Saturday, February 4, 2017

El Circuito de Los Condores

Whats up all my peeps on the interwebs! Just finished a work/play trip to central Chile, two weeks of sun and heat to break up a cool and rainy winter. I want to give a shout out to the melon team, a great group of people to work with!

Melon Team Power!

This was my second time to Chile and the second time that plans to visit Patagonia fell through. Last year was a timing issue, this year, due to new regulations in Torres del Paine, Rakesh and I could not book campsites during our free time in Chile. Two other trip options in Patagonia didn't work out for various reasons and that left us with our backup option, the Condor Circuit.

There is not a ton of information in English on this trail so I am hoping this report will be helpful to anybody considering attempting it. There is an "official" circuit that the guide companies advertise that is 74 kilometers long but there are also many ways to extend or shorten the route as well. A map is available that I purchased from, it is good enough to navigate with but is very hard to read elevation and contours. I would not consider hiking the circuit without it, there are many game/cattle trails that could be confusing without a map.

Now on to the trip report. The first order of business is getting to the park. Everything I read had the starting point in the Lircay de Altos park and that is what we did. To get there, you need to catch a bus from Talca (3 hours south of Santiago) to Vilches Alto. Buses leave a few times a day, you will need to find the one kiosk that has Vilches on it to find which bus to take. Pay on the bus, cost is 2000 pesos. Tell the guy Vilches Alto or el fin del camino, either one will work. The bus has seen better days, be prepared for ripped seats, dirt and noise. It can also fill up, especially the last one of the day. Two dusty hours later, you will reach the end of the road. There is a little store/restaurant where you can buy huge bottles of beer or coke, some snacks and get whatever they are cooking that day.

Three kilometers up the dirt road will get you to the ranger station where you check in, pay ect. They will ask to see your stove and fuel canister, no fires allowed. They also want to know route and finish date. Entrance fee is 5000 pesos. They give you a paper which you need to deposit after finishing, if you don't I think they assume you are lost and will send out search and rescue.

Dos Hombres

Rakesh and I arrived in Vilches at 2pm and after eating lunch, walking up to the ranger station and registering, we didn't start hiking until 4. The good news was that there was light until 9:30 so we had a fair amount of time to make some miles. The bad news was that temperatures were in the mid to upper 90's and we were feeling it pretty quick.

on the way to the park entrance

Alstroemeria spp.

Day 1: Vilches to Valle del Venado (~ 17 km)

The first nine kilometers up to Mirador del Venado is through a mix of oak forest and open volcanic rockscape. Some uphill but nothing too strenuous, unless you are hiking in January and it frigging hot, then its a little less fun. The view from the Mirador is pretty awesome.

view from Mirador towards two volcanos

The trail then drops about 700 meters down to the Rio Claro. It is dusty, rocky and steep but goes fairly quick. The funny thing about this park is that distances between landmarks are marked in hiking hours rather than in distances. The hours given are on the slow side for me, but if you are carrying huge heavy packs they might be more accurate. We were told it would take two hours to get down to the river valley and it took a little less than one.

Descending to the valle

Calceoleria spp.

If you go left at the bottom and cross the river there is a really cool waterfall about 1 km away. The trail goes to the right and follows the river up the valley. Cross once right away then keep to the left of the river all the way to the campsites at the Valle del Venado. Depending on time of year, this could be a challenging river cross, in January we didn't even get our feet wet. The trail mostly disappears but there are a few markers, just keep to the left side of the valley and you will be fine. The Valle del Venado campsite has a small hut where a ranger lives and manages the campsites. Its a pretty area with lots of water, just be careful of the horse and cow shit, it is everywhere. This actually became a theme of the trip, apparently most of the park is open to unrestricted grazing and there is literally horse, cow or goat shit all over the place. In the campground there is a fenced off area for tents but still, watch your step.

Day 2: Valle del Venado to random campsite on Rio Blanquillo (~18 km)

We had a leisurely start and were on trail by 8 am, it heated up pretty quick and combined with the uphill, got sweaty fast. The first few kilometers out of the valley are very steep up a combination of sand and volcanic scree. There are no real switchbacks, just up, I am not even sure switchbacks could be maintained as the area looks very prone to erosion and landslides. It is beautiful with nice views back down the valley, but it was not as much fun when temps started hitting the 90s again.

