Leaving the calm surroundings of Puerto Natales and our bike-friendly Hostal Don Guillermo, four of us including Andrew we’d met in Ushuaia and his buddy Hilton set off in high spirits for some serious trekking among the last glacier strongholds in the world. A 10 day self-sufficient trip around the complete circuit of Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve boasting 227,000 hectares in the Andes. On arrival after three hours on the bus, we learnt that the full circuit was closed for the season; we’d have to be content with conquering the ‘W’ trail. Better to be over-prepared than under I thought, even if were carrying twice as much food as required in shoddy rucksacks – although it didn’t weigh our enthusiasm down. We’d just have to feast at every meal.
Before stepping a foot inside the national park, we were all subjected to a safety briefing and presentational video. I lost count how many times we were told it was strictly forbidden if not a felony to start and cause a fire inside the national park. We’d be looking at anything from 51 days to 5 years in prison, with up to a $16,000 fine on top. I couldn’t help but hear the Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ lyrics blaring in my mind, which would have added effect to the regimented rules thrown down our throats.
Ridged regulations shelved, day one in the park was anything but disappointing. Equally as, if not a shade more impressive than Argentinian Patagonia further south, my first glimpse of the Andes caught me off guard. The sun, which sat against an azure blue sky shone a brilliance down on the wind blasted white of the snowy peaks, alighting the blue green jewels of the glacier embedded in the mountain. Dazzling us in its glacial glory, the landscape’s composition offered up such a powerful vista, I didn’t know where to look first.
Although the first day was a continuous series of sharp ascents and descents, we accepted the pain barrier of getting that initial momentum going. The discomfort endured from our over-laden packs and lack of ‘mountain goat’ fitness was offset by the staggering far-reaching views, deciduous fairytale forests filled with beech tree enchantment and dappled sunlight. Around the top corner of a mountain, we saw an Andean condor flashing white against its black plumage. Then another condor and another and another – some of these birds span over three metres long – I counted seventeen in the air at one time. Oh my wow – condors are endangered but were positively flourishing here. We watched these New World vultures fly over the mountains, whose unique formation composed of contrasting layers of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks making a special sight for us to take away.
Before sunrise, we left Campamento Torres and headed straight for the Torres (towers), from which the national park was named. In a pre-dawn light, we padded our way up a sharp climb, negotiating over rocks and boulders until it was all I could do not to conk out and take a ‘Nana nap’. Grateful for the well-marked trail, there was scant chance of getting heinously lost in this wilderness. We stayed on the trail, following its twists and turns as it snaked along, up, around and down the mountain, making the odd switchback in steeper areas. We walked through a wooded area and were deposited out of the forest to see another intense sight. Three overbearing naturally forming towers stood proud and tall; the granite spires of Torres del Paine. Within twenty minutes, the morning sun shot up, the clouds politely parted and the scene transformed from impressive to immense. Our photos would be cooked unless we turned down the saturation levels – the brightness bordered on ridiculous. It was golden and I couldn’t help wonder if we were inching closer to as good as it gets.
We walked on quite a bit further, never knowing what we’d see next, more than making up for the challenge of it all. We saw a trio of authentic gauchos – South American cowboys guiding up their work horses, corded with muscle pulling up cumbersome construction materials. Towards the end of day two, Hilton stopped dead in his tracks – gawping. Wondering why, I looked to my left and smiled; he’d found a rare flat ‘look out’ point of the towers in which to wild camp on the trail between a refugio and campamento – the spot would more than suffice. And hopefully avoid the national park’s mice attracted like magnets on steel to the camping areas. Having got up at the crack of sparrows to see ‘The Towers’ in first light, to see ‘The Horns’ against the sun setting nicely concluded a long day.
I was in no mood to be such easy prey to the grey furry bludgers, harmlessly looking as they were. Everything we carried, we hung in dry bags on a guy rope between the trees – our weapon of choice. I knew mice could climb up if not fling themselves from tree to tree but at least they’d have to perform a tight-rope circus act to scrounge our provisions. That evening wild camping, I could hear the howling of the wind, it made a high thin sound as it shivered through the trees and tugged at our tent’s guy ropes. That wasn’t the only thing tugging at the guy lines. By morning, whether the sub-zero chill of the night, prevailing winds or our precautions had made the difference, I didn’t know, but we’d suffered no real mouse-induced damage. It was war but we’d won the first battle.
