8-10 January 2015 –
I returned early from Torres del Paine, driven out of the park by a massive and unexpected snowstorm and the realization that neither I nor my equipment were prepared for Patagonia’s violent weather. Snowstorms aren’t unheard-of in the park, though this one was still a surprise for a lot of hikers, and I wasn’t the only one to bail early. It was a disappointing and unfulfilling conclusion to my Puerto Natales saga, but was not without some memorable moments, which I’ll write about here.
8 January 2015:
18:30 – the bus from Puerto Natales arrives at the Administration center. I step out into dry, warm air and late afternoon sunshine.
I know my bag is heavy – I’m guessing 12 or 13 kilos – so even though I’m anxious to be on my way after the four-hour bus ride, I take my time getting ready to hike to Carretas. I tighten down the straps along my backpack and check that the heaviest bits are shoved at the bottom for balance. Though it’s chilly, I strip off my insulating layers since I already know I’ll sweat through them as I hike. I stuff a trail mix bag in my pocket so I won’t have to stop in fifteen minutes when I’m hungry. Though it’s late in the evening I slap on sunscreen just in case.
The path starts out along a gravel road before cutting into a field of tough, stubby grass that covers the rocky plain. The other backpackers on the bus must have left right away, because I don’t see anyone else as I follow the trail north across the fields, skirting low craggy hills dotted with a few trees twisted into spirals by the fierce Patagonian winds. Fortunately, the wind now is light and dry, the sun drifting in and out of clouds brooding over the massive peaks I can see towering beyond the hills to my right. It’s pleasantly warm and I sweat a little with my heavy pack as I walk.
8:16 – I arrive at Carretas, pleased to be a little early even though I took a few breaks to rest. The campsite consists of a sign, a vault toilet, a few hollows of flattened grass where other hikers have pitched their tents, and a largeish three-sided wooden structure that looks like a bus shelter. This the cooking area. This is the entire camp. A friendly Chilean helps me find a site that’s sheltered from the wind (though not from the mosquitos). I pitch my tent reasonably well, checking carefully that the narrow side faces into the wind and the surface is pulled tight with guy lines. I’m glad I practiced setting my rental equipment up before I have to do it in real weather. I’ve only camped a few times before and I’m still making some of the beginner mistakes.
In the cooking shelter I meet a couple planning to hike the full circuit, as I am, and I run into Marcus, a German backpacker I met in Puerto Natales. He shows me his huge laminated trekking map and the tiny trail he’s planning to take that veers up the John Gardner pass and way off the normal routes the tourist hikers trek. He’s prepared for it – he walked all the way from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas, a trek of 14 days, last month. We swap New Years stories: he says he was picked up by the Chilean army in the wilderness and invited to an asado. We talk and nobody really feels like sleeping, but it’s getting late. We’re still so far south that the sun doesn’t set until nearly 11:00, so we go to sleep with the sky still light.
9 January 2015:
8:30 – breakfast is fancy powdered cappuccino mix and a bit of trail mix. I’m apprehensive. I feel good, strong and well rested and over my cold; but I know my pack is heavy and I have a longer walk today. This is a test today – to find out how I handle weather changes, if I can manage the weight I’m carrying, and if I can hike the trails in a reasonable amount of time.
10:00 – I wait around camp for the other hikers, making some sketches, but eventually I’m too antsy to sit any longer and I set off. The landscape is similar to yesterday’s – a single path winding through windswept plains. The central peaks of the Torres del Paine formation come into view as I round smaller hills, ever closer, and I take breaks to sketch when I feel like it. I pick up an excellent walking stick as I pass through a copse of burnt, dried trees. I remember hearing that this part of the park burned about five years ago. The grass has come back rich and thick, but the skinny dead husks of the trees that burned will be standing here for a long time yet.
13:50 – Paine grande lodge. It’s another two and a half hours to my campsite Italiano. Here, the trail winds over the low foothills next to the massive bulk of the mountains. Giant peaks loom on my left, and after a few minutes a sparkling, unnaturally turquoise lake comes into view on my right. Between these two wonders I walk alone with my bag for some hours.
15:30 – My pack is heavy and I stop for breaks frequently. The mountains help keep my spirits up. The Cuernos formations are right in front of me, huge spades of granite with nearly sheer sides, thrust up one right after another, tops ripping through the ragged clouds. Deep valleys fade in and out of view as the clouds wind through mountain range. The peaks are massive and deep and you can never quite get a complete view of everything – something is always hidden, something appearing and then fading out of view. In front of all of this, the glacier-fed lake Sköttsberg ripples, light turquoise against the gentle gray stone shores.
17:15 – I arrive at Italiano exhausted, but accomplished. I was a little slow, but not dangerously slow, and I feel all right. This campsite is busy – there are probably seventy tents already set up among the trees. This campsite has a guard station and cooking shelter set among the trees next to a clear swiftly rushing river. The mouth of the valley Frances opens just above the campsite, already obscured by early evening mist. At times cliffs and glaciers appear further back along the bends of the river before the fog shrouds them.
