Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Romance in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

I ended up in the camping building of a Refugio in Chile at the witching hour with a group of ten men all of whom could speak English, but with varying accents, five empty boxed wine cartons and half a bottle of Cabernet had as much to do with the flooding and storms that created a red alert in the Torres del Paine Park as it did with boisterous energy that flooded the lodge. The Japanese contingent singing "Rainbow" (complete with arm waving and swaying) and the wine... it was only a matter of time before we were kicked out of the main building, downgraded to the camp building.
Refugio Cuernos from Visit Chile
"Would you rather have fingers as long as your legs or legs as long as your fingers?" The Bearded Joker asked, glancing at his phone to read from some sort of list of "Would You Rather" questions. He was from New York and seemed comfortable taking on the entertaining role in the group. This was a series of non stop questions that Bearded Joker kept tossing out into the crowd, his captive audience, and we kept answering. After all, what else did we have to do while sipping boxed wine, stuck in a Refugio Los Cuernos, a Lodge on the W circuit, while hiking the park? We had all been caught in what Stjepan Pavicic would later tell me was the biggest rain storm in 10 years, and he'd know, he grew up in the region and worked as a mountaineer, expedition leader and race director.
On the podium for the Ultra Fiord 108mi/173K
If anything I land on the ambitious side of everything, always thinking I can squeeze one more experience out of an already flooded life. In this case ambition meant a hike/run of the 140K "O" Circuit in the stunning Torres del Paine Park a few days after finishing the ultra tough Ultra Fiord 173K/108 mi trail race. The Ultra Fiord ended up being an ordeal that lasted 37+ hours complete with wet feet, near hypothermia, puma encounters, constant rain and endless thigh deep mud. I had planned my trip for an entire 3 weeks so that I could have this extra week to play on the trails, so 'race fatigue' or not I was going exploring! Little did I know the rain, fatigue and storms would continue to follow me on this adventure as well.
The not-so-waterproof-waterproof jacket, Day 1
Would you rather be 4'5" or 7'7"?" The Bearded Joker asked. Furrowed brows all around the room. Hmmm. 4'5", the women answered. 7'7", the men answered. Apparently when it comes to sticking out, we prefer our gender roles. I wondered what Megan at 6'4" inches tall would say. She had run the 70k at the Ultra Fiord and had immediately recognized me upon entering the Refugio. She also had come out to the park to hike the O Circuit, now turning out to be more of an "L" with all the trails getting closed down. I glanced over at her, but she was in the corner reading a book, unaware of the height discussion at the next table.
Tall Megan and Aussie Doc
The workers at the lodge merely had to turn off all lights to send the more meek to bed and the more adventurous out to the camping building. The camping building was a place for hikers who were camping to dry their equipment, eat, and hang out and was a way to separate the people who paid for lodging from the people who were only paying to pitch a tent. One of the cool things about the Torres del Paine park is that you can just hike from lodge to lodge free from carrying any camping gear, if you were willing to pay for a bunk.
The wind and weather were beyond intense!

The last thing I wanted was more mud after the Ultra Fiord's 50k of mud...
It wasn't news to us that a big storm had been flooding the park, most of us had been miserably slogging through it for the past few days fighting hypothermia while completely wet to the bone. Many of the trails in the park had closed due to the flooding as rivers became impassable. The real news was that the buses weren't servicing the park anymore, cancelled by floods that had closed down roads into the park. We were stuck in the park (all of us had arrived via bus) for the time being and we had no idea how long it would last. So we partied and before long, the refugio was out of wine.
One of the veryflooded rivers on the way to Refugio Cuernos
"Would you rather run a 100 miles an hour or fly at 10 miles per hour?" The Bearded Joker asked in the camping building, he was still going strong even after drinking his fair share of the boxed wine.

"Hey don't wake up Luis!" Dublin said to me with urgency as I was about to move two chairs with a blanket over them, making space for the group at a picnic table. It looked like a kid's fort right in the middle of the building. Dublin was an Irishman of about 26 years old with a sense of humor that could be counted on at every turn.

"Oh! Sorry, I didn't realize--" I stumbled, surprised, feeling bad for possibly waking up the guy who was sleeping under the chairs in his made-up tent. Then I saw Dublin barely containing a smile as his joke became clear, "Hey! There's no one under there you shithead!" We all laughed. I could hold my own with the boys, that much was for sure.

My trip to Torres del Paine began with an early morning bus ticket to the park. Buses were the most popular mode of transport in and out of the park as many of the visitors came from around the world to see this famously beautiful park, it's massive column like towering mountains, the glaciers, and the world class trails that circled the park in either an "O" Shape or a "W" shape, the W being the shortest of the two routes. It was a hiker /trail runner paradise.

The rain began thundering down before I even climbed out of my bed at the Amerindia Hostel that morning and continued through day one and day two. I started my trek at the Administration building in the South of the park and hiked/ran 18k to the first Refugio (lodge) through 50+ mph winds and driving rain. I stopped briefly at the Refugio for a cup of coffee and sandwich and continued on toward Refugio Grey, another 11km North. My spirits were soaring high on that strong wind, I was excited to be running free in the park, adventure here I come! I sang to my ipod songs, leaned into the wind and imagined I was an eagle on a powerful ride. Or maybe a fish in the ocean with all this water which was creating some serious streams in the trail.
Refugio Paine Grande, 18 km into the route. Yes the water is incredibly blue but it is cold as fuck. 

