The bright red backpack heads into the mountains

Finally…after just under one year, I got to put on my hiking boots again and head to the mountains!!! In March 2011, whilst celebrating my one year anniversary in South America, I had an unlucky accident that resulted in a torn knee ligament and reconstructive surgery which meant that I was out of action for basically a year.

That all changed last weekend, when Rodrigo and I packed our backpacks (or should I say overpacked our backpacks) and headed into the mountains near Santiago. For me one of the best things about this city is that in just over one hour you can either be at the beach or high in the Andes mountains.

We headed to a reserve called Yerba Loca on Friday afternoon and camped the first night about 4km into the valley at a site called Villa Paulina. February in Chile is peak summer holiday month and most places such as Yerba Loca are packed beyond capacity with people. Not my idea of a weekend in nature. But luckily for us, Yerba Loca was pretty quiet.

Our campsite at Villa Paulina

After a yummy camping style dinner, prepared on our new, fancy little gas cooker, we watched the sun disappear behind the mountains, the colours of the valley change, the stars appear in their thousands and very soon we were tucked up in our sleeping bags.

The next morning, bright and early (8:30am is early for Chileans) we were packed up and ready to head up the valley to the Paloma Glacier. Already my backpack felt like it weighed a ton and my muscles were wondering what on earth I was doing to them. Thankfully after about an hour or so, the muscles seemed to “relax” into a constant, but bearable level of pain (or probably numbness) and we made quite good prgress.

The bright red backpack heading up the valley…

The lower section of the Yerba Loca valley was beautiful…lots of bushes and flowers and everything green. But the vegetation rapidly changes as you head up the valley and whilst there were occasional green, lush areas called vegas, the landscape soon became more rocky and barren.

The green of a Vega…

…changes to the browns of rocks and sand

Hiking in mountains is usually graded or measured in terms of change in altitude and not always distance. For example, you could do an 8km hike which may seem really short and easy, but if the increase in altitude is 1000m over that distance it means that the hike is actually at a very steep gradient. On this hike we went from just over 2000 masl to 3100m.

Based on our map, we decided we would get to a waterfall just over half way to the glacier and camp there for the night. This spot was apparently good for camping and had fresh water. Ironically enough, the whole hike you are following the Yerba Loca river, but unfortunately the water is not drinkable due to the high levels of minerals in the water from the rocks and the glacier which is its source. So the whole hike you can hear and see the river rushing by, but for fresh water you had to rely on small streams from springs higher in the mountains.

After crossing about 2km of incredibly rocky terrain where the path was not really a path, but more like a snaking trail of slightly smaller rocks than those on the rest of the landscape, we came within site of the waterfall. Sadly for us though, being the height of summer, it seems like the spring had dried up and the vega, although still slightly green, was bone dry!!!

Our supposed campsite

Without fresh water we could not spend the night there and so we had two choices…1) continue up the next very steep part of the valley for about 3km to a place which the map also said had water or 2) backtrack two kilometres to the last source of fresh water we had had and where there was also a place to camp.  I am not sure whether it was the altitude, the weight of my backpack, not enough water, the rocky path, the sun or actually a combination of all of the above, but I was exhausted by this stage and so we decided it was safer to return to the point where we were sure of water. My faith in our map had diminished by this stage.

So sadly, we never made it to the base of the glacier, but we did get incredible views of it from this point, as well as the waterfall.

Incredibly, Rodrigo told me that when he was last in Yerba Loca about 20 years ago, the glacier curved all the way around to the right of the mountain. Apparently this glacier is one of the fastest retreating glaciers in South America.

After making our way back 2km, we set up camp and I tried to rest since I had such a splitting headache. Rodrigo cooked us a yummy pasta dinner and just like the night before, we were tucked into our sleeping bags as soon as the sky had turned dark. But before going to sleep we had the privilege of the entire valley to ourselves and the most incredible views and colours on the rocks as the light changed. It felt like we were the only people on earth (until another group of hikers came and camped about 500m away). But still, incredibly peaceful and magical in so many ways.

We annexed our little spot in the name of South Africa

Resting and trying to get rid of a splitting headache

On Sunday morning we woke up relatively late and had a relaxed start to the day. Based on the fact that I think every muscle in our bodies were aching, we decided take a slow hike back down the mountain and leave the challenge of getting to the base of the glacier for another trip. It was the best decision for many reasons, one being that in the afternoon we saw a storm develop up the valley and I have no desire to be stuck in the mountains during a storm.

The hike down was tougher than the ascent because of the loose rocks and the steep gradient. I was very nervous of my knee and felt it giveway a few times when I was going too fast and not concentrating. But with the walking poles it was alot better. In SA I would never have thought to use walking poles, but honestly, here I think I will never again go hiking without them. They are essential in the mountains.

An example of the rockiness of the path…and this wasn`t even such a bad section.

We took about 3 hours to make it down the valley whereas the ascent the day before took us close to 8 hours. Back in the main camp, we had a surprise though…the sign when we left had said 17km to the glacier and yet, a new sign appeared overnight that said…

19.2km…rapid glacial retreat???

No, it turns out google earth and a GPS gave different distances. So who actually knows how far we managed to get. All I know is that we returned to Santiago that afternoon exhausted and dirty, but very happy with our weekend in the mountains.

Next mountain adventure coming soon…Rodrigo, Juan Carlos and I are heading to the famous Torres del Paine Park in Patagonia, so keep reading for more stories soon…

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