Torres del Paine

After two months of bus rides south, I caught a flight from Puerto Montt to a region often referred to as El fin del Mundo – the end of the world.

It felt like such a treat to ride in a plane, traveling so far in so little time. After a meager 1.5 hours in the air, the bird dropped into Punta Arenas, and like that I was in Patagonia. It doesn’t take more than a look out the window to see that the southern cone of South America is a harsh place.

While the sub-region from here south is called Tierra del Fuego (the land of fire), it should be called the land of wind due to its most defining characteristic. While I was expecting a higher prevalence of mountains, most of Patagonia is flat and windswept. Like the minimal flora and fauna that manages to survive down here, the human structures are small and low to the ground, albeit colorful.

I didn’t stay in Punta Arenas for long. 

I caught a transfer van to a bus company with service to Puerto Natales – diving board for Torres del Paine National Park. While I was buying my ticket I made acquaintance, once again, with a Brit who seemed cool at first but turned out to be anything but. His name was Sam.

With a half-hour to kill we walked to the local square, snapped a couple shots, and hit up a corner market for microwave empanadas. I also grabbed a beer for the ride. My patience with bus rides is wearing thin.

Sam had been on the road for nearly the same amount of time as me, with nearly the same route. Having just graduated Oxford University with a masters in economics, he was taking this trip before starting a prestigious job at a consulting firm in London. Despite his impressive education Sam was one of the dumbest people I’ve met.

Like the other bad apples I’ve come across, I was most turned off my Sam’s overarching pessimistic view on the world, always looking for a reason to complain. 

Talking about our trips, I discussed all the personal growth I’d gone through, mentioning how much I’d gotten to know myself. Sam agreed, saying what he really had learned about himself was how much he dislikes backpack travel. While this is not an offensive statement in itself, it gets worse. In so many words, he said he hates living in a perpetual state of paranoia, constantly afraid someone is going to steal from him or worse – never mind the fact that nothing of the kind had actually happened to him. 

Having learned just the opposite, I was shocked. In spite of the striking similarities of our trips, Sam had built up a wall of fear and mistrust, while I had reinforced my conviction that wherever you go in the world, most people are good people just trying to live their lives.

I should have dumped the dick on the corner, but I needed him. Having booked my hostel at the last minute in a town with not enough space, I had been forced to pay for a private room with two beds. Meanwhile, Sam had no bed. With the opportunity to split the $30/night price tag, I decided I could tolerate his painful outlook on life for one night.

Dropping our bags at the hostel, I was on a mission to figure out my plans for seeing Torres del Pain. 

Thankfully, Sam was on a different schedule. I headed to Erratic Rock, a gear shop that had been recommended by Andre from Pucon. What a good recommendation it was.

With only three days to burn in Puerto Natales, I had resigned to the idea I would be taking day trips to the park and surrounding areas. I was swiftly corrected by Bill, a charismatic Oregonian. Although it normally took casual hikers four or five days to complete, I was told the classic “W” trek could be done in three. At first intimidated by the idea, Bill asked me point blank, “When are you going to be back here? NEVER.” I had been challenged.

With the end of my trip just around the corner, my mind had been in a recent mental funk, not particularly excited about anything. I realized in that moment that this bold, spur of the moment adventure was exactly what I needed. Not entirely sure what I was getting into, I committed then and there.

All of the sudden, time was of the essence. 

I had been in town less than an hour, it was nearly 7 p.m., and I had a three day camping trip to prepare for. From Erratic Rock I rented a tent, a sleeping bag, a foam pad, a cooking stove and a basic mess kit. I wrote detailed notes on the itinerary that would make this feat possible. I was getting more stoked by the minute.

After setting up the tent to make sure it had all its parts, I darted back to the bus station to buy a return ticket to Punta Arenas is three days. Then I hit the supermarket to plan out meals and snacks. While the park has an impressive system of refugios, which offer dorm beds and hot meals, they are wildly expensive for my standards, adding up to around $100 a night. I was dead set on doing this as cheaply as possible. Camping is more fun anyway, right? [<– Famous last words.]

Sam and I made dinner at the hostel and grabbed a drink at Erratic Rock’s Base Camp bar before heading to bed early. It was satisfying preparing my 70-liter backpack for its intended purpose, symbolically filling up a large trash bag with most of my belongings that I wouldn’t need on the trail.

I woke up bright and early, relishing the last shower I would have in the near future. 

