Just over a week ago, I finished eating my last of many empanadas in celebration of the Chilean Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day). I then hopped a 4:00 bus on Friday out of Punta Arenas, setting out on my first leg of a long journey to the neighboring town of Puerto Natales and beyond.
I had spent two glorious days of pure gluttony, stuffing my face with empanadas, anticuchos (sticks of meat), bread and pebre (chilean-style salsa), cazuela (Chilean style-stew), alfajores (cookies) and pastries smothered in manjar (Chilean dulce de leche) at the two-day celebration held at the middle school, Escuela Argentina, where I was an English teacher.
The vacation that followed these indulgent celebrations, I consider to be something like a Spring Break, because the seasons are opposite down here. I certainly took into account that most people in the U.S. go on diets leading up to this painfully self-inflicted rush for somewhere warm, to put on a bathing suit and expose their sad, pale winter skin to a few days of intense sunlight. But I wasn’t worried about my extreme non-diet, nor the fact that I hadn’t seen my bare arms and legs for nearly two months in frigid Patagonia. My vacation was going to be something else entirely. Although I hadn’t done much in the way of planning for it, I soon found out that it had plans for me.
The W: My Chile guidebook summarizes the experience as a minimum three- to four-day hike that “neatly packages” the highlight views in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine into the tightest possible time period. It also casually mentions that hikes are not without difficultly; hikers have suffered serious injuries and even died.
Equipped with this minimal information, two massive backpacks filled with food, tents, sleeping bags, outdoor gear, the occasional change of clothes, and one great big sense of adventure mixed with even greater uncertainty, my hiking companion, Tracy, and I set out – just the two of us – at 7:00 on a Saturday morning, to begin what was perhaps one of the most intense, prolonged physical experiences of our lives.
The walk from the bus stop in Puerto Natales the night before to our accommodation, under the weight of what couldn’t have been any less than 50-pound backpacks (only slightly attributable to my severe overpacking tendencies), was unbearable. Tracy and I had no idea how we were going to carry these things – our food, our shelter, our life-lines – for the next 76 kilometers through rocks, snow and mountainous terrain. We could barely even make it 10 minutes through town on well-paved sidewalks.
In addition, I was equipped with nearly two years of office-place laziness, lethargy and ass-fat that had barely begun to make a turnaround thanks to my new, always-on-foot lifestyle of a teacher. In other words, I was almost completely out-of-shape. After getting dropped off at the base camp around 11:30 a.m. on day one, we set up our tent and began our hike to the base of the famous towers, which the park is named for, around 12:30. We had about seven hours of sunlight left, and an eight-hour hike ahead. We hoped to move as quickly as possible, but half an hour into the hike, when the uphill began, reality struck. This could take a while.
Along the way, Tracy and I walked across gravelly trails and places where landslides had left a deep wide trail of featureless rubble across the face of mountains. We feared that a slight shift in step, an inevitable slipping of dirt might take us down the mountain and into the deep ravine. We stopped often to catch our breath in the changing altitude, at one point to fill our first water bottle full of pure glacier water from a river, arguing over the possibility of the water containing Giardia, daring each other to take the first sip.
As we got over our fear, we sat by the river drinking the coolest freshest water imaginable – millions of year old water melting away from the glaciers left by the last ice age – cracking large pieces of slate off a massive slab and writing chalky messages, then tossing them into the nearby river, watching them get carried away in the relentless rush. This place, far away from cell phone reception and electronics, cars and computers, screaming schoolchildren and nosy, demanding four-year old host sisters – miles and ages away from civilization – held endless possibilities for entertainment.
On the trails we met Spaniards, Dutch, French, Chileans, fellow Americans and Brits. The Patagonia tourist season had just begun. It became clear that Torres del Paine was like no other I’d ever been to. Completely primitive and cosmopolitan all at once – an exciting and disappointing dichotomy as one held the possibility of destroying the other.
Each year, in peak season, Torres del Paine receives close to 5,000 visitors per day, for a grand total of about 600,000 a year. At night, they say it's hard to find a place to pitch a tent in the base camps. Recently, an inexperienced Czech tourist burned down 10% of the park trying to start a campfire, prohibiting other hikers from building campfires. Lucky for us, tourist season did not officially begin for another three days, and peak season was not until December.
Despite the increasing tourist appeal, I could not help imagining myself as this tiny, insignificant speck moving slowly up and down trails in the shape of a W, up mountains and into valleys, spanning an area larger than Washington, D.C., containing one millionth of the population, located somewhere here near the tip of the South American continent – yet somehow never feeling isolated – in perfect company among friends and fellow travelers.
The days to come held challenges I could never have anticipated: going off trail, steep summits barely manageable under the weight of our packs, freezing cold nights in our tent on hard frozen ground where two hours of sleep was a miracle, day after day of new blisters and callouses and ever-worsening stress on our joints. But it was all worth it, for the incredible views I could never have anticipated, never be fully captured on camera.
Day two was tough. Our park map allotted four hours to hike 11 kilometers (about 6.5 miles), from one base camp to the next along the glacial lake Nordenskjold. We thought it would be a breeze. Six and a half hours later, pushing through the worst part of the hike, I ran into Ana, a girl I knew who was teaching in the nearby town of Puerto Natales – small world. She was leisurely riding a horse along the summit of a mountain when I heard her call my name. The dirt and grit and sweat on my face, accompanied by the scowl caused by one too many painful scrambles up craggy rocky summits made her ask, “Are you ok?”
“Yeah, having a great time,” I answered breathlessly, with all the energy I could muster. I really was, maybe not on that particular moment, and maybe not for the hour that had preceded this encounter, but overall, I was having a great time. From the disconcerted look on Ana’s face though, I could tell she didn’t quite believe me. She shrugged. I didn’t have the energy to protest. Anyway, I was too busy sympathizing with her horse, whose plight I now understood under the weight of this goddamn heavy backpack. We talked for a minute and then parted ways: Ana, trotting swift and easy in one direction, Tracy and I on a knee-breaking descent into a river valley in the other direction.
The minimum “four-day” hike ended up taking us six days (five nights). After three nights of camping outside in below zero weather, the last two nights we were fortunate to stumble upon a beautiful hosteria on the glimmering turquoise Lago Pehoe that was not yet open for the season. The two caretakers of the place let us pay the camping fee and spend the night in one of the rooms, plus use the kitchen, showers, bathrooms, etc.
The highlights of the hike were the vistas from Valle Frances, of Glacier Grey across Lago Grey. Also stunning were the different colored lakes, each with a distinct shade of water, determined by the type and amount of sediment carried into it from glacier meltwater.
We were finished with the W on our last day; we had to be to catch the once-daily bus at 1:00 that afternoon. It’s a 12-mile hike to get out of the park; up three summits and an otherwise flat-out burn across grassy yellow plains.
I don’t think I’d done anything close to 12 miles in a day since I ran a half marathon back in 2003. My current physical state was laughable compared to what it was back then. But I was determined to get this thing done. In what Tracy describes as a bottle-rocket-like cloud of dust, I powered myself across those plains like my life depended on it. Five hours later I nearly collapsed at the entrance way to the administration. Once again I kicked off a massive eating spree, beginning with the remaining nuts and granola from my pack. Miraculously, we had finished the W and were soon headed back to Puerto Natales for some warm beds, warm showers, hot dinners and cold beers.
Now, after two full days of stuffing my face once again – sandwiches, gnocchi, pizza, beer, late-night completos (Chilean- style hot dogs topped with guacamole and mayo), copious empanadas and bars of chocolate – I can’t seem to find my love handles. It seems I left them in Torres del Paine.