We knew a big part of our trip to Patagonia would include Torres del Paine in Chile. Before we arrived though, I couldn’t tell you why. I had never seen pictures or heard more than the name, and that was because it was in the news when a large portion burned last year. Travelers, though, have a route they tend to follow in South America, so once you are on it then it’s hard to veer off. From Ushuaia, most head up to Torres del Paine. Then, as travelers do, everyone shares stories. And all of the stories we heard while at the southernmost tip of the world included the “W” trek in Torres del Paine. Trekking is not really a part of my vocabulary. I’ve camped, but sleeping on the hard ground in the cold isn’t very appealing to me. Neither is being wet and covered in dirt. So as we were listening to travelers talk, I was tuning them out. But we spent the day hiking with two girls from the Netherlands in Tierra del Fuego who raved about the “W” and told me they just carried a day pack and stayed in lodges. Lodges? Fires? Beds? That sounded more like the kind of trek I was up for. By the end of the day, Joshua and I had been convinced to try the adventure. We took a bus to Puerto Natales, the town that acts as a jumping off point to the park.
Joshua found a hostel that specialized in trekking. All of the employees have been in the park plenty of times. They know what you need to know. It was much needed because we felt like we were coming into the experience blind. We DID, however, decide after hiking in Tierra del Fuego that we couldn’t do it in running shoes. So we arrived at Erratic Rock Hostel with our shiny new trekking boots fresh out of the box and quite a few questions. Erratic Rock provides a talk about the trek everyday at 3pm. They cover transportation in and out of the park, what to pack in terms of food and gear, weather conditions and finally, trails. They don’t sugar coat anything. Patagonia, famously, has unpredictable weather, and we were at the cusp of winter. The owner of the hostel said that it is his favorite part–that you can walk the “W” through three valleys and each has an entirely different weather system of snow, wind, rain, sun. During the talk, the guide said, “You will be quite miserable at times, you will be wet, you will be cold, you will have to lay down on the ground to avoid getting blown off the cliff by the wind, but in the end you will be glad you did it.” Joshua said, after hearing the talk he thought I was going to make him scrap the entire thing. But, in actuality, what the talk did was point out that staying at the lodges (called refugios) does not allow you to complete the trek as recommended. The refugios are oddly placed and many were already closed for winter, meaning you are forced to back track and you can’t be where you need to be at the right time of day. I looked at Joshua once we had heard what we were in for and said, “so are we renting camping gear or what.” He was shocked and wanted me to walk around the block a few times to make sure I was sure. For me, I didn’t want to do this entire adventure half ass. If I was going to be cold and tired and miserable, I wanted to be able to see all the beautiful things for which the park is known. They don’t call it Torres del PAINe for nothing…
Joshua reluctantly rented a tent, two sleeping bags/mats and a camping stove. He was worried that I was going to be poor company. I knew I would be at some point, but promised to stay on my best behavior for as long as possible. Then the reality of camping set in. Neither of us had ever set up a tent! We practiced once with our rental which is lovingly called, “The Himalayan hotbox.” It seemed easy enough, but I remember camping as a child and my father would find it easy to set up the tent in the store and then have extra stakes and poles when our family finally made it to the campsite.
We went to the store to stock up on meals: pasta and sauce for dinner, granola and trail mix for the rest. Thanks to Joshua’s unexplainable tendency to compulsively purchase caveman food, we had $30 in nuts and dried fruit. We started packing. One set of dry clothes wrapped in a garbage bag. Sleeping bags wrapped in a garbage bag. Tent cover also wrapped in a garbage bag. The garbage bag system was designed to keep your things dry even when your backpack was getting drenched with rain. In the end, our packs weighed about 45 pounds each. The thought of carrying a hefty 3rd grader around for 8 hours a day up and down mountains caused anticipatory pain in my back and shoulders. We took our last shower and slept our last night in a real bed thinking that we had made a big mistake. If everything went well, we were looking at 5 days in the wild.
The bus into the park was 2.5 hours.
We couldn’t tell what the weather was going to be because there was sun, dark rain clouds and snow in every direction. I told Joshua that we were going to be in for it if we stepped off the boat and it was immediately raining. My worst fear was being wet from the very first minute.
The bus dropped us off at a catamaran that takes you to the start of the “W”. The staff had recommended walking up to a small waterfall during the wait in which we tested our packs, adjusted the straps and generally got in the trekking mode which for me meant settling my nerves. The wind and rain were relentless.