We sweated our way up, and as the sun rose higher in the sky, lost almost all shade possibility by about 10 am. Unknown to us, this was just the beginning of a very long uphill slog through increasingly sandy terrain. We had planned on a lunch break at Laguna el Blanquillo but missed it because there was no laguna, I guess it had dried up. There was the Rio Blanquillo, which was very refreshing and which we needed to cross but there is literally no shade. This was the deepest river crossing and was up to our knees, in the spring it would be much more interesting. As we had missed the lake and thought we hadn't gone far enough, we kept hiking, hoping to find some shade somewhere for an afternoon siesta.

Laguna el Blanquillo, dried up patch to the left

We ended up getting all the way to Vegas El Blanquillo around 2 pm. Six hours of hard climbing had taken its toll and we really were hoping to find shade at the popular camping area at the base of the volcano Descabezado Grande. Unfortunately, we were out of luck, there was a shade structure but there was some cowboy guy there loading his horses and he wouldn't let us rest in the shade. So we huddled under some thorn bushes for a couple hours until the sun shifted and even that little bit of shade disappeared. The whole area was full of cows, there was cow shit everywhere, in all the water, all the grassy areas. I would not recommend getting water from anywhere other than where it comes directly out of the ground, fortunately there are a few places there where it does. I did find some shit covered toilet paper about 2 feet from one of these springs, so be careful. We started double treating after that, first filtering with the sawyer filter then adding aqua mira. Apparently there is a hot spring around here as well, we had no interest so didn't look for it.

From that point it started to get difficult. We couldn't really find the trail but looking at the map it was obvious where we needed to go, so we just made a beeline towards a canyon that skirted the base of the volcano. The landscape turns from volcanic wasteland into sand dunes and the uphill sand slog continues.

The trail picks up again in the sand dunes and follows a very refreshing stream for about 6 kilometers. Every piece of grassy area has a herd of cows on it, it looks great for them but you better believe that all the water is polluted. We did find the source of the stream, it comes right out of the sand, very cool and at that point most likely very pure. We also found the only shady spot since the morning there, a small boulder that we could take a break under. We waited until about 7 when it started to cool off to continue the uphill climb. I have to say we were feeling pretty beat up by this point, total mileage was not that much but the heat, dryness and lack of shade combined with uphill in sand was really tough. By the time we made it to where the trail connects back with the Rio Blanquillo it was almost dark and we were done. I was seriously surprised by how sore and tired I was. It had taken us nine hours of strenuous hiking to get 18 kilometers, that is pretty slow. I am not sure the exact elevation gain, somewhere around 1000 to 1500 meters. We were high enough that it got fairly cold that night.

Day 3: Random spot to El Bolson (~ 16 km)

The next day we got a bit of a late start again, I didnt want to get out of my sleeping bag and Rakesh was dead asleep. But the 3 kilometers between our campsite and Vegas Manantial Pelado was my favorite of the whole trip. Despite the incredibly dry and arid environment, there were streams pouring out of the sand dunes everywhere, with beautiful wildflowers blooming along them. We saw goat and cow herders on horseback herding their animals up the dunes, it was quite a site.

herding dogs saying hello

morning roundup

the weak goats get left behind
its tough being a goat out here

This is also where we started to deviate from the official circuit, tired of struggling through the sand we skipped the section between Vegas Pelado up Estero El Volcan and over to Laguna Las Animas. Instead we headed past Laguna Manantial Pelado and down towards the Rio Radal. We shaved off about 10 kilometers of sand by taking this route instead. From the Vegas to the Laguna is steep climb up sand, then past the lake over a pass and finally, after almost 2 days of climbing through sand we started to descend, in sand. This is when my shoes really started to fill with sand quickly and became packed solid with sand. I gave up trying to empty them out as they would fill back up in about 10 minutes. I have to say I really don't like hiking in sand.

did I mention the sand?

After the lake there is one very sketchy water source, full of cow shit that we didn't even attempt to use. The sand slowly starts to give way to more rocks and our pace of travel increased significantly so that we made it down to the next water source by noon. At some point along the way the trail and a private road become intertwined and without realizing we were not supposed to follow the road, we did. Its not a big deal as the road takes you to basically the same place anyways but we had a confusing time for a while trying to figure out where we were on the map. But the road crosses an unnamed stream that is very cool and refreshing. We met a hardcore old Chilean guy there with a couple of younger dudes. They were headed up the way we just came and were sporting some seriously heavy looking packs. I did not envy them as they started the climb and the temperatures again hit the mid to upper 90s. Rakesh and I jumped in the river then rested in the shade of some thorny bush for a couple of hours. After resting up and finally figuring out where we were, we followed the road for a couple more kilometers until the trail crossed it and we headed right, down towards El Bolson. It was at this point that I realized I had only peed twice in two days, a new milestone for me, especially considering I was drinking between 4-6 liters a day. I guess that wasn't enough...

