Patagonia Part II: Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas
November 28, 2013
It was a beautiful two hour drive through the countryside from Torres del Paine to the nearest town, Puerto Natales. We passed more guanaco, thousands of sheep, cowboys on horseback with dogs herding cattle down the slope, windswept plains, glacial lakes, and jagged mountains. Soon the landscape graded into rolling grassy hills with scattered farmsteads every few miles. We reached Puerto Natales, which is a tiny town sprawled along the Chilean fjords. There were rusty ships in the pass, broken down piers here and there, and large, graceful swans, white with a black head and neck, with little grey signets paddling along behind. The fjords are framed by the tall, snowy mountains, an ever present backdrop in this region.
Soon I was dropped off at the EcoCamp office, where Fernanda was there to assist me with whatever I needed. Since I abandoned all my plans and am in a town I know nothing about, I asked her to just book me at a nice hotel. When I got there, it was the strangest thing. The hotel was made out of concrete and was cut into the slope above the fjord, and covered in grass, like a military bunker. I checked in anyway and was led down the dark corridor to my room, believe it or not, number 13. The inside of the room was all concrete as well, with the bed on a cement platform and shelving made of concrete. The saving grace was the picture window that opened up to the grassy fields and beautiful fjord.
The next day I got the heck out of that place and decided to splurge and stay at the nicest hotel in town since I was still not feeling well. Here I rested for two more nights, ate well, skyped with my dog, and got a facial and a chocolate body scrub while the wind howled outside and the rain came down in droves. On Thanksgiving Day, still smelling of chocolate, I boarded the bus for my final destination, Punta Arenas. I set out for a walk to pick up food for Thanksgiving dinner. It was quite an adventure, and somehow I ended up with an orange, something resembling a doughnut, and a brown block I thought might be bread pudding, but have now rendered inedible. But I have returned safely to my room, am feeling much better, and am thankful for all...
Patagonia Part I: El Calafate and Torres del Paine
November 26, 2013
I arrived in El Calafate, Argentina still dizzy from seasick patch withdrawl. I canceled my trek to the Perito Merino glacier and eventually was able to take a short walk outside my hotel, which sits on an open marsh with an ice blue lake behind it, and high, snow-covered mountains in the distance. The next day I was picked up for my private transfer into Chile. My driver Juan picked up some bread from the bakery for the border police, and we drove for hours into the icy, windy altiplano and down into the wide open steppe. We passed thousands and thousands of sheep plodding along over the brown, windswept plain. We had no trouble at the border because of our gift of bread, and once inside Chile I was handed off to a new driver who spoke no English. From there, it was a scenic 1 ½ hours to Torres del Paine National Park, passing fluffy rheas (like a small ostrich), huge herds of guanaco (something like a llama) even on the road, and an occasional condor gliding overhead like an ominous giant watching over us from the clouds. We passed trickling rivers and choppy lakes, and soon the famous towers came into view, three granite monoliths amidst the snowcapped mountains in the distance.
After some confusion as to where I should be dropped off, we reached EcoCamp, a compound of dome shelters nestled next to a cattle ranch at the foot of the mountains. I was shown to my “room,” which is a two-person dome tent made of layers of insulated fabric stretched over a metal frame, meant to withstand the high winds that the region is famous for. These domes are connected by wooden walkways and situated around the bathroom area, which is a larger dome with composting toilets, showers, and sinks. The community domes are further down the slope, where there is a bar, dining room, and lounge area. The rest of my trekking group finally arrived and we were served a very fancy dinner and briefed on our plans for the coming days. The treks involved 7-8 hours of hiking per day, much of it uphill, as well as multiple boat rides and sleeping in a refugio for one night. Since I still was not well, I opted to stay at the camp and recover, and possibly meet up with my group later for...
I met with my group and was surprised to find that one of the three hikers is from the Big Island. The other two are a brother and sister from New York. We had a relatively easy day, hiking through lush green rainforest, with giant trees slathered in dripping moss. It was an elevation gain of about 5,000 ft. to get to Machame Camp, our home for tonight, at 10,000 ft. Our porters beat us to the camp, and everything was set up for us when we arrived. I am sharing a tent with the other girl in our group. We also have a large tent for eating and a bathroom tent with a portable toilet inside. Dinner was great – leek soup with fish and veggies.
