Base de Torres

Having gone to sleep in a howling gale, listening to the sound of rain on the camper van roof, I woke up to silence and opened the doors to find a beautiful blue sky with the Torres del Paine in all their glory. I got dressed at top speed and jumped into the driver’s seat to head up to the park. It wasn’t too far a drive and before long I’d paid the park fee ($20,000, or just over £20) which would allow me entrance to the park for 3 days. Having seen in the weather forecast that this was to be the best day, I’d earmarked it for the hike up to the base of the towers, which would keep me busy for the whole day.

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The car park for the towers hike was quite full already and I parked up next to another Wicked camper van. It didn’t take me more than about 10s to decide that I had by far the more attractive van of the two!

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I tried not to waste too much time getting myself ready for the hike, but I needed to get my waterproofs and fleece out of the suitcase and into my day pack. As I was about to set off I spotted a caracara strutting across the field, so I stopped to swap over to the telephoto lens for a couple of photos. Then I got as far as the bathrooms before realising that I hadn’t changed from my running shoes into my hiking boots, and that I’d forgotten the trekking poles so I had to go back to the van and extract my suitcase from under the bed again to get at the trekking poles. Finally, after a lot more faffing about I managed to start walking only to be told by one of the rangers that I wasn’t allowed to walk around the visitors’ centre, but instead had to walk through it.

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The first bit of the walk was along a track past the campground and hotel buildings. This turns out to be the busiest part of the park, and I think that the hotel is pretty pricey.


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What I hadn’t anticipated before I came here was just how many different types of landscape I would see. The walk started out in the grasslands but quite quickly became more rugged. The paths were good quality, and no doubt are quite heavily maintained given the amount of traffic that comes through here.

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There were a number of little bridges to cross, most of which only allowed a couple people on at any time. Fortunately, as it was still before 9am, it wasn’t too busy so we didn’t have wait too long.

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The path very quickly became steeper and I took plenty of opportunities to stop for photos and to catch my breath. A few times the path became less distinct or split up and it seemed that every now and again its course has been changed to let areas regenerate.

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After a little while the path levelled off as we rounded the hillside and entered into an attractive valley with the river rushing along at the bottom. By this point larger groups of walkers were beginning to appear with tour guides. Whilst I’m sure that the guides were useful for providing some extra information about the area I can’t see any real reason to do this walk in a group as there was certainly no difficulty in following the path. My policy very quickly became stepping aside and letting the groups past so that I could walk at my own pace and enjoy the scenery, rather than frogmarching along in the middle of a crowd. 

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When we came across a stream I stopped to fill up my water bottle and eat an empanada that I’d picked up at the supermarket the day before. It turns out that empanadas make very convenient hiking food (they’re basically the south american version of a Cornish pasty) and I wish I’d bought a few more.

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From the stream the path sloped downhill as we approached the campsite on the river. This was, more or less, the halfway point of the walk, and many hikers stop here overnight to split the walk over two days.

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The alternative to hiking to the campsite is to go with a group on horseback. Whilst I suppose this would save some effort, the reality is that the first half of the hike is the easiest so this wouldn’t save as much effort as it first appears, although I suppose that it would make it easier to complete the hike in a single day if you weren’t used to long hikes.

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The campground looked rather appealing, but apparently you have to book up early if you want to stay along the way. Some day I’d love to come back and do one of the multi-day treks that this is part off and I can definitely see the appeal of not having to carry a tent on my back, but on the other hand, I much rather stay somewhere less busy. I didn’t hang around at the campsite for long as there were a lot of people around and I preferred to just keep walking. After being in the sun for a while it was lovely to enter the forest and have a little shade. If I’d had any sense I would have stopped and topped up my suncream. Needless to say, despite the factor 50 I did finish up the day with some sunburn.

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After a nice stint in the forest the path opened out again and it began to get more rocky, so it was time to get the trekking poles out. I don’t use them often and it took a little time to figure out the best way to hold the trekking poles and still manage to keep the camera from swinging around too much.

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Not only did the path get harder to navigate at this point but we were beginning to meet a lot of people coming back down, so there was a lot more stopping and waiting at narrow points. By this time it was mid afternoon and very warm. Like those around me, I was at the point where I would be very glad to get to the top.

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Finally I rounded the last corner and the view opened up to the lake and towers. The scenery is beautiful but it was very crowded and noisy. Getting any photos without people in was a real challenge as people were practically lining up to pose for photos. I watched as person after person climbed up onto the big rocks in the foreground and were photographed in various different poses, almost exclusively facing the camera rather than the spectacular sight ahead of them. I did my best to ignore everyone and just soak in the moment, but it was a bit of a challenge. I think I was the only person who saw an orange butterfly flit past, totally incongruous in that environment.

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After a while it was time to stand up and head back down again. Clambering over the rocks on the descent with weary legs was challenging and I was glad of the trekking poles at this stage.

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Getting back into the forest was a huge relief. I’d woken up with a headache, no doubt thanks to the minimal amount I’d managed to drink the day before and despite my best efforts I wasn’t really managing to rehydrate myself on such a sunny day. Getting out of the light felt fantastic.