El Bolson

Day 4: El Bolson to Parque Ingles (Siete Tazas) ~ 11 km

The campsites at El Bolson were pretty nice, and mostly shit free. The open grassy area is used for grazing so walk carefully but there is a boardwalk you can use if it is too wet. Just be careful, it looks like cows also walk over the boardwalk as many of the boards were broken as if stepped on by a large hooved animals, or really heavy clumsy hikers.

The final hike from El Bolson to Parque Ingles is easy, mostly flat and has good tree cover. We hiked out fairly quickly only to find out that both parks had been closed due to wild fires. Nobody seemed particularly worried but it did get fairly smoky at times. From Parque Ingles, we took the bus to Molina (about 1.5 hours) and from there you can get to Santiago within 3 hours.

I am hesitant to recommend this hike. While we did go through some interesting landscapes, it wasn't that interesting. I can definitely say that January is a terrible time of year to do this hike, if the temperatures were cooler it would have been more enjoyable. But, there is no escaping the sand and for me that is what made this hike much more difficult and much less enjoyable. If you don't mind the sand and the sun exposure then it may be worth visiting. If you go with a guide on horses and don't have to deal with uphill sand walking, then it may be worth doing. For me, once was enough and I look forward to exploring other parts of Chile.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Yosemite in late October

Spent this past weekend back in Yosemite with DC. We managed to find a couple beautiful days between rain. It was an easy trip with time to photograph and enjoy the fresh air.

I went a little more heavy on the black and white this time, the textures in Yosemite are really special.

DC - AKA Mark

View from the Pinnacles towards the valley

View from Cloud's Rest

Cloud's Rest looking South-East

Nevada Falls

Tunnel View in monochrome

Yosemite Falls

Misty Valley

Good times in Yosemite

Hi everyone, here it is, another trip and another trip report procrastinated. It only took me six weeks to write this up, well 5.9 weeks of putting it off and .1 to edit photos and write. I have no excuses, it just happens. Fortunately, there are only three people who actually care (sorry Rakesh and DC) and I am one of them. So, with that stellar introduction lets get into it.

I had been hoping to have some backcountry adventures in Yosemite with DC ever since he started working there earlier this year. We finally were able to arrange a trip towards the end of September. Amazingly, DC and I had not backpacked together since 2014, when we hiked together for 2.5 months along the PCT. Busy lives and all that, but really it shouldn't have taken us that long. Rakesh had some free time as well, so he came along for the fun.

Our original plan, which was planned the night before we left, turned out to be a bit too ambitious and I think I may have miscalculated mileage by 15 or so miles. So on day one, when we realized the plan wasn't going to happen, we made some changes and turned a fairly strenuous trip into a pretty easy one.

Day 1: Mono Meadow to Lower Ottoway Lake (~14 miles)

After an excellent breakfast (Thanks DC!) and a leisurely start, we headed out of Mono Meadow trailhead around 11 am. The trail descends to Illilouette Creek and then slowly climbs back up. The day was beautiful with temperatures in the upper 60s.


By the time we made it to the junction where we could continue our original planned route or go up to Ottoway lakes, it was getting close to dark. It was at this point when we decided to change our plans and spend the night up at the lakes.

Lower Ottoway Lake

Day 2: Day hiking up to Red's Pass and Upper Ottoway Lake (~ 7 miles)

We slept in and spent the day exploring the area. The Ottoway lakes are really picturesque and the Clark range is quite lovely with many shades of red and grey. We climbed up to Red's Pass to enjoy the view. Its a pretty steep climb with a lot of switchbacks but with only day packs not too difficult. There was talk of climbing Red's Peak but from the pass it looked a bit too sketchy to attempt.

Cool Cloud Patterns

From Red's Pass down towards Upper Ottoway Lake

View towards Red's Pass

The afternoon was spent wandering around and napping.

Napping near Upper Ottoway Lake

Day 3: Lower Ottoway Lake to Mono Meadow

Another lovely day to finish off the trip.

