The W

Torres del Paine, moon, Chile, moonrise

Cuernos Moonrise : Prints Available

A nearly full moon rises behind Cuerno Principal (2600m) - December. 
Glaciar Grey, Torres del Paine, Chile
Glaciar Grey, Torres del Paine, Chile

Last week we spent 10 days hiking the popular “W” Circuit in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. These spectacular mountains rise abruptly 3000 vertical meters (almost 10,000 feet) above a series of huge turquoise lakes. Although the finest views of the range are actually seen from further away across the lakes (like this), the W Circuit offers the opportunities to experience the three main valleys and highlights within the range: the Glaciar Grey, the Valle Frances, and Las Torres lake. Although most people hike this route in about 5 days or so, we took 10 days so that we could spend extra time in each valley along the way.

Hiking below Cerro Paine Grande

We started the trek by taking a ferry across Lago Grey to Refugio Grey, and hiking to Campamento Los Guardas, a campsite set in a beautiful lenga forest, with a spectacular mirador (lookout point) directly above the snout of Glaciar Grey, a huge glacier that flows out from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest extrapolar extent of ice in the world.

Glaciar Grey, Torres del Paine, Chile, panorama, sunset

Glaciar Grey Sunset Panorama : Prints Available

Enjoying a panoramic view of Glaciar Grey at sunset.

We then hiked around the massive Cerro Paine Grande up to Valle Frances, the second destination of the trek. This is one of the most unique mountain cirques in the world – a broad basin ringed by sheer needle peaks. It’s the kind of place that no photo can do justice to; you just have to be there to tilt your head back and spin around to see all those teeth surrounding you. Awesome!

Cerro Catedral, moonlight, Torres del Paine, Chile, Valle Frances

Catedral Moonlight : Prints Available

A long exposure reveals moonrise light on Cerro Catedral, in Valle Frances in the center of the Torres del Paine range.

Camping in Valle Frances, Torres del Paine, Chile

During the trek you must camp in the large designated campgrounds, usually situated in the beautiful but gloomy lenga forests which provide good shelter from the strong winds that whip around most of the time. Most of these campsites are thoroughly used and abused by the thousands of trekkers that pass through, and the forests around the camps are littered with toilet paper and associated organic matter. It’s a shame that the whopping $30 USD park entrance fee that each of the thousands upon thousands of visitors must pay is apparently not quite enough to maintain a couple decent outhouses.

Hiking up Valle Ascencio
Hiking up Valle Ascencio

Photographing these huge peaks requires a bit of luck with the ever-changing weather and light conditions; unfortunately luck was not on my side for the entire first week of the trek, despite my most relentless efforts. Finally, during our stay in the third and final valley I got some sweet moonlight photos of the Torres spires reflecting in the lake during an unusually calm spell.

Las Torres, Torres del Paine, Chile, moonlight

Las Torres Moonlight : Prints Available

Las Torres reflect in the moonlight on a rare calm night.  From left to right, the three spires are Torre Sur De Agostini (2850m), Torre Central (2800m), and Torre Norte Monzino (2600m).  To get a sense of scale of these peaks, consider that the lake sits at an elevation of about 850m, meaning that these peaks here rise a sheer 2000m (~6500 ft) above the lake!

Tomorrow we take the bus to El Chaltén, where we’ll spend a week or so in the Fitz Roy range, the other famous Patagonian mountain range. I’ve always liked that place a lot, and am excited to return one more time!

Las Torres, Torres del Paine, Chile, lake

Las Torres Overlook : Prints Available

From left to right, the three spires are Torre Sur De Agostini (2850m), Torre Central (2800m), and Torre Norte Monzino (2600m). To get a sense of massive scale of these peaks, consider that the lake sits at an elevation of about 850m, meaning that these peaks here rise a sheer 2000m (~6500 ft) above the lake!

UPDATE: December 31, 2011: Apparently we were lucky to do this trek when we did it… unfortunately this last week a careless camper (surprise, surprise – an Israeli, of course) tried to start a campfire (which is forbidden) and ended up starting a wildfire that has burned tens of thousands of acres on the front side of the range. All the trekkers have been evacuated, and hundreds of firefighters are fighting the blaze, which is not yet under control. Tragic… http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/317068

Puerto Natales

Puerto Natales, Chile, Patagonia, sunset, December

Puerto Natales Sunset : Prints Available

A gorgeous sunset seen from Puerto Natales - December. 

As I explained in the comments in the last post, we drastically changed our travel plans and caught a flight yesterday from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales, far south in Patagonia. Though we’re skipping the entire Carretera Austral region, I don’t think we had the time to do that area justice anyways, and now we have a whole month to enjoy the spectacular mountains in southern Patagonia without rushing around.

Puerto Natales is the gateway to the famous Torres del Paine, one of the most unique and spectacular mountains ranges on the planet. This is my third time here, but Claudia’s first. Tomorrow we’re headed out for at least a full week, possibly more, trekking around the range, and there are many locations there that I haven’t visited previously which I’m looking forward to seeing (and photographing).