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I stopped to let some people past and noticed the shiny bark on this tree which everyone was using as a handhold over a tricky bit of ground.

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On the way up to the towers I saw one of the tour guides stop and fill his bottle here. I decided to follow his example on the way back down.

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I had hoped to find something tasty to eat at the campground on the way back as my empanadas and I’d got bored of cashews and I was feeling very low on energy. There was nothing there that took my fancy though so after drinking my fill of water and sitting for a while watching the sparrows I set off for the last part of the hike back to the start.

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Not much stopping for photographs on this last part of the journey as I just wanted to get back and sit down! I hadn’t yet decided where to park up for the night so that was something I also had to figure out. As we neared the bottom of the hill I heard hooves and turned around just in time to see some horses being led past. I guess more people want to ride the horses up to the campground than come back down again.

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By the time we approached the hotel my legs were dragging. Not really surprising as it was 14.5 miles and 1100m of ascent since I’d set off in the morning. Having got back to the van I took the laptop and spent a little time in the visitors’ centre downloading my photographs and charging up my laptop as I wasn’t sure when I’d get another opportunity.  

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Having ascertained that it would cost me to spend the night in the car park, which I didn’t really fancy anyway (except for the convenience of having the toilet block on hand), I found out that I could park near the park entrance for free and decided to go there instead. That would set me up well for the drive up to the northern part of the park in the morning, so it seemed like a good plan. As I was leaving the car park a young couple of trekkers waved me down wanting to go the same way, so I cleared everything off the front bench and let them in. They were from Santiago, but their English wasn’t too bad so we managed to communicate fairly well. I think they were quite surprised at just how noisy a camper van can be on gravel roads, as they got giggles every time we went over a pothole!

I parked up for the night in a parking area next to the river, along with a couple other camper vans. It was a good spot with a nice view to the towers, but there were a lot of mosquitos which did make things a little unpleasant. I sat out long enough to cook and eat my pasta and then put myself to bed, totally exhausted. Having falled asleep I woke up a couple hours later desperate for the loo. After doing my best to ignore the need and failing I eventually decided that I had no choice but to go outside if I was going to get any sleep. Having opened the van door I was immediately glad that I’d woken – I’ve never seen such a spectacular night sky with stars blazing. I stood in awe for some time admiring the Milky Way before I finally dealt with my call of nature and then put myself back to bed.

KEMH Hospital Life

I was up at the hospital in good time this morning so that I could use the internet card I bought yesterday to connect to the wifi hotspot in the hospital before the ward round. Internet here is satellite based and unlimited data use is not a concept that exists! There are a number of packages that you can get, but 30GB a month will cost £180 (Falkland pounds are equivalent to pounds sterling), although you can use the internet for free between midnight and 6am. The most expensive package costs over £400 (for 70GB)! Therefore my internet use right now consists of writing blog posts and emails offline and then connecting just long enough to send/receive them. Just like the old days of dial up really, there’s not much use of Netflix here.

The hospital day starts with the ward round at 8.30am and involves quite a bit of discussion before going to see the patients. We had a pretty impressive line up of staff, including 3 medical officers (who do both GP and hospital work), the Canadian GP trainee, visiting ENT consultant, consultant anaesthetist and consultant surgeon. All this for 3 patients! It may not be possible to perform the same levels of investigation here, but the good thing is that you have access to all your hospital staff very easily when needed, and as it turns out, an ENT surgeon was just what we wanted this morning.

Following the ward round I spent the rest of the morning in the clinic with one of the GPs who’s been doing locum work here for the past 3 months. We had an interesting mix of patients, and I also had the opportunity to see a steroid injection into someone’s knee which isn’t something I’ve managed to see before now. I spent this afternoon in A&E but we had a bit of a dearth of patients. The nature of the workload here is very variable, and also fluctuates depending on the number of ships that are currently in harbour. Visiting ships bring a variety of patients including fishermen, tourists and of course, ships’ crew members. I’ve been given a mobile phone so that if anything interesting occurs I can always be called in. The hospital is only about 5 minutes walk from my B&B so it’s easy enough to get down there in a hurry.

When I left the kids were all out in the playground and on their mountain bikes after school and I took advantage of the sun to get some photos of Kay’s gnome garden, which is so well known that it features on the tourist map and people come up here specially to view it. 

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Unfortunately a lot of the flowers didn’t survive the big storm a couple weeks ago, but having come from Scotland in the winter it seems very colourful to me, nonetheless, and I’m really enjoying the flowers.

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I woke up this morning to the sound of ducks quacking. Turns out that they live over the road from my B&B. What a great way to wake up. Kay managed to find me some unworn long sleeved t-shirts and a pair of knickers in her cupboards so I turned up at the hospital clean this morning, if somewhat unusually attired in my jeans and hiking boots, although anyone that knows me well will realise that I would gladly dress that way every day if I were allowed.

When I turned up at the hospital this morning I found not only the two visiting consultants I’d met yesterday but also a Canadian GP resident who has come here for 7 weeks, which is organised as a part of her training program in Ontario. Its nice to have another person that’s finding their way around here, and also to hear about the differences between the way that training is structured in Canada compared to the UK. As well as the two Canadian residents here at the moment there is also a GP fellow from Scotland.

