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Keywords: Patagonia, weather, hiking (shocking, right?), new friends

As the sun rose on the morning of my departure from El Chalten, I was loathe to turn my back on another beautiful day in those mountains. However, I had a timeframe to keep – meeting my friend Sullivan in Ushuaia on March 15 meant that I had 11 days to get in and out of Torres del Paine in Chile, and I really wanted to do the “O Trek” in that park. Jim and Melissa had done that trek before meeting me in Argentina, and I’d heard nothing but good things (aside from trails being rather crowded).

So I boarded my 7:30am bus to El Calafate, where I had a layover to wait for my bus back to Puerto Natales in Chile. In Calafate, I found a pizza place with espresso and wifi and hunkered down for a few hours of tablet work. As I sat there getting stuff done, I heard an exclamation from behind me, “No way. Cori!” I turned around to see Katie and Zane, the awesome couple from Boulder who I’d traveled with in Pucon, Chile. These guys have a well-established habit of running into people in the damndest places, and they found me! We knew we were heading in a similar direction, but a few minutes of conversation revealed that we had the same timeline for Torres del Paine and Ushuaia. Perfect! Food team, done! They also happened to be on my bus to Puerto Natales, along with our mutual friend, Mathis from Germany. It was a happy reunion. Zane and I went to a grocery in search of “quality” camping food, in anticipation of slim pickin’s in Natales. I have to say, our food planning skills were formidable, and delicious.

On our day of entry into Torres del Paine National Park, the forecast was for partial clouds and wind, not surprising for Patagonia. Our plan was to take a ferry to the west side of the well-known and well-trafficked “W Trek,” so named for the shape that the trails wind about the range. We would hike the W from west to east and then loop back westward onto the backside of the range to complete the more difficult and less trafficked “O Circuit.” We’d planned for 8 days in the park, but Patagonia had other plans. Where Jim and Melissa had near perfect weather for their circuit, K&Z and I got Patagonia’d. When they tell you that one day will hit you with each of the 4 seasons, they’re not kidding.
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For reference: a map of Torres del Paine

Day 1: Paine Grande to Campamento Italiano
We took a ferry to the west side of the W and started the short hike to our first camp. Within half an hour, we were experiencing the renowned strength of Patagonian winds, which threatened to knock us off feet already less stable due to our heavily laden packs. It was during that hike that I learned trekking poles are not only good for saving knees on downhills, but also for keeping you on your feet in the face of 80kph (48mph) gusts. I had to laugh in the face of such impressive natural strength. Laugher remained the tenor of that day, largely due to the fact that we had mostly sun and mostly no rain. (“Mostly no rain” = “sunny day” in my Seattle brain) Within 3 hours, we’d arrived at our first camp with a few hours to spare before dinner. We dropped our packs and hiked up the French Valley, one of the must-see places in TdP. We reached the first mirador and decided to go no farther, since our views there were amazing and the upper valley was rather shrouded in clouds. The winds in that valley were upwards of 95kph (57mph), and even without packs, standing stable could be quite difficult at times. Each direction you turned revealed a different weather state: rain, clouds, blue sky, rainbows… from our mirador we could see it all.

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We watched gusts throw water across the lake and other gusts lifts waterfalls from the glacier into water-rises.

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We marveled at granite spires and rainbows. It was a great hour to sit and watch “The French Valley: Nature Showcase” (phrase credit: Zane) The following day, the rangers actually closed access to that valley due to lots of fresh snow, so we got lucky.

Day 2: Campamento Italiano to Campamento Torres
The weather overnight was windy and rainy and we awoke to soggy tents. K&Z and their rented tent had fared worse than me and my one-man MRS tent. (Aside: this trip has made me wonder if I’ll ever find a waterproof tent, or if such things even exist.) Instant coffee and oatmeal with peanut butter was good for lifting our spirits, but we still started hiking cold and wet.

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Fortunately, Patagonia held true to that 4-seasons-in-one-day reputation, so by lunch time the sun was out and we were able to take a break at Refugio Los Cuernos and dry our gear. On the trail again, we wound slowly upwards toward the valley of the Torres (rock spires) that are the park’s namesake. The clouds were still clinging to the valley, and as we started up we were exposed to a vehement lashing by winds and rain. At this point, I was no longer laughing. It was a time for putting your head down and booking it toward shelter. We arrived at Refugio Chileno and debated on whether to make for the camp (C. Los Torres) farther up valley, which would give us a shot at seeing sunrise on the Torres. Democracy ruled, and we left the warmth of the refugio common room to make the 1 hour hike to Campamento Torres. Fortunately, trees sheltered most of the route so we arrived relatively unscathed. The vibe at the camp was great, with fewer people than at Italiano and park rangers with good senses of humor. We supped on cook-and-eat rice, upgraded with chunks of sausage and cream cheese (SO GOOD), and then went to bed in anticipation of an pre-sunrise hike to the Torres.

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Night 2: I woke up freezing and listening to the wind-driven rain pelt my tent. My pad was partially deflated due to some stupid slow leak. I tucked my down puffy around my core and thought miserably, “Why the fuck am I here? Why are we doing this? This is stupid. Are we really going to do this for 5 more nights? Fuck that.” I was the opposite of stoked.

Day 3: Campamento Torres to Refugio de Los Torres
When my alarm went off at 6:45, I was purely loathe to extract myself from my now reasonably warm sleeping bag. But I did, and we hiked. We hiked in sleepy silence up to where fresh snow dusted the trail and the boulder field that surrounds the lake in front of the Torres. In Patagonia, moods are strongly correlated to weather. Therefore, they’re aaaall over the place. As I looked behind me toward the colors of sunrise on the clouds, my misery from a few hours back melted into pure mountain stoke.

