Thursday, February 16, 2006

Patagonia VIII: New Year on the "W"

The Torres and us (Maya, Barak and me)


Regarded as one of the most beautiful treks in South America, Maya, Barak and me backpacked the famous "W" circuit in the Torres del Paine National Park, hauling ass under changing weather conditions and up and down the winding paths to see the famous Torres spikes, while experiencing a bad incident that ended well and a tough scale up boulders to see the back side of the Torres…It was hard going but with views that knocked us out of our feet and will stay burnt into our minds. Stay tuned…

Day 1 – from winding paths to freezing Torres (30/12/05)
It was six fifteen when we woke up and quickly we were ready with our deposit luggage and the well fitted backpacks, neatly organized and ready for some serious action. Following a simple breakfast, we deposited the luggage and waited patiently outside the hostel with the rest of the Israelis, among them Aviran, Shiri and Alon, that as usual, had a wide grin on his face no matter what. We talked about plans: Aviran and Shiri planned to do the "W", Alon was planning to circumvent and do the circuit with two other Israeli girls. Beside us a group of ten locals were standing, probably workers as I sensed according to their outfit, probing us and our weird language. We laughed, saying they are planning to do the circuit, and were "well prepared"…The simple bus came to a stop some 10 minutes late and the door swung open in a noisy "wush" sound, and the driver went down, opened the cargo bay and motioned for us to enter the backpacks inside. We all boarded the bus and sat comfortably as possible, as it was an old bus (not that it made any matter, as long it will take us to the park). Once everyone boarded the bus, the locals boarded the bus and we were off. On the way we pondered and guessed that these locals didn’t pay anything for this ride. Not that I cared too much, but soon it became a problem for several people that payed. As you can guess yourself, the bus filled quickly and packed full, and still wondered in the city streets, picking more and more backpackers until at a certain point there was no more place. The European fellas were asking the responsible girl that took the tickets why they don’t have places and she shook them off her somehow. Bottom line, they stand almost all the way to the park, and all of us gripped the cunning extent of Juan. Finally, the bus left Puerto Natales and made its way toward the outback north of town, while stopping for a short period for refreshments and more importantly, dropping off the workers. The bus went on, and finally the bus entered the park from its eastern main entrance, which enabled us all to see the Torres in front of us, tall and eminent above the close to lake Sarmiento. Upon arrival to the entrance, a park ranger boarded the bus and explained with rapid Spanish what are we to do and the limitations. Even though I didn’t have that good Spanish, I understand that the full circuit is closed and is not recommended to use as a recent avalanche blocked part of the path (we heard about this problem, but many Israelis decided they can make it…). We went down and after paying the 10,000 pesos for the entrance (around 20 USD) we went to wait for transportation. We could have started walking straightaway and not wait for the transit, but as it was an additional 7 km (around hour and a half of walking), we preferred to wait and pay the 1000 peso per person and be taken by car – we figured out we gonna have enough time and distance to walk…
So, while Maya and Barak organized for the trek, I went to buy tickets and then waited with the others till the transit came, after half an hour there. If I wouldn’t have bought the tickets before hand, I would have suggested that we leave and start the trek, as there were many people waiting for the transit, and the transit still didn’t came. As there were no numbers on the tickets, I already envisioned the pushing/pulling to board the transits as one can assume that all the backpackers were anxious to get on and start the trek!
And finally, two transits rushed down the road, dust-trailing them for hundreds of meters, and one could feel the instant commotion on sight of the bumping up and down vehicles. Before the cars backed into the place we were ready with our backpacks to rush and storm, if necessary, toward the sliding side door. People rushed toward the cars and went toward the close doors even before the car pulled to a complete stop, the drivers behind the wheel amused at the fuss around them. Each transit was equipped with a small trailer that was to accommodate for the numerous backpacks. Soon enough, after enough push and pulling (as expected) we were all cramped into the transit seats and rushing down again toward the park, passing the areas that a year ago a fire blazed and burnt a great deal of the park's wood and now there were only black naked statues of dead trees among the vivid green grass that grew beneath them. Life and death, side by side.
After 20 minutes of driving, we came finally to our stopping point, the Torres camping site. Going down the vehicle, we arranged ourselves to the walk and while doing so, we saw 4 Israelis (3 girls and one guy) sitting down and eating their lunch happily. We joked with them that this is a good way to take off some of the weight and then we continued on walking, knowing we are going to meet them again.
