After a two-hour bus and catamaran lake-crossing later we are thrown into the national park and the wind the bright blue biggest sky and already the (new) most beautiful mountain views of my life!
But I learn quickly that I don’t belong here and nature doesn’t want me here anyway.
The first day is beautiful from the moment we land on the banks of the ‘Paine Grande’ campsite with sun shining and snowy peaks surrounding.
I set up my tent and dropped my large rucksack grabbing only a daypack for the 15-mile round trip to the suspension bridge past Refugio Grey and overlooking Glacier Grey. With each turn is a new life-changing sight and I reel in ecstasy just being out here in Patagonia and alive and camping — what an adventure.
I had no idea…
I made it back to my tent just before dark, feet aching and body totally exhausted. But once you walk that far away from your camp you have no choice but to walk back. After dinner I brush my teeth and fall asleep immediately but sleep is light and every wind gust and short rain shower wakes me up. I’ve heard the weather is supposed to be terrible tomorrow but it’s hard to believe because there wasn’t a cloud around all day. The midnight showers freak me out so I wake up early and try to get on the trail to the second night’s camp site just 7 km away, but I start moving too late and don’t get on the trail until 8:30.
The day is cloudy but the views are incredible, they fuel my tired body and the hiking is easy even with the weight of my huge pack on my back and shoulders. I am amused by winds that could have easily knocked me over if I didn’t have my hiking poles. But the wind is a sign of the storms to come.
A soft drizzle turns into a hard rain that stings my eyes so I stop to put on my waterproof pants, rain jacket and glasses and get ready to make the last 2 km to Campamento Italiano in the downpour.
I am nearly soaked as I cross the suspension bridge to the backwoods ranger station and camping area. There is a small covered cooking area that is totally packed with hikers having snacks before making the trek up into the valley lookout, the middle leg of the ‘W’ trek. Most of them will still have to hike about 2 more hours onward to the lodges after this — up and back to a lookout point called Mirador Valley Francés. I take my time because I am camping here tonight.
It is just after 11 a.m. and just lightly raining now so I seize the opportunity to put up my tent and eat a snack and make tea and put my stuff in my tent and grab a day pack to hike up to Mirador Francés. I make it past the viewpoint and then a little bit farther but the rain is coming down hard by now in heavy sheets with the intense wind coming down through the valley off the mountaintops that I can’t see at all because of the clouds and fog and pouring rain.
I eventually get to a river flowing from a rain and snowmelt-fed waterfall a few hundred yards up the mountain. It is totally covering where the trail should be. After walking out into the middle of the rushing water I slip and dunk one foot all the way under. I look everywhere to find a way to cross, but there are no more stepping stones so I turn back. On the way down I soak my other foot while crossing another impassable stream that had ample ways to cross just 20 minutes ago.
Now with two wet feet I race back through the sheets of rain to my camp, hoping my tent is still standing with rainfly intact and dry gear inside.
It’s been raining since 10 a.m. this morning, and everyone is soaked through by the time they pass back through Italiano. My tent is fine and I am eating some snacks but still haven’t put on dry clothes because the rain is still pouring down outside this tiny refuge.
They all have stories of passing the roaring river that was just a stream as they headed up the mountain. All of their hiking boots are totally saturated and their clothes are soaked. Some wring buckets of rainwater from their socks before putting them back on to continue their hike. Their faces drip and soaked hair is brushed to the side, stuck to their cheeks.
Somehow the inside of my shoes and my wool socks are mostly spared, I guess the money spent on boots was worth it. I couldn’t be happier in my pride-less decision to head back to camp instead of trying to cross that horrible stream like everyone else.
By 2:00 p.m. my tent is flexing dangerously in the wind and rain and there is a party of hikers packed into the covered area. Most of them leave within 30 minutes though, off to their precious lodges and refugios with warm beds and furnaces and ceilings that don’t flail like kites in a hurricane. I am left alone to lay all my clothes out along the rafters and beams of the 8×16, three-sided building.
The tin roof is holding though and I keep from getting more soaked underneath it. More importantly, it blocks the brutal wind.
By 3:00 a group of four shows up, three Irish guys (Ryan, Steve and Michael) and an English girl (Eleanor) and we share a tired laugh and they lay their soaking clothes out alongside mine. Three of them are the same folks I shared a taxi with just a couple of days ago — truly a tiny backpacking world!