It was great to spend some time in the backcountry with Rakesh and DC. Thanks Guys

Sunset overlooking Lower Ottoway Lake

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Beauty and Berserkers in the High Sierra

Greetings screen dwellers and random denizens of the internets. Another year is quickly passing us by and the best time for Californians to explore the incredible Sierras is here. Growing up in the northeast, I used to love the fall for the cool sunny days and crisp nights. The anticipation of a quiet winter and a time to reflect on all that was accomplished during the summer was one of my favorite pastimes. But since moving to California, I love fall for a different reason. It is certainly not for the ridiculous heat in the Sacramento Valley or the dry, water starved landscape but for the mountains that beckon with their cool breezes and the crowds thinning out just as the insects do, leaving the Sierras as a peaceful oasis. Work starts to slow down and I find myself able to take the time to explore this wonderful state. It was during this last, busy Labor Day weekend that Jacob "The Beserker" Dinardi (check out his blog) and I took to the mountains in search of beauty, adventure and new places.

The Friendly Berserker

Thankfully, Jacob had the entire itinerary planned, complete with maps, route beta and enthusiasm. I find myself lacking the motivation to put a lot of planning into trips and so I very much appreciated the efforts Jacob made to plan and execute this adventure. We discussed the trip for about two weeks before embarking and I have to admit some nervousness as I had let myself get a bit out of shape. I hadn't been at altitude since my last High Sierra trip with Jacob and Dylan the previous year, and I wasn't sure how my body was going to respond to the challenge. But with the opportunity to extend the holiday weekend and a chance to walk those wonderful mountains again, nervousness turned to excited anticipation.

The route

As we did not have permits for the hike out of Kings Canyon National Park, we had to plan on getting walk up permits on one of the busiest hiking weekends of the year. So Friday night, we met up and made the five hour drive (for me, nine for him with traffic) to the Road's End trailhead. We had a nice 12:30 am arrival time and slept a few hours before lining up at the rangers booth early in the morning. We got there at 6:00 am, as it opens at 7:00 and were the first in line. So we made coffee and chatted with the other poor souls who also wanted walk in permits.

Day 1: Roads End to Golden Bear Lake ~ 17 miles (6500 feet elevation gain)

After securing our permits and giving the ranger the details of our itinerary, we finished our preparations and began the long climb to our first nights campsite. Aside from the first two miles out of the trailhead, the entire day was spent climbing up into the mountains. It is a beautiful walk along Bubbs Creek with some spectacular views of peaks and intercepting valleys. We stumbled upon a bear within the first couple of hours and I don't know who was more surprised, me or the bear. I didn't get a very good photo but it was a cool experience to watch the bear munch his way through berry bushes. I don't know what kind of berry the bear was eating, it looked like a large huckleberry but tasted different and had a large seed in the center.


The day was relatively uneventful after this except for some gastrointestinal distress on my part. I will spare you the details but this sometimes happens to me when I get above 9000 feet. This distress came and went over the entire trip and its hard for me to figure out what combination of food and elevation causes it. So it was slightly annoying but all in all not a big deal. We passed by quite a few hikers going downhill, completing the Rae Lakes Loop (read my trip report here).

Ascent along Bubbs Creek

We pushed pretty hard and aside from lunch didn't take any breaks. It's hard to go very fast with that kind of elevation gain so we kept going in order to make it to our campsite before dark. At Lower Vidette meadow the Bubbs Creek trail links up with the John Muir/Pacific Crest trail and we continued southbound towards Forester Pass. A few miles past Vidette we started to look for an old use trail to take us up to Golden Bear Lake. This was a remnant of the old JMT that was rerouted to its current location many years ago. There ended up being no real sign of the old trail so we just headed off-trail and made our way in the direction of the lake. At the end of a long day of climbing, this off trail portion was pretty steep and difficult and definitely wore me out. It was about a mile of navigating up the steep hillside to make it to the lake. When we finally got there, you can imagine how happy we were.

Off trail

Golden Bear Lake

Looking West

Just as it was getting dark, Jacob clued me in that it was going to be a wet night, the condensation was already starting to cover everything with a layer of dampness. So I set up my tarp to keep my sleeping bag and bivy dry and slept fairly well. It ended up getting pretty cold, I was toasty in my sleeping bag (and I ate a lot of cashews and chocolate before bed to keep my metabolism going) but I made the rookie mistake of leaving out my water filter. It froze. Unfortunately, Sawyer filters don't work after freezing and I had to use Jacobs for the rest of the trip. I normally carry a backup of Aqua Mira drops but I was so concerned about pack weight that I dropped many of my "extras", I wont be doing that again.