We passed beside the cabin and among the tents, and started the walk up a hill side: Maya, Barak, me, Shir, Aviran and a German lady that was with us in the transit and joined along till we find the head trail. We didn’t know, that after only 10 minutes we gonna come to a stop, as the little and narrow trail would disperse into nothingness in the midst of wild grass and low-growing bush. From the start, all of us were skeptical as that trail was to thin and a wide one, as expected of a VERY busy trail, one that leads thousands of visitor yearly, if not more. It is suppose to be a 6 feet wide path, not a one foot. Looking at the simple topo map we got from the rangers at the park entrance, we saw that we were suppose to cross a serious stream, and if we would continue on (like some of the backpackers around us plan to do) we would eventually have to cross this stream, something which might be impossible. After discussing together, we agreed to go back to the starting point and start the trek knowing that we are going on a good and solid path and not pushing our way on rough terrain. It took us another 10 minutes to find the path, and even as we did, we were not sure till we actually saw the signs that marked the right way to our destination – Campamento Torres. This was a thing that amazed us – how come there are no appropriate trails signs that would ease the trekkers to the right path (especially after leaving some 20 USD on the counter…).
The weather was grayish and a bit depressing, the heavy backpack still sitting nicely and comfortably on my back and shoulders, almost not feeling its weight. On our way we passed through the Hostel Las Torres, with its green grass and its front plaza with national flags flutter in the cold air. A guy was just aligning a blue-white flag to one of the polls, and I stopped short as I noticed it was no other than the flag of the State of Israel! We all stopped walking, standing there, and Shiri, part as part of an amusement, part of patriotism, saluted the flag as it went up the poll and fluttered jolly. The German girl was amused at our act of patriotism and we explained her that our flag is one of the most important symbols that we respect. We continued on walking, crossing the stream over a bridge and saw the start of the forking in the wide path that leads north, toward the rising valley, and west toward the great lake Nordenskjold. We took the north path, and starting doing our way slowly up the slope. Aviran made fast and constitutive pace and soon he was beyond our sight, and the four of us (Maya, Barak, me and Shiri) made slow progress, feeling the weight that strangled every step we made. Shiri is asthmatic, and had a rough time walking up even with our slow pace, breathing heavily and in need of lots of stops to take in some air. Maya had some hard time, walking with the heavy backpack. Me and Barak managed the slope well, as long as we kept the slow pace of the girls. Slowly, we gained altitude and saw the distant lake Nordenskjold's turquoise milky waters among forests with the snowy mountains in the background - even though it was overcastted and doll, the view was impressive and amazing, and we took advantage of the view to take in some more air and let the feet rest before we continue on up. Finally, at a certain point we reached the highest point of this ascent, where Aviran waited patiently with a grin on his face and a distant look. From here, life were easier, going down into the valley with the river roaring some fifty meters underneath us, a mixture of colors of pale blue and milky white. The opposite granite black cliff was partially wet from the foam of the roaring river and decorated with deep scars ranging million years to an era we would never fully grasp it. Soon, we happily saw the first camp, Campamento Chileno that was sitting on the opposite bank so once we crossed the bridge, we took off our packs and settled for a lunch at a picnic table near the Cabin and the streaming river. As usual, I savored on my simple paste of Tuna mixed with Mustard spreaded on a piece of bread, while Maya and Barak enjoyed Jam and Milk Jam. Maya noted that we might get short with the bread, and either we cut short our appetite or we buy bread. Me and Barak offered buying more bread (of course) and after checking in the near cabin, we realized that we will have to wait till the next cabin we meet on the way (Campamento Itliano). The backpacks were shouldered and off we went, crossing back the bridge and walking along the river bed till we slowly climbed our way through the sloping forest while the sun shone on us here and there, when it managed to disperse some of the clouds. The view was very magical, the forest vast, green, antique in terms of years and conserved beautifully. We could not stop taking pictures…
Finally, under a low cover of whitish-grayish clouds we came to camp, Campamento Torres, hidden among a sloping medium-thick forest. Before entering the forest, we saw on our left a steep slope made of giant boulders and behind it, the granite walls of the eastern ridge of the Torres. It didn’t look to encouraging, I must say…Entering the forest, gloom dominated us all and the camp site, many colorful tents were already pitched here and there, and while we talked with the park ranger we were looking for camp grounds. We tried to find two camp grounds so we could pitch our tent near Aviran and Shiri's tent, but it was very hard to find. Finally, we managed to find a decent spot that was more or less close to another clear patch that Aviran and Shiri settled. We quickly set up the tent and the sleeping bags and got ready for the ascent. Avrian and Shiri were staring preparing their dinner and so were the other Israelis we met at the start of the walk and met again on the way. I told Aviran we are going to the scouting point over the Torres and Aviran told me they will climb it tomorrow at sunrise. "The weather is not good now, and tomorrow it might get better and I will see it at sunrise…" I told him that I will see and maybe I will go up with them tomorrow morning too, depending on the difficulty of the ascent. We said farewell and left the camping grounds back to the trail where we came from.