I make tea and the mad dash to the tent to check my stuff and change out of the soaking clothes . It’s a miracle but everything inside my tent is dry even though I can see a river running under the thin orange bottom. What the hell is going to happen tonight?
I shiver out of my clothes and into some dry ones and rush back to the shack where a sixth has joined us — Manuel who has come from the other direction after a 20 km day.
He is soaked and says nothing as he robotically takes off his wet clothes and changes into dry ones and eats cold beans from the can. Manuel is a machine! The UK folks make pasta and tuna dinner and it’s barely 4 p.m. now but they have gone to seek the refuge and warmth of their tents and sleeping bags.
Manuel and I laugh about the rain, because what else can you do, as I make dinner. We have a small conversation, as much as my Spanish allows. I learn he is from Iquique and is in the military and it’s his first time here. He showed me a video of him unable to stand up from behind a rock because of the wind earlier today. We crack up watching it.
After some time the wind and rain miraculously start to let up to a breeze and a drizzle. I walk around the campsite some more to survey the damage and Manuel takes the chance to set his tent up. After a bit I say goodnight to him around 6 pm and go to hide in my tent.
I put on layers of clothes and climb into my bag and listen to music on my phone and draw for a while but nothing can make me feel like this rain will ever stop.
As night falls around me in my tent the break from the intense storm seems to be over and I can hear the wind picking up and roaring through the valley as the rain patters on the thin rain fly over my head.
I’m amazed the inside of this tent is still dry as another massive gust works it’s way through the valley and sets my tent sideways. Tent poles bend and flex and the rain fly warps under the power of the intense gusts. I grab onto the earth beneath and can almost feel it spinning, trying to hurl me off like an out of control carousel.
The gust dies down and my tent springs back to its original form — unbroken, for now. What the fuck have I gotten myself into? Now total darkness has fallen around me on the side of this damn mountain and the rain is falling still and all I can do is pray that I make it through the night. I’ve entered survival mode…
Finally I pass out for a few minutes around 9:30 but wake up to wind and torrential rain again around 10 and this continues all night — tossing and turning and sleeping for 15 minutes at a time.
I keep waking up and feeling like it should be day for sure by now but when I poke my head out of my sleeping bag cocoon it’s still pitch black in the tent. I moan and crawl back inside the bag and try to sleep some more. I’m exhausted and sore but unable to get any real rest.
At some point after day breaks the rain stops and I take all my stuff into the shelter and pack up my muddy and disgusting tent in the early dawn. I can’t believe it held. The floor has a bit of water on it, maybe from a few tiny holes or just some condensation from me spending 12 hours in there.
I force myself into damp boots on Saturday morning and organize my gear and pulled it into the small covered area that was my only salvation yesterday. It has finally stopped raining but it’s still cloudy and cold and the air is dank and wet.
This tent miraculously withstood torrential downpours and gale-force winds. I guess that’s why it was so expensive?
After breakfast of tea and instant oats I start walking and am immediately invigorated by new incredible mountain sights.
Every trail from the moment it started raining yesterday became a river of its own and the slightest misstep plunged your feet into the icy streams. I found myself questioning more than once if I was still on the trail or if I had just started walking up a stream and missed the bend in the trail.
This trip crossed the line from a learning experience about the simplicity of life and a lesson on appreciating what I have and an experiment in attitude into pain and anguish and even fear. Maybe that’s what it takes to make a great story. Maybe that’s what it takes to make true change and appreciation come about because when the clouds finally blew away and gave way to an open blue sky around 10:30 a.m. Saturday I’ve never in my life been so happy to feel the warmth of the sun on my face.
But I managed to stay on the well marked paths and saw a group of people I knew and walked with them as the sun came out and we stopped and had lunch together.
After a few hours my path split off from theirs and I was alone again but this time excited to see a sign that said only 5.5 km to my camping area and my pace quickened. I think I walked about 20 km today with a huge pack and soaked feet that are now blistered, red, bumpy and itchy.
An amazing day of hiking really.
Finally at the last campsite around 3 p.m. near the entrance to the park with a posh restaurant and hotel and spectacular views of the namesake ‘Torres’ — the towers so terrifying and imposing over my campsite.
But the sky is wide and blue and the sun is out so I pick a campsite and start to set my tent up — I feel like a pro now at erecting my mobile home and the task is completed in record time.
