TORRES DEL PAINE, BLOG 8
Paul and I have a lazy morning since our breakfast isn’t until 8:30. The towers are stunning early this morning but a bit later clouds obscure the top of the peaks and there is a full rainbow spanning the mountains. Boy, does the weather change fast here.
After we eat breakfast, we walk through the door to the next dome to make a sandwich for our lunch. There was a bag of dried fruit and nuts plus a chocolate bar by our breakfast plates to put in our sack lunch too. There is an array of breads, meats, and toppings to make a super sandwich but I keep mine simple. Chicken with some lettuce and mayo. Paul and I wrap them in cling wrap and place them in the brown sack that Eco camp supplies. Perhaps I should explain the communal dome setup. The first dome you walk into is the bar, the second dome is the main dining area and the third is where they lay out the fixings for lunch in the morning but at night guests also eat in this dome.
We take our lunches back to our dome and then decide to walk down the hill to the visitor center. The trail is steep and due to some rain last night a bit slippery but our trusty hiking poles do their job in keeping us upright. The visitor center is really for backpackers to register with the park. The center also has supplies for backpackers to restock their empty packs. The offerings are mainly food but there is also pricy clothing for sale from jackets to hiking pants. We don’t stay long since there really isn’t anything to see. Besides buses are arriving disgorging hikers ready to tackle the trails making the long but narrow building quite crowded.
Paul and I trudge up the steep incline to Eco Camp and as we near the area where the common domes are situated, I spot the mother fox. She is trotting across the grass with a large rodent in her mouth. Paul and I try to follow her but soon she has melted into the trees on the east side of the communal domes. Paul continues walking in the direction the vixen went but I run to the communal domes. There are two doors that take you to the walkway which leads to the area where our dome is, in essence a shortcut. I know the female fox is taking the rat to her three kits and since the playful youngster we saw yesterday was on the side where the superior domes are, I’m betting this is where she is heading.
I pass through the doors and am halfway up the walkway when I see mama trotting across the parking area headed for our territory. Yep, just as I suspected the vixen moves into the bushy land around the domes. I watch as mama fox stops and seems to listen before moving on to another area. Paul has caught up to me and we try to follow the searching fox as best we can but since we are not allowed off the walkways it is a bit difficult. We find ourselves backtracking towards the communal domes as we watch the vixen disappear into the brush growing next to the staff’s dome. We hear some yapping then after a bit the female fox reappears without the rodent in her mouth. I finally manage to snap a quick photo before she trots off probably in pursuit of another rodent since one rat isn’t going to satisfy three half-grown kits. Well that was very cool.
The morning is simply gorgeous and Paul suggests we take advantage of it by walking the trail behind the yoga and massage domes that sit close to our dome. We never booked a yoga session or a massage but lots of people did! The trail is called “Contemplative Trail” and oddly enough no guides talked about it as far as we know. It turns out to be a beautiful trail that wanders through trees and across a small stream. There are picnic tables scattered here and there along with wooden benches to sit on so you can contemplate. As we climb to higher ground, we have a nice view of the towers. We don’t have time to walk to the end of the trail as our departure time for our excursion is fast approaching and we need to return to our room to get our packs.
The white van is fully loaded as we prepare to depart at noon. There are three guides and I believe fifteen guests. It is a long drive to the lake and we will break up the journey by stopping for lunch at a visitor center. We drive by a trio of guanaco in pursuit of an interloper and Marcella talks about how the guanacos’ try to castrate their enemy with their teeth. We have heard this story from another guide too and took it with a grain of salt. However, as we watch the aggressors chase the poor intruder, they do stretch their long necks out towards that sensitive area between the fellow’s legs whenever they get close to their foe. Hmm. The angry guanacos are certainly tenacious as they continue to chase the trespasser for a good mile or more. The quartet is beginning to slow down as they veer away from the roadside. However, when I look back at them, I can see the silly things running still intent on punishing the interloper.
Further down the road we come upon a sight that is just the opposite of what we witnessed with the fighting guanaco. Standing on the edge of a high cliff is a single guanaco that is taking its job as sentry very seriously. Even though it is mid-day the light is very nice and our driver stops the van so we can admire this iconic scene. The guanaco is standing like a statue gazing out over the landscape. What a view he must have up there. There are a few guanacos at the base of the cliff and these are the fellow herd mates that he or she will warn with a barking bray if it spots a puma in the vicinity.
After an hour or so we stop and have lunch near a lake which proves to be a popular place as many people are picnicking here. Despite the strong wind which makes eating outside a challenge it is worth it as the view is stupendous. After we have finished eating we go to the visitor center which is also next to a beautiful lake, perhaps it is the same body of water as we aren’t far from where we ate lunch. We walk out on a deck by the lake and I do a little bird watching before we go back into the building for our briefing on tomorrows excursions. We will be getting home late which is why the guides are giving us are options now. Felipe, the first male guide we have had while here, then takes us to a three-dimensional model of the park and points out our camp, trails and lakes making the layout of the park a little clearer.
