The W (for WOW!) Trek

Torres Del Paine

The next thing on our fairly packed agenda was to head back into Chile to a small town called Puerto Natales which is well known for being the gateway to Southern Patagonia and an amazing national park named Torres Del Paine. We had decided we needed to challenge ourselves even further than we have done in the last couple of months and were going to take on a 5 day 4 night trek over 67 Km of pretty rugged, mountainous terrain with hopefully a dramatic last day sighting of the three rocky Mountain towers (Torres). This is know as the ‘W Trek’, due to the shape and direction of the walk.

W Trek route

We spent the first night in a fairly basic hostel but the second night we moved to a well renowned hostel named Erratic Rock. It has a great reputation, mostly because at 3 pm everyday they hold a free information talk for people wishing to visit the national park and undertake either the W trek or the whole circuit (the O trek which takes more like 10 days). The Chilean guy who have the talk was superb and gave everyone (about 30 people) in the room a great idea of what to expect and what to bring. This was going to be a pretty full on trek by our normal standards as we were going to be pretty much self sustained for the whole trip meaning we had to bring and cook all our food on a tiny camping stove, carry our tent, sleeping bags and clothes for all types of weather all in our world famous Two Bags!! So we spent all of the rest of Wednesday buying and packing as much food as we could and then thinking about what clothes we might need. By the time our bags were zipped up tight they were both pretty fit to bursting point and must’ve weighed nearly 15kg’s each which wasn’t ideal considering we’d be lugging them up and down steep mountains for up to 7 hours a day. However, as I don’t like being hungry I demanded we took all the food we could carry!

We awoke early on Thursday, wolfed down a hearty breakfast and set off up the road to the station and caught the bus to Torres Del Paine. After a couple of bumpy hours and a sneaky half an hours catermeran cruise over the lake we arrived at our starting point. Unfortunately for us it also started to throw it down, so we had to have a quick wardrobe change into more waterproof clothing and attempted to cover up our big rucksacks as best we could. Its fair to say that Caroline handled the testing starting conditions a lot better than me, as I struggled to see the point of climbing up these steep hills with a heavy backpacking in the cold, driving rain. Whereas, Eccles thought it was pretty and that a bit of rain wasn’t anything to worry about! Instead I switched myself into Grumpy Beast mode and got on with it setting a decent pace until eventually the rain stopped and we were greeted to some sunshine and some fantastic views over the mountain ranges, iceberg lakes and even the astonishing Grey Glacier (our second glacier of the week!). Once we weren’t cold anymore and we could see the beautiful views I started to understand why we were here, it was pretty spectacular and felt nice to be in the middle of nowhere, at the bottom of our planet!! Our first walk was 10.5 km, which was a pretty decent way to warm up for the next few days. Even though distance wasn’t enormous it was still pretty tough as our backpacks felt heavy and some of the hill climbs were pretty steep in both directions. We made it to our campsite in the Grey Refugio in about 4 and a half hours, which is not bad with food and water breaks every hour! The best bit was we didn’t need to worry about carrying tonnes of water as the water from the streams was a pure as it ever could be because it flowed straight from the melted ice and snow on top of the mountains! We pitched our minuscule tent, boiled a welcome tea and coffee before we headed off to take a closer look at the Grey Glacier. It was pretty fantastic and enormous in size but we had definitely been spoilt with seeing the even more stunning Perito Moreno Glacier a few days previous. We went back to camp, demolished the tasty chilli we made the previous and were left with little choice than to grab an early night as the temperature began to drop with the sun setting.

Caroline's view

Grey Glacier and its Icebergs

Woody the Woodpecker

Kayaks in front of Grey Glacier

We woke up around 7am and Caroline cooked up a tasty power porridge considering we only had powdered milk to work with, the added tinned peaches gave us plenty of energy to take on the 11 Km hike back along the route we had taken the day before. It was much needed as all the hills we had wandered down previously were even harder clambering back up them! The scenery was equally amazing as the day before and distances were covered quickly thanks to my strict 15 minutes per chewy sweet discipline! We made it back to where the boat had dropped us off and rustled up a strange but tasty concoction of soup, quinoa, tinned tuna (akin to cat food!) and salami. It was actually miles better than it sounds and again gave us a little boost for the afternoon which would be another 8 Km trek to our nights free campsite at Campiamento Italiano.