Jack and Claudia in Puerto Natales, Chile

In other news, we just got word that Claudia’s fiancé US visa application, which we submitted in July, HAS BEEN APPROVED!!!! WOOHOO!!! She doesn’t actually have the visa yet – first the approved application will be processed through the Dept of State and sent to the embassy in Germany (which takes about a month – perfect timing with our trip), and then Claudia has to go there and schedule an interview before she finally gets the visa. But, this approval is the main first step – the tallest hurdle in the whole process. The rest is just a matter of follow-through. We are stoked, and relieved!

Jungle Granite

Cochamó, Chile, rain forest, hiking

Hiking through the wet temperate rain forest in the Cochamó valley.

After waiting in the rain in Puerto Varas for a week, we finally got a better weather forecast and headed out for a six day backpacking trip to the impressive Cochamó valley in Chile. We might have jumped the gun by a day or two, since it rained the entire way up; the ten mile hike was totally wet and muddy, with countless bogs and knee deep creeks to cross.

Cochamó, Chile, mist, forest

Mist rising off the forest on a rainy day in Cochamó.

Soaking wet upon arrival, we spent the first night in the Refugio Cochamó, where we dried out a bit and even had a wood-fired shower!

Cochamó, Chile, La Junta, cabin

Cerro La Junta towers above a cabin in the Cochamó valley.

We spent the next four nights camping in our tent in the campground at La Junta, and doing hikes during the days. Fortunately the weather did get better, and we had a number of sunny days mixed in with the rainy days.

Cerro La Junta, Cochamó, Chile

Cerro La Junta : Prints Available

The granite walls of Cerro La Junta (1677m) tower above the temperate rain forest of the Cochamó valley in Chile - November.

The Cochamó valley is known mainly in climbing circles, due to the vast granite walls that rise above the rain forest on both sides of the valley. The locals and resident climbers have blazed a network of trails to access the various walls and peaks – these “trails” are actually often more like roped via ferrate, with seriously challenging scrambling, climbing, and route-finding puzzles up through the steep, thick forest, and over exposed granite slabs. The vista above was a reward of an intense hike that was one of the most challenging (and fun) hikes yet for me in the Andes!

Volcán Villarrica

Volcán Villarrica, Pucón, Chile, November

Volcán Villarica : Prints Available

Volcán Villarrica, above Pucón, Chile - November. 

The last several days we’ve been in the town of Pucón, at the northern end of the Lakes District of Chile. The beautiful Mt-Fuji-esque Volcán Villarrica rises behind the town, which is situated on the shore of Lago Villarica. Although totally different geographically, Pucón reminds us of San Pedro de Atamaca, in that it’s super touristy, yet has a great relaxed vibe, lots of delicious food, and heaps of activities to do in the surrounding area.

I visited this town in the winter 10 years ago, and am shocked at how much it has changed and grown since then – I can hardly recognize anything about it. I vaguely remember back then one main strip with a few main dusty dirt roads branching off; now it’s a bustling tourist town with a complete network of paved roads, and probably ten times the size. But it still has a great atmosphere, perhaps better than ever.

Hiking Volcan Villarrica, Pucon, Chile

Of course once I saw the snow-smothered volcano, I knew that if we were going to climb it, I’d definitely have to snowboard down! So, I rented a board again and we figured out how to get up there without having to use guide services like most people are obligated to do (just a matter of showing our crampons and ice axes, along with a printed proof of membership in a mountain club – in my case an old email from the Colorado Mountain Club).

Smoking crater of Volcan Villarrica, Pucón, Chile

From the bottom of the little ski area to the 2840m (9317 ft) summit was about a 1500m (5000 ft) climb, all on snow. But this was a cakewalk compared to the grueling tour of Volcán Nevado last week! Another difference was that while we were all alone on the mountain last week, this time we were accompanied by about 100 or so other people, mostly in big guided groups.

Volcán Villarica is an active volcano, and from the summit we were able to peer down into the gaping smoking crater! Pretty amazing!

Snowboarding Volcán Villarrica, Pucón, Chile

There’s me dropping down from the summit.

Snowboarding Volcán Villarrica, Pucón, Chile

It had snowed several days earlier, and the cold nights and sunny days since had transformed the new snow into smooth fresh spring corn snow! Perfect for the long, mellow, cruisey descent. Claudia brought a plastic trash bag and had a blast sliding down the whole way.

Sunset on Volcán Villarrica, from Pucón, Chile

We were stoked to have scored such a perfect day on the volcano! Now we’re still in Pucón, trying to figure out where we’re going next tomorrow. But first, a dip in the nearby hot springs this evening!

