Day 81 -85: 19.3. - 23.3.2009
Cerro Castillo – Torres del Paine – Puerto Natales

What was that again ? Did I say I would never take the bus ?

“Was interessiert mich mein Geschwätz von gestern?” If Konrad Adenauer could already cultivate such an attitude I think I can apply it, too. And here I find myself, sitting in the bus to the “Torres del Paine” National park after having proudly quoted yesterday that “the bus is simply not an option”. The 50 km from Cerro Castillo, where I stayed for the night, and the National park entrance lead straight into the wind (or should I say storm?). After having been awakened by the storm outside in my (pretty good and strong) hotel I am pretty sure I would struggle to make this distance today without being blown away or backwards by the wind consistently. Hence I jump over my shadow and feel free enough to apply a bit of Adenauer’s wisdom to my trip. Once on the small bus I am not sure if I should enjoy the consequences of my decision or not. Yes, I do not need to bike against the storm today, right. Now I could get killed in this bus any second though because the driver seems to have an appointment that he doesn’t want to miss. He literally drives like hell. He goes way too fast and even completely without sight after a truck has crossed us on our way and the whole windscreen is completely dirty and cannot be cleaned properly by the wipers (in fact wiping makes it all much worse only). He seems to know the way by heart (hopefully). The best thing to do is probably to close my eyes, pray and hope for survival. And it works. After less than an hour on the bus-rollercoaster I am at the park entrance gate and get my bike ready for the last few kilometers to the campground (I have rephrased my sentence into “no buses in the national park”). I survived and took the right decision. Good. I am happy with myself again. Torres del Paine can come.

Ronald – end of the chase !

“Hi Ronald, how are things?” “Well, I didn’t do any hiking and stayed in the tent all day because it was raining all the time”. Ronald, the dutch cyclist, left El Chalten one day before me. I chased his tracks day by day. We went exactly the same way. To Calafate through the Pampa in two days. From Calafate by bus to see the glacier Perito Moreno as a daytrip. From Calafate to Cerro Castillo in two days through the pampa again. Then we even went to the same campground in the Torres del Paine National Park, where he was still one day ahead of me. This is really funny. I could hear from the people I met on the road that they have met Ronald the day before me. A French couple cycling north, the border control people, a police station next to the road where I stayed for one night etc. And here in the campground he lost a day because of the rain and we are back on the same schedule again. This is funny. Interestingly we have had very different weather conditions on our bike rides. Especially the wind changed from not being there to very strong and from various directions. There was one stretch of 40 km which I did in less than 3 hours without much of a wind. For Ronald it took almost 7 hours into a strong head wind. It is a lot of fun to exchange our different experiences on exactly the same path.

Patagonian wind – at least it announces its coming..

The wind in the park is strange. It varies between not being there, coming in storm-like gusts and simply being there full-on all the time. The park ranger station predicts winds between 50 and 100 km/h for the next few days to come. I assume that this is the standard posting they use. It is certainly very difficult to give any relatively safe predictions in this ever changing weather here. Hence all you get is often a few days old and not even future oriented but just an information of how the weather was during the last few days. Interesting approach. Anyway, this night my tent goes through the first real heavy wind-test. These storm-like gusts make a hell of a noise and shake my tent considerably. Indeed I sometimes feel like a fruit in a mixer (or so I assume a fruit in a mixer must feel), just without being cut into pieces. The good (or bad) news is that you can hear the heavy gusts coming. First you hear some strange sound in the distance. Then you hear the trees closer to your tent shaking heavily and then your tent starts shaking all over. I am glad I did a good investment into a proper tent. All my hopes are on the relation between price and performance for the tent now. In fact it is not so easy to get to sleep in this noise and entertainment. I am torn between a feeling of excitement because I am in the middle of such a spectacular natural experience and fear that I will have to run around the campground to collect the bits and pieces that are left of my tent after it has been torn into pieces and spread all over the campground. In fact the next morning we hear stories of people who had trouble with broken poles of their tents etc. Not funny. Maxi, another cyclist, from Argentina, who has put up his tent close to mine has lost his helmet during the night. It was attached to the bike and somehow got blown away in the storm. The next morning the park ranger announces that they have found a helmet, quite a distance away from our campground, beyond a river, road and a huge piece of grassland. Lucky Maxi.

