Originally published January 26, 2015
I ducked my head down, pulling my hood over my eyes in an attempt to shield my face from the freezing water being blown off the lake. As my team hunkered down waiting for this intense gust to pass through, the wind picked up Nic’s backpack and tossed it 15 or so feet down the rocks, as effortlessly as one would flick a paper tabletop football.
The instant that the wind quit, our group grabbed our things, took one last glance at the Torres (mountains) and took off down the mountain.
About a week before this moment, I was sitting on a plane with my face pressed up against the window, attempting to take in the majestic surroundings. I was finally (almost) in Patagonia, a place as legendary as any.
The sun had been setting for about an hour; its blend of reds, yellows, blues and oranges illuminated the west side of the plane, while I peered out my window, the deep navy blue water and the dark Earth seemed to have morphed into one. Clouds melted into snow-capped peaks, and then jutted outward, creating ranges of their own. I sat next to a man named Francisco, from Punta Arenas—I asked him what it was like living in Patagonia.
“Cold,” he replied with a smile, “but it’s worth it.”
On my bus ride from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, we passed fields of light twisted trees, as well as majestic mountains that seemed to appear out of nowhere. The wind is so intense, so unforgiving, down here that it causes trees to grow crooked. Entire forests look as if the wind is blowing the treetops over; you wait for the wind to stop, half expecting the tree to stand upright and regain its “normal” shape, but it just never happens.
Puerto Natales is a small town that thrives solely off of tourism from nearby Torres del Paine National Park. After I arrived in town around noon, I ran a few errands before attending the “3pm Talk” at Base Camp (a pub/rental shop started by two brothers from Oregon). As I entered the pub, I peered around looking for a friendly-looking group.
“Grab a chair,” a warm, South African accent said. The bearded man stretched out his hand, “I’m Nic. This is Andy and Rebecca,” he added, gesturing to the two others sitting at the table.
“Thank you,” I said, as I graciously took a seat. We made small talk—turns out that none of them knew each other (that they had met at a hostel) and were planning on leaving tomorrow to do a 5-day ‘W’ hike of Torres del Paine, which was exactly what I was hoping to do.
Nic casually mentioned that we would need to figure out supplies, gear, etc. as soon as the talk was over.
“Is that an invitation?” I asked, rather boldly. “Of course!” They answered.
And just like that we were a team.
Nic is an accountant in “real life,” thus he immediately began making lists of everything we needed to rent or buy, and then took an inventory of important items that we already had. Shortly thereafter we began rushing around town to get food, boots, and other necessities. Once we had all of our gear, I took my share of the weight and headed back to my hostel to pack.
Close to midnight, the hostel owner told me that I would need to clear everything off the table in about 10 minutes, as it was almost curfew. At first I was angry—who was he to tell full-grown adults what time they had to go to bed? And then when my stuff wouldn’t fit in my bag, I broke down.
Once he recognized my slight despair, his attitude totally changed. He offered me a little more time; he spoke in a softer, kinder tone and suggested that I wake up early to finish. I agreed and tried to get some sleep.
I awoke early, reorganized my bag, this time strapping my sleeping back to the outside, grabbed a bite to eat and set off for the bus station. I arrived a little early so my mind was left to wander as I stared out the window on the drizzly landscape. I thought about the possibility that if, for whatever reason, my team didn’t show up, I would be left without a tent or a stove. Fortunately, they showed up, and off we went.
Several hours later, the unrelenting wind and freezing rain whipped me in the face, as we climbed a steep hill en route to the campsite of Refugio Grey, each carrying backpacks weighing somewhere between 30-40 lbs.
“Why the hell am I doing this?” I thought silently to myself. And then, suddenly we reached the top of this particular hill, the rain decided to take a break, and I found myself staring out onto crystal blue water and the face of massive glacier. We stopped for a quick water break, filling our bottles directly from a stream of some of the best, cleanest water in the world.
Apparently my question was rhetorical.
We made camp and then somehow convinced our tired legs to trudge farther up the trail to get a better view of Glacier Grey before dinner. On the way up the rain from earlier had turned into a light snow, yet in that moment, free from our backpacks and full of adrenaline, I think we could have walked through a blizzard.
In terms of experience, I am a camping amateur. I remember the time my brother and I went camping with the Vanderwalls, and the time my grandpa accidentally toasted the sole of my shoe like a marshmallow, when he was trying to dry them by the fire. [Grandpa you are the man. I love you very much.] Therefore, I even found the whole process of cooking by way of a tiny stove fun. I mostly ate peanut butter sandwiches and trail mix for lunch and breakfast, thus we always looked forward to hot pasta, which we spiced up in different ways, each night for dinner.
Fortunately, as darkness began to set in, the sky cleared and the wind died down. Hoping for good weather, we drifted off to sleep.
Day 2 was definitely harder than Day 1, as we had to back track down the mountain, past our starting point and then onward to Campo Italiano (a free campsite at the base of the middle section of the ‘W’). My whole body hurt, but fortunately, the sun had come out!
Under clear blue skies the hike was beautiful. “Just beautiful,” according to my notes.
