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Published: August 8th 2007
After having my wallet stolen I returned to Torres with a new attitude: No matter what, nothing could get worse than it already was. After mentally letting go, I was finally able to relax! This fresh attitude was rewarded with a warm bed and excellent meal at Hosteria Pehoe. Rain poured all night as I sipped garlic soup shoulder to shoulder with the Carbineros. When the clouds cleared the next morning, the heavens opened to display what everyone was talking about- the magnificent Torres del Paine Massif towering over Lago Pehoe.
But attention grabbing intro's aside, I need to first mention the drive past Lago Sarmiento on the way into the park. Having my own car I was enticed to the shores of this gigantic glacial lake that greets all visitors to the park long before the entrance station. The glacier that carved Lago Sarmiento was actually so massive the terminal moraine in its path to Argentina prevents the lake's water from flowing east. Instead it flows backwards west, draining into the Rio Serrano and back into the Pacific ocean. The shores were littered with Tufa like rock that easily crumbled. The water was a crystal clear blue and the
bottom of the lake was covered in orange stones. Scattered raindrops evaporated as soon as they made landfall. My head filled with visions of mountains far away, so I left the barren lakeshore for bigger and better things, confident my experience there was not shared by backpackers taking public buses to the park entrance.
I have to admit, I had seen hundreds if not thousands of pictures of these mountains they call Torres del Paine. I already knew their shapes, their history and their colors. However, what I didnt know about was their character. Their presence, their imposing dominance over a milky blue lake that makes anyone who sees their peaks gasp in awe. how could this be? Impossibly steep black capped horns of rock coated in fresh snow and glaciers? It defies explanation, even the best answers dont explain the end result.
I secured a spot at Camp Pehoe, an extremely pleasant camp with nearly nobody staying there. Yes, this week the tourists had mostly left the park. The friendly camp host who was about my age was playing music even I liked- St. Germaine and the Gotan Project. A friendly Chilean, we talked about music and
travels and tourists, travelling alone and the yearly ebb and flow of the seasons at the park. Here I was, less than 24 hours in the park after "the incident" and already having the time of my life. After setting up camp I realized I needed to respect these mountains, not plan impossible backpacks into thief infested and rainy campgrounds. I settled on a day hike to the seemingly amateur "Mirador el Condor". From the maps, it looked like any other overlook- a short and steep hike to a great view of the mountains.
The trailhead is within walking distance of the camp, and ascends steeply through the Southern Beech forests of Lenga and Nirre. The views kept getting better and better, and the wind kept getting stronger and stonger. The stories of wind in Torres del Paine are no joke- I too was nearly blown off my feet several times. The trees enjoy this challenge of high winds and use it to their advantage, they grow horizontally and become more attractive. Almost to the saddle of the volcanic ridge, I took a break and took some pictures of the volcanic conglomerate rocks and strange low growing alpine plants.
Camp Pehoe, Lago Pehoe, Cerro Ferrier
The wonderfully safe and friendly camp Pehoe!! Highly recomended. Friendly staff plays Thievery Corporation and King Kooba.
Why are the alpine plants of the Southern Hemisphere so exotic? Trees are trees, but these plants grow like domes of hard carpet, colonizing rocks and dirt like nothing in the North.
As I got to the top of the ridge the sight that greeted me suprised me more than anything in recent memory- but first a little bit of backstory. I am in love with Alpine Lakes. I have spent countless hours cataloguing the Alpine Lake fields of the world using Google Earth. Spending a night at an Alpine lake at treeline is like attending church, and when I wasn't able to continue my backpack along the Torres del Paine circuit I thought my chance to see one was over.
So at the top of the ridge, in the distance to the east I saw a mirage- lake after lake of sub-alpine splendor! Surrounded by forests, these gems were just specks on the maps which I never considered to be anything but ponds- but the thick old growth Lenga Forests and steep depressions in the rocks from the ancient glaciers told a different story. I quickly set off to the shore.
Many giant Lenga and Nirre
trees covered the hills. I learned at the visitors center that the recently glacially scoured land is colonized by Native Chilean trees in a very specific timeline. First comes the evergreen Coigüe (Nothofagus Betuloides), which survive on nutrient poor gravels and rocks recently colonized by mosses, lichens and grasses. 5-7 years later the deciduous Ñirre (Nothofagus antarctica) appears, forming pure strands that sometimes completely drown out the Coigüe. Finally as the soils mature and become more stable, the large and mighty Lenga (Nothofagus pumilio) appears. Surrounding these lakes, the thousand year old trees seemed very happy in their newly established homes.
The shore of the shallow lake was quiet and covered in grasses. The views were spectacular and serene as the distant clouds flirted with the Cuernos del Paine that rose above the ridge above the lake. Ducks floated across the lake unaware of human presence. How much impact did humans make here? Little if any, judging by the overgrown use trail. Chileans weren't even exploring this area until 150 years ago, and before that it was only seasonally inhabitated by the Aonikenk.
It was a strange feeling, being in a place seen by only a handful of
human eyes. I frequently feel like a small fragment of a trillion piece jigsaw puzzle at the shores of alpine lakes- but here in this place I felt smaller than that. Like a transient witness in a scene millions of years in the making, thousands of seasons passing from this spot as the seconds ticked by in my mind. In the distance, herds fo Guanacos...
Coming back to reality I realized the clouds were increasing, and if I wanted to see the vistas of the Condor's nest I needed to get going. I gave myself 30 minutes more at the shore, soaking my feet in the ice cold water.
The hike back was like emerging from the womb- I was full of wonderment and curiousity of this landscape after a few hours of solitary reflection. How different this was from a few days before, when soul-less human thieves stole my belongings and had me nervous for my safety. Out here alone in the grassy hills at the edge of the Nothofagus forest, I could break my leg or get eaten by a puma- yet not one ounce of anxiety filled my bones.
The views were everything I
expected and more. I will let the pictures do the talking about my experience at the top of the Mirador el Condor- make sure you visit the next few pages of pics!!
I will say one more thing- I met an Australian couple in their 50's who spent no more than 15 minutes at the top. They must have had more on their plate? I bundled up in my down jacket and wool gloves and braved the incessant winds for the next 5 hours. I watched the clouds change and the sun set. Using my headlamp to hike down in the dark, I saw a clearing in the clouds. A giant tree framed the Southern Cross- A constellation not visible in the Northern Hemisphere and a reminder of how far away from home I was. I captured the scene I saw with my camera. For some reason the few hours after sunset in the dark are the most magical for me. When most people return to camp to light a fire, tell stories and cook a meal- I find myself sitting in the dark stargazing, listening to the animals and contemplating my direction in life. In those moments I
Hosteria Pehoe Bridge and Restaurant
The most delicious meals of my trip!
knew- this day was why I work 9 months to vacation for 2 weeks. If you made it to the end of this blog entry, thanks for reading!!
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