The Towers of Patagonia: Torres del Paine
“Que mierda (shit)” the driver said in Spanish. The car sputtered and I jerked forward in the seat. Those words, and the feeling growing in my gut, were ones I hoped to avoid. The car sputtered again. “We are out of gas” he said. My mind immediately went to my water and food supply. We could stay in my tent until someone passed to give us a hand worst case scenario. A smile crept across his face and he laughed. He flipped a switch to the right of the steering wheel and hit the accelerator. “I have a big extra gas tank. I’m just joking!” It was an average afternoon hitchhiking the barren landscape of Southern Patagonia.
Green eyes greeted me at the hostel. I responded with a smile and took particular interest in the Italian woman. She was travelling with two friends from Greece and Switzerland she met during her travels. We bonded over life on the road while the wine began to pour like the conversation, smoothly. Puerto Natales wasn’t my favorite town, but meeting the right people made for a memorable experience. I’d surely find a way to pass the time.
It was April 1st, 2018, the middle of Fall in Patagonia. In the morning I would be leaving for Torres del Paine National Park. I was antsy and ready to get back to the mountains. Many travelers I asked about the W trek recommended doing a free “W preparation talk” at Erratic Rock Hostel. Without a hiking partner, I assumed there would be a good chance of finding one there. By the end of the talk, every person of the near 30 people in the rec room was audibly contemplating their decision to go on the hike. A confident hiker, even I went straight to the grocery to buy more garbage bags to line the inside of my backpack and individually wrap clothing. The German woman giving the talk spoke of the conditions as if we were entering the depths of hell.
Following the “pep talk” and garbage bag purchase, I decided that the circumstances justified indulging in a potential final meal: famous Patagonian grilled meat.
The alarm sounded at 5:45AM. It wasn’t necessary per usual. Thoughts of another four days in the mountains occupied the hours that the rest of the country was sleeping. This hike would be different than the previous. There would be people and a trail. I wouldn’t be totally alone. Eggs, backpack and boots check; it was time to get moving to catch the 7:00AM bus.
Any inkling of fear planted by the woman at Erratic Rock evaporated at the site of three tourist buses pulling into the park. For the first time since beginning to travel, the excitement of hiking diminished. While watching safety videos at the park entrance, the thought of hundreds of people in tour groups on the trails made my heart sink. Not only would I not be alone, I envisioned loud tourists destroying the very nature I had journeyed 5000 miles to breathe in.
Inside the park entrance a portion of us took another shuttle to Central Campsite. The farthest Northeast point of the W trek, the Torres (Towers) were the first day’s destination. They are arguably one of the most famous attractions in South America. We arrived according to plan, around 10:00AM, and I quickly pitched my tent near the river. Getting on the trails as fast as possible to beat the crowds would ensure a pre-sundown return. Before departing, there was one final activity to take care of. A horrendous invasive species had taken residence in the park putting anything with the scent of food at risk: rats. It was necessary to unpack all food and check it with the campground personnel.
Sun warmed my face and sweat slid down my forehead hiking up the gravel trail. Towering mountains above, perfect weather and a journey which matched the grandeur of the destination reignited my excitement. Amadeho, an interesting Brazilian man, was keeping pace a few steps back. I slowed to chat and we kept each other company for the remainder of the ascent. The climb went quickly as we moved in and out of tree cover. Sticking my head into a waterfall cascading the cliff side froze my lips and face. The refreshing chill was too good to not take another giant gulp.
An increase in grade signaled the approaching final ascent. Amadheo and I passed day hikers with ease while they gasped for air. The shining sun which had been out all morning tucked behind the clouds and the temperature dropped. Suddenly, the massive forms of the towers appeared. I marveled in their beauty while eating a handful of nuts and snapping photos. In true Patagonia style, the weather turned to a deluge of sideways blowing rain with 40 mph winds. Complaints and screams echoed from the people around. I smiled having accepted changing weather as part of the beauty.
