I love a good rocky outcropping on my hikes – all the better when they soar skyward in groups of three! Here are a few favorites for the Weekly Photo Challenge: Trio.
I love a good rocky outcropping on my hikes – all the better when they soar skyward in groups of three! Here are a few favorites for the Weekly Photo Challenge: Trio.
Sense memories are often the source of some powerful post-trip nostalgia, at least for me. Most of these are tied directly to the place where they were experienced, like the tinkling of cowbells in an alpine meadow, the aroma of grilled souvlaki meat in a Greek taverna, or the low hum of chanting monks in Tibet. But I have also formed random associations of certain pieces of music with particular places that are just as potent as these more intrinsic sounds and smells.
I have a short and whimsical playlist I associate with almost every trip I have taken and more often than not, it makes no sense thematically or chronologically. When I hear certain songs or artists, I am transported back to the strangest places – cities and countries that have no inherent connection to the music in question. One of the most recent examples is Daft Punk’s summer of 2013 hit song “Get Lucky,” which instantaneously evokes a warm summer day in Ljubljana, Slovenia, every time I hear it. This one, at least, fits its timeframe; I was there that summer, and every restaurant and bar along the Ljubljanica River seemed to be playing the catchy tune as we strolled the streets of this incredibly lovely little town. The light, peppy beat perfectly reflected the bright, energetic summer vibe of the city, and I (now annoyingly) contact my travel buddy K every time I hear the song and think of our happy time there.
A more unlikely combo is R.E.M. and the twisting, turning roads of the Arcadia region of Greece’s Peloponnese. The track I remember most, “Losing My Religion” was released in 1991, but this trip was many years later, and there was little about those dusty roads and small villages that seemed connected to the haunting, mandolin-heavy melody of this song. Nevertheless, R.E.M. is now forever linked to that road trip of shimmering hot days, with seven people packed into a van on the way to an ancestral village and home. The memory works both ways; I hear the tune whenever I look at the village photos, and I think of the mountain drive every time R.E.M. comes on.
Some parts of the world, whether through geographic or cultural isolation, are decades behind in the radio music scene. Two anachronisms still make me smile. One was listening to The Doors in remote Namche Bazaar, Nepal, on the trail to Everest Base Camp just a few years ago. On a dismal, rainy night, two of my fellow trekkers and I escaped our freezing lodge for a beer and some popcorn in a tiny bar warmed by a potbellied stove. We sat for hours, listening to the rain pinging against the metal roof and the strains of some very dated ‘60s and ‘70s songs, most notably a medley of The Doors. I may have thought about “The End” and “Riders on the Storm” at Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, but I certainly did not expect to hear his memorable voice deep in the Khumbu in Nepal!
Do you associate somber, serious Russia with bouncy Boy George? On the day of my arrival, I tried to make sense (while seriously jetlagged, no less) of the incongruous juxtaposition of “Karma Chameleon” and the austere architecture I was viewing out my sleet-covered cab window one January day. I would be hard pressed to think of a song less evocative of Soviet Russia than this, but it’s fixed now: St. Petersburg’s outskirts and Culture Club, together forever.
Aside from these random associations, there are also the songs that were playing on my own iPod on different occasions, either on purpose or arbitrarily. Pitbull took my mind off my panting on the way up the last set of steps and hills to Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail, The Fray have shut out any number of people snoring in nearby tents, and Kacey Musgraves’ country twang accompanied us on a drive all over Iceland’s country roads last summer.
Last but not least, there was one unforgettable trip on which we provided the “music” ourselves. We had grown very attached to our adorable, charming guide in Tibet after spending over a week with him in Lhasa and the Tibetan countryside. As we drove back from our expedition to Everest North Base Camp, we grew silly and sentimental about leaving him and decided to sing along to many of his favorite western artists, including Michael Bolton (had to hum that one!), Back Street Boys, and Céline Dion. I will never hear “My Heart Will Go On” again without a mental picture of a tiny Tibetan guy crooning his heart out on the Friendship Highway!
Do you have an internal soundtrack from each trip you’ve taken? Stay tuned for another post some day on all the books I associate with each trip!
As I noted yesterday, many of my posts describe hiking adventures, which makes perfect sense given my preference for travel on my own two feet. But there’s a certain kind of walk that I love even more than others: the circuit trek.
Two of my favorite circuit treks have been the Tour du Mont Blanc in France, Switzerland, and Italy, and the Paine Circuit in Chilean Patagonia. Yesterday I told you about the TMB, so now it’s time for a virtual trek around the “O.”
The Paine Circuit
The Paine Circuit hike in Chilean Patagonian is considered one of the world’s greatest treks. The whole circuit takes about 8-10 days to complete, and each day brings a new landscape and challenge among the crazy granite spires that ring Torres del Paine National Park. Only about 2% of all visitors to the park do the full circuit (the “O”), which includes the more popular “W” route as well as the back side of the Cordillera del Paine.
To begin, travelers fly into Punta Arenas, a windswept town near the bottom of the continent.
From there, it’s a 250 km drive to Puerto Natales, the closest city to the national park, and another 150 km to get into the park.