At that point the trail headed toward the left side of the slope, penetrating the forest and at a certain point, the path turned to the boulder ascent. That part was a tough one and demanded more time and energy to conquer. The chill wind blew at us with no remorse, the cloudy overcastted skies joined in with all their forces to turn this ascent and scene into a gloomy and depressing climb, a concoction of white-grayish huge boulders and orange round spots marking the appropriate path to walk by. Panting and sweating on top of the dike, the chilling wind whipping at our clothes, we came to the sight that no one can stay indifferent, no matter what.
At the end of the sloping dike in front of us, the turquoise milky waters rippled at the white shore and at the other end, the gray granite massive base of rock planted itself as a huge nail of steel. The gaze instantly went up to the top of the three-peaked fork, their pinnacles shrouded under the cover of the clouds, enhancing their mystery, the mystery of their birth. Except of some whispering of people and the shrieking of the wind, the place was dead quite, as if we were at the hall of a king, barely can address the sight, full of awe and comprehension. The realization was fast and hard stroking: here, under the towering towers, we are just pitiful small humans, even not stones (!) that withstand the winds, ice and rain for thousands of years and still stand erect and proud under still clouds. Maybe we have the brains, but we lack the strength and endurance that those pillars of the earth contain. I was comforted with the idea that at least our short life is fuller and richer then theirs. Their birth a short spasm of rattling earth and shock wave, and then their life is slow of change, of excitement.
We sat there as much as the chill enabled us, chewing some cookies we brought with us, and longed for some hot broth to heat us up in front of such a magnificent sight. We took some pictures of the place, of ourselves and then me and Barak headed to the beach, where we took some more pictures before returning half freezing from the wind. We made our way down slowly (even slower than the way up), watching our steps and our knees (especially me and Maya, both of us suffer from knees problems). We came back to the camp around 8 pm, most of the people were already in sleeping mode (or going to) prior to their ascent early in the morning. We quickly set up a "working kitchen" and due to the cold waters, boiling the water took more time than we planned, and we found ourselves finishing dinner around 11:30 pm…A French dinner, no doubt! At that point I decided that I wont join Aviran and Shiri for another go, as they leave camp around 4 am (which means getting up at 3:30 am…) and it wont leave me too much time to sleep (and the following day was expected to be the hardest and longest of the whole trek). We gladly got into our warming sleeping bag for a night sleep…

Day 2 - Walking and walking and walking… (31/12/05)
The morning was cold and a little damp, with mostly overcastted skies. We quickly kicked up the stove and heated water for tea that accompanied our bread and butter breakfast (actually, milk jam and peach jam) while pondering where are all the guys – certainly they are not up there thus far (around 7:30 am)?? The tents of Arian and Shiri as well as the other Israelis were closed shut and we speculated that they maybe sleeping after waking up so early and walking up the slope. While we were finishing our breakfast, we saw the Israeli company returning and we asked them how it was. Well, turns out that a heavy cloud sat and covered the Torres from top to bottom, right to the lake water…They stayed there from 4 am till 7 am, the clouds shifting from here to there, but almost always shrouding the whole Torres peaks. Suck. While they arranged their breakfast we already wrapped all our equipment and by the time the clock hit 9 am, we were already on our way, the sun shines between shrouds in the already dispersed clouds and blue sky welcomed us into a new and promising beautiful day. We walked briskly all the way back to Campamento Chileno (the one we had breakfast the day before) where we dropped our garbage and continued on, walking the slope up slowly but steady and consistent. We remembered Juan told us about a "shortcut" that would save us some time, and easily we found it. We stopped there to enjoy the amazing view, under clear skies with the lakes in the distance and the topping white peaks. Such magical place that sparked from wherever you looked. We continued on walking, going down the slope, the sun passes above us and soon it was noon and the hunger beckoned us to stop for a while. On a little hill we stopped, overlooking a small quiet blue lake, green bushes, trees and grass surrounded us from all directions and everything was so tranquil and quiet it was hard to believe that there is bustling life not too far from there…
While we walked west, the center ridge was towering us from the right (north) and many streams spilled toward our left, forcing us to cross them on the way forward, all of them without any bridges while some of them with some kind of cables to aid in the crossing. Most of them were not too difficult, but one of them was something I would never forget in my life.