Good morning, sun!

What a wonderful sunrise! Doug, Tom and Lesley are already up when I emerge from my tent. My campground neighbors are from the US and have done the “circuit”, a hike around the Torres mountain range, during the last 8 days in quite bad weather conditions. Hence they are very happy to see the sun rising and so am I. Doug is a flight attendant with US Airways from Louisville/Kentucky. Lesley is his daughter, she is a herbalist. Tom is a carpenter and lives in a 19th century tavern in New Hampshire which he is currently renovating to the old original state. In case I would be around his area I would certainly pass by and ask for a drink and guestroom. The early morning sun even sheds some light on the tips of the Torres, the most famous peaks of the park. We are close enough to see parts of them already now but plan to do the hike to get a close-up view today. In good weather and with clear views of course. Lucky as always ! (Wo wir sind ist vorn!).

A perfect day to see the Torres del Paine.

The hiking group is super: Ronald, the dutch, Maxi, the Argentinean who has quit his job for some longer term travel a few months ago, both fellow cyclists, the three Americans and myself we are heading up the trail towards the Torres. What will be a full day activity with more than 20 km of sometimes very steep hiking is characterized by very funny, sometimes hilarious, sometimes seriously insightful talks about all kind of topics. Life in the USA, human psychology and why people do what they do, best and worst movies ever, airline companies and their strategies in customer support (or not) etc. Some of the insights are based on scientific reports we know, some are based on life experiences and some are simple observations or guesses. It is great. We are fully entertained that day. I am coming back with a list of movies, reports and books that I have to check when being back home. Not all of them will be socially acceptable and hence I do refrain from publishing this list here. The view we get to the Torres when being up at the mirador is spectacular as well. The mountains are free of clouds, the sun gets through now and then and there is a huge dark cloud sitting there on top of the mountains that seems to move towards us at a fast pace but then never reaches us. Close observations reveal that there are constantly new clouds building up behind the mountain range which then really move towards our direction but always completely disintegrate before a certain line. So they would in fact never reach us. Amazing to see and hard to believe. We are happy about it as it guarantees us undisturbed enjoyment of the view we have for a full two hours that we spend up there, eating, climbing the rocks to get different views from different angles, to take pictures etc. Back at the camping later today we just enjoy the time together, have a good dinner and enjoy being in this wonderful nature. The next morning all of us will set off again. The US-team to head back to Puerto Natales by bus to prepare for flying back home. Maxi goes to Puerto Natales by bike as he is finished with the park and Ronald and myself will move on in the park to get to another camping to see the next highlights to come.

The mirador ride

Ronald and I have planned an easy transfer stage within the park for today. We want to ride to Lago Pehue, cross it by boat and put camps on the other side of the lake. We can then start a hike into the Valley Francais the tomorrow. The distance on the bike today is not more than 35 km. An easy one. We leave late in the morning accordingly. No hurry, full enjoyment. What begins as an easy, probably even a boring day, turns out to be a day full of great impressions. First of all Ronald loses his rain jacket, which was fixed to his rear rack but was blown away by the wind. We can’t find it anymore, it is literally gone with the wind. Bad luck. The whole ride today is like a constant mirador. The gravel road leads alongside the south of the Mountain Range, between lakes and most of the time with a great view over to the rough peaks of the “cuernos”, which are the other popular peaks besides the three “torres”. I didn’t even know that there were more interesting peaks and mountains to be seen in this park apart from the “torres”. For me the “cuernos” are even more beautiful to look at than the “torres” because of their strong black and gray differentiation and their rough look. They show a horizontal color differentiation at the line where the rock collapsed and left the remaining “cuernos” standing. Rough, sharp rocks, Black on the top and light grey at the bottom. Beautiful views. Alongside the road we are being greeted by grazing Guanakos all the time. They even stand on the road and do not seem to be shy at all. They do not move further than just a few meters away when we approach. The same for a small fox that we see in one of the roadside miradors. He is probably waiting to be fed by some stupid tourist again. We see another one in a campground later again. They do not behave much differently than all the stray dogs in the towns here. This scenic ride does make me look forward to the next hike tomorrow. We will be entering the valley that will bring us next to the cuernos del paine. Wonderful expectations.

