10/28/13 - 11/2/13: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
We arrived in Puerto Natales, Chile just in time to check into our hostel and hasten over to Erratic Rock. This company owns a hostel, a restaurant, rents outdoor gear, and lures you in with an ingenious marketing scheme: they offer a free seminar about the most popular activity in Patagonia – The W Trek. Two hours outside Puerto Natales lies Torres del Paine National Park and within its boundaries lay miles and miles of hiking trails running through some of the most beautiful terrain in Patagonia. We were ready for the W trek in a literal sense, as in we had everything booked, but both Katie and I felt it would be great to get a lowdown on what to expect before entering 5 days of solid tramping. It was eye-opening, to say the least.
A young Dutch woman led the talk. She was probably 10 years younger than us and she was one tough cookie. Her blond dreadlocks bounced around her face as she exuberantly explained the trail, the conditions, and the potential for misery. Patagonia is infamous for its strong winds and she only added to the legend. She’d hiked the W many times and regaled us with tales of being blown to the ground by massive gusts. Hiking poles were essential if you wanted to avoid face planting. And then there was the rain. She said the best waterproof material you own is your skin. With that logic, she then suggested wearing a long sleeve shirt and shorts. You can dry off and warm up at the refugios! And as for water, it turns out we didn’t need any! The rivers in the park are perfectly safe to drink from, and there are so many streams that she suggested carrying a cup and dipping in for a gulp whenever you’re thirsty. The best part: no need to carry water!
All this food for thought was making my stomach churn. Wind. Cold. Rain. Were we tough enough to endure this long haul through the wilderness? We discussed her advice while picking up our hiking poles. That was one suggestion we would take her up on. The others? Not so much. I was not going to be caught in the elements wearing nothing but a thin layer of polyester and brandishing a cup. I may not be as tough as this chick, but I was strong enough to take on the weight of a raincoat and some water.
“We’re going the wrong way.” Katie figured out our mistake a minute after the bus started moving. We were in Torres del Paine National Park heading toward a destination hours away from where we wanted to be. Our five-day trek was supposed to start at the eastern end of the park, at Torres Central, where we had food and lodging waiting for us. Unfortunately, we were driving in the opposite direction.
Our options? None. There was no point in attempting to explain our conundrum to the driver and his assistant. We were careening around bends on a narrow gravel road, so it wasn’t safe to have a chat. Even if we could communicate (which was unlikely) there was nowhere for them to turn around; as it was, the bus hardly fit on the road. We quickly looked over the park map. The outcome didn’t look promising. We wouldn’t be turning around. If anything, we may be leaving the park altogether! Worst-case scenario, we’d be going back to Puerto Natales where we’d have to pay for another night’s lodging, food, and a second bus into the park – all this because neither of us were paying attention. I could practically hear Katie’s teeth grind.
I sat back and let fate do its work. What will be will be, I told myself. It helped calm my nerves. Neither of us were in danger, after all, so there was nothing to truly worry about. We’d have our answers once we reached our next stop, Lago Pehoe (Pehoe Lake), which, ironically, was where we were supposed to end our trek 6 days hence. Hopefully, our driver would enlighten us to other options besides starting this entire journey over again tomorrow morning…
He did. Neither the driver nor his assistant spoke a lick of English, but with gestures and pointing we managed to tell them we wanted to go back. They used similar gesticulations to convey that they’d be leaving the park but coming back through in a few hours. We only need wait for them to return. Hallelujah! We practically kissed the nice gentleman as he told us in Spanish to enjoy the day, take a walk, and see some sights. They’ll be back through at 1:30 P.M.
The weather, as it happened, was crystal clear and pleasantly cool, even in the sun. We walked to a lookout and saw Salto Grande, a beautiful waterfall gushing forth with a perfect rainbow rising in its mist. The turquoise water roiled through and ran into the depths of a teal blue lake. The great mountains of Torres del Paine stood behind it all, beckoning us to enter and scale their heights. We’d be marching up and around those pinnacles over the days to come.
I often tell Katie that she has a good luck cloud floating above her. It honestly feels that way. More often than not, situations that seemed fraught with stress eventually work out, sometimes even for the better. This was one of those situations. Our frustration gave way to joy as we drank in the beautiful day. There was no telling what was in store for us on the W. The weather could be cloudy, foggy, windy, and rainy, but at least for today it was blissfully perfect. We were happy to bask in our misfortune that had led to good fortune. You wouldn’t know it, but sometimes it pays to be inept.
