs out though, until they fell upon a small white Fiat with two passengers. It slowed. It stopped. Everyone spoke a sentence of Spanish..and then we all realized we were tourists and reverted to English.

We found that the couple, from Rome, were on a delayed honeymoon. The husband works for Pfizer and the wife an Italian equivalent of Mary Kay. We chatted about the usual topics, studies, work, football, pulled over and took pictures for them. We eventually arrived at the park entrance and I still was uncertain if we had taken them out of their way or if we were even in the right place. Disoriented and still processing that our plan had worked.

After paying our entrance fee, we were dropped at "Administration" the first stop for cars coming into the park and the last stop for buses. From here we tried to pass the couple money for gas (more than a bus ticket would have cost), but they refused - only asking that we have a picture with them.

From this point, the day became a bit of a whirlwind. As the Italian couple pulled away, I looked over my shoulder and noticed people filing off of a bus.
The night before we had discussed our plans over dinner with a couple traveling south from Santiago - she originally from Melbourne and he from England. We wished each other well, I threw out an empty, "maybe we'll see you around the park."
And that is exactly who I saw. We had beat their bus by a matter of seconds. We stood in the parking lot and recognized that we would now have to walk together.

Our original goal for the day was to walk from Administration to Pehoe and then on to Refugio Grey, in order to meet up with Antti and Laura (our Finnish friends from Buenos Aires). We set out on the mostly flat, but long trail, and the foothills inched closer as we paired off and I rattled on and on to Rob (the very jovial and polite gentlemen from Sheffield) about things I hadn't talked about in a while.

At this time, I was concerned with conserving my camera's battery life and perhaps carrying some pretentions about my "mental camera" - needless to say, no pictures exist of our introductory hike into the heart of the park.

No matter, what need be known is that we had begun what would prove to be a very fortuitous partnership and though our hearts sank a little as we realized we were unfit to carry on another four hours to Refugio Grey - we were in good company, the weather was pristine, and our views invincible.

Arriving in Pehoe, we threw down our packs, set up our tent, and collapsed under its canopy. Bones aching, muscles burning, I contemplated what we had gotten ourselves into. The physical challenge being more than anything I had encountered in months, but the promise of commiseration, managed equilibrium and got me up - intent on feeding my face before sleep, sleep, sleep.

We ate and hobbled back to our respective tents. Tomorrow would be a short day for us. Only two hours to Campamento Italiano. I slept greedily, knowing the punishment had just begun and could resume at any moment.

No comments:

Post a Comment