The myths about the weather in Torres del Paine are no myths !

If there was one thing that I didn’t really believe completely before I came here then it was the bit about the weather in Torres del Paine. People and reports kept telling me that you would have the four seasons during one day and basically changes from minute to minute and rain and sunshine all at the same time etc. I did always secretly assume that there was quite a bit of exaggeration to those stories to make them sound more interesting. Now I know better. On our ride today we really have it all, except snow. We start off in the sun, short pants and shirts, sunscreen applied properly. Then Ronald turns around to search more for his jacket after we cannot find it within the first few minutes. We agree to meet at the boat at Lago Pehue again later today. Between our two rides to the lake have been only 1-1,5 hours difference but again the wind was completely different. Different directions and strength like we already experienced between El Chalten and here. I myself experience sunshine and rain literally at the same time. And I am not just seeing it in a distance with a rainbow, I am right in the middle of it. The wind changes from storm level to almost none within seconds. I struggle to find the right clothing. Once I have put on my raingear properly I find myself sweating in the sunshine five minutes later. It is one big gamble. Hilarious. The skies look fantastic. Big dark clouds with sun in the background, breaking through now and then, rain falling and disappearing again (I am unsure where they come from because it is not always with clouds that it rains), the perceived temperature varies by many degrees. It is simply unbelievable. I do accept those reports to be completely true by now.

Lago Pehue Camping

“Man, I am happy we are here in low season!” The size of the refugio at the campground at the other side of Lago Pehue is impressive. If this one would be fully booked (like it is in summer) and the campground fully occupied as well then good night. The trail bottlenecks like the “one person at a time bridges” will look like an ice cream counter in high summer, with cues of people all over the place. Good timing to be here in early autumn. The other refugio and the campground at the torres has also been of a big size. In the end there are not so many trails here in the park that people can do so there will be a very different feel to it in summer. But again the quality of the campground is great. There are nice grassy spots to put the tents and there is some shelter from the wind in form of trees or bushes. Otherwise all the tents would be gone flying regularly anyway I guess. There are seating areas close by and the washrooms are well thought through and deliver hot water all day. The price is acceptable at ca. 5 Euros per night and person. The refugios are incredibly expensive in comparison. 50 dollars for a night in a bed without a blanket (own sleeping bag required) is a lot. There are also some lodges around that cost a few hundred dollars per night and person. I assume they deliver blankets as well. Luxury trekking in Torres del Paine. We are glad we can choose and enjoy the cheap version. Only when we do some shopping in the refugio shops we have to suffer the price inflation. One day I bought a jar of Nutella for almost 5 Euros because I was longing for it so much. I guess staying in the tent makes up for it.

Thoughts in the morning (this part is only for male readers)

Voices in the tent of the young couple in the morning: “Darling, is that really you? You look so different. Where are your eyes? I cannot see them. Shall I lead you to the bathroom?” And later than: “No, darling, we will not discuss this again. We have discussed for hours yesterday which trail we would be taking today. We decided and will not discuss again.” This is how Ronald and myself cheer ourselves up in the morning. We sit in our respective tents, prepare and eat breakfast (müsli) and entertain ourselves. We have listened to a young couple in a tent the other day and the guy was just sooo polite to his girlfriend all the time, we just have to take the piss out of that conversation for a while and then somehow cannot stop ourselves anymore for the next hour or so. Of course we would behave very differently to what we were talking in case we would ever do camping with a partner in the future (just in case any female has read this part although it was not recommended).

Positive thinking to influence the weather

“Do we go or not?” The weather in the Valley Frances that we want to hike into today looks pretty bad. Lots of clouds, it does even rain here at the campground now. It is 9 am and we think about the plan for the day. Delaying the hike for a day does not guarantee better weather at all. In fact it could be much worse, pouring heavy rain for example. So we decide to get started with our hike. We put on raingear and walk towards the direction of the valley francais. We pass by the ranger station which again has weather data handy from the last few days but no future oriented forecast at all. The ranger tells us on request that ”it might stay cloudy and rainy all day, it might change as well though, we are in Patagonia”. That helps. We keep going. After a while the rain stops and the clouds begin to disappear, at least at parts of the sky. In fact we find ourselves in pretty good weather without any more rain and good views to the mountains all day today then. Well done. Positive thinking changed it all. We are proud and relieved. In the valley we walk past a huge glacier on the highest mountain in the park (Cerro Paine Grande at 3050 meters), we see (and hear!) ice and snow breaking off and tumbling down the mountain side, we approach the two-color-divided “cuernos” to see them better and we see big waterfalls going down the valley we hike up. Wonderful. Definitely worth the effort and a good addition to our “torres” hike from the day before yesterday. In the evening we are back in time to catch the boat back across the lake at 6.30 pm to tackle the road again tomorrow. Well done, worked out fine. Luck was with us again!

