Yet another border crossing took us from Argentina into Chile. Our next destination was the infamous and well trodden Torres del Paine National Park. The park receives over 140,000 visitors per year so to say that it is a popular destination would be an understatement.
Located in Chilean Patagonia, the park was created in 1959. Prior to its creation the land was part of a large sheep ranch. According to Trekking in the Patagonian Andes by Carolyn McCarthy, no one is sure where the park received its name, but “paine (pie-nee) translates to pale blue in the Tehuelche language and may refer to the intense colours of the areas half-dozen or so large glacial lakes.”
There are numerous hikes throughout the park, but we had our eye on the “O Trek,” a six to 10 day trek over a span of 130 kilometres. This would be our longest multi-day trek to date and we hoped we were prepared. There are a series of refugios (huts) along the trail offering accommodations and sustenance ranging from camping and eating your own pre-packed food, to sleeping your own room inside a cabin with pre-made meals. It all depends on how much you are willing to spend and how comfortable you would like to be! We packed in our own food and slept in our trusty MEC two-person tent.
On the way into the park we met Brian and Soniyae, who rode their Suzuki V-Strom 650 all the way from Alaska. It was awesome spending time with them at camp just days before they finished up their trip. Hope to see you kids in Alaska one day!
Before we started the exciting multi-day trekking experience, we made the executive decision to hike to the famous Torres as a day hike instead of at the end of the trek. We knew ourselves well enough by this point that if we were tired and hungry and almost at the end, we would skip the epic scenery up top in order to arrive back to our truck early. So, we got ‘er done first.
Mirador Las Torres – The Towers (16 kilometres return)
These epic granite towers met us at the top, with a good dose of gusty winds, fast moving clouds, and a sprinkle of rain for good measure.
That night we were sleeping soundly in our tent when Richard woke up to the noise of someone attempting to open the doors of our truck. Hell no! Fortunately we had locked them, but unfortunately Brian and Soniyae weren’t so lucky. The night thief stole a couple of tools out of the panniers on their bike… on their last day on the continent. Not the best way to end their trip, but our new friends kept their good humour and let it roll off their backs.
Day 1 – Camp Las Torres to Camp Serón (8.9 kilometres)
After a late breakfast and chatting with Brian and Soniyae for most of the day, we headed out towards Camp Serón. The day started off with rain falling from the low-hanging clouds, but ended in a clear sunset over bowls of channa masala.
Our first night’s sleep on the O Trek brought back memories from my pre-teen years. I was training for my first Provincial figure skating competition – the most important competition in my figure skating ‘career’ at the time. My stress levels were high. My parents drove us from my hometown of Kelowna to Abbotsford and we were staying in a hotel overnight. I was scheduled to compete very early the next morning and a good night’s rest was imperative. At about 9:00 p.m. we heard this banging noise coming from upstairs. It went on and on and on and on. I looked at my mom and I said, “What IS that?” She turned towards me with a twinkle in her eye and said, “I know what that is.” Then we heard the jacuzzi turn on upstairs (the honeymoon suite we later found out), and the jets remained on for the rest of the night. I attempted to compete the next day with my perfectly choreographed program to the music from “Dr. Zhivago”, my lace and sequined periwinkle dress in place, hair sprayed solidly, and dark shadows under my eyes. It was a mess. That couple upstairs who banged all night messed up my skate.
About an hour after I nodded off to sleep in my tent, god knows how many years later in the Chilean Andes, I was woken by some strange noises coming from the thin canvas pitched next to us. The squeaking of an inflatable air mattress. Slapping noises. Ew. For a good ten minutes the female participant notified us unnecessarily loudly and vocally of exactly what was going on in that tent of theirs. The following morning we unzipped the tent, familiar dark circles under my eyes, and got ready to tackle the next 18.5 kilometres of trekking.
Day 2: Camp Serón to Camp Dickson (18.5 kilometres)
Camp Dickson was super gorgeous. Glacier peeking out from behind the lake, blue skies, icebergs. The bugs were fierce, however, and we spent a good amount of time zipped up in our tent attempting to escape their buzzing and pestering of our flying frenemies. In the photos below you can see Richard’s functional and stylish attempt at covering up from the bugs.
Day 3: Camp Dickson to Camp Los Perros (8.7 kilometres)
Our fornicating campsite neighbours from the first night set up shop within earshot of our tent once more. We weren’t exactly impressed as the next day was the big one: the John Gardner Pass. During the night a heavy rain came down from the heavens and unfortunately when we birthed ourselves from our tent we saw that our neighbours had quite an uncomfortable night. Their tent was half-collapsed with various tarps strewn on top haphazardly as though a wind storm had come through and punched their temporary dwelling to the ground. That sucks.
Day 4: Camp Los Perros to Camp Grey via the John Gardner Pass (22 kilometres)
After wading through mud and trying not to slip and fall on exposed tree roots, we continued our ascent, the weather slowly deteriorating. Patches of snow became larger and larger, until eventually we found ourselves in the middle of a blizzard at the top of the John Gardner Pass. Thank goodness there were trail markers and footprints of other hikers along the way so we didn’t wander off lost into the snowy wilderness.