The next morning we started day 1 of the W trek. This hike is named the “W” because of its shape. In essence, the trail is in the form of a large W. It’s as simple as that. Doing it, on the other hand, isn’t so simple. We found it difficult to find information on the trek back in our planning stages. Refugios, which are like chalets or fancy huts, are spaced along the trail providing food and lodging. You can also camp at the refugios in rented tents or bring your own gear for traditional campsites. The land that the W trek stretches across is owned by two different companies, so you can’t book your trip through one contact. In addition, communication with either company can be complicated. I’ve read stories of incomplete responses, answers in Spanish only and, more commonly, no reply at all. Consequently, confirming your trek on the W is actually booked and paid for can be difficult, and who wants to buy a ticket out into the middle of nowhere without confirmation? We surely didn’t. So we went the safest route we could find – we paid a company to book it for us. Was it the cheapest option? No. Was it the easiest? Absolutely.
Far South Expeditions arranged the bookings and all we had to do was show up. We would be staying at the refugios with full room and board the entire time. Decadence in the mountains. Back when we chose this option we knew we could’ve pushed ourselves harder: rented camping gear, packed our food in, watched as our thighs bulged under the weight. But after the pains of Salkantay, I regretted nothing. I was happy to take advantage of all the creature comforts available in the wild. Life’s too short to be miserable while trying to enjoy it.
So, we left our big packs at refugio Torres Central, knowing we were going to return, and set out with nothing but daypacks on our backs. My knees were wrapped tightly in anticipation of the pain that seemed to plague me since Salkantay. The trekking poles would help, but they could only do so much. Our destination for the day: Los Torres (The Towers).
The going was a slow incline into the mountains without cover. The weather from yesterday had sustained, leaving us a glorious view of the lakes below and the endless hills beyond. As we entered the first trees of the day we spotted a Patagonian fox creeping through the shrubs. When I think of foxes I think of smallish mammals; bigger than a cat but smaller than a Labrador. The Patagonian fox was not small. This creature was large, the size of a coyote. It noticed our presence immediately but wasn’t bothered by our staring. It took its time navigating the trail before reentering the brush and vanishing.
After our wildlife encounter we passed a refugio perched alongside a rushing river. We crossed a bridge and thin trees sprung up around us. Sunlight filtered through the green canopy giving the forest a peaceful and welcoming glow. Before too long we found ourselves breaking free of the shade and stepping past the tree line. A sign directed us upward where a grueling 45-minute ascent awaited us. It wasn’t kidding. Nothing but steep grade track covered in dirt and then loose rock scattered across the earth like rubble. Giant boulders were tossed on top for good measure. Whenever I stopped to catch my breath I’d turn back and see a wall of mountain behind us with tendrils of snow flowing down its creases.
With a sweaty brow, I rounded one final boulder and saw the landscape open up. A milky glacial lake spread out before me with Los Torres, The Towers, framing its end. To say it was a sight to see would be an understatement. The pinnacles of rock were otherworldly, standing tall and eternal as though erosion couldn’t touch them. Katie and I sat down at the water’s edge to eat lunch and silently appreciate the scenery. The cool, clear water looked too tempting not to have a taste. It was refreshing and delicious. I admit to being slightly obsessed with drinking from natural waterways. There’s something so primal and right about drinking from a river or lake without fear of getting sick. It’s, sadly, so rare in this world to even have that opportunity that I take advantage of it whenever I can. I simply love it!
We traversed more uneven rocks to glimpse a full view of The Towers from base to peak. A photographic spree took place; it was impossible to stop trying to capture the splendor of the view. We spent a couple hours enjoying life at the top and playing on the boulders like kids in a wonderland until we finally faced the facts: it was time to hike down. Walking away from Los Torres was easier said than done. We kept walking, then stopping, then turning and sighing. Even more pictures were snapped before more walking, stopping, sighing. When we finally stepped behind that big boulder that blocked our view we were able to commit to the downward climb.
My goddamn knees started hurting right away. It was the steepness of the slope that nailed ‘em. The poles helped, as usual, and I went slowly as to not upset their delicate nature too severely. All things considered, they weren’t that bad off by the time we reached a plateau. The rest of the way wasn’t so vicious, so by the time we arrived at the refugio my boney knees were only in moderate pain. I’m sure the bandages and the Advil helped considerably. The wraps, as it turned out, were bound so tightly they left giant red welts like a rash all around my leg. I obviously needed to lighten up on the pressure. Regardless, it was a magnificent day and I was feeling fabulous about all we had seen and experienced. To top it off, our beds (yes, beds, with actual sheets and a comforter) were very cozy and the food was delicious. We were poised to enjoy a great night’s sleep before our next day’s journey.