Lunchtime View

I think the morning’s power walking session had taken its toll as we both felt pretty tired by the time we got there at 15:30. I put up the tent as Ecco went on tea and coffee duty. As soon as we’d finished we went for an early tea as we were now working like athletes and demanding calories like crazy. On the menu tonight was mushroom risotto, peas and frankfurters!! Yet again it was pretty yummy and generally was a million times better than the vast majority of other people’s tea which was either pot noodle, plain pasta or plain rice. We were spending our night camping in the woods next to a very fast flowing river of glacier melt. It made for a beautiful place with the most fantastic place to grab your drinking water and do your dishes. As with the previous day it began to get pretty nippy early on so we climbed into our sleeping bags and went to bed by around 7pm (it’s not all rock and roll this year!!). Unfortunately it was pretty cold and uncomfortable so we didn’t get the best nights sleep and woke up at at 6:30 felling pretty jaded. A quick power porridge and coffee made us feel better and we packed up a much lighter bag for the morning to make our way up the nearby mountain to get an excellent view the surrounding glaciers and mountain ranges of The French Valley. The coolest thing we saw that day was that every now and then there would be a pretty huge avalanche which would fall from the enormous mountain opposite and would then be followed by massive rumble and crash. After nearly 3 hours of pretty steep uphill climbing through streams, boulder fields and forests all surrounded by a vicious flowing glacier river we reached the lookout point at Camp Britanico. The view was absolutely spectacular up there. We sat for a few minutes and took some obligatory photos before turning back around and heading straight back down. As it was downhill we got down half an hour quicker but were pretty pooped in time for lunch.After we had repacked our tent and bags we set off on a fairly straightforward 2 hour walk to our next campsite called Los Cuernos.

Steep hill climb

For once the path was a lot more straightforward and we reached our nights campsite earlier than planned and even managed to grab a fairly pricey beer with the sun still out. Again we watched more avalanches crash down the mountain opposite and saw a couple of huge ones! The added benefit of this campsite was that it had lots of hot water and meant we could finally grab our first shower after 3 sweaty days! It felt amazing to be clean again. A surprisingly tasty dinner of instant mash and veggie mince was again wolfed down before we both retired to bed before 9 feeling pretty knackered after another 6 and half hours of trekking and a big day of 11 Km walk ahead of us the next day!

Chilenos Camp Kitchen

So our last full day of hiking began pretty coldly again so we struggled to get out of our sleeping bags. We eventually set off just after 9 and headed to the campsite at Los Chilenos which was meant to be about 4 – 5 hours walk away.

The Morning's trek route

We felt pretty used to trekking with our heavy packs now so the first couple of hours went pretty quickly with the added bonus of a cookie an hour rations! After the third hour things took a turn for the worst as it was pretty relentlessly uphill for about 45 minutes thanks to us taking the ‘shortcut’ route. When we could eventually see the Refugio (campsite) at the bottom of a kilometre long hill we got an added spring in our step and I even ran a bit of it! We made it in just under 4 hours and were a little spent. We put our tent up and had a well earned lunch. During that meal we had the crazy idea of perhaps going up to see the world famous viewpoint of Las Torres (three spiked mountain towers!) as the weather was good and we somehow still had a little energy left. Boy did we need it as it was an hour uphill and over streams to the closed Las Torres Campsite and then a pretty remarkable and very tough 45 minute scramble up and over a boulder field.

The Final climb to Las Torres

As we neared the top the tips of the three peaks appeared and looked amazing. This was nothing compared to when we finally scaled the boulders. We were greeted with a crystal blue Laguna below waterfalls descending from glaciers beneath the three 2000 metre rocky peaks. It was so beautiful it had made all the hard work and trekking worthwhile. There were plenty of times my bottom lip had come out and I’d questioned this pointless walking but finally I appreciated just how beautiful this National Park could be. A special note must go to Caroline’s relentless happiness and positivity during the whole trek. Even when we got of the boat on the first day and got absolutely drenched and freezing she said, “it’s fine, it’s nice, it’s character building and I promise it will all be worth it!” I took some persuading and there were definitely times when I wasn’t overly enamoured with so much walking, I finally got into it (perhaps as the finish line was in sight!) plus I saw it as some pretty amazing exercise and a sneaky bit of leg training for the Tough Mudder I’m doing in July again!!

Conquered Las Torres

(If you want to see Caroline’s LIVE reaction to meeting Las Torres then click here for a short video!)