We had a tour of the hospital and met the staff across all the departments, including the kitchens and laundry, which are not a part of the hospital that we normally see. After completing all the necessary paperwork we had a tour of the pharmacy and laboratories. Interestingly, I found out that all the blood that they use is provided by the blood transfusion service in the UK, although they do have a pool of emergency donors here that can be called upon if needed. The main set of microbiology, haematology and biochemistry tests that we use can all be performed at the lab here, but any additional tests that need to be done are sent back to the UK.

Along the way I met up with one of the dentists who kindly lent me a charger for my camera batteries, so that is one problem solved, and having been registered as a patient on the computer system, I have also had my missing medications issued by the pharmacy, at no cost, thanks to the reciprocal arrangement with the UK.

We had a full table at dinner today with two researchers from the UK and a school teacher from Switzerland, all of whom have visited here a number of times before. Good conversation, which was interrupted a number of times by Kitty in manic kitten mode, who kept attacking my ankles, and also an opportunity to hear about their various experiences here and see their photographs. A particular highlight was seeing some of the filming and photography by drone.

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Arrival in Stanley

I was up early, if not so bright, this morning to catch my rescheduled flight to Stanley. A 6.25am departure meant a 4.45am pick up for the airport, which thankfully went without a hitch. When I arrived at the airport, however, I found a long queue of people stretching the length of the terminal building, most of whom were waiting to check in for my flight. I very quickly ascertained that the two people in front of me were doctors, and taking a guess, asked them if they were the ENT surgeon and rheumatologist that I knew would be visiting the hospital during my stay. Imagine their surprise when my hunch was proved correct.

Despite being in the line up before 5am, we didn’t manage to finally reach the check in desks until about 7, by which time they’d been making boarding announcements for over an hour, despite the fact that most of the passengers were still stuck in the check in queue. Oh well, it was a good opportunity to chat to those waiting in my neighbourhood and hear their stories.

Eventually we reached the check in and I took thankful possession of my boarding pass and headed up to security. This at least was very quick – no separation of liquids, no separation of laptops etc, and no need to take off my hiking boots. Immigration control to exit Chile was equally speedy and within about 5 minutes of leaving the check in desk I was boarding the plane. I have to admit that I don’t recall very much more until we started our descent into Mount Pleasant as my early morning and disturbed night caught up with me and I fell asleep. Remarkably, I don’t even recall taking off.

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By the time I’d disembarked the plane and entered the terminal building at Mount Pleasant the bags were already being offloaded. I was kept amused during the wait for my bag by the sniffer labrador who was walking the conveyor belt like a treadmill, climbing over each bag and giving it a good sniff. Eventually though the sniffer dog and his handler left and it was clear that there were no more bags to be offloaded. Heading over to the local agent, it turned out that everyone that had been in the my part of the queue was missing their luggage. Not a great start, but I was very glad indeed that I’d had the opportunity to shower and change into clean clothes at the hostel or I (and everyone else around me) would have been a lot less happy if I’d still been in my smelly hiking gear!

So when will our missing bags appear? Next week, hopefully, when the next flight comes in. Not much fun for the people who are only staying here a week, or joining research vessels in the meantime, but at least I’ll get 5 weeks worth out of my luggage when it arrives.

The next stop was immigration and I was very surprised when the immigration officer looked at my passport and said, ah yes, we’ve got your name on a list, you’re the medical student, aren’t you? It’s not often you get such a welcome when entering a country! My rather forlorn looking passport which has only been back and forth to The Netherlands since I got it, shortly after moving to Dundee, is now the proud owner of two Chilean and one Falklands stamp and looks far more well travelled.

Having realised that I was missing my bag, the first thing I was concerned about the lack of was my camera battery charger (having run down two of my three batteries in Chile), in advance of my penguin photography excursion that I’ve booked for this weekend. Fortunately a plaintive request on the Falkland Islands community Facebook group has already turned up a number of offers of both chargers and batteries, so I think I’m sorted. Next stop is to replace my medication (guess working in the hospital should make that easier) and find some clothes. Going to the hospital in my jeans and hiking boots will certainly make a change from the normal.

It’s been a quiet day here just settling in and getting to know Kay my hostess for the next 6 weeks and a couple of the other guests who are staying with her. I’ve made friends with her cat, once wild but now very friendly, and met the chickens.

Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine

I was up bright and early this first morning in Chile, in part thanks to my fellow guests and in part because of camper van anticipation! With my rudimentary Spanish I managed to ask the owner of the hostel to arrange a taxi for me to the Wicked Campervan depot and the taxi duly arrived with a small delay, having gone to the wrong hostel. Having not managed to find the hostel first time around, it was no surprise when the taxi driver had no clue where to find the address I gave him. I already had the impression from my email correspondence that it was somewhat hard to find and having looked on Google Maps, I knew that it was out of town. After a great deal of discussion with the taxi base, my driver was set on the right track and we headed off in the right direction. I’m still wondering why he didn’t just use the sat nav that was attached to his dashboard. As soon as we hit the outskirts of town the tarmac gave way to gravel roads, a taster of things to come.

