Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The End of the World: Torres Del Paine

If you know me at all you would probably assume that a week camping, hiking, eating ramen, and enduring snow, rain, and strong winds might not be up my alley. I definitely seem like more of a long day on the beach drinking margaritas kind of girl. If you knew me in my Girl Scout days (what up lifetime member right hurrr) you would know that I actually love the outdoors and camping. Also I'm pretty lazy so any excuse not to shower means I'm pretty much down. All jokes aside, I really enjoy spending time outdoors and camping so when my friends and I began discussing a trip to Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile's southernmost region, I was onboard. We decided to hike the "W" trail which is the most popular trail in the park and takes about 4 or 5 days to complete. It's the beginning of fall here right now so we knew we were cutting it close weather wise, but the guidebooks and word of mouth about Patagonia convinced us that we should brave the elements.

We booked our tickets, went food shopping, bought lots of warm clothes and tried to break in our hiking boots in preparation for the trip. I was particularly excited to wear my Patagonia brand raincoat in Patagonia. Lame. But the truth. Also I wanted to finally wear my North Face jacket on an adventure instead of with my Uggs en route to work during winter in New England.

Here's a quick summary accompanied by some amazing pictures, some of which are mine but most of which are Jesse's or Teresa's since they are way better at remembering to take pictures/forcing people who don't want to take group pictures to take said pictures than I am. 

Day 1: April 3
The nine of us headed to the airport at 4 AM to make our 6 AM flight from Santiago to Punto Arenas. Most of us passed out for the entirety of the flight since we were just coming off of a crazy weekend at Lolla. Upon arrival at Punto Arenas we discovered that the bus doesn't come to airport unless you have a reservation so we took a taxi to the bus station and bought tickets to Puerto Natales, the city closest to the park entrance. We wandered around Punto Arenas while waiting for our bus and discovered it was a pretty cute quaint city. It reminded me of a small town in Maine or New Hampshire.

It was pretty cold, so I knew I was going to be pretty freezing sleeping outside in the park. Time to enjoy the warmth until the trek started. In Punto Arenas I also had some delicious pizza with aji on it, the spiciest food I've had since my arrival. Food in Chile is great but a little bland so I was pretty pumped for some spice. Around 1 we hopped on the bus to Puerto Natales. After 3 hours we arrived at our hostel, a super cute place called Erratic Rock, run by Canadian ex-pats. They specialize in helping trekkers prepare for the "W" and even rent gear. They were able to answer all of our questions and help prepare us for our journey. It was great to have some people around to answer our logistical questions. After a trip to the grocery store to pick up some perishables and some stress over if we had packed too much or too little, we headed off to bed. 

Day 2: April 4
Around 4 AM I woke up in the hostel to the sounds of howling wind and pounding rain. I rolled over to go back to sleep and wondered with I had ever thought this were a good idea. After a delicious (included!) breakfast at the hostel it was time for another 3 hour bus ride, this time to the park entrance. Once there we ate a quick lunch and headed to the catamaran which would take us across one of the park's many lakes to the first part of the W. We disembarked and began hiking, hoping to make it to the free campamento next to the glacier by nightfall. Loaded down with tents, sleeping bags and food and a large group of 10 with different hiking abilities, this proved to be more difficult that expected. After about 5 hours we reached Refugio Grey and decided to camp there instead. Refugios offer both camp ground and hostel-like amenities and cost money, even to camp, while campamentos are more basic but are free. Feeling exhausted, we set up our tents, cooked dinner over camp stoves and headed to bed. It was cold outside but with all of my layers, I was actually okay temperature-wise. I spent most of the night awake because the strong wind and rain made it sound like the tent was going to blow away. I would soon learn that this type of rain and wind occurs pretty much daily in Patagonia, from 1-3 PM and 10:30 PM-7 AM. Forgiving climate huh?

Day 3: April 5

Our group woke up determined to make up the ground we had lost the day before. We realized we needed to move faster with more of a rhythm instead of stopping when anyone needed a break. This worked well initially and we started off at a good pace, back to the catamaran stop where we would lunch and then continue on to our next campsite. About halfway down the trail, overlooking the glacier and ice bergs, snow started to fall. And it started to stick. My parents major concern was that I would die in a snow storm or an avalanche never to be heard from again so all I could think was that hopefully they weren't checking the weather. We decided to get to the catamaran stop before the weather got worse and reevaluate. Within the hour, the snow had stopped, the sun was out, and everything was melted. Gorgeous again. A quick lunch and we were off again. And then it started to rain. Oh okay Patagonia, your weather patterns make so much sense. We arrived at Campamento Italiano excited that we had reached our goal for the day and happy that there were flush toilets--better amenities than expected! Dinner was cooked and I was in bed by 8 PM. 

