Friday, April 2, 2010

Yo no soy mochilero

Backpacking is hard.  This is what I've learned.  I don't mean backpacking as in just traveling with a backpack, the way I've been doing it for the last three months.  I mean backpacking as in hiking around a park with all your food, clothing, and lodging on your back.  Climbing things can be exhausting.  Doing so with an extra 40-50 pounds can result in some serious pain.

For me, this trip is about exploring my own abilities and sensibilities as much as it's about exploring the world around me.  It's also about finding my limits.  Having already hiked up a Nicaraguan Volcano in sandals, I had begun to forget that my limits existed.  I'm in pretty decent shape--or, I oscillate between very good shape and very bad shape, so I average out to decent shape--so I figured a five day hiking trip through a national park might be a bit challenging, but certainly something I could get through.

What I learned, instead, is that my backpacking limit is 25 miles.  That's how much I walked (probably a bit more actually) over the course of three days before I headed back.  A lot of it was over very hilly and rocky terrain, but a decent amount was flat as well.  Plenty of it was up some steep inclines, but there were long stretches of coasting downhill to balance it out.  I don't doubt that with a bit of training, I could get myself to the point where I could get through the entire trip, but this time it wasn't in the cards--walking just hurt too much.

I can certainly place some of the blame for the pain I was experiencing on my having the world's flattest feet.  I can place a bit more on the fact that I tend to shuffle more than stride when I walk, and the fact that my backpack was a bit too large for me, leaving too much weight on my back and shoulders, and not enough on my hips.  But ultimately, whatever the case, the full W wasn't happening.  I gave it my best shot, even continuing through day two after having serious doubts on day one.  The conclusion that I ultimately reached is that while leaving would have been giving in to the pain, continuing would have been giving in to stubbornness.  My feet were killing me.  Every step hurt.  And though I was seeing some amazing things, it had gotten to the point where I felt I was risking the rest of my trip if I didn't pack it in and grab the boat and bus back to Puerto Natales, and give my weary legs some rest.

I have newfound respect for hikers and backpackers ("mochileros" in Spanish--hence the post's title).  I never knew that walking could require such cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength.  There's also the rather complicated science of figuring out how to carry just enough food to eat without weighing yourself down.  I'm grateful that I was able to head out there with my new friends Todd and Valerie--with whom I've now eaten both the best and the worst meals of this trip.  I met Todd and Valerie on the boat, and they were really patient and wonderful about taking me through the fundamentals of trekking, and making sure we stuck to a leave-no-trace philosophy, taking all our garbage with us.

I will say that Torres del Paine is a truly spectacular place, and I only saw one of its three major attractions (though it also has countless spectacular vistas sprinkled along a wide variety of trails).  The actual Torres del Paine are granite towers that rise up out of the very glacier that formed them, with small trickles of water flowing down the base and pooling in a lake at the bottom.  The entire structure is about 2,000 meters (about 6,600 feet) above the viewpoint, which is itself 800 meters (2,600 feet) above ground level.  The most impressive thing about it when you're up there is realizing just how far away you still are from the peaks themselves.  It feels like you're right there, and then you see a waterfall coming down from the glacier at what looks like a snail's pace, and only then do you recognize that the entire thing is actually too big to truly comprehend.

The rest of the park includes a seemingly endless array of glaciers, all of which flow down a variety of deliciously drinkable streams and rivers and create some of the most startlingly electric blue lakes I've ever witnessed.  The water is anything but clear, but it nonetheless manages to look pristine--the obscurity is, after all, from mineral content, not pollution.  I also had the opportunity to witness an avalanche (from a safe distance), as a big chunk of snow up on the Glaciar Francés dislodged itself and came crashing down into the valley below.  In all, I was constantly reminded of something Todd said when we saw our first glaciar from the boat down in Tierra del Fuego: nature is humbling.  Few things will remind you of your own impermanence like seeing a multi-million year-old block of ice do something that could crush you like a mosquito, without any kind of guiding hand.

I didn't get to see a whole lot of wildlife--although a brush with a puma track was as close to one of those as I'd like to get.  I saw a Magellanic woodpecker and a few Andean condors, though, which was enough to keep me happy.  The condor, which is extremely endangered, is the bird with the biggest wingspan in the world, but it flies so high up in the sky that it's sometimes hard to remember that.  It's pretty awe-inspiring however, and it's easy to see why the Inca people revered the condor as a symbol of the heavens.  I'm still waiting to see my first guanaco (an alpaca-like creature that's common down here) and my first rhea (sort of like an emu).  I'm hopeful I'll manage a sighting of one or the other on the bus tomorrow.  On the plus side, I did get to see one of the most spectacular rainbows I've ever witnessed.

So now I'm taking it easy in Puerto Natales, ancient home of the mylodon, and feeling a bit like a giant ground sloth myself.  I've spent the last two days doing a minimal amount of walking, trying to make sure I'm not hobbled when I get to Perito Moreno glacier--the next mind-boggling experience I have on tap.  In the meantime, I'm enjoying what the small town of Natales has to offer--namely a really good chocolate shop, some cormorants and black-necked swans, and a very interesting African-Chilean restaurant.  Between the failed hike and some other logistical issues, I was a little grumpy yesterday, but I reminded myself to be tranquilo, and that this trip is much more marathon than sprint.  It's easy to get caught up in the moment, but just this morning I met some Americans who are doing a study abroad program in Santiago, and their entire semester of study is shorter than my trip (it started later and will end earlier).  So it's certainly important for me to take all the hiccups in stride (I'm looking at you, DHL).

I'm still in the process of uploading the final pictures from the boat, to say nothing of the pictures from Torres del Paine.  For now, however, I'm going to pay for my Cafe Chileno (coffee with pisco) and make sure I'm all set for tomorrow.


Torres del Paine

Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales


  1. Hey Seth, it looks great. You guys got beautiful weather. And yes, backpacking is really hard. And I actually noticed that you have very flat feet -- I bet that makes it even tougher. You even got to see the Torres at dawn! Congratulations!

  2. Hey, mucho respect from here. I did three days of "backpacking" with my students on the Appalachian trail, and that was more than enough to make me hate nature forever. I threatened to quit if they ever sent me out again. As you say, it's a marathon, not a sprint, and you still have awesome stuff to see ahead, including Jay Sherman's kid. Rock on, adopted master Jay!

  3. I hear you, man. Our 5 day trek in Nepal nearly ended me -- and if we'd also been carrying food, there is no question I would have been one of those sad-looking tourists riding down the mountains on the back of a donkey. At least you returned under your own power, so good for you!

    Also, your blog is incredible -- I can barely keep up with your adventures, and I sit in front of a computer all day. You rock. xoxoxo


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.