It’s been an interesting fortnight since we last posted a blog. We left Argentina and headed to Chile, where we were to take on the W – a 5-day hike in the Patagonian wilderness, so named because the trail forms a 70km W-shape around the mountains of the Torres del Paine National Park. You can see our Lego hombres in the picture enjoying the scenery.
We maybe should have known what was awaiting us in Patagonia from our first few days in Chile. In a small, picturesque town called Puerto Varas, we were battered with torrential rain for two days before getting an absolute scorcher. We made the most of said weather by heading out to a volcano and some waterfalls, being treated to Chile’s ludicrously pretty scenery. If only such weather could be guaranteed. However, we left Varas full of excitement, and a little trepidation, at what was to come down at the Southern tip of the world.
The Torres del Paine National Park is located a few hours’ flight south of Varas, taking us to the fifth-most southern settlement in the world. Essentially we were more southern than David Cameron, an achievement in itself. A couple of days to acclimatise, sort our kit out and mentally prepare ourselves later, and we found ourselves on a bus to the National Park, and once we saw the famous Torres things started to get seriously real. As we checked in to our refugio, a kind of hostel meets hotel meets hiking shelter, we saw the weather forecast on the board – wet. Google had reliably informed me that we were due some showers, so I could make my peace with this, and we went to bed with a bit of a Christmas Eve feeling.
We awoke the next morning, and the famous Torres had disappeared behind a veil of low cloud and a thick mist lay over our refugio. It’d clear later, I was sure. However, as we headed up the mountain it became clear that my certainty was somewhat misplaced. The fog thickened, and the rain began to fall, and fall hard. A 6 hour hike up to the base of the Torres and a spectacular viewpoint (or mirador as the Hispanophones romantically call them) revealed precisely nothing – we couldn’t see 20 feet into the pea soup. Slightly devastated, but a little sated in the knowledge that we had 3 more days to see some cool stuff, we headed back down the mountain as the rain kept pouring. I vowed that if the rain stopped overnight, I would head back up to the towers at sunrise with our new Aussie friend Tim, a man whose preparation for the hike didn’t include buying boots, trousers or gloves.
5am came around, but I didn’t need my alarm to rouse us. Instead, the pounding rain on the roof of the refugio a few feet above my head in my third-tier bunk bed (these are scary) did that for me, and it was clear that dragging ourselves up a mountain in the pitch black and rain would be both pointless and dangerous. Instead, we had a late start, assured that day two was easy, a 5-hour hop, skip and a jump along the “shortcut” to Los Cuernos refugio. What hadn’t been accounted for was the effect of the previous few days’ rain. Within 200m of setting off, we got to a point where, the previous day, there had been a path. Now it was just a landslide, maybe 30m wide, of shale, mud and water falling down into the ravine below. Today was going to be fun. The path on the W frequently crosses little streams and rivers, but they pose no problem to hikers. Unfortunately today, these streams were anything from small rivers to raging torrents, all of which had to be negotiated on foot, or clambered across on bridging trees. We saw multiple people fall in and be washed downstream, soaked and battered. This wasn’t just hard going, it was downright dangerous. And still the rain fell. We arrived at Los Cuernos refugio damp both in person and in spirit, as not only is hiking in the rain a little depressing, but in two (very expensive) days we had seen precisely none of Torres del Paine’s famously stunning scenery. We played Jenga in our hostel with our new amigos, two Quebecois Canadians and a Californian named Josh, and it got intense, pretty quickly. We all resolved that tomorrow would be a better day.
Honestly, if there were one thing we should have learned from our experience on the trail, it’s that such aspirations were beyond misguided. Dragging on our still-soggy boots the next morning, we were greeted once again by our now all-too-familiar foggy companion. Unlike yesterday’s “moderate” walk of 6 hours, today included similar terrain and distance, but with the added 4-hour excursion up into the heart of Valley Frances – one of the park’s highlights and a notoriously difficult walk which has been closed the previous day. We left, worried that this walk would be closed and nervous that we would miss our last chance to see the famed Torres. This fear was compounded by a local guide, who claimed that in all her ten years hiking the park, she had never seen anything like the rain from the previous two days. That, in fact, the paths we had walked just the previous day should have been closed, were it not that the rainfall was so very unprecedented the park staff simply hadn’t reacted quickly enough. I asked her what she thought about Valley Frances, and with a shrug, she said “If there’s no view, there is no point.”
As we manoeuvred our way uphill it became quickly apparent the extent of the rain’s damage. The path has been replaced almost entirely with a stream, surrounded by a muddy terrain which could rival even Glastonbury’s finest fields. Hopscotching my way across the “path” I was plagued by two rivalling emotions. While I prayed that the path would remain open and we could chance a peek at Patagonia’s most famous valley, I was exhausted from the previous day’s antics and concerned that we’d be hiking up a potentially dangerous and certainly arduous terrain, to only, once again, be greeted by a wall of cloud. I don’t walk because I enjoy walking for the sake of it – I walk to actually see things, and I was becoming more jaded by the minute. Interesting then, that upon seeing that the path was indeed very closed, I felt a wave of anger. That we couldn’t even attempt to see what we had came all this way for, felt somehow worse.
As we trudged (what a wonderful word) our way on to the next refugio, the cloud began to lift a little, and actual rays of sunshine started to peek through. Bathed in glorious vitamin D, we managed to catch a glimpse of one the W’s amazing snow-capped peaks and the turquoise lake practically glowed in the sunlight. The weather continued to clear, and after settling into our fourth refugio, we comforted ourselves with the thought that our final day, which included a visit to the famous Grey Glacier, would redeem all our past misfortunes. On our very first night some fellow walkers, who had just completed their trek, heralded this day as their personal highlight (though, admittedly they had more to choose from) and the weather was most definitely on the up.
This time, our hopes weren’t entirely in vain. While the sky turned a shade of grey-blue, the clouds began to lift and the Grey Glacier revealed itself in (almost) its full glory. Sadly, we couldn’t spare more than an hour at the mirador, and as we walked away the sky above the glacier cleared and we saw the full, magnificent extent of this almighty ice cube. Somewhat sated, we boarded our boat/bus combo home and were greeted with, what I can honestly say, is one of the the most bittersweet moments in my life.
As we drove out of the park, the sky turned a brilliant shade of blue and the park revealed all the wonders it had hidden from us. It was almost absurd, looking at the snow capped peaks which framed every step we had taken the past 4 days, but simply could not see. The Torres reared their peaks like a cruel mirage. The mutterings on the bus were all the same: It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all…but at least, finally, we had seen what we came all this way for. The park truly did live up to every reputation which preceded it. It was worth the money. It was worth the effort.
…But fuck the people arriving that glorious evening.