Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Torres del Paine Circus

We just returned from 6 days in Torres del Paine national park after a good hike of the full TDP circuit, but with mixed feelings about the park. TDP is internationally-known for its scenic mountains (rightfully so) with very high visitation, and we originally thought we would skip it. However, enough people told us it was a place we had to see that we decided to go for it. Arriving late afternoon January 29th, and being budget-minded, we headed for the closest free campsite 8km uphill near the Torres along what is probably the most popular trail in the park. Holy, culture shock! Coming from Isla Navarino, we had become accustomed to solitude on the trail.There, seeing another person on the route was a rare occasion to stop and chat. But as we headed up to the Torres, saying a customary Hola to each person we met was impossible without taking breaks to breathe!

We camped that night packed in with 70 or so other tents and I woke up in the morning in a foul mood. The setting was scenic, but what the heck were we dong there? How did a hiking trail that felt as busy as a (steep, dusty) city street meet our goals for this trip? Hiking back down from the Torres to start the circuit, we contemplated ditching TDP, using our return bus ticket that day, and going elsewhere. I was especially sour about the park experience thus far but didnt want to have wasted the money we already spent on bus tickets and entry fees. (Markus, being the economist, said they were ´sunk costs´ anyway...). Ultimately, we decided to hike the circuit but to do it quickly, hiking full days and only doing popular day hikes if weather was ideal.
Us at the Torres

It worked, and the 100 or so kilometers we hiked in the next 4.5 days were enjoyable. We hiked through blustery steppe, vibrantly green forests with moss-covered trees, and rocky alpine valleys; past turquoise lakes, hanging glaciers, and over Paso Gardener with stunning views of the massive Glacier Grey flowing from the Hielo Sur (southern ice cap) into the valley below us. We met nice people along the trail and, after coincidentally running into the same two Germans, Berndt and Jon, for at least the 6th time since the ferry from Puerto Williams, we passed a great evening with them drinking beers and pisco sours at the bar (yes, one of the off-road refugio-campgrounds has a big, schmancy, full-service bar).

Panorama of Glacier Grey from Paso Gardener

I will say though that my often-negative reaction to the lack of solitude in the park surprised me and prompted a lot of reflection on what I value in outdoor travel, and why we are here. Without delving too deeply into wilderness philosophy and issues of wilderness and privilege, I will just say that it left me feeling conflicted. Certainly, national parks have incredible value as protected areas and as democratic spaces - as places that belong to us all and where those without the ability to backpack in rugged country can still access sites of unusual beauty and biodiversity. These places inspire awe, and the more of that in the world, the better. I commend the park for their efforts to confine visitor impacts to a few trails and camping areas. This is certainly a more sustainable strategy than less controlled access, though with the massive visitation I still question its sustainability (you have to wonder at the septic systems they must have to support hundreds of visitors per day at all those off-road campsites with flush toilets and showers!).Still, despite appreciating national parks, and all my philosophical musings on privilege and wilderness access, I just really craved more solitude and silence and open space. Have all my wilderness travels and life in Alaska so conditioned me to expect these things that I can´t appreciate a national park with lots of other people present?! (a side note - this was one of many instances in which Markus and I have been reminded that we are not ´´normal´´ people)

Ultimately, the TDP trip was a good time and a great reminder that these travels are about our own personal vision and goals. One of my main goals for our travels is to practice awareness and attentiveness in daily life - to not zone out while we walk and think of random things like washing our clothes, which weirdly enough I seem to have a tendency to think about a lot! Attentiveness seems important for really experiencing these places we visit, for being a good naturalist, and for observing the wildlife and landscape features we collect data on for the South American Wildlands Biodiversity Inventory. On our less developed routes, we have enjoyed having to look at the terrain, find routes, choose campsites, and listen to our bodies to decide when to rest. Walking through un-trailed landscapes, whether capital W wilderness or cattle estancias, requires attentiveness and it is wonderful to cultivate skills of observation and awareness. Walking down the well-trodden and well-marked trails of TDP, there was no need to pay attention to anything. However it raised a good challenge for the rest of this trip and, I think, for a future more-settled life (wherever that is) - a challenge to practice attentiveness in all settings, to keep cultivating curiosity about places and appreciate small discoveries along the way.

I hope to keep these things in mind as we head off next to hike from El Chalten, Argentina to Villa O´Higgens, Chile. More from us (and hopefully more opportunities to upload photos) after that!

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