Surviving the Torres

Trip Start Feb 07, 2006
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Trip End Aug 07, 2006


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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Make sure to check out Andrea's Travel Blog for more stories and photos of our trip!

Chilly in Chile

After a single day in El Calafate, we headed south and across the border to Chile where we had planned to make the 5 day trek through the Patagonian mountain range around Torres Del Paine (TdP).

TdP was world known for being some of the best trekking. It was now fall and the summer was well over. Yet another early morning for us. The bus to Puerto Natales in Chile, where we would organize ourselves for the trek, left at 8am which meant getting up and packing at 6:30am, for the 3rd day in a row.

It was dark when the bus took off. The journey quickly left the city and we were surrounded with nothing but empty yellow fields of grass. Emus bounced across the road to avoid our speeding bus as herds of sheep dashed in seemingly confused random directions.

We were now well outside of any city and crossing into Chile from Argentina through the Andes.

Wilderness and wildlife seemed to be thriving all around us as we zoomed through the barren landscapes. Rocky mountains towered around us.

The border crossing finally appeared out of nothingness. A few stray buildings in a vast open field.

We flashed our passports and collected yet another stamp before heading off.

When we arrived in Puerto Natales, we settled into the Erratic Rock Hostel. A hostel that felt more like home than a hostel. At the small house we were greeted by the owner, a well versed trekker who knew the area well.

Andrea fell in love with the couch and the resident newborn kitten instantly. We slumped into the couch to relax, watch movies and figure out just what exactly we would do for 5 days.

The original plan was to stay in Refugios, half-hostel, half-log cabins which catered to unprepared trekkers like us on the long trail known as the "W" which zig zaged through the mountains and glaciers. Our plan changed after the 3pm orientation session which Rustyn, the owner, gave to a group of soon-to-be trekkers.

"Let's do it" Andrea said to me with eyes wide open and a big smile.

"You don't want to stay in the refugios anymore?" I asked

Being much more of an outdoorsy person than me, Andrea was excited at the idea of spending 5 days trekking in the ice, snow and mountains and sleeping in tents. I figured it would be an experience and was always up for trying something, once.

"Ok, let's do it" I agreed.

We wouldn't be staying in cozy refugios, we would get tents and camp our way through the "W".

And it would be cold.

Second thoughts

To catch our breath and to recover a little we decided to stay in Puerto Natales for a few days before setting off on the trail.

We were laying comfortably on the worn-in leather couch in the communal room when 3 backpackers slogged into the hostel looking dazed and deflated.

"Did you guys hear what just happened?" one of them said in an odd quiet tone.

"No, what's up?" we asked, curious to get any information we could about our upcoming trek.

They went on to explain that they were on the first night of their 5 day trek, the same one we had planned for a few days later. In the middle of the night a massive tree branch was snapped off by the wind and fell from high above landing directly on the tent next to them crushing a sleeping Dutchman.

They spent hours calming the man's girlfriend and trying to get him to safety. The branch had gashed his head open and he was in a level 5 coma.

Oddly, the park did now have search and rescue services which meant dragging the Dutchman to a tourist boat. It apparently took over 8 hours to get him to a hospital and rumors spread that he didn't survive.

The whole event was so traumatic that the trekkers abandoned their plans to continue the trek and came back to town instead.

Later that night we read of another hiker who'd been killed the year before by a falling rock. That combined with the brutal rain and wind which shook the tiny house-cum-hostel and rattled the windows violently made Andrea have second thoughts.

I wasn't all that excited about the long trek to start with and would have been fine taking just a one day trek to the peaks but I knew how much Andrea wanted to go and figured that we would just have to put up with a little rain, snow and wind for 5 days.

Even though I knew it would be a brutal few days, I also knew that in hindsight I would be glad to have done it, much like many of the other adventures Andrea had convinced me to go on like the triathlon we had done the summer before.

Andrea was always good at convincing me to experience new things and I hoped that this would be another one of those times.

The remainder of the evening new guests stumbled into the hostel having returned early from their treks due to the extreme cold, wind and snow. We heard stories of sleeping bags getting soaked by the rain, tents being blown apart and dangerous winds nearly tossing climbers off of the trail nearly falling off of the trail.

As we rented our tent, one trekker told us with a dead serious face "just don't go".

It was too late now. We had all of our gear rented and bought, our bus was set and our food was packed away.

Tomorrow, we would head to the trail.

A Rainy Start

The 7am bus into TdP was empty. Based on the general tone and mood in the hostel the night before, it was no surprise. Not many people were starting their trek with all of the rain and cold weather.

The bus drove closer and closer through windy dirt roads. In the distance giant snow capped mountains towered. This was where the W, the trek named after it's rough shape through the mountains, would take us. Although it seemed relatively sunny where we were, black ominous clouds loomed menacingly over the mountains.

"Why are the clouds not moving?" we wondered as we hoped that it would clear up.

We were heading right into the storm.