I was, I have to admit, a little daunted when I got my first sight of the van – it seemed huge, far bigger than I expected. This turned out not to be a figment of my imagination, when I met a few other vans along the way I realised that although I’d booked the smallest 2 person van, I’d actually ended up with one for 3 people. No complaints there, but everyone I met was jealous of both the space I had and the artwork on my van, which was far superior to the porn star and TV hosts that they were sporting!

Having done the paperwork and had the tour of the van, I tried not to think too hard about the possibility of needing to change a tyre along the way and didn’t hang around for long before heading off. First priority was to fill the van up with fuel and then get myself on the Ruta 9 to Puerto Natales, 245km to the north. It’s been a good 15 years or so since I’ve regularly driven a manual and although I’m comfortable driving on the right hand side of the road thanks to my visits to Canada, I’m used to doing it in an automatic car. Wearing hiking boots it was hard to get a good feel for the clutch at first, but I felt a lot more comfortable when I got my running shoes out of my case and changed footwear. Fortunately, finding the way to Ruta 9 was not too complex and I managed to find a petrol station on my way, although I was a little thrown by the fact that it wasn’t self-service and I had to communicate with the attendant about which type of petrol I wanted.

Car fuelled, I hit the road. Time for the adventure to really start. The route was very straightforward, get onto Ruta 9 and stay on it until you reach Puerto Natales! So that was pretty much what I did, although I did take a couple stops along the way. I was quite taken with the bus shelters, particularly this rather unloved looking one, which had a new shiny one skulking behind it.

It was a rather grey day, with a few spots of rain, which somehow suited the flat open grasslands that characterised the first part of the journey. A few cattle, more sheep. And then, excitement of excitements – a guanaco! Yet further along, a lake. With pink spots on it. Surely not? They must be buoys. No, they really are. FLAMINGOES! Sadly no chance to photograph them as I passed by. And then, trotting along the side of the road. Ostriches? But they live in Africa. Emus? No, they live in Australia. A mystery. Finally solved a couple days later when I borrowed a guide from a fellow traveller and identified them as rhea. Of course. I’d come to Chile expecting scenery, but already I was discovering a wealth of wildlife. I was overjoyed!

I stopped for lunch at a small town called Villa Tehuelches (population 151, according to Wikipedia), a place which seems to have no other reason to exist than being 100km away from Punta Arenas. I ate an empanada – traditional Chilean fare after all, admired the crocheted flowers in the cafe, the horses and the designs on the wooden road signs, and then continued on my way.

The weather started to deteriorate and the rain grew heavier, but by this point I was much more comfortable with the handling of the van and having a fine old time enjoying the scenery regardless. By late afternoon I reached Puerto Natales, important stopping point on the way to Torres del Paine, if only for the reason of re-fuelling as the tank was nearly empty and this was the last petrol station before the park. I also needed to find myself some food for the next few days so I trundled around the town with no real idea where I was going in the hope of spotting a supermarket. Once I’d found one and loaded up with pasta, pasta sauce, cheese and the all important chocolate and crisps I found a wifi-sporting cafe and treated myself to a burger. Which is to say, a burger with the burger replaced by avocado. Quite a feat to order when you don’t speak Spanish, but I succeeded and greatly enjoyed it!

Having finished my burger and headed back to the van, I was all set to complete my day’s journey when I discovered a very soggy looking piece of paper on my windshield. Really? A parking ticket, when I’ve only had the van half a day? How embarrassing! And more to the point, what on earth do I do about it? Lacking better ideas I went back into the cafe and enlisted the help of one of the staff. She kindly came out into the rain with me, spotted a parking warden and took me over to him. He looked at the ticket, told me I owed $1050 (about one pound), I paid up and that was the end of it. Disaster averted! One final stop, then, the petrol station. I got the van filled up, but completely forgot to fill up the jerry can. Given that it was 145km to the park, and the tank was said to hold 300km worth of fuel, this oversight was to haunt me for a while as I worried about whether I’d had enough fuel to do anything once I got to the park.

The weather was pretty grim heading out of Puerto Natales, but the end of my long day’s driving was more or less in sight. Just another 145km or so until I reached the park. Finally, at Cerro Castillo it was time to take a left turn, at a somewhat incongruously placed roundabout in more or less the middle of nowhere.

Having had good quality roads up to now, it was time to do some real driving as a well placed sign warned me of poor road quality for the next 15km. The sign wasn’t lying. Short sections of paved road gave way to well and truly massacred sections of gravel road and my speed dropped from 100km/h to about 20km/h. Rough roads in a camper van are not quiet! The three chairs I had been supplied (I used one of them, once, during the whole trip!) rattled around with every bump, and pole for the table (which I also never used) rolled around in the back of the van. Each short stretch of paving was delightfully quiet, but rarely lasted more than 100 yards.

To add to the roads and the rain, Patagonia is known for its strong winds and we were hit by a lot of them for the rest of the journey. With the size of the van, it really caught the wind, and I had to fight to keep the van from skittering across the road. Ah yes, this is what a road trip is all about! Eventually the road did improve again, which was quite a relief, and around 8pm I pulled over at a mirador (view point) at Lago Sarmiento. Apparently there was a great view of the Torres from here, but if there was, it was lost in the cloud.

