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Hiking Torres Del Paine alone

When I decided to go to Patagonia, the first thing on my to do list was Torres del Paine.  It is the cherry atop the hiking sundae and is a much sort after attraction for hiking enthusiast.  Why do you ask? Well the 100 km trail takes you past breathtaking scenery, rich blue lakes, alien landscapes and gigantic mountains.  The challenge for this place lays in the weather.  The constant and rapidly changing weather can take you through four seasons in a day and break even the most intrepid traveller. That is part of the appeal.  You can hike one trail and see it in both winter and summer states, but you have to be prepared for the physical challenge that it represents.

I was excited to take on the challenge.  Now I am not at an expert hiker.  Yes I do a lot of it, but I am by no means an expert.  This trip, however, I was pushing myself that one step further and going it solo.  No tours.  No guides. It would be an interesting exploration of self-discover, or just a really cool walk.

Setting off from Puerto Natales, my first night would be at Lago Grey.  My research had told me to do the trek from west to east, to maximise visibility of the scenery.  Jittery with nerves, I packed my backpack full of the essentials, and then promptly removed 1/3 of the contents.  It is a great rule to live by, and it has served me well over the years.  The last thing you want to be doing is toting around excess weight.

The weather was rainy, and the winds were gathering speed as I entered the park.  Registering at the rangers station, it started to dawn on me… I really know what I am doing here?  Yes, in hindsight, I probably should have thought about this question earlier than this point, but I was wrapped up in the romance of the journey and hadn’t really validated the practicalities.  Instead I shook it off as jittery nerves and persevered.  The bus, took me to meet with the ferry, and it was on this short boat ride that I was greeted with the first of many beautiful scenes of Torres del Paine, Lake Pehoe.

The water was so blue that it looked as though someone had emptied truck loads of blue food colouring into the water.  Even though there were clouds overhead, and the winds were roughing the water about, the colour still shone through and radiated a deep and rich blue.  My nervous energy quickly turned to excitement and when I landed at Paine Grand I was ready to hit the road to Lago Grey.

Starting off in the valley aside Cumbre Bariloche, I was dwarfed by the tall snow-capped peaks.  I had to be careful as I kept finding myself staring up, mouth wide open, in complete awe of the gigantic formation that I nearly tripped over a couple of time.  So I focused, and as I climbed out of the valley and hit the ridge, I was faced with headwinds.  Oh, how I hate headwinds.  It makes your eyes water, the lips dry up and your face feel like it is about to fall off and most importantly, it takes twice as much effort to go half the distance.  After about an hour of this, I was starting to wonder if this was what the next 5 days was going to provide me with.  Fortunately, relief came when I reached the first Mirador (fancy name for a lookout).   Or maybe I was just too distracted by the postcard view of Lago Grey that I stopped noticing the 40+km winds.  The sun had started to break through the dreary grey clouds, and the escaping sunbeams were illuminating the turquoise water below. The rising clouds had also released the mountain peaks from their clutches, however briefly, to complete the postcard picture.   I gave myself a moment.  Gave myself a little pep talk too and then I hit the trail again.  I wanted to make sure I got to the Camp ground early.

Trucking along the trail changed from a well-defined dusty path, to a wet, slippery, rocky terrain.  I got a little nervous again.  You see, I don’t have very strong ankles.  In fact, I am well known in my friendship circle as being catastrophe Kate, due to the fact that on any unstable surface, I will fall over like a toddler learning to walk.  Here I was, faced with my first obstacle.  If I hurt myself here, I am alone.  Very alone.  I fastened my backpack, tightened my laces and slowly, slowly made my way down the hill.  There was mud everywhere, but I skillfully avoided falling the whole way down.  I knew I would have to come back this way in the coming days, but I would face that hurdle at a later time.

Weaving my way through the well-marked trail, it didn’t take me long before I reached the Camp Grey.  Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I was taken aback when I was greeted with an upgrade by the Vertice run camp ground.  Yep…no tent for me tonight.  I would be staying in the very luxurious Refugio Grey.  So I skipped to my bed in the four bed dorm room and proceeded to dump my backpack. 

It was just after 2pm, and I still had time to quickly hike the trail to the Mirador Grey.  The short trail is only 10 minutes further along, and shrouded by trees and bordered by mountains, you are well protected from the winds.  You walk and then the trees break and before you is a spectacular sight.  Beyond the turquoise depths of Lago Grey is the grandiose wall of ice of Glacier Grey.  This 19km glacier is slowly receding, and the ever-changing appearance of the glacier façade provides a spectacular performance as large fragments of ice carve away from the body. As they drop into the lake, a monumental wave results, that causes a shifting of the previously carved icebergs floating in the lake.  From this vantage point you would swear that you were in some arctic scene, not in the Chilean wilderness.