Oct 26 – Day 2
Today’s hike was pretty rough. It was only half a day and we went slow, but it was a steep, constant, rocky uphill. The trekking poles I rented went missing and my ankle started hurting about halfway through the hike. It began to rain today, not hard, but a cold, biting rain. We are at Shira Camp now, at 12,600 ft., and I am already freezing cold. Hot drinks are brought to our tent as soon as we wake up to start our day.
Oct 27 – Day 3
It was a long hike to Barranco Camp at 13,000 ft. because we did an acclimatization trek to the lava tower at 15,000 ft. I took my altitude sickness medication in the morning and immediately felt nauseous, but started out in the freezing cold after a breakfast of hot porridge and peanut butter toast. About an hour into our ascent, a light hail began to fall. It got heavier and colder so I decided to put on my thick gloves. I held one in my mouth as I put on the other, and when I took it from my teeth there were brigh red blood stains on my white glove. I was bleeding from the mouth. Our guide said that this is a side effect of the altitude medication and I must stop taking it.
It hailed almost the entire day as we continued uphill through barren, rocky terrain, with heavy, white mist sweeping low and fast over the ground. Finally we reached our lunch spot, the lava tower, a vertical...
I stayed in my room at Dingboche almost the entire day, content to lie in my sleeping bag and do absolutely nothing. Slowly I feel the strength return to my weary body. There has been talk of hiking to Pheriche today, which is just over the hill, so that I can meet up with the rest of the group, but by 5 PM Puri has not come to fetch me and I believe I will spend another night here. During my long afternoon of nothingness I plucked my eyebrows. It was the first time I had a close look at my face in a while & I was quite taken aback. My eyes were red and puffy, nose peeling & wind-burned, nostrils scabbed all around, lips a collage of purple peeling scales, and my hair was in a single piece. Yikes! I set out to brushing my hair, which was a big job indeed.
A little after 5 PM there was a knock on the door & I opened it to the smiling faces of Puri & our two teenage sherpa porters. "Zoom Zoom" they say, which is our signal to start moving. Aparrently we are going to Pheriche, even at this late hour. They hurriedly help me pack my things & we are off. Somewhere along the way Puri disappears and I am now in the hands of two teenage boys. Lord help me. Suddenly an adolescent yak charges toward us on the trail, bucking its horns and rearing its hind legs. I freeze in fear, but my sherpas laugh and yell obscenities in their language and kick their feet in the air. The yak is subdued & I think, "What better companions to have with you in the face of a yak attack than rambunctious teenage boys." And for the moment I feel safe. We climb the hill behind the village and our situation is suddenly reversed. Fog is closing in, darkness is fast approaching, the village is nowhere in sight, & we are obviously lost. Moreover, I fear a bout of diarrhea coming on, and this would probably be one of the worst situations you would want to find yourself in, in the company of teenage boys.
Puri arrives and the three of them argue and point. I imagine that they are saying "Where have you led us, dumbass?" "Dude, I'm trying to take her over the...
It was a rough hike on Monday from Dingboche to Lobuche (~16,500 ft.). I was still sick and it was a desolate walk though rocky, barren hills, as we have long passed the tree line. We crossed a rickety wooden bridge over a rushing white river then stopped for lunch at a small tea house in the middle of nowhere. Everywhere I go I get stared at from the villagers. Even though this is a very multicultural place, with groups of Europeans, Iranians, Japanese, and others passing through, they don't know what to make of me. When the locals ask where I'm from, they never know where Hawaii is or have even heard of it. I try to explain it to one man, as an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He doesn't know the Pacific Ocean. "It's part of the United States", I say. A look of dawning comprehension glows on his face and he replies "Ah, it's by North Dakotah!" I give up trying to explain after that.