As I prepared my bed for the night a caravan drew up with the same plan to spend the night. I set up the sleeping bag and giant stripey blanket that I’d borrowed from the pile of goodies left behind by previous campers and snuggled up in my bed, as the van shook in the wind and the rain came lashing down.

From Dundee to Punta Arenas

After months of anticipation it’s finally time for me to head off on my elective (a self organised placement during your medical degree which is usually, although not necessarily, carried out abroad) – 6 weeks at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in the Falklands, with a short trip to Chile on either side. I suspect that I’ve been pretty insufferable for the last few weeks as the time to depart has come closer and closer.

My flight itinerary out to the Chile was not simple, with stops in London, Sao Paulo and Santiago before finally arriving at Punta Arenas in the southern most part of Chile – Magellanes y Antarctica. The whole journey took 36 hours door-to-door and I was very grateful for Mum and Dad coming up to Scotland to drop me off at the airport, saving me the additional hassle of a train journey at the start.

I had an almost 6 hour wait at Heathrow, which was tedious in the extreme but gave me plenty of time to collect my bag and recheck it in before settling myself in Carluccio’s with an assignment that I still needed to finish and some delicious focaccia. Having dreaded the flight to Sao Paulo, which at 12 hours was the longest leg and overnight, I was lucky to find myself on a fairly empty flight with a whole row of seats to spread out in. The food was surprisingly good (well, in all honesty I can only really remember the salted caramel chocolate ganache, which was amazing!), the cabin crew were cheery and despite having to bend myself around the armrests which couldn’t be raised all the way up, I managed to get some sleep and arrive in Sao Paulo feeling relatively human.

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My transfer time in Sao Paulo was only scheduled for 1:45 but having been delayed leaving Heathrow we only had an hour – just enough time to clear security and sadly relinquish the extra bottle of red wine they’d given me on the plane. I was not, therefore, particularly optimistic about the chances of my suitcase joining me on the next leg to Santiago.

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Amused by the healthy eating options in Sao Paulo!

Another window seat, and yet again a row of seats to myself. It’s not often you get that lucky on a long journey! I really enjoyed this leg of the trip as the views were fantastic, particularly as we flew over the Andes. The colours of the rock were beautiful and I was amazed at how different it was to the other mountain ranges I know, such as the Rockies and my lovely Scottish mountains.

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Santiago was a bit of a slog as I had to clear immigration and customs, the latter meaning that I had to collect my bag, have it x-rayed and then check it back and go through security. Yet again. On the positive side, despite my expectations I was pleased to be reunited with my bag and know that we’d managed to travel together thus far. We’ve been separated on far simpler trips than this one!

By this time I was running out of energy and enthusiasm for travelling. I tried to get some Chilean pesos out of the ATM but was put off by the $5000 (those are pesos, not dollars!) charge and decided to wait until Punta Arenas in the hope of paying less. I asked at a cafe if they would fill my water bottle and due to the language barrier ended up with boiling water! I was harangued by one of the staff to pay a tip for the privilege, but couldn’t communicate that I literally didn’t have a single peso. She wandered off in disgust before I could open up my wallet and prove it to her. Fortunately the lady who served me was far less demanding!

Finally, the last leg of the journey. I shared my row of seats with a mum and toddler, and I’d be hard pressed to say who was the most fidgety by this stage, me or the toddler! Still, I managed to keep myself occupied with admiring the views, and the excitement of spotting some volcanoes cheered me up immensely. Cute toddler spent some time playing with her plastic farm animals and we bonded over animal noises and pictures of my cats which I showed her on the iPad, prompting many a Spanish miaow. A sighting of the Torres del Paine, my destination for the next few days kept me going until the end, but I was very glad to exit that final flight, and pretty hungry as the only food on offer was for sale.

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With little difficulty I managed to attach myself to a group of people who wanted to travel into the city centre in one of the minibuses that will you drop you at your hostel door. This despite having to make a hasty detour to the cash machine, where I was sadly charged $6000. Should have gone with the first offer!

Bug eyed but hungry I wandered into town for a quick meal before heading back to the hostel. Plenty of dogs to be seen on the streets, all of whom seem to be very chilled and very friendly, both with each other and passers by. My hostel was friendly, and the owner and I managed to communicate reasonably well despite our lack of common language. I had a cheery green room right next to the bathroom, which was convenient, and the communal area and dining room, which was somewhat less convenient due to the noise, although I was tired enough that it didn’t stop me falling asleep within minutes.

Ben Vorlich

Late on New Year’s Eve as Jen and I were pondering the day and year to come, we checked the weather forecast for New Year’s Day and decided to plan ourselves another hike. As I was determined to go to parkrun at 9.30, we knew we’d be a little short of time but we figured that if we found something easy (relatively speaking) and local (ditto) we’d have the chance of a good hike even if we couldn’t make it to the summit. After browsing the WalkHighlands website we decided on Ben Vorlich, a Munro in Perthshire which was just shy of an hour and a half’s drive from home.