We were already wet as we pulled away from the dock for the 30 minute ride with the 12 or so other trekkers starting their journey. Immediately, a few trekkers shortened their plans after seeing the weather. We and 4 other girls, 2 American and 2 British, kept on.
The first day of the “W” is a “short” 5.5 hour uphill hike to Glacier Gray. Jumping off the boat at 12:30pm, we knew we needed to make good time to get our tent up in the light. We began to climb and continued for the next 5.5 hours in the pouring rain and 60/mph winds. Chasing Joshua up a mountain…I made a rule he could only go as far as I wasn’t able to see him anymore. Then I’d yell ahead, he’d wait, I’d rush to catch up and we’d keep walking. I’m sure it was nice to do the trek with all sorts of breaks…because I sure didn’t get any. I don’t understand how his little legs move so fast. I’m like a moving train, once I’ve stopped, it’s too hard to start again. We had to scramble boulders, ford rivers, cross over waterfalls, in order to follow the orange dots marked on rocks and trees that designate the path. The first time we caught a peak of Gray, it was awesome.
It was the first time I’ve seen a glacier jet into the water where the years and years of ice packed together turn a brilliant blue. The glacier sheds and the lake is full of icebergs that look like neon islands.
We continued up and up until we reached the campsite, Las Guardas. We set up our tent in the rain. Sadly, we hadn’t checked the rain cover before we left and had a small zipper problem that became a rather large zipper problem by the final night.
Joshua started boiling water for our dinner on the small camp stove. We made ourselves at home under the makeshift overhang (that had been crushed by a tree blown in the wind the day before).
What was not so welcoming was the hole in the ground toilet we were supposed to use. The British girls said screw it and used the woods instead. It was THAT gross. Plus, in a complete over-share, you have to carry out all your trash including used toilet paper which just makes me sick to think about.
For the record, that is neither mine nor Joshua’s.
After dinner, it was dark and rainy and we had nothing to do but go to bed at 8pm. It poured all night and the wind took many branches with it. Luckily, not the one that was above our tent. Most everything was damp in the morning.
Day two started with breakfast of instant mashed potatoes with a soup mix reduction over the glacier in the rain.
When you are already wet, it doesn’t matter if you get anymore soaked. We packed up the tent (which gets heavier when wet) and stuffed it into my bag to head back down from where we had come. The stiffness from sleeping (or not really sleeping at all) on the hard ground and the soreness from the previous days hike kicked in which can turn any 29 year old into a 60 year old rather quickly. As I hobbled down the path, we actually got to see what was covered in rain clouds the day before. We didn’t have sunshine, but we had dry skies from the minute we left the campsite until we arrived at the next 7.5 hours later. The Campsite Italiano was 2.5 hours past where we’d been dropped off the day before, and on the way we walked past the most teal lake you could ever imagine.
The negatives of the next campsite were the amount of people, the smell of wet, dirty trekkers and mice. Mice got into tents (not ours thank GOODNESS) and they got into food that was hanging from the trees. The poor British girls, Jess and Jessie, who were now our endearing travel partners, were the victims of an all-you-can-eat mouse buffet in their lunch bag. For all the ridicule I’ve given Joshua about taking a jump rope around the world, it truly came in handy for this alone: our food was safe. The best part of this campsite is that it didn’t start raining until the minute we got the rain flap on (even though it was still horribly wet from the night before and hardly mattered at all).
The most exciting part of day three was getting to leave everything at Camp Italiano for a quick 5 hour day hike up and back through Valley Frances to a vista point from which you can see the Cuernos Mountains which was beautiful on a clear day.
The problem was that it started snowing the minute we left, and we were the first up the mountain so we had to set the tracks and find the path.
At one point, we took a wrong turn and then everyone coming up the mountain afterwards made the same mistake due to our snow prints.
After 2 hours of hiking through the blustery snow, we came to a clearing just short of the vista we were looking for. The clearing was brutal. It was unprotected from the trees, the wind was blowing through at such a rate that the snow was hard as rock and we lost the trail. We couldn’t find any more orange dots! A few people behind us joined in the search. In a moment of weakness, I yelled at Joshua that we had to get out of the clearing, and I wanted to go home.
He instantly obliged, saying that although quitting was not in his nature, this hike did not qualify for the checklist of things he wanted to complete. We didn’t make it to the vista, but I imagine the view was white because the snow was starting to really fall.
