I actually thought that Torres del Paine meant towers of pain in spanish. I was however mistaken. It seems the indigenous folk down this way use the word paine (or something like it) to describe the colour blue. So there you go another fact that you probably didnt need or want to know – I have many of them! Personally I will forever remember them as the towers of pain as blue does not adequately explain the experience – read on!
So we were picked up from our hotel in Chile’s Southerly most city Punta Arenas at 10.30 am precisely on Monday for our trip to Ecocamp Torres del Paine. Had I known at that point that we would be driving all around town picking up others and then driving straight past our hotel again, I would have asked for the extra half hour to shop and obtain that warm weather gear I was clearly lacking. Apart from the fact that you can never have enough time to shop anywhere, here I was in a bit of a quandry. You see I had wandered back into town seeking thermals again at 9am only to discover that the shops dont open until10am. I had walked backwards and forwards numerous times past a gentleman in the street who was politely holding his hand out and smiling. Eventually after I had managed to ask my question in Spanish to a friendly looking lady about opening times I thought I should simply head back to the hotel and wait for the pickup. As I passed the smiling man one last time I felt the need to contribute to his dental fund so on my final pass by I handed him 2000 pesos. You can only imagine how big the smile got then and I have to say I was glad to have made the contribution as the bigger the smile, the more obvious the need for dental work.
Anyway we were fortunate to have stumbled onto a bus with a great team for the trip up to torres del Paine – Ryan, Jill, Richard, Christina and finally Lloyd and Marilyn – the grand partners of adventure – they have done Killamanjara, the Camino and even Base Camp Everest – all since retiring! Our team was a mix of mostly Canadians with three of us from Oz. Yet again this adventure into the unknown wasnt great – it was fantastico! Well if this was going to be the class of people in Ecocamp we were very pleased to have decided on glamping rather than camping! Desafortunatemente (you know my favourite spanish word by now) we were all going to go our separate ways the next day. But for now the bus was filled with laughter and travel stories, comparative shopping analysis and, without a doubt, a shared feeling of awe as we marvelled at the grandiosity of Patagonia. We met up with Juan (whom I later discovered was Joan pronounced more like Juan) who was to take the others on their W Trek the next day camping at refugios throughout the park. He was a wealth of information and helped me make a very quick and expensive purchase of a warmer coat and thermal base layer in Puerto Natales before once again heading into the great unknown. At least I was no longer facing the fear of freezing to death in this wild untamed land however credit card bills on our return home may prove equally as traumatic! Oh well…
We had a brief stop at a rather large cave that I believe was formed a few thousand years ago when a glacier melted and the water was washed in to the mountain. The cave was the place where someone discovered the remains of a dinosaur/sloth that looked very much like a bear. Well at least we all thought it did. We wandered into the cave in the hope of seeing some evidence of the bear however we were only greeted with manmade replicas and stalignites or whatever tthose things are that drop from the ceiling. I would like to point out however that bear or no bear the cave was pretty darn impressive and I do not think the stop was wasted at all. Anyway the shop outside had one pair of gloves available that would fit my beloved and we went back in and made this purchase just before departure which would prove life saving for him especially up in the French Valley in a day or two (or at least finger saving.)
On arrival at Ecocamp we thought we were about to have another experience where I had misread the reviews and we should have stayed elsewhere. First we were walked to tent number 6 which looked perfect as it was at the end of the track, very private, great view – oops someone is in there, then tent number 5 -sorry not this one either, then the girl ran back to the office and came back saying tent number 7. We walked down the track past the disabled sign and we were disappointed to see a) we were taking the disabled tent from someone who might need it and b) we would have big handrails taking up the already limited space in the shower cubicle attached to the tent. Little did we know how useful those shower rails would be after 9 and 10 hour hikes into the mountains! The tent was muy bueno with its own little fire place and super warm bedding and even though the wind was to howl all through the night – we were in the perfect Patagonian sanctuary with a view out of our tent window to the towers of pain.
We headed down to the dining tent before dinner as instructed and met with another Australian couple and our allocated guide Adriana to find out the next days itinerary. Another near disappointment was to be told that we could not do the Mirador for 3 days as differrent programs were running. This disappointed me as I felt I might only have one good hike in me and it had to be Mirador del Torres. Desafortunatemente – what will be will be.