New Year’s Day dawned earlier than I would have liked, having tossed and turned until 3am despite our restful evening. To add to the excitement, the drain from the sink had blocked the night before, so before heading up to the park I spent half an hour fiddling with the plumbing in the hope of relieving the blockage, sadly to no avail.

Having been absent for well over a year and a half I finished my 30th parkrun on the 4th anniversary of my 1st, in a rather slower time but in good company of friends. Jen arrived a few minutes later, armed with hot tea and we set off to the hills. Within a few minutes of driving the weather deteriorated and heavy rain quickly turned into sleet. Not very promising at all, but we kept hoping that it would improve. An hour later things were still grim and rather than wait until parking the car and getting into our waterproofs in the rain, we decided to make a short stop in Comrie for a cup of coffee and gear up whilst we were there. Jen had the excellent idea of ordering some toast and jam, just what I needed having only eaten some grapefruit and already having run 5K.

When we left Comrie the weather started to dry out a bit, further justifying our decision for a short stop even if it left us with less time until nightfall. At 1pm we parked the car by Loch Earn and set off along the track up to Ben Vorlich. Although the cloud cover was heavy we had some good views of snow covered mountains on the north side of the loch and it looked to be clearing a little. At any rate, it was now dry, which was a huge bonus.

The track took us past some farm cottages and a small wooded area before starting to climb into the hills. There was noticeably more snow on the track than we’d seen on Schiehallion last week, and the stiles proved challenging in their slipperiness.  After crossing a couple of fords the track petered out and we followed a smaller path up to Ben Vorlich who was beginning to show himself through the cloud.

Despite the snow, the path was clear in the snow thanks to the hikers that had preceded us. Although there were a few occasions where footing was difficult, it was a lot easier under foot than the ice we encountered on the path up Schiehallion last week.

The path initially took us along the side of the ridge that leads to Ben Vorlich, but as the first false summit approached it was time to climb up onto the ridge itself. At this point the snow got a lot deeper and we were sinking in up to our knees. We made it up onto the ridge where we met another hiker coming down. As we suspected, we still had quite a way to go until the summit and the going wasn’t easy as the snow was only getting deeper. With sunset approaching fast and the wind blowing snow in our faces we decided that this was as far as we were going to get, and after enjoying the views began the return to the car.

We retreated off the ridge and nestled out of the wind to set up the stove and enjoy the hot chocolate we had prepared.

The sun finally began to clear the clouds giving some beautiful light over the snowy hills behind us.

Having enjoyed our drink it was time to get ourselves back to the car. I, for one, had pretty damp feet and ankles by this time as the snow had crept in under my waterproof breeks and I was looking forward to getting into the car and getting my boots off.

We had one final treat on the way back to the car, watching the super moon rising up from behind a distant ridge and finally breaking free of the clouds. Unfortunately with only a wide angle lens on my camera there was no hope of capturing it in all its glory.

Route: Walk Highlands

Schiehallion’s Redemption

There was just time to get one more hike out of 2017 and as luck would have it, one day of good weather forecast during Jen’s stay with me between Christmas and New Year. Now we just needed to decide where to go, a decision complicated by the recent snow and our lack of both crampons and ice axes and the know how for using them. Fortunately there’d been a bit of a thaw and as we stared at the mountains on the horizon from Kinpurney Hill on Wednesday afternoon it became clear that whilst the Cairngorms were still heavily blanketed in snow, Schiehallion was looking fairly dark in the distance and therefore hopefully more accessible. We decided to go for it, in the knowledge that in the worst case we would just have to turn back if it became impassible.

We’ve actually made a previous visit to Schiehallion back in September, in which we only made it about 2/3rds of the way up, having started mid afternoon on a very dreich day. I have to admit that my heart wasn’t in it that day and every step felt like a huge effort. I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to turn around and head back downhill and if I hadn’t been with Jen I doubt I’d have managed to coax myself out of the car at all. I was therefore looking forward to having another shot at Schiehallion, but also feeling quite some trepidation as my previous memories of it were so dire.

With the days being so short and with the overwhelming desire to schedule in a visit to the Watermill Bookshop and Cafe in Aberfeldy on our way home we did some careful planning and hoped that our timing wouldn’t be too far off. We arrived at the car park just before 10am, a little later than planned, which is pretty much typical for most of our jaunts! According to the mountain forecast it would be -5C at the summit with a windchill of -15C. Even at the car park it was clear that we were going to need all our layers, not to mention our new winter gloves. Without any consultation we’d each gifted the other a pair for Christmas.

Heading on to the path we could see quite a few walkers ahead of us and Schiehallion’s bulk looming in the distance.

The sun was only just beginning to peek over the neighbouring hills as we set off and the light was fantastic. Already this was shaping up to be a far better day than our previous visit.

It didn’t take long before we were seeing the first signs of snow on the side of the path and once we started to climb we had to be very careful of icy patches along the way. There were a few Bambi like moments with legs skidding in all directions but no falls! This was where it began to feel like a real slog and I was having a hard time ignoring the little voice that was reminding me how miserable my previous visit was. Fortunately the bright skies and the views were sufficient distraction and even if I had to stop frequently to rest my legs I was beginning to remember how much I love being in the mountains.

