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Torres del Paine - Gloriously Unpredictable

Joanne 2007-03-10

All night long the winds howled, shaking the windows of our hostel in Puerto Natales. The rain was relentless, and the icy cold air that blew through our heater-less room made our convictions of getting out of bed before sun rise to head into Chile's most famous National Park, Torres del Paine, wane for the first time. The thought of starting out soaking wet put even more of a chill over us. While lying in bed, we contemplated postponing our departure for a day. While it's difficult to hear the voice of reason that early in the morning, we knew that waiting would probably not help. Patagonia's weather patterns are absolutely unpredictable and change moment to moment. So, out of bed and onward we forged.

Our goal was to complete the "Paine Circuit", 120km of trails across grass, mud, rivers, and glacier debris fields. This would take us around, over and through the spectacular Patagonia region in the south of the Andean mountain chain. We could look forward to soaking in the constantly changing views of dry steppe, peaks, snow capped mountains, lakes, glaciers and forests over the next 8-10 days.

Should we accomplish this goal, it would be double our longest backpacking experience to date. The thought of being in nature and needing to be completely self sufficient for this long was simultaneously exciting and scary. Knowing that each step, each hour, each kilometer, each day that we headed deeper into the circuit; we committed ourselves that much more, while decreasing our accessibility to civilization. Could we do it?

Torres del Paine's weather is an enigma. We've learned that there's no point in discussing it, or trying to predict it. It simply is what it is at that very moment and has a high probability of changing drastically in the next minutes. So when it WAS sunny, we soaked it in, enjoying the feeling of its warming rays. The next moment, we would be protecting ourselves from the strong winds, rain, hail, snow, frost and often a lovely combination of any one of these! It was a mini strip tease all day long: hat off, gloves on, hood off, jacket open, hood back on and cinched tightly closed, rain pants off... You get the idea. I never implied it was a sexy strip tease. This is part of the allure of Patagonia.

We had done a lot of research in choosing the gear that would accompany us into the wilderness, but in the end, in order to keep our packs as light as possible, not all our "goodies" made the final cut. We decided to leave our heavy duty hiking boots behind and use our walking shoes. I took one t-shirt and Paul took two, Paul took one pair of socks and I two, and just one pair of pants each. Light we were, and stinky too! In perfect weather conditions having no change of clothes would be no problem, but we were a long way away from the predictable sunny California weather that we had grown accustomed to. Knowing that our options were limited to wearing what we had on our bodies, staying dry was of the highest priority. Here, this is often quite a challenge.

Our first day started and ended with rainfall, soaking our shoes and socks. The next morning, putting on our cold, wet shoes in close to zero degree temperature was not something we enjoyed, but there was no other choice. Fortunately, the 100km/h plus winds we experienced later that day dried them quickly. On the third day, the trails got muddier and wetter as the rain came and went the entire day. By lunch time Paul's feet were swimming in his shoes. We found our way to a nearby fire to dry ourselves off. Intent on dry feet, he put his socks too close to the fire and burnt a hole right through them! Oh well, at least they were dry again, just in time for the snow and hail storm we walked into later on that day. Most of the time the weather would change so often that there would be enough time to dry off completely or at least mostly while hiking before the next change of season took place - except once. We hiked in a full-on rainstorm for the last 3-4 hours of the 7th day, soaking us through and through. Even our Gore-Tex jackets were soaked. As long as we kept moving, we were quite warm, but the moment we stopped, so did our internal furnaces, leaving us very cold within a few minutes.

This unpredictability in the weather made us efficient and fast in setting up and taking down camp. The moment we felt the first drop fall from the sky, we would turn it on! Each one of us taking to our roles, knowing what needed to be done. We learned we could even do this while cooking breakfast. The one most important goal was to keep the inside of our tent and sleeping bags dry. I am proud to say that through it all we did just that.

Once we were in our sleeping bags and had them cinched up so just our noses, cheeks and lips were exposed, we would enjoy the sounds of the rain and the howling winds that would often rattle our tent as we fell into the kind of deep sleep all-day exercise brings... Until I would realize that I had to pee!!

