Back and alive again! What a trek. Most people come to Puerto Natales in Southern Chile to go to Torres del Paine National Park to do some trekking, and it's easy to see why. It is beautiful. It's definitely not for amateurs though - even though the trails themselves are not that technically challenging; what makes things tough here is the weather. Especially the wind. It is incredibly fierce; strong enough to break tent poles, and it will even blow you off your feet (well maybe not me...)! At this time of the year, near the very end of the trekking season, things start to get a little temperamental. In fact, I'd say down right nasty at times. But I guess that's all a part of it isn't it. You have to add up something to get to that sense of accomplishment right? Read on...
We have to credit our friend Mark from Ireland for the recommendation for Casa Cecilia, the place in town we stayed, and the place that organized our trek for us. Mark stayed here too, and he was right, they are really great. Cecilia herself dealt with us, and all of our arrangements were perfect! The hostel is nice and comfortable with a good breakfast, and she even gave us cooking utensils and things for the trek for free. Perfect!
The little town of Puerto Natales is really enjoyable too. Formerly a fishing town, it is now more of a tourist destination; the folks here make their living by providing everything and anything that trekkers might need. It's really well set up and a great place to spend a couple of days either before or after a trek. It was sure as hell great to come back to Casa Cecilia at the end of our trek, let me tell you!
The first day starts out with a 3 hour bus ride up to the park and then a transfer over beautiful Lake Pehoe to the bottom left hand corner of what is called "The W". The reason it's called that is the shape of the trek most people do is in the shape of a "W". Just imagine a flat line along the bottom, and three spires you have to go up and down; one in the west, one in the middle, and one in the east. Actually, I don't really like treks like this in the sense that there is a lot of back tracking (I like loop treks), but in this case, there is something interesting and different up every one of the spires.
Anyway, on the first day you land at the lodge after the catamaran at 12:30, and you are meant to get right out and do the first spire up to Grey Glacier and Lago Grey. We did that, but man was it a gruelling first day. Not because of the trail, but because of the distance. Starting a 22 km return trek at about 1 pm was probably not the smartest thing we've ever done, but did it we did. And even though we didn't get all the way to the glacier face (we turned back eventually due to weather and my calculations for point of no return due to darkness), the views of the glacier were spectacular (it's enormous) and there are 7-11 slurpee blue ice bergs floating everywhere in the lake. We got back to the refugio at about 7:30, just before dark, knackered out of our brains! We got lucky with the dorm room though, as no one else came in and we had it all to ourselves!
The second day was tough too, but for different reasons. It started off beautifully, with mixed sun and cloud and we had excellent morning views of Los Cuernos on the western side of the range. We started out towards Camp Italiano and the entrance to the French Valley. At the camp, we dropped the big bags, and took fewer supplies up the valley, as we were coming back down that day. After about an hour, we found ourselves in an incredible alpine bowl full of moraines, glaciers, and various peaks. Los Cuernos and the back of the Torres were just above us on the right the whole time. We got lucky and saw a massive avalanche come down on the other side of the valley. The noise was deafening!
We had our lunch sitting along side one of the moraines, fighting off the wind, and then the clouds started to roll in. So, we packed up our stuff and starting heading back for Camp Italiano. Once there, it was raining fairly hard, and we still had a good 2.5 hours to go to the next refugio called Los Cuernos. That part was just hell. As the rain continued, we got soaked, and the trail got incredibly muddy and slippery. It was slow going. In one section, we were going down a steep gully, and as we descended, the gully began to turn into a river. As the volume continued to build, I was trying to think of how we could get out of the gully without getting swept away as it was really starting to flow! Some pretty big rocks were moving now too, and they were rolling right by our feet. It was like walking in a small river that was about to flash flood. And just as the volume started to build some more, the trail turned up and out of the gully and all the water flowed on by. Whoa... Are we in over our heads?
Eventually, the trail flattened and we found ourselves along side the lake, soaked, and we slithered our way into the refugio after about 3 hours. We were drenched! Everything was soaked, but it was the same for everyone. Piles of clothing and boots were strewn all around the lone stove which was severely over taxed. Looks like wet boots tomorrow! We were so glad to get there though. Just before our arrival, a woman ahead of us fell and cut both her lips quite badly. We helped her out, and she also made it to the refugio where she got some more help. You see, trekking can be a full contact sport and it's not for sissy's!
I have to say though, at times, with all of these 25 year old dudes cutting up the trail, I do start to feel a bit on the slower side. How the hell do those guys make the time they do? Was I ever able to do that? It makes me wonder... But I think maybe it's more of a blow to the ego than anything else. Well, at least we are here! And besides I made it up a couple of days later (you'll see :).
The third day was much better, with a long lateral traverse across the bottom of the east side of the W, and a short ascent up the last valley to the refugio near the Torres. We managed to stay dry, and our biggest challenge was the wind right near the end of the day. Man, if the pack covers were at all loose, we would have taken off like parachutes on the back of dragsters. I have never felt wind this strong, nor have I felt wind speed that changes so rapidly. You really have to have good balance to do this trek.
The next morning I was up at 4 am to start the ascent to the towers (in case there was a decent sunrise). Kristine had a bit of a cold, so, unfortunately, she took a pass. So, there I was, standing in the dark, with nine other women who were looking to me to lead them off into the dark. Did I look like I knew where I was going or something? It must be my maturity, poise, and incredible good looks...)
Anyway, the first hour was all on the headlamps in pitch black. That got us to Camp Los Torres at the base of the moraine up to the Torres themselves. At this point, the climb turns into a scramble over the moraine boulders at 45 degrees, in the semi-darkness, for an hour. It's not easy. And oh yeah, I forgot, it's windy. And oh yeah, I forgot, it's cold. And oh yeah, I forgot, it's raining a little too. But eventually, I pulled myself up that old hill to discover that I was the third person to the top that day. There were two other guys up there from the campsite only an hour down the rocks, and then me. So, I figured that at 40, a bronze medal was pretty good against those younger dudes - and they didn't even cover the ground that I did! So, technically, I was stronger! All of a sudden, I didn't feel so bad...
And the sense of accomplishment when you stand in front of something like this is intoxicating. The towers are almost a full 2 km taller than the viewpoint with a blue green cirque lake below their sheer cliffs. The surrounding moraines tell the story of multiple glacial advances and retractions, giving the valley and otherworldly, chevroned appearance. It is surely one of the most wonderful spots on the earth. And there I stood, forgetting about the cold, the wind, and the rain, and simply admiring the beauty that made the entire effort slip away into the ether.
And then it just got weird, because after I got back to the refugio, and Kristine and I packed up our stuff to make our way out of the park, we ran into Darren Porritt coming up the trail. Darren was on our Gecko's tour way back in China nearly 8 months ago! How freaky is that! I mean, it's a different continent for both of us and everything; Patagonia - same trail??!! We were all so freaked out that we were pissing our pants laughing about it. Darren must of thought it was really weird to have had a vacation, have gone back to work, and then be back out on vacation again, and then run into the same people who were still on the same trip. Weird...
It probably had something to do with the fact that I found and collected a horse shoe on the trail the day before. I decided to keep it for luck. And as we laughed and relived some memories, the sun came out and bathed us with all of it's glory... about time!