If Mr. Miyagi had been a Spanish teacher, he may have sent Daniel-San to Torres del Paine with instructions to say ‘Hola’ to every person he met on the trail. After the first thousand ‘Ho-La’s I began to hear what a complex word it actually is. Chileans tend to pronounce it ‘Hwey-Lá” but you have to learn to hear it through repetition. In order to master Spanish Daniel-San, first learn to say hello. Gracias, señor Miyagi.
We took two buses and a ferry for a total of three hours to get to the first trailhead. As the first bus turned from the main road and headed towards the mountains, we and our fellow tourists gasped. No picture can prepare you for the scale of the towers of Torres del Paine. They stand shoulder to shoulder with high mountains, giant blocks of stone, as high or higher than the surrounding peaks. They are the shape of quickly split pieces of cordwood stood on end. Sheer faces shoot thousands of feet into the air, topped with snow.
This is Chile’s patrimony, a word in Spanish as well to describe a gift, an inheritance and a treasure for the generations. The Chileans treat it as such, the park is very popular and heavily regulated. A massive forest fire incinerated acres of grassland, forest and animal habitat in 2011 due to a careless campfire. The winds in Torres del Paine are so fierce and consistent that it took no time to scorch almost the entirety of the most popular trail in the park, the ‘W’. The camper who started the fire was fined $100,000 and the park now has a strict no fire policy. Even camp stoves are restricted to designated areas.
The W is a 46.5 mile hike that takes a fit trekker 4 days. From Grays Glacier in the west of the park to El Torres in the East. We were a. not ready for such a hike and b. only going to be there for two days.
Though our gear is light and made for camping, we stood at the base of a 14k hike feeling like runners showing up for a marathon in flip flops holding cans of beer.
After twenty minutes of climbing straight up we questioned our sanity. Aside from the occasional walk to find a hostel, I hadn’t gone anywhere significant with a heavy pack on my shoulders for five years. After an hour we were sucking wind, wind that was conveniently blowing directly in our faces. After two hours we reached a pass where the wind was so strong I could lean forward at an angle with my pack on. It felt like flying. It had started to spit rain and I’d slipped a rain over over my backpack. The rain cover filled with air and I felt gravity lose its appeal. Though we were sore from the first half of the hike the rain was becoming steady, biting in the gale, we were filled energy – a second wind if you will.
A stronger gust hit the side of my pack and knocked me off balance. I wasn’t in danger if being pushed off the pass, but I could have been if not careful.
When we finally reached Refugio Gray, we were beaten but happy to have been up to the challenge. It was still raining lightly and less windy behind the little hill the Refugio sits behind.
We walked into the Refugio to pay for a camp sight (our original intention was to keep hiking to a free site, but we weren’t up to another three hours on the trail in the rain.) Magda asked sweetly where the most sheltered sight might be and the galant behind the counter brightened up and led her to his favorite spot. I followed. I’m thinking of turning this blog into a monologue about how I need to learn Spanish or risk being forgotten about on a forest trail somewhere.
The rain continued while I set up the tent and then stopped when I was done and thoroughly soaked. Magda was in the Refugio making coffee for us, but I was already steeping in a nice brew of self pity.
With coffee and clear skies came a new lease on life. We perked up and walked up to the glacier. We’d talked about the glaciers we’d seen, and even walked across, in New Zealand, and wondered how this would stack up. The first thing we saw was a laguna filled with the styrofoam from a crushed cooler box, only on a giant scale. This was the refuse of the calving glacier, pushed by the wind into this cove. The chunks were the size of capsized boats and a stunning blue that was so vibrant in the newly shining sun that it practically glowed. Glacier Grey itself was on our left, and it too was truly lovely and vast, but we were mesmerized by these fallen towers, listing and glistening in the sun.
During the night the wind picked up, which I thought short of becoming a hurricane would have been hard.