Wrong timing

“When does it get dark?” “Old time or new time?” That is Ronald’s answer every time I am asking for the time now. Since days. There has been a change in time (minus 1 hour) in Chile a few days ago but Ronald refuses to adjust his watch. I don’t carry one so I am a potential victim to any misinformation. By now we have taken this running gag so far that we confuse ourselves up to a point where we are ourselves are really unclear. Like today. We planned to take the boat at 6.30 pm back to the side of the Lago Pehue with the road so that we can get going on our bikes again tomorrow morning. We planned to take the boat and then to cycle another 7 kms to the campground for the night. When the boat arrives at its landing point it is almost dark though. Hmm, strange. There must have been some mistake in our time calculation. We expected another hour of daylight after the boat trip. Now it looks like we confused ourselves a bit too much there. “What do we do?” “Lets put our tents up right here then.” After checking with the people from the boat we simply put out tents up in the most suited spot close by. Team Hilleberg (we both have a Hilleberg tent, same model in same color, just different version/size) works at its best. Within minutes the two tents are built, right next to each other. Good. We are glad we have some food left for one dinner and breakfast and hence can face the unexpected stay here. The night is super stormy. Even more than what we had before. The gusts are so strong that I believe the tent will be torn apart or some pegs would have to let go of the tent sooner or later. It doesn’t happen though. In the morning the tents do look a bit different to what we have seen in the evening though. Some of the ropes are a loser and some peg holes in the ground have been enlarged quite a bit. But we are proud of our tents again. Team Hilleberg can move on.

Brave decisions

Morning of the next day: “These clouds just sit there above us. They keep raining and don’t move. And a few kilometers down the road is even some blue sky waiting for us.” That is too simplistic for me. We wait for another thirty minutes to see if the situation changes. It doesn’t. We are stuck in a bad weather hole here. “Okay. Lets get packed and get moving towards the good weather hole.” Said and done. Within little time we are all packed and on the bike, in the rain and hoping to see sunshine again soon. And there we go. In fact the weather is better just a few kilometers down the road. Unbelievable. We are agin being caught by a small rain shower later on our way but mainly we are riding our bikes into the dryer South, out of and away from the National Park that sits there in its huge rain cloud. No mountain shape can soon be seen anymore as we move on South. We escaped Torres del Paine exactly at the right day. We seem to have more luck than knowledge but it works out well for us.

A biking day on 3 Snickers and 100g biscuit

I don’t know why we didn’t learn by now that there are no easy biking days here, not even with an expected tail wind for most of the time. We know we have 100 km to go from the Park to Puerto Natales. We also know the wind will be more with us than against us. And somehow our imagination shows us a flat or downhill road with a strong tailwind all the time, with plenty of kiosks and villages alongside the road in case we want to recharge our batteries. Well, the reality is a bit different of course. The 100 km contain almost 1500 meters of altitude to cover in ever reoccurring small but pretty steep climbs . It is 85% on dirt road (not of the real bad sort though) and the wind is in our back, but not all the time of course. Ronald gets going equipped with a Snickers, 3 small bags of cookies and a 1,5 liter bottle of Coke. I have 3 Snickers and a small bag of cookies. As we find out soon that will have to do for the day. No village and no kiosk appears on the way. We soon find ourselves running out of fuel and longing for the end of that days ride with legs that get weaker with every km. We do reach Puerto Natales late in the afternoon after more than 5,5 hours with a serious hunger and a need for a lot of food. With loads of restaurants and shops around this will soon and properly be taken care of. I will spend an “office day” here, to update my homepage and Ronald needs to sort out his flight back to gte it delayed by a few days. And we will eat and rest continuously as always. Lets go for it.