Gorgeous Torres

Tom had wanted to hike Torres in winter after reading a Guardian article about doing just that. The writers had stayed in an eco village in the park and enjoyed numerous other luxuries – we planned on roughing it a bit more, but a night in the eco-village had to be worked in!  That is, until we found out it was not open  – the Guardian may have been using some editorial licence in the definition of the term ‘winter’. However, the fact of the park being fairly quiet at this time of year was probably not going to be to far off the mark, and as it turned out we passed a total of ten other people over the four days.  This is unlike the summer when the park is full to bursting! The other supposed advantage of visiting in winter is that the infamous Patagonian winds are less prevalent at this time of year, although it can be bloody cold… We had mostly blue skies and no wind for the duration and it wasn’t even that cold – well, cold enough so that mud on the trail was frozen, but that definitely has it’s advantages.

We planned to hike the “W” route at Torres as the good weather should last long enough for us to complete it, and the full 10 day hike is not open in winter.  We eventually got to the base camp after a few false starts (the Parks board only accept cash payment, imagine that?  And they don’t have an ATM to hand – I thought this was a civilised country?!!!) but it did give us time to realise we didn’t need to pitch a tent every night and could cheat and use Steve for one – the “W” route is so named as the trail follows roughly that shape, and it was possible to go up and down one leg in a day.  A wood burning stove and comfy mattress over roughing it in a tent?  Don’t mind if I do… Who needs an eco-village eh?

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En route to Torres, take 1

 

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The towers are in there somewhere

 

The first leg of the trail took us up to view the Torres themselves, which is a hit or miss affair as they are often cloaked in cloud.  One of the major benefits of doing this walk in the winter is you avoid all the crowds which can also get in the way of the view, so when we arrived at the lookout point and were the only people there just as the clouds started lifting we felt very lucky indeed.

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Tom at the top of Torres just as the clouds were lifting!

 

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Torres Del P at sunset

 

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Our room with a view

 

Day two had us setting out with full gear with an aim to get to Glacier Grey.  This was the furthest point of the route, and logically we had decided to get the longest hike over as early as possible as aches were already setting in.  Reading this back it doesn’t really make logical sense but it did then, thankfully Tom remembered that he had a knee brace in his sack this time!

What can I say about Torres?  Quite simply, it’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. We were so very lucky to be blessed with perfect weather just for those few days.

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Torres Del Paine National Park
Looking out over a misty Lago Grey
Looking out over a misty Lago Grey
Pygmy owl in Torres Del Paine
Pygmy owl in Torres Del Paine

 

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Glacier Grey

 

We elected to skip the middle leg of the W as we were a bit slower than we would’ve like to be, and could view the impressive glaciers from the path – they had been crashing down over the days we were there and make a pretty incredible sound!  It was great to get back to Steve though, knowing we were only about an hour away from a much needed hot shower and a slap up meal.  We threw all our kit in the back and jumped in the front, turned the key and…nothing.  I cannot describe how awful the sound of an engine failing to start is, particularly when you are miles away from civilisation and have no way to call for assistance!  This was where we got the full value of Tom’s stint as a mechanic’s apprentice.  On advice we carried a spare fuel filter with us, and Tom just hoped that the only problem was that it needed changing after probably slight dubious Bolivian fuel – and thankfully knew how to do this.  Even more thankfully, this seemed to do the trick and we were able to head off to Puerto Natales and probably the best shower I have ever had.

Off to The Land of Paddington Bear

As further trips into the hills were off the cards for a while we headed for Peru, because no South American trip would be complete without a visit to Machu Picchu.  We jumped into Steve and headed for Copacobana, a cute little  town on the shores of  Lake Titikaka.  Our ferry crossing was fun!

Realising we we were just about to leave Bolivia for good, we had a peek at the Lonely Planet to see what local specialities and events we mustn’t miss out on.  As it happened we were in time to catch the weekly blessing of the cars, which took place outside the church in the village square and involves decorating your vehicle elaborately with flowers and various nik nacks, including miniature hats, and then queueing up outside the church to wait for the priest to come along and say a few words.  We would have gotten Steve done but it looked quite difficult to manoeuvre him through the complicated one way system and the crowds so we decided we would just have to risk doing without…

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Car awaiting a blessing from the priest of the Copacabana church.