If possible, splurge and stay at the unique Eco-Camp to start; facilities include geodesic domed tents with “skylights,” a shared shower and bathroom building, and a main cluster of rooms that includes a small bar, meeting rooms, and a dining area.
From this point on, there is often no land vehicle traffic, and on occasion, pack horses are also unable to ford certain rivers, thus leaving trekkers no option but to carry all their belongings for the coming days (another reason to get a good warm sleep at Eco-Camp).
The first day’s walk ascends past the Chileno refugio to a pass and then climbs even more steeply up to the Mirador Las Torres, an ideal place from which to view the trio of famous rock towers – that is, if you’ve managed to make this climb on a day that is not foggy, misty, or cloudy. (Unfortunately, we encountered all three of these plagues and had no view whatsoever.) Today’s trail is steep both ways. There is no picking your poison; your quads and calves will scream going up, and your knees will complain bitterly on the way down.
Depending on which camps you choose to use on the circuit, the next day can be a shorter, easier day. In only about 4-5 hours, you can reach Campamento Serón along a tranquil trail filled with flowers and streams. There are no bunk facilities here, so everyone pitches a tent where he can. There is one toilet and one shower, and the camp is beautifully situated in a valley of margaritas (daisies) with snow-capped mountains all around.
The extra afternoon time at Serón is worth it because the next day covers about 12 miles, crossing a pass after the first hour, then rising and falling all day long until a final flat leg along the shore of a river. There can be some seriously swampy ground to traverse, so cross your fingers for a dry day. The pass is quite cold, even in summer, as is the exposed contouring route that descends.
Camp tonight is on the shores of Lake Dickson with its glacier tongues and icy water; here, most people are in tents, but there are a few bunks and FOUR glorious showers (2 men’s, 2 women’s) inside a newer hut if you can talk your way into using them.
Although the following day’s hike is not long, it culminates in the most awful camp on the circuit. The hike is only 5 hours or so and heads steadily but gradually uphill most of the way. A glacial river along the route is beautiful, and the heavy forest along much of the route makes for a sun-dappled day on springy earth. As you approach Campamento Los Perros, the terrain changes to a rocky shoreline and some scree slopes that afford a great panorama of Los Perros Glacier, a very high mountain peak, and the John Gardner (more correctly called Los Perros) pass you will cross tomorrow. Los Perros camp is notoriously muddy, devoid of sanitary bathroom facilities (one horrid toilet), and is often plagued by gnats and mosquitoes. This is all terribly unfair because tomorrow is the big day on the circuit.
Best to get an early start and pack well, for today the weather may throw everything it’s got at you, and you will reach for every piece of clothing and gear in your pack. The first three hours are an immediate ascent through a forest and very muddy swamp. There have been times the swamp is almost chest-deep so, again, make a wish for no precipitation. The ascent to Los Perros pass is intense but exhilarating. Often, the pass is deep in snow and windy beyond imagination, but the sight of the Grey Glacier spread out 2000 feet below is absolutely breathtaking and worth the battering.
The hike after this incredible pass just gets better and better. First, you drop down along a very exposed segment – glacier to the right, rock walls to the left, and wind all around – before entering a more forested area with constant ups and downs, including some very steep, high steps that are precarious and dizzying enough to warrant a rail. Soon, the first of several river crossing/ladder segments presents itself. After inching backward down a ladder into a ravine and then fording a river the best you can (read: count on getting at least your boots soaked), a makeshift pipe ladder (2 or 3 lashed together) is your escape out of the ravine. Feeling good about yourself and all that adventure, you will be either thrilled or chagrined to find you have to repeat the ladders and another river crossing a little later.
Relieved those are finished, you’ve still got hours to go to Campamento Grey, but at least there will be no more tests of mental fortitude. The trail spills out into a sunny meadow and there is a lodge with heavenly showers and toilets if you choose to pay for them.
A pretty and manageable walk to the Refugio Paine Grande on Lake Pehoe awaits. Near the end, there are eerie forests of burnt trees and red underbrush, and the contrast with the aqua color of the glacial lake in the background is stunning.
Paine Grande is a huge camp, which makes sense because you are now on the “W,” the much more popular route in the park. While you are on the “O,” you encounter a relatively small number of people. We were told the following: for every 15,000 people who visit Torres del Paine National Park, about 3000 will hike the W, and only several hundred will do the complete circuit. Crowded or not, it is worth spending some time here as the campground offers spectacular views of the Cuernos, the curved mountaintops that are emblematic of Chilean Patagonia.
From Paine Grande, either a day hike or the beginning of the last leg leads to Campamento Italiano, the French Valley, and on over some steep, slick rocks to Campamento Británico. This is not an easy walk; the boulders are large and irregular, and seem to go on forever. To complete the loop, the final section of the trek covers the last upstroke of the “W” and leads back to Las Torres, where you get another chance to see those three magnificent stone spires.