With a little breakfast in my belly. I was out the door by 7 a.m. Not any more on my good side after a night of incessant snoring, I didn’t wake up the sleeping Sam to say goodbye.

It took two hours to get to the park. I made friends with a funny German guy to pass the time. At the entrance we were shuffled into a cabin to buy tickets, sign contracts and watch an orientation video. After experiencing two devastating forest fires in the last decade, the number one rule was NO FIRES, which they must have repeated 20 times. On a related note, we were also informed that burning toilet paper was specifically not allowed. Damn.

Finally cleared to enter, I caught a minibus to Los Torres trailhead.

As soon as I started walking I was literally laughing out loud on the path, so happy to be alone in the wilderness, trekking into the unknown. The weather was cold, wet and cloudy, but I began to shed layers as my body heated up. I must run a lot warmer than most people because I was down to one layer when most people were still bundled up in down jackets.

The only prerequisite for having a good time in Patagonia is a tolerance for extreme and variable weather. They say you get four seasons in a single day and that is absolutely the truth. When I asked what the forecast was at Erratic Rock they laughed in my face and told the prediction is the same every day: if it’s windy, the weather is going to change; if it’s not windy, it will stay the same…until it gets windy. My trust in this advice would pay off later.

I was in heaven right away. There’s not a square inch in this park that isn’t awesomely beautiful. Even though I couldn’t see the tops of the peaks around me, how could I complain as I strolled through golden fields of tundra, over gushing streams, around blooming flower bushes and up jagged hills of multicolored granite?

The weather rule proved true. In the hour and a half climb to Refugio Chileno, I saw rain, sleet, snow and a sliver of sunshine. The wind was constant but varied in intensity and direction.

I swear good things happen when I have a smile on my face. 

As soon as I arrived at Chileno the guy at the front desk offered me the second half of his hot cheese sandwich, which I enthusiastically accepted. Then I got a hand setting up my tent from a guy named Elvis who even mopped the mud off my platform and gave me a plastic tarp to keep me dry.

It was early afternoon at this point, and after setting up camp I was back on the trail to see the main attraction of this park, the iconic Torres del Paine themselves. Without the 12 kg. pack on my back I was practically running up the steep mountain trail. My surroundings began as a lush temperate rain forest, which slowly transitioned into rocky alpine snowfields. 

I raced to the top as I saw the clouds closing in. 

I didn’t make it in time, finding only an emerald green lake below low-hanging clouds. But I wasn’t going to give up so easily – I wanted to see those stone towers.

Debatably walking past the boundary of where I was supposed to (definitely), I found shelter from the wind and snow under a large boulder. With a panoramic view of the lake, hidden from view, I ate an apple and some trail mix, happy as a clam. I heard at least a dozen people reach the summit, complain about the view, and turn around.

After 30 minutes the visibility had gotten worse, obscuring even much of the lake. I began to question my sanity, but as long as I was keeping warm under my rock, I had plenty of daylight left and no reason to rush back to camp. When a full hour had elapsed, not much had changed and I made peace with the idea that I may not see the Paine’s famous towers. Then the wind came.

The visibility level improved to that of my arrival. Then a little more. 

I could see the outline of a new ridge materializing. That’s when I got excited. I started cheering the weather on, demanding the rocks to show themselves. A spot of sunshine appeared. Then I knew.

When I saw the towers appear, exactly where I had imagined them, I began jumping with joy. My faith had been rewarded. The clouds continued to thin, and though they never disappeared completely, I got what I came for: a view of that famous rocky skyline in its entirety.

As I emerged from my boulder, I found a young Dutch couple who had been lucky to show up just when the towers were emerging. 

They took my picture for me and we hiked down together. We made fast friends.

Robert and Frederike – a self-employed business consultant and a doctor on sabbatical, respectively – are my kind of people: happy, smart and funny. We cracked jokes and made conversation the whole descent. By the time we got to the bottom were playing card games and planning our next day together. Thanks to their input I made a big alteration to my itinerary.

The “W” route is so named because of the shape that’s made in linking a series of trails. Taking blind advice from Erratic Rock, my original plan for day two was to backtrack to the first trailhead, bus/boat to Refugio Paine Grande at the other end of the “W”, and hike the two remaining climaxes from there. The logic behind this is getting me to the highlights without squeezing four or five days of hiking into just over 48 hours. Robert’s question: why not just hike it all?

