Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sugar rush

It was crazy talk.

We were perched on a cluster of rocks at the end of the French Valley in Chile's Torres del Paine national park. Just behind us was a spot known as the Italian base-camp; now a free camp ground for tired hikers. Ahead of us, the path wound upwards to an area known as the plateau and, beyond that, the climb increased to reach the British base-camp. The route ended there and climbing ropes had to be employed if you wished to continue.

Judging by the names, nothing much had stopped the British and the walk to the highest base-camp was the hardest offered by the Explora hotel. The Italians, meanwhile, must have hiked the length of the valley before setting down while the French seemed to have entered the valley, viewed the peaks, declared "Mon dieu!" and cracked open the sauvignon blanc.

Personally, I felt the Italians had it about right, although there was a lot to be said for eating a picnic lying sprawled in the valley. Our group, however, seemed to feel the plateau needed to be considered. This meant I needed to eat more. I polished off my sandwich and moved onto a brownie followed by a chocolate bar. Sugar was the key.

While our previous hotel in Argentina was all about comfort, the Explora hotel in Chilean Patagonia is all about the hikes. Based in the centre of the national park, the hotel provides everything from accommodation, three meals a day, drinks, snacks and --its main feature-- daily expeditions around the park. The guides lead groups of up to eight people, providing direction, local information on geology, plant and wild life, first aid and, it transpired, extra lunch. Miraculously, a hot Thermos of soup had appeared. I downed it with my chocolate.

The seriously hefty price-tag of the hotel meant that it attracted a certain clientèle. We were currently walking with a couple who were both past the age of retirement but showed no indication of stopping working. They were in medicine, working near Atlanta, with the husband researching diabetes and the wife in clinical trials involving cancer genes. The wife also --in her free time-- played tennis three times a week and competed in Grand Prix horse competitions. The other couple with us worked for the World Bank and were currently based in DC, although the husband was Austrian and his wife British. They had lived all over the world, including Jamaica and Nigeria. It was about half-way along this route I became exceptionally glad I had a career to talk about. Fortunately, astronomy sells well to even the harshest of critics: stars, twinkle, pretty. Everyone likes it.

I swallowed my last mouthful. OK, major sugar high! Let's go! Behind me, a pow-wow was in progress which broke up to announce that the plateau was perhaps a stretch too far, since we'd end up returning late to the hotel.

Sugar sugar sugar sugar....

I hopped down the rocks and bounced around for about half an hour as we decended before the whole effect completely wore off and I had to be permanently plugged into my water bottle to make it the rest of the way back.

The plateau probably wasn't the best idea. Turns out I only have the ability to control my energy levels equal to a seven year old.

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