My first contact with Patagonia happened when I was around 10-11 years old, watching a fabulous movie, an adaptation after the Jules Verne's book 'The Children of Captain Grant'. After reading the book the image got a bit clearer and Patagonia became the mythical land of volcanoes, savage indians and high mountains impossible to climb. An image that will haunt me and always trigger a rush of emotion every time I heard the name or saw an image from there. I had to go see it, even without talking loudly about it or actively planning doing so. It stayed with me, buried deep at subconscious level until it finally emerged at the age of 33 and here I am, sleeping at the foot of Fitz Roy, one of the most iconic and beautiful montains in the world.
My first eye contact with Patagonia and Fitz Roy happened two weeks ago when the Aerolineas Argentina jet plunged through the clouds drifting above the pampas approaching El Calafate and a jagged ridge appeared towards the western horizon, with a massive spire dominating the rest of the peaks surrounding it. White glaciers were gently flowing into huge lakes, penetrating deep into the dry, wind battered plains. My dream was about to become reality and I couldn't be more happy.
I didn't realise how weak I was after Aconcagua until returning to Mendoza and finding out that suddenly all my clothes were one size larger than before, meaning that I lost a good 5-7 kilograms (12-15 lbs) and my appetite was so big that I couldn't stop eating. I ate with such pleasure that I thing only the individuals going through periods of famine and starvation could understand. The return of Brad from Chile was peppered with new adventures, like watching a giant wave washing his wallet off the shore in Vina del Mar, he barely recovered it, having serious problems at the border because of a bag of raisins he forgot in his backpack and other small inconveniences that seem to always follow the guy everywhere he goes. The we took an overnight bus to Buenos Aires where we spent another couple of pleasant days, walking the streets, taking pictures and eating like crazy. We almost got lynched by an angry mob of old ladies in a favela for occupying too much room with our backpacks in the public bus that runs from downtown to the airport. We had this brilliant idea to save money and the real city with good and bad suburbs and it turned out to be wilder than we expected, but all was ok in the end and I was relieved to see my companion walking to the gated area of the airport, nothing bad could happen from now on. Wrong. Once again, he found a way to screw up and this is a good one. A gas canister for the stove forgotten inside the backpack triggered and alert with dogs, security agents, antitero squadron and what not. He got away with that too and made it safely home to wife and bees. Well done Brad, way to travel!
Back to Patagonia, my promised land, I found myself dropped in Calafate, a very touristy town in the middle of nowhere, with a main street rivaling any sky resort around the world. Souvenir shops, cafes, a large building that turned out to be a casino. I knew I was in the wrong place so I started to ask around for the bus terminal. 10 minutes later I was on my way to the hostel and a bus ticket to Puerto Natales for the following day in my hand.
Nice clean hostel but the beds were really bad. Did some shopping in the morning and then took the bus to Natales, crossing to border into Chile for the first time this trip. The landscape reminded me of Alaska, just a bit drier here but the same endless tracts of nothingness with the occasional sign of life, a remote farm or a little plant or a mine. The pink flamingos feeding in small lagoons add a nice touch of color in this rather harsh and rugged arid environment. Puerto Natales is a small port town at the Ultima Esperanza Sound, a Pacific Ocean fjord that runs deep into the interior among beautifully looking glaciated peaks. The main attraction around here is Torres del Paine National Park, drawing trekkers from around the world but also very popular among Chilean hikers who outnumber the foreigners.
Another night in a hostel, more shopping and then a ride of over 100 km delivers me at the park entrance, where I meet the two cute Austrian girls that I kept bumping into from the hostel in Calafate on my way to Paine. We start chatting and since we are having similar plans for the next day, we agree to hike together to Camp Chileno and be in a position to start early next morning and see the sunrise at the Torres del Paine. Claudia sets a good pace and in less than 2 hours we arrive in the most crowded camp that you could imagine, just before getting dark.
A herd of guanacos and the Torres del Paine
Alarm goes off at 5:30 am but I am already awake and excited about my first day of shooting in Patagonia. The plan is to hike light and fast to the high camp and then to the Mirador (lookout) and catch the sunrise at the Torres. It's a bit long and starting from Chileno is not ideal, but we really had no choice. Walking in the dark, on an empty stomach and enduring the morning cold is not very girl friendly but the girls are doing all right and pretty soon we get to the final slopes before the mirador, were stop to take a few shots of the gorgeous sunrise. Laking interesting clouds in the background makes it less spectacular than I expected and we are 10-15 minutes late anyway. By the time we get to the best viewpoint about the Laguna Torre, the best light is already gone. Not the best start for my Patagonia photo adventure but the view is so stunning and beautiful that everything around me stops and I just stand there, fascinated, admiring this amazing view. Torres del Paine translates as Paine's Towers, they are spires of old granite rising vertically above the surrounding landscape. As elsewhere around the world (Yosemite), the granite produces some of the most interesting shapes in the places where the softer layers of rocks are being removed by erosion. Towers, domes, spires, needles, sheer faces of vertical rock that makes it a rock climber's dream. It's time to get the tripod out and start shooting.