The last day began with a quick uphill trek and then a pleasant, relatively easy downhill hour which left us with just enough time to have one last gas stove cooked mushroom risotto before catching the bus back to Puerto Natales. Everyone was knackered and pretty much passed out asleep for the couple of hours it took to get back to town. That night we were invited out for dinner with the lovely couple we’d met during the W Trek, Benedict from France and Mitchell from Oz (plus another Aussie/Kiwi couple). Mitchell had done a little research an found an amazing restaurant called Afrigonia which was an African influenced Patagonian food. I ordered an amazing steak and we all shared some lovely red wine which was soon to become a standard pairing as we were heading back to Argentina.

The next morning we were up super early again to cross the Argentinian border on a 14 hour bus to the last City on Earth called Ushuaia. I’d been to a place called Ushaia before but that was a super club in Ibiza on my mate’s Stag Do so I figured this time would be a little different. Unbeknown to us we also had to cross the Straits of Magellan on a large ferry. We got an added surprise when some pretty awesome looking black and white dolphins started swimming in the wake of the boat, they looked similar to Orcas but a lot smaller.

A few Patagonian Wool Lambs

After arriving pretty late we spent our first day sorting and planning a rough itinerary for the next couple of weeks as my brother would be joining us in Buenos Aires for a couple of weeks. In the evening we went out for a few beers and an average pizzas with our new found friends, Mitchell and Benedict who were doing pretty much the same route as us just a couple of days in front. This was really great as they could give us loads of handy tips on where to go and what to do.

We got up early to take a catermeran cruise to see giant Sea Lions, an amazingly photogenic lighthouse and Magellan Penguins. Caroline was ferocious in her hunt for some King Penguins (the ones on the biscuits!!) as Mitchell and Benedict had seen them the day before, but unfortunately for her (or do I mean me!). As you’d expect being the last City before the Antarctic it was blooming freezing cold whilst you were stood on the deck, so photos were taken quickly before heading back to the nice warm cabin.

Ushuaia

Scrapping Sea Lions

The beautiful lighthouse

A Shouty Penguin

Cute

We reached The End of The Earth

Once more in the interest so saving a few pounds we chose an indirect route to Buenos Aires via El Calafate which was fine apart from the slightly dull 7 hours lay over in a small airport!! On board of the second flight the lady who sat next to Caroline spent 4 hours colour correcting all her photos of the King penguins she had seen somewhere in Ushuaia! Miss Eccles was not amused, her bottom lip was out and the illusive King penguins have been added to her ever expanding ‘must see sometime’ list!

The woman and her King Penguin photos

We landed in the Argentinian capital around 10 pm and jumped straight in a taxi to take us to the B & B my brother Will had sorted out for us. We were both really excited to see him after an emotional goodbye nearly 10 months ago. He’s a very talented little man and can get extremely busy so we were delighted he’d managed to find time to join us for a little slice of our trip. As we got out the taxi I noticed another taxi pull up an instantly knew that would be him. Even though he’d left from London three hours earlier than we had from Ushuaia (in the same country!) we pulled up at exactly the same time. I think when we first saw each other we were both distracted with paying our drivers so we had a quick very formal English handshake. Then we dropped our bags and had a huge group hug. It was going to be a fun 12 days!!

We worked hard on the W trek to see some stunning scenery so please forgive me for the number of photos, but if you want to see more then just click here.

Hasta Luego.

Tommy and Caroline.
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Intrepid Explorers!

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Iceberg Right Ahead!!

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We arrived in San Pedro de Attacama – a town in the driest desert in the world – and stumbled into a YHA Hostel that had room. It seemed nice enough at first so we dumped our bags as we couldn’t check in for another couple of hours and went to find something healthy to eat after a recent diet of fried stuff and rice. When we returned to our hostel and we were shown to our room which was pretty small for two of us. However it wasn’t just the two of us as there was allegedly enough room for five people in the tiny room; one bunk bed for two and an impossibly high bunk bed for three! It was going to be cosy in the room but at least the lads in there were some friendly other British lads.

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San Pedro is quite a cool little town in the middle of the desert where the majority of buildings are still made of mud and straw and then painted white. It feels very much like a modern day cowboy town but there were some really nice hotels and restaurants there. It is also nicknamed San Perro (Perro is Spanish for dog) as there are so many dogs in the town, which of course I was a big fan of. There were so many different breeds and not many of them dogs were skanky street dogs but more like nice breads you’d pay hundreds of pounds for in England. There were Labradors, Alsatians and even Corgis running around the sandy streets.