Right away I could feel my achilles was still very sore from the race. I've had achilles pain from overtraining/racing before and I had a good idea that I could hike through the pain, afterall, when do you get a chance to run an incredible race AND hike a long route in Chile's most famous park?! The driving rain soon exposed my rain jacket's lack of waterproof abilities. Shit, I should've waterproofed it again before this trip, but it was too late. There was no going back and certainly no time machine for the unprepared. I knew I could handle anything this trip threw at me but it might be a long 4-5 days if it kept raining with this intensity!
Refugio Grey in all its glory!!!
Refugio Grey is nestled in trees colored by autumn: with red, orange, yellow and every hue between them this time of year. If you have the luck of a clear day to see it as you arrive from the South, you will notice it sits just under a massive glacier. A stunning and wild backdrop for this backcountry lodge. As I arrived I struggled between my decision to camp (I brought a tent) and a desire to get a bunk bed for the night. I was completely soaked and getting a bed indoors would mean I could at least attempt to dry my very wet clothes and gear. Bed it was. I also purchased a dinner, which was a three course meal (extra for wine or beer) and I settled at a table with other travelers, all of whom spoke English- a common theme on the trail. When the group heard about my race 173K??!! they had a million questions and I regretted telling them I had done it at all as I was asked about training, the race, recovery, and more.
The glacier

Stark, cold, fall colors
The next day I set out for French Valley hoping to have time to do 25-30 miles. Today was expected to rain much harder then the pervious day, something I seriously doubted was possible. It was. I was able to run most of the way from Refugio Grey to the Refugio Paine Grande, then started heading East on what would prove to be the coldest and wettest of all the sections. Rivers were overflowing, spilling onto the trail and making the trail one gigantic waterslide. the water flow was so strong, it was as though someone had unkinked a hose and all the pressure was shooting down the trail. Rocks, debris, and even I was swept down the trail, only to have to ford uphill against the current around the next corner.
One of the tamer river-trails
The water coming from the streams was ice bucket cold. My feet ached with the pain of temperature change, but mostly with the cold. Just when they might begin to feel warm again, briefly, I'd have to wade thigh high through another stream, or find the trail that had been washed out and hidden by all the water. Everything just looked like another stream.
Streams heavy with extreme rainfall
After hours of trekking through the water following the trail, I finally came upon the final Refugio Los Cuernos where we would all be stuck for the night by the massive flooding. I paid for a bunk, showered without soap and dried off without a towel, redressed without socks or shoes (still wet) and laid all my wet gear and clothing out by the fire to (hopefully) dry a bit by morning.

By the time dinner was over I'd was already undefeated at a sort of "war"-esque card game I'd just learned that included slapping matches and matches that were sandwiched between cards but mostly meant slapping each other's hands. the guide who taught me the game was chubby in a athletic way with dreads and an intense and careful smile. Dreads did not like losing to me but as she put it, she's learned to be a good sport. I wasn't sure what that would've meant for me if I'd played her previous to this change in attitude, but I was glad for it nonetheless.

Some floating ice from the glacier above Refugio Grey
By morning the sunshine was out quite amazingly and a group of us was sitting around a table enjoying a large breakfast and instant coffee, hungover enough that our brains were in slo-mo. Dublin joined us, his teeth still purple with wine. I smiled and we playfully picked on each other the rest of breakfast, me of his Irish background (I'm part Irish too) and him on my ability to hang with the guys. Just like in the Ultra Fiord, I was the Last Woman Standing last night, the only girl to stay up late joking and shittalking in the camping shelter.

I made plans to head out to the next camping/bunking location, just 11km East to Hosteria Torres. No one knew if the buses would be running but we all knew that both ends of the W were closed due to bridges being washed out and dangerously high stream crossings. All the closures meant that I would not be able to hike the route, so I planned to take the bus back to Puerto Natales that day, if it was running. As I left the lodge, two women, Tall Megs from Canada and Doctor Aussie, from Australia, were also headed out for the same section. I decided to hang with them for a bit and chat.
Aussie Doc and me
The 11km segment of trail from Refugio Cuernos to Torres was very wet with many stream crossings but the rain had stopped and I even felt the sunshine a few times. I so enjoyed having my girl talk with Aussie & Megs that I was happy to slow my usually fast pace to hang with them. We mostly talked boys and it was fun to see how many similarities the three of us independent women had when it came to dating and lack thereof. Before we knew it we were at Torres, and to our surprise the bus was running!
Views from the trail, Refugio Cuernos to Torres. You might say I'm in love. 
As I settled into my seat, the third day of wet socks and hypothermic feet, I grieved for leaving my new lover--- the mountains of Torres del Paine. I'd just barely been able to explore them, to feel their powerful presence, the towering columns and cold streams that I ran through. Even those short experiences had burned, or rather washed, their shape into my body. I could no longer live without the deep desire to revisit this romance.
Final view of the mountains before returning to Puerto Natales

Fuck yea. 
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