We really wanted to try the local breakfast delicacy of purple api (a thick syrupy drink made from maize, lemon, sugar and cinnamon) and bunuelos (donuts served drenched in syrup). We had seen great big pots of it on the go in the streets of La Paz, but hadn’t known what it was and been a bit scared to try it.  The Lonely Planet suggested trying both at the market in Copa, given the LP’s usually conservative view on risk we thought it was going to be pretty safe.  The atmosphere was fantastic,  you grab seats where you can and share table space with whoever comes along.

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Sunday market in Copacobana

Taking our chances with an unblessed Steve, it was time to cross the border into Peru.  The crossing was uneventful, except for the official who requested a propina (tip), for what we’re not sure and as we had just carefully spent our last bolivianos it meant exchanging our last reserve US dollars.  This was the only time we ever had this happen through countles border crossings during our trip, but there was an unexpected benefit later on that day… 

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Steve crossing the boarder into Peru.

Our first stop in Peru was Puno which was just a quick over night before heading onwards to Cusco. We did have to go out for our first Peruvian meal as the cuisine in Peru is reputed to be excellent. Tom decided that he had to try the Peruvian delicacy of Cuy, otherwise known as guinea pig – squEEEk! It arrived spatchcocked complete with head and teeth. It was actually quite delicious with crispy skin and unlike most unusual meats it did not taste like chicken, it tasted like duck. Tom mused that perhaps all that delicious crispy duck he’d eaten in restaurants may not have been duck after all – it too had been some kind of rodent!

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Tom tucking into some delicious cuy.

The highway from the border to Cusco had a ridiculous number of police checkpoints. It seemed like there was one every half an hour, with vehicles seemingly being stopped at random and therefore it was not that surprising when we were eventually pulled over and  told that our lights were off  following our pit stop for lunch (driving with your lights on at all times of the day being a legal requirement throughout South America).  We were sent on our way after a cursory check of our documents, only to be pulled over AGAIN for the same offence a little while later.  This time the officer checked our documents a bit more thoroughly, and said we had no accident insurance.  Now, we had gone to quite a lot of trouble prior to leaving Chile to secure additional insurance to cover Steve and were armed with a twelve page insurance document (in Spanish) which did just that.  But it was purchased in Chile!  the officer protested.  It’s only valid in Chile!  No!  we cried.  It covers us for accidents outside of Chile!  We specifically asked for that when we bought it!  And then he pointed out the line on page 10 or so, which stated clearly that our van was not insured in other countries.  Even our mediocre Spanish was able to understand that.  Those buggers at Fallabella!  So now we were up for two violations, driving with our lights off and the more serious problem of driving uninsured.  Tom went off in a little huddle with the two officers, who said that they needed a propina of $100 to make this all go away…  Unfortunately for them, thanks to tipping the border official we had absolutely no cash of any sort on us except for £10 and some Canadian dollars, neither of which were acceptable apparently.  After what seemed like quite a while they gave up as we clearly had nothing to give them (except for some small change left over from lunch) and sent us on our way.  We were now really happy we hadn’t pursued the taxi driver who ran into us in La Paz!

Maybe big mountains are not for me…

After our visit to Dr. Hugo we had to hang for a while in La Paz while the weather improved, whilst it was sunny in La Paz the forecast was for rain/snow in the mountains. There’s no point heading into the hills to sit in a tent, so I decided I would do the Death Road mountain bike ride in the meantime. The death road got its name and reputation for being the worlds most dangerous road when it was the only road to Coroico and had a very high rate of fatal accidents. They have now built a new road to Coroico so the death road is only used by tourists on bike or in 4x4s.