We quickly ran down the steep mountain, but as soon as my rhythm had adjusted to the rain and wind, the weather changed its mind and the sun reemerged. Laughing at the rapid changes, we took off our rain gear before continuing on. Back at camp, Amadheo and I went our separate ways, and I hastily prepared a delicious pasta dinner with tomato sauce and salami. While enjoying a well deserved meal, two people joined the table: a French man Anto and an Irish woman Sayrah. We immediately bonded recognizing each other as travelers cut from a similar cloth. While warming our hands near the boiling water on my stove, we theorized how to stay warm with dropping temperatures. We filled our water bottles with hot water and stuffed them into our sleeping bags like mini heaters.
Anto puffed a cigar while our conversation slid passed sundown. Sayrah was planning to hike “The O circuit,” a different eight day trek. However, discussing the upcoming days caused a change in her intent. I had initially wanted to do that trek as well, but rangers warned that some of the mountain passes were impassable with 100 mph winds and chest deep snow. In addition to the warning, Sayrah had concern about her sleeping bag warmth as the temperatures continued to drop. In agreement, the three of us decided to begin the morning together and hike to the next campsite: Frances.
I woke up hugging the water bottle still warm from the previous night. It was early, and the campground was quiet. Unplug the airpad, stuff the sleeping bag, roll-up the travel pillow and put on the wet cold hiking outfit. The morning activities were mechanical. It’s ironic to think that this was my routine. Commutes and emails couldn’t have been farther away.
After a satisfying breakfast of hard boiled eggs, which were in supply for the trek’s initial days, my new friends Anto and Sayrah appeared. We shared hot coffee and finished packing our tents. Amadheo was nowhere to be found so the three of us set off without him.
A great hiking trio was born that morning. We moved at a respectable pace, took photos together, laughed, discussed life and comfortably shared silence to take in the sounds of nature. Hours passed along with miles. Other than the brief window of rain the prior day, I was beginning to file the uproar over Patagonian weather to over exaggeration and luck. Great company magnified the enjoyment of sunny skies and the expected amazing views.
(Photo Credit Anto)
(Photo Credit Sayrah)
About an hour from the end of our nine mile day, we descended to the rocky shores of Lago Nordenskjold. Staying true to form, I ripped off my hiking clothes and convinced Sayrah and Anto it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to jump into the glacial lake. After initial resistance they of course agreed. Anto set up his 40 year old film camera with a timer, and the three of us ran into the ice cold lake. It was frigid, but the moderate temperatures outside made the experience bearable.
(Photo Credit Anto)
With our clothes back on, we hiked the last hour uphill and warmed up. Frances was a beautiful campground in the trees. The reservation based camping system on the W had our campsites dispersed on opposite sides of the grounds, so Anto and Sayrah came over to my tent for dinner. Not exactly roughing it, we shared a bottle of wine while cooking. Nature, fewer people than the previous day and perfect company culminated another amazing day in Patagonia.
(Photo Credit Sayrah)
Warmth surged inside my tent. The sun was still below the horizon, but trees surrounding the campsite blocked the wind and held in heat. Energized, I walked down to a lodge where non-campers could stay and prepared to watch the sunrise over water. Unfortunately, the only sunrise I would be seeing that morning was the brightening of clouds from dark gray to light gray. It was 7:40AM, and I was almost finished packing when Anto and Sayrah came over for breakfast. More than morning dew, an excess dampness saturated my backpack. A thorough inspection revealed the cause: despite hanging my food in the trees, rats had chewed apart the water bladder inside my pack. An outpouring of expletives followed, but were quickly replaced with excitement for day three.
Our itinerary was to walk to a campsite (Italiano) about 45 minutes farther on, drop our packs, hike to the top of the Frances Valley lookout (Britanico), pick up our packs and continue on to our final campsite (Paine Grande). All in, it would be about a 15 mile day. When we arrived at Italiano, I hung my entire backpack from a tree with a bungee cord. There would be no more rodent incidents.