In fact, as we trudged back a guard went to pull everyone off the mountain for the day. Since our hike was shortened, and it was too early to cook dinner and go to bed at 2PM, we made the decision to pack everything up and move 2.5 hours to the next campsite in order to shorten our fourth day. The benefit to doing this was the Cuernos campsite was attached to a refugio. It had a fire we could sit by, but came with a price tag, as well. It didn’t matter–after three days of hiking, I was ready for some warmth. We made it in record time. It’s funny how your body can make things happen when it’s looking forward to comfort. Around this time, they say you stop thinking about the letter “W” and start thinking about the letter “Y”!
Day four was scheduled to be our most difficult day, but moving on to Cuernos cut out 2.5 hours and we planned to take a shortcut up to the next campsite. In a grueling uphill battle, we climbed and climbed through the rain for the first few hours. Halfway through, however, the sky cleared and we saw a rainbow from start to finish–a sign we were going to make it through this challenge.
As our things began to dry, we chatted about what we were going to do once we finished. We planned our first meal in civilization. We dreamt of showers. When I saw the Los Torres campsite, I was thrilled. Our final stopover before the descent! We set up the tent early…it had only taken us 5.5 hours to complete a 7 hour hike. We had dinner at 3pm. We used our free time to hike up to the Torres vista for sunset. The funny thing is we had asked people along the way about their view of the Torres. Many could see half of one, some got turned away due to bad weather and others just could make out the sign that describes what you are supposed to see. We could see all three in their glory backed with blue skies.
It was a rewarding feeling. I felt like we had paid for this glimpse with all the bad weather we had endured previously. We brought a small bottle of Johnnie Walker (courtesy of the Aunts’ all inclusive in Panama) to keep us warm.
A guard appeared and told us it was time to make the descent 45 minutes back to camp because the bad weather was coming. He was right. Snow dumping, we scrambled over the rocks back to camp as he took off sprinting down the hill. To celebrate our last night, Joshua concocted a hot chocolate drink out of a dark chocolate bar, splenda, powdered milk and water from the stream. Better than instant! In camp, we found a Brazilian who had hiked up to the Torres in leather loafers. He didn’t have the energy to go back down, so he decided to sleep on the board where we typically prepare food in the covered kitchen area (which is absolutely filthy). He didn’t have a tent or a sleeping bag. The guard thought he was CRAZY. The temperature was dropping quickly. It was by far the coldest night we had during our “W” experience. I’m not sure how he survived. The last night was pretty miserable for me. I couldn’t sleep, my body ached, it was cold…I was so relieved to be going into our last day and pretty set on retiring from backpacking for good. Joshua got to hear all my saved up complaining that I had tried to refrain from earlier in the trek.
On day 5, we could hear the Brazilian snoring slightly (so at least we know he was alive) as we got ready to ascend to the Torres again in the dark–six of us made our way up to catch sunrise at the top. With only one headlamp between the two of us, we climbed 1200 feet back up to the vista through ice and snow from the night before. It was agonizing. I was hot from working so hard, but freezing at the same time. But once we made it to the top, it was clearer than the night before. Impossible! We watched the sun slowly light up each tower one by one.
They looked like they were on fire. I’m sure National Geographic will be sad when they see our photos. It must have been the best day to see these towers in the history of the park…at least I’ll tell myself that after all the torture I went through to get there.
Back down at camp, we raced to pack up our belongings and head down to FREEDOM. Just shy of camp, Joshua stopped to fill a bottle with water. He LOVED the fact you could drink straight from the streams and falls. It was, in fact, great tasting water. For treats, he would make me Crystal Light lemonade (courtesy of Aunt Sue). He knows the way to my heart. Unfortunately while going for water, he slipped on an icy boulder and fell straight into the fast moving river…on his back. I was up the bridge already and couldn’t do anything but yell down to make sure he was ok.
Once he was able to climb out, he chased down the bottle of water and somehow laughed off the whole event. You could hear his spongy shoes squeaking the remainder of the hike. Once down, the relief was overwhelming. We made it! Our first backpacking trip ever…completed. Let alone that we did it in WINTER in Patagonia! I felt such a sense of accomplishment drinking our celebratory beer in front of the fire at the final refugio. As we recapped the experience and compared battle wounds and blisters, I looked out the window of the lodge…only to see the Torres just as clearly as we had from the top. IF I WOULD HAVE KNOWN…@&!*$