Sunday, 31 March 2019

Greater Patagonian Trail: Conclusion

Jan Dudeck and his wife Meyllin, creators of the GPT
When I started on the GPT I had already hiked 43,000 kilometers primarily in the United States and Europe. I am not only a Triple Crowner that thru-hiked the famous scenic trails in the US, but I’m also home on the European long-distance trails. Therefore I was convinced that I had walked enough that no trail can surprise me any more.
The GPT immediately taught me that I was wrong! It turned out to be very different from what I had expected and from any other long-distance trail I had hiked before. My previous experiences had led me to a wrong anticipation despite a meticulous study of the 700 page „Hiker’s Manual“ and long talks with other GPT hikers. It took me a long time to adapt to this trail and to enjoy it. These were my primary challenges:

Endless snow on the Puyehue Traverse
 I was annoyed by the high unpredictability of the GPT which I had never experienced on other
dedicated hiking trails. Hardly any day went as planned. Again and again unexpected obstacles turned up: large snowfields, overgrown trails, impossible river crossings, volcano alerts or denied access. My average „mileage“ dropped from 30 - 35 kilometers per day to only 20 - 25 kilometers per day on the GPT.

If you are not 100% free of vertigo and 100% sure-footed you will need a lot of willpower to cope with some of the steep, exposed and eroded trail sections of the GPT. I‘m personally not much afraid of heights and have hiked thousands of kilometers in alpine landscape. But I learnt on the GPT that it is a big difference to traverse a steep slope on a well maintained dedicated hiking trail in a popular area or on a badly eroded horse trail in the middle of nowhere. On one occasion I even turned back because the traverse of a very steep slope seemed too dangerous to me.

Relatively good horse trail
Most of these trail sections are technically not too difficult and although a fall or slip would probably not be fatal, it could still lead to serious injury – and on the GPT there is no one to help! A Carabinero (Police in Chile) in one of the lonely outposts put it this way: “If you slip here you probably don't die immediately from the fall. It takes around three days before you die of thirst or exhaustion. So please leave us your passport details so that we know whose bones we have found.” I carried a PLB for emergencies but you have to be aware that it can take days before someone comes to rescue you.

All these obstacles and threats prevented me from getting into the “flow”, the state in which I can hike mindlessly and unimpeded for hours and days. On most other trails I take a rest day every seven to ten days, but the GPT was so stressful for me that I took more rest days than normal. I also had to say good-bye to my diehard principle of connecting footsteps. This rule is just not feasible on a trail with unpredictable river crossings and volcano alerts.

I climbed dozens of these fences
Another source of discomfort was the frequent trespassing over private properties. I had to climb so many gates and fences without ever knowing if this barrier was built to keep the cattle in or if the owner really wants me to stay out. I had several encounters with security guards, was occasionally escorted out of properties or sneaked in and was hiding myself. Although I had not a single aggressive encounter whatsoever I very often felt uneasy about this situation.

I am usually a very happy solo hiker and prefer going alone but on the GPT I wished for company - not only for safety reasons, but to share the frequent frustration with unexpected obstacles and to take decisions with a hiking partner. This does not mean that you cannot hike the GPT alone. I did it and will do it again. It just means that you will endure a lot more mental stress than on other trails. Be prepared to be psychologically overwhelmed and treat yourself accordingly.

Frolicking in the hot springs while washing my clothes
On the positive side the GPT is one of the most spectacular trails I have ever hiked. Its beauty and variety rivals any of the American Triple Crown Trails and I felt an incredible sense of freedom being out there. I was particularly fascinated by the unique landscapes that you will almost only find in Chile like the Valdivian rain forest or the numerous volcanoes. I absolutely loved the hot springs!
There is no trail community whatsoever and you will hardly meet any other hikers but I have had the most interesting and friendly encounters with settlers, arrieros (Chilean cowboys) and Carabineros. It was a cultural experience that was completely new for me.

Shop owner in Trappa Trappa
I found Chile a very easy country to travel and Chileans to be some of the most friendly and helpful people in the world. But keep in mind that I speak fluent Spanish. Without at least some basic knowledge of Spanish you will have a hard time on the GPT and you will miss out on the interesting encounters with the locals. A lot of important logistical information for GPT hikers, like bus schedules or the location of resupply options are not available on the internet. You will have to ask the locals and understand their answers! This was one of the most adventurous and fascinating trails I have ever hiked – and one of the most challenging.

 Did I like the GPT? Yes and No. On the GPT I have been singing with joy and I have been screaming frustrated curses. I loved it and I hated it - sometimes both within five minutes. Would I do it again? Yes, I am planning to hike and paddle the Southern part, too - but only after a decent break recuperating from my first hike on the GPT.


Anonymous said...

Izz gud!!! Thank you Christine for sharing this exciting adventure, I loved it!

John said...

Thanks for sharing .

Konsti said...

Very interesting report, thanks :)
I funnily stumbled upon mr. Dudecks project via a packrafting fb group. Very appealing but also quite demanding possibilities there.
Id need to get a lot more experience here, but maybe some day...

Axel Magard said...

I would be curious to see a photo of your PLB and get some info about how to use, weight and battery life. Never heard about such a device before.