I cook my modest dinner of instant mashed potatoes, cheese, and sausage, and I drink a little wine given to me by a Spanish woman I meet in the shelter. The couple I met at Carretas is here too and we play cards after our meal, but the temperature plummets at sunset and we escape to our sleeping bags by 21:00.
Sometime during the night it begins to rain.
10 January 2015:
7:45 – I’ve been awake for a little while but haven’t yet mustered the courage to leave my warm sleeping bag and my dry tent. I’m pleased that my rented tent doesn’t leak and that my large sleeping bag kept me more or less warm during the night – but the thought of getting out to hike up Valle Frances in the freezing rain is intimidating me. I promise myself a hot breakfast – more potatoes with cheese and sausage, and hot coffee – and haul myself out of my tent.
10:00 – I leave my tent pitched and take my small day bag up the misty valley. It starts off merely sprinkling – though I can see snow further up the valley – and the exertion from the steep hike keeps me warm under my waterproof jacket. This trail is rocky and meanders across stony streams and through quiet, green woods as it skirts the blue river that cuts through the valley. All the time the huge Glacier Frances looms to my left. It’s a hanging glacier – a glacier in the process of falling over a cliff – and huge chunks calve as it inches over the edge. I’m in no danger – the valley is wide and I’m hiking on the opposite side from the avalanches. During the night at camp we could hear what sounded like thunder rumbling through the valley. As I watch the glacier and catch sight of a small-ish slice of ice cascading down, I realize that I was actually hearing the sound of enormous blocks of ice crashing onto the valley floor as the edge of the glacier broke apart at night.
I keep hiking, but the rain picks up and it gets colder.
12:50 – I’m an hour past the glacier overlook and I’ve just come out of the tranquil, snowy woods and into a wall of wind and ice. The snow howls against me and smacks me down, knocking me off balance as I try to cross a clearing. This is it, then – my turn-around point. It was freezing in camp this morning and to get myself to even try the hike I told myself I would turn around if things got too cold and miserable. Things are too cold and miserable now. I made it up the valley nearly to Mirador Britanico: enough of an accomplishment for me. I head back toward camp through quieter woods.
A snowstorm in the middle of summer isn’t unheard-of in Patagonia, but this seems like more than the 15-minute weather blip I was expecting based on other trekkers’ stories. The clouds are dark and endless and the rain and snow are coming down solid and steady. And as I hike down and the trail gets easier, the real problems are becoming apparent – my hands are numb inside my wool gloves (“don’t bring gloves – you won’t need them,” they told me in Puerto Natales) and my feet inside their wool socks and chuck Taylors are cold. I took a gamble when I decided to try this trek in sneakers, and I’m beginning to need to think seriously about whether I’m going to lose that bet.
14:30 – I’m back at camp and it’s menacingly cold. The rain is coming down steady even among the trees. I eat another hot meal and try to encourage myself to pack up my tent and head for the next campsite. Supposedly, I’m not allowed to stay at Italiano two nights in a row. I think through all the steps I need to take to get my bag ready, and wonder how in the world anybody takes a tent down in the rain without it getting soaked.
15:15 – amazingly, I somehow figure out how to take the tent down underneath the rain fly, keeping it mostly dry. It’s dirty and the rain fly is drenched. I stuff everything in the tent bag, trying not to think about how utterly frozen through I am, and trying very very hard not to think about how difficult it will be to set it all up again in a few hours. I’m headed to Cuernos campsite, a couple of hours away.
Before I start down the trail, I weigh my options. I can hike to Cuernos, camp in the freezing cold and rain tonight, and hope the weather changes. But what if the weather doesn’t change? And what if I run into more freezing temperatures and rain later on in more remote parts of the park? And will I be able to enjoy being out in this park if I’m worried about hypothermia the whole time?
I hike toward Cuernos for about ten minutes. The rain comes down harder than ever. It’s freezing and the trail is flooded – my feet are soaked through and my toes are beginning to numb. At one water crossing I stop in the rain for a minute and take a deep breath.
I turn around. I have exactly enough time to reach Paine Grande in time to take a boat across the lake and catch a bus out of the park. My feet and hands are dangerously cold. It’s not going to stop raining any time soon. I decide to head for the previous campsite, further south where the weather looks clearer, and decide there whether to take the boat back to puerto Natales or spend another night in the park and try to make it work.
18:25 – I make Paine Grande just in time for the catamaran back to the park entrance. Two hours of freezing cold rain and wind made the decision for me – I’m heading back. I shudder with cold as we cross the lake and look at the massive dark clouds smothering the mountains.
Part of me thinks I may have given up on the trek too early (though it seems my instincts were correct – other hikers who were in the park that week told me it was cold and rainy for days afterward). But hypothermia is not something you mess around with when you’re in the mountains alone, and this wasn’t a situation where I needed to risk it. I console myself by telling myself I’ll come back one day and trek with a friend and better equipment and see Torres del Paine properly.