It feels near impossible to put into words, or even fit into pictures, the feelings, experiences, and views that took place over my 10 days in Torres del Paine, a seemingly untouched piece of mother nature that screams God’s country. Every day, multiple times, I found myself in pure awe of what was in front of me, grateful for being able to witness it, for our beautiful weather, and for the opportunities in life that had led me to where I am.
Carl, my rad, always-down-for-an-adventure friend from MKE, joined and we proved to be a great pair, trekking through ferocious wind, freezing rain, and scorching heat and over glaciers, mountains, prairies, rivers, forests, daisy fields, and swampland. In 10 days we saw pretty much every kind of landscape and experienced every type of weather, definitely putting our minds and our bodies to the test.
Its was difficult, stunning, and inspiring… and something we’ll surely never forget.
Day 1 – 5 hours, Campsite: Las Carretas
We got up at 6:30am, excited and curious for what was to come. Our hostel in Puerto Natales, Erratic Rock, supplied us with an uh-mazing “trekker’s breakfast” – eggs, homemade bread, homemade peanut butter, granola, and delicious, hot coffee. Puerto Natales is the small village that serves as a sleeping destination for trekkers, climbers, and outdoor enthusiasts like ourselves who are eager to hit the park. At 7:30 we hopped on the bus for our 4 hour journey to Torres del Paine. As the hours passed the mountains came to life and the alpacas, birds, rivers, lakes, and cowboys herding sheep and cows got left behind.
Since our first campsite was only 2-3 hours from where the bus left us, we decided to pass a couple hours exploring the gorgeous lake near the drop-off point.
Once we eventually decided to start heading towards camp, it, of course, decided to start raining. Thankfully, it wasn’t too heavy but, on top of the grey clouds and chilly weather, I was internally praying this wasn’t a prediction of what was to come. After all, the renowned tale of Patagonia is of the unpredictable weather – the ability to easily experience all four seasons in just one day.
This first hike, by far the shortest, somehow tested me the most. The wind was soooooo strong- we basically were doubled over and simply trying, with all our might, to move forward. My backpack was not adjusted right and I was carrying all the weight on my shoulders, which left me in a mere 1/2 hour aching like all hell. The rain drops were cold, the wind was cold, I was sweating, the ankle I broke a few months back started throbbing from the pressure of my boot, my shoulders were killing me…. It was taking all my focus to just keep moving forward. I honestly had more than a couple fleeting thoughts of “what did I get myself into… what if I can’t do it?” Thankfully, when my body felt like it just couldn’t go any more, ahead, along the windy river, at the base of the clouded over mountains, was a tent. We were almost there!
We arrived, I dropped the backpack, and fell over…. I couldn’t have been happier. Once the backpacks were off and I had a chance to lay on the ground awhile, I felt much better. Carl and I hiked up on some hills by the campsite and got a great view of the mountains that we’d soon be hiking all up in and over. It felt so exciting and so filled with anticipation.
That glorious tent we saw from the distance belonged to a lady from London who was doing a 5 day trek alongside a Colombian guide named John. After Carl and “London” retired into their tents for the night, John and I stayed up and had some awesome conversation (in Spanish) about the great outdoors and it’s connection to our spirituality. By the time we went to our sleeping bags, I felt so rejuvenated and ready for whatever would come my way.
Day 2 – 6 hours, Campsite: Paine Grande
It rained during the night and got, what I soon discovered was the norm, pretty damn cold. I slept on my side and woke up with what felt like a broken collar bone from being pressed onto the cold, hard ground. We used Carl’s little stove to boil some water and make our oatmeal breakfast, adding dried bananas, raisins, and almonds. It tasted pretty good – now, by day 10 it wasn’t soooo tasty but it still did the trick! haha.
Today was, again, very windy and quite hot. I had re-adjusted my backpack straps and the weight felt much better distributed between my shoulders, back, and hips. We walked up some large hills/mountain sides and, once at the top, looked down over a beautiful sight of a couple acres of flat land – long, colorful prairie grass blowing furiously in the wind – with the mountains crystal clear in the distance.