We came to the stream right behind an organized tour of trekkers, Americans. While they crossed at a certain point, I tried to find other places as I saw that the crossing was technically difficult. The stream was at least five meter wide (at the minimum!), flowing in a white rumble over the strewn huge rocks, the latter wet and highly slippery. Not doubt that a glitch could lead to an injury. While I walked up the stream, looking desperately for other easier rocks and spaces combination, I saw that Barak and Maya already crossed to the other side. As I didn’t see any other locations better to cross, I decided to go back to the point of crossing and try my luck. I topped on one of the boulders, the roar of the stream overtopping the shouting of Maya and Barak and I read their mouth movement and followed their finger pointing. I saw the imaginative path, and didn’t like it all - I noticed a risk for a glitch at a certain point, and taking into consideration the weight of my almost 15 kg pack on my back and the 500 USD camera hanging from my chest strap, I was far from being careless. I tightened my backpack as tight as possible and felt it was part of my body (ha, nothing like a good backpack when you really need one!) and only then I started toward the edge of the boulder, pondering how am I gonna cross this damn thing, the roar never stops reminding me of what would happen to me if I do a mistake or land badly on the next boulder…Fear was getting into me, my heart starting to pound nervously and my senses alert as ever, all waiting for the moment of action. I was about to jump, and then held my self back, my mind demand another option. At that point, I looked back at another path I noticed before but put it aside as it looked also too risky. Now, standing there, that option didn’t look too frightening, and quickly I saw how I can do it. Consciously or not, my mind chose the path I felt sure (even if no one crossed there), and with my heart in my mouth, I jumped from one boulder to another and managed to reach the other side, no glitch, no problems. PPHHHEEEWWW!!! I blurted out, and grouped with Maya and Barak, surprised that they did this crossing through THAT path…While we were exchanging the experience of crossing that stream, another elder lady reached the edge of the bank and also pondered how exactly she would cross the stream. Barak immediately jumped to her rescue and helped her land safely on the other side. While continuing walking, we were again amazed that the Chileans didn’t secure this part even though they get paid very well to maintain this UNESCO's Biosphere Reserve…
The path soon started to ascend with the ridge's arms and we soon found ourselves tired from the lengthy walk (we walked already four hours with very few stops). Maya especially felt tired under the heavy pack and Barak helped her by removing several items from her pack and putting it in his pack. We stopped for ten minutes to regain strength and continued on, pushing forward, looking forward to see camp, which was far-far away. Around 1 pm we finally got to Campamento Los Cuernos, which is located near the beach of Lake Nordenskjold.
We were so happy to rest a bit on the little bench and take off the hiking boots! I and Maya went into the cabin to buy bread and some cookies while Barak waited with our stuff outside. At a certain point, I got out to take my camera in order to snap some shots inside the cabin, and while doing so, noticed a trekker sitting beside our backpacks but I didn’t take notice of him. I returned into the cabin, snapped my shots and then we went back to the bench, sitting beside Maya and Barak. As I was savoring on eating some cookies and massaging my foot soles, I heard Maya asking Barak to give her the digital camera so she could browse through the pictures she took in the past day. Barak replied that he doesn’t have the camera and that it is suppose to be in Maya's possession. Maya acknowledged, and started looking for the camera…and kept on looking…and turned her backpack upside down…and moved the bench and looked beneath and around it…and soon, the three of us gripped that either Maya forgot the camera on our last stop (which she quickly verified as impossible) or that it was stolen…It didn’t take us too long to remember the odd trekker that was sitting beside our stuff (and my own unguarded camera!) and suddenly the option that he might have a connection with the "mysterious" disappearance of the camera looked more and more logical. Barak went to the beach to look for him while reality sank slowly into Maya's conscious and her mood became gloomy and sad. Around that time, Aviran and Shiri came, and while they sat and made themselves a quick lunch, we told them about what happened. They tried to encourage Maya, but that obviously didn’t help much to lift Maya's spirit, as she felt responsible for the camera – The fact that it was Barak's father camera only made her feel worse. Barak returned from the beach, hopeless, as he saw that guy sitting with his friend on the beach and