The Towers of Pain!

Trip Start Jun 08, 2012
Trip End Aug 16, 2013

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Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Sunday, April 7, 2013

Technically speaking, ´Torres del Paine´ does not directly translate as Towers of Pain, but for reasons which I will come onto shortly Towers of Pain just seems much more apt for my time in this national park of Patagonia. The starting point for anyones trip into probably the most famous and recognisable national park in Chile is the small old mining city of Puerto Natales, so off I headed, just a 3 hour bus journey north from Punta Arenas, straight from getting off my boat cruise. The problem with having just got off a luxury boat cruise is that I was definitely not in the mind set to be heading either back to the hostel lifestyle or for doing anything that would involve any sort of physical activity, so I was glad when the first night I met Peter from Australia who talked me into walking up to the top of the local lookout point with him the next morning (it only took a few glasses of wine to talk me into this!). The next morning came around far too quickly and having paid our 5000 CLP (about #6.50) to the local land owner to let us walk on her land, off we set walking up hill for about an hour, arriving to this amazing view of Puerto Natales and the surrounding mountain range sweating and completely out of breath, and realising just how out of shape I had got! The views made it all worth it and we had been incredibly lucky to have such a clear day as it´s not very often the case, and even better was the surprise we got back at the bottom when the lady of the land took us through to her house and sat us in front of a platter of bread, jam, cheese, cookies and coffee!

At this point I was wondering why I had decided to go hiking on the national park as I was feeling far from fit, but went off to the daily meeting anyway still feeling rather un-enthused about going off on a multi day hike. The most famous hostel in town started these daily meetings years ago after getting fed up of explaining the same thing to every backpacker that walked through their doors, and they do it very well. They tell you how to get to the park, what the routes are, advise you on where to stay overnight, clothing to wear, food to take, and equipment you absolutely need to hire from their conveniently located equipment store right next to where we were given the talk! They did convince me to pay out for hiring walking sticks from them, and they were right, they really are absolutely necessary as I later found out! I left the meeting full of enthusiasm for going off on a 5 day hike, and went straight ahead and booked my bus ticket there and then and started making my list of everything I would need to do the following day to get ready. Luckily Peter had already done the hike so was full of useful suggestions and helped me work out what food I would need to take, and even came shopping with me to help with get it all as he was at a loose end waiting for his boat to arrive in town later that day.

So, all packed, 5 days of food in my backpack and a couple of clean clothes to throw on during the week and the essential toiletries, and I was off! I had chosen to do the "W" hike - named for the shape of the route, with each of the vertical parts of the W leading to completely different scenery. The day I arrived in the national park I was completely spoiled and had perfect sunshine and overheated whilst walking along in my thermal t-shirt carrying my heavy load. But I had chosen to start at the easy end of the route so had a pretty easy first day to get used to being active again - not too many ups and downs - and just an 11km walk to my first nights accommodation with an additional 8km round trip walk from there to a view of Glacier Grey, part of the Southern Patagonian ice field, which is amazingly 16,800 square kms and the 2nd largest ice field on earth (only Antartica is bigger!) . I started the walk with Audrey, a petite French lady who was a novice to multi day hiking and a complete newbie to camping, but had decided she wanted to camp so also meant she was carrying all of her camping gear as well as several days worth of food and clothes - as soon as I saw her struggling with walking under the weight of it all I knew I had made the right decision to not camp and pay a little bit extra for a bed in a warm building with hot showers!

The next day I woke up early as I had booked to go kayaking in the morning with the plan of walking 11kms to my next nights accommodation afterwards. Things got off to a bad start when I arrived at Grey lake and realised that 50 knot winds (100 kph) and white caps were not ideal kayaking conditions, but the kayak guide was convinced the winds would die down in the afternoon if I had time to wait, which I figured I did - 11kms wouldn't take that long to walk. Well... by the time the winds had died down enough to set out it was already 4 o clock in the afternoon and it had started raining, so we got kitted up and braved the conditions. I'm not entirely sure the winds did die down that much as waves still came crashing over me in the front of the kayak, dousing me in freezing cold glacier water, and the wind was incredible... it took us what seemed like forever to kayak up to the glacier, stopping to take shelter next to an iceberg on the way and to investigate just how cold a glacier melt waterfall would be! I had been lucky in a way as I was the only person booked on to kayak that day so I got to share a double kayak with the guide, and I am pretty sure that's the only reason we got accross the lake as there was no way I would have been able to paddle against those winds on my own! Once we got close to the glacier we found a landing spot along the bank and got out to walk up the side of the glacier a little, and warmed up with a flask of hot tea whilst watching chunks of the glacier carve off creating new icebergs, before we got back into the kayak and paddled round to the front of the glacier, as close as 50m from the wall, an experience that left me feeling very small and vulnerable! By the time we got back I realised there were only 30 minutes of daylight left so there was no chance of me walking to the next Refugio, and made plans to stay put for that night and deal with catching up on the walking over the next couple of days. S instead I went to the bar with Alexis the kayak guide, and one of the small chunks of ice we had picked up on the lake that had recently carved off the glacier, and drank Pis-cola's over glacier ice!