As we drove closer and closer to the mountains, the sun disappeared, the wind increased its fierceness and the bus struggled to stay on the road.

"What are we getting ourselves into?" we wondered as we approached the dark mountains.

All around us, lamas darted left and right as we zipped by on approach.

When we arrived at the catamaran which would take us the final 30 minutes to the starting point, we could see water twisting in tornado-like funnels over the lake. The wind was so strong that we were forced to walk at a near 45 degree angle with our packs and equipment to avoid falling over.

It was no wonder that when we arrived at the Pehoe refugio to start the trek, 20 trekkers were waiting to take the boat back to civilization, the opposite direction we were going.

Only a hand full of us were actually going into the park, everyone here was leaving.

Unphased and now determined to prove that we could do the trek, we walked to the camp site in the rain and setup our tent.

It's difficult to describe just how strong the wind was. Trying to put up the tent was like trying to build a house of cards in a storm.

The rain and wind kept blowing us left and right as we struggled to finally get our last tent pole in. This would be a rough night.

Our first trek was a short one to see glacier gray. Although it was only a short walk through a forest and over some rocky hills, the pouring rain and wind made the short trek take us 3 hours. We were soaked. Head to toe. Not an inch was dry and it was only day one.

Climbing over hills, we fought the weather to get a glimpse of the glacier.

After making sure that it was safe to climb up to the look out, I signaled to Andrea to come up.

"I think that's it right there" I yelled to Andrea who was standing right next to me. I firmly gripped her jacket to make sure the wind didn't blow her off of the rock.

The freezing cold rain seemed to come horizontally right at us and we could barely open our eyes enough to see the glaciers.

We'd seen a glacier already and were quick to turn around and head back to camp.

Back at camp, we sat in a shelter where 15 other trekkers sat and complained about the weather. The moral in the shelter was poisoned.

"That's it I'm going home tomorrow" one couple sighed
"Watch out for the rats in Campomento Italiano" another trekker advised.

It seemed that everyone was giving up and going home or had suffered some unforeseen hardships.

Originally I wasn't too keen on going on the trek at all, but now, after all of the effort to get there, I wasn't going to give up that easily!

That night the wind was so strong that it physically lifted our tent and tossed Andrea around. The lining in our tent also couldn't withstand the wind and ripped down the side.

That morning back in the shelter with the others, the mood was worse.

"The &^*&^ rats chewed through my tent, my backpack AND into my food!" two trekkers reported.

It seemed that the rats had feasted that night before. Our food was safe though.

Now it was the real challenge, putting on our freezing cold and wet close and beginning our 2nd day's trek.

Andrea was having a moment of weakness.

"I want to go home" she pleaded.

I wasn't sure what to do. I could push her to go on and maybe she would thank me later or I could agree and go home with her. If I pushed on with her and something bad happened, I would feel horrible and I was sure to get an "I told you I wanted to go home".

It was a tough choice to make but I decided to push Andrea into starting our 2nd day. Day 2 would send us far from the catamaran and there would be no turning back now.

Lucky for me, the first day would be the last day of rain and I never did get that "I told you so".

Despite the hardships, we were glad to have pushed on.

Day 2, Wind, Glaciers and Mountains

Some say in Patagonia, you get 4 seasons in one day. Lucky for us, we wouldn't get the rainy season for the remainder of our trek. The rain had passed, only the wind remained.

Our second day we trekked under overcast skies next to minty green lakes, passed giant picturesque snow capped mountain and we even saw some sun!

Glaciers hung over mountains in certain parts which made for a spectacular view.

The trek was long and hard though. We still had our gear and food on our backs and the trek cut through forests and over scraggly rocky hills. Only 3 weeks remained until most of the park closed for the winter, we could see why.

Trails were now streams, and the wind, at parts tossed us around with such power that I feared for our lives at times, especially when walking along trails which had nothing but 500 feet drops next to them!

I made sure to walk closely behind Andrea and was ready to catch her when the wind toss her left and right.

When we arrived at the end of day 2, the wind was much too strong for us to pitch a tent and we burst into the refugio ( a log cabin like hostel in the woods ) looking frazzled and disheveled.

"Brutal!" was my first and only word.

We were one of the only people in the refugio and splurged the $33 USD per dorm bed to recover and get some much needed sleep.

The wind that night was so intense that the massive walls of the refugio buckled and would bend inwards which would instantly stop any conversation in the main room as we all glanced over at the windows waiting for them to shatter and preparing to dive under the tables.

My ears popped from the building being compressed by the wind.

We were happy that we weren't in a tent.

Day 3, Best Laid Plans

"Rats!" Andrea said as she looked through our food.

Even in the refugio we weren't safe. The rats has eaten several of our food reserves, had taken a bite out of my towel and even munched on our toothpaste!

Although a setback, we had just enough food to get by without our now contaminated grub.

Day #3 was beautiful, sun showered down on us and we got cocky.