All told, the Paine Circuit does a full circumnavigation of the Cordillera del Paine and totals about 110 km. Most hikers travel counterclockwise (as described here), and most start somewhere on the “W.” (See map below) On the “W” and in a few spots on the “O” there are refugios with food and (sometimes questionable) toilet and shower facilities if you want to use them, but on the far back side of the Cordillera, you will need a tent. I adore a tent myself and did not stay in the refugios (although I did happily use the shower facilities in a few places!) Happy Camping!
(For a more detailed description of the longest and toughest day on the hike, see Going to (and from) the Dogs.)
Lately I’ve been obsessed with small buildings in wide-open spaces. Looking back through old photos, I found that it’s not so much the absolute size of the dwelling that matters, but the relative scale of it within its surroundings. So a brooding old castle may seem large up-close, but perched in a vast peat bog, it seems rather small and lonely. In fact, loneliness seems to be the main theme here, but I like the quiet solitude of all these places that are swallowed up by their scenery.
The Paine Circuit hike in Chilean Patagonian is, quite simply, one of the world’s greatest treks. It’s on many top-10 lists, and it lived up to that billing when we hiked it this past January. The whole circuit takes about 8-10 days to complete, and each day brings a new landscape and challenge among the crazy granite spires that ring Torres del Paine National Park. Only about 2% of all visitors to the park do the full circuit (the “O”), which includes the more popular “W” route as well as the back side of the Cordillera del Paine.
(CLICK ON PHOTOS if you want to see them full-size)
Every day on the “O” is spectacular, but Day 3 was, as they say, epic. To start the day, we woke up exhausted at Campamento Los Perros, by far the most unappealing of the campsites along the circuit. Los Perros (“The Dogs”) Camp is situated in a buggy grove of trees, and there is not a shred of grass or softness underfoot. We pitched our tents on hard dirt punctuated by tree roots that were impossible to avoid. There was one cold shower in the equivalent of a refrigerator-sized box with nowhere to hang clothes or towel (so most of us skipped it altogether) and one toilet that became plugged up during the night, leaving us with the option of going in there anyway, or going in the woods where hordes of bugs abounded. The unpleasant facilities, some light rain, the voracious little gnats and mosquitoes, and a relentless Peruvian flutist kept us from getting the rest we would have liked heading into the day I later called my own personal “Fear Factor” show.
We got an early start – up at 5:30 for breakfast and a 7 am departure. The first three hours were a steep ascent through a forest and very muddy swamp that has been known to be almost chest-deep. We were fortunate that the last 48 hours had been fairly dry, so the mud only reached the tops of our boots. After the swamp, the ascent to Los Perros (or John Gardner) Pass was intense but exhilarating. The wind was a gale force as we crossed vast scree fields, snow fields, and long, stony traverses. The rain lashed at our faces and hands and we were all glad for our layers and wind/rain jackets, but many of us could not even stop long enough to put any gloves on.
At right around the 3-hour mark, we approached the pass, where we all experienced the strongest winds we have ever felt; we were sure we would lift off or be knocked down multiple times. I hid behind a small cairn to finally dig out my gloves to cover my near-frozen hands. Going through the pass felt almost impossible and I only managed a few quick photos as the wind threatened to whisk my camera right out of my numb hands. As we went over, we were met by the most spectacular sight – the Grey Glacier spread out 2000 feet below us and a rainbow arcing over the ice from end to end. Worth every wet and frozen step so far.
As we descended through a forested area, the temperature and humidity soared, and we began to unpeel layer after layer as we braced ourselves on the steep and slippery mud incline. Knees aching, we eventually reached the first of our river crossing/ladder segments. Suffice it to say this would not be allowed in lawsuit-happy America!
We came down into a ravine and there before us was a raging waterfall and river, where our guide made the interesting choice to cross at a place where we could not possibly hit enough slippery rocks to avoid plunging into the freezing, fast-moving water. A second guide placed himself in the middle with an outstretched pole, a fellow hiker took up a position on a big, dry rock nearer the other side, and our main guide balanced at the far shore to grab hands and swing everyone onto the rocky shoreline. I still managed to plunk my left boot deep into the water, leaving my socks and boots waterlogged for the next 3-4 hours. (Cleaned off the mud, though!)
From there, we had to immediately mount a makeshift pipe ladder (2 or 3 lashed together) to climb back out of the ravine. Laden with backpacks and poles, we slowly climbed to the top and continued on our merry way, blissfully unaware that yet another, more fear-inducing crossing awaited us. Up and down the woody trails we tripped, now some 6 hours into the trek for today. Eventually, we came to Fear Factor Event #2, a backward climb down one of the long ladders (again, 2-3 ladders long) into a ravine, then a river crossing, then up an even longer, steeper set of ladders.
After the second ravine and a return to plain old walking, we cruised, dipping and climbing for just a few more hours until we rolled into Refugio Grey in a mere 8 ½ hours total, far beating our guide’s 10-12 hour estimate. The Grey campsite felt like a luxury resort, with a sunny meadow for tents and a lodge with heavenly showers and toilets! We showered luxuriously, hung laundry out to dry all over the tent ropes, and drank beers and pisco sours until all memories of “the dogs” disappeared. Then the Peruvian flutist showed up …