Again, I woke up very early the next day to get ready to leave at first light, as this time of year you are limited to 12 hours of daylight to walk in, and prepared to have a long day hiking to catch up on what I should have done the night before. That was before I went outside and realised what the weather was! With even stronger winds, up to 60mph which I'm pretty sure counts as hurricane level, and horizontal rain and hail thrown in as well, I soon changed my mind about this being my catch up day and just set off to my next Refugio instead deciding that I would just catch up on the kilometers the following day. This still meant having to walk 24kms that day, and the wind made parts of it really hair-raising. There was a section walking alongside an exposed lake, and you could both see and hear the wind coming before you felt it, which normally gave you chance to crouch down and brace yourself before it had the chance to knock you down, which it actually did on a couple of occasions! I spoke to 2 Australian guys that night and even the 6 foot 3 guy had been caught out on this section and was blown over! The wind was literally picking the water up off this lake, some 10 meters or so into the air and hurling it towards me on the land, and I even saw mini twisters being created on the lake - I am the first to admit I got quite scared at several points that day and was glad to get to the Refugio and take a long hot shower that afternoon, and then spent the night sharing similar stories with the other hikers who had all gone through the same that day.

So, after a good nights sleep and waking up to no wind, I set off just before sunrise knowing that I had 39km to walk that day to make it back to the middle section of the W that I had missed - the French Valley - and to my next Refugio. I started off walking with Tom from Holland who was also heading up to the French Valley, and it only took 15 minutes into the walk for the heavens to open and swamp the ground beneath us, giving us a good soaking at the same time, but thankfully there was still no winds like the 2 previous days. When we started climbing up the boulders of the French valley and gaining elevation, the rain turned into snow, and we were soon in the middle of a winter wonderland. I'm not sure the views we got at the top were the best as the snow clouded a few of the peaks, but it still looked very pretty with the snow next to the autumn colours of the trees. I left Tom behind back at the bottom of the valley as we were then going off in opposite directions, and continued on my mammoth hike for the day. The snow had meant that section of the walk had taken me a bit longer than planned so I stepped up the pace, but thankfully the rain and snow stopped and I warmed up and dried out, (apart from my feet which were by now soaked through, as they had been every day apart from the first!) and carried on heading into yet different landscape again. About 6pm that evening, with roughly 6km left to walk, I felt something go pop in my knee followed with an excruciating pain, but had no choice other than to keep going as I was on my own and would soon be running out of time, so gritted my teeth, dug my mp3 player out of my bag to find a good beat to walk to, and marched on through, going through a whole series of emotions and relying heavily on my walking poles. I eventually reached the Refugio an hour and a half later, and after a shower, snack and glass of wine, passed out for the night.

The only section of the hike left at this point was the most famous section and the most iconic image of Patagonia that most people know, the towers, also the most difficult section which I had intentionally left to the end just for that reason. Being a little on the stubborn side as most friends and family will already know, I woke up determined that I was going to complete the hike and see the towers regardless of a bit of knee pain, so took a couple of painkillers, packed some spare ones, and headed out. Really looking back, this wasn't such a great idea!   The weather was still not great and I already knew in advance that you needed a clear day to see the towers once you climbed to the top, but off I went anyway. I got to the top, and it snowed a bit more, making the boulders on the final ascent incredibly slippery and dangerous, and the snowstorm meant I saw nothing, so then I headed down dis-heartened and in pain and with tears in my eyes. Luckily I met a lady who was on her way up with her husband and a guide that didn't want to go through the final ascent if there were no views, so she asked if she could walk back down with me and basically kept me in better spirits and took my thoughts away from feeling sorry for myself for the rest of the way down, or I think it would have taken me hours to get back down on my own! That night, the 2 Australians Michael and Michael that I had bumped into on several times on the route, were at the same Refugio and suggested we go to the local hotel for dinner, so kept me company and plied me with red wine whilst we gorged ourselves to the point of feeling a little bit ill on the all you could eat buffet. Later that night I also spotted the French girl, Audrey, at the Refugio. Curious to know what had happened and why she wasn't camping, she told me that she just wanted to have a nights sleep without the wind slapping a wet tent in her face and to be warm, and would never have camped if she had known how much of a struggle it would be - I knew I had made the right decision on that front!!

The following morning, with nothing to do apart from wait for my bus back to Puerto Natales in the afternoon unless I fancied more hiking which I absolutlely did not by this point, I treated my achy muscles to a massage at the hotel, then headed back to town for 2 nights to get my laundry up to date and get ready to start heading further north to my last stop in Patagonia, crossing the border back into Argentina to the Nacional Parque de los Glaciares. The Torres del Paine national park had been everything I had expected and more, I had really loved the hiking and the scenery and it is somewhere everyone should visit to see its beauty, whether hiking or not. I will definitely go back there one day to see the views I missed through the snow (I have added a photo from the internet here of what I should have seen but didnt and my reason for wanting to go back!), but for now, I am glad to be moving onto somewhere new!
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