So day 1 in Ecocamp the winds were howling, rain/snow was coming and going and we were making full use of all the warmest gear we owned. We selected the Grey Glacier visit whereupon we got to know our favourite guides. Adriana and her “friend” Diego – later known as the cousins! Enroute to Glacier grey or whichever way you say it, we were able to stop off at a couple of places, firstly the condors nest where Diego took a photo of us and suggested it would be great because we are married for us to be kissing. After the big kiss and posing for the photo I informed him we were not married but we were cousins! Ha ha poor Diego nearly had a heart attack. I have to admit it was a good laugh.
Anyway no sight that they took us to that day was more interesting than the waterfall stop where we were warned that the wind can be so bad that we may not even be able to complete our walk. Furthermore, if our guides were to signal with a dropped hand, we should drop to the ground immediately as we may be swept to our death by the wind. Because we had already visited the condor’s nest look out where we started to learn to fly and we had spent a night in the howling wind so loud that for me it required earplugs, we were finding the wind somewhat challenging but also kind of fun. Well were we in for a shock here. What happens is the stones get whipped up by the wind and you need your jacket more for protecting your skin from flying gravel than anything else. I think it was here that I first had the pleasure of sleet blowing horizontally into my ear also. I would grow used to this phenomenum after a day or two. Thankfully beloved husband remained close too my side in order to ensure I did not unexpectedly fly off the cliff!
After struggling only a few hundred metres we were able to cling to the guard rails and grab a few snapshots of the waterfall. Only after being there do you realise it is not the waterfall that is the attraction, very nice but we have seen a few of them in our time, no the wind is the attraction – a bit like a ride at Luna Park where you are unable to move due to centrifugal forces. Here it was the wind that pinned you and if you were able to hit the ground without being blown away you were clearly unable to rise again until the gust had passed! Had she been here Mary Poppins would have been swept up and arrived in Antartica before you could say supercalafragilisticexpealadocias!
Eventually we arrived at our boat at Lago Gris or Grey Lake. Nothing is boring in this part of the world. I felt like we were given a trip through the Perfect Storm! I eaven had my personal George Clooney at my side! Beloved husband, upon noticing my knuckles turning white as I clung to the seat in front, informed me that “you know it is perfectly safe” as the boat nose dived through what I consider a 6 metre wave rolling straightt towards us. I may not be the best estimator of wave height but whatever way you looked at it the weather was wild and the front window of the boat was under the water. My guess is we were in a 54 footer or larger – husband suggests at least 15 metres – do your own calculations – it was wild. After what felt like hours and the lady in front having to move up the back to vomit, the waves finally calmed down and icebergs everywhere came into view and there it was – the face of the grey glacier. Once the boat pulled up close enough we were able to climb up to the top deck of the boat, the wind was still extreme but I guess the waves hadnt had time to form yet. As you might have guessed out comes the pisco sour. This was interesting drinking in the wind. One gust hit so suddenly that my pisco sour sprayed over my camera and all through my hair. Luckily my genuine attempts to communicate with the boat crew lead to my being offered another, and then just before heading back, another. Yay to pisco sour – at least I could relax a little for the return trip.
Anyway day number two saw us agreeing to undertake the second most difficult hike on the menu. I was concerned that I would wear myself out or cause great pain to my knee, which might prevent me from doing the Mirador Los Torres which was scheduled for the next day. But by the same token, the weather may close in and the hike tomorrow may be cancelled anyway. Furthermore the hike to los Torres today was not appealling in strong wind and rain. So we committed to a hike up into the French Valley to the base of a great glacier. This was apparantly to be a15 km round trip but first we had to catch another boat from the windiest part of the park would you believe! Oh boy we really were having some fun. Funnily enough this boat did not even vaguely come near to the thrill ride of the day before. Before you knew it we were disembarking and having a brief stop at the refugio and camping ground to visit the toilet and get our hiking poles out.
