Patagonia: A Beautiful Disaster, Part I

My eyes shot open at 8:40 am as the bus came to a stop, and less than two hours later I needed to be on a flight which took me to the southern edge of the Americas. I hastened to get off and onto the streets of Santiago, but after the 23 hour bus ride from San Pedro de Atacama my steps were drunkenly languid. I eventually did make it onto the plane and was on my way to the definitive highlight of my South American adventure. One question that I’ve been asked numerous times regarding my trip was: why South America? The best answer to that was: Patagonia. In the initial stages of planning, my trip was shy of a month in length and revolved solely around this remote location. Now looking back, it certainly was the focal point of my trip, for both good  and deservedly dreadful reasons…

Puerto Natales is the major launching point for the famous Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. There’s a few options for single day hikes and multi-day treks. The most common trek is known as the W, which is a 4-5 day circuit on the southern end of the park. But, there was another beast – El Circuito Grande; a full loop (including the W) around the entire cordillera which takes 7-10 days. And it was this little beast which I prepared to embark on.

I gathered all the gear & calories I needed and packed my bag. Eight days worth of foodstuffs, fuel & stove – check. Tent, sleeping bag & pad – check. Extra layers – check. Compass, topo map, headlight, watch, etc. – check. UV protection – check. Rain gear – mas o menos. The same evening I packed my bag, I found myself in an unsocial state. I still managed to meet people, but they were all doing the W, and it was for this reason I was doing the less ventured Grand Circuit. I wanted to be in complete solitude in the glory of the wilderness.

I woke up at 7am and caught a bus out to the park. I opted to start the trek on the southwestern corner of the circuit and continue counterclockwise. In order to get there, I caught a small catamaran on Lago Pehoe bringing me to Paine Grande campsite.

After reaching Paine Grande and enjoying the milky teal water in close proximity, I adjusted my trekking poles to the correct length and found the trailhead. Day 1 was exciting as I was realizing my Patagonian dream. My face probably resembled one of a child standing in the middle of FAO Schwarz.

The mountains appeared to have been constructed by an entity other than Mother Earth. They were knife-like in appearance and similar to stalagmites, except carved by Herculean glaciers and biting winds. Clouds of various gradations swooshed around the peaks and disappeared into valleys. After an enthusiastic hike with fresh legs, I arrived at Camp Italiano and dropped my bag off to ascend into Valle Frances and reach a mirador (view-point) 2 hours away. I moved quickly since I had less than 4 hours to get there and back and set up camp.

This hike was easily my favorite part of the entire circuit, but I had unfortunately left my camera behind in the pack. It was here that I experienced two completely distinct seasons. As clouds slowly passed by, they brought in frigid winds and snow. The knife-like peaks were out of sight, but I continued on. I had suddenly heard what sounded like booming thunder 30 meters to the east. There was a large ice covered peak and I realized it was the sound of a glacier cracking. Within 15 minutes the snow subsided, clouds parted and the sun was beaming through the thin ozone. Before reaching the mirador, a second wave of snow came and cleared up again. This was somewhere beyond normal, as I was experiencing time itself at a fleeting rate. After spending some time here, I returned back to the camp to eat and rest.

Day 2 was longer as I planned to reach the base camp of the famous Torres. It was 10 hours away so I packed my gear, ate some breakfast and headed out by 8:30 am.  The first half was mostly easy as the trail meandered along Lago Nordenskjold. Now what distinguishes Patagonia from many places on earth is the water. It’s untainted and completely pure. Without the need of a filter, it’s one of the last places in the world you can drink the water straight from the source. I was excited enough that I just plunged my mouth into the stream and started drinking. I then filled up my camelback and carried on euphorically.

A little over halfway through, I reached Valle Ascencio and received my first dose of bludgeoning Patagonian winds. Suddenly, I lost my balance and unwillingly danced towards the edge of the trail before regaining control of my stance. I stopped several times to let the sudden gusts of wind pass and as a result took longer than planned to reach base camp.

Once there, I followed the usual routine of setting up my tent, changing, eating dinner, and getting to sleep early. The next day’s plan was to climb the rocky switchback up to the mirador at the Towers of Paine (Torres del Paine). Grudgingly, Day 3 started with the sound of rain from inside my tent at 6:30 am. I met a few people the night before at the campsite and decided that we’d do the morning ascent together to catch the sunrise at Torres. We gathered as a group and were lined up on the trail by 6:50 am. After climbing 20 meters, we found everything covered in a blanket of snow about 10 cm thick. With twilight and everyone’s headlights, the fresh powder was shimmering and lighting up the surrounding mountains. We were a group of at least 15 working as a team to find the trail markers and 300 steep meters later, we all arrived to the mirador.

We waited patiently, and finally caught a glimpse of dawn illuminating the towers. They became orange like fire and the clouds rised like smoke. Within a few seconds, the illusion was gone and it was clear as day. I started to head down. The snow was patted down now and especially slippery. My knees had already started acting up so I was cautious. But, I put too much weight on my trekking pole and my shoulder popped out.  Although I was able to pop it back in, the progression into my inevitable straits began.

By 11 am, I packed all my gear and left base camp of Torres. I started the descent into the windy valley and towards the east.

While walking away from the mountains, I noticed the strange cloud seen above. The wind was always intense and I imagine it was funneling the clouds into that shape while the sun behind it made it glow. I spent 10 minutes just turning around and staring at the cloud slowly dance and morph. I eventually arrived at Hosteria Torres where I was supposed to meet up with a few other Grand Circuit trekkers who I met at dawn. I stretched out and relaxed for nearly an hour and at 3:30pm decided to push on to the next campsite which was  four hours away. The trail here was more confusing since my time on the W was over and the backside of the circuit began. I eventually arrived to Camp Seron at ten of 8 pm, ran the normal routine and crashed in my tent.

After a night of haunting dreams fueled by howling winds and malaria pills, I woke up to a bright and clear Day 4. The knees felt better after the long rest and I was on the trail by 10am. It was six hours to the next campsite along a river and lake. About a quarter of the way I encountered maybe the most brutal winds I’ve ever experienced.  While crouched and moving one limb carefully at a time, the circling gusts almost bashed me into the rocks. At one point, the wind somehow managed to creep up my nose and whip out all the excess. Good thing no one was around to see that.

I finally found good footing and shot the above video as the surrounding was just beautiful. Four hours later, I saw some people headed the same direction: Ori & Bo from Israel and Gabriel from Germany. We were confused as to how far we were on the trail and guessed Camp Dickinson was about one hour away. Within half an hour, we climbed the last hill and finally saw our campsite.

Camp Dickinson was surrounded by massive mountains and a crystal lake. The four of us ate dinner together and relaxed while it was still warm. By 6pm the winds picked up and a cold air took over.

I crawled into my tent and opened the window to stare out to the surrounding mountains. Darkness fell and as my eyes calmly closed I had no idea of what was foreboding in the days to come…

8 thoughts on “Patagonia: A Beautiful Disaster, Part I

  1. Wait…so you can drink water straight from lake? No fear of bacteria?

    I would personally be scared getting lost in a park so big and isolated.

  2. This is the most beautiful place on the planet. I couldn’t stop smiling looking at your pictures and remembering what it was like to be there.

  3. Pingback: Patagonia: A Beautiful Disaster, Part II «

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