I play Bob Marley from my phone as I bask in the precious sunshine and lay out some clothes and socks and shoes to dry. Around 4:00 p.m. the sun has gone back into hiding behind menacing clouds rolling in from over the towers.
The powerful wind returns and nearly implodes my tent and my mood swings as quickly as the weather. I curse the entire trip and can’t wait to leave this damned place. But I put my stuff in my tent, hope for the storm to pass over and walk to the camp store to buy coffee and sit inside in the warmth from the wood stove near the window.
Now totally drained at 5:20 p.m. all I can think about is a warm bed and some clean laundry. My shoulders ache from three days of a heavy pack. I’m still not sure about how to make the rash on my feet go away, maybe just time and some hot showers and clean socks and fresh air.
This country is brutal and I can’t believe the lengths people will go through to climb a mountain. What a feat. I barely made it around the base of a few mountains over a few days on well marked trails.
My mood is shot and my energy is totally gone. I walk back to camp and make my last dinner, rice and beans with some salty powder from a soup seasoning packet.
In bed at 7:44 p.m. I contemplate moving tent sites because this one is crazy windy but it starts raining harder and it’s about to get dark and I think it’s going to be windy everywhere around here so I’m just gonna deal with it.
My hands are cracked and dry and I have random sores and blisters all over my body — but I don’t care about any of this, I just want to get some sleep.
The wind whips and distorts my tent and rain fly much harder than last night and I’ve never felt more helpless. The rain is falling harder than it has all day and all I want is sleep. The bags under my eyes have their own luggage now and I haven’t smiled for hours. I want to go home. I’m not having fun anymore.
I will have nightmares about this night.
Every time I start to relax and close my eyes the wind destroys any peace I have. This terrain is brutal. Even the wind hates my presence. What next? The earth cracks open and I start to fall in? I would welcome it at this point. At least I’m not soaking wet…yet.
This is the camping trip from hell, I tell myself. Today was going so well — it was going to be a perfect bookend on a wild weekend full of beauty and terror. But the land had a more exciting ending for this story.
It’s 9:00 p.m. and this storm has only gotten stronger over the past three hours. My tent does the contortionist’s trick once every twenty seconds or so now and it sounds like I’m sleeping on the deck of an aircraft carrier going to war.
I don’t think this storm will be letting up anytime soon and all I can hope for is that my tent holds up through the night… I can’t imagine the torture of having the tent rip from it’s supports or tear at the seams from this crazy wind and rain
Now I’ve switched to sitting upright in my tent with my head propping up the point that kept getting smashed and twisted down to the ground. My heart is racing and it feels like somebody is playing frisbee with my home right now. It sounds like I’m trapped in an inflated parachute plummeting to earth and the wind is so crazy that it’s whipping water up underneath the rain fly and into my tent.
The wind dies down for 15 seconds and this is the most the storm has died for over an hour now. How long could it stay like this? It’s not even 9:30 and I’m already wondering how long I have to deal with this.
It feels like a landscaping crew is walking in circles around my tent with air blowers and then taking turns falling over into the tent to see how much it can take. I’m about at my limit but then again I keep saying that and my limit keeps stretching.
Another fighter jet takes off on the deck and I erect my back to keep the tent from caving in over top of me. To be fair, this Big Agnes UL-2 is really performing in probably the most extreme wind and rain environment possible. A lesser tent would have collapsed already, my hope and sanity along with it.
Next to me I can hear the two Irish blokes that just got back to their tent after a night of wine drinking in the lodge.
“How did this happen?” one exclaims.
From what I gather their tent is deflated and totally drenched from the rivers now running through the campsite
The storm is hammering us now and these winds are insane and I’m wondering what kind of effort it will take to stay up all night sitting here in this tent holding it up.
Next to me the boys holler and swear at their rental equipment.
“It could be too wet to sleep in,” the other said.
No shit, I think…
I hear them make plans to tell their two friends what happened and then go to sleep in the lodge if there is room.
Is this normal weather for Patagonia, or is this especially bad? There is no way of knowing but I suspect it’s just some seasonal storms. The winds here are infamous but what the fuck? How could anything survive out here, especially any kind of tourism industry, in weather like this. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky. Maybe I’ve just been stupid for trying to come here. Maybe a little bit of both.
Another night from hell, who would have figured? The first night I thought I was having a hard time sleeping because of the Germans talking all night instead of sleeping. I’d give anything to be back there now. And I’m going to run out of drinking water in my tent pretty soon, ironic really.
