Campamento Los Perros –> Campamento Grey (15km)
The big one. 600m up, 1200m down. Snow, rainbows, lost tents, and civilization.
When I woke up in Campamento Los Perros, my knees were not feeling 75% better like the previous morning. Instead, they were still aching and protesting my sudden weight gain of 40 pounds, and this sudden bizarre desire to hike up and down hills all day. Looking back on my mini-journal, I was downright terrified of what lied ahead. Anxious to get started, I skipped breakfast and instead took a painkiller. I was the first to leave camp at 6am and for a couple of hours I was one of the only people on the trail, climbing through more dense forest. And for the first time on the hike, I was actually hungry (of course, on the one day I needed as much energy as possible). About three-quarters of the way up, once out of the forest, people started passing me and I met my German friend, currently a student (also in New York). We chugged along for most of the rest of the way up the pass, ducking every so often to avoid the gusty winds, until he steadily pulled ahead just before the summit.
The climb was associated with the usual false summits and letdowns, but I very slowly made my way to the top, where I was presented with my first views of the massive Glacier Grey icefield. On one end, it was jagged ice as far as the eye could see, merging seamlessly with thick storm clouds on the horizon. On the other end, the glacier fed into Lago Grey, my destination for the evening. And ahead was a small rainbow peeking through the thick clouds. Standing there taking it all in from above, I felt tiny, and wondered at what it would be like to stand in the middle of that glacier. But the usual Patagonian challenge presented itself: Do I stay and take in the fantastic views, or rush to get down out of the wind? Most people were stopping to snap two pictures and rush down out of the ferocious wind. My Chilean friends had reached the top just ahead of me, and were already beginning to rush down. In addition to the wind, snow was beginning to fall. Unfortunately, descending didn’t really solve the wind problem, because the trail continued to switch back over rocky, exposed terrain, as it traced a path toward Lago Grey. With my weakened knees and visions of slipping and sliding all the way down to the glacier, I very timidly crept down.
Along the way down, I met a young German couple who excitedly informed me that they were taking a three-month vacation to explore South America. I had a moment (well, several moments) of pity for myself when I recalled how excited I was to be taking just three weeks off before starting my job back home.
Finally getting back into the forest was a massive relief, at the very least from the blustery wind. At this point it really still hadn’t occurred to me that what goes up must come down, and I had to pay for all of the uphill hiking I had just done. During the entire hike, I had solely been concerned with making it to the top of the pass, and given no thought to getting down. Enter forest stairwells, with steps that seemed almost a meter high. If I had thought my knees hurt before, it was nothing compared to the excruciating pain to come. After not too long a distance, but what felt like ten miles of down, down, down, I arrived at Campamento Paso, a park-serviced site where most people were stopping for lunch.
Campamento Paso felt like a little slice of heaven after the previous climb and descent. It was protected from the wind, sun was peeking through the trees, and I was finally able to satiate my hunger with a huge lunch. If I recall correctly, it was the first day I actually prepared a meal for lunch instead of just snacking on peanuts. After eating, I took a few minutes to lay in the sun, eat some chocolate, and enjoy my first feelings of warmth in a couple of days. Thank goodness I was still there when a group of friendly Chilean girls came up the trail with a tent they had found – my tent, fallen off of my pack without me even noticing the two-pound drop. Quite embarrassed, I thanked them profusely before trying to find a better way to attach it to my pack.
After finally leaving Campamento Paso, with hopes of a relatively level hike to finish the day off (no such luck), the trail meandered between forest and open mountain sides showcasing Glacier Grey. Along this portion of the trail I came across my South African friends from Campamento Serón, and we hiked together for a short while before they eventually passed me. It was also along here that I had to finally stop and do something about the blister I had from before Day 1. I don’t know if I did anything particularly helpful, but I at least felt mentally improved. To this day, I’m not willing to blame my loving hiking boots for that blister. Instead I blame the crappy throw-away shoes that I wore on the plane to Panama City before I could find good hiking sandals.
Campamento Grey was a welcome sight by the time I stumbled in, of course after almost everyone else. It was a gorgeous campsite, in the shadow of sharp, dominating mountain peaks. It was cold, yet peaceful and comforting at the same time. Possibly because in my mind, the worst was over. As the saying goes, ignorance was bliss. I set up my tent with my Chilean friends, and walked over to the general store to see what kind of treats I could scrounge up.
It had only been four days since starting the trek, and it’s not as if I was really roughing it, but I felt like a completely different person at this point. I was battle-tested now. And so, when I found the three friends I hiked from park administration to Hotel las Torres with, they felt like friends I hadn’t seen in years. I was sort of expecting it, but our little reunion really drove home for me how much I had experienced in just four short days.
As a bonus, I had also splurged for a meal at Refugio Grey that night. While I slept indoors at Refugio Dickson, I opted out of the meal service offered there. Here, I was sleeping outside and opting into the meal, as a treat for finally reaching the front side of the park. There were also hot showers available for two hours that night. Those I opted out of after seeing the line, and factoring in the ~10 hours it would take my hair to air-dry. Later on, I sat down with several friends to enjoy cocktails from the refugio bar. We were most definitely back in civilization, mingling among the people who were staying exclusively in refugios or the hotels, people who were just in the park for a day or two, and, what made me most jealous, people who were not carrying 40 extra pounds on their backs wherever they went. With some cocktails and half of the hike behind me, I was pretty proud of myself, and feeling pretty great.
After a better sleep than usual, the next morning I walked over to the glacier overlook and took it all in for one final time. Coincidentally, I was also one of the last people to see the glacier in the above state, as a huge chunk broke off in late 2017.