As we continue on towards Gray Lake we are treated to beautiful views of lakes and rugged mountains. The wind certainly hasn’t gone down as an occasional gust will buffet our van. I can’t imagine we will sail in this and in fact the guides keep telling us not to be surprised if the cruise is canceled. When we pull into the parking lot our escorts are on the radio with the boat operators trying to find out the status of our expedition. Now it is our guides turn to be surprised as indeed the boat tour is on. I am not sure if I am happy or sad about this!
Our first task is to get to the boat which means hiking for thirty minutes or so. We arrive at a swinging rope bridge which spans the river we need to cross. Only six people are to be on the bridge at a time and since there are people on both ends of the bridge this is going to take some time. One group will cross from our side of the river and then six people will come across from the other side. The wind is having fun with the bridge and most people hang onto the rope as they traverse the bridge. A few times we watch as the wind pushes the bridge hard enough that it bows in the middle causing the people who are on it to stagger even though they are holding on. Paul, remembering the time he had his glasses blown off as we crossed a swinging bridge in New Zealand, takes off his glasses and puts them in his pocket. Good idea!
Felipe and five of our group crosses first, then Paul and I are in the second group. Oh boy, it is really windy and we hurry across as fast as we can despite having to catch our balance at times. After the adventure on the bridge we are walking on a very nice trail through a grove of trees which block that awful wind. The calm doesn’t last long as when we step out of the trees into the open, we are blasted by a head wind. There isn’t a trail here, just an expanse of rocky ground. I would guess we walk a 1/8th of a mile to the gravel levee. On reaching the embankment we turn right and start walking towards the docked boat which looks like it is a mile away. Holy Smokes, the wind literally blows us and everyone else sideways and at times it changes direction just enough to stop us in our tracks. I am sure I might have been blown over if I didn’t have my trekking poles to help brace me. Paul does see a boy get blown down and once we are on the boat, we hear a passenger say his wife was knocked over. People are hanging onto each other in order to stay upright and if it wasn’t so scary and irritating it would have been quite comical. The wind is blowing sprays of water off the lake to add to everyone’s misery and even small pebbles are being moved around.
With my head down I keep trudging towards that darn boat and at some point, I yell to Paul that I can’t believe I paid money to do this. I really wasn’t completely joking either! Most of our group is huddled near a large rock which is blocking the wind a bit when we arrive. Marcella laughs as we walk up and facetiously asks if we are having fun. Paul tells her that I said I wanted my money back which brings more laughter from our cordial guide.
By the time we get on the boat, which is a catamaran, most of the seats are taken and Paul and I end up at the back of the boat plus we are sitting facing the back of the catamaran. Oh well. Our seat companions are part of our group which we got to know last night at dinner. They are US citizens but immigrated from Russia a few years ago. We settle in and listen as a pleasant woman narrates interesting facts about various things as the big catamaran floats across the lake. Amazingly, the catamaran feels quite stable in the rough waters to me but a young girl, maybe six, sitting two seats over from us becomes violently seasick about a half an hour into our trip. The poor thing.
It is obvious why they call the lake, Grey Lake, because that is the color of the water due to dissolved minerals and sediment. Because of the strong wind, no one is allowed to go up on the open deck while on the way to the glacier. With water splashing on the windows it is impossible to take photos of the bobbing ice burgs unless you go to the front of the boat where those windows are more protected. I take advantage of that a couple of times as do other passengers.
It takes an hour and a half to reach the massive glacier. We are told to put on our life jackets and then the crew allows us up on the deck to get an unobstructed look at the ice field. The pilot slowly cruises alongside the glacier allowing us to snap photos of the incredible ice forms. Maybe the most striking thing about the glacier ice is the many hues of blue that can be seen in one section of ice. Once we have floated along the length of the glacier, the captain turns the catamaran around and we glide past the sculptured ice again.
It is time to leave this incredible creation of mother nature but we are allowed to stay on the deck because the crew has to pick up some hikers that were trekking the W trail and the pickup point is just a short distance from the glacier. The big boat just noses close to the shore and the crew drops some steps down so a dozen hikers can board. I notice a chunk of ice that has washed ashore and I snap a photo of the interesting shaped ice. Imagine my surprise when I see this piece of ice sitting on top of the ship’s cooler when we return to the cabin. The narrator had told us that glacier ice was used in the drinks they served on board but I hadn’t really thought about where they picked up the free ice.
The red and white boat docks in the same spot that we started from and no the wind has not gone down. As we are disembarking, the woman who was our narrator is telling passengers that they can take the shuttle boat back rather than trek along the wind-swept levee. I ask what it costs and she replied nothing. We see three of our group climb into the shuttle boat so Paul and I decide to follow them as do the expat Russians. Once we are settled on the zodiac, we see Felipe and the rest of our group huddled together not far from the shuttle boat. We wave at them so they know where we are and Felipe acknowledges our waves by giving us a thumbs up. The father/daughter duo that is in our troupe comes over to get on the boat too but they are told there is only one spot available so they go back to rejoin the group who will have to brave the wind as they trek back to the van.