Fortunately as we completed part of our descent, Glacier Grey eventually came into view. On a clear day you are able to view its epic-ness from the top of the pass, stretching and spanning a length of 17 kilometres. Beauty.
We slogged past our originally planned campsite towards Camp Grey, which is located on the popular W Trek. It felt like we were back in civilization again, the camp full of people and with a small store offering a variety of snacks and camp equipment for purchase. After a crazy long day of hiking, we shovelled some food into our systems and collapsed into our tent, eager to rest our weary bodies.
Day 5: Camp Grey to Camp Los Cuernos (21 kilometres)
We stopped at Refugio Paine Grande for a quick lunch. This camp even had a fancy restaurant, which we eyed longingly as we trudged towards our lunch spot. The wind here was unreal. We tied down our backpack covers so they didn’t blow away and felt the wind whip our clothes and hair until we reached the indoor kitchen/eating area, a welcome break from the elements.
After lunch we continued through a particular section of bare and skeletal-like trees. Several fires started accidentally by backpackers have contributed to large areas of devastation within the park. Back in 1985 a tourist started a fire that burned about 150 km2 (58 square miles) of the park. The next accidental fire was started in 2005 by a Czech backpacker, burning for ten days and destroying 155 km2 (60 square miles) of the park. The Czech government offered aid and donated one million USD to reforestation efforts.
The most recent fire was in December 2011 and January 2012 which burned about 176 km2 (68 square miles) of the reserve. The fire was blamed on an Israeli backpacker, and as a result the Israeli government sent reforestation experts to the park and donated trees for replanting purposes. As a result of these fires there are strict rules about using camp stoves at specific areas within the park. Mostly campers are restricted to cooking their food at picnic tables or inside cooking shelters.
Day 6: Camp Los Cuernos to Parking Lot of Hotel Las Torres (11 kilometres)
Our last day of trekking! We were very excited to finish up early and head back into civilization for a much needed shower and several days of rest. The weather broke and became quite warm. We ended up in shorts and t-shirts, sweating our way down towards the parking lot of Hotel Las Torres, where our trusty truck was parked and waiting for us to return.
We next headed to the town of Puerto Natales for several days of rest and relaxation, hot showers, and general laziness and appreciation of our hostel’s amenities. The Yaganhouse was the perfect place to stay with a funky sitting room, included breakfast, open kitchen, and heated rooms.
Our hostel was also within proximity to several good restaurants with pizza and craft beer. We visited Pizzeria Mesita Grande and the Base Camp Pub with a few fellow Overlanders. We met up with Kerstin whom we met originally in Vancouver (check out her blog called One Great Adventure), driving Jeepie R. Sparklez (the best rig name ever) from Vancouver up to Alaska and south to Ushuaia. We also ran into Colby and Alita whom we hadn’t seen since Mexico! We had some great food and laughs about how we felt like Patagonia was destroying us as well as our vehicles.
Not all was good news in Puerto Natales, however. As soon as we hooked back up to wifi at our hostel I received an e-mail from my parents that indicated my 94 year old Grandfather wasn’t doing well and likely only had days left with us. The wifi wasn’t fast enough for me to call on the phone so we remained connected over e-mail. I remember laying awake that night, unable to sleep, and eventually sent an e-mail to my parents asking them to tell my Grandfather hello and that Richard and I were sending our love. The next morning he passed away peacefully in his sleep. I said a silent prayer for the fact that we ended our hike in Torres del Paine a couple of days early, otherwise I would have received an e-mail upon return with no warning and no means to say goodbye. Both Richard and I felt so grateful to have spent nearly every day with him and with my Grandmother when we were back in Vancouver a month earlier.
Some of my best times were spent with my Grandfather were not only as an adult, but as a child. My brother and I would jump on his back and pretend he was a horse named Henry, would draw multi-coloured markings on him with face paint, and go golfing with him whenever we got the chance. He made amazing little doughy biscuits with hidden gems for us – sometimes pepperoni, jellybeans, or chocolate would be inside.
He was an incredibly kind, thoughtful, and gentle spirit with endless patience. His love for my Grandma was infinite and they spent more than 70 years together. To me theirs was a real life love story. I will miss that mischievous twinkle in his eye, his big smile, and laugh. In the Second World War my Grandfather taught the Australians how to fly fighter pilot aircrafts. He loved airplanes, flying and driving just over the speed limit so as to raise my Grandmother’s eyebrows.
One of the sacrifices you make when embarking on a long journey away from friends and family is that you can’t be there when you need to be. But I know that my Grandfather wouldn’t have wanted anything else but for me to be living my dream in Chilean Patagonia, and I was with him in spirit as he passed into a place where he could fly free in the clouds overhead in the airplane that he loved so much.