talking. Obviously, he could not do anything or accuse them, as he even didn’t see it happen. Maya, in a desperate effort, asked me to come with her and to talk with the guys (most probably Chileans), and maybe convince them to return the camera. While we walked to the beach I told Maya not to count on it, as if they were such bastards to steal another tourist's camera, I dare say they would hand it back just because we ask them. But even so, I walked with her and soon we saw them, sitting among the white stones that were strewn on the rocky beach. The suspect didn’t conversed the English and even though I talked with my basic Spanish, his friend knew enough English that we could understand from them they don’t have a clue as to what happen to the camera and that they never saw it in their life. Examining them and their reactions, I looked for signs that would hint the edge of a lie, but I didn’t manage to see any of it. Their reactions were genuinely naïve and innocent. Where they?, I asked my self after we left the place, or maybe they acted so well? Or maybe somebody else took the camera…? But who?? I remember strongly that I thought at those moments that the only way Maya can get her camera back is a display of great pain, such as a genuine great crying, that would work its own way to untie the tight and stiff knot in that man's heart that would move him against the sense of giving the camera back to its legal owner…
Coming back to the bench and to our stuff, we sat and tried to think what to do next – we still had 2-3 hours of hike ahead of us, and time past fast as the sun already moved to the other half of the sky, its light starting to be warmer and warmer by the minute. We decided to write a note in Spanish and English asking people that saw the camera or the person that stole it to return it to the cabin or to contact Maya and Barak through their Email address. While Barak went to post it in the cabin, it finally downed on Maya that the camera was lost and with it, all her 200 photos of landscape, fauna and flora from the Fitzroy and from this park. At that point she broke down and cried, there, at the entrance of the cabin, visible and disregarding the people that came in and out of the cabin. The pain of the loss was so visible and eminent I could feel the pain pinch almost every person in that courtyard, most buried his/her head in discomfort and in total hopelessness in light of what happened. Suddenly I noticed that also the Chilean was standing near the entrance to the cabin, oblivious to the drama that was happening just a meter or two from him, his whole being is on another plant. Looking at him, I lead my self to believe that he has nothing to do with this event, as I could not believe a guilty man can ignore such a powerful emotional moment, not even looking or paying any attention to it. At that point, I didn’t take into consideration that a man who can act convincingly and look innocent can also act as if this case has nothing to do with him…
The dramatic breakdown lasted only five minutes and with encouraging words we help each other with the packs and with heavy hearts we returned to the issue on the present agenda: how we continue from here? I went to the cabin to the suspect's friend standing there, and reluctantly, asked him where is the continuation of the path to Campamento Italiano, and surprisingly, he jumped out of his shoes to help and guide me to the head trail. At that, my senses sprang back and I felt that a not-too-clean conscious sprang him out to help us. My suspicion returned with full force and when I walked behind him I eyed him, while he blabbered about this and that. Maya and Barak were walking behind me with some distance and on the way I saw the suspect finishing pitching his tent and arrange his stuff. Our gazes crossed and my cold eyes with my windy acknowledgment didn’t left any room to understand that whatever happened, I still had a bad feeling about him. As we already reach the rim of the camp, I heard shouts and loud talks. I told the guy to stop short and walked fast back, thinking what the hell happened now…And to my surprise, I heard Shiri and Aviran talking loud about "finding the camera", and soon I met radiating Maya and Barak, their digital camera in their hand, joy and relief in their eyes. Superb! What happen?? I asked and soon I understand that the suspect (which from now on would be called, the thief) "suddenly" saw that he "mistakenly" took the camera with his laundry…Oh, what a miserable mistake, isn’t it?? I said sarcastically, thinking that this guy deserves something worse than the cold feedback he got from us. But, it didn’t matter a bit, as the relief was so overwhelming, we trotted without even looking back, so happy that our trek got out of a surprisingly sharp and nasty curve – no need to explain the effect that steal would have on the rest of the trek and our enjoyment. But, as I always like to say, everything happens for the best, as now the trek's difficulties were seen under different light and overall we were uplifted.