I am so happy that we are not having to take that miserable walk and even though the boat docking is a bit dicey it was well worth it. As the seven of us walk up the road the road splits but there is no signage to indicate where the roads lead. A guide who is leading several people who were on the boat motions for us to follow her. We fall in behind and soon we are at a motel, called appropriately the Gray Motel. When we tell the young woman that we aren’t guests here she looks at us oddly. We then tell her we need to get to the public parking lot where our van is. The guide who doesn’t speak much English enlists a staff member to take us to the edge of the hotel grounds and instructs him to show us which way the public parking lot is. We follow the small man to the hotels parking lot and since he speaks no English, he uses his hands to motion us in the direction we need to walk.
We start down the road and I note that there is a gravel road separated from us by a narrow field to our left but that isn’t where the hotel man directed us to walk. We continue to follow the dirt road and as we pass a meadow, I see two deer grazing. Are you kidding me, I excitedly tell everyone about the deer. No one cares except Paul and I so I guess they don’t know that the Huemul deer is on the endangered list. We were told that the chances of us seeing them were next to none. Even though the buck and doe are a quarter-mile away I use the full zoom on my camera to take several photos, then Paul and I hurry to catch up with our companions. I can’t believe we just saw the Huemul Deer!!
The road turns into a trail and pretty soon we find ourselves back on the rocky open ground we walked across to get to the lake levy this morning except there is a body of water separating us from the grove of trees we hiked through. Are you kidding me? We walk up to the water and there is no way we are crossing this. Paul and another man start walking alongside the water but I insist we need to go back to the hotel as I think we will have to take the boat again in order to get to that darn windy levy so we can walk back the same way we came. Paul calmly says he thinks we are on the correct side and continues to walk along the water’s edge which before long becomes the fast-flowing river. I am adamant that we are on the wrong side of the river but Paul and another man who is walking beside us insist we should continue on a bit further. Next, we reach some trees and here we find a well-trodden trail which Paul and our new friend insist we follow. This man’s friends and the Russian immigrants who are trailing behind us say nothing but keep looking back the way we came probably wondering as I am if we should just go back. So much for thinking we saved time by taking the boat!!
It seems we have been on this trail forever when Paul spots the swinging bridge in the distance to our right. The man’s friends and the Russians have fallen farther behind but I beckon to them so they know we are in familiar territory. However, the trail doesn’t go to the bridge but curves around and we walk out of the trees into an open field. The trail then turns back to our right and ahead of us we spy the empty parking lot. As the three of us pick up our pace to reach the concrete lot, we hear someone calling to us. Our van is parked on the gravel road we saw when we left the hotel parking lot. Good grief. We turn and walk down the road and when we reach the van the Russians are already there. They must have seen the vehicle and heard our guides calling and cut across the narrow expanse of grass to have beat us to the vehicle. The other man’s friends haven’t shown up yet and we sit and wait and then we wait some more. Where are they? They weren’t that far behind us but truthfully once we rounded that curve, I didn’t look back anymore to see if they were still with us.
The couples friend tries to get off the van to go look for his lost companion but Marcella says no she will go. Marcella is gone for maybe twenty minutes and tells us when she returns that she ran all the way to the beach and saw no one. The very calm guides decide we should drive to the hotel, there is no phone service here, and see if the lost couple managed to get back there. Nope, they are not there either. Felipe decides to walk the trail again and our van drives slowly back to the parking lot. On the way I see the deer again, which one of our guides had never seen until now, but everyone is too upset to care and rightly so. As we approach the empty parking lot, we spot the couple up by the ranger’s station. How the heck did they get there? Somehow, while we were walking to the van and no one was paying attention to the trail they must have hiked by us and ended up in the parking lot. Finding no vehicle, they must have gone to the ranger station to get help. What are the chances of that they could bypass us in that short span of time? Crazy.
The couple was upset and scared which is understandable. It seems they lost sight of us when we walked around the curve and they went the other way. Figuring out they were going the wrong way they backtracked and found their way to the parking lot. Many mistakes were made but pointing fingers isn’t going to change anything but I have a feeling things will be a bit more regulated on this excursion after this. The upside of the whole folly was seeing the beautiful Huemul deer and that is what I will choose to remember.
Our driver is driving as fast as he safely can since we are running late and dusk will soon be falling over this beautiful land. The other upside of our debacle is that we are seeing the mountains in gorgeous light as we scoot down the rough roads. The wind is doing its best to push the vehicle around and at times it gusts hard enough that small pebbles smack the side of our car. Yikes. When we at long last arrive at Eco Camp we are told to go right to the communal domes and have our dinner. After all it is nine-thirty! Still, we are only forty-five minutes later than our expected arrival time would have been without our misadventure.
We were told later by one of the guides that the sustained winds at Gray Lake were 60 miles with gusts up to 80. I believe it as in Kansas we can have sustained winds of 40 to 45 miles an hour and compared to what we experienced at the lake today that would feel like a gentle breeze. Nancy