The grass below looked like waves in the ocean – it went on forever and was blowing in an alluring, continuous rhythm. Once we got down there, it was more than trying to walk against that wind… but I was grateful to be back on flat land! This continued on for a little over an hour when we hit some areas that got burned in a big fire the year before. Miles and miles of burned down, charred forests and trees, with a wide, windy river flowing through. Eventually, we got up and around the side of a mountain and got hit with an unexpected view…. a large, cyan blue lake at the base of the snow capped mountains. The lake looked like it could have been a commercial for Bora Bora.
For a couple hours we walked along its side and plotted where to take a break, soak it all in, and dip our feet. The wind was still very strong and knocked me right over… and, with all the pressure of wind and the weight of my backpack, I couldn’t get up! Carl needed to come over and give me a hand haha.
The last uphill part was very steep, very long, and very tight… not much between us and the drop-off so I was grateful for the extra balance/support given by the hiking pole. When we got to the top, we had a welcome sight – camp. This view proved to be, each and every day, an amazing feeling. This camp was at the base of a set of absolutely humongous mountains and alongside another ice blue lake. About 45 minutes later we got into camp, set up the tent, and laid our tired backs into the sun for a much needed rest.
Day 3 – 9 hours, Campsite: Los Cuernos
We knew today was going to be a long, long day so we made our trusty oatmeal and started out early. It was a cloudy day, drizzly and cold. I put on extra layers but 15 minutes into the hike had to take them off. Even in the temperature, the steep, rocky paths do an excellent job of rising the internal temperature. We had an extremely inclined first hour but then the next two were nice rolling curves. The mountains somehow still looked stunning even though half covered by thick, grey, cotton-like clouds. There was a part with solid sunlight sneaking through, however, and those rays of light shown down and lit up that side of the mountain gorgeously. I remember thinking that if God would ever come to earth… it’d look something like that :)
Just one mountain crest and a couple miles away was a deep, mysterious valley in between two huge mountains – that was where we would soon spend the majority of our day. And beyond those looming dark valley clouds was the sharp, fascinating contrast of a perfectly blue sky… sooo radiant!
The 3 hour hike up into Valley Frances was incredible… and challenging. After getting through the treeline, the majority, probably 85%, was a steep incline up the mountainside rockbed. To top it off, the cold, cold rain got heavier, and colder, as we climbed. However, the view was still gorgeous. Ahead and on our left were the unbelievably big mountains and a gigantic glacier spilling along its sides. Along our path up was a powerful waterfall just pouring tons of rain and glacial melt. When we got up to the top, looking far back at the tropical blue lake and skies we left behind and then at the all the grey and ice around us, it was almost inconceivable to know we walked and climbed the distance of two distinct climates.
Wearing our jackets, wind jackets, hats, mittens, and layered pants, the freezing hail-like rain was falling on our faces and, combined with our near frozen fingers, it was impossible to take a good picture. As “miserable” as this was, the beauty was still undeniable.
When we returned to the bottom of the Valley we still had another 3 hours to our campsite. We stopped to make hot soup for some much needed replenishment and warmth. After that and a couple pieces of our chocolate bar, we were all set to put the packs back on and mosey along. This last stretch was hilly but nice and manageable. Once getting out of the valley we found ourselves on an enticing, rocky beach under a big rainbow! The lake looked calm except, like on many of the lakes, in the distance we could see large gusts of wind throwing water from place to place like dust/snow storms crossing over the lake.
The campsite this night looked West at the mountains from which we just emerged. Although we were 3 hours removed, our tent felt like we were still at their feet. To our welcome surprise, this camp also had a place to buy some re-fueling foods… including boxed wine for $10 :) So, Carl and I treated ourselves to a box of vino tinto and “cheers-ed” to the view, our accomplishment thus far, and the excitement to come. It felt so good and we saved 1/2 the box so we could have a “glass” for the next two nights (actually, our drinking method was the plastic bowls we at our oatmeal, soup, and noodles out of haha).