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While we didn’t see much of the Torres due to the clouds, sunrise was still worth the hike. The rangers ended up closing the Torres trail that night due to additional snowfall, so we lucked out once again. We packed up camp and started down. The winds were gentler to us on our descent, and I don’t recall any rain, so even if it happened it couldn’t have been that bad. When we gained the bottom of the valley, it seemed like we would be to camp within minutes. Not so. A road walk was rendered seemingly unending due to rain driven water needles in our faces, coupled with increasing hanger (“hanger” = “hunger induced anger”). When we finally found the stupid gigantic campsite, we paid the stupid camp stewards, and located a stupid sheltered-ish camp site. Cheese and sausage sandwiches made everything seem a lot less stupid. Hot showers made things even better. And delicious beers in the Refugio bar made everything fantastic. Then the sun came out to dry our hanging clothes outside and warm us inside through the windows. All misery from earlier that day was forgotten, and we were all smiles.

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The weather forecast did not seem likely to improve, so we planned to make for the first camp on the “O Circuit” and see how we felt and how likely it would be that a “good” weather window would let us get over the John Gardner Pass.

After day 3 and the impressively large range of emotions that I’d experienced in the park in such a short amount of time, my brain hatched this nugget: “Patagonia: Just because you’re suffering doesn’t mean you’re not having fun.” I realize that many of the mountain activities we enjoy fall into that category, but TdP packed in the highest density of ups and downs than I’ve experienced in any other outdoor trip.

Day 4: Refugio los Torres to Campamento Serron
We awoke fairly dry and cautiously optimistic about the weather. (Suckers) The first couple hours of hiking toward Serron were downright pleasant, taking us along a a treed hillside with increasingly good views of white dusted mountains (which had been quite green/brown 3 days prior).

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We forsook shoes to ford a wee stream and then started on a lovely, sunny hike across a plain. That’s when the rain hit. The real rain. You could see it from a distance, soft mist drifting gently across the plain. Being underneath that was anything but gentle. Fortunately, as we entered the storm we met a group going the opposite direction. They’d had a rough first night at Serron and had decided to turn back and exit the park. They also gave us a priceless recommendation: “There is a dome with bunk beds at Serron. It costs 10,000CHP (18USD) and you should stay there.” As rain soaked my pants during the deluge that followed, the knowledge that we would have a dry, windproof place to sleep was the only thing that kept me from falling into abject misery. I wasn’t alone in feeling that. After what seemed like forever in the rain storm (it was probably 20 minutes or something), we arrived at camp and joyously dumped our stuff into the very new smelling dome at Serron. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to pay for a bed than I was for that unexpected luxury.

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We ate, we hung up wet stuff, we napped in BEDS, and we decided we’d had enough suffering for one trip and that in the morning we would exit the park. That night in the cooking shelter, we were joined by many teams who were on their first nights and full of optimism for making the loop. Some were more incredulous than others about weather-related challenges. We happily confessed our intention to bail on the circuit and tried not to dash anyone else’s hopes of getting over the John Gardner pass and finishing the circuit. We made rum cocoa and huddled happily in our dome until it seemed like bed time. That night in the dome was cold, but oh baby was it dry.

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Day 5: Campamento Seron to exit
As we walked away from the cloud veiled valleys, it was easy for me to question our decision to turn back. My ego wanted to tell me that I wasn’t hardcore enough to stick out a little more discomfort for the glory of finishing our arbitrary trekking objective. And then my more reasonable, self-friendly voice had to admit that the aim of this trip was to have an enjoyable time and not to suffer unnecessarily. Going farther into the circuit would most certainly have held additional suffering, as we would later learn from teams that got turned around by bad weather and/or closures of the John Gardner pass. That knowledge bolstered our feelings of justification about bailing (again, tending to the ego, but whatevs). On the hike out that 5th day, I practiced focusing on the journey rather than the destination. It was beautiful, probably my favorite day in the park. Things may not have gone to plan, but the augmented plan was great in itself. (That statement, incidentally, is a very common occurrence in traveling. I’ve been reinforcing for myself the notion that going with the flow is essential to enjoying the journey of both traveling and life.)

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Back in Natales, we sorted hostels and bus tickets to Ushuaia, and then settled in for 2 solid rest days. Something I still struggle with is giving myself permission to do “nothing”. I feel restless without something of a goal, and even when I set my own goals I feel the counterproductive draw of procrastination. I watched movies, I processed pictures, I baked cookies (without a recipe – success!), I went for a jog, I went out for beers with K&Z. The hostel I stayed in is called Erratic Rock. The hostel is owned by a guy from Oregon, and it felt like an oasis of home, complete with freshly ground peanut butter and travelers from the PNW. I briefly entertained a notion of staying there for a week, working in the hostel in exchange for board like a number of people there were doing. But we already had bus tickets to Ushuaia, and my friend Sullivan would be waiting for me, so I was obliged to abandon my daydream of settling down in a mini PNW in the middle of Patagonia. That’s okay though, I’ll be quite happy to settle for the real PNW later this year! 🙂

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One comment on “Chilean Patagonia: Torres del Paine

  • Here’s to abandoning plans and less suffering!! 🙂 I totally hear you though…. I just love rest days, when I let myself have them. Your sunrise pics are fantastic, and so cool to have the random reunion!

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