After breakfast we hiked along a relatively flat trail, mountains to our right and lakes to our left. These gigantic landmarks make navigation quite easy. As the Dutch girl had said, “If you get lost on this trail you’re an idiot.” So true. One thing she said that was not true, however, was the abundance of water sources along the way. Carrying a cup may work if you’re guzzling down a liter of water at every substantial water way, but between those you could spend hours with nothing but thin trickles of muddy water crossing your path. Yum! Instead, I drank from my Camelback and stayed happily hydrated the whole day through.
Fields of bush and grass stretched to either side as we traversed the valley. We climbed over short swells of earth and rocky terrain and luxuriated in the majestic vista: granite mountains and azure lakes with shadow clouds dancing across their surfaces. The air was still, the sun was shining, and we couldn’t have been happier as we stepped through the heavenliness of the Patagonian wilderness. To think, we were about as far south as you can get without leaving the continent. I wouldn’t have believed it if not for the fact that the sky still glowed with sunlight until 11 o’clock at night. We were trekking along the edge of the world.
Our lunch was enjoyed on a stony outcrop overlooking a lake below. Peace and tranquility took hold. Barely a soul passed by while we rested and languished in the natural atmosphere. An hour ticked by before we hefted our large packs onto our backs and continued. By now, the famous mountain known as Los Cuernos (The Horns) had sprung up on our right. You can see why this two-toned pinnacle is called The Horns because whatever angle you look at it two granite horns sprout from its top. To add to its awesomeness, it’s fun to say the name: “Los Cuernos.” In fact, I found myself bellowing it out along the trail to no one in particular.
Our second refugio was tucked under the shadow of that horned mountain and was called, naturally, refugio Los Cuernos. Here we had sleeping bags that were surprisingly clean and devoid of smell. I was very grateful. We took showers and eased into the relaxed surroundings of the lodge. That night we were warmed by a wood-burning stove as we ate dinner and played cards. Yes, decadence in the mountains, and worth every penny.
Today was going to be tough. This was a portion of track where we had a contingency plan in place. If my knees were battered by the time we reached the middle of the W I didn’t have to climb up. Since that section of trail was an optional out-and-back, I could simply trudge onward to the next refugio and call it a day. That said, if I chose that option I couldn’t say I actually hiked the entire W trek, which would be a shame. Luckily, I was feeling up to the challenge when we reached Camp Italiano and the ascent up Valle de Frances.
A huge benefit of an out-and-back is the ability to leave your giant backpack at the bottom and pick it up when you return. So that’s what we did. Armed with water and lunch, we mounted the rising landscape listening to an occasional crash of thunder. Was it about to rain? It seemed unlikely under the clear blue sky. Once we reached the first lookout we saw the cause of the threatening storm: a massive rock face covered in sheets of snow and ice. We stood at the foot of the mountain feeling like grains of sand in its overwhelming presence. Ripples of glacier coated the rock, and if you waited long enough you could hear the thunder crack just as an avalanche came crashing down the cliff side. At one point a colossus plume of white tumbled down from above and enveloped the slope in a cloud of snow. It was if a bomb had gone off. Yeah, I was very glad I’d decided to hike this part of the trail. Very glad, indeed.
We had a long way to go, though. We could only spare 15 minutes at the lookout before trudging onward. We entered a dark forest that covered strange undulating hills of earth. Up and down. Up and down. It was like hiking over waves. We tramped through until trees gave way to a giant field of stone. The last segment of track was a scramble up bare rock, but we were rewarded with a marvelous view at the end: A horseshoe of mountains curving across the horizon with Los Cuernos capping them off to our right.
With our bodies reclining on a slab of sheer rock, we took in the scene. Other hikers were prostrate as well, taking a snooze and warming themselves in the sunshine. It was a beautiful day, but the air was quite cool, so we shielded ourselves from the light wind and ate our lunch in relative comfort. The packed lunches provided by the refugios thus far, run by a company called Fantastico Sur, were adequate. The main thing that left us wanting were their sandwiches. This sandwich, in particular, was not appealing in the least: white pita-like bread with lukewarm cheese, lettuce, mayo, and ground hamburger. We grimaced and forced it down. The chocolate bar, on the other hand, was delicious.