In the town there are a few touristy things to do. The most popular one is to go and visit La Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) where the sands and rocks are supposed to resemble the landscape on the moon, but seeing as we’d spent the last three days driving through exactly that sort of landscape I said I’d prefer to go to the salt lake at Laguna Cejar as the salty waters would be good for my poorly skin!! So not wanting to wait for the afternoon tour crowds and to save a few bob we hired a couple of mountain bikes in town and set off with basic instructions for our 40 Km round trip through the desert. The roads out to the laguna were pretty good apart from a couple of sections which were so bumpy it rattled your brain. After just over an hour Caroline (Victoria Pendleton) and I (Sir Chris Hoy) reached the laguna which was 20 kms away from town. We first went to see a salt lake that was too toxic to swim in followed by the highlight of swimming in Laguna Cejar which has a higher salt content in it than the Dead Sea. Sure enough when you went for a little dip you didn’t sink as you normally would and just floated on top of the surface. If you stood upright in the deep areas the salt water would just support you without needing to touch the bottom. It was a really bizarre feeling and the water was absolutely freezing. Whilst Eccles topped up her already ridiculous tan I sat in the shallows and gave myself a jolly good exfoliation with the salt and the water as apparently it great for Psoriasis. To be honest my skin felt pretty smooth after and I’m sure if you did it a few times in a week it would definitely help. Thoroughly cleansed, rejuvenated and refreshed we cycled back through the baking desert and had a few hours to kill before going on our Star Gazing tour in the evening. Fortunately the restaurant next us us was showing the Man City v Barca match so we settled in and watched our first bit of real footy for ages.

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Caroline is secretly a bit of a nerd and had researched a really good trip to see not just stars and constellations, but also planets like Jupiter through a very powerful telescope! We did the tour with these guys, www.spaceobs.com and would really recommend it! The guy who took the tour was a Canadian genius Astrologer called Alan and for the first hour at his ranch he gave us a really entertaining and fascinating guide of the sky above us and the best bit was that he used a clever laser pen to shoot a green line into the sky to show us exactly what he was talking about.

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He demonstrated to us just how quick the Earth is spinning by pointing at a star at the start of his talk and then showing the same star an hour later which had jumped a fair distance up in the sky. He also pointed out many of the zodiac constellations , the Milky Way and the more famous constellations. After the hours talk we all felt a little bit stupid compared to his genius but he took us inside and gave us a great cup of hot chocolate whilst the 12 telescopes were set up to look at and track many exciting stars and planets.

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The first telescope I looked through was pointing straight at Jupiter and it was fascinating to see the little yellow planet in a bit more detail, you could even make out two grey bands of cloud on the planet and 3 of its 4 moons. The other telescopes featured the brightest star in the sky, Sirius (not the North Star!), an area where new star were being created, a jewel box constellation and the highlight for me a real big close up of the moon where you could even take photographs through the telescope to get the moon’s craters in great detail. It had been a fascinating evening and one where we actually felt as though we’d learnt a bit too!!

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The following day is one of very few we won’t hurry to remember when we look back on this year as it was one where we spent 22 hours on a bus from San Pedro to the capital city of Chile, Santiago. We’ve now become so accustomed to travelling that in truth it wasn’t actually that bad and we both managed to sleep through the whole night.

When we arrived in Santiago we jumped straight on the metro and walked to our hostel (La Chimba) in the Bellavista area of the city. We’d chosen well as it was a beautiful and trendy area of Santiago, full of bars and restaurants and a really nice, but way out of our budget, courtyard with great bars! Instead we stuck to the bars at the side of the street for a few enormous bottles of Escudo local beer and went and demolished our tea as we’d not eaten properly for a day!! After that we went back to La Chimba and found out it was actually 10 times the size of what we thought and we discovered an awesome pool table where as usual I got the better of Eccles!

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Our second day in the city was spent (as usual) looking around the city and finding the Central Market for some lunch. As Chile is so long and thin it’s practically all near the coast line and subsequently the seafood is always very fresh and amazing. The Central Market is almost entirely made up of fishmongers and restaurants, so we carefully (find one that’s busy with Chileans!) picked one and asked our waitress’ advice as to what to have and hoped for the best. What we got were two amazing seafood soups made of fish, clams and mussels. Caroline’s was more of a broth and mine was a bit thicker with melted cheese thrown in too. They were both excellent and incredibly reasonable considering the quality of them both.

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In the evening I collapsed on my bed and Caroline went to explore the giant hill behind us called San Pedro Cerro where there were some incredible views over the city with the Andes Mountain range in the background. This led to some pretty awesome looking sunset photos…..

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Our final day in Santiago was a bit of a relaxing day as we were flying at 11pm that night so I took the chance to visit a cool little CrossFit gym called CrossFit Yagan and was pleasantly knackered out thanks to a few 400 metre runs! After that we took advantage of the hostel’s cable TV and watched Chelsea just beat Everton, England beat Ireland in the rugby and Man U struggle past Palace, it was nice just to see some English sport and even nicer to have some English commentary.