Day 4 – 7 hours, Campamento Torres
The majority of this day, one of the physically hardest, was spent leaving one mountain valley behind and heading up into the next. In contrast to the cold, glacial, rocky Valley Frances of the day before, this day’s was dry and hot. As we walked… and walked… and walked, it was hard to believe the change in landscape happening right before our eyes.
We crossed our first patch of grass and a beautiful deep blue lake that reminded me of northern Wisconsin. The sun was beating brutally and, unlike before where we crossed rivers every 1/2 hour to hour (from which we drank directly), now the water sources were few and far between. It was about 5 1/2 hours of quad-killing incline and, without our ability to constantly fill up with ice cold stream water, it felt even hotter. Finally, in the usual fashion, we got to the top of the peak and saw a rejuvenating view – the entrance to the valley. There were so many trees, the mountains were even taller than the last, tens of waterfalls were flowing from different tops of the mountain (yay! that also meant streams to fill our waterbottles!!), and a big river was flowing strongly far at the bottom.
We had just about 45 more minutes, mainly of uphill, before we could go down a bit to the area where we could cook. Using the stoves is only allowed in designated areas because, with the 60-100 mile an hour winds, it is far too big of a fire hazard outside the covered shantee areas.We made rice for lunch and took a good hour, hour and a half to lay in the shade. We were exhausted, from the heat and from the climb, and still had an hour and a half up through the forest treeline to our campsite. And, since we were already quite a ways up the mountainside, from here to the top it just got steeper and steeper.
Tired upon arrival, we made our noodles, had our “glass” of wine, and hit the sack. Our camp was still in the forest and therefore it was the first night we didn’t have mountains as our outside-the-tent window view… but the break from the wind was a nice exchange.
Day 5 – 10 hours, Campamento: Serón
Today we were on the east side of the park, almost to the top of the 2nd tallest mountain we’d climb, and prime for a sunrise. That said, we got up at 3am in the freeeeeeezing cold, put on all our layers, and turned on our pedlights. Waking up was not easy… getting out of the sleeping bag, even though I froze all night, was near impossible. It was just so damn cold each and every night/morning. Now, getting up before the sun made that even more challenging. But, we didn’t want to miss the sunrise. We were’t out in the middle of mother nature to sleep in and take it easy… we wanted to see all she had available to us.
So, by 3:30 we were out of the tent and trekking up. Within a half hour we were out of the forest and onto the steep rock. From rock to rock we climbed…. and finally got to the top. There they were, Las Torres, the mountains the park is named after, with a little laguna sitting peacefully in the glacial carved bowl beneath them. There are three of them, and, yes, they are gorgeous. It was starting to peak light so we scanned around for a large rock to sit on and watch the show. We saw one and started climbing that way. It was more difficult up here because the rocks were of varying sizes, the large ones that held still, the medium sized ones that shouldn’t be stepped on without testing first, and the little ones that created little avalanches if you stepped wrong. It was a bit scary climbing over to our chosen seat but we got there, unrolled our sleeping bags, crawled in, and waited. The sun started rising around 4:45 and from then on the mountains transformed before our eyes … it was magnificent!!
By 6:15 we were freezing freezing and the sunrise was over. The mountain tops were lit up in all the sun’s glory and we were so happy to have had a perfectly clear sky to witness the most beautiful beginning-of-a-day of my life. We looked for the best way to crawl back and begin heading down the mountain. It seemed a bit more difficult than when we were coming… but that could have been because of the anticipation! At one of the points I was too scared to keep going and began to look for a different path. Then, in a cave not too far away, was the lady from London -they came up for the sunrise too and were all weather protected in the deep cave (aah, the benefits of a guide who is familiar with the terrain!). They called my name and wove a bar of chocolate in the air. Ah-a! The chocolate overcame my fear and I found a path over to them… carefully from rock to rock I crawled to my delicious little treat :) And, it was so worth it! Before heading down, Carl and I sat in the cave and chatted a bit, enjoying the little break from the cold air.