The granite spires of Torres del Paine
Going down is brings the first nasty surprise: a sharp pain in my right knee means my plans for the full circuit of Paine are toast. There's no way to walk over 100 km with a heavy load in my backpack when my knee hurts like this after an easy 2 hour scramble. I'm obviously very disappointed at this point and my next best option is to do the W part of the trail, a 4-5 days short version of the trek. Better than nothing. After a copious breakfast back in camp, I sadly watch the girls packing for a long hike to Camp Cuernos. I need more rest and I'll go down slowly to the lower camp later and I'll leave the final decision for tomorrow morning. A pretty young and good looking fox is circling the camp looking for food and I take my time trying to catch it in a good light. My 135mm lens was a good choice, even though I knew I was not going to use it extensively and it adds a lot of weight to my kit, on top of my spectacular 35-70 Zeiss and 24 mm TS-E.
Going down was slow, the day was hot, the pack heavy and my knee pretty bad. I limped to Camp Torres to find the girls relaxing there, a good decision considering the high temperatures and the length of the next section of the "W". We spent a pleasant afternoon cooking and talking and the clean showers with hot water made it even better.
Chaura (Pernettya mucronata)
I sleep late and I take my time packing the huge backpack. I silently think about trying to start the whole circuit and return in case my knee gets worst. I am walking slowly and steadily, knowing that the 12 kilometers on a more or less level terrain can be covered easily in 4-5 hours and that shouldn't pose any problems. It was easy hiking and the landscape was pretty dull, rolling hills and old moraines along the Paine River valley with patches of lenga forests. A very typical Patagonian landscape I would say. Camp Seron was pretty windy and we all had a good laugh watching to funny guys trying to set up a Doite tent that they obviously rented for the trip and had no clue how to do it. The english speaking hikers somehow got together as Simon and Katherine, a nice couple from England were making rounds introducing themselves and finally gathering everybody to my american neighbors, Travis and Glenn. Graham from UK, Josue from Spain and Callum from Australia completed the ad-hoc congregation and the next days were already looking promising, these were well traveled folks and with a great sense of humor. At 10 pm the day light was vanishing and the mosquitoes were ferocious and therefore everybody called it a night and went to bed, a long day with 19 km of hiking awaiting us the following day.
Another late start and a slow pace at the beginning of the longest section of the whole circuit ensured me I had a functioning knee and i was grateful and relieved to notice that I was able to walk almost at the normal speed, passing a lot of hikers on my way to the saddle that marks the first major change of direction as we were slowly going around the big chunk of rock known as Paine. The pass was extremely windy, it was blowing so hard that I had problems placing my feet on the ground and moving forward. As soon as we dropped under the ridge it become more manageable and from this point on it was just a long slog towards Camp Dickson, very picturesque situated at the banks of the Dickson Lake and overlooking a large glacier feeding the lake at the other end. We enjoy hot showers once again and we are all eagerly waiting the kiosk to start selling beer at 8PM but realize the wine is a better option and after a few liter of Gato "cartonay" and a few shots of bourbon (nice job Travis and Glenn) I am completely wasted, barely finding my way into my sleeping bag. Totally unexpected but a very welcome change as my tolerance to alcohol is nowhere near what it used to be.
Neneo (Anarthrophyllum Defideratum)
Surprisingly, I'm the first one to wake up around 7:30 and I immediately put my shades on, my face looks pretty terrible. they are selling fresh eggs for 200 chilean pesos for a pop and I treat myself to a large portion of scrambled eggs and sausage, washing it down with tea and a lot of water hoping to get rid of the hangover as soon as possible. Gone are the days when i could do this 4-5 days in a row and still be able to hike 20 km a day without breaking a sweat. Looking at the map, we all thought this was going to be an easy day, not much altitude gained and only 11 km long. Proved to be a pretty strenuous hike to the Los Perros Waterfall, but I walked with the english couple and their experience in Nepal trekking the high passes confirmed me once again that my next destination needs to be South East Asia combined to Australia and new Zealand, Nepal - Thailand- Australia- New Zealand being my ideal line up. Not half way through my south american trip and already planning the next one! Just before reaching Camp Perros, I have another pleasant surprise: Eric and Marie, the french couple I met in Cordon del Plata were walking in the opposite direction, doing the big circuit as well. We spent a few minutes together but the cold wind prompted us to say good bye and continue to our destinations for the night.
