Greetings family, friends and fellow travelers. Mark Stratil and Molly Waterhouse are two teachers from Brooklyn who set off on a yearlong journey around the globe. As we head to Oceania and parts unknown we wanted to keep in touch with the outside world. Hopefully you will find this blog entertaining and informative. Please leave any questions or suggestions for things we should check out.
Your Fearless Travelers
Your Fearless Travelers
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Grippin it and Rippin it---Villarrica National Park
About half-way through our 2-liter box of wine (yeah, I said 2-liter box) our Israeli hostel-mates came home and started chatting with us at the common table. They told us that they had been offered an opportunity by a local tour agency to go on a special hike. The hike, called the Villarrica Traverse, is incredibly popular in the summer but it had not been attempted during the winter/spring months in over 5 years. Apparently, the last group who attempted this hike during the winter had had a bit of trouble navigating through the snow, got lost, and ended up being rescued a week later in Argentina.
Needless to say, the agencies have been a bit reluctant to try the trek again... until now. Partly because we had already had quite a bit of wine, and partly because we are constantly looking for adventure, we eagerly agreed to go.
We all went to the Pucon Tours agency the following day to get fitted for the gear we would need for the trek. This hike would be unlike any other hike we've done on this trip, or in our lives. This was to be our first snow hike. Additionally, this would be the first hike where we were responsible for carrying all our own gear; sleeping bags, tent, snow pants, snow gloves, gators, stove, cooking gear, and food. Not to mention the fact that we had to bring every article of clothing we own, just to be sure we would stay warm. The following morning, we were packed up and ready to hit the trail. There were 2 guides to accompany us on the trek, the two of us, and our three new Israeli friends (hereafter called the Israelis). We drove about 45 minutes outside of Pucon to the mid-way point of the Villarrica National Park. We grabbed our packs and were ready to go.
The beginning of the trail was beautiful with large groves of bamboo, moss-covered trees, and overflowing riverbeds. Wino (pronounced Weeeeno) was the first guide to start walking, so Mark and I started walking with him. After about 30 minutes of climbing around fallen trees, scrambling through a tiny path that we could barely see and getting hit in the face by quite a few branches, we stopped to rest and noticed that the Israelis and the other guide weren't with us.
Wino went back to try to find them, and made it all the way back to the starting point, but to no avail. They were gone. Wino told us that there was another trail to the lake where we would spend the night which they must have taken, but it was much longer and harder. We silently thanked our lucky stars that we were not going that route and headed on our way.
The reason for the overflowing riverbeds soon became clear as we gained a bit of altitude. The snow showed up, at first as a pile in a shady area, but then more regularly. Before we knew it, we were on 10 feet of snow. Walking in snow is a bit like walking in sand, except that sand acts in a very predictable way; either it is loose and soft which makes walking difficult or it is packed down hard and walking is a bit easier. With snow, however, the way it reacts to your footsteps depends on quite a few factors---how wet it is, how deep it is, and what is underneath. There are moments when you are walking on top of the snow like an elf, and then one second later you are thigh deep in wet slush, like a troll.
Thankfully, we had on our gators and our gore-tex boots so we stayed relatively dry.
But at the top of the first big hill, right as we were about to cross the tree-line, Wino told us that it was time to put on our raquetas de nieve---snow shoes.
We hiked up to the part of the trail above the tree-line, and we found ourselves with a spectacular view of Volcan Villarrica, smoking away.
In addition to Villarrica, we could see seven or eight other volcanoes, including the volcano that had rained ash on us in Petrohue and forced us to cancel our trip to Bariloche---the infamous Volcan Puyehue.
This volcano's wrath is far-reaching
After about 6 hours of hiking, there was still no sign of the Israelis. Finally, we caught a glimpse of them coming over a ridge about two miles away. We saw four little specks moving across the blanket of snow. We lost sight of them for a bit and sat down to have some lunch. Then as we were finishing our food, we saw one person, alone on the ridge. He seemed to have put down his pack and was just sitting there. We knew it must be the guide, but we couldn't think of a single reason that he would have left the Israelis, unless something was seriously wrong. Wino suggested that we hike over to within shouting distance so we could find out what the problem was. Once we got close enough, Wino ascertained that everything was fine and that the Israelis were, in fact, not dead.
Once the group got back together, we continued our snow march until 8:30 when we finally arrived at our campsite. Thankfully, our guides were able to find the only place within 10 miles where there was exposed grass and a running river.
We quickly put up our tents, the guides cooked us some sausages and rice and we went to bed. It may have been the fact that we hiked 10 hours and that I was wearing every article of clothing I own, but I slept warm and snug all night long.
We woke up the next morning, had some oatmeal and set off for our second day of hiking. The day before, the hike had been hard, but on the second day things got a bit more dangerous. At one point, we were hiking on the side of a hill that was atleast a 60 degree incline. I was following in Wino's footsteps and I realized very quickly that that was much better than forging my own path. I also realized that I had to learn from the mistakes he made, because I could see where his foot had slipped and he had fallen thigh-deep into the snow. My last realization was particularly important---I needed complete and total concentration or I was going to fall 400 feet to the bottom of the hill. At one point I tried to take off my hat because I was getting hot and I almost tumbled to my death. So with utter concentration, I walked the tight-rope walk of Wino's footprints to safety on the other side. And my reward was lunch. Leftover cold sausages, crumbled white bread and hunks of squishy cheese. It was delicious.
After lunch, we started our final push toward the lake that would be our campsite that night.We stood at our lunch spot and looked out to where the guides had already walked to (they weren't big on waiting for us). Immense is the only word that even begins to describe what we saw. The guides looked like tiny specks of dust on a huge white canvas.
Notice the people at the bottom right corner of this photo...
We watched the guides climb up a hill, and as we started to follow behind them it just seemed like we weren't making any progress.
In fact, the hill seemed to be getting bigger. At this point, we were pretty exhausted but we had no choice but to press on. I needed a strategy. So I thought about the way you have to teach someone how to do something, with small managable steps. So I set some small goals for myself. I would walk 50 steps, then I could stop. The joy I felt as I rounded 40, 41, 42 was like mild elation, just knowing that I would be able to take a rest. And then I would set the next goal, another 50 steps, and do it again. I must have set that goal 100 times on the way up that hill, but it worked. Through sheer will-power, I made it to the top of that hill.
We got two huge treats at the top of the hill. One, climbing a big hill means that you get to slide down the back side of the hill which was really fun.
But the other great treat was a spectacular view of three condors gliding overhead. They were so close I thought they were coming to get us, but they just flew by, floating on the breeze. Those birds had a wing-span of at least 12 feet. They were simply majestic.
After a few more hours of hiking, we made it to a beautiful mirador where we were able to see the lake where we would be camping that night, about a mile below where we stood.
We slipped and slid down the hill, right back into springtime. Finally, we were below the tree-line again. We found a grassy (ish) area on the edge of a river to make camp, and got dinner started. We ate some tomato soup then pasta with tomato sauce and we were off to bed.
The next morning, we got up to hike our final few hours to where the Pucon Tours van would pick us up. We were still in snow-shoes because the snow was not only still very deep, but it was more wet because we were at a lower altitude and it was easier to fall through. We carefully avoided being impaled by bamboo shoots, and falling into springtime rivers until we found ourselves on an actual trail, the likes of which we hadn't seen since the first 30 minutes of the trek. The sights and sounds of spring were all around us.
After 3 days, 24 hours of hiking, 40 kilometers and thousands and thousands of vertical feet, we had reached the end of the trek. We were certainly a little banged up from the trip, but it turned out that we were stronger than we ever thought possible.