The Towers of Paine

Trip Start Oct 05, 2005
Trip End Apr 06, 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Friday, December 2, 2005

Trekking round Torres del Paine national park has become a bit of a must-do on the backpacker list, and it daunted me to think of it. I honestly didn't know how to tackle it, or what to expect once I got there, information was surprisingly thin on the ground, but I had read something about a "W" and a "circuit", which was the longer of the two, and definitely not for me, and lots about how busy the place was. So I thought I'd give it a go, decided on the W, booked a bus and a boat and a couple of campsites (the refugios were full) and set off.

I really thought I would bump into loads of other hikers, kind of like the Inca Trail, and we could walk together, but I ended up doing the whole thing on my own - three nights and four days. One day I only saw three people, and they were walking the other way. But once I started, I was actually glad I was alone. There aren't many times in your life where it's just you, the moutains, lakes and the elements.

The first day was pouring with rain, and I had a splitting headache. It was hellish to say the least, and I thought about turning back many times, but didn't actually know how to get out of the park. So I walked all the way up a steep valley to a campsite, dumped my bags, comtemplated suicide, but decided instead to walk for another two hours, then scramble for an hour up boulders to a lookout, from where all I could see was a lake and a big white cloud. I turned around to the three American guys who had also just scaled the same boulders, and said "wow, nice lake!" and they looked at me aghast, pointed to the picture of the famous Torres (massive beautiful rocks) on their map, then to the cloud, and said they had saved the best to last, and were gutted. I found it hard to believe that the image they were showing me beared any relation to what was in front of us as we couldn't see anything. Can be a horrible thing rain.

The second day was, thankfully, much warmer, clearer and easier to walk, as it skirted a deep blue lake, and I got to the next campsite in just four hours. My tent was at the bottom of the other famous rock formation, the Cuernos (horns) and as I attempted a siesta on arrival, I was woken by what I thought was a harrier jump jet flying overhead. I felt a little put out that they were having flying practice over one of the most beautiful parks in the world, but then remembered I was in South America and that this was probably the beginnings of a revolution. Only as I was leaving the park did I recount this tale and was told, amid much laughter, that I had heard an avalanche overhead.

On the third day I reached a high rock from where I could see a large turquoise lake below and a whole rainbow stretching from it into the forest. The Valle Frances (middle part of the "W") was really tough, and I only made it halfway up to the lookout, where me and a Brazilian guy shared a packet of chocolate-coated coffee beans and watched three avalanches.

Each evening I would arrive at a refugio, sort myself out with a tent and a sleeping bag (I hadn't brought anything except food with me, and a king-size bar of Dairy Milk), cook dinner, and chat to all the other hikers, who were mostly couples and middle-aged tourists on the piss. I did meet two really cool girls who were also both doing the W alone, and they really spurred me on. One gave me some medication for my headache, for which I will be eternally grateful, and the other, who had lost the sole of her shoe and was now walking in what looked like a mocassin, was so hyper it made me feel Zen-like in comparison.

Now I am sat in the warm, and am able to walk again (for a while I was a total cripple), I can fully appreciate the scale of what I have just done, and I feel lucky to have got through it unscathed. I heard plenty of stories about lost shoes, wind blowing people off the trail, wrong paths taken. I even met a guy last night who said one morning he woke up in his tent and couldn't feel his body. He yelled for help, which took a while to come, and without any search and rescue in the park, he had to be carted out on a horse. He now has to stay in Natales three weeks to recover. I hadn't realised just how dangerous the trail was, and how unequipped I was for trekking it. Everyone else I saw was decked out in full polyester glory, with sticks, hats, sunglasses, and backpacks. I did it with a bag full of chocolate, my Spalding trainers courtesy of Combover, and one set of woolly clothes. You know when things are bad when you can smell yourself. Praise the Lord for Casa Cecilia and the comfort I returned to. Three days there and I feel human again.

The morning after returning from the hike, face like I'd gone ten rounds with Tyson, I met a Swiss German guy called Miguel. He was also travelling alone, and getting the Navimag that night. We hung out all day in Natales, played on the swings, ate cake, generally passed a very cool day together. Plan to meet up in Bariloche in a few days.
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