Perros Glacier and a lonely lenga tree
Orange. Trail mark
A few drops of rain and a cold night provided us with a preview of what's going to be like on the most difficult day of the trek, the cross into the Gray Glacier Valley over the John Gardner Pass , the highest altitude of the trail at 1264m. It sounds laughable but this is already well into the alpine environment, above the tree limit, with glaciers around and bellow and infamous for high winds and bad weather. The rest of the group decided to take a side trip to Puma Glacier in the morning but at 11am we were still in the camp and me and Callum decided to skip it and go straight to Camp Paso, weather looking pretty bad at this point. We are making good progress uphill, climbing the 650 m to the high pass in about 2 hours. We had a light rain, sleet and a little bit of snow, some serious winds but not really the hurricane gale the guidebooks are warning trekkers about. Crossing over to the other side of the ridge brought the Grey Glacier in view an boy, it is an awesome view. A gouge mass of ice silently and patiently flowing into Lago Grey, upper surface uniformly covered with crevasses and small seracs occasionally toppling over and making rumbling noises. We have just enough time to set up the tents before a long, cold and merciless rain stated to pout and the rest of the guys are nowhere near the camp. We cook dinner in the 3 walled shelter watching more and more wet campers arriving and looking pretty miserable. It keeps coming down, harder and harder and since there's really nothing to do, i crawl into my sleeping bag, play games, listen to some music, listen to the rain hitting my tarp and try to fall asleep, hoping for a better weather the next day.
Still raining in the morning. Graham is shivering after a cold night, with all his clothes wet and not being able to dry them in this 100% humidity. When the rain stops and the first patch of blue sky is being spotter, everybody yells a big hurray! It turned out the break was only temporary, we had a few showers barely touching us as we (me and Callum) were on our way to Paine Grande, back to civilization compared to the last couple of days: hot showers, a large hotel, a store, catamaran service to the park entrance. Once again, after a good 4 hour hike we arrive in camp just in time to find shelter from a new wave of rain showers and a cold wind. I'm a bit disappointed about the photographic opportunities so far, it's either raining or cloudy in the morning, no good sunsets, it's a mountain very difficult to photograph. I'll wake up again next morning at 5:30 an try my luck from the ridge, come on, give me a good sunrise and I'll be happy. Meanwhile, a good moonrise sweetens me a bit but that's hard to photograph, the moon is too bright and the filters are nor helping much. I'm waiting for a few dark clouds to pass by and make it darker for me.
Cuernos del Paine
Spectacular day today, with a hike up the Frances Valley with a stunning view of the glacier sending chunks of ice into the valley. It looks like winter here, even though the weather is nice and pretty warm. I still can't get used to the fact that I'm walking in an alpine environment, with glaciers, steep slopes, alpine meadows and fast rivers and the altitude of the trail is in the range of 100-400 m above sea level. It blows my mind. The wind picks up a bit in the upper section of the valley and we make it to Camp Britanico, a desolated place with only a handful of tents and no services. A nice change in my opinion and we receive surprise visit from Travis and Glen before going to bed at around 9, too cold to linger around camp with nothing to do. Turned out the rest of the group arrived late (10:30) but I could't hear them, I was listening Pink Floyd and it was loud.
Lenticular cloud above the Horns
Woke up at before 6 (I'm starting to get used to it) and it's cloudy. What the heck, I'll give it a shot anyway, it's my last opportunity to get some decent sunrise shots. The mirador is empty, not a single soul around, I have the mountain for myself. It looks promising, with some clouds behind the ridge but no direct light on the horns. When I was about to start packing as it was getting a bit late for the morning light, the sun found it's way through some holes and started to paint some spots of really intense red and orange light on the cliffs in front of me. The didn't last long, more were showing up in different places for only brief periods of time. It was like a lighting show and the most amazing thing is that I was the only one there to witness it and record it. A very special moment and some shots that I really love. More delicate rather than spectacular but nevertheless, very special.
The first light
This is why I'm here
Shooting beams of light
A delicate touch of light on a cold, icy rock face
I felt tired and cold and my knee didn't like that at all but I had no choice other than collecting my strength and get ready for the long walk out of the camp: down to Camp Italiano, then Camp Cuernos and finally closing the circuit at Hosteria Torres from where we would catch a transit van to Laguna Amarga and a bus to Natales. It was the longest day of the trek and we were a bit burned, but we managed and the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day was something to remember. Not to mention the grand finale, just minutes before exiting the park we saw a puma high on the slope of the mountain, a pretty rare sight even here in the national park.
Torres del Paine is a world class trek with plenty of wilderness, great landscapes, granite spires, large glaciers and not very difficult for an average hiker. Weather can be tricky but I was lucky to only experience a little bit of everything, most of the time ranging between reasonably good and exceptionally good. The timing was just about perfect, together with Callum we pretty much nailed it every day. It was a great pleasure to hike together, we have the same interests, same passion for nature and photography, it was a great fun completing the circuit and we're looking forward to visit Perito Moreno and Fitz Roy in Los Glaciares, Argentina. I love Patagonia!
This one is for Chris. I'll be back!