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"It won´t happen to us" - went wrong: Patagonia´s Wilderness

The Truth About Torres Del Paine


Aaaah, the famous Torres Del Paine.
How do you write about a 7-day experience of the trek through the Park´s full circuit that was overshadowed or more so, dominated, by a 20-hour exerience.
Well, here we were, arrived in Puerto Natales, the little hub village from which you enter the Park.
Looking back, it´s funny that we spent about an hour with the equipment rental agency debating whether we should take the stove and the better 3.3 kilo tent since we were told the Park is so complete in accomodations and food.
The Park and the equipment agency clearly forgot to differentiate between the super touristy popular 3-5 day W hike that most people and their mothers do with the backtrail minimalist camping sites and open ledge 8-day trek of the full curcuit of the Park.
During 1.5 hour (mind you) private briefing on the Park´s options, the rental agency guy clearly forgot to mention the most import thing: The TRUTH.
Stressing that it´s the end of November and we will at most likely to encounter just super windy conditions, we debated over windbreaker and extra fleece and feeling smart and lightly packed, we were picked up at 7:30, driven to the Park´s entrance, and with no real instruction other than ¨no one will look for you if something happens¨ we were left at the foot of the Park.
So, the first day we joyfully treked through what really felt like a walk in the park -- perfectly flat meadows with noone in site - practically ever (since it´s not until day 4 that you enter the ´civil world of the W where most tourists happily skip from hut to hut (the Refugios as they are known here).
The only real obstacle on day 1 was crossing a tiny little stream, no more than 3 meters wide, but that posed a nearly an hour long problem as we certainly didn´t want to get our boots wet in the icy cold water and Julian´s attempt to log some dead trees to build a bridge didn´t really work.
So, squeeling like young pigs, we walked barefoot through the glacier stream, certainly providing nice coolness to our tired feet (I guess, you could call that we iced them), we got to the camp, set up the tent and met the other circa 20 campers who would become our friends and the only other poeple we would encounter for the next few days on the trail. The highlight of the evening was being invited up by a cook to their hut for a private coffesito and drying our stuff from the rain (I also scored some dulce de leche from the guy making me a very happy camper).
Oh yes, did I mention in Torres del Paine it always rains, not hard, it´s just there, you barely even notice it, it´s just like the sun, always shining, but you also barely notice it.
The second day, the trek was a mere 5ish hours and brought us to a beautiful campsite at the foot of a picturesque lake/mountain/glacier. Very pretty and watching the rain and the mountain peak was an instant smile setter.
So, here we are, at the third day.
With body fully adjusting to the pack, the trek and the blisters, I woke up feeling light on my feet and ready to hike for hours.
Unfortunately, the map said just a 4.5 hours of a trek. So when we got to the next campsite before 3:30 after leisurely hanging out in the morning, I was not even near the tired level and dreading the idea of sitting around in the oncoming cold for the next 6 hours.
I Pressed to go on.
And here is where it all went -- um, the unexpected way, a/k/a the wrong way.

The reason the map says to do only 4.5 hours is because the next 6 hours are considered the most difficult, taking you up to a path passing through 2 open peaks that at its best, guarantees impressive winds.
Well, it was´t at its best.
Hessitantly agreeing to move on and do the John Gardner Path (in Patagonia, the day light is at least until 10:30 pm), Julian and I put on some warmer clothes, packed some more trail mix and set off under the eyes of our 20 friends setting up camp for the night. The weather seemed perfect, it didn´t even rain and we wanted to take advantage of the calm.
Or so was my thinking.
About 30 minutes after treading up through muddy forest path, it started snowing, ever so lightly, ever so pretty.
What´s a little light snow for a couple of hardened hikers.

So we pressed on, another 30 minutes and it got ever so more windy.
Hesitating, Julian started cautiously marking for possible camping places under the trees.
But we pressed on.
As we left the tree line however, the wind got stronger.
Not really knowing what the infamous Path looks like, i naively thought that when we encounted what looked like a top of an open moutain side, that maybe that was the famous John Gardner Path.
Of course, here as every movie plot goes, is where we got lost; but only for 30 minutes -- unnecessarily pushing up an extremely difficult stone layout to nearly the top of the mountain. Once at the top with nowhere to go, I finally spotted the actual path waaaay below (it´s amazing how your eyes adjust in the face of fear) and we scrambled down back onto the path.
30 minutes more and we came to the John Gardner Path.
Nearly out of nowhere it hit us. Strong gusty winds with harsh falling snow straight into your eyes.