While our spirit was close to heaven, we walked beside the lovely and deserted beach of lake Nordenskjold, and then started the next up hill scramble to the next shoulder, and from there, we could see the highest ridge in the park, El Paine Grande. As the sun slowly went down, we continued down toward what was the mouth of the French Valley (Valle del Frances), with the ridges of Paine Grande on one side and Los Cuernos on the other. We continued walking among the green bush and trees, with a roaring river that can be heard clearly and easily over the silence of that heavenly place. Finally, after 11 hours of hike over hills and across streams and one memorable zig-zag of depression-relief we came to Campamento Italiano. The camp was, as expected, packed full with backpackers, most of them already deep into cooking and preparing dinner. We were dead tired, but we had to find a place to pitch a tent, and it take us some time till we finally agreed on a location. After rearranging, we quickly set up our meal (ready-made mashed potatoes) and we were set for sleep half an hour before midnight, the start of 2006, which none of us knew what it hold for us: the three of us didn’t know what we are gonna do when we go back home. But we didn’t think about the future but merely on the present. At midnight, while we could hear people cried "Happy New Year!" we switch the Self-timer on our cameras and snapped some pictures, and almost immediately went to sleep similarly to the rest of the camp…

Day 3 - The French Valley
The next day we had a hard time to wake up, with sore muscles mostly. After a quick and light breakfast we took our small backpack and went venturing heading north toward the scouting point, some five and a half kilometers away. We started the walk from the camp, which was situated on the forested eastern bank of the river, Rio Frances, and made our way along its ascending bank, passing close to the crashing cascade of the flowing river and then up to the shoulder that connected one ridge with another. From there we had a splendid view over Paine Grande and its massive, all covered with thick layer of snow. In the little time we spent at that point we were lucky enough to see some thunderous ice crashes (not as grandiose as the Perito Moreno glacier, but even so, impressive).
While we were enjoying the sight of the crashing ice, we saw a young, thin and tall Israeli marches with good pace, simple jeans on his lower part and sandals. The fact that it was cold didn’t matter to him very much. He was very glad to meet Israelis again, after so much time of traveling in the company of mostly foreigners, and told us he was on his last days of the famous circle. As we walked slowly, he quickly continued on, saying farewell.
We continued on, the path takes us through a thick and cold forest, up and down small slopes. We were alone and the silence was dominative. We got to Campamento Britanico quite fast and stop there for a short refreshment of water and some cookies. We were not surprised to see so little tents pitched there, as it was a place not many visit and even less, make camp. At the point we sat we could see the continuation of the river between the high ridges on both of its sides, and in the not too far distance, a third ridge that close and block the valley. From the camp we had an additional hour to reach the scouting point.
We continued on walking for 10 minutes when we found ourselves approaching a rising little hill, which on top of it was a heap of large boulders the color of brown, and on one of them was hand-sprayed "Mirador", scout point in Spanish. We were dumb struck and surprised to find it so close to the camp, and we looked around to see if the path continues on (and indeed found a little path blocked with a log of wood). Puzzled, we asked some elderly trekkers that sat near the base of the boulders heap where is the scouting point. They told us that the "real" scouting point is an hour and a bit from here, and if we want, we can bypass the small blockade on the path and continue with it. "Climb the little ravine until you reach a plateau-like area, and from there continue hard left and soon you will see the slope reaching high to a pass – that’s the scouting point over the south Torres." We asked him how difficult it is, and he chuckled and said that for him it is too much, but for us it won't be too difficult.
As Maya felt her knees quite bad, she passed this climbing and after assuring us she doesn’t have any problem waiting in the sun and enjoying the scenery. And the scenery was impeccable: the French Valley was located between the snowy western ridge of Grand Paine and the exposed jagged eastern ridge that connected eventually with the Torres spikes north east from our location. The distant lakes sparkled in the morning sun and the green beckoned us from a far with its attractive vivid green color. The weather was splendid.
We arranged ourselves with the minimal stuff and water we needed, bypassed the barrier and got on our way up the sloping ravine. The little stream that drained into the Rio del Frances hummed while we tackled the medium-level slope and in 20 minutes we arrived to a marshy-water-soaked plain, with large rocks strewn here and there. We wound our way here and there, trying not to sink too much into the drench grass. We saw a couple of Europeans making their way up the marshes toward the already evident high shoulder, far away (and it turned out that it was even farther than we even guessed!). Only while we crossed the marshes, we grasped that after crossing the marshes we had to start with a long slope, all boulder-covered and not too inviting. We continued on plodding forward and finally made it to the boulder area.
The area was all covered with varied sizes of boulders, from tiny bits to a mini-minor size rock, most of them white and bright under the mid day sun. We continued on, passing the woman that sat on a rock and, evidently, decided not to continue on with the slope that started to pitch upward – we could see her boyfriend reaching already the upper part and not too far from the end (or what we THOUGHT was the end…). Looking at the map, I could see that this shoulder that we pointed our mind and bodies to, was in between two prominent jutting peaks, the southern one is Espalda, a 2500 MASL finger and the northern one is Fortaleza, similar in height. Soon we noticed a long and jumpy figure moves and meet with the European, apparently, talking with him – we recognized the figure as the Israeli guy we saw before. Soon, we met him, and as it was a funny conversation, here is the way it went, more or less, as far as I can remember:
"Listen, do you know where is the French Valley or something like that??" [The Israeli asked]. "I was like climbing half of the damn mountain over there" pointing toward the pass he came from and continue "and that slope was a bitch! And when I was there, I didn’t see anything…just more damn rocks! Where is that damn French Valley??" Me and Barak look at each other and then I replied:
"You ARE in the French Valley," and then I showed him with my hands about all the surrounding mountrain ranges and rocks "ALL THIS is the French Valley."