When we got back to the camp where we slept that night before, we made our oatmeal and then trekked on. It was 5 hours pure downhill, which, you’d think would have been such a welcome relief. Except, that steep downhill put so much pressure on our knees and joints, whereas the uphill was pure muscles (ah-ha! all my squats, lunges, and workouts served their purpose!!) So, our knees were really hurting.
When we got to the bottom we decided to take a nap- the sun was extremely hot, our joints were killing, and getting up at 3am was starting to take its toll.We woke up, boiled some water to make our dry-freeze lunch, and then continued on. I must have gotten stung by a bug while sleeping because I woke up with a big, painful bite on my finger. The next 5 hours proved to be the most mentally challenging of the whole trip. We went through acres, upon acres, upon acres of beautiful daisy fields. But, that lack of diversity in our scenery made it difficult to track progress. The land was much wetter, with many lower points that felt like mini-forests. Then, we’d rise back into the daisy fields.
The rivers were very wide and very high… all this lead to our first mosquitoes And, boy, they were intense. It started getting darker, and darker, and darker and still no sign of camp. We kept feeling like it HAAAAAAAAAD to be around the next bend. We started thinking… maybe we passed it?! It can’t, just can’t, be this far.
Our knees were hurting, my ankle was killing me, the mosquitoes were swarming, and we felt like we’d been walking for days on end. Finally, right when I though I might cry, we saw tents. We pretty much crawled into the camp… and, surprise, the ranger station had hot water! So, we got a *much needed* shower :) Yes, the tiny drip constantly went from scalding hot to freezing cold but it felt damn good. I boiled water for our noodle dinner while Carl showered and then we ate in our tent and enjoyed our little “cup/bowl” of wine… the mosquitoes were too ferocious, which was a shame because now that I wasn’t so tired I could again fully appreciate those daisy fields and mountain tops.
Day 6 – 5 hours, Campamento: Dickson
Like every morning, I woke up in the fetal position, in the middle of my sleeping bag, with everything completely flapped over… letting as little air as possible to get in and out. Like usual, my hips and shoulders were darn sore from rotating all night between sides – stretching out on my stomach or back would have meant my head was exposed.. so I had to pick a sacrifice :) Now, this morning, on top of it all, I woke up and could hardly move my darn finger! At each campsite there are rangers – the camps are so far from regular communication that they take shifts of a couple weeks/month on and then get some time off. Anyways, thinking they would maybe know what bit me, I went over and asked the group of guys about my finger. It was funny because I wasn’t sure who was a ranger and who was maybe just hanging out so I asked “does anybody work here?” and, in unison, they all said, “I do!” So, I told them about my finger and each and every single one of them wanted to take a look at it. Then, one went to get a safety pin, one got a match, one got some iodine, and then one pricked my finger to get all the bite/stinger out. It hurt terrible! As I were getting ready to pack up pretty much each of the guys came by to make sure I was feeling better :)
Before I left they noticed my backpack wasn’t packed optimally and they showed me how to put in each item based upon weight… when they were all done, man, that thing felt sooo much easier to carry! It was funny because, as they were packing it, I was agreeing how hard it was too carry the backpack… and, at that time, they pulled out what was left of the wine box. Ha! We all had a laugh and I just told them that that extra weight was worth it :) Then, on top of it all, they told me I was pretty and we didn’t need to pay for the campsite. Gosh, that day started out pretty darn well!
The hike itself was much shorter but still quite strenuous. Our first climb was extremely intense and, once we got over that, we had an amazing view of a set of mountains with a glacier right in the middle. During this day we climbed over mountain sides, around hills, and across some rivers… and the mountains and the glacier just kept getting bigger.
It was an extremely engaging and exciting scenery to walk towards. After awhile, it looked like the glacier was right on top of us… which meant that camp had to be close. Up one more sharp hill and we saw, tiny at the bottom, a little campsite at the base of it all. The excitement of seeing camp, and having it be in such a mind-blowing place, day after day, never got old.
