It is a land where nature reins supreme. The wind can knock you to the ground, and the cold can chill you to the bone. The sun shines around eighteen hours a day in the summer, and with the ozone hole just above this region of the Earth, it’s all too easy to burn that delicate skin. This my friends, is Patagonia.
We’d been talking of a trip to Torres del Paine for years, and the time had finally arrived. We took our early morning flight from the hustle and bustle of Santiago, to the quiet streets of Punta Arenas. The capital city for the southernmost region of Chile, it’s your last chance to pick up major supplies before doing an about-face to reach the Andes just a few hours north.
One of our best buddies joined us after a nearly 24 hour travel time. We were excited to be back together; to adventure and explore all that the “W” trek had in store for our group. We travelled via bus on a two lane road for a few hours until we arrived in Puerto Natales; a quaint area that is the gateway town to the park.
We settled into our hostel and began gathering information from local residents on what to expect on the trek. You can read, read, read so many books, but nothing takes the place of talking to people who can offer first hand accounts. These chats and the incredible view of the Andes were doing nothing to still the butterflies in my belly. Honestly, I was a bit scared; I knew that I’d spent too many hours eating shortbread, and not enough time pounding the pavement over the winter. I could ask the mountains to be gentle with me all I wanted, but they have a mind of their own, and weren’t going to cut me any slack.
We shopped for trail food, purchased bus tickets, and got our packs ready for departure. The morning came around again, and we were off! After a brief video and check-in to pay for park access, we boarded a boat to take us across stunning Lake Pehoe. We opted to stand on the top deck and soak in the mind-blowing views, that showcased dramatic changes in scenery with every turn of the head. The bone chilling wind we experienced atop the boat was just the tip of the iceberg.
We met a handful of friends along the way, and took off in a group of six towards our first night at Campamento Grey. The wind was unmerciful that afternoon and unlike anything we’d ever experienced. You had to lean in to ensure you weren’t blown off your feet, and despite our excitement, it was eyes to the ground so that a painful mistake wasn’t made day one. A few hours in, we rounded a bend and laid eyes on the first sighting of crystal blue ice chunks from the southern ice field. We set up camp for the night and chowed down on a well deserved meal. The sun stays out so long, that your mind is confused as to why it’s so tired when it’s still light out.
The next morning we broke down camp, and headed to a lookout point a few minutes north. It provided a view of Glacier Grey, and behind that, the ice field. Standing before those miles of ice, I have never felt more insignificant in my life. The negative things we get hung up on in our day-to-day lives: petty arguments, irritations, the wanting of material items, all fade away. There are times when I long to be back in that moment; to relive that experience through my own eyes, and remember how totally satiated I was standing there. We’d travelled thousands of miles on trains, planes and automobiles, and this place already made me feel full after the first night.
Over the next few days, the gasp inducing experiences continued to pile up. We watched avalanches crash down in the French Valley, enjoyed a rare 80 degree + cloudless Patagonian afternoon, hiked up/down/up/down, imbibed with friends during dinners, and climbed closer and closer to the pearl of the park, Paine Massif.
On what was to be our final night, we treated ourselves to a hot meal at the campground kitchen. You see, unlike US National Parks, on this trek you have to stay in pre-determined group campgrounds. These campgrounds have lodging, food and drink should you choose to pay for them. We knew we were going to camp for the duration, but had decided that on our last night, we’d splurge and dine like mountain kings and queens. In the regular world, the meal would have been just alright; up there though, every warm bite was like a hug from your Mother who was worlds away… truly comforting. We stayed in the lodge and played cards and drank wine by the fire before retiring to our cold and windy tents. Our group was on the fence about whether or not to get up at 3:00 am to do the strenuous hike to the towers for sunrise. The time came and our pal was ready to roll; we were sleepy and at first opted out but then one after another got on board. There were crowds of people on the pitch black trail, and more than once I wanted to pull over and say forget it. Climb on we did though, and just before sunrise we made it to the top.
The above picture shows what may be one of the coldest mornings of my life, by the jade lake that sits just in front of the towers. While we weren’t gifted a golden sunrise across the rock that day, I’m glad we experienced the dark climb up the mountain. There’s something about synching your breath with your step, falling in line with your partner, with your headlamp and mind guiding you towards the summit. We ended up spending an extra night camped by the river, soaking in every last bit we could. When we returned to town we treated ourselves to a nice hot shower, the best ceviche in the world, and a soft bed.
A few days later we bid adieu to our friend as she returned to her life in the city. We had some time left to explore, so we took a boat to view other sections of the ice field. We cruised through the fjords, viewed Condors in the wild, saw Balmaceda Glacier spilling into the water, and hiked to Serrano Glacier. We continued on to a drool inducing lunch at an estancia, then returned to enjoy our last few afternoons in town. Thank you for everything you gave us Patagonia; you will be forever on our minds and always in our hearts.