At the lunch place I couldn't enjoy my French Fries (which they call potato chips) because of the severe cold. The sun is covered by cloud and the wind whips right through my down jacket & I am chilled to the bone. We continue up a steep, tall, rocky hill, and with my stuffy head and hacking cough, I fall to the rear of the pack again. I stuggle up the mountain, one foot in front of the other, lagging farther and farther behind. Two sherpas flank me like lionesses on the heels of the weak gazelle, and their presence goads me forward. Finally I crest the ridge to see scores of stone shrines, monuments to the climbers who have died in these mountains. I wander around, reading the inscriptions, and realize that most of these are for sherpas, with only a few European or Japanese names here and there. I glance at my favorite old sherpa, who happens to be resting here, and for once he does not smile. The mood here is somber indeed.
We continue a long, long way, although the rocky ground is relatively flat now. Soon the tiny village of Lobuche comes into view and we check in to our next tea house, Above The Cloud Lodge. The names keep getting better and better. But my health does not. I feel myself deteriorating...
It's finally happened - I got sick. It's not too bad so far - I've been waking up every morning with a bad headache & sore throat but then I drink a liter of water & it goes away. But today I have a runny nose and coughing. One of the other girls has been sick as well. Word around the village is that there are 700 people at base camp & 80% have gastro (stomach problems). My stomach is not feeling quite right, probably because of the extreme change in diet, but I still consider myself lucky if this doesn't get worse. Some of the other girls are getting dizzy on the high hikes or having muscle soreness or knee pains. I don't have any of those problems, except being under the weather makes the high climbs even more challenging. Our guides are very attentive, though, constantly offering us medication, which I refuse. Tonight they say they will give me a steam bath, where they'll boil hot water & put my head over it & cover it with a towel. Hopefully it will clear me up because our hardest days lie ahead.
Today we stayed at Dingboche & did an acclimitization hike to about 15,000 feet. I went up pretty slowly because I'm not feeling well but the altiude didn't seem to affect me. At the top, it seemed as if we were shoulder to shoulder with Ama Dablam, which wasn't really the case, but it was an amazing illlusion anyway. The wind was whipping the tattered prayer flags about, and it was so cold that I had to keep my hands over my nose to shield my face from the wind. We've been having great weather, though; it's so strange to have the sun out and it's freezing cold.
If all goes as planned I will be at Everest Base Camp in two days and then will attempt to summit Kala Patar the next day. After that we head down. The amenities are getting sparse and more expensive as we push higher and higher, so I don't know if I'll have internet until the way down. It dropped down to the 20s last night, but I was warm in our tea house. It only concerned me slightly that the old woman who used her bare hands to feed yak dung into the fire is the same woman who...
From Khumjung we had a short but steep hike to Tengboche, which boasts the world's highest monastery. We started our hike at about 12,000 feet, dropped down to 10,000, crossed the river, then climbed up to 13,000. It wasn't as bad as it sounds; we did it in a half day. The monastery at Tengboche sits on a high plateau surrounded by snow-capped peaks with sloping fields with yaks grazing all around. It has an ornately carved entrance, then a courtyard with a tall flagpole of prayer flags and the monks quarters all around. Prayer wheels and mani stones circle the building's exterior. To enter the inner sanctum you must remove your shoes. We were so fortunate to witness one of the ceremonies there. Monks dressed in deep red robes sat cross-legged on benches sipping tea, refilled by the young boy monks. We sat on carpets to the side, colorful tapestries hanging down all around us and golden statues and offerings in the front of the room. Soft light filtered in from the open windows, and the whole place was dim and smoky, almost suffocatingly so, with incense. All of a sudden the head monk entered and sat on a higher bench, a drum started beating, and there was sonorous chanting and horn blowing and cymbal crashing. It was the experience of a lifetime. I sat there in awe and reverence, as the chanting continued. They don't allow video, and words can't explain it all. After about half an hour my companions got restless and we left to hike up a small mountain to see Everest at sunset. For dinner I had the best dal baht yet, with some kind of crispy fried chip on top. And then straight to bed; I am so exhausted I don't even care how dirty I am, but I slept comfortably in my $200 Capilene4 long johns & yak booties within my down sleeping bag.