Realizing that visibility was nearly none (naively at the time so we thought), we decided to turn back to the tree line.
Oh yes, Julian managed to set up emergency winter camp for the 2 of us amidst blowing winds and falling snow.
Other than making a serious wish (out loud) asking the providence to help us wake up in the morning, and being even more ambitious and asking to wake up with all limbs intact, wearing everything we had, we actually managed to spend a fairly warm and calm night, dining on some deliciously slightly warm sandwiches smartly purchased at the campsite below.
The plan was to wait for the other hikers (lucky for us, the others included 2 groups with a guide) to make the John Gardner Path with them.

And then, we woke up -- oh I was oh so happy to wake up, with all 10 fingers intact and the tent and us still there.
And then, we heard the sweet words of ¨Hello, Are You There?¨, as our friends, a German couple who set early for the Path, stumbled on us.
They were happy to find us alive, and we were happy to find them.
But that is NOT the end of the story.
WE all waited for the group with a guide, and having quickly packed up the tent (amid about a foot of snow) about 12 of us set off for the John Gardner Path.
Oh boy, as soon as we left the tree lines, there it was.
A snow storm; and storm being the key to the phrase.
100 km winds, hard and fast falling snow and zero visibility.
In comparison, the conditions of yesterday on the Path were calm summer.
The guided group´s porter, who had crossed the Path 30 times, said he had never seen anything like it.
Boys and girls, the next 2 hours´ trek was Survival 501 Course -- The Advanced level.
The winds were so strong, that despite having a heavy pack on, we had to stop and periodically get on our knees, and even then, a number of times, Julian had to hold me with his foot for me not to fly off.
You couldn´t see a thing.
All you could look at is the shoe of the person in front of you.
And that guide, bless him, walked forward, knowing the Path like the back of his hand, he somehow carved half-foot steps into the walls of forming ice, that we scambled up on, firmly placing our 2 poles first for security.
Without a guide, there was no way we could have crossed. You couldn´t see any markers and the foot prints of the person before you were immediately blown over by the unyeilding snow gusts.
It seemed never ending, the gust, the wind, the freezing biting coldness. Later, all the women shared the same thought, each of us wondered truly whether all of our fingers will make it to the other side.
But the funny thing about Patagonia, as soon as we crossed over, less than 45 minutes later as we decended back into the protection of the forest line, it was calmness itself.
From just 45 min away, you wouldn´t have had a slightest idea about what we and our battered bodies went through.
So, we halled ourselves and our glued on packs for 22 km to the campsite with a hut, with a promise of a warm meal and a stove on which to dry off your soaked from the snow and ice shoes -- a thought that made us move at an impressive speed of nearly running.
We litterally celebrated life as we got to the campsite -- a lightness and joy that comes only after discovering the true strength and endurance of your body.
And the next 3 days, as we hiked through the calmness of the W, we felt almost sorry watching the tourists marvel at the sites of Torres del Paine, realizing that we were actually lucky to experience the true wrath of Patagonia.

Posted by Ritka2 12:39 Archived in Chile Tagged snow storm del circuit patagonia survival paine torres

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Rita!! Glad you and Julian are ok. Thank goodness for teh guide and getting out alive (literally!). Let me know what your plans are and where you'll be. I can call/skype you. I hope that even with the surprises, you had a good time. xoxo love you

by tania

haha awesome story! We had a similar thing happen to us in Tibet - where we decided we should do the next days leg, only to find a few hours later that it involved ascending 1500m of scree in the freezing cold wind. Although at the end it's always worth it. Nice entry, enjoyed the read.

by KyleMac

Oooohhh, my goodness! Incredible story! I wish I were able to read it before I replied to your e-mail. The "serious storms" you mentioned turned out to be a major trial for survival... Proud of you, but at the same time want it to be the TWO trials: the first and the last. Stay warm and do enjoy the views :)

by Riva


by Franny

You nearly make me jealous, one has to live this at least once before saying : I'm an experienced hiker. The good thing with such tough experiences is that only the good memories remain.
(and as a very basic tourist I should ask : I hope you took photos in the snow storm ?)

by Nico

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