The tent was kicked around in the night but held fast. Unfortunately we didn’t get the full night sleep that has been allusive for the last two weeks because of it.
In the morning we made more Nescafé, ate more sandwiches, and started back the way we came. With the powerful wind at our backs and clear blue sky we made better time, but were exhausted when we returned to the catamaran that would take us to the next leg of the hike.
My legs were absolutely uninspired to do any more legs.
Once back on the boat we crossed lake Pehoé past the backs of the Torres del Paine. Nature is rarely so inspirational. They were unnaturally sheer, like the fortresses of giants, their shape out of scale. Our next hike was to be up to a viewpoint, best seen at sunrise, of these marvels. I suddenly couldn’t wait.
The Refugio at the start of the hike to the towers was in a field of green and gold grass. Compact but shady trees offered perfect camping spots. Dozens of Guanaco Lamas played nearby, bouncing and sprinting after each other. They were lean and colored a savanna tan and brown. They’d fit in perfectly on the Serengeti which is precisely what the vista before us reminded me of.
It would have been so easy to lie down and sleep. Forever?
This time the trail didn’t tease us by flattening out. It simply gained and gained elevation, giving none back. After hours of shuffling upwards on loose gravel, the Patagonian savanna was far below us stretching out into the distance. We were on the shoulders of Mt. Almirante Nieto, behind whom was hiding the Torres. As we reached the high point of the trail, a Japanese hiker came towards us, smiling and we said hola to each other. He told us it wasn’t much farther, but it was very windy.
That morning I had told another hiker about the gale force winds behind us. They had been hiking into A wind, but not yet THE wind. They didn’t take me seriously so I decided if it was worth commenting on to strangers, it was probably something serious.
It may have been blowing no harder than at Greys, but this time the path was cut into a loose gravel hillside that fell directly down into a river. Multiple slide had smoothed its surface free of trees or boulders or anything to hold onto if you fell. Worse, the path was slightly sloped toward this cliff. The gusts of wind battered us as we came around the edge of the hill. I tried not to look down but the churning muddy river was oddly compelling… It would be so easy.
When we reached the next Refugio we were completely spent. Nothing at all could inspire us to hike two hours further, and two back, up terrain three times steeper than what we’d just bested. Even without packs it did not sound fun.
We planned on getting up early in the morning but during the night a storm rolled through. The Refugio had been so busy when we arrived, the guy giving out tent spaces gave up and give us a Pre-set up tent, much bigger than our own. Magda guessed we might be able to set ours up inside of it.
Perhaps we should have. In the dark of night, the wind pounded the sides of the Refugio tent with unrelenting rain. Though it held, a slow leak started that we woke up every hour to try to mop.
The time to get up and catch sunrise on the Torres came and went. By the time we woke the rain had let up, but a mist covered the mountains. We weren’t feeling any better so we gave in. We climbed down as another storm swept into the valley.
By the Refugio at the base, Magda left me to photograph an interesting camp she’d seen. I dropped my pack in the grass, surrounded by wildflowers and the sound of the churning river. I turned to watch the storm move across the face of Mt. Almirante Nieto, and basked in the sun. A busy looking fox trotted by a few yards away.
“Hola!” I called in a perfect Chilean accent.
The fox either didn’t hear or didn’t understand Spanish.
When we returned to Puerto Natales the family was busy deep cleaning the Couchsurfing room. We helped move mattresses and vacuum out the crumbs of a dozen sloppy guests. Gloria expressed her confusion that surfers treated the room like a hostel and rarely cleaned up after themselves. The German girl with the leg wound had cleared out, Gloria said she’d fallen in love. Who with? She giggled and shrugged, dunno!
Helgita had moved on as well. We were alone with a woman from Bulgaria. Later a couple from Grenoble arrived, looking just as baffled as we had.
In the morning we left for the bus to Ushuaia Gloria had arranged. The house was all asleep and we closed the door behind ourselves quietly, clicking it shut.