I sat here and marvelled at the beauty of this site.  But also what this picture represented.  The effects of global warming, the homeostasis of Mother Nature, or the perpetually changing environmental structure that as a young species we are yet to understand.  Time passed and I became aware of the grumble of my stomach that was crying out for a refuel, so I headed back to the Refugio for some dinner and good night sleep. 

Waking early I jumped out of bed and fitted in a quick hike to Mirador Grey before breakfast.  I am glad I did too.  Revisiting this site, I was faced with an entirely different experience.  The wind was yet to gather momentum and so the surface of Lago Grey was completely still, acting like a mirror to the surrounding scenery. 

After a quick breakfast, I set off for the trail to Camp Paso.  While I would not be staying at the Camp Paso, the trail that leads to the site provides some key vantage points to see the glacier.  These sites however, would require me to overcome my second obstacle….my fear of heights.  Yes, to get to these beautiful sites I would have to navigate across not just one, but two hanging bridges, suspended high in the air….alone.  Did I do it? You bet I did! Feeling entirely empowered I enjoyed the views and trundled on back to the Refugio. 

A drink with some new friends was in order to celebrate my triumph! 

As the sun rose early the next morning, I packed up my belongings and hit the trail back to Paine Grande.  I had to return via Paine Grande to get to Camp Frances which would be my next stop.  The troublesome hike the days before were less of a challenge today with the sunshine drying the surfaces.  I enjoyed the climb, hearing my sister’s words of encouragement over the years in my ears.  I plotted along, stopping to just appreciate the endless ranges, and the iridescent turquoise of the Lake.  It seemed like Mother Nature had amped up the colour overnight.  I didn't think it could get any more rich in colour, but I was happily proven wrong. 

It wasn’t long before I reached Paine Grande, where I treated myself to a hot chocolate before continuing the trail to Camp Frances.

The terrain changed significantly between Paine Grande and Camp Frances.  The open terrain welcomes the Patagonian winds, funnelling it through the valley to Laguna Scottsberg.  You can see the effects of this on the trees that have been contorted to adapt to the harsh environment.  Sadly, you could also see the impact of the recent bushfire that swept through the park due to the carelessness of a single irresponsible tourist.  The combination of the skeletal trees that appear to be escaping the clutches of the earth, the baron fire torn landscapes that once were filled with lush greenery that are now dotted with new growth, the sound of the snow-capped peaks of the adjacent mountain cracking under the weight of the heavy snow and the shimmering blue of the Lake Nordenskjöld. You could almost be confused into thinking you were in some sort of Tim Burton movie set.

After battling the winds, and praying to Patchamama (Mother Nature) to ‘hold the rain off until I safely reached my destination’, it wasn’t long before I reached the small bridge that marked the entrance to Frances Valley.  While I would not be embarking on this hike today, I took my time to appreciate the beautiful view from the base while the sun was staying away the clouds from the peaks. 

I continued for the remaining hour to Camp Frances and was welcomed to yet another upgrade by Fantastico Sur.  I don’t know what I did to enjoy so much luck at this point, but I am glad I did it.  Being upgraded to the Eco Domes was a wonderful experience.  The pod setup gave you a sanctuary away from the cold winds, and comfortable place to rest your head for the night.  After my long day hike, I relished in the luxury.

I set off early the next morning to hike to Mirador Britanico.  This lookout is notorious among W Trek hikers.  It is located at the far end of the Frances Valley, in between Cerro Cathedral and the rear side of Las Torres.  This creates the perfect terrain for the Patagonian weather to change from sunshine to blizzards with little effort.  Hiking the 7km trail I was faced with my third obstacle….do I turn back?  The weather, that had started off sunny at the base, had morphed from rain to hail, and now thickening into a blizzard.  At this point myself and my new friend, Barbara, were metres from the Mirador Britanico and decided to bunker down, have some lunch and hope that the ever-changing weather would change in our favour.  After 40 minutes, and an appearance that somewhat resemble a Smurf Popsicle, we decided to cut our losses, take a fun selfie and head back down the trail to the warmth of the Refugio Frances. 

