Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Chile: Week 1

This is what we came for...well maybe the ones under 100 meters tall.

The beginning of this trip has been pretty fast-paced.  The morning I flew out started at 6:30 with the alarm going off and my parents and sister driving me to the airport.  Soon after 8 in the morning,the trip went over its first speed bump with me not getting my boat on the plane.  The American Airlines desk turned me away.  After 2 hours of begging and pleading, I tucked my tail between my legs and checked in sans boat.  Luckily, both Tango and Baer got their boats on without issue and I was able to set up a Jefe Grande through my friend Raul in Chile before I left the States.  After a short, uneventful flight to Dallas and 6 hours of layover, I met up with Tango and boarded the plane for Chile.  About 45 minutes later, after sitting at the gate wondering if we were ever going to leave, the captain informed us that the plane had a mechanical problem and we would be switching planes.  We de-boarded, found the last bar open, sat down, ordered food and let the inertia of the trip wash over us.  It had begun.  We waited about 2 hours and finally got on our way.  9 ½ hours later we arrived in Chile.

That's a nice surf-ski you have.  First moments in Santiago.
Since our initial touchdown in Chile we have been on the move.  After passing through customs and meeting up with Raul and Baer at the airport, we quickly stopped by our hostel, met up with Wes and headed out to go car shopping.  We parked and walked about 30 feet onto the lot before finding a 1990 Mitsubishi Delica that looked like it might do the trick nicely.  After combing the lot and the neighboring lot and researching online, we to check out the engine etc., and decided that luck was on our side.  $4000 later we drove away with our rig for the trip. 
Packing up the Delica

Baer and Wes getting ready to put there cash down for the Delica.  Too bad it's real money

Day 2: Car? Check. Day 3: load gear, buy a rack and get on the road.  Destination:  Rio Claro.  We all thought that our luck with finding a vehicle so fast was almost too good to be true, but determined to take it as long as it lasts.  We drove about 4 hours south of Santiago, stopping a few times along the way to make sure our new rig was in good shape.  The landscape south of the city is amazingly beautiful, much like California, but with a background of huge jagged mountains.   My first glimpses of Chile reveal a combination of some of my most favorite places in the world.

Typical bland Chilean countryside

We turned off the interstate and started to follow the Rio Claro up into the mountains.  Even from the road we could tell the canyon was deep.  Every direction we looked, mist-covered mountains framed the sky and the canyon dropped steeply off to the side.  We were finally out of the city and in real Chile!  After a few km of some rocky road, we stopped and unloaded for the run.

First test of the Delica on the roads to the Claro
We separated out our boating gear from the pile of bags in the back of the van, geared up and walk for about 1 hour through the Chilean backcountry to the edge of the Rio Claro’s basalt canyon.  The Claro is one of the most unique things I have ever seen.  The water runs down an old lava tube that collapsed millennia ago, creating several deep, winding and extremely committing gorges.  We spent the afternoon enjoying the Vientedos section of the Claro.   The section consists of 22 drops in under 2 miles of river, with everything from a clean 20 ft. waterfall to a tight, 2-boat-wide, 100 ft. long slot drop.  The Vientedos section was a great first run giving us all a little taste of what Chile has to offer.  I hadn’t been in my boat in about 2 months before this run and after the first 20 ft. boof-stomp, I was jarred into the realization that I was in Chile.  The run went smoothly until Tango broke his boat on one of the bigger drops.  It was a little spicy for Tango, who was forced to charge through the drops before the 6 inch gap in his boat let too much water in.  Everything worked out fine and we floated out the last half mile to some take out beers.

Unfortunately, the gorge is so tight that on our first trip down we did not spend the time to take pictures.  I have some good helmet cam footage which will go up in a few weeks and I will try to get some pictures on our next trip down.  I can’t wait to go back to this place and explore the Entrada section in the next few days.

Getting ready to drop into the canyon
View from the take-out
In the evening, we set up camp and enjoyed some food under the South hemisphere sky.  With no clouds, I threw down my sleeping bag and pad and got my first taste of the totally foreign night sky.   This is what I am here for.
Dirtbag sleeping were he is comfortable.
We woke rather late in the morning and milled around camp for a bit.  Our Chilean friends Raul, Nico and Jose had to head back to Santiago early, so we took our time packing up, expecting to follow them into the city later that day to complete some paperwork.  We loaded up and started the drive down from the Claro to the interstate.  About 30 km into the drive and many km from the nearest town, we rolled to a sad stop on the side of the road.  We had run out of gas.  We knew all along we were low on fuel, but with the idea of our first kayaking of the trip and our Chilean friends leading the way we decided to ignore the gas gage and push on.  That idea had backfired badly and Baer and Tango started the long walk down to town.  Wes and I waited in the car. 