Lunch was taken at Italiano campamento, which we nicknamed ‘Mouse City’ as the most notorious place for the rodents ruling. One minute I was on Danger Mouse alert and the next a falcon swooped down and devoured a mouse whole. Was that divine intervention stepping in? Up we went, sweated buckets of perspiration and felt the thighs burn beautifully, we made it to the top at Mirador look out point. And greeted by a panoramic paradise. We had ice world on our left – the glacier; rock world on our right – Los Cuernos (the horns) adjacent to the towers and water world behind us – a glacial lake shouldered in between a valley awash in the colours of an autumn afternoon. It was dreamlike. Each world was microcosmic, experiencing separate conditions where dense mist shrouded the tip of the glacier, fluffy clouds stirred above the granite formations and a gentle sun shone over the valley. It looked surreal.
The weather at the look out point was on the turn for the worse although moments before threading our way back, a series of almighty rumblings commenced. We were witness to big chunks of the glacier breaking off and tearing down before us. It was a glacier-lanche! The glacier was littered with cracks, broken boulders and tumbling heaps of rock grumbled like a fighter jet roaring above when massive pieces of the glacier broke free, rolling fiercely down the mountain face. The fallout was immense. I won’t deny it, I was in awe and drunk on joy.
I was exhausted after climbing up and down from Mirador, even if staying at Mouse City wasn’t a viable option, we had no choice but to trudge on. Dismay drove all other thoughts from my mind. Digging deeper, we set off and pressed on for a good number of miles, up and down, back up and down again. And on it went. It was a killer walking past the end of the day, after dusk and losing light. The rocks threatened to trip me with every step, the thick tree roots seemed to grab my feet and the holes ever present where it was so easy to twist an ankle. In a moonless inky black sky, we arrived footsore and sour to Refugio Paine Grande. Yes, the pain was grand. Deep down, I was relieved that I’d made it under my own steam.
The next morning saw bags the size of suitcases under my eyes – get me out of this mice-infested hole! The little buggers had kept me awake all night long. I was grumpy, stiff and my joints were beginning to seize up, taking their toll on my physical strength to carry on. My endurance levels were being tested to their upper limits. We took much longer than the map indicated – I was losing purchase on my will to continue. Agitated as I was, I’d made it to Glacier Grey and in turn, completed the ‘W’! A happy moment easing the deep-seated soreness somewhat.
The rest stop at Glacier Grey on day four was notably luxurious by comparison of the others. A late lunch on comfy leather sofas and long rest by a wood burner – welcome heat beating against my face with a warm cuppa in hand – gave me enough steam to complete the short walk over to Glacier Grey. My knee was still screaming like a ‘mother’ but deterred I was not. My jaw dropped when I saw the icebergs and floating slabs of glacier on the opaque blue glacial lake. Some massive platforms of ice hardly moving, others in abstract and mysterious shapes. They moved in a kaleidoscope of colour. One looked like a majestic swan, it was like an exquisite ice sculpture although Jase was adamant it was a dolphin.
There were icebergs in the distance that were solid blue from the years of pressure squeezing all the air out of those things. Beyond the icebergs and the lake sat the Southern Ice Field, the last living memory of those prehistoric glaciations. Climbing up the mountain’s jagged ridges to the top afforded the best vantage point. We stood on the edge of the precipice that gave way to a vast openness, underneath which lay the ice spreading beneath us like a quilt. Blowing a howling wind, it was beautiful, rugged and remote. We stayed until we lost all light – it had been worth the discomfort, tenfold. Where we were stood was pure gold.
On day five, the 11 kilometre return hike back to the boat at Paine Grande campsite was an unexpected breeze. We’d found our second wind and the homeward stretch kept me on a high the whole way back. I was a lot more mindful too. The day previous, I hadn’t really taken the time to notice the beauty of the gnarly forest whose tree roots we were clambering over twisted up from a myriad of fissures and hairline cracks. The thick forest gave way to a series of stony hills that rose high and wild to the north. Walking in a pre-dawn moonlight, I wondered about any roaming pumas nearby but put that thought to one side, this place was too beguiling. There was a section of the national park that had been burned down by a previous hiker, having done prison time for his misfortunate conflagration. It left an entire forest of dead trees black and silvery white in its wake – thin and naked, bereft of leaves and life. Unintentionally, it created the most incredible contrast against the fuchsia pink foxgloves. It shouldn’t have been but it was absolutely striking.
A rewarding sip of Calafate Sour liqueur put a smooth, rewarding finish to the trip – feeling its warm tendrils spreading through my chest, like fingers of heat coiling around my insides and on my tongue was a taste of sweet berries. It was a satisfying end to one hell of a trip. Leaving Torres del Paine by catamaran was filled with mixed emotions – as the turquoise glacial water chuckled against both hulls, I mused that I’d loved and loathed this place. I had gone beyond my pain threshold in the 70 kilometres trekked over four and a half days carrying over a quarter of my body weight. I’d left the national park undoubtedly fitter and stronger. I felt very alive having come away with the rawness of it all; ever-changing glacial landscapes etched in my mind for the rest of my days. For me, that was all that mattered.