Day 4: April 6

As I write this I realize that maybe it doesn't actually sound that fun. Rain, snow, cold, tons of hiking. The thing that makes it rewarding is the amazing scenery that is the context for this crazy weather. From glaciers to mountain sides, to forests and lakes, everything is beautiful. Thursday dawned and we ate our usual oatmeal breakfast. Most of us decided to hike as far up into the Valle de Frances as time would allow while some of the group was feeling tired and headed to the next refugio where we'd planned to spend the night. I decided to hike up to the valley, mostly because we got to leave our packs at the campground. Three hours without my backpack? Hell yes. I was glad I did. Although we didn't make it all the way into the valley, we saw more waterfalls and glaciers and had time to take tons of pictures. On the way down it started to rain and we dreaded putting away our tents. We did that quickly, sat in the wind shelter to eat lunch when it started to snow again. Awesome. The decision was made that we needed to reach the next refugio before the weather got bad. We had heard the hike ahead was easy and we started off. Hiking in the snow is one of the most surreal things I've ever done. The steam coming off of the lakes, the snow covered bushes. On a negative note, we were getting wet. As a New Englander, I knew that even though the snow was sticking on trees it wasn't sticking to the path, so we were safe. My biggest concern was what would happen to the snow overnight--would it melt or turn to ice? We made great time to the refugio and arrived in high spirits. Our friends had been there for a few hours and had decided they wanted to stay inside for the night because of the snow. It was pretty costly ($40 for a bunk bed) but our tents were soaking. Six of us decided we should rent tents because then the refugio would set them up for us and they would be mostly dry. Turned out to be a great decision. We hung out by the fire for the afternoon and headed out to our tents to cook and try to stay warm through the night. Things were going well until about 3 AM when then tent next store screamed bloody murder. I was 99% sure they were being attacked by a puma. Turned out there was a rat in their tent which they proceeded to scare away with their screams. Oh okay Patagonia. You win again.

Day 5: April 7
The thing about Patagonia is that it does things like snow really hard one day and then the next day it redeems itself. Saturday was absolutely perfect. I climbed out of my tent once again in awe of nature. The refugio provided a great view of Los Cuernos, one of the bigger rock formations in the park. Watching the sun rise over the Cuernos and the lake next the refugio I had the motivation to keep going. Some of the group decided to head back to Puerto Natales that day because of injuries and other things, but Jesse, Mark, Kevin, Teresa, Erin and I stayed on, hoping to make it to the famous Torres by the end of the day. We ate a leisurely breakfast and headed off down the trail. This was my absolute favorite day. The weather was perfect, my pack was starting to get lighter because I had eaten my food, and we weren't in a rush. The entire hike I was able to take a look around at my surroundings and take everything in. The six of us had a leisurely lunch, finishing off our salami and bread and making delicious nutella and peanut butter sandwiches. Around 5 PM after the most difficult part of our trek yet, uphill along a windy mountain side flanked by a valley, we found the refugio we had planned to stay at closed. Now, friends and relatives, before criticizing our poor planning, please remember that Torres del Paine has very few rangers and they are only located at the refugios. When we had left Refugio Los Cuernos that morning, Refugio Chileno's camp ground had been open. It appeared it no longer was. The six of us stared at each other and decided the only thing we could do was head down the mountain to the next campsite before dark. We were exhausted but it was the only safe thing to do. The hike that followed gave me so much respect for all of my friends on that trail. We stuck together, kept a steady pace, helped each other out, and occasionally sang some Girl Scout songs (what up Erin!). When we made it to the campground at the foot of the mountain, we collapsed with relief and pride. We weren't going to be able to see the Torres at sunrise, but we had done it. We set up our tents, made a great dinner on our stoves, and broke out some wine to toast to Kevin's 21st birthday. All in all, the perfect day.

Day 6: April 8
We planned to wake up at 7 to watch the sunrise over the Torres from our campground but Patagonia decided to be cloudly so we slept until 10, made another leisurely breakfast and prepared to head back to Puerto Natales. We were dreaming of showers and food that did not come in the form of 5 minute risotto. Refugio Los Torres was beautiful that morning since Patagonia gave us another great day. We were in great spirits as we packed up to leave. Arriving at the hostel around 5  we returned our gear, showered, and headed out for a victory meal. Chorizo pizza and locally brewed beer. 

Days 7 and 8: April 9 and 10
The next day was spent showering again, bumming around Puerto Natales and the hostel, watching Pulp Fiction, reading up on Easter Island (our next destination!) and waiting around for our bus to Punto Arenas. We took the night bus (my first since my little Mexico robbery incident! and I survived!) and slept in the airport. Surprisingly comfortable. It was especially nice to wake up at 4:30 AM to the people waiting in the security line staring at us. After two flights, we arrived back in Santiago. I metroed home to Claudia's loving arms and a plate of pork, mashed potatoes, and a fresh salad. Thank you Claudia. 

If you've read this entire post, congrats! You're also probably my mother or one of my grandparents. Anyway, before I sign off to pack again, I want to acknowledge the important role my Girl Scouting experience played in my ability to backpack for 5 days. I'm one of the "girliest" girls I know but I learned at a young age how fun and rewarding it can be to camp. I also learned how to be self-sufficient and make decisions in wilderness situations. The last week has been one of the craziest, up and down, and rewarding experiences I've had and I honestly don't think I could have done it without both the emotional/mental and tangible skill sets my Girl Scouting experience gave me. Here's to continuing to explore!


  1. Being one of your grandma's close buddies, I also read the entire blog! Great going, Megan! I have camped and backpacked a bit in the Sierras, but your experience has been an incredible adventure for me! Thanks. XO

  2. Awesome, Megan! That is as close to Patagonia as I will ever get . . . thanks for sharing it!