About a third of the way up the snow was becoming more evident, although the path was nice and clear. Now that we were getting higher the views were really opening out and I had to make plenty of stops for photographs.

The wind was getting stronger and we were really beginning to feel the cold, so when we saw a big rock to huddle behind we decided it was the perfect moment to get the camping stove out and heat up the hot chocolate that we’d brought with us. I dug out the stove, the gas canister, dropped half the matches on the ground, found the cocoa and then stopped in bewilderment. I was missing something, what was it? Oh. The pan. Rats. Fingers getting numb we packed everything back up again and mourned not only the lack of hot cocoa but the fact that we wouldn’t be able to heat up the thai curry we’d brought either. Having forgotten the CF card for my camera, this wasn’t shaping up to be the most organised of hikes!

Finally we reached the end of the main path and the point at which we’d turned around on our previous visit. The rest of the route was across a boulder field, with the challenge of picking our way along increased by the snow.  Although this part of the walk was technically more difficult, the gradient was slightly less and I found it more comfortable. By this point all memories of our previous visit were receding and I was just grateful that we hadn’t slogged on up to the top on that occasion as it was so much more beautiful in the snow.

As with any self-respecting mountain there were a few false summits to tackle but the top was nearly in sight. We were beginning to see people coming back down off the top, all looking rather frozen and windswept.

Finally we were on the last climb, battered by the wind, but the views were incredible. We were treated to some small cloud inversions and the most exciting of spectacles – a Brocken spectre!

A bit of scrambling and were we up on the summit. We didn’t manage to last there too long as it was just too cold.

We made pretty good time heading back down again, I don’t think we’ve ever done a walk where we’ve stopped so little.

The icy patches seemed to have doubled whilst we were on the summit and it was quite a relief to finally make it back on to the lower path where it was both warmer and less skiddy underfoot. We eventually arrived back at the car at 3 o’clock, right on our prediction, which has to be a first! We even had time to take a small detour along the road (with a bonus red squirrel sighting) before heading back towards Aberfeldy and enjoying a very well earned hot chocolate and a piece of cake.

Route: WalkHighlands
Distance: 10.4km
Ascent: 715m
Hills climbed: Schiehallion (Munro)

Ben Lomond

On checking the mountain weather forecast for the weekend, there was a pretty similar pattern across Scotland – gale force winds on Saturday, calm and sunny on Sunday. That made my decision about which day to go hiking pretty straightforward, and given that I had to be in Glasgow on Sunday evening, meant that instead of heading up my closest stomping ground, the Cairngorms, the most logical choice was to head down to Loch Lomond so that I could get the most out of the day.

The clock change worked in my favour and made it easy to get a good start on Sunday and by 9.45am I was at the car park at Rowardennan and grumbling slightly to myself about the number of cars already parked there. After looking at a number of hikes in the area on WalkHighlands I’d decided to climb Ben Lomond, the most southerly of all the Munros, which is renowned for being busy due to its proximity to Glasgow. As I watched a bus disgorge a large number of passengers I worried that my choice meant that I’d be tripping over people all day and wondered if I’d made a mistake in my choice.  The presence of two families parked next to me with a collection of children and dogs, all chattering/barking incessantly made me glad that I’d spent quite some time reading the reviews of the hike on WalkHighlands and that I’d already decided to hike their route in reverse – climbing up by the lesser known Ptarmigan Ridge and returning back via the more populated tourist route. This turned out to be an excellent decision as I exited the car park in the opposite direction to everyone else and very quickly left the clamour behind.

I headed out along the shore of Loch Lomond, soon passing a memorial which I stopped to photograph, particularly enjoying the reflection of the trees on the sculpture.

The weather was showing every sign of living up to the forecast’s promise, and although it was cold enough that I started out with my fleece and hat, I was soon overheating and packing them back into my bag.

Reaching the Rowardennen Lodge Youth Hostel, I was a little unclear where the path went and felt a bit embarrassed wandering around looking for it whilst people were sat outside chatting. Fortunately this must happen often as I soon found a sign pointing me back towards the car park where I found another sign, complete with a very relaxed robin on top, which let me get close enough to get a few photos with my wide angle lens.

Following the sign I quickly found myself on a track heading into the woods. I knew that there should be one more turn off, which I found just after passing by a little stand selling bottles of water. The sign blended into the trees, so you had to be on the lookout for it.

Now that I was officially on the Ptarmigan ridge route it was very quickly time to leave the woods and start climbing. There was a clear path through the grass and bracken which took me past what looks like the ruins of an old dwelling.

As I climbed I stopped numerous times to photograph the view behind me down to Loch Lomond, breaking one of the cardinal rules of photography that you should never take a photograph into the light. Tough luck, that’s generally where the views were! With each little bit higher the perspective changed and yet another photo was warranted.

As I climbed higher, Loch Lomond receded further into the distance and the view ahead began to open up to the mountains on west side of the loch, including good views of The Cobbler, which is particularly distinctive. Another hill yet to be climbed!