It sounds like a tidal wave is crashing over top of me but it’s just another monster wind-wave crashing down from the mountains. Interesting how similar the two forces are — one wind and one water. Both terrible and powerful and deadly for sure. Both beautiful and amazing pressure changes and energy flowing through our atmosphere.
But I’m so miserable that for the past few hours and past few days I can’t find any meaning or truth in anything except that life is misery and dealing with miserable situations or maybe trying your hardest to normalize miserable situations.
Now it’s 9:47 p.m. and nothing has changed — I’m just killing time as it creeps slowly by. This is a disaster but I want to make the best of it. I’ll just keep listening to music and typing on my phone. To think when I got here I had everything spread out like it would dry and blasting reggae from my phone as I put up my tent…
Things couldn’t be more different now — why would I ever let my guard down?
I wake at 11:24 p.m. amazed that I had even been able to sleep at all, exhaustion does magical things. My ankles itch like crazy and are covered in dry red bumps but that’s not what woke me up, the wind is back and the rain is falling harder than ever and the whipping and bending and on and on forever…my life is a waking nightmare right now.
There are huge pools of water forming underneath my tent and it’s like I’m sleeping on a water bed and it’s only a matter of time before all of this water starts to pour in on me to soak my body and clothes and sleeping bag and everything I own. As I feel the water creeping in and the edges of my sleeping g bag becoming wet I enter a sort of panic mode.
It’s funny really, I thought last night was the worst that it could get but of course tonight is just as bad and on and on I could complain forever but it won’t stop the rain. I’m exhausted. I want to go home.
Everyone says you are supposed to wake up before dawn to hike up to the torres to see the sunrise over the incredible stone towers — but I know now this will not happen for me.
I’m sure I will do absolutely nothing before the 2 p.m. transport that will take us back to the park entrance and the two hour bus ride back to Puerto Natales where i might kiss our hostel owner/manager Diego on the lips and fall to my knees praising Hostel Last Hope, so aptly named.
Jesus what a hike.
Hiking gives you all sorts of metaphors for life. I wish I could remember any of the profound and spiritual epiphanies from the trek but they are all gone into the mountain mist.
Sunday morning comes after a completely restless night. And of course it’s still raining.
I walk to the lodge in the early morning to sit by the heater for a few hours before heading back to break camp in the rain. My tent is soaked but I cram it into a trash bag and into the bottom of my pack. Everything else finds a home in my big blue bag and I walk back to the lodge.
One by one everyone else from the camp makes their way to the lodge and we all make a mess of the dining room with our gear everywhere and wet shoes and clothes hanging over chairs near furnaces and heaters. We all sit around tables drinking coffee and tea and recounting the weekend’s horror stories.
Finally at 1:45 we walk to get the transport out of the park and make our way back to Puerto Natales and the warmth and comfort of our hostels.
••• TDP ‘W’ Timeline •••
Day 1, Thursday:
07:30 — Bus to park, pay entrance fee, orientation video and bus to catamaran
11:00 — Catamaran to campsite Paine Grande
11:30 — Check in, set up camp
13:00 — Hike to glacier and suspension bridge (14 km one way)
16:15 — Hike back to camp
19:30 — Dinner
21:30 — bathroom and get ready for bed
((28 km today, 28 km total))
Day 2, Friday:
06:30 — Wake up, break camp, cook breakfast
08:15 — begin hike to Camp Italiano
11:30 — Arrive at Italiano (8 km), downpour begins
13:00 — hike up to valley lookout in downpour and back (4 km)
15:00 — The Italiano six
18:00 — Head to bed
((12 km today, 40 km total))
Day 3, Saturday:
07:30 — Break camp, make breakfast
09:00 — Begin hike
11:00 — Meet up with other hikers and walk until our paths split (16.5 km)
13:00 — Hike to final campsite (5 km)
16:00 — Clouds and wind descend, rain imminent
((22 km today, 62 km total))
Day 4, Sunday:
07:00 — Wake up in wet tent, walk to lodge
09:00 — Break soggy camp
10:00 — Lodge and instant coffee all day
13:44 — Walk to the shuttle bus, then ride Bus Gomez back to Puerto Natales
14:30 — Bus Gómez to Puerto Natales
16:30 — Arrive at Hostel Last Hope
19:30 — Dinner with new friends
23:30 — Pass out in a warm bed