"No, it cant be, man. Juan showed me pictures from the French Valley: two blue lakes, snowy mountains, all beautiful. What is THIS shit?"
and with the "This" he pointed toward the ground. Hmm, I and Barak looked at each other, on the verge of bursting with laughter and together we showed the guy the peaks, the two far lagoons (OUTSIDE the valley) and the rest of the description. He looked at it, puzzeled, and then continued: "I don’t know, man, I am telling ya, he showed me an amazing place…If this is the French Valley, then it is shit! My friend was so smart staying sleeping in the tent, I should have listened to him…" and with that, he parted from us, wishing us luck climbing that "bitch slope" and going down, jumping from one rock to another. We shrugged and continue on with the slope, some half an hour more, a climb that we started to rethink if it was that smart to start with it from the start (especially when we saw how much we walked and climbed…The Mirador was not visible from where we were standing, but we knew Maya was waiting there, for more than 2 hours now…As we felt we didn’t have too much left, we decided to push it fast so we could be down as soon as possible. Looking around us while resting, one could not admire the nature we were in the midst of. Mountain ranges, far away lagoons, barren and rough land with no path or marking, nothing. Like nobody was walking here (and believe me, finding this kind of places in this park without so many tourists is not that easy). At a certain point we saw the European returns from his experience, half slides on an ice field that covered part of a sloping valley. Once we met with him, he told us that we have something like 20 minutes of hike up till we get to the part that it is possible to notice the Torres. "There is no need to continue on, in my opinion, as it doesn’t lead you to a better view…" We thanked him and kept on walking, happier that we gonna see the end of this long and rough slope. Finally, as we neared the ice field, we could already notice one of the Torres, partially obscured by the low clouds that covered that area permanently for the last two hours we climbed. At that point we noticed somebody was climbing behind us. Barak asked me if it is not Avirna, but I remembered Aviran has a green fleece and not a red one, and I told him that I don’t think so. Even so, the figure advanced with a blazing pace, bypassing rocks and boulders and tackling the slope like it was a kid's game. Finally, after we crossed the ice field Barak told me it is Aviran, and then I noticed he was not wearing his fleece (and how could he, when exerting so much energy…). We waved toward him and he waved back, not stopping for even a second. Amazing!
At a certain point we noticed the distant pass, the Torres tower prominently above it, the wind whipping at us. It was an impressive sight. We decided to stop at that point – enough is enough. From both sides of us, the peaks of Fortaleza and Espalda were towering us and with continuation of Espalda ride, we could see three fingers protrude, and we pondered if those are the Torres, from the backside. I took out the map and tried to figure out where we were - I managed tp positioned ourselves couple of hundred meters from the pass, and I guessed that indeed what we saw were the Torres. While we took out our cameras and start snapping pictures here and there, we saw Aviran continue to walk up the slope, not knowing that it was for vain, as he would need to cross a little ravine and then go up another slope and etc. till he will eventually reach the pass. We waved and shouted, but the guy didn’t hear us as he was listening to music. Eventually, he stopped for a minute and we manage to draw his attention. After a short-loud conversation with great echoes, he came down to us. He told us that he and Shiri saw Maya waiting at the scouting point, and as Shiri joined Maya for rest, Aviran went up the slope (and thus we were relieved that at least Maya was not waiting for us alone…). We took pictures together and talked, talking about this and that and admiring the amazing wild landscape that surrounded us from all directions, so alone and desolate not only from the rest of the world, but even from the busy but isolated national park that lay in the distance.
