March 13, 2010

Valle del Frances

March 10. This morning dawned perfectly clear, offering views of the top of Paine Grande for the first time. We got to sleep in a bit, because we're taking a boat across Lago Pehoe, where our camp is, and it doesn't sail until 9:30. Breakfast was the usual flatbreads, cereal, and coffee. We loaded our stuff for two hikes and one night across the lake and embarked on a nice catamaran for a 30 minute crossing to Refugio Paine Grande, one of the gateways to the Paine Circuit.

The refugio is quite large, with lots of tent camping (our home for the night), a big dining hall (our meals), and a couple of dozen rooms (not our style). Trails lead east, west, and south from here. Today's trail heads east, toward the Val del Frances (named for a Frenchman who homesteaded the valley long ago). We left Lago Peho and skirted Lago Nordenskjold to the entrance to the valley. We climbed a bit and then crossed the river, on a suspension bridge, to Campomento Italiano, another station along the Paine Circuit. It looked a bit cold to me.

From there, we climbed up the valley, around layer and layer of moraine, to an initial viewpoint, which shows Paine Grande in its snowy glory. Its top, a serrated comb of rock, was frosted in ice, and its flanks are carved by a series of glaciers on benches that actively fall down the cliffs onto the next bench's glacier. While we watched, at least a dozen avalanches poured down the cliffs.

Later, we climbed up another, bigger moraine to an even better viewpoint. It showed Paine Grande, even closer, but also all of the other peaks further up the valley: Fortress, Sword, Leaf, Mask, and the North and Principle Horns.

All this time, we had sun and calm (very non-Patagonian weather). Coming down, the clouds formed and the winds kicked up, rivaling yesterday's. Spindrift was tossed on the lakes, the trees bent, and even the birds stayed put. By the time we got to the Refugio, it was plain windy, but showing signs of a precipitation enhancement. By dinner, in the dining hall, it had started to rain. By bedtime, it was raining. It still is.

Dinner, by the way, was fixed and served cafeteria style, made for about a hundred people. There was juice, asparagus soup, a salad with corn, beans, and an artichoke heart, pot roast and mashed potatoes. And apricots for dessert. Not bad for “free.”

Time to turn in: the wind is blowing and the rain is pelting, but I'm warm inside this tent. Another hike tomorrow!

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