"Why don't we keep going all the way today?" we wondered.

"Sure" Andrea agreed.

Our initial plan was to take 2 more nights and to slowly make our way to the Torres, the towers which were the ultimate goal of our journey.

The plan was to go easy but with the good weather our spirits were high and we decided to shave 2 days from our plan and to haul ourselves to the base of the Torres, 2 days ahead of schedule.

It would be a long and tough hike. It also would be a big, big mistake.

When we reached the crossroads which would take us to our planned camp site a short walk to the right or to the Torres still 4 hours away, it was still sunny, but weather changes fast in Patagonia.

We choose left and 10 minutes later the clouds rolled in and the rain started trickling down.

Morale took a giant nose-dive and Andrea also began to feel sick.

We went on and pushed to get to the camp site which would allow us do the 6am trek to the top of the mountain to see the sunrise over the Torres del Paine.

As we pushed ahead, Andrea got sicker and sicker and the 1 hour final stretch was now taking over 2 hours. To make things worse, the sun was setting and it was nearly dark!

"Where the hell is this camp site!" I groaned to myself.

We hadn't brought a good flashlight and it was getting very difficult to see anything as we dipped deeper into the dark wooded forest.

Andrea was very sick and shuffling her feet very slowly.

We had to make it to the camp site.

We were too far to turn back and with Andrea sick we had to get there to be able to return home the next day.

To help Andrea walk a little faster, I took Andrea's backpack and strapped it around my chest.

This was the toughest day and hour of my life.

I was now lugging my pack, tent, stove, food and Andrea's backpack as well. One backpack was tough enough, now only adrenaline pushed me on. My eyes were barely opened and I was literally talking to myself and I slogged over hill after hill.

With each minute passing by it grew darker and darker and I knew that if we didn't find the camp we would have to camp in the woods.

"Where the hell is it!" I yelled as I dropped my bags and ran ahead fueled by concern for Andrea, adrenalin and a little fear for our safety.

It as already dark out, but 10 minutes before it was pitch-can't-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face black we finally stumbled over the last hill and found the camp.

We quickly popped the tent, boiled some water and ate some food.

I made a few hot water bottles and returned to the tent where Andrea was feeling horrible. We fell asleep, exhausted both mentally and physically and I wondered if Andrea would come with me the next morning to the final summit.

Day 4, Going home

I heard Andrea's alarm ring at 6am. It was freezing cold and I started doing the math, counting the hours left before our 2pm bus home. It was the only bus.

It was now or never.

If I didn't get up now and climb the final 1 hour, near vertical rocky scramble, we wouldn't be able to make it back to the bus 4 hours away.

I checked with Andrea to see if she could make the climb. She was in no condition to come along, I'd be doing this alone.

I slapped on my freezing cold wet clothes and grabbed Andrea's dim book lamp for light.

It was still night. The stars were shining above and I clipped the lamp to my hat to see the rocks below.

I started the scramble without taking any food or water. This was a big mistake.

Without any energy, each step was a slog, but this was it! The final summit! I went on... unfortunately, it was too dark to see any trail markers. When I chose left instead of right I ended up climbing and even steeper, mostly sandy hill. It didn't seem right but I went on.

When I almost reached the top, I looked over and could see off in the distance, passed the river and over trees, another rockier slope dotted with 3 bright head lamps. I was on the wrong hills!!! ARRRR! I would miss the sunrise!

No way.

Crossing over would mean going down into the ravine separating us. I locked my knee backwards and held my right foot beneath my butt to slid down the ravine using my boot as a sled.

I didn't care anymore I wouldn't miss the sunrise!

With my hand over my face for protection, I smashed into trees and splashed through the river to finally reach the other side and begin the climb once again.

This slope was all boulders and each step was a climb.

It seemed like I would never make it, but when I did, I was alone! It seems that some trekkers had spread the word that the sunrise was at 8am, but the park ranger told some of us that it was at 7am, not 8.

I had 1 hour to enjoy the sunrise alone.

The towers slowly glowed pink and red. I was so lucky that it wasn't covered in clouds and it usually is and it wasn't raining either.

It was snowing all around me and cold but the view was spectacular.

Then the thirst kicked in.

I was badly dehydrated and tried to collect snow on my day pack. As the snow built up I licked my pack for a little water. This is how thirsty I was. This wasn't "I could use a drink" thirst, this was "eating snow" thirst.

I only lasted until just after the sun came up. My sweat soaked clothes was freezing now that I had stopped moving and other trekkers began to arrive.

As others were coming up, I was headed down.

The way down was much easier and I ran back to back up and begin the long walk home. Tonight we would sleep in a warm bed.

This thought boosted Andrea and we walked the fastest we had even before all the way home.

Andrea toughed it out. She had gone through a very tough trek but she held herself together and trekked out. I was proud of her.

It was a trying ordeal. 4 days which pushed us to our limits, but we'd made it.

We'd finished the W.
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