When we left the top we knew we were running out of time. We weren’t even halfway done with the day’s hiking and it was 3:30 P.M. Our aim now was to get down to our backpacks in 2 hours. Katie took the lead while I maneuvered my way behind her as fast as I could. My objective was not to blow a knee or break an ankle. She kept me on pace and we achieved all our goals. We were able to refill our water and resituate our packs before slinging them back on and continuing to refugio Paine Grande. It was 5:30 P.M. Dinner would be served until 9, so that gave us 3 hours to get our asses there in time for supper (which we were not about to miss – those meals weren’t cheap!). We’d just hiked over 20kms and now we had roughly 7.5 – 9kms ahead of us, depending on the map you looked at and the people you talked to. Hard facts were hard to come by in Patagonia.
We quickly trudge through a charcoal forest, remnants of a wildfire that swept through the eastern part of the park in 2005. I don’t know about you, but I find dead trees to be very beautiful. Their leaf-less curves and gnarled shapes are enchanting and calming. Underneath their twisted limbs sat new growth: fresh flowers, green grass, and rich vegetation. Therein lies the secret to the beauty – nothing in nature is ever truly dead. Life and death are bound to one another; from one blooms the other. To see that represented so elegantly in the world around me is comforting.
My comfort was short-lived. 2 hours in, I was ready to collapse and join the dead part of the forest. The wind had picked up, my face was numb, my body exhausted, and the beauty surrounding me was about as alluring as a garbage dumpster. I wanted to stop moving. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be arranged until we reached the refugio, and Lord knows when the hell that was going to happen. Katie and I barely spoke to one another. When she did say anything my responses were usually grunts or groans. At one point Katie wanted to take a picture of me. It was all I could do not to refuse by way of plowing her over.
When crested a hill and finally saw civilization, by that I mean a single building. I didn’t dare to hope that it was our refugio. The map was a little unclear as to where it was and I didn’t want to get my hopes up as my feet would never forgive me for such lies. We grew closer and closer to the structure, neither of us knowing if it was our final stop for the day until we were within reading distance of the sign. Paine Grande, it read. This was it! Once inside I fell on the bench and Katie checked us in. I was so spent I could barely get out our reservations. I knew we had to eat our dinner right away, but dreaded getting up to move. We’d been hiking for nearly 12 hours.
I limped to our room, which happened to be so small that only two people could fit inside. A private room – score! This refugio was run by a different company called Vertice, and we immediately noticed the difference. The food was served cafeteria-style instead of in an intimate country cabin setting by friendly servers. Water didn’t seem to be on their menu of beverages. Instead, they offered Tang-style sugar drinks that tasted like medicine. The food was…edible. That’s a good way to describe it. Bottom line, though, we were sitting and resting, and that was all that really mattered to me in that moment.
Once rested, I cared more about the quality of food. It was still unappealing in the light of day, and that “juice” was making me grimace.
This was the first day on our trek where clouds were thick in the sky. That said, there was no rain, for which I was very thankful. We entered a shallow canyon and then traveled up through a thin forest where the biggest rabbit I’ve ever seen came galloping right up to us. I say galloping because it sounded like a horse running, it was so large. It stopped right next to us, paused, then turned and galloped away. It was the size of a large rooster. They grow ‘em big in Patagonia.
The day turned even greyer and windy as we crested a hill and strolled high above Lago Grey to our left. Down below we could see huge icebergs floating in the water; formations of white and blue bobbing up and down in the waves. Cold wind whipped against our faces, so we pulled up our buffs and pushed through until we saw the famous Glacier Grey in the distance, its crystal walls pressed against the water’s edge. They were the source of those large ice chunks floating in the lake. Hopefully we would see some break off once we got closer.
This hike, as we understood it, was supposed to a slow and steady upward trek. At first this was true, but then suddenly we found ourselves going down. Then up. Then down. Then down. Then down. It really felt like we were trudging downward a whole lot more than up. What happened to the gradual climb? Like I said, hard facts were hard to come by in Patagonia.
When we made it to refugio Grey the weather wasn’t very pleasant. We decided to take a break, eat some food, and see if it would improve before venturing out to see Glacier Grey. Fortunately, the sun did break through and we decided to strike while the iron was hot. We pushed against the wind and scrambled atop an enormous dark angular rock covered in streaks of color pointing out to Glacier Grey like an arrow. We maneuvered our way across its slick surface to the very edge so that we could get as close to Glacier Grey as possible. Small ice blocks bobbed against its side. I broke off a piece and had a bite. Refreshing!
The wind was so strong we had to brace ourselves while standing, our jackets snapping against us like flags. The constant gusts were coming directly off the glacier, which stood like a frozen row of teeth at the end of a long white throat. Icy wind blasted us in one never-ending breath. Once in a while I would inexplicably feel a warm breeze brush past me. All I could figure was that sunshine was periodically warming the air over the glacier causing the temperature to briefly rise. It was like being in cold ocean water and having a warm current flow past you.