Several hours, a nap and countless dust showers from passing cars later Tango and Baer arrived with some gas and we loaded up once again.  The drive into Santiago was painless, but the van was starting to show signs of some issues.  The temp gauge was erratic and there were some not-so-comforting sounds out of the clutch.  We decided to have a mechanic look at it.

The following day, Baer and I met with Raul to finish the paperwork to allow us to go to Argentina and look for some insurance for the vehicle.  Tango and Wes took the van to a mechanic.  We met back up later afternoon with bad news all around.  After several hours of trying, Baer, Raul and I had not been able to find any insurance and the paperwork necessary for getting into Argentina was getting held up in the Chilean system.  Tango and Wes had even worse news.  The van had a blown head gasket, broken radiator and was missing the fly wheel cover on the clutch.  Begin holding pattern.

Currently we are waiting for the mechanic to give us the total for all the work he is doing on the rig.  Hopefully we will get away with only a few hundred dollars of repair.  We’ve been staying at La Casa Roja in the Central District of Santiago, counting the hours till we can get on the road and go kayaking again.  The wait has been interesting.  I have never spent so much time at a hostel in all my travels.  Life here, if you allow it, seems to be a slow decline into Groundhog Day status.  People show up at Casa Rioja all day long, many starting or ending their South American journeys.  Faces pass by quickly and the hours seem to slip by without warning.  I’ve been fighting of the urge to slip into a life of sleeping until 2 and not doing anything all day.  Hopefully, the van will be fixed soon and we can start south.  Our next move will be back to the Claro for a few days, then onward to the south!

Few more pictures of the trip so far:

We have arrived

Spending money

Comfy back seats.

About to sink some money into this heap.

He might have been less excited if we knew what we know now.

Not a bad rig.

Scrounging for a van.

100 meter falls on Rio Claro.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Music Pass/Sand Dunes Hike

Where are we again?  Colorado?

Fall snuck up on me this year.  Before I knew it the water was drying up around the state, many of my friends were packing it up to follow the dream out East and the cold Fall air had replaced the warmth of Summer.  I was left contemplating the success of the past few months and planning for the next adventure coming up.   I decided to take an extended break from CKS to spend some time with my family and get ready for my winter trip to Chile.  With work out of the way, my sister and I made plans to go backpacking.  We were planning for 10 day trip on the San Juan section of the Colorado Trail.  Our excitement swelled with the thought of being in the backcountry for an extended time.  It was decided, we were in for a high elevation adventure!  Soon after we bragged to our friends about our sweet fall hiking trip it snowed above 10,000 ft.  We re-evaluated.  Did we want to spend 10 days hiking in snow?  Nope, we didn’t.  We both agreed, unless we could ski on it, we wanted nothing to do with snow.  We made a new plan:  Hike from the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains over Music Pass down into Sand Dunes National Park and through the Sand Dunes to the main gate.    

We left early in the morning of September 25th from our parents’ house and made the hour or so drive through Westcliffe to the foot of the Sangres.  We were able to drive to within a few miles of the summit of Music Pass and geared up for the hike.  Our parents came along for the first few miles, until we dropped over the other side of the mountains and started the descent into the San Luis Valley.  Although the trip didn’t cover many miles, only about 25, we were concerned about how the last leg of the trip through the Sand Dunes was going to be.  Neither of us had traveled any distance in sand so we made plans to push down trail as far as we could the first and second day of the trip so we could stage an early approach on the dunes on day 3.

Looking South from the top of Music Pass-Overlooking our route

After dropping over Music Pass we encountered amazing fall colors and a good size creek that would lead us down valley and out on to the flats north of the Sand Dunes.   The trail proved to be relatively easy with about 5 creek crossings the first day, none all that complicated.

Nice meandering trail through Aspens

We stopped and camped about 7 miles from the pass, meeting our mileage goal.

Camp 1:  Cheffin it up

The morning of day two we awoke to stiff legs and a chilly morning.  We broke camp and continued on our way with the goal of making it down out of the mountains and onto the San Luis Valley floor.     The well beaten path of the upper trail dissolved into a small winding trail making the going slower.  To make things even more interesting, the area we were hiking through had sustained a large flooding event that had literally washed the hillside down into the creek bed.  The last few miles out of the mountains the trail had been replaced with piles of the surrounding mountainside and we spent a good amount of time clamoring over and around the landslides.   We passed out of the high alpine, through the high desert and finally into a strange combination of sand dune and pine forest that neither of us had seen before.  We were both still stiff and sore from the extra weight we were carrying and as the day progressed we both struggled with the variable landscape.