We started to get down, Aviran quickly opened the gap by sliding on his ass on the ice field slope, shouting and enjoying it (Aviran still didn’t visit Villarica volcano…). I and Barak slides also on our asses, but quickly changed our mind. First, it was freezing my ass really good, and also burning my bare hands when I tried to slow down. Second, as I went down the slope, trying to slow the rate of descend, I found myself sliding to the side of the valley, where a line of exposed boulders lined up the whole slope. Without any other choice, still shouting of joy, trying to stop with my bare hands with little success, I crashed into the rocks, hitting the side of my ass onto couple of rocks. I was still laughing when I raised my self, half limping and continued sliding the rest of the way on my two legs…it was quite funny. Even though it was fun, we were happy to leave the ice field back to the steady and tough rumble of rocks, and found a small path that lead the way down to the marshes. There we lost the way we went up, and so got to the ledge at not the previous place we came through. At that area large boulders (some of them the height of 2 meters and more) where shrouded by overgrowing bush and small trees, and it was hard to see the gaps between the granite rocks. Barak leading the way, we climb down those massive rocks, in one point, I can still remember myself kneeling on an edge of rock, maybe 2 cm in width, which was formed due to a crack of a huge boulder. It was 2 and a half meter high from the ground, on one side nothing but air, on the other, the gaping hole of the cracked rock, also some 1 and half meter down. My life in my mouth, I managed to half crawl, half walk down the spiny granite edge till I was low enough to jump down back to mother earth. Eventually, we came back to the point where this area connected with the ravine and soon we were going down on familiar grounds. While we went down, even when we were in the boulder area, we saw people doing their way up, those already advanced just said "hey!" or "hello" but those that we met close to the start of the trail also had some questions of how much more they have and if it is worth it. Both I and Barak agreed that it was not worth the intense climb we had to go through, but we didn’t regret going up there (though we would not have done that if we knew what to expect).
We found Maya in the company of Aviran, Shiri and the other Israelis we saw on the way and talk a bit before we moved back to the camp. Already we decided we are going to change plans and instead of going the same day to the next camp we will stay an additional night and the next day we will move directly to the end of the trek.
Reaching camp, we hurried to make dinner (I was hungry and in my hunger I burst out in anger…something I am not proud of…) and talked while the food was being cooked, and soon we went to sleep, tired from the long day we have been through…

Day 4 – Returning to Puerto Natales
We had a tight schedule that day – we had to catch the 12 PM ferry back to Pudeto and from there catch the bus back to Puerto Natales. We woke up a bit later than we expected and left camp only around 9:20, with 2 hours and a bit to walk (we estimated that we would need almost two hours to cover the distance). That morning the skies were grey from the overcastted clouds, and cold as a consequence. We started a good pace, tired as we were, as we didn’t like to miss the ferry and wait for the 6:30 PM ferry…
On the way we passed two lakes, one of them Lago Skottsberg, with superb reflections of the mountain ranges and the forested areas surrounding it…amazing!
We kept on walking, going up and down hills, pacing even faster, until we finally reached camp around 11:30 only to grip that the ferry leaves only around 12:30. Well, more than we wanted but nonetheless, better than to be late by an hour! Barak and I went to the jetty to look for the place where you can purchase the ticket (as I understand from the park ranger we met in the ranger's cabin) but we found the jetty empty for only an enormous amount of backpacks (Barak and I thought how careless it is to leave it like this, especially after what we've been through...). In any case, suddenly we saw Maya coming back to us, as she went in a different way and call us to come and stay in the warm kitchen cabin. And who do you think we found there?? Of course, Aviran and Shiri!
Turns out, after coming back to the previous camp, they continue walking to this camp, slept the night and the following morning Aviran marched, alone, to see the Grey Glacier (that we decided to pass) and manage to come back in time to catch the ferry...
When the ferry finally came, a long line quickly formed and soon, the ferry backed up and cruised across Lake Pehoe while we enjoyed the famous landscape scenery of Torres del Paine. When we reached our destination, we walked five minutes more to reach the bus. For our relief, we didn’t wait there too long, and soon we were bumping on the road, tired and happy to get soon to Puerto Natales, for a good hot shower and a good REAL meal. Along the way I went into a deep doze for an hour and at the end we reached Puerto Natales after 4 hours of ride...And there was nothing like coming back to the hostel, with the same room already reserved beforehand and have a good shower!
Well, actually it didn’t happen – soon after Maya took a shower (and also half of the bus, as half of it were Israelis who were in San Jose hostel) there were no hot water! I complained and asked for a solution with the senora and on the way back I found a vacant room, that somebody left it in a mess (and also one Source sandal and an expensive after shave...). Curious, I checked to see if there were any warm water – Yes there were!! I returned quickly and asked Barak if he wants to go for it, but he declined, and preferred our own. Well. In that case, I am going! I told him and quickly already was back in the room need to say, this was one good shower!
Ha, so good to be back in civilization...

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