The first bit of the ride is just on tarmac as a bit of a warm up, not that it really got you warm as we were high up and it was about 9am, so sitting on a mountain bike going down hill at 30-50kmh and not pedalling is a good recipe for getting cold. At least the weather forecast had been right as it was pretty cloudy with a bit of drizzle. We hopped back on the bus after the road section and headed to the death road proper. I had asked in the shop before booking the tour if I could swap the brakes over as the rear and front brakes are in the opposite hands to the UK, which can lead to a quick trip over the handlebars, they had said I should be able to. However it was not really possible with the bike I got, so instead I thought I’d just see how sharp the front brake was before setting off. The answer was that the front brake barely functioned, no danger of going over the handle bars then, but  stopping might be an issue though! I asked them to fix the brakes, expecting they might put new pads in, but no – just a tweak with an allen key to push the pads out further.

We set off down Death Road which is now in a very good state of repair, as it is regularly maintained and only used by bikes and the odd 4×4. This makes the ride extremely tame, it is not what I’d really call mountain biking as such. You are sitting on a mountain bike and going down a hill, but to call it ‘downhill mountain biking’ is  a bit rich. It’s basically 42km of the boring bits of a proper mountain bike ride i.e. fire road. Having said that the valley you ride down is really beautiful, or at least what could be seen of it through the mist was. The most exciting bit was when the brakes on my bike failed again, which meant going straight passed the lead guide who was slowing to avoid an earth mover and some works in the road. I didn’t have the luxury of slowing down much so whizzed past the lot and eventually stopping quite a bit further down the road, still not very deathy though.  They again failed fix the brakes properly, just another tweak with an allen key when new pads were required, maybe they didn’t carry any spares? The rest of the ride was pretty uneventful with just stops for the obligatory photos. It finished at a bar where beers were drunk whilst watching the Chile Brazil world cup match on the TV. Then it was off for lunch and a shower before being packed off back to La Paz.

When I got back to the hotel Barbara was still not feeling so well, we had eaten some street food the day before (BBQ’d goats heart) which on its own was fine but we elected to have some chilli sauce on it. The sauce was home-made and taken from a big washing up bowl, so we guess it was the culprit for Barbara’s illness. The sauce caught up with me the next day, so our planned trip to the mountains was delayed a day further.

We finally got away on the Monday although we didn’t make the earliest of starts, but we only planned on getting to Tuni and organising a muleteer to get us to Juri Khotta. After a few wrong turns in La Paz we were running really late, and were going to be lucky to make it to Tuni in the light especially as the traffic on the Ruta 2 was pretty bad. Then a taxi came across the other lane of traffic wanting to turn left – I was not keen on stopping to let him in as we were late.  It seems he was also not keen on stopping either, as he drove straight into the side of the van hitting the driver’s door and scraping down the side. He then headed off down the road before stopping. I checked the door still shut properly, which it did, and we decided we would not stop as there was not much damage to the taxi and we don’t speak sufficiently good Spanish to get into a discussion about the incident. We would probably end up to be found at fault for the accident in any case because we’re gringos. We just drove on as the need to get to Tuni before it got dark was pressing.

We arrived in Tuni just as it was getting dark, and were greeted by some of the locals who said they could help us find a muleteer and look after our van whilst we were away. We parked up and I started about firing up the stove for the first time now that it was finally cold enough to justify it. We settled down to some dinner and had our first cosy night in the van with the stove going.

Cyrill sparked into life for the first time.
Cyrill sparked into life for the first time.

The next morning I headed out to find us a muleteer and some mules which took a couple of hours to sort out, but we still had plenty of time to get over to Juri Khotta as it is only about 4 hrs walking. As we set out it seemed the pace was a bit slow with the muleteer just slowly plodding along, we followed thinking we may never get to our destination. However her pace never changed as we gained altitude or for steeper slopes, just the same slow plod, whereas we were struggling a bit, especially as I had had to run back for forgotten ice axes.

The star of the steady plod over to Juri Khotta
The star of the steady plod over to Juri Khotta

The path went over a high pass at about 4800m before finally dropping into the Juri Khotta valley and on to Lago (lake) Juri Khotta at about 4650m.

 

Dropping down to the Juri Khotta lake
Dropping down to the Juri Khotta lake

The muleteer dropped us of a the south end of the lake before heading back. There is a hut there and a fresh running water supply, the hut was all locked up so we pitched the tent in the lee of the hut out of the cold in the wind.