This is where Patagonia is funny.  We had sat there for 40 minutes, waiting for a glimmer of hope that the weather would break and reveal the spectacular first sight of Las Torres, and all Mother Nature did was to thicken the snow and leave us chattering our teeth.  But the 5 minutes after we commenced our decent, the clouds dissipated and we were left with a stunning view of the granite spires.  The disappointment at not seeing this view from the Mirador was quickly surpassed by the excitement of seeing the peaks….and relishing the warmth of the sporadic sunshine that came with the new weather.  We cheerfully continued our return to Camp Frances, where I bid farewell to my new friend and continued on to Camp Cuernos.

Still slightly chilled by the encounter with frosty the snowman, I sped on down the trail toward Camp Cuernos.  This trail made me appreciate my decision to follow the W Trail from west to east, because the section between Frances and Cuernos for me, was a steep descent. Coming the other way, with your camping equipment on your back would be horrible.  But then again, you did have those beautiful blue waters to distract you from your torturous climb. This trail took you down along the black and white pebble beaches.  By the time I reached there the clouds in the sky had lifted, but the winds had gathered speed, gently dispersing a layer of water through the air creating a rainbow on the water.  I really had found the pot of gold!

Arriving at Camp Cuernos, I registered, warmed myself by the fire and set my campsite up for the night.  After a quick feed, I was not long out of bed.  I knew that tomorrow was going to be a long day.  The guy at the desk had warned me that the weather was going to turn tomorrow, and there were chances of a blizzard between here and Camp Central Torres.  Evidently I had used up all my luck getting the upgrades.

I tucked myself into bed and drifted off to sleep with the sound of rain outside my tent.

By sunrise, I had to give myself a serious pep talk to get out of bed.  The rains had certainly moved in and the toasty warmth of my sleeping bag was making it difficult to face the day.  But I had to muster some courage, get into the still wet clothes from the day before, and pack my pack for the long day hike. 

This is one obstacle that hikers of the W Trek cannot overcome.  If the weather is bad…you still have to move on.  There is no changing your reservations.  Come rain, hail or shine, you have to sleep where you reserved your site, no exceptions. So when days like this, where Mother Nature is clearly suffering from PMS, you just have to say….’plot twist’….and get on with it.  So I did.  I packed up my things, rugged up and set off in the rain. Was the hike between the camps hard? Yes. It was brutal.  Half way through, the rain turned into a blizzard, and I could feel the warmth of my body being sucked from core.  I spurred on my singing ‘I can’t feel my face when I’m with you…but I love it!’ as a way to keep me focused.

Despite the harsh weather, feeling like my face was falling off, and a distinct loss of sensation in my fingertips, I was still wowed by the scenery.  There was one point where I was crossing the Estancia (fancy work for farm), that I felt as though I had entered the world of Wuthering Heights.  Maybe I was affected by the cold, but I thought that it was the perfect example of a Kate Bush music video clip, and I instantly was regretting not bringing a red dress to dance around in. 

When I arrived at Camp Central Torres, I jumped into a hot shower and then straight into my sleeping bag where I promptly fell asleep.  I remember thinking…..’I have come all this way. What if the weather is so bad that I can’t even see Las Torres?’

Come morning, I woke and was pleased to not hear the pitta patter of rain outside.  I held my breath, unzipped the tent and was greeted with blue skies.  

THANK YOU PATCHAMAMA!!!! I inhaled breakfast, donned my hiking boots and set off on the 4 hour hike to witness the towering giants.

It was a tough hike.  A really tough hike.  By this point, my legs were already lethargic from the days of hiking before, and doing the trek from West to East means that the most strenuous of the hikes is left til last.  But you can look past that, because the possibility of seeing the towers, in blue skies, is something so rare that you just push through the pain. I was even lucky enough to collect some friends along the way.  We were all travelling alone, so we thought, let’s travel alone together! We pushed our way up the rocky slops and climbed over the final boulder.  And there it was.

I sat in awe.  My eyes widen, so as to not miss a detail.  The stillness of the steel grey of the granite towers jutting high into the clear blue sky broken only by the movements of a single condor weaving around the peaks.  The volcanic lake below, shimmering turquoise from the glacial minerals that constantly replenish it.  The sound of the wind, which chill you to your core, whistling past your ear.  The sound of yet another avalanche as the layers of snow collapse under their own weight.  And we made it.  We are witnessing it, in its perfect glory.

I can’t express the feeling of accomplishment that I had at this moment.  Each of us just sat and appreciated the moment.  The euphoria, the satisfaction and the ecstasy carried us down the mountain. And after a celebratory glass of wine we said our farewells.

Torres del Paine is a physical challenge.  But with that physical challenge comes the opportunity to make new friends, overcome your own psychological obstacles, disconnect from the white noise in your life and place yourself in the way of beauty.

It was a tough hike to do alone, but then again you are never really alone!

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