Above us soared a group of Andean Condors. They were black as night with white feathers puffed about their neck. These birds are the largest flying birds in the world, and even at a distance you could tell their bodies were massive. We never got a close look at these miraculous birds, but to have a flock of them sailing over us was more than we could hope for.
Standing there, staring at the face of the glacier, being pushed too and fro by the powerful wind, condors swooping overhead…it was exhilarating and wonderful. We were both over the moon with happiness.
This was it. Our last day on the W. Technically we’d already completed the trek since we’d traveled the entire length of the W, but we had to get back to Paine Grande to catch a catamaran back.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again (and again, and again, God willing), we are very lucky people. It’s Katie’s good luck cloud! Seriously! Why were we lucky? Well, I’ll tell ya…
The weather was horrible. Thick clouds. Ice rain. Wind so awful that it’ll kick you to the ground and spit on you. You may be wondering why we were lucky, then. Well, there are a few reasons: First, it was the last day of our hike and we’d already seen this part of the trail. This was all retread for us, so we weren’t missing out on anything; Second, the wind was at our backs, a significant improvement than at our fronts. It pushed us along rather than impeded our progress. It meant we could have our rain covers over our backpacks without them blowing off and our faces weren’t getting frost bite; Third, we were experiencing the quintessential Patagonian weather we’d heard so much about. Thus far our weather had been fantastic, better than we ever hoped for! To get acquainted with this tempest on our last day, knowing we had nothing but a warm bed in our future? Well, I for one was thrilled to finally meet the other side of Patagonia.
But it wasn’t all icy shoves and fairy tale snowstorms. We did have our moments of pain and misery. Well, I did at least. It was on this day that I experienced my most humbling moment. That instant you realize that man, with his overwhelming hubris, cannot withstand the forces of nature.
“I gotta s#@t!!!!”
That was my response when Katie asked an hour into our hike what was wrong with me. My panicked eyes and impromptu dancing had caused her alarm, and rightly so. Let’s just say I was experiencing an earthquake in my bowels and there was no stopping this volcano from erupting.
“What do I do?!!” I shouted. I truly had no idea what to do. There was nowhere, and I mean nowhere, to privately relieve myself. Katie pointed up the slope, shouting, “Behind that boulder!” I threw down my pack and ran up the hill. It didn’t matter that I had just hiked for 4 days and harbored sore muscles and aching joints. Nope. I felt nothing. No pain. My legs felt fresh and my body possessed the strength of an Olympic athlete. All this spontaneous energy was fueled by one thing alone: my resolve not to crap my pants on the trail.
The loose dirt and constant roots jutting up from the ground had me tripping and falling as I scurried my way up the steep incline. Running, stumbling, crawling, I didn’t care how I reached the boulder, I just had to get there – NOW!!
I didn’t quite reach the boulder. I managed to duck behind a tree that was the width of a loaf of bread. It would have to do. I did my business all the while knowing that from one direction I was concealed by the boulder, but from the other I was in full view of whoever might come up the path. No one appeared. Maybe I have a good luck cloud of my own? Then again, I was s@#*%ing in the woods.
By the time I joined back up with Katie we were laughing about the power of the human body. It will not be denied.
Putting that embarrassing moment behind me, I marched on, allowing that big bully, Mr. Wind, to push and shove me forward into a light jog. It was either that or stumble to the ground. He was very motivating. In fact, we were able to improve on our time because of his powerful motivational skills.
I felt incredible sympathy for the hikers we passed on the trail. Some held tramping poles with gloveless hands. Others had no hats or covers for their faces; their cheeks a brilliant red from the snow/rain mixture punching them. That wind was an icy slap to the face, and I hope they made it to the refugio safely.
But wait a minute? What was I thinking?! They’d be fine! After all, the Dutch girl had said all anyone really needs is their waterproof skin! A raincoat, hat, and gloves? Those are for wimps!
Consider me a wimp.
We reached refugio Paine Grande with soaking wet pants feeling strong and happy. The Chilean flag whipped in the squall, snapping and spraying water all around us while we took our victory photos. We’d conquered the W! And believe it or not, we were both feeling elated, physically fit, and sad that it was all over. The W was, hands down, one of the most extraordinarily beautiful hikes I’ve had the pleasure of completing. I’d do it again…that is, if I can book clear, calm, sunny weather for all five days of the trek. Is that an extra cost?