All ready to cosy down for the night.
All ready to cosy down for the night.
The view from the tent, down the valley.
The view from the tent, down the valley.

We packed our sacks for the next day and settled down for the night. The great thing about getting mules to haul your gear is that you can bring as much food as you like so we had a pretty good feed! We then got our heads down as we had an early start because we had to break camp and stash all the gear before heading off. According to Dr Hugo it is not unknown to return to your camp after climbing in South America to find it gone.

The plan for the day was just to head up to about 5000m do some crevasse rescue practice and come back down.  We would be following the same route we would take the next day to summit, the Yugoslavian route that Dr. Hugo had recommended. It was fairly straight forward, we just headed to the north end of Lago Juri Khotta and then up moraines to the beautiful blue lago above.

 

The glacial lake above Lago Juri Khotta
The glacial lake above Lago Juri Khotta

From there we headed NW round the shore of the lago and up moraine to the glacier above. Once at the toe of the glacier we stopped for lunch and did some crevasse rescue practice. It turns out that even with the new pulleys we bought Barbara still can’t haul my weight, I guess I’d better not fall in a cravasse and hurt myself then! The summit of the mountain was only a few hundred meters higher and looked to be just a straight forward walk over the glacier, but that was for the next day and for now we headed down to base camp for the night.

In the morning we got up a bit earlier to give us the best chance of getting to the summit and possibly further along the ridge. While we made reasonable progress it was more effort than the day before, but we were at the glacier by about 10.30am and it seemed like we would have enough time to get to the summit. We roped up and headed on to the glacier, but I was finding it harder and harder and our progress slowed. It was also starting to warm up considerably and the final part of the route would head out on to a west-facing slope that was getting a lot more sun than the slope we were currently on. At about 1pm I called it, as by this time our progress was so slow we were not realistically going to make the summit. We headed down somewhat disappointed, but I was satisfied it was the right call.

Plodding out accross the glacier.
Plodding out accross the glacier.
Close, but no cigar...
Close, but no cigar…

Once we got down to the glacial lake it was clear everything wasn’t quite right with me, even on the flat I could not keep up with Barbara – this is not normal! Our descent back to base camp was slow, but we managed to get back before dark although Barbara had to ferry the second bag from the stash place because I was not up to it. We made some food and I got the mountain medicine book out to re-read the bit about acute mountain sickness (AMS), interesting reading indeed. I put the book away a little concerned about the slightly crackly chest I had, this and my reducing aerobic capacity were classic symptoms of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), potentially a very dangerous condition. About half an hour later I was coughing up foamy sputum,  a further symptom of HAPE. I looked at Barbara and Barbara looked at me, this could be quite serious and the only thing to do was to get to a lower altitude. We had a bit of discussion as it was dark and not easy to get much lower as the valley we were in did not drop down in altitude significantly for a good few kilometres and the muleteer was meeting us at the base camp the next morning at 10am. We could get a hundred or so meters lower quite easily so Barbara escorted me down with a bivy bag and a sleeping bag. I got comfortable while she went and got the tent and some other kit. I have to say Barbara was great, very calm given how serious the situation could be. I studied the map and to look for a way out of the valley that didn’t involve going back over the high pass we had crossed on the way in. It seemed it was possible to head down the valley then contour round to Tuni. It was a longer route, but much safer given it appeared I seemed to be suffering from HAPE.

In the morning we met the muleteer and agreed to meet her back in Tuni to collect our gear, she said our alternate route would take 4-5 hours, which was less than I had expected. We set off on our way leaving the muleteer to load our gear on to the mules and hoping that our stuff would indeed be waiting for us. The walk was fairly uneventful if a bit slow, but we arrived in Tuni to find all our stuff there and a surprise parking bill to boot! We had not discussed a price for parking the van… Oh well, at least it was still there and all our stuff was still inside. We were exhausted so we had a short snooze before heading back to Hotel Oberland for a well deserved slap up dinner. I was still pretty incapacitated even down at 3300m and flights of stairs were quite a challenge. At least I was feeling much better and was on the mend.