We were awakened at 5 AM for the sunrise view of Everest. I haven't been as impressed with it as some of the other peaks, which seem higher because they are closer. But the play of pink light off Ama Dablam was quite a show. Today was supposed to be one of the longest hikes, from 13,000 feet down to the river again, and then up to 14,500 feet. It wasn't that bad really. We've been doing all the...
Yesterday was an acclimitization day, so I was awakened at 5AM for another gruelling hike up vertical stone steps to see Everest at sunrise. Unfortunately it was shrouded by clouds, but the neighboring peaks of Lhotse and Ama Dablam were stunning. After breakfast we did another short hike to a small terraced village and then back to Namche, where I had a real hot shower and spent the afternoon shopping at the Bazaar. The jewelry is amazing and so cheap, I bought several pieces & a yak fur hat and booties. For dinner I tried the tuna pizza with yak cheese, which was great, kind of like an open-faced tuna melt. The menus have been very similar at all the tea houses - lots of Chinese food - fried rice, fried noodles, momo (like mandoo) and you can have them with either meat, eggs, or veggies. And they usually have pizzas and pancakes (one big doughy pancake), lots of potato dishes - hash browns with all kinds of spices & lots of curry was amazing - and then all the traditional food, like dahl baht (veggies & rice & you pour lentil soup over it) and sherpa stew, which is a mix of everything they have. I haven't braved the yak steaks yet but might try it on my way down.
Our hike today was a short but difficult one. It took about 3 1/2 hours to reach the small village of Khumjung. The trail was steep in places and dropped off a cliff to one side in other places, but the view was spectacular the whole way. Stunning high peaks on all sides. Towering above us, higher than the clouds. I can't take my eyes away from them, they are so, so beautiful. I can understand now why people die to climb these mountains. I am trudging along at 12,000 feet but my whole being longs to stand on the powdery white peaks, to be on top of the world. The trail continues through countless stupas and prayer wheels and mani stones, which are carved stone tablets, sometimes painted, sometimes plain, sometimes carved on a huge boulder, but often on slabs piled up along the trail. We stop briefly at the Everest View Hotel, a Japanese establishment, which, as the name implies, has spectacular views of the mountains. From here, Everest is not as impressive as the surrounding peaks...
I have lost track of what day it is but about two days ago we left Kathmandu for Lukla. Our Yeti Airlines flight was delayed 4 hours and we were overjoyed that we actually got to leave that day. It was a short flight on a small plane, not unlike my many Molokai Air Shuttle trips, except for the Lukla airstrip. Holy shit! The runway is angled upward between a cliff and a mountain, so you land at an incline and race up toward the mountain where there is a large stone wall at the end of the runway. Departing should be equally exciting, as you take off toward the cliff. There is no room for error, obviously. It was fantastic to finally be in the mountain region, where the air is clean and the landscape spectacular. We had a short 3 hour hike the first day to the Sherpa village of Phakding. Along the way were high mountains and deep gorges, terraced villages with farm plots, ancient stone carvings, stupas, and prayer wheels, with a raging turquoise river below. The trail was busy with yaks, mules, dogs, trekkers, and sherpas carrying insanely large loads on their backs fastened by a strap around their heads. In Phakding we stayed at Hotel Beer Garden. I ordered a hot shower for 250 rupees (~$4.00). At best it should have been called a "luke warm shower after 10 minutes of warming up." Stepping out into the cold air with my wet body, I have never been so cold in my life. Ever. Not even close. I seriously thought I was going to die before I could dry off and put my clothes on. It was not pleasant. And the cold will get much, much worse as we ascend ever higher.
Today was supposedly one of the hardest trekking days, even though we're only at about 9,000 ft. elevation. What makes it worse is that I am hiking with a group of 20 year-olds and sherpas. It was supposed to be an 8 hour hike and we did it in six. Bastards. Even the sherpas were amazed at how quickly we arrived at Namche. I really thought I had trained enough for this, but apparently not. The first part of the day was not too bad. The scenery was fantastic, with the trail winding in and out of villages and over the milky turquise...