Our route to get to El Calafate in Argentina was not going to be a simple one. Unfortunately the price of flights in South America was a little scary so the only way we could realistically afford to get down to Southern Argentina was to take the highly inconvenient and long indirect flight via Mendoza and Buenos Aires. Unfortunately our first stop was at the very basic and empty Mendoza airport in Argentina where we landed at Midnight and had to spend the next 10 hours before flying to Buenos Aires. So we made the best of a bad situation and found a quite corner in the marble floored closed café and attempted to get what sleep we could. We both managed a bit but woke up pretty stiff from the rock hard floor. I’d like to say the next legs of the journey we fine but unfortunately when we got to our final destination of El Calafate only my rucksack had managed to make it all the way, Caroline’s was nowhere to be seen! After a fairly average conversation with the guy at the baggage desk we were told to go to our hostel and that hopefully the missing bag would turn up either tonight or tomorrow on one of the following flights!! Fortunately for everyone things like that don’t seem to really bother Caroline nowadays, so with only the clothes on her back and looking like a fake tanned, Swedish, raver in fancy dress she smiled and got on with it!! We jumped into a shuttle and went to our next hostel, I Keu Ken, on top of a hill in this quaint little town. That night we had an epic meal inn La Pura Vida restaurant in town. I had Granny’s Recipe lentil and meat casserole and Ecco had an incredible dish of stuffed pumpkin with Patagonian lamb, peaches and cheese. We washed it down with a pretty incredible tasting bottle of Benjamin’s Malbec. We hadn’t splashed out too much recently so it was amazing to do it for once and to be honest for what we ate that night it was very reasonable.

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The only reason we had busted our backs to get to El Calafate was to visit the incredible Perito Moreno Glacier and it must be said it didn’t disappoint us at all and was worth every penny, mile and sleepless hour we’d invested in it. We took the XL tour though our hostel and were taken to it along the a lot less crowded old road via some spectacular scenery and via a small, family ranch were amongst other things they had a pet fox cub.

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The great thing about our tour was that our driver dropped us right at the East end of the balconies (giant metal walkways) where it felt like we had the National Park all to ourselves. We spent the next 3 hours walking our way back along the balconies which faced out to the enormous mass of glacial ice that was across the lake. It’s the only glacier in the world that is advancing and not retreating and moves forward at a rate of 1.6 meters a day. With this movement and the strength of the glorious sunshine we were lucky enough to be greeted with some spectacular collapses / carvings of the 70 meter high ice mass opposite. It was pretty hypnotic just watching and listening to the miles and miles of glacial ice creek and crack. Sometimes the noises were so loud it sounded like gunshots and then every now and then a huge chunk would break off and splash down into the lake below with devastating effect. It would make an incredible noise and then leave a huge shockwave in the lake that would spread out like a tidal wave. We spent hours watching it and taking photos.

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Fortunately it saved its best for last because as we were back near the central balcony where it was busiest there was a loud crack and all of a sudden the whole face of the nearest point of the glacier just crumbled and cracked dropping over a hundred foot of ice and compacted snow into the water below sending an enormous surge of water down stream! It was an incredible thing to witness and I was lucky enough to capture it all on my camera!

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE MONSTROUS COLLAPSE ON YOUTUBE!!

After that excitement we went on an hours boat ride to see this monstrous glacier from a lower point of view and up a bit closer. To be honest it was a nice boat trip but could match the excitement of the huge collapse we’d seen earlier that day.

Exhausted we went back to our lovely, homely hostel and had a BBQ they’d organised for us. For a tenner we got more meat than even I could handle and wine and beer all thrown in for the price. The chef cooked up some beautiful lamb, beef, chicken, chorizo and black pudding. We spent the evening talking to all the people from around the world in our hostel and I even spent most of the evening speaking in Spanish to the Argentinian guy sat next to me. The day had been like a lovely dream for us and we both collapsed into our beds content with the fact that today had been right up there with the most spectacular days we’ve had during our 8 and a half months up to that point!

From the lovely little El Calafate we caught a bus for 5 hours back to Chile and the small town of Puerto Natales where we would be going on a 4 day trek into the National Park of Torres Del Paine. That blog is already written and will follow pretty soon after this one as we have a little catching up to do. Must have been enjoying ourselves too much or something.

Lots of additional photos are available to look at here.

T and C.

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