I felt totally safe with our guides Adriana and Diego with one at the front and the other at the rear. On this hike we got to know our new German friends Heike and Ulrich and our new Canadian friends Gail and Ginger (what great names eh?). We were still with Heather and Peter from Oz who were also with us on the previous day. I think it was here that Diego taught me my favourite Chilean farewell. Chow Pescado – pronounced something like Chow Pescow meaning Goodbye fish! I know you may all be wondering what the hell am I talking about but another girl on the boat over to the French Valley hike informed me that it was like saying see you later Alligator because it rhymes. But I said it doesnt rhyme! It was at this point I realised how badly Chileans speak spanish as Chow Pescado in no way Rhymes unless it is said in Chilean. So Chow Pescow it is!
This hike into the French Valley was impressive – I recorded the GPS track from when we boarded the boat so when I get time I can update this blog with the track and statistics. Let me say it was hard work. Initially there was rain and wind so we all (except husband) had our waterproof pants and jackets on. Husband did have his thermal tights on under his trekking pants however and they looked so good I thought he was going to a pirouette for me before we had left our tent that morning. Anyway the wind again whipped so hard that sleet or snow was going sideways into my ear canals until I pulled up my new buff which I had bought with my other expensive gear on the way at Puerto Natales on advice from our new friends Marilyn and Christina (the Cuban Canadian) . That was excellent advice ladies – thankyou!
So we hiked for hours and eventually stopped for our packed lunches under the protection of trees in the camp ground. I have no idea why we stopped in that god forsaken spot or how cold it was but frankly it was too cold to pee and everyone who had their gloves off found fingertips freezing within seconds. I dont think we had seen the sun for days.
I think the ranger told Diego that the weather was too bad to go all the way but Diego had a plan, we would go up the centre of the Valley following the waterway and if we were lucky we would make the base of the glacier. After another couple of hours, up and down up and down, we were lucky! It was definitely worth the pain! More photos, a bit of a rest and then time to head back. Okay I was aching – actually we both were – surely we all were. It was during the last stretch back to catch the boat that I came to the realisation that I may need to eat more and I may actually be too light. I had told my beloved I was fine and he progressed ahead with great haste whilst I plodded along the last five kilometres or so. At some point in time I will admit the wind almost had me beaten. Ulrich very kindly offered to assist me for some of the climbing where the wind had grown strong again. It was only when I almost fell off the side of the mountain I realised how fantastic our guides were. Suddenly both Adriana and Diego appeared from nowhere and escorted me over the windiest section of the trail. Always encouraging me with its only a short way, about 15 minutes, just over that next hill – well practised in stretching the truth to encourage success I would say. Finally – the refugio and camp ground where we were to catch the boat for home was in sight. This where it all went pair shaped however!
The wind was so strong that we needed to stand behind a wall just to obtain some reprieve. Thankfully we were able to use the facilities at the camp site and buy a couple snacks to replenish our energy. Sadly the temperature had not improved at all throughout the day. We were then told we had to line up for the boat that was to come in 40 minutes. So 40 minutes standing in a freezing cold 40 knot wind fresh from the Southern Patagonian Icefields. Well it could have been 50 knots – how would any of us know really? Again it was an opportunity to cling to the fence and hope that one wasnt one of the unlucky ones whose body was flipped over the edge into the freezing cold lake. After withstanding this constant force we were excited to see the boat finally arrive. We were not however excited to see the boat take on passengers and then leave again – without us!
At this point Adriana and Diego insisted we go back to the refugio and wait in the bar and they would mind our spots. I know you are thinking why on earth would we want to sit in a bar by a fire place and drink red wine when we could continue to stand out in this once in a life time wind! Well we had to suffer this misfortune with a heavy heart! One positive was we were able to see our good friends who had caught the bus with us from Punta Arenas. Another positive was we had time to actually talk to our hiking companions and share the left over snacks we had carried with our packed lunch. The red wine was unbelievably welcome.
Husband sat watch perched atop the lounge arm peering out towards the far side of the lake with his binoculars. Finally around 8.30pm the boat arrived – its hard to keep track of times when the sky doesnt seem to get dark until midnight. Anyway in the rush to get back to the wind swept lineup my beloved left the said binoculars for someone elses pleasure! We arrived back at the camp site, my hair was so matted I could not even brush it, my legs were so sore I could barely raise myself from the sitting position – but we felt damned good – that was one hell of a hike and we had made it to the face of the glacier we had made even more new friends and were pleased to have chosen the hike and even more pleased to have made it back! Muy bueno!
More photos to come when internet allows – stay tuned