Looking at the map, the distance was large, but not impossible. With the sun not setting until 10 p.m. this far south, daylight was not the issue – endurance was. Riding high on my first day, and with a support team to pace my first leg, I decided to up the ante of my already ambitious trek. You only live once.

While my friends were served their refugio dinner, I cooked ramen outside before returning inside to spend the evening next to the wood burning furnace with my new friends. 

If I might elaborate on why Sam the Brit was such a dick at life and these two were so awesome, get this.

Two weeks into their three-month holiday in South America, Robert and Fredericke learned that their Amsterdam apartment, which they had furnished and called home for the past four years, had burned down after their subleasee had come back drunk, started cooking on the stove and proceeded to pass out. No one died but everything they owned was destroyed.

Such a devastating event could warrant any number of reactions: anger, shock, despair. I imagine my friends went through some version of each. Most people would probably at least cancel their vacation and fly home. They elected to stay, and two months after it happened, they are positive, optimistic, still in love with life and each other, even though they have no home to return to in two weeks. All the fun aside, I learned a lot from these two.

I returned to my tent with the bitter wind blowing hard.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking a Patagonian trek on a whim. A Boy Scout at heart, I was lucky to have most of what I needed to make this bold move feasible, but just barely.

I had been smart enough to grab a mismatched pair of thin gloves from the freebie bin at Erratic Rock, which proved essential. Without any insulating pants, I doubled up the two thin pairs I had, doing the same with my two pairs of socks. As I slipped into the -9*C rated mummy bag, I was wearing all four upper body layers, including my nano-puff jacket and rain shell. I was in for a rough night.

My saving grace was a trick I had learned while interning at BACKPACKER. Right before going to sleep I filled my Nalgene with boiling water, putting it inside my sleeping bag, to warm the coldest part of my body, my feet. The liter-size vessel proved to be a great heat source, so much so that I was shedding layers. Though I made it through the night, I woke up frozen to my core.

After breaking down camp, I warmed a bread roll on the furnace and reheated my body in the refugio with a $5 cup of instant coffee.

Shortly before hitting the trail, Frederike, in her nurturing sweetness, gave me her cheese omelette, which she wasn’t going to eat anyway. With the long journey ahead of me, I probably needed it more than I realized.

With my Dutch support team, I conquered the first 14 km. stretch in four hours.

We were blessed with on-and-off sun for much of the way. It was a gorgeous hike up and down rolling meadows, with bright blue lakes to our left and snow-capped massifs to our right. Of course we continued to make fun of everything we talked about. Along with the Danes, the Dutch are truly some of the funniest people in the world.

We arrived at Refugio Cuernos for a pit stop.

Despite having made a reservation here, my friends had been considering hiking as far as Valle Francais with me before turning back. With the luxury of time, not to mention a hot tub in front of their cabin room, I couldn’t blame them for hanging back.

After making myself a PBJ and preemptively treating the blisters I was steadily earning, I was back on the road, a lone wolf once again.

I had initially planned on skipping Torres del Paine,  scared by repeated comparisons to Machu Picchu in terms of cost and crowds. While the cost element was fairly accurate, I was doing it at a fraction of the cost for most visitors. Meanwhile, the crowd comparison was completely unjustified. While the refugios fill up at night, and you pass the occasional group of hikers going in the opposite direction, you are alone 99 percent of the time you are on the trail.

As fond of my friends as I was, I needed that time to myself.

Somewhere along the trail I realized the this trek was the culmination of my entire trip in South America. It was planned at the last minute, overly ambitious given tight restraints on schedule and budget, and exactly what I needed in the exact time and place.

In both cases I stepped up to meet the challenges I had created for myself and grew as a result. Trite as it may sound, I can’t forget to mention that I am the happiest I have ever been in my life, finding peace with myself and the world around me. Hiking alone in beautiful nature brings out the existentialist in me.

Without a clock, I estimated my arrival at Campo Italiano to be around 2:30 p.m.

Though I didn’t stop hiking, it felt like a break to drop my heavy bag at camp and start my side trek up the middle arm of the “W”, Valle Francais. The snow was starting to fall as soon as I set out.

It was a lot of fun fording streams and scrambling up wet boulders as I ascended the righthand side of the valley. Thanks to one of the recent fires in the park, which wiped out many of the trees in this area, you can see the pristine white Glacier Francais most of the way up the ridge. After getting as close as it will take you to the glacier, the trail veers directly uphill toward the official viewpoint.