Without packs, the three of us flew up the trail. Reds and yellows synonymous with the season lead the way like an invitation through the forest. Glancing up to the left revealed Frances Glacier. It sat above ominously. Atop black mountains covered in a malevolent fog, the glacier boomed with falling rock and avalanches under clouded skies. As inviting as the colors of the forest were, the glacier dared anyone to approach closely.
(Photo Credit Sayrah)
(Photo Credit Anto)
Low hanging clouds prevented any substantial view at Britanico, but the changing trees below were a spectacle on their own. We waited to see if the clouds would clear, but that day wouldn’t be our day. Anto, Sayrah and I hiked back down to our packs for lunch and continued onto the second half of our 15 mile day. Awe inspiring views of spiraling mountains and fire burnt sections of dead trees sticking up like matches decorated a one of a kind landscape. Words could not do justice to the atmosphere and sites.
Tiredly approaching Paine Grande, an otherworldly electric blue of Lake Pehoe informed us we were near. It was the strongest color I had ever seen in nature. By the time we arrived at camp the winds were picking up. Rangers cautioned to find a spot near a mountain for protection. We set up our tents, making sure everything was tied down extra tight, and went to cook in the “campers’ cafeteria.” The campgrounds were luxurious and far surpassed my expectations for Torres del Paine. After dinner, and rekindling with my Australian friend Kristy who unexpectedly walked into the cafeteria, I lied awake listening to the sounds of howling wind and drunk Germans talking late into the night.
6:20AM. It was dark, and the wind was sneaking between the cracks of my tent and sleeping bag. The fourth and final day of the trek would be the longest at close to 22 miles. Anto and I were shortening the recommended trail time by one day. Sayrah helped pack my tent, we cooked breakfast and were out of camp before sunrise. A non-stop rain soaked through to the bone. We escaped serious weather challenges until our last day. Now we would see the real face of Patagonia.
Hiking with a light bag filled my legs with endless energy, but it would be interesting to see how long the energy lasted. Rain pelted my hood and wind whistled through the valley. Blue icebergs dotting Grey Lake culminated our first ascent of the day. We continued up and down while the weather calmed until I stopped and grinned from ear to ear. Glacier Grey, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the largest ice field outside of Antarctica and Greenland, appeared! Yelping at its scale, the three of us hugged.
Walking lead to walking which lead to more walking yet the glacier still seemed like a giant in the distance. We came upon Grey Refuge and took a brief break before deciding to continue on. A series of suspension bridges lie ahead. Having heard the views were better farther in we planned to visit a lookout beyond the second. The bridges themselves were incredible as well. They crossed gaps in the rock that I can only hypothesize were broken apart by the forceful movement of ice.
(Photo credit Anto)
Ascending the hillside, we were under tree cover and the glacier finally appeared below. We crossed the second bridge and found what would be our final viewpoint as a trio. It was worth it. Again we laughed, took pictures, hugged and Anto and I bid Sayrah goodbye. She had a reservation at Grey Refuge that night. The two of us still had close to 20km (12+ miles) to walk out.
The endless energy that filled my legs to begin the day was extinguished. Legs hurt, feet hurt and it seemed to take an eternity to get back to Paine Grande. Anto, thoroughly exhausted himself, and I discussed our first meals back: pizza or steak. By the time we got back to camp I was exhausted. I cooked pasta with tuna for the two of us as we waited to take a ferry across Lake Pehoe. The day was never ending.
After an hour ferry and a two hour bus ride back to Puerto Natales, the clock struck 10:00PM. Anto and I enjoyed hiking together and were headed along the same travel route. We bought 8:00AM bus tickets to Calafate, Argentina in the morning, made true on that first meal back of pizza and I finally fell asleep with haste. After all, with more than 1000 miles of Patagonia lying to the North, a good night's rest would be required for the upcoming adventures of an American and Frenchman in the land of ice and wind.