Day 3 ends up being the worst day of the trek. I leave Paine Grande in fairly good spirits, hoping the previous day’s good weather will hold up, which it does for a bit, before clouding over in the late morning. To start out, it’s a relatively easy hike over flat land to Campamento Italiano, although the rains have left a lot of mud on the path, and as this part of the park is less rocky than the path along Lago Grey, the mud is hard to avoid.
Italiano is at the foot of one of the gems of the W, the French Valley. I’m planning on leaving my big bag at the camp and hiking the out-and-back to the mirador atop the French Valley with just my camera gear.
There’s a small hitch in my plans. There’s a rope across the path up the French Valley, and a sign saying the path is closed.
That’s about as big a kick in a gut as I can take right now. This is one of the two top sights of the W trek – one of the biggest reasons I’ve traveled to the far end of the world, and it’s closed. This is my only day to see it, and anyway the weather isn’t getting any better. I sit for a bit in the rain and think about what to do next. There’s a ranger station, but it’s unattended. Plenty of other people have left their bags here to go up the valley at least part way. I decide to do the same.
There’s no real danger for some distance past the sign. The path goes uphill and winds between dozens of large stones and boulders, but even if the path itself can be a little tricky to follow, the brightly painted trail markings are impossible to miss. As you gain elevation, even in the bad weather, you can look out over the bottom of the French Glacier. Eventually as the path turns into the woods, snow starts to accumulate. Now the path is easier to follow in the trees, but there are slick rocks, and narrow footbridges made of planks or logs over gullies and ditches. Turning an ankle here would be very easy. I know that two big German guys that have been hiking about at my pace all day are a little bit ahead of me. Nearing the approach to the mirador, which is really really closed, I meet an Australian couple coming back and confirm that the Germans are still ahead of me. About 10 minutes later, I meet them on their way back, and they tell me that there’s not much to see ahead anyway. For some reason I don’t turn around with them, and keep heading upwards for about five minutes, before I consider my situation.
It has taken too long to realize that with the Germans heading back, I’m the last one on the trail. I doubt very much anyone would have come up behind me at this hour. I’m alone on a closed trail that is covered in snow and slush, and more snow is coming down with every step I take up. The mirador is closed and there’s nothing to see anyway. If I bust an ankle or hit my head on the way down, nobody will be looking for me, and I will spend the night on the mountain alone without tent or sleeping bag. I could die. I turn around perhaps 4/5ths of the way to the top, probably 5 to 10 minutes after the Germans headed back.
I walk carefully but I can feel my heart pounding as I realize I’ve put myself in a stupid situation. On the way back I do not see anyone else, so I was right in assuming I was the last one up the valley. After a miserable descent through snow and sleet, with slush seeping into my shoes, I finally reach the last rocky scramble near the bottom and return to Campamento Italiano. Relieved, I finish the rest of my lunch at a shelter (Italiano is low enough that the snow has given way to rain), pick up my bag, and set off for Refugio Cuernos, still another 2.5 hours away.
The first stretch coming out of Italiano is not difficult terrain in terms of steepness, but it’s incredibly muddy and I’m already fairly soaked from the valley. At some parts of the path there’s no way forward but just sticking a foot in a puddle to get around. I hit the halfway point of the trail in what I thought was decent time; but the second half seemed to take forever. At some points I was worried that I had somehow missed the refugio, but eventually I saw it impossibly far away down the shoreline. Maybe the markings are off because other people I talked to expressed the same view, although it was more likely the miserable weather was taking its toll on my psyche by that point in the afternoon. I barely stop to admire the stark but stunning rocky beaches on the shores of Lago Nordenskjold in my rush to get inside and finally dry off.
Unlike the refugios of the two previous nights, the small refugio Cuernos has two major problems. It is jam-packed with humans, and it is out of beer. Everyone who wisely skipped the French Valley has already staked out all the spots to dry things by the one stove in the living quarters, and more importantly to me at the moment, they have completely depleted the supply of Cerveza Austral. Cold, soaked, exhausted, wincing with every movement of my right knee, and with a sharp pain in my shoulder from my bag, I ration out one of my remaining Guatemalan 800mg ibuprofen tabs and down it with a carton of wine.
I feel much better.
Cuernos also ends up being the most social of the refugios. It’s cramped, so one conversation often spills over to another one, and the fact that I am drinking a liter of wine from a box makes it pretty easy to socialize. There’s a group of Basque kayakers who are paddling around Patagonia; they are easy to spot because they are stitching together a Basque flag at their dinner table. There’s three teachers from the states who I had spoken with the day before at Paine Grande. There’s actually a couple of girls from Chicago around. Learning I lesson from the beer outage, I keep an eye on the boxes of wine, and when they’re down to five boxes, I pick up another one, although to be fair I split most of this one. Eventually it’s time to crash in one of the packed dorm rooms – 12 beds, stacked three high, but the exhaustion and wine mean that sleep comes very quickly.