For those of you that did not catch on, I had the opportunity to travel close to the bottom of the world to Torres Del Paine national park in Patagonia, which many Chileans told me is the most beautiful place on Earth. How was it, you may ask? It was cold, rainy, and snowy and the wind held steady around 70 kilometers per hour, even knocking a few hikers to the ground towards the end of the trip. However, it also became one of my favorite places. The power of the region demands your respect, and you overlook the misery of poor weather conditions to appreciate its untamed beauty. So, despite being soaked to the bone, mega-blisters on my heels and fearing taking flight in the tent at night, I want to go back, although admittedly I’d prefer during the summer.
The group set out to complete “The W”, whose route consists of almost 80 kilometers of trekking through rock fields, scrubland and woods, ascending steep mountainsides and rolling hills. In the end, however, snowfall and avalanches closed many campsites and paths at the top parts of the trail. As a result, I only completed about 44km (27 miles) in four days in the park. That just means I have to go back and do it again. Patagonia won’t win so easily.
Having never camped or trekked before, I had no idea what to expect on this trip. On that note, I don’t think anybody can be fully prepared for the trials at the bottom of the world unless they’d experienced it before. Our first day in the park proved this when the first segment of the hike, which was supposed to take three and a half hours, ended in five. I realized soon after that the estimated times on our maps were not for those who like to take their time and appreciate the scenery, but serious trekkers who put their heads down and move (or I’m just really slow and can’t do both). As a result, we only managed to make it to the first refugio on the way up towards Grey Glacier. After a long trip just to make it to the park, followed by the hike, I was ecstatic to go to bed right after dinner. While I fell asleep quickly, I did not stay that way for any extended period of time as the pounding rain and blustery wind attacked the tent, which, thankfully, kept us dry and warm enough.
In light of our slower than expected progress, we doubled our pace the following day to ensure we arrived at the next campsite before sunset. While I had enjoyed the previous day’s speed, the new one, combined with the previous day’s soreness and an overweight pack, took its toll on me pretty quickly. Major fatigue was met with a wall of wind as we rounded a mountain, and then the snow started. It was nicer than the rain for awhile, until I had trouble seeing the path in front of me and climbing over rocks became quite treacherous.
Fortunately, the snow let up before lunch, and the remainder of the hike towards Campamento Italiano only consisted of light rain and minimal wind. However, the day had certainly taken its toll on me, testing my mental fortitude as much as physical abilities.
Our second night was inescapably damp and cold. Even my sleeping bag made for 15 degrees below 0 (Celsius) didn’t quite do the job. Everybody was slow to get up in the morning, making it impossible to have enough time to climb all the way to the top of Valle Francaise and back, and then make it to Refugio Cuernos before sunset. This, combined with general weariness, led me and two other people to take an easy day and hike ahead to the refugio, giving us plenty of time to relax and go at our own pace. Though foggy, the weather was relatively great (no wind or precipitation), and the paisaje, landscape, was breathtaking. I finally had the chance to look around and fully take in the purpose of being in Torres Del Paine. However, as we worked forward, a spitting rain turned into a fine mist, finally turning into continuous showers for the rest of the walk.
Wet and cold (essentially nonstop for 24 hours at this point) we gave into our desire for a warm meal that did not consist of oatmeal of five minute risotto, and the three of us dined on steak and rice as we watched the rain turn into a slushy, heavy snow (worse than the previous day), and wondered if the group we had left behind would make it.
One thing I noticed about the park is that weather patterns generally change within minutes, a blessing and a curse, depending if you are stuck in a torrential downpour or enjoying a gloriously sunbathed landscape. This specific day, however, defied this expectation, which I suppose also holds in typical Patagonia fashion. The snow got heavier as time passed, and dealing with another night of soaked, windy cold seemed inevitable. As more weary travelers sought refuge inside the warm, picturesque lodge, we noticed even more experienced trekkers were giving in and buying beds for the night. As much as I would like to pretend I could brave the weather and camp outside, I’ll admit that comfort held the trump card at this point, so four of us gave in and paid the exorbitant amount of money to stay inside, nabbing some of the last beds. Despite the price, it was definitely worth it.
Over a bottle of wine, we talked to some other hikers moving in the opposite direction of us, and learned that sunrise at the Torres (one of the greatest aspects of the park)was probably going to be impossible to see due to the terrible weather conditions. As a result, the same group that had stayed inside decided it would be better to just catch the bus back to Puerto Natales the next day instead of spend an extra night in the park, most likely not see anything, and risk missing the only bus out of the park because of the hike down the mountains.
After yet another night listening to gale-force winds (but this time comfortably inside) we left the refugio to a sunny, almost cloudless (though still windy) morning. We had five hours to trek 11 kilometers to the minibus, estimated at four and a half hours on the map. Well rested, and determined to make it to the bus, we set out at the fastest pace of the trip. Including breaks and a point where the wind literally knocked people to the ground, we made it to our goal in just over four hours, and I finally had the chance to get some nice pictures of the torres (towers) that had been so elusive on previous days because of the weather.
Looking back on my descriptions, it seems like the whole excursion was a general horror story, but it was, in fact, one of the most personally rewarding trips I’ve taken. On one level, there’s the infinite natural beauty. “Wow” is sometimes all there is to say. It’s not just the scenery either. There’s an untamable energy that I’ve never seen before. Nature demands your respect, and you’d be entirely willing to give it. Man is subject to the earth here, and I don’t know if Patagonia can ever be fully conquered, as much as humans will try. Traveling through Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales (the base town for Torres Del Paine trekkers), I felt like humans were merely guests that the bottom of the world has elected not to eject yet. People who live there love it for this power, and become part of it rather than attempt to dominate it. They never will. Visiting Patagonia shows you that ultimately you will have to submit to the awesome power of nature, and that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Making Torres Del Paine my first trekking and camping experience helped and hurt my enjoyment of the activities. I had no idea what to expect, which quickly took a physical toll on me, preventing me from really enjoying the hikes in our effort to move at a proper pace. All I was able to do was put my head down and walk as quickly as possible to make sure I got to the next campsite on time. However, that just gives me more motivation to go back and do it in a manner that allows me to take my time. Another major issue that played a part in this was only having five days to spend in the park, which did not allow for any down time that would have been essential to seeing everything and taking everything in.
Despite this negatives, I am 100% glad I went. Despite the weather and lack of time, I am hooked on trekking and camping. These are a great way to see the world, both for its physical beauty, and for meeting other people along the way. Talking to other trekkers in the campsites and refugios was almost as rewarding as the scenery itself (but that’ll be hard to beat). Every segment of the park has something different to offer, from scrubland to rock fields, woodlands to glaciers and steep mountainsides to rolling hills. On the right side of a path you would see brown grassy patches and short bushes while on the left was a verdant tree line.
Trekking in such isolation from “civilization”, with such abundant, real beauty was as much a mental challenge as a physical one by making me actively fend of temptations to quit and run inside. Just as importantly, it also gives you abundant time to think about just about whatever you want. It helps you find yourself, or at least begin to do so.
While I was far from completing the W, I got a lot out of what I managed to hike. With a newfound respect for nature and its capabilities, I can, and must, go back to complete what I started.
While many pictures did not come out, due to fog, here’s a taste of Patagonia:
|Road between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales. Lots of nothingness|
|Patagonia is so windy, trees grow like this|