Volcán Nevado

Vulcan Nevado, Chile

As you could probably guess from the photos in my last post, all the snow in the mountains around Las Trancas had me practically salivating, wishing for a snowboard. Well, on the way down from Valle de Aguas Calientes, we met some skiers and a splitboarder, who told me of a place in town where I could rent a splitboard! Well, I got the board that evening, and the next morning we woke up at the break of dawn and started the long walk to Volcán Nevado, a 3212m (10,538 ft.) glaciated volcano – the tallest one around here. Read more about our big day below! Continue reading “Volcán Nevado”

Valle de Aguas Calientes

Valle de Aguas Calientes, Termas de Chillán, Chile, hot springs

Valle de Aguas Calientes : Prints Available

The hot springs rivers in Valle de Aguas Calientes steam in the cool dusk air.  The water here is scalding hot, though a joining river right around the corner is a perfect temperature for a soothing soak below Vulcan Chillan Viejo.

After our long bus ride south from northern Chile and a quick pitstop in Santiago, we’ve spent the last several days in and around Las Trancas, a sleepy mountain town set in a gorgeous forested valley below two volcanoes. Las Trancas is situated down valley from the famous Termas de Chillán hot springs and ski resort; however, we bypassed the commercial hot springs in favor of a backpacking trek to some remote hot springs on the other side of the mountains. Continue reading “Valle de Aguas Calientes”

Antofagasta

La Portada, Antofagasta, Chile, arch

La Portada : Prints Available

The sea-stack arch of La Portada, with the lights of Antofagasta behind.

The last three days were spent along the coastline of northern Chile as we slowly made our way down from Iquique. Along the way we camped a couple times along some of the many rocky bluffs, watched sea lions lounging on the rocks, pelicans skimming the ocean, and big barreling closeout waves pounding the shoreline. Now we are having a layover in the town of Antofagasta today before catching our 18-hour bus down to Santiago tomorrow.

Although the first impression of Antofagasta is not particularly flattering, now that we’ve been forced to spend a day wandering around here it seems like a city that is trying hard to provide entertainment and culture – with its beaches, plazas, pedestrian malls, movie theaters, and the obligatory public outdoor gyms. Nevertheless, we are excited to escape northern Chile and return to greener places! Our next stop is Santiago with a mission to find the mountaineering store there to replace some of our stolen equipment, then down to the mountains in the Chillan area to hopefully climb a volcano and find some more remote hot springs!

Iquique

Paragliding above Iquique, Chile

We’ve spent the last few days relaxing in Iquique, a city in northern Chile. Along with it’s renowned beaches, Iquique is famous for its perfect paragliding winds, especially this time of year (spring) when the winds blow consistently off the ocean and up the enormous hills that loom above the city. We met a Chilean paraglider in our hostel who a few days before had flown 160 km down the coast from Iquique to Tocopilla!

Iquique, Chile, Cerro Dragon, dune, city

Iquique and Cerro Dragon : Prints Available

The lights of Iquique shine brilliant as seen from the top of Cerro Dragon, a huge dune that looms over the city.

Driving into Iquique from the east was spectacular. You don’t really realize that you’re driving in along a high plateau until the road gets to the edge, and all of the sudden you see the city and the ocean thousands of feet directly below! If that wasn’t enough, there’s a gigantic dune called Cerro Dragon that totally dwarfs the city. Of course, we had to hike up that dune one evening for sunset! I know I’ve used the word “surreal” way too much on this blog the last few weeks in northern Chile, but how else can you describe a scene like this, with an enormous dune towering over a city?! This planet seems to hold endless surprises.

Speaking of surprises, our plan to spend the next few days camping on the beaches down the coast is probably thwarted since somebody broke into our truck last night! Fortunately the vast majority of our important stuff was in our hostel room, but now we’ll have to try to replace the things we did lose and then probably just go back to Antofagasta and return the truck asap. Anyhow, once this headache passes we’ll catch a night bus back down south past Santiago to continue our journey! We’re excited to see trees again!

Surprise Rocks

Surreal rock formations in northern Chile

To be honest, I expected the drive back from the altiplano highlands of Salar de Surire towards the coastal city of Iquique to be a barren, boring affair. So we were surprised when about 50-100 km west of Colchane we started seeing a plethora of incredible rock formations along the sides of the highway!

Some of more fantastic looking of these eroded geological sites proved to be inaccessible by roads and would have required a backpacking trek, along with leaving our truck unattended on the side of the highway – both of which we weren’t willing to do at the time. But finally we came upon a section of surreal formations that we were able to access with the truck.

Surreal rock formations in northern Chile

After finding a nice spot to hide the truck and camp, we went on a scouting mission on foot through the convoluted canyon network. With lots of fun scrambling around over rock ridges and through little slots, we eventually found a particularly fantastic area full of surreal formations and even a number of arches!

Surreal rock formations in northern Chile

We stayed around there until sunset, having a blast climbing around and photographing the formations. This unknown, unsigned geological wonder would probably be a designated national monument back home in the States, but here it’s just a bunch of rocks and canyons along the highway. I love these kinds of surprises that you sometimes stumble upon when traveling!

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