Day 7 – 5 hours, Campamento: Perros
With another relatively “short” hike in front of us today, we decided to take full advantage of our breath-taking campsite. We slept in a little bit, made our oatmeal, and enjoyed it while gazing at the clear skies and towering mountains. Another set of campers gave us some manjar (the Chilean version of caramel and rhubarb jam that they didn’t need any more… both of which added heavenly sweetness to our coffee and oatmeal!! Then, we packed up our tents, boiled some more water for coffee/tea, and set out to find the access point to the water nearby.
We got to the river and it was so quiet…. the brisk, cloudy day, slightly covering the mountain-peaks, added a greyish glow to the glacier spilling between the two of them. There were a couple softly flowing streams and it felt like peace at it’s finest. We found a fallen tree log and sat for almost an hour…. sipping our hot coffee, chatting about the trip, and just taking it all in.
The entire hike this day was through a thick, super green forest. The smell of the forest made me feel like I was somewhere so familiar… not exactly like the ones in Wisconsin, but similar. It was a nice change to be “inside” the elements, protected from the wind, the sun, and the cool air. It was a perfect temperature and the stillness of the forest allowed us to enjoy and experience the variety of its sounds.
Since we were on our way to the next big mountain range, the forest had some nice hills, but, compared to what we had been doing, it was a piece of cake. The last stretch leaving the forest brought a view we weren’t expecting. The dirt ground started changing to rocks and soon we were climbing uphill… the air was colder and thinner outside the protection of the trees.
At the top, a large, beautiful glacier sat with and a calm, grey blue laguna lying underneath it. To the right, across the rockbeds and into the trees, maybe 1/2 mile, was our campsite.
At camp tonight we had a treat… to reward ourselves for all our hard work, Carl and I had brought marshmallows, an extra chocolate bar, and some butter cookies. We were saving them for the end of the trip and tonight was the night we got to break into them! After our noodle dinner, we roasted those marshmallows over the little stove and ate the first of our s’mores in bliss :)
Day 8 – 7 hours, Campamento: Paso
We woke up prepared for a long, difficult day. Today was the day of the John Gardner Mountain Pass. With the severe, sporadic weather in Patagonia, it’s advised, for this part of the hike, to have other people around. The first few hours were zig-zagging up-mountain through the treeline. The forest floor was so, so wet and muddy. Once we passed the treeline, we still had to face the top half of the mountain.
This was the Pass, consisting of 3 rotating sections of rockbed and snow-covered climbs. We were lucky to have a sunny day because I can’t imagine the difficulty, and scariness, of doing it while snowing or raining! The wind, however, was intense and, on one of the rock sections, we found a big boulder to lay behind and take a rest. The sun felt so good and we stretched out to snack on trailmix and a piece of chocolate before heading on.
Our hiking poles really came in handy on these steep slopes- they added extra support on the snow covered stretches and helped test the rocks before stepping. The higher we climbed the steeper it got, and looking back was a magnificent sight – the whole mountain was below and, far in the distance, we could see the mountain and the glacier that had greeted us the day before.
Finally, I could see the top of the mountain. My legs could definitely feel the heaviness from the day’s work, but, as every mountaintop thus far had revealed astonishing views, I was excited to see what was ahead. Sure enough…. I got to the top and couldn’t believe what was in front of me. Peak after peak of tall mountains, miles of glacier, glacial extensions in every mountain valley, and tons of fluffy white clouds. This was one of the best views yet, and I could hardly take it all in.
Carl and I had made paella rice that morning for our lunch, and, finding refuge from the wind behind another big boulder, we laid down to soak in the sun. Sitting on top of that mountain, in the presence of that landscape, we ate our rice and talked in disbelief about what was currently our reality. We laid there for a good hour, giving our tired muscles a break, listening to the wind, and basking in the rays. No words can really describe the beauty on the top of this mountain!!
Now, unfortunately, at the top of every mountain, you also have to go down. This descent felt like a 90 degree angle! Down the rock/snow parts and then back into the forest we went, using our poles and hanging on to trees to keep us from tripping and rolling on down!