Frozen Pot

Morning Mist

Day 2: Golden Bear Lake to Tyndall Creek ~ 10 miles (3500 feel elevation gain)

The morning was crisp and beautiful. We had a mostly trailless day ahead of us with two passes to climb. The initial approach to Junction Pass was a nice climb up and out of Center Basin. We had views of Forester Pass to the west and the JMT/PCT as it winds its way north. The old JMT we were following was faintly visible for some of the climb up the talus fields to Junction Pass but basically ended as it drops down the other side. It soon became obvious why the JMT was rerouted to its current location as our route took us down into some very difficult scree slopes and talus fields. Both sides of the canyon we descended into are eroding and crumbling and it must have been a real challenge to maintain a trail through this section. While not particularly dangerous, we did have to be careful to avoid sliding too quickly or dislodging boulders on ourselves as we descended. The loose scree turned into loose talus that was tiresome to navigate. I was happy to finally get through it after a couple of miles.

Climbing up to Junction Pass

View of Forester Pass

Descending Junction Pass

We slowly descended down into another valley where we intercepted the Shepherd Pass trail. I was feeling pretty beat at that point and we took a short lunch break at a stream just before getting back on trail. I had been on this trail a number of years before and remembered it not being very well traveled. However, we ended up meeting quite a few hikers and climbers coming down from the pass. The climb up to Shepherd Pass was slow but not difficult, just a matter of switching the legs into granny gear and grinding upwards. The last half mile just under the pass is quite steep but had lovely views down into the Owens Valley and hwy 395. Once over Shepherd Pass it was easy flat hiking to our campsite on Tyndall Creek.

Shepherd Pass

Heading to Tyndall Creek

Day 3: Tyndall Creek to East Lake ~ 10 miles (2500 feet up and 4000 feet down)

After another chilly night we made our way west and hooked up with the trail that leads to Lake South America. This was another area I had not previously visited and it did not disappoint. To the west of Lake South America is the Kern Valley ( or basin?) that looks spectacular and I will be visiting there sometime. We made our way over a small pass and the trail ended at the lake. The way up to Harrison Pass looked pretty staightforward and we got up to the pass with some effort. Its funny how everything is harder at higher elevations, I found myself breathing hard doing routine tasks like getting water and even standing up.

Heading towards the first pass of the day

Looking West into some rugged peaks

We had been feeling pretty good all the way up the pass but were in for a bit of a shock when we looked down the other side. It is very steep, very loose and looked very dangerous. Back at Junction Pass I had mentioned to Jacob that I have a slight fear of heights, it hadn't bothered me for the entire trip but looking down Harrison Pass it came on pretty strong. At this point we had to make the choice if we should continue or turn around. Turning around would add many miles to our trip and felt like a retreat but going over the pass looked potentially life threatening if a misstep was made.

Jacob asessing the situation

View down Harrison Pass

After assessing the situation and our instincts, we made the decision to go for it. It looked like if we could make it down the first very steep part then the rest of the descent would be manageable. I decided to go first before my nerve gave out and very slowly made my way down the right side. The rock was super crumbly and I had to focus completely on getting down safely. Its not hard to imagine one of the loose rocks that I was holding onto giving away and plunging me down the rock chute but I managed and got down with only some minor cuts and abrasions.

Jacob sliding down the pass

At the bottom of the pass we celebrated with a jump into the very cold lake and ate lunch, enjoying the views and happy to be done with the sketchiest part of the trip. I have no desire to go over that pass again but I am happy to have faced my fears and overcome the challenge.

The rest of the day was spent descending off trail towards East Lake. It is a beautiful and rarely traveled area, quite rugged and my feet were very sore at the end of the day. A faint use trail became visible as we neared East Lake and cairns marked the way so that we could avoid getting tangled in the thick willow bushes that line East Creek. We found a really nice campsite on the far side of East Lake where we could relax and enjoy the evening. The elevation was relatively low at 9100 feet and I was very warm that night, no need for high fat foods before bed.

Random Flower

East Lake

Day 4: ~ 13 miles (- 5000 feet elevation)

We got an early start on our last day as we had some miles to cover and some hours to drive. The trail from East Lake to Junction Meadow on Bubbs Creek was rocky but easy to follow. We made pretty good time and continued to cruise downhill all the way to Road's End. The trail was pretty quiet until we were close to the trailhead, then we started to see some day hikers and backpackers heading up into the mountains. By the time we made it back to the car, I was very sore, dirty and happy, all signs of a successful trip. Once again, California has amazed me with her beauty and I am so thankful to be able to experience it.