Without fail, every evening I would wake in the middle of the night and with all my might try to convince myself that I did not really need to leave my sleeping bag and brave the cold to answer nature's call. Invariably, nature's call would always win! The upside: being hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest city, the star gazing was outstanding.

The circuit around the park can be roughly split into two parts, north and south. The northern part of the circuit is far less traveled and rustic. Few services if any can be found in this "wild" half. Despite the presence of a refugio (refugee sleeping hut) at one part, most trekkers preferred to camp in their tents in the north. As we passed into the southern half, there were fewer campers and more and larger groups staying in the refugios, which became more and more luxurious. By the end of the trek, when we arrived to where the road met the park, a resort type hotel (with reception desk!) could be found. This contrast was very odd after the primitiveness we came from.

During the first part of our trek through the north, there was little contact with other people. At most we would see between 4-6 people per day. The trails were open and clear for us as far as the eye could see. We reveled in the solitude, but should help have been needed, there were definitely sections in the north that were inaccessible to any speedy assistance, where even the horse rescue service couldn't reach. When we arrived in the south, we found ourselves passing small herds of 5-10 hikers at a time, many times a day.

Interestingly, the type of people we met changed depending on our position along the circuit. In the north, we met mostly young Europeans, while in the south where the scenery could be enjoyed without "roughing it"; we met people of all ages, including a lot of retired North Americans and Europeans.

While taking a rest and enjoying some wild calafate berries one day, we heard the distinctive loud crackling clap of a thunderstorm. We assumed a storm was headed our way, hey why not; everything else had seemingly come our way. But it didn't rain. The skies stayed a clear, crisp blue. Yet several more times during the next hours of climbing, we heard the thunderous crashes. We soon realized what we were hearing was the deep crackle of the nearby glacier as it shifted and pieces of it fell. We were fortunate enough to see several of these resulting mini avalanches as the glacial mass tumbled down the mountain with "front row" seats.

Surprisingly, the 9 days flew by. The mountain air and late sunset, not until 9pm, invigorated us to hike for 6-9 hours each day. The changing vistas and varying terrain kept us curious and wondering what was around or over the next bend. By the end of each day, we would stop and set up our home, cook ourselves a much deserved meal of instant soup and pasta. It's amazing how good the same meals can taste, day after day following a full day of trekking. Then, with smiles on our faces, we would fall into our sleeping bags to dream of what the next day had in store for us.

Initially, we took much more notice of the weight of our packs and the ground that we covered while wearing them. We were pleasantly surprised that for the most part, our bodies were up to the challenge. We had almost no muscle soreness. But unexpectedly, Paul's feet hurt from all the extra weight that they were being forced to endure from carrying our gear and food. My hips were bruised from my backpack's belt that hugged them tighter than that one relative that we all have that insists on hugging the air right out of you making you feel winded and flattened. Amazingly, within days, our bodies had adapted, accepting the challenge we put forth, and the bounce in our step returned. Our packs became extensions of our bodies, leaving us free to appreciate and enjoy the most stunning vistas we have ever seen in our lives. From this point on, if I was breathless, it was only from the beauty that Torres del Paine offered us every day.

Back in Puerto Natales, it's a pleasure and a luxury to enjoy a bed, a shower and clean clothes again, but none of this outweighs the satisfaction that we experienced during these glorious and unpredictable 9 days. We enjoyed some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery the world has to offer while tackling all of the challenges that came with being enveloped in nature in Torres del Paine.


Permalink by Gug   |  March 10, 2007 05:36 PM

Your enthusiasm of this experience jumps right at you! I was walking by your side in spirit. A video clips could not have given me a better appreciation of your live through paragraphs. Very nice Ashley!

Permalink by penny   |  March 10, 2007 05:41 PM

I am speechless and in total awe of all you have experienced and achieved.BRAVO!!!Love,Penny/MOMxoxo

Permalink by Eva   |  March 14, 2007 10:14 AM

Joanne, your writing is so enthralling (I looked that up in the dictionary :-)) + lively, and makes me wish to be there and share all the experiences, inclusive of rain + storm. Your really should consider writing for a magazine (I remember, somebody already suggested that in a posting)

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