Despite entering tree cover, the snow was falling on me harder than ever. The trail was disappearing but it was fairly obvious where to go. Popping above the trees again, I reached the outlook just as the worst of the snowstorm came in. I could see a glimpse of the glacier when I arrived, but in mere minutes visibility was all but nil, the blizzard coming at me sideways, seemingly from all directions at once. It’s worth remembering I was hiking through sunny green meadows a couple hours ago.

Satisfied and a little cold, I turned around before my tracks were completely erased.

I occasionally looked over my shoulder as I came down, where the elegant glacier could be seen more clearly than before. At a certain elevation the snow lightened and became rain. I ate an apple as I was approaching camp, mentally preparing for the long haul to Paine Grande.

The last 7.7 km. were by far the hardest, despite being mostly flat.

With the weight returned to my back, my pace was a fraction of what it was at the day’s start. A constant drizzle made for some very muddy terrain, and I was forced to break the trail at times to keep from completely soaking my already moist shoes. While I had been most worried about my knee holding up for this trek, my feet were what was killing me. I was happy though.

It was getting late and most hikers had already made it to their camp or refugio, isolating me more than ever. As exhausted as I was becoming, I garnered patience and strength by enjoying the incredible scenery around me. Slow and steady, I justified every step for getting me a little closer to rest. As I curved around the massive lake on my left, I’d come far enough to start praying for the refugio to appear around every curve.

Toward the end, numbness set in. Walking had become as normal as breathing. Then something special happened. The clouds lifted up, the wind settled down, and the sun reasserted itself. Low in the sky, everything was cast with a golden light. It was perfect. Not far ahead, I finally caught sight of Paine Grande – I was going to make it.

I was running on fumes for the last 500 meters, shuffling at a snail’s pace. A moderate breeze could have blown me over. When I finally got there I dropped my pack with a heavy thud. It was 7:45 p.m. In 11 hours I had hiked over 30 km. with 12 kg. on my back, resting for what added up to be less than 60 minutes.

I was borderline delirious for the rest of the night as I set up camp and cooked dinner in the communal yurt.

I attempted to be social when people said something to me but I think I only scared them. Every muscle in my body felt like it had been overstretched, no longer able to retract. My feet ached from the inside out. Even as snow and below-freezing temperatures rolled in, I was not phased, just as long I wasn’t required to walk any more.

After warming up my core as best as I could with soup and hot tea, I once again boiled water for my Nalgene and slid the bottle in the chest pocket of my jacket. Having learned a few lessons last night, I refined my strategy to stay warm. I wore everything I owned, bundled up as if I were tackling Everest, and would not be taking anything off, no matter how hot I got. I sealed myself as tight as I could in the mummy bag and set an alarm for 2 a.m. where I would reheat the water. Instead of putting the water bottle at my feet, I kept it between my legs, closer to my core.

I woke up early, not warm, but not freezing either. Success.

With all but the final arm of the “W” left, today like the last stage of the Tour de France – a symbolic victory lap. 

Still, I had to set out early to squeeze in the 4 hour trip before my boat left at 12:30. The good weather came out to watch. With clear blue skies I packed up my gear, drank a cup of Nescafe, and was out the door. Thank god I didn’t have to haul that backpack any further. As I cruised through the shallow valley I had the most spectacular view of looming Paine Grande, the white triangular rock in front of me.

After the previous day’s feat, this hike almost seemed like a joke, but reaching the lookout over expansive Grey Glacier erased any doubts of its worthiness. I didn’t have the time to get up close and personal with Grey, but I had been fast enough in my hiking to sit down for a few minutes and enjoy it from afar. 

I returned to camp with an hour to kill. 

Essentially out of food, I looked into buying lunch from the refugio. For $17 I could get a seafood soup that was bound to be disappointing, and I wasn’t even that hungry. The clock hadn’t struck noon yet, but damn it, I thought, I’ve earned a couple beers. For $10 I got two beers and a bag of chips for lunch. Nothing has ever tasted so good.

I saved my second brewski for the boat ride, which turned out to be a tour in itself. With the first perfect weather since I’d arrived, I sat on the roof of the catamaran and watched as the pristine Patagonian landscape effortlessly passed me by. Without having planned it, I got a view of Cuernos del Paine, which precisely matched its image on the can of Austral in my hand.

We docked and I was herded onto the bus that would take me back to Puerto Natales. I’d conquered the “W” and now it was time to rest. With the help of my cerveza lunch I smoothly slipped into a coma.

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