Earlier I had a spotted a group of four along with a dog slowly catching up to me each time I stopped for a photograph. As we approached the climb up to the ridge I stopped to let them pass, worrying that I find it stressful having them on my heels when we got to the toughest part of the hike. One of my biggest uncertainties when setting out on the hike was how I was going to cope with the actual ridge, not having anything like a good head for heights. As it happens the ridge was still a little further ahead than I originally realised, but the worrying was beginning to niggle at me. The path started zig-zagging in earnest now and the loch looked ever more remote as I turned around for yet another photograph.

Finally, the view of what was to come opened out in front of me. I stopped and gulped a little when I realised that where I needed to be was a summit over to the right of me, and yet at the moment I was still climbing the summit in front of me. Clearly what lay between was the ridge, but I didn’t yet have a good view of what it was going to involve so I did my best to just focus on the climb ahead and worrying about the ridge when I got a bit further.

The views to the mountains to the north west were really opening up now.

By this point I was beginning to meet quite a few people coming down from Ptarmigan, including a few kids. I did think to myself ‘well, if they can do it, surely I can’, but then logic never does have much place when it comes to phobias! Having been sheltered most of the way up, it was now getting quite windy and with a temperature near freezing at the top, time to get the woollies out again.

I could now get a view of the ridge but couldn’t see where the path was. I was getting quite nervous at this point, but kept plodding upwards and reassuring myself that I could handle whatever it had to throw at me.

A little lochan provided a bit more photographic distraction along the way as I turned my back to Loch Lomond and headed inexorably towards the ridge.

Over the first wee summit and the ridge opened up to me finally. Hmm, well it’s not too bad, I thought. Not so much of a ridge with steep drops to either side as something rather steep to get myself up. ‘I can do this’, muttering to myself reassuringly.

One last photograph behind me and it was time to put my camera away so that I had free hands for the scramble and nothing flapping around to get in my way. It was beginning to look like a long way down.

No photos, therefore, of the actual scramble. Some of it was fairly decent, albeit steeply zig-zagging path. My heart was beating pretty fast by this point, a combination of fear and exertion. When I saw people coming down towards me I waited to let them get out of the way. I was terrified of finding myself in a position I was uncomfortable with and having to wait for them to pass. Then, I could see the top, one last scramble and I should be there.

No, a false summit. I had to stop a little and let my breathing settle before tackling what I really hoped was the final climb. Some of the gaps between the rocks were quite large and hard to manage with my short, wobbly legs and I had to fight back the panic, when I couldn’t quite figure out where the path was leading, but I carried on. One thing was for certain, going back wasn’t an option!

One last haul and I found myself on the summit, trig point in front of me, and a surprising number of people hauled out eating their lunch. I’d done it, and I was pretty pleased with myself for facing up to my fear.

I didn’t hang around for long, just enough to take a few photos and eat my lunch. The busload of people I’d seen in the car park turned out to be fundraising for Alzheimer’s Scotland and were filling the summit. I wanted to start heading down before I got stuck in the crowds, and the gorgeous views weren’t enough to compensate for the large number of people.

The path down leads worrying towards another ridge and I did think to myself ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’. Fortunately it wasn’t too intimidating and we quickly left the ridge to start dropping back down to the loch.

Although there were quite a few photo stops on my downhill journey the views weren’t as good as on the way up and I’d certainly recommend taking the Ptarmigan route rather than using the tourist path both ways. The late afternoon light, though, was fantastic.

The way back down was rockier than the Ptarmigan route and I didn’t find it very comfortable for my knees or my right ankle, which has been misbehaving the last few weeks. Not only was there a fairly constant stream of people coming past me downhill, but also a fair number of people still heading uphill and a few cows on the path for added entertainment. It certainly wasn’t as peaceful as my morning had been.

I returned to the car park almost exactly 6 hours after setting off – a bit longer than the WalkHighlands suggested time of 4.5-5.5 hours, which was not surprising given all the photos stops and my slower pace coming back down again.

Throwing my gingerbread biscuits on to the front seat, it was time to head into Glasgow to finish the day off by singing choral evensong. A perfect way to spend a Sunday and something I hope to do more often.

Route: WalkHighlands (in reverse)
Distance: 12.2km
Ascent: 953m
Hills climbed: Ben Lomond (Munro)

Loch Brandy

Sometimes things just align up perfectly. In this case, getting home from the hospital at lunchtime, the sun shining and Jen visiting. We both had the same idea – to get up into the hills. Loch Brandy, at Glen Clova, is a perfect destination for a short afternoon walk being just an hour’s drive from Dundee. Jen and I had visited here before almost exactly two years ago, so it was certainly about time we paid it a return visit.

By the time we reached Glen Glova the clouds were coming in and our destination wasn’t looking quite as sunny as we’d hoped. Never mind, at least it was drier and less windy than on our previous visit. The initial climb is a bit of a steep slog, but photographing the atmospheric clouds over the neighbouring hills gave us plenty of excuses to stop for breathers.

Eventually the path levels off and things get a bit easier.

Just a little way further and a few steps to climb and the loch is in sight, every bit as attractive as I remember (although the best way to see it is surely from the air, which is how I first found out about it).

Within minutes, we were surrounded by mist and could only see a few metres ahead of us. Not a problem, though, the path is very clear so there was no danger of losing our way on the walk down!

Distance: 5.5km
Ascent: 410m