Months ago, when I was on Ometepe, sure I wanted to summit that volcano, but I wasn’t opposed when the guide advised us to turn back due to weather, lack of proper boots, etc. as I wasn’t very keen on an eight hour hike. We walked 8+ hours this fine day, carrying all of our gear in our packs. It was difficult, but we did it, together. I am realizing things like this are the result of change that I was told would occur, but that is (perhaps intentionally) impossible to recognize and quantify while it’s happening.
Our team is so awesome, which also helps a lot. I could not have asked for a better group to take me in. Everyone is very supportive of each other, and unlike plenty of other makeshift groups we have encountered, everyone gets along.
We woke up later than anticipated to more sun and more blue skies, so we decided to get moving. Day 3 brought us through Valle Francia (the middle stem of the ‘W’), and up to Campamento Britanico, a beautiful lookout surrounded by mountains and an epic view back down the valley.
Starting the day without packs helped conserve energy so that by the time we packed up and made our way to Cuernos, my body felt good. We made great time, and on top of everything, I ran into a guy from Ballard High School, who told me that the Packers had won, meaning that the stage was set for the NFC Championship.
Though Day 4 was the longest of our days, it was my favorite. In a region that typically experiences “all four seasons in a day,” we had lucked into three straight days of sun. We walked along a ridge that looked out over yet another gorgeous lake that seemed to stretch from one end of the ‘W’ to the other. It was truly one of the most unbelievable views I have ever witnessed.
We made an addition to our “family” that day after running into Ryan from Des Moines, Iowa. He’s a cool guy who, although is only 22 years of age, has trekked, climbed, and guided all over the world, making him the ideal person for Rebecca to run into, as she wanted to continue on after the ‘W’ and do a circuit around the park (aka the ‘O,’ named for its roughly circular shape).
When we reached the intersection of the ‘W’ trail and that which runs down to the hotel, two very different worlds collided. Here we were about four hours into our hike, carrying our lodging, food, and clothing on our backs, having showered once in the last four days, when we came face to face with a very clean woman, done up in a ton of makeup, talking on her cellphone.
Plenty of backpackers complain about these types of tourists, claiming that they take the easy (and expensive) way out, though I have learned that everyone has a different style of traveling. Backpacking and sleeping in tents is not for everyone. Some argue, including Yvonn Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia clothing, that there is no substitute for actually going into the Patagonian wilderness. I would argue that as long as the party is respectful of themselves, other humans, and nature, there is something to be learned either way. In fact, I found some of these luxury travelers to be more respectful than plenty of my fellow backpackers.
Thankfully we were not concerned with disrespect, for our team had really come together. We took a break on a pretty riverbank to relax a little bit, for we had made record time up to Campamento Torres, our final campsite. It’s funny, at some point each day, some part of me (normally my feet) would protest this absurd amount of exercise, until they realized that they had no choice but to continue. Each and everyday, just before I felt like I couldn’t go on any longer, we reached camp.
Although I was exhausted, we had arrived so early that we trekked up to see the Torres in person. They were stunning, standing tall as massive wall of stone, bordering the far end of the lake and peaking straight up into the sky.
The only notes I have for Day 5 are as follows:
Short, sweet, and unfortunately accurate. We got up at 3:30am to make the hour long hike in the dark up a steep mountain, to see the Torres at sunrise. We made it up, settled in and caught a glimpse of beauty just before a massive, dark cloud smothered the sun. A light rain began to fall, just as a wall of wind picked up on the far side of the lake and began to move steadily towards us.
It was at this point I ducked my head as the wind had its way with us, showing no regard for human (or backpack) life.
When we arrived back at camp, the weather settled down, allowing us plenty of time to break down our tents one last time. Just before we were ready to leave, Ryan notified us that he had extra blueberry pancake mix that he “had been trying to get rid of.”
Without hesitation we unpacked the necessary cooking utensils, and moments later, on top of a mountain, in one of the most remote parts of the world, we were eating hot blueberry pancakes.
The walk down to the hotel where Nic, Andy, and I would catch the bus back to town was long, hot, and at times slightly frightening. While the clouds dissipated, the wind blew with such force (upwards of 50 mph) that multiple times I had to sit down on the trail, trying to hide my face from the ensuing sharp cloud of dust.
We eventually made it, and when we did, our team sat down to enjoy a nice cold beer together.
We had walked roughly 50 miles over five days, and we became a family along the way. Although we had only known one another for a matter of days, after accomplishing something like this, a bond was formed. I know that I am welcome in Chicago, South Africa, and England, just as my new friends know that they are more than welcome in Seattle.
On that last night, I stayed up talking to Andy about all kinds of things, mostly differences between the US and the UK, as well as sports. It was at that moment that Andy, who had always taken an interest in the NFL, decided to begin rooting for the Seahawks.
I excitedly began telling him all about the team, different players, etc. It made me realize how much joy such a simple game brings me, along with the rest of my city.
The Seahawks play with a chip on their shoulder, not only for themselves, but for all the times Seattle has been neglected or written off by the rest of the country. For those wondering, I was able to catch the NFC Championship, but I’ll save that story for another day.
[note: Shoutout to Team Holysh*t—an endearing phrase that we discovered can be used to describe fear, amazement, joy, and confusion. Thank you for taking me in. You guys are awesome. Safe travels!]