We got into camp, one of the guides was playing a guitar, and the sun rays were peeking through parts of the tree canopy… it was great. I relaxed a little with tea in hand and Carl took a nap. Tonight’s dinner was instant mashed potatoes… yuuuuum, right?! Only problem was, to save backpack room, I had thrown the box away and didn’t know how to make them. So, I asked some of the guys that were guiding a Colorado couple, and, all of a sudden, they were busy making my potatoes…. mixing up the milk, adding spices and butter, and ensure they were nice and creamy :) They commented that I’d still be hungry because it was such a strenuous day up the mountain. I told them that, actually, I was excited for the potatoes because it was a nice change from the noodles we’d been eating every night. And, sure enough, they were the best instant mashed potatoes ever! While eating, one of the guys came over and invited us to eat with them… I’m pretty sure this was another benefit of being a pretty girl ;) Regardless, that lentil, squash, chorizo, potato, and onion dish tasted like heaven!!!!!!
Our campsite was not far from a gorgeous glacier lookout so, for sunset, we bundled up, hiked up the hill, and watched it go down. Seeing the sun reflect off the different blues in the ice, and the greys of the mountain, was soooo striking to say the least!
Day 9 – 5 hours, Campamento: Grey
Like usual, this morning we woke up, packed up, and make our hearty oatmeal. The guys were making pancakes and offered us a couple… not sure if it was the change up or if everything just tastes better when you’re camping, but they sure were some darn delicious pancakes! Spread with rhubarb jam and I felt ready to conquer the world! haha.
We boiled our water, added our instant coffee, dropped in some of the sweet manjar, and headed up to the same glacier lookout where we watched the sunset. Sitting on a big rock, overlooking the mountains and the ice, we enjoyed our coffee and talked in disbelief that our trip was almost ever. I felt desperate to savor every single second that was left.
The day’s trek was over the mountainside and we were constantly hit with amazing mountain and glacial views. We were walking towards Lago Grey, holding the face of the glacier and spattered with gigantic icebergs. As usual, we stopped frequently to sit on trees and rocks overlooking the beautiful, open scenery.We took a nap in the sun once we got to camp and then made our noodles and, of course, the rest of our congratulatory s’mores! Before hitting the sack we watched the sunset over Lago Grey. We picked a spot at the foot of the lake, feeling like little ants in front of the icebergs, and just stared at the face of the glacier.
It was hard to believe that just 2 nights before we were at the top of the John Gardner Pass mesmerized by a panoramic view of the icefields… and this gargantuan glacier, at that time, had looked so small.
Day 10 – 3.5 hours, we made it!
We woke up and it was so odd… to know that it was almost all done. That later that night we’d be having that beer and that pizza we had fantasized about all trip. Earlier, it felt so far away. There was so much to experience between us and the real bed, comforting food, and cold refreshment. Now, it was here. I didn’t want it to end. I felt like every moment of the last 10 days was so amazingly perfect… and I didn’t want to lose it. It reminded me of when I was a little girl and we’d go up to Grandpa’s cabin – every time, when we woke up at dawn to start the 8 hour drive home, I remember feeling so sad to leave the rest of the family and the beauty, peace, and tranquility of the woods.
The last trek was mostly uphill and led back up and around a different mountain side. We passed a beautiful deep blue mountain lake, seeming out of place so high at the top, and then, down below, was the ice-blue glacier lake. I loved that contradiction! When we arrived into camp, where we would take a boat across the lake in order to get picked up by a bus, it was a crazy feeling. A feeling of accomplishment, excitement, amazement of everything we’d seen, and bitter-sweetness. I felt so good and I joked, hey, let’s do it again!
We passed out on the bus and eventually arrived back into Puerto Natales. There, we took the one of the best hot showers imaginable and headed over to a local bar for homemade pizza and ice cold beer.
This trek was filled with thousands of unbelievable moments that left me in awe of the beauty in this world. Definitely, it’s one amazing experience in what will be a lifetime of many more.