Sand, Pinyon trees and Yucca.  Nice to look at, not so much to walk through
 As we dropped down out of the Mountains and into the flats the Sand Dunes finally came into view.  The impression you get from looking at maps of the area does not prepare you for the vastness of the dune field.  The massive dunes rose hundreds of feet off the valley floor.  When looking at them from the visitors’ center they look surreal, like they don’t belong there, but when looking at them from the North knowing that home is on the other side, they seem bigger and more imposing than ever. 

View of Dunes from Camp 2

We found our way along the creek finally passing into the park boundaries.  Evidence of the huge storm event could be seen everywhere.  All the side creeks had been blown out completely and where there was a trail or road a year ago there were only large ravines now.  The park designated camping area was located in the cottonwood trees on the edge of Sand Creek.  You could tell the Park Service had high hopes of a well established primitive campsite on the north side of the Sand Dunes, but the camp had obviously fallen out of priority.  The state of the art composting toilet was now just the home of some resourceful spiders; the bear box was askew from floodwaters.  All of the campsites were filled in with sand or washed away.   The broken land gave the night a sense of exposure that we hadn’t felt the previous days.   The creek had carved huge sand canyons in the landscape and the rising dunes in the background tricked our minds into being anywhere but Colorado.  We cooked dinner and planned the early approach to the dunes the next morning.

We woke in the pitch black of early morning, broke camp and made a quick breakfast of warm soup and energy bars.  Since the area between us and the dune field had been so broken by the storm we decided to forget the trail and walk due south for about 2 miles through scrub brush, oak and pinion trees to the edge of the dunes.  As we walked the sun began to rise to the east illuminating the highest dunes.  We discovered we weren’t the only creatures walking into the dunes that morning.  As we walked in the quiet morning we heard the voices of elk calling back and forth to one another, alerting each other to our presence.  We pushed the herd toward the dunes catching short glimpses of them as they jogged off over the shifting terrain.   The elk seemed to be leading us into the dunes, welcoming us to the new place. 

Sunrise on the outskirts of the Dunes
After pushing on for about 2 hours over the variable terrain on the northern outskirts of the dunes we finally were in the dunes.  By eight in the morning we were standing on one of the taller dunes we had seen from our camp the night before.  The view south, down into the heart of the Park was like none other.  The tan sand swept down valley like a rolling ocean frozen in time, the tips of the dunes curling in shadow like breaking waves.  In the background rose the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Looking South through the heart of the Dune Field

We hike south and east for the rest of the morning, sticking somewhat close to the border between sand and mountain.  We stopped and set up a day camp as the sun started to heat the sand.  Morning in the dunes was incredibly peaceful.  Nothing moved. The sand was cool and the landscape was soft.  By eleven o’clock the sun was beating down and the sand was beginning to radiate heat.  By noon the wind had picked up and the peacefulness of the morning was quickly forgotten.  We huddled in the little shade we had built and tried to stay out of the wind.  Through afternoon we cursed the sandy gusts of wind and made plans to move.  By 3 we had broken camp and continued the hike south.  The sky was darkening and the wind had pick up a little, it was time to find a place low to camp for the night.  We hike for another few hours and camped in a low, semi-vegetated area as much out the wind as possible.  We made dinner and sat back to watch the night sky.  We decided that we were going to shorten our trip by a day and hike out the next day.  This did not force us into another day of sitting through the afternoon and gave us a little more flexibility with our water.

Looking North - Dawn Patrol - Day 4
We woke early again the next day and started the final push out.   The darkness and the sand seemed to eat the light from our headlamps.  The ridges we walked on seemed to fall off into oblivion on both sides giving us the sense that we were very high up and exposed.  As the sun began to rise we walked faster to beat the heat of the afternoon.  We arrived at the edge of the dunes around 10 in the morning and ate breakfast on a flat overlooking the main park area.  After an hour or so more of hiking we found the car. 

A little morning hot chocolate and whiskey to celebrate

 Although it was short, this hike beat us down.  The variable terrain was hard on our legs and feet and if I ever go back I will pack way less food leave room for more water.  We ended the trip with a visit to very nice Joyful Journey Hot Springs and called it a success.

Here are a few more pictures of our trip:

Desktop Background material
Flood damage at Camp 2

Contrast on virgin sand

Aftermath of Coyote party the previous night

View of Camp 2 from the Dunes

Sand and Mountains